It is the 11 November 1918, in Calais. Since eleven o’clock in the morning, that extraordinary moment when all of the town’s bells started ringing to announce the end of the war, an over-excited crowd has been running through the streets waving flags and singing La Marseillaise, La Madelon or Tipperary. People are crying, people are laughing, people are embracing each other, people are drinking to victory. People are dancing on street corners, calling out “Death to Wilhelm!” and “Long live Clemenceau!”…
In this mad crowd, there are two people who don’t know each other yet, but Destiny will suddenly bring them face to face, and they will be called to live the most extraordinary, the most astounding adventure…
His name is Michel Davel. He is twenty years old and a simple sailor. Her name is Rose-Mary Adrian. She is blonde, she has blue eyes, she is ravishing, she is seventeen. She lives with her parents in a big house surrounded by a park, on the edge of Calais. Her father is English, her mother is French. She speaks both of their languages fluently.
Michel is alone in the crowd, but Rose-Mary is accompanied by three female cousins, four to five years older than she. All four have pinned red, white and blue rosettes and minuscule British flags on their coats or berets. Arms linked, they approach a little improvised dance where couples are dancing to the tune Viens, Poupoule. This is where Michel, in the crowd watching the dancers, suddenly notices Rose-Mary. He is fascinated by such charm, such fragility, such blondness. And because, on this day, everything is allowed, he approaches, takes the young girl’s arm, and asks her to dance.
Amused, she turns her head. He is a sailor, a pretty boy, it’s Victory: she follows him willingly, very proud to have been chosen.
As soon as they start to dance, they feel themselves invaded by an emotion that neither had ever known. And exactly like in those Middle Ages stories where a princess and a knight suddenly find themselves tied together by a charm, they suddenly fall madly in love with one another…
When the music stops, the sailor takes Rose-Mary back to her cousins; but he doesn’t leave her. He has decided that he will never leave her, ever. One of the young girls asks Rose-Mary if the gentleman is going to remain with them. She answers simply “Yes!”
The whole group plunges back into the crowd. The three cousins in front, Rose-Mary and Michel behind, hand in hand, revelling in a strange pleasure which is making them a little lightheaded…
They see each other again the next day, the day after that, and every day. And one evening, Rose-Mary announces to her parents that she wants to get married.
Mr Adrian makes enquiries about Michel and learns that the young man has “neither fortune nor expectations”… So, like in a Paul Bourget novel, he categorically opposes the marriage, and absolutely forbids his daughter to see “that boy” again.
Rose-Mary is grief-stricken. She sobs, she no longer wants to live. She becomes ill. After a few weeks, Mr Adrian has an idea:
“To help you get better, we are going to leave France. We will go to live in Australia. Over there, you will make new acquaintances and you will forget in the end… Believe me, I am speaking the language of wisdom. Mesalliances have never given happy marriages!”
One month later, the Adrian family leaves Calais and goes to settle in Australia. And the years pass by. But Rose-Mary remains faithful to Michel. She refuses all offers of marriage, all boyfriends, all suitors. And there are a lot of them around this intelligent, beautiful, rich girl.
At the beginning of 1935, she is thirty-four when her parents die from an epidemic. She then leaves Perth and goes to live in Melbourne. And that is where, one morning, in the street, she suddenly finds herself face to face with a man who stops her and cries out her name. This voice that she would have recognized anywhere, almost makes her faint. She murmurs “Michel!”
However, she has trouble recognizing the face of the little sailor from 1918. In seventeen years, he has changed. He seems taller; his face is even different: the jaw is wider and the blue eyes are darker than before… But he is speaking, and she hears again his accent from France’s North, his expressions, his laugh.
He pulls her into a cafe and, for an hour, they evoke their memories. The images that he resuscitates touch her deeply, for he remembers everything: from the dress that she was wearing on 11 November 1918, to the colour of her beret, the little flags that she had pinned to it, the music to which they had danced, what he said to her while accompanying her home that evening, a piano that was playing in the night when he kissed her for the first time, their secret meetings on the following days, a sonnet that she had written for him and that he still knows by heart, a song that they sang together. He has forgotten nothing!… She asks him what he is doing there.
“I’m a docker in the port of Melbourne since last year… My English is so bad that I couldn’t find anything better…”
She asks him when he had arrived in Australia.
“My answer is going to astonish you: I don’t know. I had an accident on 12 August last. I was picked up on the side of the road with a skull fracture and taken to hospital. When I woke up, there was a big shadowy zone in my memory… And you?”
Rose-Mary recounts her life with her parents. Michel learns that she is still not married, and proposes.
They are married the following month. Rose-Mary gets Michel – in spite of his bad English – into a business run by a friend of her father, and they are happy, a fairy-tale happiness, for thirteen years…
But, one evening in 1948, Michel, who had been absent for two days, returns home looking so upset that his wife rushes to him and asks him what has happened.
Michel remains silent for a long time. Then he speaks. And Rose-Mary looks at him in astonishment, for he is speaking in perfect English. And this is what he says:
“Rose-Mary… I have just discovered a frightening thing… I am not Michel…”
To be continued.