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Under the Waves

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Clive appeared from behind a rock, barefoot, carrying a citybag and wearing a bathrobe. It was late in the afternoon and the beach was still rather crowded. Young boys played tag or wrestled, little children squealed and dug holes, matronly women lured them with treats and cheered and admonished in French or Italian.

Clive looked around anxiously until someone rose from a blanket and waved. He plodded on until he reached the spot that Maurice had turned into his territory for the day. ‘How could I have missed this, even from the car park up the slope?’ Clive grinned, tapping the cloth with his foot. ‘Tartan on a French beach, and a wee Sassenach picknick basket…That’s grand, laddie.’

‘I say, you’re awfully late,’ Maurice smiled. He was clad in black swimming trunks that went halfway down his thighs. The fact that he was still wearing his glasses and that a German book lay opened next to him suggested that he had spent all afternoon reading. ‘Very American,’ he said approvingly when Clive had taken off his robe, revealing similar bathing attire.

Clive sat down next to him, lit a cigarette and accepted a glass of red wine, explaining to Maurice what had held him up. He had checked out at the hotel and told the clerk he had been invited by a friend to spend a few days in a hunting lodge in the hills. He had left no forwarding address and had promised he would be back to pick up his mail before leaving for England. After that, he had had coffee at the port with Mr. and Mrs. Van Zanten from Rotterdam, who were staying at the Breitner.

When his luggage was stowed away in the Rover, he had driven to the post office and sent a wire to the little hostel in Italy where his daughter was due to arrive that evening. ‘I told her I had decided to spend a few days with my Dutch friends in a remote villa in the hills,’ he said to Maurice.

Maurice drew from his cigarette and stared at the surf, where two little girls were teaching a tiny Maltese dog to swim. ‘Might it be Mr. Joost van Zanten who owns a transport business in the Rotterdam harbour?’ he then asked. ‘The very same,’ Clive acquiesced. ‘A nice man. Speaks English rather well.’

‘He’s a business associate of mine,’ Maurice said. ‘The world is but a hamlet. I was damned lucky not to meet him or his wife at the hotel…I wouldn’t want them to start guessing what you and I are doing now, even though it’s not punishable in Holland or France…However, people still consider it immoral or call it a disease that can be cured if you are willing enough to undergo treatment.’

He poured Clive some more wine and looked into his crystal-blue eyes. ‘But then again,’ he went on. ‘You will be safe, here and at my cottage. And you’ll still be close enough to the village to keep in touch with Josie…Let’s drink now, to her health and her academic success, and to our blissful reunion.’

***

Alcohol was the Devil’s instrument, known to destroyi mental and physical health and family life and careers. Yet, it was manufactured and sold and consumed on every bloody street corner across the globe.

There was a reason for that. Josie understood now.

Holding the steering wheel with one hand and a small flask of eau-de-vie and a cigarette in the other, she was carefully manoeuvering the car over cobblestones, through busy alleys towards the coastal road.

It was going on noon now but she decided not to stop near the boulevard to have luncheon. She was not feeling hungry. There were tins of stewed meat and bottles of water for the dog in the boot. Boris would not want for anything.

Mr. Hall, beautiful Mr. Hall, had been out of touch with Papa and Mama for nearly twenty-five years. Mama had perhaps been rather shocked than surprised when Josie had mentioned his name on the telephone. Her poor mother must have been lied to. Intuitively, Josie sensed that Mr. Hall had indeed traveled a lot, but never actually established a business in the Dutch East Indies.

She was certain of this because she knew that someone’s absence was often explained by others in quick words to get the subject over with and to nip any further questions in the bud.

Miss Helen Borenius for instance, the clergyman’s granddaughter. A few years older than Josie, very skinny and not overly ladylike, but clever and affectionate and always in good spirits. Josie remembered that afternoon in April 1931, when Papa had coerced her to attend the church sewing circle because the other girl had a cold. A very nasty cold it must have been, for Miss Borenius had cut the following sessions as well. Josie had last seen her during Easter service, in the front pew, singing psalms with a melancholic look on her face. Only weeks later, Mrs. Borenius had told Mama that her daughter had had  to leave for Norfolk to tend to an old aunt who had fallen dangerously ill.

Helen had not returned until shortly before Christmas, singing psalms in the front pew as if nothing had happened, joining in the praising of the little Saviour of a Virgin born, with a longing glow on her cheeks and slightly fuller in the bust and across the hips.

Taking another swig from the bottle and belching, Josie considered herself blessed to be equipped with the medical eye, a quality she had striven to enhance and put to practice.

Yet, many things were still undisclosed. The angry words shouted at her by those horrid girls during that pinafore sewing session echoed in her head. ‘…Buggery on the estate.’ ‘Men used to get ‘anged for it back in the day, that much I know.’

Not burdened by the necessity to behave politely all the time, these young village people must have been on to something. It had made Josie decide to devote her holidays to more church circles. It had earned her a vast knowledge of life in decrepit labourers’ cottages, a delicious, secret vocabulary of swear words and, on one occasion, head lice. Her question, however, had remained unanswered.

It was only when she had moved to London for her studies and got to read newspapers that had not been censored by her parents or her nanny that she had come across some articles about men or even gentlemen (never women) being charged with buggery, the plaintiffs often being young dock workers or messengers.

What it actually meant was never mentioned, but she had concluded that it was exclusively a men’s crime, probably including physical violence and blackmailing, in any case nothing that could ever happen on Papa’s estate.

The veil had slowly been lifted when a psychiatry professor had announced an upcoming class that the very few female students were not allowed to attend. Josie had thought it another proof of the many privileges only men got to enjoy. Full of stinking anger, she had offered a young man from her year a fair sum of pounds to borrow his notes.

It had been money down the shitter. What he had written down was utterly pointless. Intimate relationships between members of the same sex – men. Apparently, women never did this.

She remembered the whispered allusions between the maids in the estate kitchen, about how there was swimming in the nude in the pond between cricket innings – again, with no females present.

She had read about outstanding members of society – businessmen, politicians, scientists – taking their own lives in detention before the final verdict was issued. Occasionally, the articles came with pictures.

The men were either ugly or plain-looking or attractive. Whatever the crime constituted could not be attributed to a single stereotype.

Oddly enough, it all reminded her of Mr. Hall. And yes, he had last visited the estate in 1913. Well, there had been years of war after that, so that period justified his absence. But the war had ended nearly twenty years ago and he had not returned to visit Papa, his old friend from Cambridge. Mr. Hall must have made himself invisible for a reason, not even calling at Papa’s flat in London. And that was why Papa had looked so ill at ease at the hotel. Not surprising. Rekindling friendship after such a long time must be a hard task.

Papa was a kind and generous squire, but he would bear no bad behaviour from his staff. Foul talk, petty theft or being too nice to the maids was enough to get any gardener or overseer or labourer fired.

Perhaps Mr. Hall had done something that had made him fall out of favour with Papa. Still, Papa had chosen to associate with him in Le Lavandou.

And now Papa, who was supposed to stay at the Breitner for at least another week, had checked out. To go where? Was he fleeing from Mr. Hall, who had said he had rented a cottage in a nearby hill village?

Anyhow, what did it matter? Maurice, clad in the beauty of a thousand stars, would never be hers.

She had stopped by the side of the road now, on top of a hill facing the endless Mediterranean Sea. She got out and took a tin of meat, a bottle and two enamel bowls from the booth. Boris gobbled his lunch greedily, drank an enormous quantity of water and then lifted his hind leg near a rock.

She lit a cigarette and listened to the murmur of the waves and the distant hooting of ferries and the screeching of ospreys in the sky and the ticking sounds from the cooling engine of her car.