M Thorogood has worked as a writer, and magazine and website editor in the arts and non-profit sector, and has degrees in French and fine art media.
She dribbled the melted coconut oil onto her legs and started rubbing it in.
‘Brigitte Bardot, Brigitte Bardot!’ A scrawny beach seller in a bandanna was calling to the women lying on the beach, popping a caramelised nut into the hole of their belly buttons.
She saw a naked woman stand and wave him over. She must have been in her fifties, her black hair pulled into a tight bun, a gold chain looped around her wrinkled waist. Her skin was a leathery brown from head to toe but when she bent down to pick up her purse, she glimpsed two clear white lines under the droop of her buttocks. The only crevices of her skin hidden from the sun blazing in the cloudless sky above them.
Lisa was sitting up next to her. She was looking, too.
‘What’s it like on this beach? Do you think your dad’ll have his kit off, too?’
‘I hope not.’
Lisa sniggered. ‘At least he’ll let us have a drink. He’s a laugh, your dad. And where’s that beach bar where all the glam stars go? I want to go and see it!’
She worked the oil into her arms now, and around her bikini straps.
She’d told Lisa about the famous Club 55 and the Hollywood stars that hung out there, not that she’d ever been. She remembered, as a kid, the excited whisper down the beach that Sylvester Stallone had anchored his yacht there for lunch.
‘It’s down the beach that way. Look, can you see all the posh boats?’ She pointed out the cluster of gleaming white yachts in the bay.
The two of them had turned up that morning at the Kon Tiki campsite on Pampelonne beach to camp for a few nights. They’d hardly slept, slumped in their denim shorts, on the overnight train from Cognac and they’d hitched from the station. The driver had pulled over and tried to persuade them to meet him for a drink later. When he finally dropped them off at the campsite, the sour receptionist only agreed to give them the last tent space after they’d insisted her dad and brothers were staying in one of their caravans that week. They’d squeezed their two-man tent into a small gap between the pine trees. The bent poles sagged the tent in the middle and once they’d shoved their suitcases in, they’d crashed out all morning with their feet poking out of the front flap.
They’d already slept like this for six weeks of the school holidays, on their own, in the tiny campsite by the river outside Cognac. They’d only meant to stay a couple of days before moving on, but Lisa had got together with Pierre, one of the local boys, and that was that. When they weren’t hanging onto the back of scooters with Pierre and his friend Jean-Claude, they’d sunbathed on the dry, cracked mud of the riverbank and cartwheeled into the water, screaming at the giant clumps of drifting algae. She only rang home once, to find out her O’Level exam results, pushing coins into the phone slot to hear her grades. She’d got a B in French.
Now they were sitting among the bronzed naked bodies, young and old, packed onto the wide sand. Towards the back, the dunes emptied out, bordered with swathes of high bamboo.
‘I’m starving. Let’s go and find your dad.’ Lisa was scanning the crowded beach. They only had a few centimes left and hadn’t eaten since the train. But now that she was here, she was in no hurry to see her dad and brothers. Her mother wouldn’t be there, of course. She lay back on her towel and peered down at the smooth undulations of her body glistening in oil. It looked alien, like someone else’s form. Her white London skin had been stained to dark caramel toffee, right down to her toes where the nails shone white like stones. Her hip bones were poking out after living off stale baguette for weeks. They’d forgotten to take cutlery and smeared Camembert on with their keys.
‘Come on, he might give us a drink. Maybe he’ll give us some dosh, too?’
They picked up their things and weaved through the maze of towels until there he was, beer in hand, lounging against a blue freezer box. Some men and women were dotted around him, bottles wedged in the sand, cigarette smoke curling up. How did he always manage to gather a crowd? And – horror! – as expected, he was sans culottes. It looked like they all were. She felt a nudge from Lisa. Her two brothers sat under a white Stella Artois umbrella, their trunks firmly on, playing cards, looking cross and red-faced.
‘Hello, hello, it’s the girls! You made it. Come and join us!’ Her dad waved them over. ‘Here, have a beer.’ He opened the box, cracked open two bottles and handed them over. Lisa gave her a knowing look as they lay their towels down.
‘So what have you two hussies been up to then?’
‘Just camping. Near Cognac.’
‘Hope you weren’t drinking too much of the stuff! Snogging spotty French boys, were you?’ She heard a woman’s laugh. ‘Hey, surely you’re not keeping your tops on? This is St Tropez after all.’
‘What are you like, John!’ Lisa smiled, batted her hand at him and pretended to cover her chest.
But she remembered him harassing her to take her bikini top off when she was last here aged 12. You’ve got nothing to hide, he’d jeered.
She’d forgotten how her dad’s half-Greek genes made him look instantly at home in the Mediterranean. His long, lean legs were stretched over the sand, his chest already a burnished mahogany. A wide-brimmed leather hat shaded his black moustache. Much to her embarrassment, he was the only dad she knew who carried a continental-style manbag. It was lying open next to him on the sand, stuffed with Marlboro packets and Franc notes.
‘Can I borrow a bit of money, Dad? We’ve run out.’
‘That’s all you kids ever want. Go on.’ He handed over some 10 Franc notes. She knew he wouldn’t give her a cigarette though. They’d buy some at the campsite shop later, no one cared how old you were in France.
‘Have you met Pete? He’s tagged along as official drinks mixer.’
‘How on earth do you live with your dad, then?’ Pete’s voice was high-pitched and giggly. ‘Two days and I’m finding him a right pain in the proverbial! Cheers!’
Pete was a lawyer or something and was staying in the caravan with them, a stand-in for her absent mother. He pulled at his straggle of a beard, his stumpy legs straight out in front of him. His white skin was already spotted with pink patches of sunburn on the parts of his body that pointed to the sun: shoulders, shins, tip of nose. She was relieved to see the small rolls of fat cascading towards his lap concealed his groin area.
Her dad lit up a Marlboro and blew out hard. ‘Your bloody mother’s so miserable. Don’t know why she didn’t want to come. What’s wrong with the woman?’
‘Well, someone has to run the business, I suppose.’ There she was, defending her again. Her mum had renounced all family holidays a few years back. He knew that. The endless washing, children squabbling, the heat, she’d said. And when he wasn’t around, she’d add: ‘And he’s impossible!’ Her catch-all word for him. She never said more than that. She’d be back at home, feet up on the sofa, cats jostling for space on her lap, reading some classic like War and Peace.
‘Anyway, I suppose you two will joining us for dinner tonight?’ Then, turning to the group: ‘Fantastic place up in Ramatuelle. Had a superb meal there last summer. Chef sat drinking with us all afterwards.’ She remembered he’d come down here on his own last year, and wondered who else had been at the restaurant.
‘Are you girls studying the French at the school?’ She turned to the middle-aged man sitting, smiling, to her right. Mirror sunglasses, receding hair combed back, perfect teeth.
‘Yes..I mean, oui.’ The ‘oui’ was almost a whisper.
‘I am from Switzerland. We speak many langages.’ His smooth voice rolled. ‘I come here every year for the ‘oliday. It is so friendly.’ He leant forward, his elbow on his raised knee, an expensive-looking watch on his wrist, and she spied his willy resting limply on his thigh.
‘John, dear, be a love…’ The woman next to her dad was holding out a bottle of Piz Buin. She watched as her dad reached over and started rubbing vigorously over her back and shoulders. She was topless with a bright blue sarong wrapped around her broad hips, her hair a frizzy red halo in the sunlight. He made some joke and she chuckled loudly. The rubbing and the laughing was making her whole body rock, her wide breasts jiggling with chunky jewellery.
She felt the sea salt encrusted on her back from her earlier swim, the skin taut and itchy. Suddenly, arms grasped her neck from behind. It was Rob, her little brother. She turned to hug him but he raced off down to the water. Her older brother Andy bent over her, holding his skinny arm against hers.
‘Look, I’m browner than you!’
‘Interesting, not!’ She turned away. Her mother had always told her to turn the other cheek and not react to his relentless taunts. But he bent down further and hissed in her ear: ‘So has she done it yet then? Lisa? Go on, tell me.’
She pushed him away and he ran off down to the sea, kicking sand over sunbathers with his over-sized feet. Rob was still standing by the water and she saw Andy shove him with two hands into the froth of the waves. Turning back, she saw Lisa was now lying closer to the Swiss man. She’d untied her bikini top, the straps trailing on the sand, leaving only a tiny triangle of material positioned over each breast. A gentle gust of wind could blow it off.
Much later, after more beers but still no food, she and Lisa got up to head back to the campsite.
‘See you at the caravan,’ her dad shouted after her. ‘Don’t be late! You’re always late!’ He was still stretched out on the sand, the woman, Pete, and the remains of the group around him, all glowing orange in the dipping sun.
In the freezing showers, she felt the salt and sand run off her body. Then, squashed together with Lisa in the tent, she patted aftersun into her scorched skin.
There wasn’t that much to do back in Cognac all those weeks. The hot days had dragged by the river. In the afternoon, as the heat subsided, they hitched into town, found Pierre and Jean-Claude and wandered around the empty streets until late at night. Sometimes, they played table football with the other teenagers, in a bar kitted out like a ‘50s diner. They drank milkshakes and put centimes in the jukebox, which only played American heavy metal or bad French pop. Some nights, they climbed up onto the church roof, and lay, smoking, looking up at the ink-black sky and the huge stars, so bright they seemed closer to her than back in London.
At first, Lisa and Pierre held hands, kissed shyly. He was petite, with pretty black curls, and he gazed at Lisa through long, dark lashes. But soon it turned into relentless snogging. She and Jean-Claude sat fidgeting, his leg twitching. There wasn’t much spark between them. They eyed each other warily. Sometimes he was surly, moody, other days his coarse features lightened up and he’d chat and joke, fixing his blue eyes on her. She could barely understand his dialect and slang and he couldn’t always get her school textbook French. Both he and Pierre had just left school aged 16 and spoke no English. Come September, they would have to look for local work on the farms, they said. He didn’t seem to mind spending his last free summer whizzing her around on the back of his scooter, as she held onto his billowing Van Halen T-shirt. He rolled her cigarettes, dirt under his fingernails, and teased her with raised eyebrows and gentle pushes. Once, swimming in the river, he dived down and yanked her under by her ankles. She surfaced, spluttering, to find him grinning opposite her in the murky water.
After a few weeks, Lisa and Pierre’s lust grew urgent and they began to sneak into his mum’s small apartment when she was at work. She and Jean-Claude hung around in the kitchen, swigging beers he’d stolen from somewhere, and going through the fridge, while they closed the door to the bedroom. They spent more evenings at the campsite, so the lovers could retire to the tent, while the two of them sat picking dried mud off the bank and tossing it into the river.
It was not long before the campsite manager complained and tried to bar Lisa and her from bringing the boys back. ‘C’est dégueulasse!’ she spat at them, as she waddled back in her dressing gown to the caravan she lived in by the toilet block. When were they finally going to leave, she wanted to know?
‘Enfin, les petits amants!’ Jean-Claude sneered that night, poking his head into the tent, as Lisa and Pierre emerged, faces flushed. Just before they left, Jean-Claude revved his scooter to annoy the manager, blowing exhaust fumes across the tents. ‘Connasse! Putain! Va te faire foutre!’ he yelled as they skidded off.
She knocked on her dad’s caravan door. They were wearing their sundresses, creased with dirt after weeks camping, and Lisa had tied her hair up in a high ponytail and put on bright pink lipstick. Andy opened the door. He’d gelled his hair back, and she smirked at the white strip across the top of forehead where the sunburn hadn’t reached.
‘Rob’s crying. He’s missing Mum already. What a baby!’ He gaped at Lisa.
Inside the cramped space, the heat was stifling; the sweaty PVC odour of four males cooped up in a caravan. Sweat prickled at the back of her neck, under her hair. She put her hand on Rob’s shoulder and his sobbing quietened.
Pete was sitting at the cluttered plastic table, pouring from a bottle. ‘Gin and tonic, peeps?’ Playing cards were laid out in fans in front of him. ‘Andy, you really must beat me at Rummy next time.’
Andy fumed. ‘Shouldn’t we be going?’
‘Yes, Pete, you’re a bad influence.’ Her dad stood up from the bench, wobbling, in his white chinos, and downed his gin. The familiar cloying waft of sandalwood caught in her nose. ‘And you girls are late! Come on, you rabble, your mother’s got a lot to answer for.’
Pete giggled, rising up. ‘I didn’t know John had such a temper on him.’ His tight shirt strained at the buttons, large damp patches creeping from his armpits, and his shorts flared out at the knee. ‘You young ladies look nice.’
The six of them clambered into her dad’s rental car, a large brown Citroen. She and Lisa climbed into the two extra seats right at the back, where the car was low to the ground. After a minute of idling, the back of the car rose majestically, like a waking beast lifting its haunches, ready to chase its next meal.
‘It’s Citroen’s pneumatic suspension,’ Andy turned to them from the middle row. ‘It makes the drive ultra-smooth.’
Andy liked to recite facts, especially about car engines or skateboard ballbearings. She ignored him and stared out of the window. Her dad always drove too fast and now he was well over the limit; they sped past vineyards and almost spun around the steep hairpin bends to the old village of Ramatuelle, perched up high on a ridge. She held onto the seat in front of her. After they’d parked by the crumbling stone wall along the edge of the village, Lisa took out her pocket camera, and asked her to take a photo of her. She posed with her hands on her hips, pink lips in a pout, against the backdrop of pastel houses, with their shuttered windows, and narrow, cobbled streets.
Inside Chez Victor, a handful of tables were crowded together in one room under a low, stone ceiling. Theirs was the largest in the middle, around it a few small tables with couples bent forward, murmuring in conversation.
‘Bienvenue!’ There were kisses on cheeks as Victor, the chef, welcomed them. ‘John, this is your beautiful family? C’est fantastique!’ His blonde hair was tied into a ponytail and as he put his arm around Lisa’s waist, she saw the top of his denim shirt flap open to reveal a smooth, brown chest with a central tuft of hair above his striped apron. ‘Your daughter is charmante!’
‘No, that one’s not mine. She’s the miserable one over there.’ Her dad laughed, pointing at her, and she felt her shoulders tighten. When they sat down, she noticed a woman with a creased face and bleached hair at the next table had kicked off her gold sandal and was stroking the leg of the younger man opposite with her bare foot. A small flufffy dog sat on her lap.
‘Our special today is Bouillabaisse,’ said Victor. ‘It is a traditional provençal fish stew…’
‘Yes, yes. That’s marvellous, I’ll have that.’ Her dad was swaying in his chair, a confused look competing with an attempted smile at Victor. More orders were taken: moules marinières, steak au poivre.
‘Are you still a bloody vegetarian?’
‘Of course.’ She was pleased that it irritated him like mad.
‘Jesus Christ! There’s nothing vegetarian in a French restaurant!’
‘Je fais quelque chose de spécial pour toi.’ Victor winked.
‘And some wine. Wine for everyone.’ He picked up the wine list. ‘Er..you choose for us Victor, one of your best from the Var.’ And she knew then it was trouble. He always read the wine list.
‘I want a coke.’ Rob looked worried.
‘Rob’s only 10, Dad, he can’t drink alcohol,’ she said.
‘Nonsense, all French kids drink wine.’
‘Surely we should start with a Pastis, John?’ said Pete. ‘When in St Trop and all that, chin, chin.’
She and Lisa gulped their wine as they waited for the food. Pete kept refilling their glasses. Her Dad was swilling the ice in his milky Pastis. ‘Here, do you like aniseed?’ He put the glass to her lips, and she smelled liquorice fumes. ‘Don’t sniff it, drink it! You’re like one of your mother’s cats!’ She took a sip, felt a burn at the back of her mouth.
Their meals arrived, and Lisa tucked into her steak, blood from the rare meat spilling into the brown sauce. She had been served some kind of endive salad. Rob, next to her, was quiet. He’d obediently drunk half of his wine but he hadn’t touched his mussels.
‘Are you OK, Rob?’
‘I feel sick.’
‘Dad, Rob feels sick.’
‘Oh, he’s just a bloody Mummy’s boy.’
‘Maybe he’s got sunstroke.’ She put her hand on his forehead. ‘He feels a bit sweaty.’
‘Nonsense, he’s just a sissy. Have some more wine, Rob!’
‘I’m going to be sick.’
She grabbed Rob’s arm and led him outside, and he vomited down the stone wall. She patted his back as he retched, looking down into the dark valley. It was night now but on the horizon, she could make out a swab of mist hanging over the sea. The heat was still close, and the pulsing rhythm of the cicadas sounded like one giant creature panting into her ear, and she felt her own stomach turn. Rob vomited again.
‘Now he has been sick,’ she announced when they went back in. Rob slumped into his chair. Everyone had finished eating except her dad. He was trying to cut his steak and his knife slid, slopping brown sauce onto the red-checked tablecloth.
‘She spoils him. She’s always bloody spoilt him.’
Rob started crying.
‘Dad, he’s not well.’
‘He should have stayed at home with his bloody mother.’
‘Leave him alone. Please.’
‘Don’t you dare tell me what to do!’ He raised his fork and held it there in the air.
She thought of backing down, like she always did, but the wine pushed her on. ‘He’s only little. You’re making him cry.’
‘And who do you think you are? Who’s paying for this meal then?’
‘I’m only telling you he’s not well.’
‘And I’m telling you to shut up.’
He slammed the fork back down on the table. No one spoke. Then Pete piped up. ‘John, come on, what are you doing?’ He still sounded chirpy. ‘We’ve had a lovely meal here, enjoying the vino.’ He poured more wine into their glasses.
‘What? You’re telling me what to do as well now, are you?’
‘John, look at your children. What lovely children, you should be proud.’
‘Proud? What the hell do you know about raising a family? You haven’t even got one…’
‘John, now come on…’
‘You can just bugger off the lot of you.’
She looked at Lisa, who was fiddling with her ponytail next to her and saw the creased woman was staring at them from her table. Her dog started yapping. Victor appeared.
‘Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? John, why are you shouting?’
‘They’re a bunch of ungrateful bastards.’
‘Tu dis quoi, alors! Come, my restaurant is for good food, not to shout.’ Victor laid on a hand on her dad’s shoulder.’ ‘You must relax!’
He yanked his hand away. ‘Don’t tell me to fucking relax!’
‘Ok! I will bring you the bill now.’ Victor walked away, holding his hands up as if in surrender.
She looked at Andy opposite her, his arms were crossed on the table. He hadn’t said a word yet. Their eyes met, signalling to each other the familiarity of their joint hell. It was the only thing they had in common. He looked away and then she heard him, shouting: ‘Dad, you are an embarrassment. You are a fucking idiot!’
Her dad glared at him, then with a puzzled glaze in his eyes, swung back round to her again. ‘What did you come here for? Why don’t you just get out of my sight? You’re just like your bloody mother.’
She looked down at her empty plate, at the leftover blobs of vinaigrette. She found Lisa’s arm under the table and gripped it but Lisa pulled away, scraped her chair back and ran off towards the toilets. She caught sight of her talking to Victor outside the door.
When Lisa returned, they filed out into the night, leaving her Dad to settle the bill, and stood in a line against the stone wall. He marched past, refusing to look their way, and bent over the car door, fiddling with the key in the lock. He was the only one who could drive. They climbed in and as he lurched the car forward, he hadn’t waited for the suspension to rise and there was a loud, scraping sound underneath them. He pushed a cassette into the player and raised the volume, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons blared out, violin bows sawing to a crescendo. Somehow they made it back down the winding roads. They sat without speaking, clutching their seats, bouncing in the pillowy suspension.
At the campsite parking, Pete stumbled off towards the caravan with her brothers. As she walked away with Lisa, her dad called out to her. She turned. He was standing by the car, still swaying, and he pointed at her: ‘I disown you as a daughter.’
Outside the tent, she and Lisa sat smoking the cigarettes they’d bought with her dad’s Francs. She stabbed the butt out on the ground, threw it under the tree.
‘I’m sure he didn’t mean it.’
‘Your dad would never say that to you.’
‘My dad’s never at home, is he?’ Lisa stood up, and brushed the pine needles off her dress. ‘At least we got lots of wine.’ She climbed into the tent.
She picked up a pine needle and scraped it slowly up the length of her arm.
She lay awake in the humid night, Lisa’s curled back melted into her side. She hadn’t told her about the last night in Cognac. Jean-Claude had dropped her off at the campsite on his scooter, as Lisa and Pierre were staying up for a last goodbye. She’d felt a tension in his waist as she clung to him along the unlit stretch of road through the forest. They’d stood outside the tent. His face was shadowed by the dark, but she could see his hair straggly around his neck. He’d bent down and unzipped the tent and beckoned to her. She’d hesitated but then she was inside, and they kissed and lay down on top of the sleeping bags. He quickly pulled down his denim shorts and kissed her again, leaning heavily on her while trying to manoeuver her knickers down under her dress. She drew her mouth away, put a hand flat on his chest. ‘Quoi?’ His voice was gruff. She began to answer but he stopped her with his mouth. She grabbed onto his shoulders and tried to push him off but he clamped her leg sideways with his knee and the knicker elastic dug into her ankle. She felt a fumbling and then the force of his hips shocked her. His face was now turned away, and her head banged rhythmically against the suitcase. She closed her eyes and tried to picture the stars outside the tent, big and bright in the ink-black sky.
When he rolled off her, she crawled out of the tent, pulled her dress down and ran barefoot to the shower block, dodging the guy ropes which were just visible in the moonlight. She washed herself out with the icy water from the tap, the cold numbing her inside. Finally, an unclear anger rose in her, and she didn’t know if she was angry with him or with herself. When she returned, water dripping down her legs, he was standing outside the tent. He tousled her hair, said goodbye, and she watched as the scooter puttered up the campsite path then turned and sped off down the dark forest road.
She walked onto the beach, Lisa in front of her, flip-flops in one hand, her straw basket slung over her shoulder. The midday sun was already bearing down, and the deep sand fell away with each step, making her calves ache with the effort. She’d thought about calling her mum from the campsite phone box but she knew all she would say was that he was just impossible, and she would hear her mother’s relief at being in another country.
They found an empty spot near the back of the beach.
‘Do you think your dad’ll come looking for us, then?’
‘I don’t know.’ She looked across the crowds for the Stella Artois umbrella but couldn’t spot it. They were getting the overnight train back home that evening, anyway.
After they sat down, Lisa wrote out a postcard to Pierre. It showed a photo of Club 55, glamorous couples sipping champagne under billowing canvas, a wide blue sea behind them. She lay back on her towel and closed her eyes, the sunlight a scarlet tinge behind her lids.
‘Brigitte Bardot, Brigitte Bardot!’
There was a tickle on her tummy, and she opened her eyes to find the scraggy beach seller bending over her, a caramelised nut poking out from her belly button.
She sat up and reached for her purse. ‘Oui, un paquet, s’il vous plaît.’
As she looked out to sea, the hard caramel cracked on her fillings. Dry pieces of nut stuck in the corners of her mouth.