I’m not sure my memoirs should say exactly what I was doing when they lit up the Mediterranean. Doing it doggy style with a girl called Marianne will be changed to something a little more romantic. Maybe. There is something darkly poetic and spectacular about reaching orgasm just as a nuclear bomb goes off on the horizon behind you. It took me a moment to realise the white flash wasn’t endorphin rush. As night rushed back in we turned to stare at the yellow, fading to grey, mushroom and swore in French and English.
Marianne was an intelligence officer with the French Navy. My merry little band of partisans left me with the Navy when we reached the coast. I’m not sure where they went after that. They were beginning to factionalise by then, some still had families to go back to whilst others still had them to avenge.
Toulon was on a war footing. There was a US fleet somewhere out at sea and nobody really knew what it was going to do. Some worried that it was there to rescue what was left of American forces in France and that there would be a violent charge for the coast any day. Strangers, particularly foreign ones such as I, were regarded with suspicion.
The city wasn’t exactly closed, but we had to charm our way through several checkpoints to get into the centre. By which time news of the Englishman had reached the authorities. We had checked our weapons at the first set of barricades, so we felt naked when faced by a squad of marines outside the central station.
Marianne stood out in her full naval whites. She stepped forward and addressed our group, “Monsieur Robert Jones?”
Several heads turned to me. I pushed my way forward. “Yes?”
“The French government would appreciate some of your time.”
“And they sent an armed guard to persuade me?”
“Yes, they did.” Something about that answer had my guys in stitches. The marines, ever professional, didn’t even allow a twitch of changed expression.
I turned to my scruffy smelly band of counter insurgents. “Gentlemen…..” They saluted me, which made me well up and forget what I had meant to say next.
“Gentlemen,” Marianne stepped up to announce, “We would also appreciate any information you may be able to give us. Once you have been debriefed you will be free to explore the city and until you leave you shall be staying here at the government’s expense.” She motioned to another officer in white who stood beside a mini bus with his own retinue of marines.
I embraced every one of the group as they headed off to their bus, promising to meet up with them before they left town. Then they drove off in the minibus and I never saw them again.
“I am Commander Marianne Villeroche, French Navy. Please come with me.” The marines broke ranks and sauntered off and Marianne led me to a Smart car. “We have a room for you.”
The room was in a five star hotel. The staff didn’t bat an eye as the smelly, dirty tramp was led across the foyer to the lifts. Perhaps it was professional stoicism, or, more likely, war led to many such vagrants actually being high ranking officers or correspondents. The room had more floor space than most of the houses I’d ever rented.
“Are the rest of my squad being put up in such luxury?”
“They are in a good hotel. But, no, it is not as expensive as this. But then, they do not have the English government paying their bill.”
“You should have put me in a suite then.”
“They say the money is coming from profit on your website.”
“Oh, right. Well that’s what I like to see. The government spending my money wisely.”
“If you would like to bathe and shave I shall return in an hour with food.”
An hour later I was loafing around in a bathrobe, enjoying the feeling of being clean and sniffing for wireless with my laptops. True to her word, Marianne arrived with food. Two trolleys full of it. When the silent staff had left she started lifting lids and examining the repast. She had changed out of uniform into a short sky blue summer dress. It was quite a transformation, even her short boyish haircut no longer looked military issue. “I have been trying to get a debriefing detail for so long. The food is much better than on base.”
Her English was impeccable, without the normal French accent to it. “You almost sound more English than I do.” I’d been speaking Franglais for so long I wasn’t sure what I sounded like any more.
“Thank you. I spent five years in an English public school whilst my father was attached to the embassy in London.”
“A diplomat’s daughter? You didn’t want to carry on the tradition?”
“Oh, we are in the same trade. He is army intelligence, though. I joined the navy because the chance to fly was greater.” she shrugged, “But I am my father’s daughter, and my night vision is for shit, so I find myself studying data. Come and help me serve this up and let’s eat.”
After pouring two large glasses of wine and serving up hors d’oeuvres Marianne produced a digital recorder and sat it in the middle of the table. “We’ll talk about what you have seen, what forces the Americans may still have, that sort of thing. If they are to make a break for the coast we may be able to anticipate their debarcation point based upon how many they expect to take off the beach.”
“Of course. And you’ll feed me useful propaganda because you know I have a large readership.”
“If I’m obvious about that please do tell me. I need to know where my craft is weak.” She smiled It was a very attractive smile. Along with the short dress showing off those shapely legs, and its thin material that occasionally disappeared when the light caught it just right, she was distracting me with the sexy. And I wasn’t going to complain.
So we talked, about anything that seemed appropriate. She fed me personal information that I had no reason to doubt and I told her about dead Americans, abandoned vehicles and roving bands of French men intent on revenge. I didn’t mention SAS men, at least not in so many words and not until she brought the subject up. At some point during the third bottle of wine the discourse made its way around to Vanderbrook and his castle on the hill. Then she showed me how to find the porn on my television, kissed me on both cheeks and left. “I shall see you again tomorrow.”
During the night someone broke in and took all my clothes away to be laundered. This destroyed some of them, so someone else went out and bought me replacements. Now that’s service.
With breakfast I received a note, ‘Meet me downstairs, 11am. Marianne.’
She was back in her whites, standing near the door looking serious. Her smile was a little thin when she saw me, though that didn’t register at first. “Here.” she held out a card, “This pass will give you free movement around the town. Not the port though, of course.”
“Thanks.” I studied the laminated card before pocketing it.
“Please. Come with me.”
She led me down to the waterfront and motioned to a bench. She had a shoulder bag, from which she produced a mini tablet pc. As it powered up she explained, “My staff transcribed the recording from last night and checked details.” She stared at the screen as she tapped at it with a stylus. “They found out something about Vanderbrook and his family. It is not good.”
The silence stretched on too long. “They are dead?” I asked, finally.
“They are. There are pictures, but they are…”
I almost snatched the tablet from her, then took the offered stylus more gently.
“The village at the foot of the valley was raided a few days earlier. There was some suspicion the attack was revenge, but the remaining locals were quick to assert their respect- love, even- for their American neighbour.”
I scrolled forward from images of burnt out buildings to one of a body skewered through the neck by a crossbow bolt. “I didn’t know he was armed.”
“Evidently he acquired weapons some time after you visited him. The soldier he killed has been identified as American. However, there were too many of them for him. And, obviously, they were better trained.” The next image was of a charred body. Unrecognisable, but somehow I knew who it was. I scrolled on. “His wife….” I scrolled on again. “And his baby son.” I dropped the tablet. There are some things you don’t need to know or see, and I’d just made myself look at one of them. Marianne picked the tablet up and put it back in her bag. “I am sorry.”
Marianne slid across the bench and embraced me. We stayed silent for a while. “For the next few days you are my responsibility. I can take you and get you terribly drunk if that would help.”
“I don’t think it would. Did you get everything you wanted from me last night? Perhaps you can feed me some useful propaganda whilst we’re about it.”
Her smile was apologetic, “You do have a very large readership.”
We found a cafe with a view out to sea and watched a flotilla form throughout the day. Marianne named the ships for me and I told her more tales of my journeys around France. By the time the first of the fleet was over the horizon we were ready for our evening meal. Marianne turned her recorder off. “I am now off duty. I wonder if you would be kind enough to let me dine with you again tonight?”
“At the hotel? Or do you know a nice little restaurant?”
“The hotel I think. There are certainly better kitchens in town, but at the moment none of them has the connections the hotel has to get the best ingredients.”
“I’m convinced. What time?”
“Eight, I think.”
Back at the hotel I showered again, if only for the luxury of it. Then I composed a piece about watching the fleet set sail. I had never been subject to restrictions on what I could write, so had developed my own code of limited self censorship. In the narrative that made it online I sat by myself checking silhouettes against Janes Fighting Ships but forgetting to name any. I couldn’t bring myself to write anything about Vanderbrook.
The hotel had an interactive ordering system on the television. At the risk of offending the French woman I chose a meal that looked appetising and asked the sommelier to send up a few bottles of suitable wine that wouldn’t bankrupt me.
Marianne arrived spot on eight o’clock. Mlitary timekeeping I suppose. I was composing emails to family and friends, but had time to save them all as Marianne dealt with the equally prompt arrival of food. She was dressed down compared to the night before, in jeans and a light top, but still sexy. She laid a suit bag on an armchair and set to ordering the porters about.
“A good choice of wine.” Marianne complimented, “But an odd selection of dishes.”
“Good seafood isn’t making it inland at the moment , it’s been a while since I had any. And I figured as you’re in the navy you wouldn’t be allergic to it.”
“Not necessarily, but correct in my case. Good health.”
When we started on the second course Marianne announced, “I would like to take you along the coast tomorrow. My commander thinks you should see the defences being prepared against a possible march to the sea.”
“We should start early.”
“So I thought I would stay here tonight.”
She leaned forward, “In your bed.”
She shook her head and tutted, but couldn’t keep from smiling. “Oh the English. So charming yet so shocked when the charm works.”
“Maybe you should have told me this at the dessert course. Now I won’t be able to concentrate on the food.”
“Try not to eat too fast. You’ll get indigestion.”
Much later, lying on the big comfy bed, I had to ask. “Is this good craft, sleeping with your debrief? What would your commander say?”
“My commanding officer is French. What do you think he would say?” Marianne traced the upside down L scar up my rib cage and across my shoulders. “Why did you stay in France? You could have gone home and lived off the royalties on that one picture of Paris or the rest of your life.”
“Maybe not the rest of my life. I haven’t really thought about why I stayed. I was just standing there looking at the queue of Brits waiting to go home and I decided not to be one of them. I wanted to know how things ended.”
“You would know more if you went home and read all the news. On the ground you see so much less of the big picture.”
“You’ve caught me out. I haven’t really analysed it, but I have a horrible feeling I just wanted more of the glory the picture brought me.”
“So you’ll go away in a few days time to see what you can find that will be even bigger and better than Paris.”
“I guess so.”
“Don’t pretend you thought this was anything other than a little bit of pleasure in amongst the chaos Because that is what it is for me. I admire your work and I was so pleased when I met you to find you aren’t obnoxious. So I decided to sleep with you. But in a few days I shall go back to my regular duties and you will start to get the urge to head back inland to where the fighting is. Maybe when this is all over I will be able to tell people I slept with the famous Robert Jones and you can spin tales about the time you bedded a French spy.”
She was right, of course. Before the accident I’d have been mortified with myself for thinking of this as just sex and not a potential relatioship. Now I thought differently. “Well, if we’re going to be telling stories about this we should make them good ones.” I rolled her onto her back and held her hands above her head as I kissed her breasts. The bed head was ornate wrought iron, lots of fake branches to tie things to. “Now, where did I put the belt from the bath robe.”
The suit bag held Marianne’s uniform. With it on she looked so formal. It was hard to imagine all the things we’d done to each other the night before. “We shall get something to eat once we get out of town.” she told me as she ushered me from the room.
The Smart was ideal for getting around a town dealing with a lot of extra, military, traffic. I tried not to look too tense as we dodged through narrow gaps and overtook trucks. “You drive like an Italian.”
“I learnt whilst my father was in Rome.”
We bought breakfast, as promised, when we were out of town. The cafe was close to the beach, doing a brisk trade with the sappers erecting tank traps on the beach. “If they do make a break we don’t expect them to come through this close to Toulon, but the other, more likely beaches have already had traps put on them.”
We continued east, checking occasionally on new and ominous structures. I took pictures, watched by suspicious navy and army engineers, and wrote notes. After a while it became almost monotonous, in a frightening way. Marianne took me away to eat lunch then left me talking to the restaurant’s proprietor whilst she shopped for food.
There was a cool box in the back of the Smart and what turned out to be a bivouac tent and light sleeping bags. “If we go as far east as I plan then we will be unable to get back to Toulon tonight. So we shall camp.”
The camping spot Marianne had picked out was on a cliff top looking out to sea. There was no-one else around, likely because of the imminent threat of conflict. I put up the bivouac whilst Marianne took off her uniform. She didn’t change into anything. “I think I am a secret nudist.” she admitted as she skipped over to me. “Care to join me?”
We laid a blanket on the dusty ground in front of the bivouac and made love as the sun set. Then we ate, rested for a while as I tried to compose a piece on the day’s travels, and started again.
Which is how we came to be in coitus as a nuclear bomb went off over the horizon. I’d come as the sky lit up, but Marianne wasn’t quite there. When she could finally bring herself to say anything it was “Don’t stop.” As a warm wind raised dust that stuck to our sweaty bodies I started thrusting again. Whilst heavy waves crashed against the rocks at the cliff base Marianne came.
Maybe others would have got into the car and headed back to Toulon. But we didn’t. It was unspoken, but we both knew there was nothing we could do but be on the road while horrible things happened. So we fucked like it was the end of the world. The three further explosions out to sea gave us a reason to think it was.
There were only those four explosions, within the range of our vision anyway, and eventually we ran out of energy We curled up in the bivouac, held each other tight and made soothing noises to each other as we waited for the next flash of light.
In the morning the world seemed the same as ever. Marianne put on her uniform and was immediately more composed. She checked her phone and found there was a signal, so she checked in. After several minutes she came over to me. “The official line is that the French navy did not detonate any nuclear devices last night. They believe that the Americans themselves set them off. Possibly one faction within their navy attacked another.”
“That’s the official version? What’s the unofficial version?”
“The unofficial version is that they hope the official version is right. If some Americans would rather kill their former comrades than let them kill us that’s a good sign. Well, better than the alternative. We have to go.”
Marianne dropped me in front of my hotel. “There are rumours of American moves aound Apt. Perhaps you should go there.”
Marianne smiled sadly. “You will always be my atomic lover. Maybe you can look me up when this is all over and we can reminisce.”
I closed the car door and let her drive off. Then I went up to my room to pack.