The Little French Guesthouse

BOOK: The Little French Guesthouse
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The Little French Guesthouse
The perfect feel good summer read
Helen Pollard
Dedication

For David

My love, my best friend, my rock

1

I
wish
I could tell you it happened like it does in the movies. You know the kind of thing. The heroine standing proud, oozing restrained fury. The audience’s satisfaction as she delivers a reverberating slap across her lover’s face. Her dramatic but dignified exit from the screen.

Believe me, there was nothing dignified about it. All I did was stand there shaking, rage and adrenalin coursing through my body like rabid greyhounds, my mouth flapping open and shut as I tried to find the words. Any words. Even a simple sound of outrage would have sufficed, but all I managed was a pathetic squeak.

‘Emmy, it’s not what it looks like,’ Nathan spluttered, but of course it couldn’t be anything other than what it looked like. My view as I stumbled through the door had been graphically explicit. Even he must have known how lame he sounded. Grappling for dignity and his belt, he tried again. ‘We were... I mean, I didn’t expect you to...’

I launched into a wronged-woman tirade as though someone had handed me a bad soap script.

‘No, I
bet
you didn’t expect me to...’ An alarm bell clanged dimly at the back of my brain, but I ignored it. ‘How
could
you? You cheating bastard! I can’t
believe
you...’ The clanging grew louder and more insistent, moving to the front of my consciousness. ‘Shit!’ With a guilty jolt, I remembered why I’d come all the way up here in the first place. ‘Gloria, you need to call an ambulance. I think Rupert’s having a heart attack.’

‘What?’ Adjusting her dress, Gloria greeted this sudden change of subject with bewilderment.

‘Rupert. Your husband, remember? Heart attack. Ambulance.’ I gave her bangled arm a nudge to see if her brain was still functioning or whether sex with my boyfriend was more spectacular than I gave him credit for.

‘Ohmygod. Ohmygod.’ The message finally got through to her lust-addled brain cells. ‘Where is he?’

‘Kitchen.’ I headed for the stairs, my mind thankfully back on the emergency at hand and pushing visions of Nathan and Gloria romping on the roof terrace to the rear of my consciousness. For now, remarkably, there were more important things to worry about.

‘What do you mean, a heart attack?’ Gloria shouted after me. ‘Why the hell didn’t
you
call an ambulance?’

‘I tried, but then I realised I didn’t know the number, and besides, my French isn’t good enough,’ I called over my shoulder. ‘I thought it would be quicker to get you to do it. I had no idea you’d be so
busy
.’

‘Ohmygod, Emmy. He could be dead by now!’

She was right – he
could
be dead by now – but when we reached the kitchen, to my immense relief, Rupert was still conscious and sitting propped against the wall the way I’d left him. I’d done my best, but I hadn’t expected to lose precious moments with the melodrama upstairs. I couldn’t imagine how I would have felt if he had stopped breathing.

A
s Nathan
and I watched the ambulance drive away, the panic subsided and the images I’d pushed away came crowding back in unwelcome and vivid detail.

Dinner at the guesthouse, the four of us laughing. Gloria absenting herself to “make a phone call.” Nathan “just nipping to the loo – sorry, bit of a stomach upset.” Arguing the merits of my favourite movies with Rupert over a glass of wine. His face turning pale and ashen as he fought for breath, the veins standing out on the back of his hand as he clutched at his chest. The way he twisted and fell from the tall bar stool onto the stone floor of the kitchen. My own heartbeat thumping like crazy as I racked my brain for some remnant of first aid, puffing and heaving as I manoeuvred him into what I hoped was the correct position for a heart attack victim.

And then that awful moment when I reached for the phone, only to realise I had no idea what number to dial for an ambulance and that my long-forgotten school French didn’t stretch to asking for one. Calling out for Gloria. Silence in return. No answer from her room. Racing upstairs, along the landing, out onto the roof terrace on the strangely intuitive off-chance she might be making her phone call
al fresco
... And then that nightmare scene. Gloria’s legs clutched around Nathan’s waist. The ultimate betrayal.

Only four days into our holiday, our host was being rushed away in an ambulance and I had found my boyfriend indelicately joined with the lady of the house.

The tail lights disappeared, leaving the
gîtes
across the courtyard shrouded in darkness and the grounds deathly quiet. Three miles from the nearest town and with just a handful of cottages and farmhouses as neighbours,
La Cour des Roses
was idyllically peaceful during the day with bees humming and chickens clucking, but I still couldn’t get used to the lack of noise at night. No continuous traffic, no groups of drunken lads ambling back from the pub, the background to urban life back home.

Shivering, I closed the door and turned back into the large farmhouse kitchen. Half-empty wine glasses stood beside the congealing remains of our evening meal on the pine table. The bar stool Rupert had fallen from still lay on its side. I lifted it upright.

Letting out the breath I’d been holding in some distant corner of my lungs, I considered my options. Should I scream and shout? Or should I be calm and understanding?

As it turned out, it didn’t matter. Nathan walked through the kitchen and started up the stairs without a word. Thwarted, I followed him up to our room, where he began to undress with his back to me so I couldn’t catch his eye. As he pulled off his jeans, so recently dropped for other purposes, my patience snapped.

‘Nathan, this is ridiculous. We need to talk.’

‘Em...’

I had always hated the way he called me that.
Em.
As if I were nothing more than an initial, a single letter.

‘For God’s sake, can’t you at least look at me?’

He made a slow and reluctant turn, but his gaze didn’t quite hit my eyes, landing instead on a spot somewhere near my left ear.

‘What?’ he asked sullenly.

‘How can you ask “what”? Don’t you think we need to talk about what happened?’

‘Not tonight, I don’t.’ He met my gaze, but that was more disconcerting than when he’d avoided it. I couldn’t read anything in his eyes. Remorse, love, misery. Nothing.

‘Why not?’ I persisted.

‘Because it’s late and I’m exhausted, that’s why.’

‘Yes, I bet
you are – you and Gloria both!’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Emmy, stop being so bloody childish.’

‘Me, childish?’ I gaped at him. ‘How can you say that? I’m the one who wants to talk about this like grown-up people.
You’re
the one who’s being childish!’

He ran his hand through his hair in a gesture of impatience. ‘There’s nothing childish about recognising that twelve-thirty at night is not the optimum time for a serious discussion.’

‘Don’t you talk to me like you’re planning a sodding business meeting! I want to know what you’ve got to say for yourself!’

A hunted look came into his eyes, and I balked. He shouldn’t feel hunted, I thought. He should feel the need to explain, to apologise, preferably to grovel. That quiet, calm nature of his, so refreshingly un-macho when we first met, suddenly grated on my nerves.

‘Did you hear me, Nathan?’

He scowled. ‘You don’t have to use that tone of voice, Em. You’re not my mother.’

I blew out a ragged breath, enraged on several counts. His use of that damned single syllable again instead of my name. The implication that it would have been okay for his mother to interrogate him, but not okay for me to do so. The unbearable idea that I could be compared to that pompous, omnipresent, spiteful bag of a woman. The suggestion that I hadn’t turned out to be as much like his mother as he’d hoped.

‘No, I’m
not
your mother, thank heavens. But since we’ve shared the past five years of our life together, I think I’m entitled to ask why on earth you would have sex with that... that nymphomaniac? She must be at least ten years older than you!’

He bristled. ‘I doubt that. Besides, I don’t see what age has to do with anything. Rupert must be knocking on sixty, so that’s quite an age gap between them, for a start.’

‘Yes, and look how well
that’s
going for them,’ I retorted, at which Nathan at least had the decency to look sheepish. ‘Anyway, we’re not discussing the whys and wherefores of Rupert and Gloria’s marriage. We’re discussing the fact that you had sex with half of it.’

Nathan winced. ‘Look, I... I had too much to drink.’ He shrugged, as though that was a perfectly acceptable end to the matter.

I searched his face for traces of the funny, gentle, handsome-in-a-bland-kind-of-way man I lived with, but all I could see was a recalcitrant teenager in a thirty-three-year-old’s body, who must know he was in the wrong but couldn’t drum up the balls to admit it.

‘Not good enough.’ I shook my head so violently it hurt. ‘People don’t have sex with other people just because they’ve had one drink too many. You could have kept it zipped up if you’d wanted to.’

Nathan opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. No doubt he realised he had no defence. Instead, he turned towards the bathroom. I was getting pretty tired of him turning his back on me.

‘Don’t walk away, Nathan,’ I warned. ‘We haven’t finished this conversation.’

He looked back over his shoulder. ‘You might not have finished, Emmy, but I have. For tonight, anyway. If you haven’t noticed, a conversation needs two people.’

With that, he headed into the bathroom and closed the door. Not one more word about his escapade, just the sound of running water and spitting toothpaste.

Furious, I started to undress, but I was so angry that the seam of my favourite T-shirt ripped as I pulled it over my head. Great. Standing in the middle of the room in my underwear, I willed myself to calm down before I had some sort of seizure, and tried hard to concentrate on breathing evenly. When I was sure I wasn’t about to follow Rupert’s example, I finished undressing, pulled on a baggy nightshirt, then stared at the bed with distaste. Visions of Nathan and Gloria wrapped together flooded my tired brain.

What the hell was I doing? There was no
way
I could climb into bed beside Nathan as though nothing had happened. At this stage, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to share a bed with him again.

Maybe I could move to another room – there were no other guests in the house at the moment. Or maybe I should make Nathan move. Gloria could hardly complain under the circumstances.

Going out onto the landing, I cautiously opened the door of the room nearest ours. There was no linen on the bed. My explorations of the other two rooms revealed the same thing. I thought about trying to locate bedlinen and moving all my stuff. Nathan was right about one thing. It was late.

It should be him who moved.

When I went back to our room, he was still in the bathroom. Probably hiding. Or sulking. Or both. I started to strip the bed. One of us could have the sheets, the other the duvet.

When he finally reappeared, he stared at the disarray in bewilderment. ‘What the hell are you doing?’


I’m
not doing anything.
You
, on the other hand, are moving to another room.’

‘At this time of night? You must be joking!’

My blood bubbled unpleasantly. ‘I’d hardly say it’s a joking matter, would you?’

I was so frustrated with him, I could have stamped my foot like a two-year-old. Nathan and I rarely fought, but on the odd occasion when we did, he could be pretty stubborn about taking any part in it. Whereas I had a temper with a tendency to flare, thanks to my mother’s redheaded genes, Nathan was adept at avoiding confrontation, letting my moods come and go without getting too involved. I’d always thought it one of his good qualities, being calm and placid in the face of my fluctuating emotions. Right now, I knew he was only burying his head in the sand, in the hope it would all go away by tomorrow.

‘If you won’t talk about this tonight, then you won’t. But you are
not
sleeping in my bed.’ I shoved his pillow and a sheet at him, dragged a spare blanket from the top shelf of the wardrobe and shoved that at him, too.

As he stood there wavering, his arms full of bedding, I half-expected him to ask why he should be the one to move out. Wisely, he didn’t. Shaking his head, he opened the door, stumbled through it and slammed it behind him – a gesture which lost its dramatic impact when his blanket got in the way.

I perched on the stool at the dressing table. Cleanse, tone, moisturise. Just because my boyfriend had had sex with a woman he barely knew didn’t mean I had to become sloppy. When I’d finished scrubbing, I viewed the results. Red and blotchy. Lovely.

I gazed at myself with a kind of fascinated detachment. Ignoring the self-induced redness, I didn’t think I looked so bad for thirty-one. My youthful bloom may have needed a little cosmetic help now and again, and sporadic highlights might have been the only thing keeping my hair from being mousy, but I wasn’t so different from the woman Nathan had asked out beside the photocopier five years ago. Gloria, on the other hand, came mainly from a bottle as far as I could see, with her mink-blonde hair, her foundation-filled fine lines, her spray tan. Why would he sleep with her when he had me?

When I’d brushed my teeth with a little more violence than my gums were used to, I climbed into bed already knowing there was no hope of sleep. I couldn’t believe Nathan had been caught out like that and seemed to think it was okay not to talk about it. But then that was so typical of the way we’d been lately.

On the surface, our life was pretty normal. We got up, went to work, came home. Circled around each other pretending not to be hungry in the hope the other might offer to rustle something up, until one of us gave in and stuffed a ready meal in the microwave. Vegged out in front of the telly. On Saturdays, “we” did the shopping and cleaning. That was to say, I did the shopping and cleaning while Nathan found some urgent errand to run that involved dropping into the nearest computer superstore and playing with the latest gadgets. On Sundays, we read the papers in bed, which I enjoyed, and occasionally we visited his parents or mine, an ordeal neither of us enjoyed and had a habit of putting off until we were berated by one or both sets of them. I was all for a bit of routine, but even I’d begun to find it rather dull.

BOOK: The Little French Guesthouse
10.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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