Authors: Ros Rendle
The right of Ros Remble to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Fliss stopped. She liked to drive but the journey had been long enough. She’d no wish to spend ages on the last leg. She was eager to get there.
‘Goodness knows which of those two roads I should take. I could wander around for ages,’ she thought. ‘Ironic! A bit like my life.’
Inside the field next to the road a farmer stood on the wheel-arch of his tractor. He peered into the mechanism of the crop sprayer.
Fliss tucked her long mahogany hair behind her ears, climbed out of her car and marched through the long grass in the gateway.
She called “
?” Then she continued in her best college French, “
, I hope you can tell me which way to the
of Madame Altier.”
The farmer jumped off and strode across.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, as she smoothed her hot hands on her skirt.
His gave a mischievous smile – or was that arrogance, too, as his eyes travelled to her hands sliding down the seams of her skirt? His realisation that she was English made him speak slowly. He pointed and gave her basic directions in his deep, husky voice. Was he watching her too closely as he did so? He seemed kind enough in the way he responded, but was that a smile or a smirk?
,” Fliss responded.
Having got the information, she wanted to scuttle back to her car but managed to walk with nonchalance. Fliss was sure that his eyes followed her retreat.
They did, but not in the way she imagined. If she had turned, she would have seen that his eyes were dark with troubled thoughts as he contemplated her return.
‘At least I know which road to take, and met an attractive farmer as well. He was definitely hot, despite his arrogance. I wonder what Edward would think of him? Perhaps this is the right region to explore. There are definite possibilities here, and I need to make this change. Get a grip Fliss, steady on, your imagination is running ahead.’
She clambered back into the car but, uncontrolled, her thoughts ran on.
‘His clothes were scruffy but then he was working. His dark hair falling forwards and his smile – so warm it matched the day – were charismatic. Mmm his teeth, a little crooked, did add to his magnetism; they were very white in his sun-coloured face. Why that tightening around his eyes, though? Cynical or too astute? Still, yes, I really do think he’s conceited. He clearly thinks he’s God’s gift, and all women will swoon at his feet. Well, not me.’
Fliss had been having a dreadful time for such a long while but now her shoulders dropped as the tension began to disappear. This expedition she had engineered was beginning its magic at last. She didn’t know its direction, but she determined it would lead to something better.
Her mind changed tack.
‘Bloody satnav, it just doesn’t have a sufficient level of information. It seems like it’s more or less got me here, but even though it’s the correct village the post code is too generic. This place isn’t huge but I could have gone round in circles for a while. Just as well I asked.’
Fliss took the road he had indicated. She drove past woodland and caught a glimpse of wild daffodils poking through the forest floor.
‘This is so beautiful and calm. I’m sure that’s a woodpecker somewhere in there.’ Its drumming echoed from the banks and through the trees. The road undulated with the hills but the gentle bends meant she still drove with care.
‘I don’t want an altercation with a tractor.’
She drove down the narrow road with a high, steep bank on one side and fields descending away on the other. It wasn’t far before she passed a sign with the village name of Fleurus-le-Comte, her destination.
She crossed a small bridge and spotted a board denoting a bar. She thought to go in and ask further directions when she saw an old man about to open the door and enter. He turned to stare as he heard the car. Fliss pulled up again and through the open car’s window she called “
?” She had greater confidence this time.
The man’s extraordinary rolling gait, like a cowboy or a sailor, halted. Not because of alcohol, he hadn’t yet entered the bar. His legs looked like he had lost a horse, and one was shorter than the other. A lined, weathered face and grizzled hair showed his generation. He wore an apron over his jeans and the open-necked, shabby shirt. A grimy pair of wellington boots on his feet completed the image. He put his bucket full of vegetables on the ground and hobbled across to her, ducking to hear her ask for directions.
Again, she received instructions for the correct address and found that she was much closer than she thought. As Fliss drove round the bend, she recognised the house from the photograph on the internet. She pulled into the wide driveway between the impressive gate pillars, since there was no gate at all to block her way. As she got out of the car and stretched, she looked around at her immediate surroundings.
The blue sky had a few white clouds hanging motionless. Flowers, daffodils and aubrietia, drifted behind and over the low walls which mounted the steps up to the front door of the house. Mellow, liquid, rounded and effortless tones high in the fir tree next to her car indicated a blackbird joyously welcoming the late afternoon.
‘That’s such an iconic sound at this time of day.’
Fliss took a deep breath, the journey eased away from her back and off of her shoulders. She left her bags for the moment and climbed the steps. The old-fashioned bell next to the door resounded when she pulled the string.
She turned on the top step and surveyed the village. It was a good vantage point. She gazed along the road. A green tractor turned into the gates of a long, low house. It looked familiar as she contemplated the view. The farmer, who thought himself charming and was far too conceited for her taste, jumped down and went into the barn next to the house itself. While smiling to herself with disparaging thoughts of him, the front door to the bed and breakfast opened, and Fliss turned back to greet her hostess.
An elderly lady extended her hand and she took it. Feeling the gnarled knuckles within her grasp, she relaxed her grip.
Felicity Summers. Fliss.”
,” said the lady. “Please come in,” she continued in French. “Have you no bags?”
Fliss had taken ‘A’ level French at school and, although it was twenty years since then, she also studied the language for a time at the local college. It stood her in good stead on the many holidays in France she had taken with her mum and Dad. Even after her dad died, she and her mum crossed the Channel for holidays together for many years – until recently, of course.
“They’re in the car. I shall fetch them. I wanted to make sure you were at home, or that I had the right place,” she managed to say.
Her hostess spoke basic English, Fliss knew from earlier telephone conversations, but the onus would be on her to speak the native language here. It was only right when on French soil. She enjoyed the challenge. Madame Altier seemed to understand, since she opened the door wider and indicated that she would leave it thus. She waved and shooed at Fliss to go down again to fetch her luggage.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she said as she descended to her car.
Fliss heaved out her bags and locked the door. Re-mounting the steps, she entered the large living room.
“Come this way.” Madame Altier beckoned her to follow.
The room smelled fragrant. The bed was enormous and made of oak; rich, dark brown with age. ‘Plumtious’ was the word that came to mind as Fliss looked at the pillows and duvet. A large wooden wardrobe matched the bed, and an old cheval mirror stood in the corner. Her host indicated that Fliss should follow her across the room and showed her a lovely large, light bathroom with a good sized shower, a toilet and wash-hand basin. The walls were papered with a delicate green and blue pattern and the toilet the paper holder matched the soap dispenser on the sink, both in a fresh blue. It made the whole room look clean and modern , compared with what Fliss had seen elsewhere so far. The tiled floors of both rooms had rugs beside the shower and the bed.
“I shall be very comfortable. Thank you,” Fliss said and smiled.
“When you are ready, come to the living room,” Madame Altier used the words
, “and take a glass of wine.”
“You are kind Madame,” Fliss responded.
Fliss surveyed her surroundings, relieved that all was clean and pleasant. It had been a gamble as there were only minimal pictures on the generic website she had accessed. She understood now why Madame Altier did not have an internet site of her own. She was very elderly.
Fliss put away most of her things and washed her hands in the bathroom. Should she phone Edward and let him know she had arrived? No! All in good time. She returned to the living room.
“Please sit.” Madame Altier indicated a chair at the table.
Fliss imagined others who sat in this seat before her; unknown people who may have taken refreshment with Madame Altier at another time. Then she observed the old lady. The routine now taking place was one that must have been performed countless times. Madame busied herself fetching glasses, an opened bottle from the sideboard and a small plate of crisps. As Fliss sat, she saw the stooped figure, grey curled hair and the uniform of overall and slippers worn by other women of Madame’s age and culture. She had seen countless flowery, belted housecoats like that on market stalls across the country during previous excursions.
Fliss sat still as her eyes darted about, but soon she was more at ease. Before long the two of them were getting on well. They chatted and laughed over misunderstandings. The word ‘neuf’ caused merriment when Madame Altier told her something about her dishwasher.
“I thought that was the word for the number nine,” Fliss laughed. “I didn’t realise it also meant ‘new’. I wondered why you would have nine dishwashers. I’ve been learning French for a while but I still make silly mistakes.”
After a glass of wine and then a top-up, Fliss became so relaxed that she found herself explaining to Madame Altier one of the main reasons for her visit.
“My mum died four months ago,” Fliss confessed. “My job is dull and I need to make a big change. We lived together, she and I, in our family bungalow. Since she became very ill, I’ve been tied to bed-baths and measuring medicines. It’s been changes of night clothes and underwear; nothing but weariness for such a long time, with all the night anxieties and apprehensions. It’s been harsh.”
“Oh, you poor dear,” Madame Altier sympathised. “I remember when
was ill as if it was yesterday.” Madame Altier made to pour Fliss another glass of wine, but she managed to put her hand on top of her glass. She had not eaten, and already she was aware of talking too much. She didn’t want to disgrace herself before she’d started but this unwinding had to be good. Then, throwing caution away, the out-pouring became compulsive.
“I was sitting for hours on end. I watched and waited,” Fliss said. She remembered the image of her mum’s paper-thin eyelids, fluttering. “That image will take a long time to dispel. When the final moment came, with her last breath, her body seemed to sink. I remember straightening my back and I drew a deep breath, in contrast. Then I got up and stared out of the window. I didn’t know what to do next. I was so lost.”
Madame Altier sat stil,l like a little wizened bird with eyes bright and sharp, her head to one side, concentrating on Fliss’s accented French.
“Now, in hindsight, I know I started to descend into apathy over my appearance. My clothes started to look loose and my hair was over-long and untidy. People at work dropped hints, but I didn’t recognise their remarks, as such. Then my friend Jo spoke to me. She was so good. We’ve known each other for years, since school. She took me in hand.”
Fliss smiled at the remembered conversation with Jo, who had been so forthright.
“You’re only thirty eight she said. There is the odd strand of grey in your hair and it’s lank, Jo told me.”
Fliss grabbed a handful of her shoulder length hair. “That’s soon dealt with by visits to the hairdresser. More recently I’ve used that product ‘so much more than a science it’s absolutely you’ I bought from the supermarket. Do you have that one over here? But I’d stopped doing anything about it.”
She squinted sideways at her handful.
“Yes, indeed,” Madame Altier responded. “Well, it’s beautiful now,
,” Madame said, “and high cheek bones are attractive, too. You are lucky with your looks.”
Fliss frowned and shrugged. “If Mum were here now she would peer at my face and say ‘you’ve got a few lines at the corners of your eyes. More, you’ve got those small, grey puffy areas under your lashes. They are so dark and your eyes are a lovely hazel green. It’s too ageing. You need to watch that, my love.’ She was always so careful with her complexion. I can hear her comments. Jo told me, ‘the base is okay. It’s the trimmings that’re jaded.’ She got me to the hairdresser and took me shopping for new clothes; something more colourful again. I looked a bit ‘limp’. I needed to take myself in hand.”