We’ve left the countryside behind us, my heart is beating and the sun is scorching my skin already.
The city of Marseille is before us.
I realise with a start, that I am technically home. In the South of France. The scent of the city hits me hard, so unlike the scent of the ocean on Delos or the green of the countryside when I had been camping.
It was only the night previous when I had been camping out in the middle of the countryside. Edouard had found the perfect place for us. I don’t know why, but I was dubious. I’ve never been a good camper.
“You’ll love it, Lizzy,” he reassured me excitedly.
But that night I found myself wrapped up in a tent in the middle of a wood, by a stream, on a beach. Next to the ruins of an ancient building. I sat there, stunned and beyond even recognising my surroundings as Edouard stepped from the lake, water dripping from him as he knelt down, poured me a glass of wine and started to light a fire.
I stared at him as the flames started to flicker, the orange and red casting him in a fiery glow as I sipped on my red wine.
This is insane I thought. This is actually insane. I’m living a life that is currently some women’s fantasy.
Edouard looked up at me and smiled, tearing off some freshly made bread, smearing some of Mémé’s delicious home made paté on it and handed it to me.
I took it without a word as he continued to put more wood on the fire.
I was one lucky woman, that was for sure.
The next morning was met with a late lie in and a swim in the lake. The waters were black , the shadows from the trees surrounding us as the fish swam around my feet. The cold took my breath away as I forced myself to take one step after another. Edouard had just ran in, whooping and shouting as he submerged himself beneath the deep.
“Please don’t push me in,” I said, putting my hands up as if in surrender. “I take more time!”
My dad since I was a child would chase me around the beach to throw me into the water, to a point when I saw him start running towards me, I would fling myself in the waves instead.
But Edouard didn’t take another step forwards, content to watch me as I swam within the stream.
This is a new beginning, I told myself. This is a new life for you, Elizabeth. Wash away everything in this lake. This is a new step for you. Take everything you’ve learned and leave everything you don’t want to carry anymore in the stream.
So I left it there. I imagined the water washing everything away. I wanted to be new. I wanted to be reborn. It’s been a strange thing moving to the South of France. I don’t know why but I always expected myself to go back to Nuneaton and maybe meet someone in a bar. That’s how things would have gone, right? That had been my fear. To have an unextraordinary life. I wanted to create a story for myself.
And here I was.
I stepped out of that stream, leaving behind what I no longer wanted to carry. I stepped out of there feeling more like me than I ever had before. I had made peace with so many things that it was a wonderful sensation within my heart. Instead of pretending that I wasn’t this or I wasn’t that- to accept all of those things was a relief.
That there was no need to feel shame. Or to be self conscious. This was who and how I was.
Time and experience really are healers.
After taking our time in packing up the tent, we started our breakfast at a beautiful pub in the village with a glass of rose and a salad packed with ham, bread and cheese.
It was amazing just taking our time in the countryside- we didn’t know when we would be back again. Winter would soon be approaching and the land would be getting colder. I didn’t fancy swimming naked in streams around then.
Soon we were back on the road, the countryside leaving us as the hours went on. It was inevitable that industrial landscapes started to fill our vision.
“Marseille is just on the other side of this tunnel,” Edouard said excitedly. “And we will drink with my brother and Nici tonight!”
I grinned, excited. It was exciting for me to meet the rest of Edouard’s family. I had heard already a lot about his brother and wondered what he would be like.
“He was the best brother to me,” Edouard had said one time. “He never told me to go away, always spent time with me and played games all the time. He was always happy for me to spend time with him and his friends. He was the best.”
I could hear it in his voice. Back on Ascension I remembered him talking about his brother’s 30th birthday party. He had been so disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to make it. I suppose he had expected to be able to make it on time, if the runway on Ascension Island had been in operation. So I knew it was important to him to spend some quality time with his brother. He had been travelling for so long around the world that he had missed so many birthdays, Christmases and meals together.
“It’s time to be still for a while,” he had said to me back in Paris. “I’m looking forward to it. And I will write my book!”
He wanted to write a book about his sailing adventures. He had kept a diary of it from the beginning, full of diagrams, instructions on the stars and everything else in between with drawings of Malin, the sails and the places they had seen. He had filled almost two books.
“And will you write about Ascension?” I had asked shyly.
“Lizzy!” he admonished. “Of course!” He flipped to a page where it clearly said, ‘Queen Elizabeth.’ I am very sure I blushed.
I thought of my own sister, as I did most days. I had missed out on a year of my nephew’s life but I knew he would understand. I knew I would always encourage him to do what he wanted in his lifetime, encourage his dreams, his adventures. How would I ever be able to live by example if I didn’t walk my own path?
At four years old, he was probably more concerned with his toys and parents than his crazy auntie Lizzy who was travelling around the world.
“Where are you now?” he would ask me, frowning as I called him on Facetime.
“I’m in France!”
“Have you seen any sharks?”
And then would come the conversation of how many animals I had seen, how big they were and what their names were. I couldn’t wait to go back to see my family in November. For my sister’s birthday I had bought her tickets to see a Shakespearean play in Stratford Upon Avon in November, and the time was fast approaching.
“It’s time for you to come home,” she told me.
But I didn’t know where ‘home’ was anymore. “I’ll come back for a few weeks, yes,” I said.
“So, are you staying in France now?”
I could hear it in her voice. I knew she wanted me to come home, but I knew she was also glad that at least I was in Europe.
“At least I’m only a few hours flight away,” I said sheepily. “But, this is what most people dream of. I’m going to live in the South of France. I’m working for Delos of whom I love and I’m with the most amazing guy I’ve ever met. I’m really happy.”
But she knew I was. I could remember when we were back on Ascension and I was first telling her about Edouard.
“I don’t want you to get your heart broken again,” she said warningly. “I think you just need to come home and get settled.”
But I knew there and then that I wanted to be with Edouard. Even if I had only known him for five days at the time. Even if I would have to wait for two months before I saw him again. He had made me feel like I was something precious. Like I had finally found my missing piece.
I couldn’t let that go without a fight.
And here I was, in an old car with him by my side, happily talking about all of the projects he wanted to do in Marseille.
I smiled, feeling a burst of happiness and excitement in my chest.
The tunnel came and went, the horizon burst with the sunlight escaping from behind a mountain and there the old town of Marseille sat. A mixture of ancient buildings built shoulder by shoulder, it was a cluttered mix of old and new, graffiti stained walls, noble statues and 1700’s buildings reaching upwards like flowers greedy for the sun.
I’m going to live here, I thought, stunned. I’m actually going to live here!
And so, the girl from a small town who had been living on a boat for the past six months was plunging herself in city life. It had been seven years since I had last lived in a city and I wasn’t sure how the hustle and bustle of life was going to affect me.
But I was excited for a fresh start, a new life, a new opportunity to take everything I had learned and put it to the test.
And I was going to do it with Edouard.