The Camargue and a father and his daughter – another short story
We were staying in the Camargue en route for Nice. It was the first time I’d been to that part of France and I loved it; the black bulls in the fields and the herds of white horses grazing, languidly swishing their tails to flick off flies. By sheer chance we’d hit a festival in Saintes Maries de la Mer but summer holidays were over and the small seaside town, although busy, was not seething. That evening, whilst we were out eating, my attention was taken by a father and daughter sitting near us on the terrace of the restaurant. They were both visually very striking but it was the way they were wrapped up in each other that especially caught my attention. He, in particular, seemed intent on charming his child who was very pretty and sweet in an off centre sort of way. They felt off centre, their relationship skewed. He was extremely handsome and well dressed and both he and his daughter had an air of expecting to be served and to be entertained. They intrigued me, the town had cast a spell on me and so I wrote this. Whether it’s a short story is for you to decide. And I still need a title. Perhaps this one.
In Her Own Time
It was true his family had fallen on hard times but he was still every inch an aristocrat. If he’d been born in the revolution he’d have had his head chopped off. Such a poignancy there as he clutched his small daughter to him and begged them to spare her.
Still he wasn’t born then but in 1965 in a small chateau outside Paris and now he was on holiday with his daughter Elise in the little seaside town of Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue. His daughter was no more than six. Yes she was six, her birthday was in June and she was five last year, so she had to be six. She had pale delicate skin covered in freckles and the most wonderful red gold hair. He adored her.
He tried to buy little girls for her to play with. In the restaurant where they ate their supper Elise would come to his side and whisper, point at a little girl at another table and he would stand up take her hand and walk over to the family concerned. There were introductions. Sometimes the little girl would slip off her seat and taking Elise’s hand would go and play in the square. Sometimes the chosen girl remained seated not even Elise was temptation enough to disrupt the family meal.
Elise was continuously looking to be amused, always her eyes moving elsewhere for something new. But her heart was empty. When the waitress offered her the deserts she stood waiting to be pleased. She looked like her father and she had the same disdain for other people. The way he sliced his torreau, the angle of his knife, or lit a cigarette between courses letting it dangle from long languid fingers. The way he waved the waitress over. They had the same expectation to be served.
Ever since Sophie, Elise’s mother, had left him he’d been determined to win his daughter back. His intention was to charm her, to woo her, and he did so with the intensity of a lover. He bent his head to listen in the most intimate fashion, pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up against the cold. He excluded all others and made a pet of her. The child felt the weight of him, the burden, but because it was unspoken could do nothing.
Elise was pale and tired as a result of his efforts. Eating out late in squares, gorging on chocolate and rich puddings, watching flamenco against dark night skies. He bought her a ruched skirt long and red like the dancers. And tomorrow he was to take her to the bullfight. Except here in this little French seaside town it wasn’t really a bullfight but a taunting and teasing of the animal. Still as she was only six perhaps it should be kept a secret from her mother.
The seafront at Saintes Maries de la Mer is long and stretches from one side of the town to the other. It is a place of promenading especially as evening approaches, of jogging and dog walking. The bullring small and charming leads off the front. The bull is pushed and cajoled into place, held in its pen until the preordained hour.
Elise can smell the sweat and the bull’s droppings, the excitement in the air. Her father has got them seats at the front and as he waits he smokes, studies the faces around him, stretches and yawns. Every now and then he glances at Elise. It is as if he has organized all of this especially for her and he checks her face for his reward.
He watches her as the bull thunders into the ring, stands quivering and still. Watches as the toreador attempts to bait it, leap out of its way. Elise is transfixed at first but then becomes bored she fidgets on her seat and wants to leave. When the spear pierces the bull’s skin she twists her fingers in her lap, her face pales. At the end of the spectacle the toreador throws paper flowers into the crowd and her father reaches up and catches one, hands it to her with a flourish. A red rose, the same colour as the blood that seeps from the bull’s wounds.
Later they go into the church and walk down to the vaults where they are hit by the heat of hundreds of candles. Each one is a prayer. He lights a candle and looks around for Elise to give it to her but she has gone.
Running up from the vault he searches the church but can see no sign of her. He rushes into the square in the hope he will find her there. Nothing. Sinking down against the church wall he holds his head in his hands.
Then, through the centre of a crowd of tourists, he sees a woman walking towards him and next to her, holding her hand is Elise. She is skipping. He lets out a long breath, a shudder of emotion and pulls himself up. He wants to run and snatch her up but he stops himself, just lets her come skipping and smiling towards him, closer and closer, and in her own time.