A huge, red, crayfish and I regard one another. It lies on a worn and scarred wooden board, its salty armour defying my initial taps with the mallet.
Next to me, with an expert strike and sharp CRACK a huge crab yeilds its juicy white meat to Edna. Wine is being poured, claws prised open, crustacea devoured. I'm somewhat dazed to find myself where I am, in a tiny Normandie seaside town with some of my favourite people in the world. Paris, with its recent dramas, is a safe three hours away. I'm out of its gravitational field, feeling like an escaped prisoner. Exhaustion, exhileration, relief.
I pick up my mallet again. Tap tap tap. The cray is not impressed. O see's my problem."Hit it!" he demands. Tap. "Harder!" Tap, TAP "come on!" CRACK! "Good"
With every vicious CRACK Paris is further away.
CRACK! problems are less
CRACK! life is easier
CRACK! my shoulders relax
CRACK! I am laughing
CRACK! I have seafood in my hair
The unpredictable percussion of mallets on stubborn crustacea makes table-wide conversation impossible, restricting it to laughter and exclamation as our meal adorns the salad, the table, our neighbours plates.
"This is why you should never eat seafood in a restaurant" Edna laughs. Especially not a Parisian restaurant, I think, with all of its control, etiquette and reserve. Not for Paris, we hammer-weilding heathens who drink red with seafood, serve salad by the handful and cram the firm, salty meat into our mouths.
Clean, smog-free sunlight creeps through the large windows, onto the rug, the edge of my bed, and eventually my blinking face. Everything in this childhood holiday home, from the linen in the cupboards to the well-worn couches and rows of children's rain-coats, musty from age, speak of memories. Of family dinners, wood fires, beach combing, late nights of conversation, fishing trips, growing children. The solid wooden floors sound like security and feel like family, and I, the youngest of the group of mostly couples am happy to be a child again. Out here, in the country, you can. You can shout, you can laugh your ass off. You can wear whatever you like, and eat however you like. You can make a lot of noise, and you can be blissfully, utterly alone.
It's so bright. We scamper along the goat path at the top of the cliff, the blue, blue sea crashing into the beach way below us. There are no clouds, only a huge dome of sky and rugged, green country behind us. The strong wind tosses our hair and pulls insistently on our coats. We roam and roam.
Our path takes us down to the D-Day beaches where we clamber over the smooth stones, big enough to heft in your palm. Amid the history of bloody struggles, cairns are hastily set, and just as quickly demolished by a volley of stones we gleefully chuck from the ledge. Edna and I walk to the freezing cold water and put our feet in, yelping and jumping about as it nips our shocked winter toes. We marvel at the solid, wet sound of rocks rolling back and forth, back and forth over the beach with each successive wave. I suddenly remember being in Switzerland, almost three years ago, listening to river-bed pebbles and pondering my future. I'm where I dreamed of being then, but no life change is without some trauma, and even though the set is different, some knotty plotlines, like love, persist.
I pick my way back to the others and fling another stone.
It's a dark inviting night. Half the party departs for an apero with the local fisherman, the king of crustacea. Much, much later they explode back into the house, red-cheeked and full of laughter, cheer and calvados. When the pourer has the thick, strong hands of a professional net-puller, a finger of liquor is a formidable thing.
We shout and laugh and bang on the tables to punctuate our arguments. We cry with laughter and slap our thighs and the brick walls and still night air easily absorb it all. Again the seafood is ravaged, again the wine flows freely, again our clothes become smokey as the night stretches like elastic and there is nowhere we have to go, no-one we have to see.
The blue skies don't last, but we do the beach anyway, rain hurling itself at us at right angles. We jump, shouting to be heard and out of surprise as the wind carries us a thrilling foot or so. Tiny crabs hide at the sight of our gumboots, scuttling into wet, rocky crevasses. Maybe they know us, saw the full garbage bag leaning against the wall at the house next to the city of wine bottles. The single tell-tale claw poking out, waving goodbye.
Hurtling through the countryside and back to Paris which despite everything, I do love, I pretend I can still taste the last breath of Normandie air I took before I stepped up into the carriage. In the metro I watch the harried drones zig zagging around me with pity, their faces blank and unfriendly as they stare at their feet in tunnel vision. Unpacking will have to wait, but before I fall asleep I carefully take out six smooth, beautiful beach stones from my bag and arrange them in front of the window.
I am holding one right now. It's some weeks later, and the warm spring sunlight filtering over my keyboard makes me smile. Life is good and Paris is my playground once again, but I still like to toss the stones between my hands. Their reassuringly solid weight is a reminder of the sea, the country and friends. In this strangely insular city, it's a reminder of the outside world, which is there for me beyond the peripherique whenever I should need it.