The Idyll (Winter 2012)

The Idyll

Lac d’Engolaster, 1947lac de L'engolaster

It was almost, but not completely, silent. There was just the slightest murmur at the very edge of hearing; possibly the breeze, possibly not. There was very little movement in the leaves and, at ground level, the air was hot and still and slightly thick.  The surface of the lake was a mirror, with the sky, the trees and the snowy mountain tops reflected in every detail. The grass was luxurious and spotted with bright, delicate mountain flowers. It was as though no human foot had ever trod there. On the grass, however, a little way from the water’s edge, five or ten yards perhaps, a group of people was lounging in various shades of relaxation.

There were perhaps fifteen of them; all aged between twenty and thirty and all contentedly relaxed after a generous picnic lunch. Conversation was desultory, punctuated by the occasional happy sigh or an odd, hastily stifled, belch.  One of the girls got to her feet and began to collect the scattered litter of greaseproof paper from the sandwiches, white paper bags, spotted with grease and fruit from the great slabs of cake they had held. Into these, she put the orange peel and slippery peach stones, whose scent was magnified in the sultry heat.

She was wearing hiking boots with thick, grey fishermen’s socks rolled down over their tops. Her legs were bare and showing signs of exposure to the elements. She had rolled her khaki army surplus shorts up to mid- thigh level and her checked lumberjack shirt was open down the front, showing an army surplus T shirt, also in khaki. Her arms and face were browning nicely and her short fair hair, in untidy curls to just below the ears, shone gold where the sun caught it. She was the picture of outdoor health.

The mode of dress was common to the group; the khaki shorts and tops; the checked shirts in a range of colours (the brighter the better); the boots and the thick socks. It was not a uniform; it was just what young people of fairly slender means wore on holiday in the mountains in 1947. The cleanliness and air of rugged good health was common to them too. They were good to look upon. It was not that they were especially beautiful as individuals; it was their careless manner; their clear appreciation of their lovely surroundings and their immeasurable good fortune to be there and the unspoken camaraderie that would make any passer-by look twice.

Two of the girls rummaged in their backpacks, also khaki, and then disappeared into some nearby undergrowth, emerging a few minutes later with their clothes over their arms and wearing simple swimsuits; one navy, the other in bottle green. Their shoulders and upper arms were white, in contrast to their golden faces and forearms, as were the tops of their legs, and they were giggling self consciously as they tiptoed    barefoot across the rough grass. They left their clothes in neat piles by their backpacks and walked the few yards to the tiny white sanded beach between some piled boulders.

Others in the group were watching, some with more interest than others. One couple in particular, barely tore their eyes from each other long enough to glance across to the lake, where the two girls stood, each one reluctant to be the first in the water. Having watched for a second or two, the lovers quickly resumed their previous position, gazing soulfully into each other’s eyes, oblivious to all else. There was sporadic laughter as the girls tried the water with their toes, squealing and jumping back, only to try again and again. Gradually, they went a little deeper and then, when they were up to their knees, turned to the others, urging them to come in too. The general consensus, however, was against them and, amid raucous cries of encouragement, they turned away. The taller of the two suddenly ran forward a few paces, to where the lake bed fell away steeply and, taking a sharp breath, launched herself into the deeper water.

There was a round of scattered applause as she came up to the surface, gasping for air, pushing her dark hair out of her eyes. Treading water, laughing delightedly, she beckoned her friend in. The smaller girl shrank back, laughing but shaking her head, then, throwing caution to the winds, with a brave Tarzan ululation, ran in and half dove, half fell into the water. The two of them swam out some way side by side, then turned onto their backs and floated on the bright surface of the water.

By now, the fair girl with the curly hair had changed too and she dashed with one of the men down to the little patch of gleaming white sand, ran a few paces into the water and then dove straight in. Within a few minutes there were only four people left on the grass: the lovers, who were probably completely unaware of the exodus and the two oldest men in the group, who continued to lounge, nonchalantly smoking their pipes and giving the impression of proud parents watching their children at play.

Someone had thrown a ball into the water and an impromptu water polo match began, men versus women. There was a great deal of laughter, yelling, squealing and splashing, as well as good humoured abuse. No-one seemed to have much idea about where the goals were supposed to be and it was clear they cared even less.  After some raucous time had passed, two of the men lost interest in the game and struck out energetically for the far shore, although it was quite some distance away. Soon having second thoughts, they turned back and maintained a leisurely crawl back to the others. The two girls who had been first in the water now came out and sat like mermaids on the rocks, well aware that they made an arresting picture, posing and trailing their feet in the water.

One of the pipe smokers rose and strolled down to the water’s edge, camera in hand. He took several random shots of the bathers, making sure that each person featured in at least one shot and then he turned, elaborately casual, to take several more shots of the two girls perched on the rocks. He took some pains, changing the angle of the shot, getting them to pose in slightly different positions; teasing them to get just the smile, just the picture that he wanted. Flattered, they laughingly, if a little self consciously, co-operated.

The glassy lake was definitely shattered now and the almost complete silence was broken by jokes, laughter and manic splashing. In ones and twos they gradually dawdled back, some lying on the grass to let the sun dry them, others sitting in twos and threes on the little beach or the rocks, feeling the sun on their backs, trailing fingers or toes in the water.

After a while, some of the girls picked up their clothes and disappeared into the bushes to change.  Within moments, two of the young men crept forward like Red Indian scouts in the films, muttering between themselves plans to steal various garments draped over the bushes, awaiting use. Spotted by one of the girls and roundly abused, they retreated, only to try again as soon as attention wavered. There was panic, punctuated by giggles at first, then outraged squeals until one of the pipe smokers called off the ambush and the scouts reluctantly obeyed. They took their own clothes, selected their own patch of green to hide behind to dress and then, suspicious of the now fully clothed girls who had recently been their victims, spent as much time watching out for revenge attacks as they did dressing.

Eventually, dried and dressed, the group was once more spread across the soft grass. It was late afternoon now and they still had miles to go but no-one seemed prepared to make the first move. In the end, the pipe smokers started to round them up, chivvying the more reluctant ones and urging a livelier response. The lovers allowed their eyes to separate briefly, sighed and rose to their feet, holding hands as soon as they were standing. They were all unwilling to leave; dragging their feet; pausing to turn back and take one last snapshot. Somehow, their backpacks seemed heavier now.

Aware of its effectiveness in picking up the pace on previous occasions, one of the pipe smokers struck up a rousing chorus, probably unaware of how appropriate his choice was and, one by one, they all joined in. Without realising it, they straightened their backs and began to march to the old, familiar tune. As they disappeared into a rocky defile at the valley’s end, their strong, young, carefree voices could still be heard echoing for a while.

Nymphs and shepherds come away, come away,

                Nymphs and shepherds come away, come away,

Come, come, come, come away.

In this glade, in this glade, let’s sport and play

Let’s sport and play, let’s sport and play.

For this, this is….

Soon, it was almost, but not completely, silent. There was just the slightest murmur on the very edge of hearing, possibly the breeze, possibly not. It was as though no human foot had ever trod there.


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