“I think we need it. All of us,” she says, serious for a second because that’s what divorce does, but she doesn’t let it linger, “we’ll go back to France, the Dordogne. Or the Riviera. Do you remember France? Dan was twelve I’m sure. That would have made you eight. Or nine.”
“We haven’t done it for such a long time.”
“No. No, we haven’t.”
“Cheer up darling, it wouldn’t kill you.”
“We’ll have fun. Remember all those holidays, playing dominoes by torch light, eating al fresco, all the friends you used to make. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
We camped when we were kids of course, Canvas or Eurocamp, because it was cheaper, convenient, and we were hardier, needed less comfort, could cope with cicadas, chaotic discotheque squeals and the dissonant sounds of familial snores creeping though polyester. This time we’ll stay in a caravan because zip doors do us a disservice; now we need formica, ply-wood, at least six-metres squared of space each because we find ourselves, all three of us, single.
Mum picks the date, books the tickets, packs me up, because my job isn’t real. A temp doesn’t accrue time-in-lieu, and everyone else has schedules, Dan has diaries and air miles so I don’t get the chance to negotiate the details. She sweeps the days in my calendar clear with her great, maternal arms.
When we get there the campsite is kindle-dry and ready to spark from all the sun. Tall straight trees mark out each pitch giving shade only at midday when their needles drop to the ground in dead faints from the heat, creaking and snapping under feet and hot tires. Everywhere bare-bodied people walk shoeless, sneaking over these eggshells, hiding the open flames of their fags and barbeques because they’re strictly forbidden. But every part of them dazzles inconspicuously: the chlorine water air-drying instantly in their hair, the coconut sun cream shimmer on their foreheads, the mineral sparkle from the clay dust that gusts around their legs each time a car drives by, their vinegar-and-oil dressed lips and their shellfish-bisque-fingers greasing up napkins in to oil-wet translucence.
After we unpack Dan is distracted, can’t get settled, “I’m going to take mum to find some WIFI” he says.
“Fine,” I say, “I’ll explore.”
The pool writhes with people, the bar sells bowls of bread with balsamic dips, the grass around the games area is burnt to straw. The tennis court at the bottom of the hill is the only place that’s covered. A canopy of cultivated vines, flat fat leaves weave around the wire cage that catches errant serves, clumsy returns. I don’t know what kind of plant it is. And I don’t notice the boy until he’s stood right next to me. He has two rackets in one hand, one fuzzy green ball in the other and his arms are wide open, like his eyes, like his little boy gait as he walks away backwards, beckoning me. He is olive all over, even his shorts, like a Dulux feature wall in a room full of bright white sun. He smiles with the excitement of impending adulthood, with teeth that are so new they are still too big for his mouth. So I follow him. And we play. We say nothing the whole time. Not a single word. We make woops and oofs when we hit or miss and we only stop because when I pause to wipe my brow he walks to the net, ready to shake on the game. His dry hands against my slick palms, mingling with the rubber and plastic smell from the ancient grips on the racquets. I offer him the bottle of water I have, he drinks without putting the lid to his mouth letting it waterfall and splash on to his chin.
“Thanks for the game,” I say when he passes the empty bottle back. The first sound of words, my voice crisp, out of breath. I don’t think he understands, but he nods, takes my racquet and walks away. He goes right, I go left.
For dinner we do what everyone else does: find a grill and some charcoal and have someone stand by the fire with a bucket of sand at all times. They’ve found groceries rather than WIFI so for dinner Dan squeezes lemons over sardines, crushes garlic with the back of a spoon to rub with salt in to fish skin. Mum spears onion and courgettes on to rosemary twigs. I clap mint to life with the rest of the lemon for gin and tonics. We bake fruit and Swiss chocolate in foil.
“So how’s work?” Mum asks.
“Whose work?” Dan says.
“Whoever’s work is worth mentioning,” she says, so I stay quiet.
“It’s fine,” Dan says, “for what it is.”
“I spoke to your Dad, he’s fine,” she says, lightly laying a single ply of paper towel tissue that she’s taken apart over her plate like a veil.
“That’s nice,” I say and then no one speaks another word all evening except for goodnights because we’re all wrapped up in the waves our drinks make as we roll them around our mouths.
Three beers later and they still sweat in their bottles, the half-light warm at whatever-o’clock. The charcoal dies grey while I wait for it to get cool enough to get in to bed. Sleep comes only when the last piece of clothing comes off, when the last piece of sheet gets kicked away from my bed.
In the morning Mum’s been up for hours. The pain-au-chocolat have been warmed and cooled already, lunch has come and gone. They decide to walk in to town again, I stay by the caravan, my feet in a puddle of sun, reading news from a paper that’s at least a day old.
I don’t know how he figures out which caravan is mine; I don’t know if maybe he’s been wandering around for hours looking for someone to play with. I hope he’s been trying to find me. But the boy appears once more, smiling his big-toothed smile, looking at the two racquets in his hands like where did these come from?, and he laughs. He’s topless again and I wonder, looking at the colour of him, his limitless tan, whether he’s ever worn a t-shirt in his life. I drink my coffee down in one quick scorching-tar mouthful and follow him as he walks away down the path back towards the tennis court.
This time we don’t stop playing until we hear a man say, “Nicolas, on y va!”
The man waves with purpose, is wearing a shirt tucked in to chinos and no socks with boat shoes like he needs to be somewhere else. Nicolas, the boy, my boy, dashes over to me, grabs my racket and runs through the metal gate out of the court and over to the man. They talk for a second and then he keeps on running.
“Thank you for playing with him,” the man says when I come through the gate, “I’ve been too busy.”
“He’s very good,” I say.
“Mmm,” he says, “have a nice afternoon,” and he walks right, I walk left.
Mum says, “all the shops were closed, let’s eat at the bar. Why don’t you have a shower and then we’ll head up, get a table, maybe get a drink first.”
As if I wasn’t going to wash. So I won’t. I wipe myself with a wet cloth and wear the same white t-shirt.
“Oh you’ve brushed your hair,” she says when I meet her and Dan outside where they’ve been waiting for all of five minutes. She rattles the caravan keys on her finger like a cat toy.
The bar isn’t much of a bar, just a patio terrace, a brick oven and a few fridges full of fizzy beer, flat whites and brassy reds, but the view from the top of the site, with all the caravans covered by the tips of the trees, is just the sunset and swarms of swifts flocking like a haze of flies, their calls a whistling scream. The pizza we order is crisp, bubbles of dough caught faintly by the fire have burst black at their edges. The wine cruises between syrup and bark.
“Your grandmother loved it here you know. Isn’t it just beautiful,” mum says.
I don’t know if we agree; I am paralyzed by something like claustrophobia, caught in the grip of the heat-heavy sky that surrounds us.
“I’m glad she wasn’t here to see…your father never loved any–”
“Don’t,” my brother says. He sounds the word up then down, pleading firmly.
Then my tennis partner’s Dad appears at our table from somewhere, wearing a jacket now along with his chinos and shirt, “hello.”
“Hello,” I say, thinking I’d like to introduce him but I wouldn’t even know where to start. Thinking that maybe these appearing acts are a family trait.
“I wanted to say thank you again, for playing with Nicholas, he has so much energy.”
“That’s fine. I enjoy it. Really.”
He smiles and then looks where we all are looking, at the blue night that rises up from the horizon.
“This is my Mum, Petra, and my brother, Dan.”
“I’m Jean,” he says.
“Hello,” they say, he says.
“Could I buy you a drink, to say thank you?” Jean looks at our empties.
“Please, there’s no need. Why don’t you join us?” I say.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” mum says, “of course,” again, sliding her sunglasses up on to her head to get a better look at him. “Excuse me,” she catches the attention of a waiter, “could we have another glass – and another bottle?”
Dan scrapes one of the metal chairs from an empty table across the tiles and gestures, please sit. He’s generous like this.
“So where are you from?” Jean asks, crossing his legs in a wide triangle.
“We grew up in the Home Counties,” Dan says, avoiding explanations, stories, separations, city exchanges, career blockages, “how about you?”
“Well right now I live in Cornwall. His mother, she lives in Rome, so he’s there, some of the time.”
“Oh dear,” my mum says, because she can’t think of another way to say how sorry she is for how complicated this might be.
“Oh no Petra,” she strains to keep her mouth closed at the sound of her name, “it’s lovely. He sees so much, he is loved very much, by us two.”
“What do you…er…” he doesn’t pick up on the hint, a red carpet laid out for him to walk on over to her, so she has to be blunt, “do you work Jean?” Prospects, prospects, prospects.
“I used to landscape, but it’s for young men’s backs to wear the burden,” he leans forward, picks up the glass the waiter has filled for him with one hand and rubs his lumbar with the other so I’m not sure if the line is a metaphor or not, “now I run a business.”
“But you’re not English?” Mum asks.
He sips and smirks.
“You have an interesting accent,” she says.
“I grew up in Saint-Tropez.”
Fuck, I want to say. I want to say, are you fucking kidding me? He rolls a tired leather bracelet round and around his wrist like it’s nothing.
“Where is Nicholas?” I ask, saying it the English way because I’m embarrassed to try it in French.
“He’s just there,” and he points towards the pool that the bar overlooks, a pointed placement to placate parents, “Nicholas!” he yells.
He comes running up the little hill, stops at his Father’s side, and waves at me while his dad kisses him a couple of hundred times, pats his butt and sends him back to whatever game he was playing with the other kids by the pool. It’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.
“Do you have children?” he asks.
I shake my head while Dan says, “yes, two. They’re with their mother this week.”
“Just like you,” Jean says, smiling.
Petra shifts in her seat only slightly but it’s enough.
“Ok,” Dan says, “ok,” he drains his drink, “let’s go to bed mum,” and he stands behind her, hands on the back of her chair, until she has to stand up just so she can get away.
“Good night,” Jean says.
“Nice to meet you,” Petra says.
I stand to kiss them, one by one across each of their cheeks, and as I do they both put twenty Euros in my pocket. They both say stay out as late as you like. Then they walk away wishing, maybe only for a second, that they were somewhere else, with someone else.
Jean and I are quiet, watching them disappear down the slope towards the rows of caravans carved out of the hill like rice paddies. I pour the rest of the wine. Nicholas dashes back up the hill, says something to his father in French, then dashes away again behind the toilet block, towards the games area.
“He’s the image of his mother,” Jean says, leaning back in his chair once he’s followed his son out of sight.
“Beautiful then,” I say.
“Mmm,” he says.
“Can he speak English?”
“Only a little. But a little will soon turn in to a lot. He goes to school in France. In the middle of us two.”
“He’ll be so multi-lingual.”
“Do you speak languages?”
“No. It’s like music, I can hear it but I can’t play it. My brain won’t translate it.”
“I have to start being careful. I swear in Italian.”
“Because his mother swears in French. A little game we play at each other.”
He has wine at his caravan that shits on the stuff they’re serving at the bar so we go back there. He has coils of pyrethrum powder and citronella candles for the mosquitoes so we don’t bother to close the windows and leave the lights off. And Nicholas is sleeping at a friend’s. The sky is clear except for sprays of the furthest away stars, there are no clouds, nothing to keep us, defend us, nothing to stop us from floating away completely.
“Where did you learn to play tennis?” he asks.
“At school mainly. My brother and I, we’d play too. We still do, sometimes,” when we’re relaxed enough to not need to say anything to each other.
He turns to me, says seriously, “you could play professionally.”
I know, I think. I know I could have. I know how good I am. I say, “maybe” and sit up straight to look right at him.
“Yes I think so,” he says.
“Well I decided to go in a different direction. In a few different directions.”
And then we are quiet, quite still, just drinking, he smokes. Until I touch his arm, his back, his neck, and then it gets fast. When I move his hand to where I want it. When I leave my shoes where they fall.
In the morning we sit on the floor of the decking that surrounds his static caravan, feeling the radiating warmth that the wood has stored and the heat of where he held my arms and my ankles in red finger streaks when I close my eyes. He sees me first, my boy, Nicholas, at least I think he does. Because by the time I’ve turned to him he’s already smiling, raising the racquets at his side. He comes walking towards us along the dusty track, his hair whipped to one side like a coastal tree lashed by the wind from whatever way he slept on it last night. And then he sees his father, sees him touch the highest point of my waist where it curves in to fit his hand. And his mouth goes loose, and his arms drop down, and I can tell that this boy, my boy, has been looking for a woman all of his own, not his dad’s, for a long time. I can tell that he’s disappointed, and I want to make it better. But we’re all disappointed. And our parents don’t know who we are anymore.