Living with the enemy could bring people close, Malcolm’s mother had once told Malcolm, but that hadn’t always happened in their town and their community hadn’t always been strengthened by uniting in a common cause. Neighbour had often suspected neighbour. Friend could not trust friend. People who gossiped in peace time, in war time informed. Malcolm’s mother would never know who’d shopped her man. But years later, Malcolm would know who’d shopped him.
And now Malcolm too, just as his father had always predicted of the future collapse of civilisation, was fallen, down, down from the centre of the city, position, purpose, down to the very margins and edges of the glassy sea. It wasn’t so bad. After looking from the city’s heights to its densely peopled vales what better aspect than over the ocean? A sea of many houses replaced by a single sea of water. He would live there soon. But not yet. First he would make a sea-crossing and look down on that ocean from the ferry’s high deck to a calm which took your breath away. He would scour the coast of France, once his mother’s land, that could be seen from England right over La Manche, and look back, even photograph, the edge of the one-time county of hops, apples, cherries, lavender, oysters and cobnuts.
The ferry slid across a millpond surface that glistened out from under a soft veiling mist with no breeze, he held weightless within weighted metal a upon weighty water as no burden. Almost. As it slipped over the dips, troughs and pools of still, undancing sunshine Malcolm wondered how many sea crossings it would take to forget completely or ‘move on’.
Malcolm had confided in his friend Marcus. Marcus thought what Malcolm had said was odd. That he’d left his wife temporarily so she could ‘find herself’. Marcus could have said to Malcolm, gosh that’s big of you man. Then Malcolm could have said what he really meant was he was struggling a bit more than he’d let on. That it was hard being father, breadwinner and decision maker for his family. Not big enough of a person himself he admitted, he needed his wife Mona to take more responsibility. Instead Marcus, with a reckless stretch of his imagination, told Mona that Malcolm was sleeping around. Then started dating her himself.
Bang, the ferry thudded against the dock, the cumbersome draw bridge clattered as it was let down. Malcolm shuddered. Mona was off with Marcus now while Malcolm and his car spewed out from the metal beast didn’t stop til Le Deux Caps where the valley between the headlands of Le Blanc Nez and Le Gris Nez hung like a hammock from white chalk and grey clay. He’d been hung, drawn and quartered too, and whether or not some were surprised he should be surprised, he was still hoping from these points for some sort of clarity. To see back over the calm waters to England. To find some sense in Marcus and Mona’s actions. But the mist was too thick. His head perhaps too dense.
Then he was on his way to his mother’s town on this new side of the water thinking it strange that somewhere so close should have been occupied by an enemy that might have made it to England but never did. How would England have coped with occupation? Some said Virginia Woolf killed herself because she’d feared this and the possibility that her Jewish husband could be taken away. Now he, Malcolm, unlike the coast of England full with Martello towers in defence against invasions that never happened, had been invaded. His mind occupied. By the foe. Now Mona had Marcus she was brave enough to tell Malcolm he’d been living in cloud cuckoo land. That what was happening now was real. Like war. As if his love hadn’t been.
A sand-yacht nevertheless, its sails full and bright with the light of the Opal Coast that could tinge even the lowest spirits with hope, streaked across a long stretch of beach, and Malcolm thought of what his mother had told him of a seventh century legend about a statue of the Virgin found in the estuary nearby, set within an unmanned boat. How during the occupation a replica of a replica from the 1854 Our Lady of Boulogne had been carried then wheeled out in Her boat through the streets - though the procession had been forbidden. How - as miraculously as the effect of light in wind-filled sails - the enemy had been silenced.
Malcolm’s mother just married in her soleil headdress like the statue Herself, had been one in the crowd who’d watched the procession, waiting to see what the German soldiers would do. While the crowd were scarred of the enemy and in awe of Her, Her passage had struck quiet into them and soldiers alike. Not one of them moved as the float passed by. Then relief like a moving beam of light had spread across their faces and the rumbling chatter that’d filled the air had turned into roaring applause.
A priest later held forth. The enemy might occupy the Virgin’s country, he said, but She is our freedom. In devoting ourselves to Her in the personal we devote also to Her boundless universal in which we dissolve - they will never be able to bend us. The wave had come that day with the emphasis rather than the violence of the Riders of the Apocalypse. It had come with the gentleness of a river flowing into the sea. And though there had been a softness in the waves that day, as there had been in Malcolm’s crossing, the river’s eddies gushed, unfurled, danced and twisted into ever deeper whirlpools, so as well as softness there’d been a mesmorizing liveliness. Hard to believe after the reprisals of months before.
A German soldier had been strangled outside the city walls and in retaliation ten local men suspected of resistance connections had been marched to the edge of the woods and gunned down beside a deep trench where no river sang. Nine were not resistance members. Only one, Malcolm’s mother’s fiancée, had been a guerrilla maquis - the Gestapo had been tipped off about him, though it wasn’t he who’d killed their soldier.
For Malcolm’s mother dreams of his living night after night - he might be walking with her in woods carpeted in bluebells or wild garlic, strolling beside the brook, climbing the tower of the church where they were to be married or sitting at their favourite café - were worse than any nightmare of his violent death. For in the morning when she woke he’d not be there, or ever again.
Could the cafe have been the one Malcolm sat at now, its jukebox crammed with English songs? He pulled out a Eucharist leaflet that had been in his pocket, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, weakness, or our own deliberate thought. Here it was again: though the now seemed far removed from the then when his mother might have sat here, betrayal always locked into the pores of the unthinking, unsympathetic everyday, didn’t go away. From the distant jukebox though not in the background Joni Mitchell sang to her troubled child, telling he really had no-one. Just a sea of changing faces looking for an ocean. Friends’ faces dissolved in the mist of the present sea. Then Leonard Cohen’s distant voice droned on - You who must leave every-thing that you cannot control. It starts with your family and then it moves on to your soul – reminding of the silences between people more powerful than words, of innocents powerless to console.
If he tried to define his littoral – that shoreline that kept him safe as who he thought he was, it moved too, or thickened like the fog that still stopped him seeing over the calm waters to England, more each day deeper than the one before, mist on mist palimpsest. No shoreline. No horizon. Ships floated through the sky, elegant but disconnected, beautiful but false, vacuous and egocentric dignity of craft passed pie in the sky.
From the café that his mother might or might not have frequented Malcolm made his way to Notre Dame where the statue of Our Lady of the Sea, meticulously painted, stood proudly in its basilica. Had Her blues and whites, Malcolm wondered, been so pristine and fresh when his mother witnessed Her pushed out in Her boat, the people praying for the release of French prisoners of war from German jails, while she, newly married, prayed to be released from the grief of her husband’s murder? Maybe. But when She had been pushed out Malcolm’s mother had seen more than these colours of Our Lady’s boat, more than the blues and whites that stayed with Malcolm as he passed through Fecamp, Etretat, Honfleur and Lisieux then back to Boulogne.
As he arrived at the fishing port of Fecamp the giant cliffs painted by Monet were turning from gold to red in the retreating sun. Walking under them in the half light he picked at rubble in a cave. Conch and scallop shells. Tiny pieces of clouded green glass. As he left a small, angry bird flustered towards him brushing his hair with the wind from its whirling wings like an echo of Joni’s café song. Even if no-one were there for troubled child he’d fight anyway like this small creature, beauty not illusory like lonely ships in an ethereal sky, and the hollowed chalk rocks of Etretat would still emerge - again between two headlands - out of an almost impenetrable grey mist. But in the morning Monet’s once stridently golden cliffs had turned grey blue and white, paler replicas of their former crepuscular selves.
After the killings there were those in town who’d have nothing to do with the resistances that buoyed up Malcolm’s mother. To support the front she was to marry a new member, a pamphleteer, not of the fighting branch - an Englishman with a German degree who, the Gestapo were to understand, taught German at the primary school. She had no qualms about not knowing him. It felt good to have the priest stage a wedding with no meaning. Good with this strange new man to be helping people escape and feel a fear momentarily greater than grief.
Honfleur was pretty with its scented calvados, harbour, cobbled streets and wooden church, but what would ‘little’ Teresa have made of the ‘St Teresienne’ pizza Malcolm ate in Lisieux piled high with sausage, potato, apple, camembert, crème fresh and chilli oil outside her church? Like her basilica it would probably have seemed out of proportion to her lack of ambition and her inappropriate title of Doctor of the Church. No Avila with soul a castle made of a single diamond or clear crystal for which there were as many rooms as mansions in heaven, she probably wouldn’t have viewed this food as made to the glory of her Creator.
Back in busy Boulogne Malcolm reflected on what that more was his mother had seen on the day Notre Dame de Boulogne had passed her by. She had looked again at the man she’d married for the sake of the cause, and had seen him, as if as they say, she was seeing him for the first time. His soul appeared to be on fire, and as they’d braved dangers together, saved lives, she could now save her own, shrink from the sadness that had occupied her, see community strengthened now by its own unity against the enemy.
Notre Dame de Boulogne had been found, long ago, floating on water.
Teresa of Avila had envisaged cultivating the garden of the soul with water.
Malcolm and his mother and father had crossed the water to get to new land.
When Malcolm left this town again to return to Dover, he would make a journey he’d made once before when too young to remember. Cormorants, batman crucifixions, dangling their stretched out wings, stood then as now on poles. In transit again the ferry skidded across the still smooth surface of La Manche, perhaps as the boat had for his mother and father when before the end of the war, their cover as resistance members near to being blown, they’d escaped across the waters with him in their arms to England.
Occupations, Malcolm’s parents pointed out when the war was over, didn’t have to last, and Malcolm told that to his inner foe heavy within. And still the question – that could only be answered by time and a sense that nothing, only crossings and washings could clean the troubled soul – would be asked: how many crossings would it take?
For there wasn’t just the other side of water, but of people who’d brought you in close before casting out their traps as finely woven as your own, with knots of their weak, dark, damaging sides you’d need to wriggle free from, if you could, like fishes from a net, so not to let your spirit be limited or unable to rise above a thing. Still Malcolm felt like a survivor in a shipwreck, threatened not just by the storm but others in the boat who’d turned against him.
Harder to be hero in peace time. All the more reason to resist betrayal and treachery because we live so close to it, Malcolm’s mother had said. Whoever had informed on her first love remained as faceless as the instinct of self-preservation that’d committed the deed. But friend turned foe would have to go, she’d said, would have to be expunged from the fragile mind. What Mother wouldn’t want her son to be free from occupation where bitterness took root?
As Malcolm reached the White Cliffs of Dover huge mounds of white chalk had that day, fallen into the sea. That day also the mists that had shrouded English shores in fog all week, had, at last, lifted. His mind touching a little piece of eternity outside time and space felt lighter, as if The Lady of the Sea had caused it to, along with other mercies, so close had the people of England been to occupation.