PHONE YOU SOMETIME
It’s a funny thing about Dublin. Small though it is, a village almost in some ways, you will never meet anybody you want to meet by accident. You will hear news of him. You will meet a cousin of his. You will talk to people who have just left him in a pub not more than an hour ago. But you will never under any circumstances meet him accidentally in the street.
I know because I tried so often to do it, that summer that belonged jointly to Stephen and Jean Marc. I spent much of it in the company of Jean Marc thinking about Stephen. The trouble was that nothing had really ended with Stephen. The last thing he said to me was, “Phone you some time,” and for months I believed he would. Alone (if you don’t count my father) among my globe-trotting family I was determined to spend the long college vacation right here in Dublin, most of the time in reach of the telephone. I wasn’t going to be caught napping in New York like my sister or in Germany like my engineer brothers when that bloody phone rang at last. I wasn’t even going to be in West Cork with my mother watching her lick the local dramatic society into shape for the winter season. That Little Theatre reverently supported her the whole summer long for what they believed she could do for them – had she not, in her youth, had “the voice Shakespeare dreamed off when he created Juliet?” That of course was a long time ago and the drama critic who said it was silent at last under a handsome marble tombstone in Glasnevin, but his words lived on in a gilt frame on our living-room wall, and West Cork remembered.
No, I wasn’t going to West Cork and I wasn’t going to give English lessons in Paris or to work in the kitchens of Germany. I wasn’t going anywhere because I knew Stephen wasn’t either. He was repeating a failed exam in September. My family seized on me delightedly when the letter arrived from Jean Marc’s mother.
“The sweet Vendrons,” my family sighed, but I knew exactly what was coming. We had all stayed at one time or another with the sweet Vendrons in Marseilles for the purpose of improving our French, and they in turn had stayed with us. Jean Marc had come as a shy silent boy of fifteen. He had come the year after his sister Amelie, a creature of such overpowering beauty and wit that for several summers afterwards we were plagued with phone calls from hopeful boys in the neighbourhood – Amelie just might perhaps be staying with us again? Thank God she never did stay again. My family would not have survived it. We always hoped however for another visit from her older sister Françoise, who radiated delight in the most ordinary daily routine of our lives and who learned English with a rapidity that astonished us and caused her family to send us their problem, Jean Marc, the only son, with hopes that proved misplaced.
His second visit was somehow unexpected by everybody but me. The most elementary common sense would have told them that the only one of the Vendrons who needed to come again was Jean Marc, since he had gone home at the end of the summer practically as ignorant of the English language as when he arrived. That was because his suitcase had been stuffed with French novels which he read all the time when he wasn’t tuned in to ORTF on his little transistor.
Now he was coming back again accompanied by three cases of his father’s best wine and an urgent appeal from his mother. He had no academic future and needed absolutely fluent English to manage his father’s business affairs in England. That was the future that had been mapped out for him at twenty, after he had made two unsuccessful attempts to gain his Bac.
It took my mother practically no time at all to decide that Jean Marc would be happiest of all with me and my father. He was a shy boy and families tended to overwhelm him, my mother said. It wasn’t that they couldn’t have made different plans for the summer if they’d known in time about Jean Marc, but as it was – well, it might turn out for the best. After all, I’d wanted to stay at home anyway.
Jean Marc arrived, to a choice of three empty bedrooms.
My mother, guiltily attentive on the eve of her own departure, had prepared a dazzling array of cold dishes for his delight but Jean Marc (taller and heavier now but looking no older) wasn’t hungry. He felt sick from the flight and thought he would like to go straight to bed. It was eight o’clock on a summer’s evening, and he was twenty years old, like me. He wanted to go to bed.
“He’s rather big and coarse in comparison with the rest of his family, but he is better-looking now,” my mother said uneasily. “Besides, he seemed to understand us much better than he used to.”
“I was speaking French,” I pointed out.
“Then you had better stop speaking French,” my mother said indignantly. “He’s here to learn – finally – to speak English. Not a word of French to him from this out.”
I am the only one she can bully still and she enjoys it. It has always been like that. My father (retired now from his Government office) and I are the only people in the family who can be counted on to have nothing to do. We have certain useful skills, like driving, however, on which the rest of the family can confidently depend.
Next day I drove my mother to Cork before Jean Marc was awake, and in Cork she was met by an old friend who would drive her the rest of the way. On the road back I wondered for a crazy twenty miles or so what would happen if I didn’t bother going home at all. It was mid-June and the car roof was open. The smells of haymaking came up to me from the fields and the macadam road was dark blue in the sunlight. Somewhere west was a dazzling coastline where we had all spent childhood holidays.
Somewhere south was an old harbour where I had friends, where one could lie on hot cobblestones in the sun and talk to fishermen and dream of being there with Stephen. Somewhere there was an end of responsibility to other people which I seemed to have shouldered long before I left school because I was the dull one in a bright family. I knew that responsibility to my mother for Jean Marc, to my cheerful pottering father, to Jean Marc himself, and to the heap of old brick and ruined outhouses that was our home, was not something which I could shrug off because it seemed to have been part of my consciousness for so long. My only concession to a wanton impulse was to stop at a dark little country pub for a glass of lager and listen as I drank it to the publican’s story of how he once went to Dublin one blazing summer’s day long ago. He went to have his gall-bladder X-rayed, and I was given an account of it, blow by blow.
It was evening when I got in, and the only evidence of Jean Marc was the shuttered rooms downstairs. That’s a thing I’ve noticed about the French – they hate sunlight indoors. What I remembered about Jean Marc’s own home in Marseilles was the coolness of the dark rooms when you stepped in out of blazing sunlight. In the hall there was a floor of polished stone that would not have been out of place in an old church, and in the room where his family ate there was a chill green light from the half-closed shutters that made you fancy you were in an aquarium.
Going from room to room, I let in the sunshine, thick and golden now as honey at half past seven in the evening. The faint humming of a dynamo from the bottom of the garden spoke of my father’s presence, but where was Jean Marc? On my way to my own room I noticed that the door of his was half-open, but there was no sign of him until I got down to the kitchen a while afterwards. He was sitting at the wide-open window shredding carrots, with evidence of coleslaw all around him. Newly-made mayonnaise was in a brown bowl on the table in the corner now set for three. Jean Marc was smiling, dark teeth in a broad brown face. One of the front teeth was badly filled with gold. He walked like a snake (but then so do all French boys) across the kitchen to find a pepper mill. I suddenly saw that somebody might some day find him attractive.
“You did all this, Jean Marc?”
“Monsieur helped me by telling me where everything was.” He spoke in rapid southern French in reply to my English.
“But he was to take you out to eat because I wasn’t here!”
“We decided we preferred to eat at home. Madame has left so much food already prepared,” Jean Marc said shyly. “Besides, I like to cook.”
He chose a light and sparkling rosé from one of the cases his father had sent, and my father looked smug when summoned from the garden. Al his days now like all his office holidays long ago, were spent playing with old cars. He had never come away on holidays with us in his life. He also hated restaurants.
“A nice way you took Jean Marc out to dinner!” I accused him.
“He likes to cook, don’t you, Jean Marc?”
“I like to cook,” the boy nodded, and I noted with pleasure that he liked to eat too. Less shy than last time, he still never initiated any conversation but he responded to anybody else’s remarks and he did’t look as unhappy as wen he arrived. He persistently answered me in French though he made an effort at English with my father, whose knowledge of French was limited to what one finds about motoring in old phrase books.
“How’s the head?” said my father, helping himself to the excellent mayonnaise his guest had produced, and I felt ashamed at having forgotten how ill Jean Marc had seemed on arrival.
“Your headache,” I translated for him. “Is it any better?”
“Mais oui, “ Jean Marc shrugged it off, and then smiled darkly as he poured wine for us. How had he missed the dazzling white teeth the rest of the family had been blessed with? He first passed the bottle to my father, then yielded to the host’s gesture. It was, after all, his wine, made by his father and uncles, bottled by them, shipped all over Europe. Its label was respected everywhere except perhaps in England. Jean Marc’s mission was to foster it there and for this we had to provide him with the language.
“Did you choose to go into the business?” I asked him afterwards.
“Ma mere a choisi,” Jean Marc said, with no strong implication of criticism. Yes – his mother decided most things for the family. Of course.
It was several days later before the subject came up again. It was in the garden one day after lunch. “I want to escape,” he said. Just that. “I tell you this because you look like Gabrielle.”
Great plump pigeons picked around fearlessly at the remains of our lunch and I saw with astonishment that Jean Marc’s round brown eyes were full of tears. My father had gone back to his ancient engines as soon as he could gobble down the cold meal, but before he left us he said to Jean Marc, “You’re one of the family- I don’t have to remember the formalities.” Now Jean Marc was saying I looked like Gabrielle and his eyes were full of tears and he was one of the family.
“Gabrielle?” l asked him sympathetically, but it was a long time before he answered. When he did it was in an ordinary voice and his eyes had been shaken dry, like a dog’s coat. I might even have imagined his distress, but I knew I hadn’t.
“Gabrielle and I were friends,” he mumbled. “What I must say is that she regarded herself as my friend but I was in love with her. She was also a friend of Amelie.” “Ah, Amelie,” I said lamely.
“I may tell you?” Jean Marc said gently, and then I knew I must have looked so abstracted that, scrupulously polite like all his family, he had detected possible boredom.
“Tell me, please.”
It was hot in the garden, and the circle of shade where we sat under the apple tree was narrowing. The old engine my father was working on spluttered feebly into life and died again. The pigeons were gone and an army of sparrows was cleaning up what remained. In the shade, they flurried like brown butterflies, on the edge of consciousness.
“She was a friend of your sister Amelie who stayed here?” Brilliant beautiful overpowering Amelie.
“She is at the university with Françoise and came home a few times to eat with us in the evening. She and Amelie played guitar together afterwards. Later Gabrielle played sometimes with me.”
The image of the explosive Amelie quietly playing guitar duets with another girl somehow didn’t tally with the man-eater we had known, but one had to wait for the end of the story. “When you said Gabrielle was like me, you meant physically?” I prompted, and Jean Marc nodded.
“Long hair straight like yours and almost the same brown. Blue eyes and blue shirt like yours,” Jean Marc said innocently. He sighed, rolled over on the grass and was quiet for a long time. Maybe after all it was only a French-made shirt we had in common?
“We went to concerts and to the open-air theatre at Avignon once and then she was to come grape-picking for my father – I also – in September. She did not come.”
He rolled over again and didn’t look at me. “Because Amelie was tired of her friend Jean-Claude. She had begun to see somebody else. Jean-Claude had to repeat an examination in the autumn and my mother warned Amelie she must not make him unhappy. So – ” He stopped speaking again and the sound was filled up with the wheezy protests of my father’s newest old car.
“I know what happened. You needn’t finish. La belle Amelie introduced Jean-Claude to Gabrielle and YOU didn’t see Gabrielle any more?”
“D’accord.” He looked profoundly gloomy now. “Jean Claude has a sports car and a great deal of money to spend. Me, no. I had to save for eight weeks to take her to Avignon by train.”
This I could well imagine. The richer people’s parents are, very often the less money changes hands. Poor Jean Marc. I recognised the compliment to me for what it was – an impulse of loneliness. “I tell you this because you look like Gabrielle.” Tant pis. Even if he meant it, I was not for him any more than Stephen was for me. Each one of us is isolated in his own deficiencies. But to distract him a little I took him on a tour of my father’s private empire.
I suppose this annexe to our house must seem extraordinary to somebody who doesn’t know it. The house itself is on the southern outskirts of Dublin quite close to the foothills that border Wicklow. It was once an old farmhouse, in no way distinguished and quite small before before various pieces were built on. But the point is that the old cobbled farmyard still remains around at the back together with most of the crumbling outhouses.
It was certainly the reason why my father bought the house in the first place. At that time it was isolated and very cheap. Now speculative builders have gradually crept up almost to the edge of the farmyard itself, or rather, to the other side of the screen of poplars. A whole new wilderness of housing is on all sides of us, and for most of ten years now my mother had been urging my father to sell out and make a fortune. Sell out? He’d rather sell her and us and all our furniture than budge from his rest-home for old cars. Did he not found it? Endowed it with his perpetual care and most of his money over the years? Were the unsavoury-looking medley of wrecked automobiles not his friends as well as his charges? Did they not time and again delight him by offering him sufficient parts that fitted sweetly together to form a workable whole?
Where once heavy farm horses had been groomed and fed, where once chickens had roosted and golden harvests had been gathered, there the old cars settled to end their days, each one a gem of its own kind to my father, each possessed of a human charm and personality, so that he went around frowning for days on the occasions when somebody came to buy something from him – whether it was a spare part that could be found in no other place in the city or a reconstituted wreck that was capable of being driven (by my father) around the farmyard and that somebody, young, usually, and mad, thought of as being a practically free passport to the car-owning classes.
My father was always much more willing to lend than to sell. He didn’t mind so much selling a part, but selling a car he had created out of the bodies of his friends was to him a sacrilege. Once when he met his match in a determined man who came every day for three weeks with ever-increasing offers for a Riley Gamecock, he finally agreed to sell it for £350, only on condition that its owner would never sell it to anybody but himself when its usefulness was at an end. He had the legal agreement hanging up for years on the kitchen wall.
Anyway, it was my mother’s habit to pretend the Cars’ Graveyard, as she called it, didn’t exist at all, and we had been ordered since childhood never to show it to a visitor. Jean Marc, however, was one of the family. My father had said so, and fortunately my mother was away. So I took him through the rose garden, which made me think of beautiful Stephen again, and around to the back. In the late afternoon light my father was nowhere to be seen, but his family was everywhere – dusty, dilapidated, but trustfully crouched in stable and barn ready for the revivifying touch that he might at any time give them. They only had to wait. If you looked at the place another way it was just a scrap yard, and the French are tidy to a fault.
“Mais c’est bizarre, ça,” Jean Marc smiled, and when he smiled his gold tooth winked cheerfully in the sun. You forgot that his round brown eyes had ever been full of tears. “You see – it’s our horrible secret. Last time you stayed with us my mother absolutely forbade us to show it to you.
“My father, he said admiringly, “would not dare!
“You mean he’d like to support a million geriatric cars as well as his wife and family?”
The complexity of this English sentence defeated Jean Marc. He laughed, shook his head, edged sideways into an outhouse, then climbed in his impeccably neat (in fact square) blue Jeans into the dusty ruins of a clover-leaf Citroen. “In France, he said, ”they would pay you in gold bars for this one. Que c’est beau!”
As we both sat in the fragile glove-leather front seats, I became aware of voices on the other side of us – most probably from the barn. There was my father’s high voice lecturing on the beauties of some particular wreck and there was this other voice that made my blood race and my knees tremble. I was glad I was sitting down. I couldn’t believe it – maybe I was delirious? How could it possibly be Stephen’s voice? I was delirious. It couldn’t be.
Jean Marc became suddenly concerned for my health. “Vous vous sentez bien?” he asked anxiously, and I became aware for the first time how kind his rough-skinned brown face was. He was looking at me with the tenderness my father reserved for the most aristocratic and touchingly beautiful of his wrecked cars.
“Jean Marc, will you do something for me?”
“Of course. If it is possible for me.”
“Pretend – oh, pretend I really am Gabrielle when we go in to find my father. Will you?”
Jean Marc laughed uncomfortably. He had by now become aware of the voices too.
“But if you were, I would not sit with you here like this. I could not say a word. I would knock things over and stammer and behave so stupidly she would – she would – ” He trailed off and shrugged hopelessly and I was afraid he was going to cry again.
“Look, Jean Marc, just pretend, can’t you? I am Gabrielle but I do not think you could ever behave stupidly. I think it was a beautiful thing to save up enough money to take me to the Festival of Avignon and I think you are very sweet. Which, as a matter of fact, I do.”
“D’accord, allons,” Jean Marc said, quite suddenly a different person. I was to learn before the summer was out that he was happiest of all when given something positive to do which he knew was very useful to somebody.
My father was extremely embarrassed when we appeared, and dived hurriedly under a car. Stephen was not embarrassed at all. Taller even than I remembered, and slimmer, he was dressed in elegantly faded blue levis and a matching shirt of pure silk. He was blonder and more positively superior to anybody else I’d ever known. He still looked at you directly between the brows with a childlike candour of pale blue eyes and his golden beard was bright in the sun. He was not in the least put out.
“How are you, Felicity?” he smiled. “How delightful to see you again.”
Jean Marc’s hand over mine tightened sweatily in the heat. He was so much bigger and clumsier than Stephen that he seemed to exude heat as much as Stephen made you think of cool smart bars. But the brown arm of Jean Marc came firmly around my waist and was not even taken aback when he offered the other hand to Stephen.
“This is – well, some time you’ll have to know anyway – this is Jean Marc from Marseilles,” I said cunningly. The warm arm firmly around my waist and its tightened fingers gave me confidence. My legs didn’t give way anymore.
“Are you by any chance Amelie’s brother?”
“Yes,” said Jean Marc in English.
“Ah,” said Stephen with an unflattering glance from the square Spanish sandals to the coarse dark hair of Jean Marc. He didn’t need to say, “How could an oaf like you be the brother of such a beautiful girl?” Jean Marc understood perfectly but he didn’t flinch even when his outstretched brown hand was left dangling.
“You will perhaps excuse us,” he said with a practically unprecedented command of English. “Felicité and I go for a meal this evening to town. We must perhaps change.”
This was, I thought, magnificent. It even gave my father courage to emerge from under the antiquated Morris 8, the sort of car which he said the pre-war English misguidedly referred to as a “sports tourer.”
“I did wonder,” I said with a wild stab in the dark, “when you might end a visit to the Graveyard by dropping in to the house. You’ve been coming to talk my father into selling this – this vehicle for quite a while, haven’t you, Stephen?”
“It is rather difficult to part Mr Power from any of his showpieces,” he admitted, and laughed with admirably contrived naturalness. ”I’d intended, of course, to let you know when the bargain was happily struck – which, as a matter of fact, I do believe it is now.”
“Do you now?” my father said, straightening up at last and looking me in the eye. “Do you now?”
Stephen couldn’t possibly have known it, but my father was looking extremely wicked indeed. His tufted white hair gave him the air of a surprised swan and his eyes had an abstracted innocence we had all learned to distrust long ago. His face was grease-marked and he rubbed a grubby paw across his brow which temporarily darkened a tuft of the ridiculous hair.
“Well. I thought – ” Stephen shrugged, but he wasn’t nearly so self-possessed as he wanted to appear. He was looking worried, as well he might.
“Come back next summer when I’ve had time to work on her a bit more then we’ll see. I just might sell her to you,” my father said expansively, “if we made a signed agreement that you’d never sell her – to anybody but me, that is.”
That old trick again! Jean Marc tried to pull me away to prepare for that mythical meal, but I couldn’t have budged. I was trying to analyse why I didn’t feel sorry for Stephen – not a bit.
“But sir – “ Stephen protested, as my father raised an overpowering greasy paw.
“That’s enough. Come in for a drink and welcome but don’t mention Annabel to me until June of next year.”
“Phone you some time,” Stephen muttered to nobody in particular and walked away across the cobblestones with what dignified languor he could muster. We watched him disappear in the direction of the bus.
Then my father sat down on the running-board of a 1936 Railton and laughed. He has a wheezy maddening laugh that can go on for days, and I wasn’t amused now.
“It’s unethical,” I said indignantly, and shook off Jean Marc’s arm because he was laughing too – loudly, and I’d never heard him laugh before. “You led him on like the wicked old man you are and you had no intention of selling him this – this Annabel or whatever you call it. Don’t deny it.”
“She,” said my father. “Miss Annabel Morris, if you please,” and then he went on laughing. ”I’d intended of course to let you know when the bargain was actually struck,” he mimicked with unpardonable accuracy, “which as a matter of fact I do believe it is now – ” The tears poured down his face, making grease-tracks as they ran. Then suddenly he stopped and said to me, “He didn’t mind how he led you on.”
I was about to go back into the house, completely exasperated with myself because by his behaviour my father had made me feel sorry for Stephen despite myself, when I became aware of the deflated Jean Marc. Big hands by his sides, he looked dispossessed again, awkward, his usefulness at an end. As often happens, my father was aware of the deflated Jean Marc at exactly the same moment I was myself. He became suddenly businesslike and got to his feet. .
“You were splendid, Jean Marc,” I said, rushing to congratulate him. “You convinced even me.”
“Come here, Jean Marc,” my father said.
“Can you drive? Have you a driving licence?”
“Hop in and show me. You too, Felicity. First, I’ll show you the gears,” he said to Jean Marc, “because I don’t suppose you’ve driven anything with only three gears before, and if you put her into reverse by mistake and catapult yourselves through the windscreen, I might find it quite hard to get another unscratched one.”
This particular Morris 8, a spidery little two-seater newly graduated to the ranks of “veteran,” was more beautiful than its designer could have hoped. My father had painted her a ravishing olive-green outside and worked her mushroom leather upholstery to a fine gloss and softness. Her brasses gleamed prettily, and it was no wonder Stephen had thought her ready. In a few moments Jean Marc had manoeuvred her gently out of the big barn and we were purring around the farmyard to the accompaniment of approving noises from my father.
“Handled as sweetly as I’d use her myself, boy – very good. Excellent. Brakes are a bit sharp until the linings wear in. O.K. Right. I’ll tell you this much – Felicity couldn’t handle her so gently, could you now?”
“Whatever you say,” l murmured, but I was beginning to get the glimmer of the idea that might be moving around inside his tufted head.
“What I need is somebody I can trust to drive her at least a few hundred miles and see how she measures up, what’s still to do. What do you say, Jean Marc?”
He didn’t understand, so I translated for him and he giggled, round brown eyes glistening with pleasure.
“Felicity will go with you and show you the west coast or wherever you like. Do me a favour, boy, and give Annabel a trial.”
Once again, for the second time in the same afternoon, Jean Marc felt needed and he looked at me questioningly in speechless happiness.
“Ça va?” I asked him.
“Ça va?” he said fervently, and so unpropitiously began the education of Jean Marc in the English language. It was almost the last bit of French spoken on that gloriously successful holiday on which the sun shone, day after day, while we toured the country at a suitably dignified forty miles an hour. In the villages through which we passed, people stood to watch the beauty of Annabel, to smile sentimentally at Jean Marc and me. When we went in for a beer in little country pubs, the men came out to examine Father’s treasure before we set off again, and in Mullingar Jean Marc shouted out his first spontaneous words of English to a countryman whose pony was about to back into our car.
“Please, please, attention!”
“We say, ‘Be careful!’” I muttered.
Jean Marc got out anxiously onto the road. “Please be careful, sir,” he shouted, and the man whipped his horse into stillness, climbed down off his cart, and stood beside Jean Marc to examine our remarkable car.
She’s a beauty, that one right enough,” he said, tilting the cap back on his head. “When the brother came over from the States in ‘56 he hired a little machine the dead spit of herself. Ye have her lovely, so ye have.”
Not understanding a word of all this, Jean Marc stood by smiling and the countryman wished us good luck and stood holding the reins of his pony while Jean Marc manoeuvred Annabel carefully out of the crowded main street of Mullingar.
I said the sun shone for the whole of that holiday and so it nearly did. It shone in Killybegs and in Connemara, where Jean Marc caught a flat fish with his bare hands and cooked it in country butter on the little primus stove my father had given us. It shone on the glittering hide of the Shannon at Killaloe, and it shone on the little fishing villages I had dreamed of showing to Stephen. But in Youghal there was one shower of summer rain and we ran dripping from the harbour to the waiting shelter of Annabel’s ridiculous canvas hood – my father had still some happy work ahead where that was concerned – where she was parked in Market Dock, and inside we laughed and carefully mopped her mushroom leather seats with our towels before we dried ourselves.
“If you were Gabrielle, I would not dare to make love to you, Jean Marc said in English, correctly, just like that.
“I am Felicity, and all Gabrielle and I have in common is one blue French shirt,” I said firmly, and that was the beginning of Jean Marc’s determination to extend his father’s business to Ireland.
At home again, my father insisted on selling Annabel to Jean Marc for £10, one quarter of his holiday pocket money, on condition that he only used her in Ireland and garaged her with us. “That will be perfectly agreeable, since eventually I shall live in Dublin,” said Jean Marc confidently, and now when he phones from London, where he’s happily learning the business, he always asks about Annabel’s health. There’s no need for phone watching – Jean Marc rings promptly at ten o’clock every Sunday.