Lost and Found
It was Claire who found the camera, her 13 year-old bright eyes spotted it halfway across the beach at La Cible one morning in September as we had a mother and daughter cycling-expedition on the Île de Ré. We were recent summer arrivals in France, and the island had become one of our favourite spots to explore on a weekend, our custom was to cycle from the car-park at La Cible, through the old fortifications and onto a lunch on the quay in St Martin de Ré.
It was a small routine that brought us comfort in a foreign country where we languished uncertainly in a rented village house north of la Rochelle, complete with wizened furniture, old sagging beds, a hallway full of solemn faces on fading photos and a huge painting in the dining room of a dashing young man in a Foreign Legionnaire’s uniform. It was a bizarre place, but cheap and practical, even if we knew no one to talk to.
Riding along the path by the restaurant Claire had cried out and I’d turned to see her pointing out across the sand to a rock on which a small black object sat above the high-tide line, glinting in the sun.
“It’s a camera, Mum,” said Claire, “I wonder who it belongs to,” and she stopped and looked up and down the beach, just as I did a second later. There was no one to be seen in either direction who might have been an owner, just the odd cyclist on the path and two people 400 yards away soaking up some summer rays on colourful towels.
“I’ll have a look,” she added and she hopped off her bike and laying it down on the verge, she stepped out onto the beach and walked across the sand towards the rock. Reaching down she picked up the camera and headed back, still looking left and right for someone to whom it might belong. She handed to to me, and I realised it was a small Canon compact, a shiny brand-new S90, and I held it, wondering what we would do next.
“I guess we’ll have to hand it in,” I said, surprised at the tone in my own voice which seemed to imply irritation at having something unexpected to deal with.
Claire looked at me and ventured, “Perhaps we can find out who it belongs to?” and even as I wondered how on earth we were going to do that she’d taken the camera from me and turned it on with the authority that only a modern media-savy young person can do. She pressed the ‘review’ button and grinned as she saw the first photo; it was a scene of the beach before us. With a click of another button, Claire told me it had been taken the day before.
“Look Mum,” she said, clicking through further photos, “we can see the route the camera’s been on, why don’t we follow it back and see where it takes us – we might find the owner that way?”
“Let’s see if there are any people in the pictures,” I mooted, and we both stood there to create some shade from the sun as we went back through the photos. As we did so, it became apparent that the camera had been cycled to the beach, but from the east, from the little town of La Flotte. We could follow the progress of the owner’s journey, all the way back to a restaurant in the marina there. But there were no people, and as we completed our viewing, I realised that perhaps these were the very first photographs ever taken with the camera.
“Shall we, Mum, shall we try it?” and I looked to the east along the shore and realised it wasn’t very far at all to La Flotte, and it would make a change.
“Okay,” I said, “Let’s give it a go,” and turning around we peddled east through the little scattering of houses and immediately passed the second photo of the camera’s storyline, a lovely Provencal-style house on a small hill.
Cruising along, we left the housing behind, leaned seawards a little to the left, and then straightened up again for the long track alongside the beach, fields bordering us on our right, with La Flotte away in the distance. It was only ten minutes of easy cycling before we were into the first beachside houses of the town, and the path widened into a little tarmac road and soon we were on the Cours Eugène Chauffour, the main road to the marina, with the seawall on our left.
The third photo in the storyline jogged us along to the end of the street, where it runs into the small marina that squares itself around the buildings, and there we paused for breath, looking down on the array of different boats.
Looking at the photographs it became apparent that the camera’s initial journey the day before had been in the late afternoon, and I wondered whether it was that which had saved the poor thing from being taken by someone else the day before.
Going along the seawall, dodging tourists, we tried to find the next landmark and became aware that the camera’s owner had explored a road or two behind the marina, and we dodged down a side-street to see where to go. Immediately a scene from the camera edged into view and we pedalled slowly along, wondering how we would recognise someone who had lost a Canon s90.
There was a turn and another scene came into view. It seemed the photographer had taken their photos with some excitement, clicking away at whatever they had seen, and it became even more obvious that we were simply retracing someone’s footsteps.
Suddenly we were back in the marina, and we hopped off our bikes to follow the path of memories along the line of restaurants, going backwards through the pictures until we came to the third photo on the camera, when we recognised the café on the display.
We stood there, and then Claire looked at the next photo and saw it had been taken from the very back of the awning.
“Go in and check,” I muttered, “go right to the back and see if it’s the same resturant – I’ll hold the bikes,” and Claire nodded and strode confidently into the shade. She came back within seconds, grinning.
“Yes” she nodded in excitement, “this is the one. What do we do next?” and we looked at the very first photo. It showed the front of what seemed to be an antiques shop. We looked up and glanced around but saw no sign of anything familiar and I realised we were going to have to search the side-streets. At that instant though, a young waiter came past us with a tray of empty plates, and noticing our expressions of wonder, he stopped and asked if we needed anything.
I had a brainwave, and held out the camera with the photo on display, “do you know where this shop is by any chance?” the young man’s attentive face glanced at the screen and then brightened in recognition.
“Mais oui,” said the young man, “C’est le magasin de M. Rainier, just behind that shop, là,” and he pointed across the quayside to another small road.
Thanking him, we headed across the cobbles, turned down the street and immediately saw the shop on our right. We hesitated outside, and Claire asked, “What do we do now?”
“Well,” I replied, “at the very least we should go in and see if he remembers anyone outside yesterday with a camera?” I ventured.
We climbed the two little steps and went into a cool and slightly gloomy interior. In the dim light a bell tinkled and a curtain swished at the back of the crowded room, full of curiosities and ancient wooden furniture. An old man came into view, with a face that had seen too much sun and so much life. He barely reached my shoulder and when he got close he looked up at us quizzically like a bird; somehow he knew instantly that we were English.
“How can I help you?” he asked in a melodic voice, with a perfect turn of phrase and grammar. I looked at him closely, his face seemed strangely familiar, and I wondered why.
Claire stepped forward and held out the camera. “We found this on the beach at La Cible,” she started, “and the first photograph on it is of your shop – we wondered if you might remember who took the photo – it was only yesterday….” and her sudden trail of thought petered out.
The man before us, stood stock still, and suddenly grinned. “Mais oui, mais oui, of course I do!” and he turned to clap his hands and loudly called out towards the curtain, “Zoë!!! Viens ici, come here cherie, vite, vite!!”
We stood in shock, and there was another swish from the curtains at the back of the room and a girl of Claire’s age ran into the room, stopping with a clump of her feet as she saw us. There was a jolt of recognition from Claire, and the girl in front of us watched us with huge luminous eyes, wondering what was going on.
The old man broke the spell and facing the dark-haired girl, he held out the camera with glee,”Elles ont trouvés ton appareil! They have found your camera!”
Zoë turned towards the man, and seeing the camera, gave a great shriek and promptly burst into tears, clutching at it with alacrity. There was a babble of French from the two of them, and a cuddle of support before the man turned back to us.
“Oh merci, thank you, thank you so much!” he said, a huge smile on his face. “It was Zoë’s birthday yesterday and the camera was a present – we could not believe it when she said she had lost it, she cried all night,” and at the mention of her name the girl turned round and looked at us again, her face streaked with tears of happiness and relief. She broke into a huge grin, and looking at Claire with growing recognition, she said to her grandfather, “This is the new girl in our class.”
There was a pause while she looked again at Claire, and suddenly she then asked, “Was it you who found my camera?”
I answered for Claire in case she was too shy to reply. “Yes,” I said, “it was her,” and I smiled softly.
Zoë grinned broadly, and going forward, muttered “Merci” quite sorrowfully and gave Claire a kiss on the cheek, a gesture which turned into a hug of gratitude. “Thank you, thank you so much,” and the girl smiled so openly that Claire grinned back instinctively.
“How did you find us?” Zoë asked, “I’m only here with my grandparents for the weekend!”, and there was a sudden babble of young voices. I looked above their heads at the old man, and he smiled back at me, shrugging his shoulders at the spontaneity of youth. I nodded back, disconcertingly aware that I was staring at a man whom I thought I knew, but did not.
There was a pause in the noise, and I saw Zoë looking questioningly at me. “Is there time for me to go with Claire to buy an ice-cream as a ‘thank you’?”, and she turned to her grandfather at the same time.
I nodded, “Of course!” and half a minute later they set off out the door, leaving myself and the old man standing in the shop. I turned to him to say something and found his face suddenly lit by a shaft of light from the closing door, and involuntarily I exclaimed in shock.
“I think I know who you are!” I muttered to the man, and he looked at me with curiosity.
“You do?” The bright eyes watched me closely.
“Yes, I do.” and at that instant I realised that Zoë’s presence in the shop made so much sense.
“You’re the man in our dining-room,” I stammered in shock. “You were once a Foreign Legionnaire!” and the old man smiled at me so directly and with such happiness, that I knew fate had led us a merry dance down the lanes of La Flotte for a reason.
The old man watched me, his smile broad and proud, and waited for me to finish.
“I know who you are now, too,” he replied, “you live in my family house in Marsilly, no?”
I nodded in affirmation.
“Then you live in a special place,” he added. “Welcome to France.” He stepped back, and then added, “Would you like Zoë and I to come and visit? I can tell you all about our family history and the house, if you want?”
“Oh,” I muttered, aflame with happiness at the turn of events, “Yes please. We’d love that!” and as I nodded fervent agreement I suddenly saw our future stretching out before us, a little less lonely than before…..