The new electric bell rattled the beeswaxed oak panelling all the way downstairs. I knew it was you. Always did. Hot already. 10 o’clock. Adults and children alike paddled gratefully in the fountain in the Square. You were just up. Dinner guests hadn’t left until past midnight. Monsieur Herbin shuffled past your gallery with a pair of baguettes under his right arm and Madame Léonie leaning on his left.
Light blue cotton dress sort-of-a-day, you said, and I knew you’d choose the apple blossom scent, scanning the room for a missing sandal, morning air beckoning you to tall wide-open windows. You could smell the coffee below. ‘Love some,’ you said, ‘and isn’t the lavender gorgeous? And the pine?’ And – for the thousandth time – ‘Can we walk in the forest?’ Ah, mignonne, I’ve always adored you. Of course we could walk in the forest.
Wild strawberries and bilberries on the forest floor are still your favourite breakfast, just as later they’re supper for the wild boar – some of whom have long been your friends, though you’re always respectfully cautious of each other.
And even when you’re a bit fraught the forest birds call you out of yourself: Black, Middle Spotted, Great Spotted, Lesser Spotted, and Green Woodpeckers, Bonelli’s Warblers, Short-toed Treecreepers, Nightjars and Hobbys. ‘He doesn’t really love me,’ you’d say, a tear in one eye whilst the other was pressed to the viewfinder of your treasured little camera.
‘Rubbish,’ I’d retort, ‘all men are the same. Just not very good at showing it.’ ‘There, got him!’ you said. ‘Pierre, or the woodpecker?’ I laughed. ‘Silly! – the Middle Spotted: captured in my little Kodak Box.’ And I loved to hear you laugh like that – indulging the ever-so-slightly imperious tone you’ve always used with me.
‘He doesn’t though, you know: Pierre, I mean. He doesn’t. We argued again. And I’m not even sure I love him. Not really.’ ‘But I adore you, you old softie,’ I’d say. And we’d hug, tightly. And you’d grin, and dab your bright brown eyes, flicking tousled sleek black hair, running on ahead. And I’d jog along after you, always slightly out of breath, tripping now and then over roots and branches, loving every shining hair on your beloved and beautiful head.
And you married the handsome Pierre twenty-five years ago today. Your fine English grandpere captured the two of you, in eight black and white frames, with your own birdwatcher’s Box Brownie. Coffee, of course, and fresh baguettes, ham, cheese, wild berries and ice-cream for the wedding breakfast. And all these years on I love you still.
‘Do you remember?’ you ask. ‘You mean my first walk in this forest? Oh yes, my darling, of course I remember. Half a century ago. Monsieur et Madame – ‘Come, let us walk a little along the forest path’, they said: ‘we have woodpeckers, and treecreepers, and little Anna loves to skip on ahead in here.’ I loved you already, my Anna. And just before we got to the first bend of the dark brown forest stream beneath the warm-scented lime green canopy, they asked me if I’d come. And I said, ‘Mais oui! Oui, oui, oui! Certainement, Monsieur, Dame’.
And they smiled, at each other, and at me. Monsieur adjusted his pocket handkerchief. Madame twirled her little parasol. And there, and then, mignonne, they appointed me your own delighted ever-loving Nanny.