Cut to the End
Cafe Au Lait
Earphones are an effective device for blotting out the rest of the world. My mother stands in my room, opening and shutting her mouth like a goldfish. ‘Switch that thing off,’ she says, and I wonder how I know that. Can I do telepathy now? With my mum? This is scary, so much so I switch off my iPod, even though I am in the middle of ‘Neutron Star Collision’ by Muse, which is truly amazing.
‘We’re on holiday, Matthew. In France. You can listen to your music at home. Now, are you ready?’
‘I told you. I'm not going.’
‘Come on, love. We’re all ready to set off. Dad and Steph are waiting. We’re going to have a nice family day out.’
‘At a museum?’
‘You’ll like it when you get there.’
‘Why would I want to go to a D-Day museum? Why do you, Mum?’
‘It’ll be very interesting.’ She sits down on my unmade bed and then stands up again. ‘Come on. You can't stay here by yourself.’
‘I'm all right.’
‘No.’ She draws in her breath and blows it out again. ‘It’s so stuffy in here. You never open windows, do you?’ Her face has become flushed, droplets of water forming on her forehead.
The sun pours through the dusty casement; a river of sweat trickles down the cleft of my spine, making my black t-shirt cling like a damp cloth to my back and to the sticky patch on my wrist.
‘Change into something cooler, Matthew. Black absorbs the heat. I packed you a couple of light-coloured Ts.’
I wince at the word ‘Ts’; is that what they call them in M&S? Anyway, black is what I wear: black T-shirts, black jeans, black hoody, black hair dye. ‘I'm all right,’ I say again.
We both hear Dad shouting outside, something about a bottle having leaked and ‘made a mess’ in the car. Mum goes out to speak to him, but my sister Steph appears in her place, as if the two are working shifts. ‘Move it, Matthew. Now. They’re waiting.’
‘You don’t want to go to this museum.’
‘I do, actually.’
‘Why? You’re not Dad. You’re not into war films and all that death and glory stuff. I'm joining CND.’
‘Can you afford the membership fee? You owe Mum £5 for the last gig you went to. Just get your arse into Dad’s car.’ She reaches for my hand, pushing back the cuff of my black T-shirt.
‘Leave me alone.’ Snatching my hand back, I pull my sleeve down over my wrist.
‘What have you done?’
Her eyes scan my room, but my safety pin lies deep in my jeans pocket.
‘I scratched myself on the brambles in the yard.’
‘Yeah, right.’ She looks straight at me but I turn away.
‘If you insist on not going and spoiling everybody’s day, I'm staying with you.’
I suppose I always knew I'd have to give in eventually. I rummage around under my bed for my trainers. ‘I don't know why you come on a family holiday. You’re a student.’
‘I haven't got any money, have I? And Mum and Dad offered to pay for me.’
‘When I'm nineteen, I'll be on the road with my metal band.’
I bump my head on the kitchen door lintel as I walk outside. It hurts. Being tall is annoying.
‘Would you like to sit in the front with me, Matthew?’ asks Dad, as he attempts to fold up the map, but the gentlest of breezes flaps it around his hands like a duvet-cover on a rotary-drier. Taking it from him, Mum smoothes it out in a few firm movements, all the time talking to Steph about how many calories there might be in pain au chocolat.
‘I don’t mind.’ I sit in the back with Steph.
‘All aboard for Arromanches and the D-Day Museum,’ says Dad as he starts the engine.
I cringe. So does Steph.
We drive along straight French roads, through pine forest, families sitting at picnic tables, children running around amongst the trees and scrambling over stumps and logs, as Steph and I used to do in England. For a moment, I feel the springy bracken under my feet, bits of bark in my shoe and dusty mud between my toes. Afterwards we would eat squashed, peanut butter sandwiches, clammy and glue-y, washed down with a little box of Sainsbury’s pure orange juice.
Having parked in one of the many car parks at Arromanches, we walk along the promenade, gulls ‘caw-caw-ing’ above our heads. Then Dad stops dead, thrusting his arm out in front of him, almost knocking off Steph’s sunglasses. ‘Look. Look. Mulberry Platforms.’ He turns to me. ‘You do realise how significant these were, don't you?’ Before I can even draw breath, he tells me - again - about Hugh Iorys Hughes building portable landing platforms so that the Allies could invade France. Blah, blah, blah.
It’s like a demolition site, lumps of rusting metal and concrete on the beach and in the sea. French families swim around them, using them as diving platforms and spreading their beach towels over them. It’s a hot day.
‘Hugh Iorys Hughes was Welsh by the way.’ Dad’s mother is from the Valleys. He bigs this up, has done ever since the World War Two craze took him over.
We have to wait in a queue to enter The D-Day Museum, alongside wall-displays of uniforms stiff with age, yellowed wartime notices in blotchy typescript, gas masks, photographs of men with round, horn-rimmed glasses and brylcremed hair, standing behind bulky pieces of equipment. ‘Fascinating, fascinating,’ says Dad, pushing his glasses down his nose. I move my weight from one foot to the other. It’s all so old, a miasma of Dad-ness. My wrist throbs under new scars. I notice that my cuff sticks to newly dried blood.
Mum and Steph stand together chatting, pointing at things and laughing. They have this joke about generals in war films moving canes over maps and saying in cut-glass accents, ‘We’re-ah here-ah. The enemy’s there-ah. And we’re going to obliterate the blight-ahs.’ It was funny the first time.
Inside the museum at last, a bald-headed Frenchman talks through the events of D-Day, pointing with a ruler at a papier-mache model of Arromanches. ‘Nous sommes ici, ici, et ici, et les Nazis, voila!’ Mum and Steph dissolve into giggles; every so often they press their lips together and look serious, but seconds later their mouths pucker again. Whose side are they on?
I glance at Dad, but he’s so caught up in it all that he doesn't notice, which is perhaps as well. For a while I'm really pissed off with them. We’re doing this for Dad, aren’t we? It’s his thing, isn't it? But the museum goes on and on, more and more rooms and exhibits, another storey, yet another video. Dad has to see everything.
At last, lunch, open air and sunshine, cafe table legs scraping against the pavement. The waitress furrows her brow as Dad orders in English; he gets cross when she brings tiny cups of espresso, instead of what he calls ‘proper coffee’. I tighten my knuckles under the table. Mum leans across the table murmuring, ‘Grand’, but Dad shakes his head at her. ‘Bigger.’ He draws his hands apart as if he were playing the accordion. ‘And... With.... Milk.’
‘Cafe au lait,’ I say to my feet.
‘What’s that, Matthew?’ Dad turns on me, raising his eyebrows.
‘Better not be.’ As we finish eating, he takes another brochure out of his pocket and opens it out on the table. ‘Now, the ‘Arromanches 360 Cinema’. It says here that ‘This circular theatre with nine screens shows the film ‘The Price of Freedom’, which mixes contemporary news-reel images from war correspondents with pictures from the present day. There is no spoken commentary, just the sounds and noise of D-Day.’’
I don’t say anything. All I do is curl my lip about a millimetre.
Dad leaps out of his chair and storms out the cafe, leaving Mum to pay. In the car park, he shouts at me, ‘What’s the matter with you? What were you going to do this morning that was so much more interesting?’
Dad’s furious eyes bore a hole into my face. ‘Well?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Why are you like this? What do you want?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know! You don’t know anything!’ I jerk my head backwards; it’s what I always do when I'm told off, even though it’s uncomfortable. ‘Get into the car! You will see this!’
In dreadful silence we drive about a mile, to a bunker-like building half-submerged in cliff top. I wander away from the others, across the grass area which slopes down to the sea, grateful for the offshore breeze blowing on to my face. An elderly couple smile at me and say something in French. They must think I'm normal, but my wrist still smarts. I touch the safety pin in my pocket.
Inside the ‘Arromanches 360 Cinema’, it’s standing-room only, with metal crash barriers, like an old fashioned football ground, but our family and that elderly French couple make up the whole audience. The screen extends almost all round the auditorium, so when the lights go out, images of D-Day bear down upon us from everywhere, truly 360 degrees, soldiers in khaki and the tat-tat-tat of gunfire, buildings dissolving in smoke and fire, the view from an aircraft with the ground rising up and down. Makes you dizzy. I reach out for the metal crash barrier. Dad jerks his head round to stare at me.
They ride through a field, which changes into a modern town. Germans in grey uniforms surrender to teenage Allied soldiers, watched by ragged French villagers, who cheer and cry at the same time. In the auditorium, I hear a gulp: the elderly French couple are sobbing, easy tears flowing down their cheeks unchecked. She taps me on the arm and points to her chest, saying in stilted English, ‘Me, I... was... here.’
I nod, my father also; he draws in his breath to say something in reply but doesn't.
More images of Allied soldiers now, scared faces under their round metal helmets, dirty and exhausted. For a moment I think I recognise one of the sixth-formers at school. Seventy years ago, this is what sixth-formers looked forward to. This would have been me if I had lived in the 1940s.
My father is still watching me, but I don't care. It’s all too much, in the same way that listening to ‘The End’ by ‘The Doors’ blows your mind, because you know you can never create anything as big, never do what they do, only glimpse at something massive. With my finger, I trace the outline of that safety pin, the loop at the bottom, the rounded catch at the top. The soldiers’ faces have scratches on their faces, but they didn't do it to themselves, because they were bored, or because their family weren’t cool.
We leave the ‘Arromanches 360 Cinema’ in silence, Dad walking on ahead of us, his shoulders sagging, his head cast down. I quicken my pace, about to join him, but he doesn't look at me.
‘Let's have another coffee,’ says Mum, forcing a smile.
‘No,’ mutters Steph, ‘not that again.’
Nevertheless we follow her across the road to the nearest cafe. Leaving them hovering outside, I walk into the gloomy interior, pushing past wooden chairs with tired paint and bare tables with just ashtrays on them. A waiter polishes glasses behind the bar, his eyes intent on the television in the corner, watching a games show with lots of canned laughter.
‘Café du lait, s’il vous plait,’ I say. ‘Quatre.’
Nodding, he reaches over to the coffee machine. ‘A la table?’
I rejoin my family outside. Dad peruses one of the leaflets we picked up today, pages rustling as he turns them. Mum and Steph have stopped chattering; I wish they’d say something. Anything. The sound of my heart pumping blood around my body is deafening, throbbing through the scratches on my wrist, which have reached the smarting, sore stage. I pull down my sleeve.
Then Dad raises his head. Simultaneously Mum, Steph and I draw in our breath and hold it.
‘You’ve ordered?’ Dad says.
‘Yeah,’ I reply, exhaling again.
‘Well done.’ He smiles. ‘You’re a good linguist, you are.’ He holds the smile until his face muscles must've ached. He looks down at what he had been reading, then at me again. ‘What did you...? How did you...?’ He taps the brochure.
‘It was okay.’
Still smiling, he nods. ‘Yes. It was okay. Wasn't it?’
On the way back to the car, I throw the safety pin into the gutter.
Charlie Britten has contributed to ‘FictionAtWork’, ‘The Short Humour Site’, ‘Mslexia’, ‘Linnet’s Wings’, CafeLit, ‘Radgepacket’. She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.
All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element. Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.
Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.
Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/