Coming of Age

“And it’ll be a lovely break for poor Dawn,” Mary added.

“Poor Mary,” the postmistress said when Mary had gone. “Really, Dawn is little more than a half-wit – well she is, David. Mary’s looking quite strained. A week in Provence will do her the world of good.”

“Just as well they can afford it,” her husband said, meaning that Dawn could afford it. Dawn had inherited a beautiful house and a small fortune when her father, also Mary’s uncle, had died two years before. His will had settled an allowance on Mary providing she moved in to look after her cousin and appointed her Dawn’s heir. The eventuality of Dawn’s marrying or having children had not even been considered so grotesquely improbable did it seem.

“Though it’s June it’ll be cold, in the mountains,” Mary said as they packed. “You won’t want that dress.”

Dawn nodded. Mary knew best and lost no opportunity of making this clear. She knew she ought to be grateful for Mary’s help since papa had died. Papa was also often strict with her but she supposed that was the way of things, that it was all for her own good. Placid, gentle and not without a gamine attractiveness, Dawn’s main defect was her highly biddable nature. Early in life it had been assumed she was in some way simple and thus  became a focus for her family’s solicitous tyranny. As Dawn had become used to receiving commands and Mary fond of issuing them, there was much to be said for the arrangement.

“Not that hat! You’re not going to a wedding!”

Mary had her own disappointments, worst of which was the humiliation of having to act as Dawn’s companion in order to enjoy a standard of living she believed she deserved and to which, after nearly a decade of living off her uncle, she had grown accustomed. The house really should belong to her: to appreciate, she felt, conferred the right to own. She could see so many possibilities, none realisable with a twenty-eight year old ‘girl’ dripping around in the background. Mary had therefore taken another decision on Dawn’s behalf. For this reason they were visiting France.

Dawn knew nothing of the country nor why they were going there. She carefully placed in the case a book about cats. She liked cats. Then she started to pull clothes out of her wardrobe.

“Goodness, no! It’s summer, for heaven’s sake! You won’t want that cape. Really, Dawn …”

When Dawn was in bed, Mary traced the familiar road to the Col des Bergers on the Michelin map, remembering the track leading to the clifftop, the view across the mountains, the sheer drop…

The only other guests at the little auberge were an elderly woman and her son of about thirty. On the first two days they were seen only at meals, she presiding over their choice of dishes with a fastidiousness bordering on contempt, he displaying a resigned yet good-humoured patience.

“Stop staring,” Mary hissed to Dawn on the second night.

“I want to know what she’s ordering.”

“Why? Anyway, you can’t speak a word of French.” Dawn hung her head. Again, Mary was right. The connection of the remarks was logical. She couldn’t speak French, therefore her interest in events was of even less consequence than usual. Everything had to flow through Mary.

But on the third day, it turned out they were English.

Mary had gone shopping in St Vallier for something she claimed Dawn needed for her fair skin in the treacherous mountain sun and Dawn was experiencing a rare hour of freedom. She sat carefully on the terrace watching Madame Aubrisson clear away the breakfast plates.

The view contrived to be both spectacular and claustrophobic. For a mile or so a great lunar plain of boulders and scrub stretched away to the crest of a hill and, beyond that, to towering mountains; but there was no sense of space in the still, silver light. They might have been trapped on an alien planet. There was no wind, no birdsong, no movement of any kind. Then, about twenty feet away, Dawn saw a sleek cat moving furtively amongst the bushes that grew close to the auberge. She went to the edge of the balcony and made encouraging sucking noises. The cat froze.

Comme il est beau, le chat,” a voice said. She turned. The man was smiling.

“Perhaps you’re English?” he added.

“Yes.”

“Ah. So am I.” They paused, as people do when unused to small-talk.

Slowly matters improved. His name was John Harper, and his mother suffered from a complaint which only the nearby thermal springs at St Vallier could hope to alleviate. There she passed the best part of each day, while he read or went for undemanding walks under the pale, early-season summer sky.

“I’m on holiday,” Dawn said, “with my cousin. She’s very kind to me.”

“I’m sure,” John said mildly.

Mary was horrified to learn Dawn had been striking up unaccompanied friendships. There had been an occasion some years before when Dawn had talked to a strange man. Mary coldly reminded her of what had ensued. Dawn whimpered.

They went for a drive in the afternoon. Dawn stared out at the grey-blue landscape, wondering why she suddenly felt so light-headed.

Yet despite Mary’s displeasure, a friendship of sorts did spring up. That evening, as John passed their table, he smiled at Dawn, after which it was impossible not to offer introductions. After dinner they took coffee together, Mrs Harper being unable to resist describing her conditions to a fresh audience. Mary saw in John’s gauche good nature signs that he, like Dawn, was one of life’s bystanders and could be patronised. She made free with references to idealised parts of her past which would demonstrate her sophistication.

“Of course, when I was married…” Mary said. John smiled sadly at the idea of marriage, giving his mother a sidelong glance. Dawn could not imagine marriage, had hardly  considered it. It might be nice to be cared for by someone who…she couldn’t arrange her thoughts in any order and from force of habit, blushed. Experience had shown this generally to be an appropriate reaction to anything she thought, did or said. John smiled.

“Now, my husband…” Mrs Harper was saying.

Two days later it was decided they would all go for a drive up the Route Napoléon. Dawn and John sat in the back while Mary and Mrs Harper discussed the perfidy of the French in the front. It turned out Mrs Harper knew some well-connected people near where Mary and Dawn lived in West Berkshire. A vista of social advancement opened up in Mary’s mind although her thoughts were increasingly dominated by the task she had planned for the morrow.

In the back, the motion of the car threw Dawn and John now closer, now further apart.

“I wonder what happened to the cat,” Dawn said.

Mary noted this remark, which had given her an idea.

“We’re going to the Col des Bergers tomorrow,” Mary explained after dinner. Mrs Harper nodded politely. Dawn was staring at John’s shoe, then his lapel, then his hair. “A sentimental journey, you might say. You see, when my husband and I came here…”

“Ah,” said Mrs Harper with a sigh. They spoke again of husbands, of the lives they had known.

The following morning, the last of the holiday, was sultry and overcast. The day ahead promised heat of a different kind which might reveal the landscape in sharper relief: but for now, there was not a moment to lose. It was ideal. After breakfast Mary impatiently checked her watch while Dawn drifted about up in the room, selecting now one hat, now another.

“Dawn do hurry,” Mary called from the hall. Beneath her grey silk blouse her heart was beating faster than the modest altitude demanded. The taste of the morning coffee hung in her mouth like a spell. She checked her watch again, just as Dawn slowly descended the stairs.

“Well, if you’re really sure you’re ready,” Mary said as she hurried her into the car.

Dawn looked across at her cousin, seeing her in a changed light. It was as if, for the first time, she had achieved some state of objectivity. What was Mary to her? What was she to Mary? The questions burned bright holes in her thoughts as they drove across the grey valley towards Bramafan and up the dappled slopes of the Courmettes towards the Col. Neither spoke. Behind them, the blossoming sunlight chased the ever-sharpening shadow of the car along the deserted mountain road.

The Col was as dramatic and as deserted as Mary remembered. They parked and walked the hundred or so yards up to the observation post. There they paused and stared out across the wild landscape, Mary manoeuvring Dawn ever-closer to the crumbling balustrade overlooking the ravine.

“Look!” Mary said, suddenly pointing. “A cat.”

Dawn leaned over the railings. Mary put her hand on the small of her back. Just one push …

“Hello!”

Mary recoiled, nearly losing her own footing. She turned and saw John, slightly red-faced, making his way up the path.

“Out for a walk,” he explained. “It’s mother’s day at the baths. Saw your car parked, thought I’d come up. Lovely view.”

“Hello,” Dawn said, blushing. “Mary said there was a cat. It might be hurt. Puss, puss…”

“Let’s have a look,” John said. “Where was it?”

Mary’s cheeks blazed. Of all the moments. She quickly turned back to look at them, cooing like lovers over a non-existent animal. She had a good mind to push them both over the edge: they were standing so close together, it wouldn’t have been hard.

And so Dawn survived her holiday. Once back in Berkshire, found herself increasingly drawn into the the Harpers’ world in a way Mary was powerless to control. Six months passed before the engagement was announced, as a result of which Mary’s role was now redundant. A financial settlement was agreed and Mary moved to another part of the country. Time passed and their lives drifted apart.

Two years after the wedding, very early one morning, Dawn received a phone call from Mary.

“I’m going to Provence today,” he cousin informed her, “back to the Auberge de Caussols.” Her voice sounded clipped and strange as if she were reading from a prepared script.

“Good,” Dawn said vaguely.

“I thought you would like to know. Of course, you’ll remember the time we spent there…”

“How could I forget it?”

And that was the last conversation they had: for while in Caussols, Mary revisited the Col des Bergers. Maybe she slipped, or maybe there was another explanation; perhaps she saw the cat creeping along the precipice and was startled by guilt. Her body was found some days later at the foot of the ravine three hundred feet below.

All this happened just before the birth of John and Dawn’s first child, a girl. In deference to family bonds, shared memories and the want of any better ideas they decided to name the baby after her.

“After all,” Dawn said, “if it hadn’t been for Mary we wouldn’t have met. And she was always so very kind to me.”

Brian Quinn
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Coming of Age

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