The first thing I’ll tell you is that I love Arlette. Stand in front of a train for her, no problem. Walk over a field of cut glass for her, already on my way. Take a bullet for her, I won’t even try to duck out the way.
Up till the moment I met her, life was pretty good, so good I never wanted or expected it should change. I was a big burly fifteen-year-old at school, enjoyed sports, loved swimming, girls had been interesting for some time and I was comfortable with them, as I had three sisters at home. So the giggling, the occasional hugs, the teasing, being called Big Bear, or the Yeti, was pleasant but didn’t cause any soul searching. Nor did reading Shakespeare, poetry and even learning German tip me out of my comfort zone. I dealt with them as I did with most things. Efficiently. A walk through the hardware store with my Dad, once a week stirred whatever was poetic in me. The smell of wood planks precisely displayed, the feel of nails in my hand, wood stains, tiles, bricks had me calculating, re-configuring, and re-calibrating. Each week I had built a different house by the time we got to the checkout.
Then Arlette arrived and the moment I saw her, I knew with the utmost conviction, that everything about me and around me would change. I knew I would want her to want me in her life. Forever. I just knew it.
Arlette’s family arrived in the middle of the school year. Everything about them was different. My father said, ‘Well, that’s the French for you.” My mother said, “All the money in the world isn’t helping them with the worry they have for that poor mite.” There’s no denying that the family were wealthy. Their cars: their clothes, and the fact that they had organised, via their company, the hiring of a groundsman, a housekeeper and my father for extensions and renovations to be carried out on the most expensive house in our beach side suburb.
Her parents wanted her kept in isolation. There was an older sister, Fabrice. Arlette had the look of gossamer tumbleweed. The slightest breeze would carry her away. We knew from the groundsman and the housekeeper that the ‘poor mite’ had had some sort of breakdown. That the family had moved here so she could recuperate in a quiet place with sea air.
Fabrice was eighteen years old. She had planned to start modelling, planned a lot of things really, and was resentful and exasperated with this enforced imprisonment. It was understood that she would be the one to keep an eye on Arlette while their parents had to attend meetings in the city. As my father’s constant helper, and then a most obliging helper with anything that needed assistance around the place, I became a trusted presence. Arlette was home schooled. I became her study buddy. She had a terrific facility for languages. My German became more than just adequate because Fabrice needed time to lie on the beach, or go to the movies, or have coffee or anything to get away.
Arlette told me her ambition was to be an interpreter at the United Nations in Brussels. Her parents encouraged this. It was a wonderful pathway to an excellent marriage. United Nations! Brussels! An excellent marriage! Those huge grey eyes that saw and dreamed what I could only get at the edge of most times! I swear that girl could tell you what was on the moon, and beyond. The way her soft voice could get under the skin of a poem. But it is all slipping out of my grasp to an excellent marriage by the way of Brussels.
Her soft voice breaks into my panic. “Tell me more of your ambition.”
Right now, I want time to stop. “I want to design and build wonderful homes.”
“Your maths will have to improve” the girl who is currently shredding my heart tells me.
Unexpectedly, she puts her hand in mine. It is the first time we have touched.
“Would you like to see some wonderful buildings?”
I think she is going to ask me to take down one of the treasured books her father has in his specially controlled temperature library. At another time, I would jump at the chance to look at even one of those books. But I am torn. I want her to keep her hand in mine.
“Close your eyes” OK, so a visualisation.
“Hear Italian voices. They are far away. Smell the water. It is different. Still far away. Hear the sound of oars gliding through it. There are church bells and a choir. Still all far but clear. Do not let go of my hand.”
As if is the only coherent thought I can muster. There is the sensation of immense speed and then my feet land on firm ground.
“Open your eyes.”
We are in Venice. We are literally, physically in Venice.
As Arlette and I travel backwards and forwards in time, she becomes stronger and stronger. We eat roasted chestnuts at Stratford on Avon, see Rome before it becomes congested and neglected, experience the elegance of Florence, and become enthralled with the genius of the builders of pyramids in ancient Egypt.
At the end of the year, the family move back to the city.
“That little girl certainly turned into a gorgeous kid in her time here. A real head turner. Even better looking than her sister. There’ll be no shortage of suitors for her.”
Oh, yes, Mum. You keep on thinking that.
My father whispers, “Other fish in the sea, son. Give me a hand with the ute. It’s yours when we finish.”
Arlette and I travel to reach each other at prearranged times and places. We are back in Florence, our favourite place, when she tells me her parents want her to again undergo treatment for depression and put her back on medication. The medication will block her travels.
I take stock. My school reports state my marks are high, but I have become increasingly withdrawn. It is a matter of concern. The school has contacted my parents.
Her hand in mine, she says, “I would die for you.”
We are in Florence and we will not be coming back.
Susannah Thompson © 2020
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