Arriving at the port of Cherbourg, after travelling 400 miles with a flat battery, the sniffy, moustachioed French official had no sympathy. He told me to coast to ze Apron, and wait.
Dismissed, I sailed the van down, and we got out to stretch our legs in the sunshine, relieved to have arrived. I had driven across France trying not to stop at lights and T junctions, because if we did, we stalled. Then, I had to jump out of the van, black and red snake leads in hand, and hail down drivers, asking them in my atrocious French to jump-start me. I had received a mix of reactions.
“What’s going on there, Mama?” asked Cian, my eight year-old son, pointing to the huge white ferryboat shimmering in the sun. A group of five men dressed in black suits, white shirts, dark ties, and sunglasses were clattering crates of bottles up a ramp. It looked illicit.
“I don’t know. They look like the FBI! Ignore them! Now, what are we going to do for the next four hours?”
I wanted to distract Cian.
“Cian, I know, I’ll teach you to waltz!”
Poor Cian. I’d been trying to teach him throughout the camping holiday but he had fobbed me off. Now he had run out of excuses. He gave in gracefully. We stood face to face.
“It’s three tiny steps on the spot, then a side-step and turn. Lift your weight from one foot to the other.”
I demonstrated. He watched blankly.
“Here, stand on my feet. Arms around my waist. I’ll do the steps and you can get the feel of it.”
Cian was heavy on my toes. He stumbled, over-balanced, and fell.
“Cian, are you trying?”
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and looked straight into the face of one of the ‘FBI’ men.
Oh dear, I thought, I am going to be reprimanded, told to stay in the car. I could see the shape of his eyes behind his shades but I could also see myself reflected in the glass. I looked dishevelled, hot and sweaty. In my head, I began to prepare my excuses, the sentences in French. Officious bureaucracy was the last thing I needed.
“Monsieur… Je m’excuse.”
“Would you like to dance?”
He spoke with a soft Southern Irish accent.
“Would you like me to help you show your son how to waltz?”
“Oh!” I stuttered. “I’m not very good. I can’t really waltz properly. But, why not? Ok. Thank you.”
I turned to Cian, who had gratefully disappeared into the shade of the van. “Hey, Cian, watch this!”
The FBI man took me in his arms, gently, but firmly. My stomach gulped. Slowly, we began to waltz around the apron in the afternoon sunshine. He steered me effortlessly. It felt seamless.
“One, two, three,” I called to Cian over my shoulder, trying to calm and persuade myself that this was perfectly normal. It was a lesson.
I could feel the spread of his fingers in the small of my back as he guided me, our legs entwined. I could not tell which leg was his and which was mine. The hot tarmac beneath my thin sandals felt sticky. I smiled up into his oval-shaped face. His nose was perfect, his red-brown lips thin. He had a gap between his two front teeth. I forgot about Cian.
We splashed into a whirling rhythm, full of ease and grace. Our steps gathered speed. I felt his back ripple under the damp cotton of his shirt. Our movements made us one. I could taste the salt in the air, the breeze on my face. We twirled like a sycamore seed falling from the sky. My laughter echoed the cry of the seagulls.
Then clapping. I heard clapping. The ship’s crew had gathered on the upper deck along the railings to watch. As we swirled, I caught a glimpse of my family standing by the van, looking uncomfortable. I stumbled. He caught me. We stopped. I felt my face burning. My hands were clammy. I let him go and rubbed them on my dress.
Head down, I said quietly, “You’re a wonderful dancer.”
He bent his head to mine; “In the winter nights, my mother pushed back the kitchen table. She taught me all the dance steps. Would you like to two-step or cha-cha?”
I laughed and raised my head. He took off his sunglasses. His blue eyes smiled.
My husband came up and introduced himself, taking over the conversation. The dancer was an Irish Immigration Officer. He assured us he would get our van on board first and make sure it was pushed off in Rosslare. He would show the children the Captain’s cabin.
When the ship’s engines started up, he disembarked. I left the children with my husband and scrabbled up on deck, my stomach turning with the motion of the ship. He was waiting on the quay. We stared until each of us disappeared into the horizon, dreaming.
Kate Ennals has published material in a range of literary journals, including Crannóg, Skylight 47, and The Honest Ulsterman. Her first poetry collection, At The Edge, was published in 2015. She has lived in Ireland for 25 years, runs poetry and writing workshops in County Cavan, and organises At The Edge, Cavan, a literary reading evening, funded by the Cavan Arts Office.
Before doing an MA in Writing at NUI Galway in 2012, Kate worked in local government and the community sector for thirty years, supporting local groups to engage in local projects and initiatives. Her blog is kateennals.com