How far has Bénédicte’s sister travelled, after all? A distance of two villages, and into marriage with Antoine, a dark-skinned carpenter with an Asterix moustache and touches of sandpaper roughness contrasting with gentle eyes and the look-lively energy necessary to keep up with Nathalie and her family. She is friendly and inelegant, invariably wearing a t-shirt and short skirt, a slacker at the diminutive end of stocky. It is hard to believe that she is Bénédicte’s sister, so different is their skin colouring: the younger’s is whiter, redder, and the elder’s a yellowy beige. You wonder whether your French has muddled the familial relations.
The Morieuxs are going to the coast one day and invite you to come along with them. Travelling in Antoine’s car, you hear the name of a place mentioned that you don’t remember picking out on the map, and it’s not the resort you assumed the two cars were heading for. It is while following a road which rises up the headland to the east of the town that you first see the signs, and realise you have completely misunderstood what they had been saying (your French is only as good as the context is clear): they are taking you to see a nuclear power station. The family gathers together in the car park, the thirteen-strong storming of the Bastille reduced to a nucleus of nine. For a Sunday, the car park is busy, yet when you enter the Visitor’s Centre, hovering warily behind the others, resigned to the experience, it is empty of visitors. In fact, there is no-one at all: no smiling receptionists dazzling with the excellence of their interpersonal skills, no white-suited nuclear astronauts observing dials or staffing computer consoles. And, of course, there will be no access to the corridors beneath the heights of gleaming machinery and piping, no guided journey to the heart of the reactor. The displays are hands-on and interactive, and the little twins gleefully push the nuclear buttons. The legend across the top of one blown-up photograph of the power station is ‘Nuclear power? Yes please!’, beneath which, encased in perspex, is a model of the buildings. A kidney bean-shaped Scalextric track runs around the mock-up, with two cars controlled by hand triggers that the twins are not slow to spot.
The elder members of the party stay with the children when the idea of descending the cliff is taken up. There is a harbour beneath the power station, artificially created out of a spit of uniform concrete lumps each in the shape of a kiss. From the cliff face a three feet span of waste pipe lets trickle into the sea some unidentifiable substance which may once have been water. Following the spit of kisses out to sea, and looking back, you can see the nuclear fortress atop the cliff, like a mutant comprehensive school, that grim grey institutional aspect grown a mushroom head.
After a full-scale lunch at a picnic site with a view both of the power station and the seaside town to its west, a lunch which differs hardly at all from one chez Morieux – the increased prevalence of dangerous smiles from the butcher’s wife aside – the beach is finally gained. You feel yourself becoming invisible, barely existent, fissioned by this well-meaning family into half-life. You brush away the exhortations of Antoine and Bénédicte that you should join them for a swim, the defensive mechanism of an absent half-smile playing across your face.