Another one of my short stories, first published in Quadrant magazine June 2015, inspired by visits to France. Each year, if possible, I rent a studio for a month in a little fishing village in the south of France. I refer to these periods of quiet time away as a Writing-Retreat-For-One. A great place to read and write and go for long walks and, hopefully, come up with story ideas.
Although she loved her nieces and nephews, it was when she turned thirty-nine that driving young children around in her car seemed to make her nervous—a tightening in the stomach. “Aunty Helen, would you like to take Naomi to see The Muppets? Are you free?” Always these requests from one of her sisters looking tired and desperate—one of her younger siblings, they used to be so close—and Helen would force herself to make the effort to be the good aunty. The responsibility of passengers in her car always made her anxious. She was anxious about one thing or the other most of the time, but wanted to appear selfless and generous-spirited. Her availability, or non-availability, was noted, itemised, either in her favour, or against her. She didn’t want to be labelled self-obsessed. She had entered an era when the nicest thing a person could say to her was, “You’re a fabulous aunty. The kids love you.”
It was when she was sitting at home watching tele one Sunday night that Leah had rung to ask about taking Naomi to the movies in the holidays. Helen drove over to pick the little girl up before Leah left for work, secured the child into the seat belt carefully, babbling away all the time, enthusiastically, “Lovely to see you, gorgeous girl. You look so pretty. I love the sparkly shoes and the sparkles on your top.”
Naomi smiled with pride, touching the golden wings of the butterfly embroidered on her t-shirt.
Helen indicated before pulling away from the kerb into the outside lane, at the same time turning the radio off and the air con on, before stopping at a red light, had glanced in the rear vision mirror and, amid the sounds of engines idling and a bus changing gears, saw a truck moving up quickly behind her—he won’t be able to stop in time—swerving to the inside lane and heading too close to the passenger side of the car where Naomi was sitting—the truck, the great big truck, was about to crash into the car! And when she felt the thrust of the impact cricking her neck—in the slow motion of the crunch of metal, she saw the other stationary cars at the lights, the wind flipping between the fronds of the pavement palms and one fluffy cloud like a giant arm reaching out across the sky. After Naomi was rushed to Westmead Hospital with head and limb injuries and after surgery and the police interviews, Helen slowly returned home.
She refused to leave her top floor apartment, and there was much worrying for her, on the part of all the family, including Leah, who wrote a long and detailed letter to tell Helen that it wasn’t her fault.
Damion usually skyped her from London each week; he had become her most loyal and supportive friend. He was semi-retired after working as an economist, though he looked more like an English version of Crocodile Dundee—deep character-lines carved into his face, wide white smile, shark-tooth necklace, a favourite khaki shirt and many-pocketed hiking trousers. They’d met years ago on a walking trip in the Ardeche and she’d stayed in his spare room many times when visiting London. He was getting ready to return home after a month on the French Riviera. He’d rented an apartment in a small fishing village by the sea near Monaco. “You could have this place for a month early winter,” he suggested. “Jacqueline offers a very cheap deal in the off-season. It would do you good.” He told Helen she could use the time to work on one of her special projects. “You can read and write, go for long walks. Or not.”
She looked into his face on the monitor, warily, then lowered her gaze. She still felt timid and shaky. “I don’t know,” she said. She had spent a good part of the year lying around in her yoga gear and thick woollen socks in front of the heater, taking in the morning sun through the north facing window, her hair a knotted mess: a bird’s nest, but no baby bird. She felt claustrophobic and unsteady. “The hardest part would be getting myself into a taxi and out to the airport.” She watched closely as a buzzing fly kept doing kamikaze dives around the room and then throwing itself at the glass of the window.
“If I decide to go, would you come for a visit?”
“Of course I would. We’re old friends.” He was a down-to-earth man. When she had been staying at his place once, and been dumped by an American she met in Spain, Damion had sat her down in his kitchen with a glass of Pernod. “Let’s look at this logically,” he’d said.
She wished he was with her now, offering her another glass of Pernod.
“I don’t think, Damion, that I can get myself out of here.”
“Of course you can.” He reached up and smoothed his hair back over the shiny expanse of his forehead.
“Getting through the days is as much as I can manage,” she said. “Making plans is beyond me.” She didn’t know what else to say to him. But she smiled all the same. Didn’t want to appear a chronic depressive. Didn’t want him to worry about her.
“Keep it simple,” he encouraged. “Fly directly from Sydney to Nice.” He smiled his big toothy grin back at her. “Just say to yourself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’”
He told her the apartment block in the Old Town was right on the water. She’d be able to see fish swimming in the Mediterranean from her balcony.
At least if she left Sydney she wouldn’t be responsible for the death of any more of her nieces or nephews.
She was met at the airport by Jacqueline, her bilingual landlady. The drive to Villefranche sur Mer took half an hour, around the curve of the Promenades des Anglais, through Nice and along the Base Corniche. It wasn’t until Jacqueline pulled up at the top of the cliff-like hillside laden with beautiful gardens and stunning villas that Helen could see the Old Town cascading down to the sea. Jacqueline led the way down the stone steps to the waterfront quay before stopping at a dark yellow 13th century building with eggshell blue shutters. She unlocked the door and led the way up the stairs.
“What do you think?” she asked as they entered the apartment.
“Wow. It’s amazing,” Helen said walking out through the French doors to a long, wrap-around balcony. She could see boats bobbing on the turquoise harbour and people walking along the quay. A huge view of the Bay. I’ll work on the terrace when the weather is fine, she thought, and patted her laptop in its bag on her shoulder that contained the first chapter of Death on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“You’ll be able to listen to the sounds of the sea all night,” said Jacqueline ushering her towards the master bedroom. The window overlooked a triangular-shaped square where water surged from the mouth of a lion’s-head fountain. She pointed to the quayside Chapel of Saint-Pierre, its spire rising just behind the square. “Restored and decorated by Jean Cocteau,” she said proudly.
When she handed over the keys and departed, Helen threw herself on the bed and wrapped herself around a pillow, scrunching her hands up like cat’s paws beside her sleep-creased cheek, and then slept until six, dreaming that she was together with a child on a boat, but the child stepped off the back of the boat onto a wharf without Helen noticing and she’d inadvertently sailed away leaving the little girl behind.
A loud sound woke her up—a knocking on the door. It was time to meet for welcome drinks downstairs. She rolled slowly to the side of the bed, sat there for a few minutes, then stood up. Unpacking took only a few minutes. Cautiously, she’d left the bulk of her clothes in her bag, telling herself that she could get out of there and catch a plane home whenever she wanted.
A pale light filtered through a window over the stairwell. She took a deep breath and held firmly to the railing. Through a door at the bottom of the stairs she could hear restrained laughter—was it laughter? Yes! It was laughter—echoing from the salon where she supposed champagne to be in progress, and then, as she got closer, a sudden insistent yapping. Oh no, not a noisy dog to put up with. At the foot of the stairs crouched a small white poodle with a diamond-studded collar, whose barking turned to a baby-like whimpering until a red-haired woman rushed out of the salon, gathered the dog into her arms and covered him with kisses. “Louis, Louis, my darling.” The dog looked up at her. “That’s love,” the woman said to no-one in particular. “See how he looks at me?”
How interesting, thought Helen.
Jacqueline was mixing Kir Royale aperitifs. “Come in, Helen,” she called out. “Welcome.”
The room looked pretty empty. Well, what did you expect at this time of the year? she said to herself. This slowly darkening time when the tourists had left and the hotels and restaurants were preparing to close for the winter. But she reminded herself that this was an excellent opportunity to finish a draft of Death on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The dog lady was sitting with a youngish woman—who must be her younger sister, a slimmer version with thicker, paler, longer hair—and a red-haired child. Both women watched as the young girl clicked her multi-coloured pen and drew on a small notepad.
Helen felt a pang of envy for the vibrant family group, so alive, so at ease with each other, so loving and encouraging to the child. As long as they were all together, they’d be happy anywhere. Thinking about them brought back painful memories. There was love there between mother and child, and laughter, and physical contact, none of which she had ever known. Her cold Russian mother, Svetlana, was an unstable delicate woman, a former beauty whom Father idolised. Svetlana was his world. Neither Mother nor Father really knew their three little girls. Helen remembered the dread in the pit of her stomach when Father would return from his surgery and she’d hear his key in the door, “What did you do to upset your mother today?” he’d shout at Helen. He blamed Helen for everything. Mother’s illness, her heart attack, everything. When Mother died at forty-eight, Father wept like a baby, but then, within the year, he’d remarried.
She watched the sisters and the child lovingly entwined as they walked to the door.
Then there was nothing for her to do but go for a walk.
Through the iron door, across the deserted road, and along the shore of the beach she walked in the fading light of that blue day. The stillness engulfed her once she was past the end of the beach. The water was almost stationary with tiny waves. A solitary lamp gleamed above her, turning the sharp leaves of a pine tree into a dagger.
No sound of screaming brakes in this place, just the sound of her own steps as she walked back across the gravel, along the sand, and over the small pebbles.
“If this apartment wasn’t smack bang on the water, I’d leave now,’ she Skyped to Damion.
“As soon as you make a start on one of your projects, you’ll feel better,” he said. “If you could get the final instalment of the Parker Powell series completed Harper Collins would jump for joy.”
“I’m going to check on flights out of here,” insisted Helen.
“Don’t be silly,” he said, his forehead crinkling into a scowl. He widened his eyes at her.
Maybe he was right, she should just get back to work and she’d feel much better. “Probably too hard to get another booking with everyone travelling for Christmas,” she murmured.
“And twice the price for the airfare,” he said, folding his arms in front of his chest and leaving them there, like a barrier, like a fortress. And then began softly to sing La Marseillaise.
Next morning, a cold wind blew across the mountains. Helen awoke to the sound of rattling windows. A weak strip of light appearing at the base of the blind seemed to signal a dull day. She dressed slowly, layer on layer, adding a down coat at the last and, opening the doors to the terrace, she went out and set her laptop on the table. She hoped the bracing air would force her back to some semblance of life. She breathed in deeply before beginning a morning of imaginings.
She pulled out her notebook to draft a scene of a woman being hit by a van as she stepped out on a pedestrian crossing. The driver of the florist’s van must have run an amber light. But later, after the hospital, and during the police interview, the courier denied he’d run an amber or a red light. To the woman’s family, it was obvious that the driver hadn’t wanted to stop suddenly with his van full of flowers. He’d be up for replacement costs. The woman told the paramedics that of course she’d waited for the little green man to appear. She’d never cross on a red light at a pedestrian crossing, it wasn’t in her personality. In the ambulance they’d had to cut off her beautiful Italian leather boots to free her crushed limbs.
At the hospital the orthopaedic emergency doctor inserted a steel rod in her leg and two screws at the ankle. The woman reckoned the doctor said that the sight of her foot, hanging by skin only, had made him feel sick.
Who would believe a surgeon would say something like that?
“Does it sound true that an emergency doctor would say to a patient that the sight of her injuries made him feel ill?” she asked Damion on Skype. He stood up to turn the volume down on Barbara Streisand, then sat back in front of the screen.
“No,” he said, frowning. “Seems inappropriate. Why?”
“That’s what my sister said.”
“How so?” He looked at her narrowly.
“At the hospital. After the accident. That’s what the emergency doctor said when they brought Naomi in. That’s what Leah says when she tells the story of what happened.”
“At least she’s able to speak about it now.”
“Yes,” Helen said defensively. “Apparently, she keeps on talking about it. Telling that same story about what the surgeon said before he operated.”
She began in the afternoons, after staggering out of her room, dazed and exhausted from several hours with Death on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to go for a walk.
Dressed in black jeans tucked into furry après ski boots and her down coat, she made her way up the stairs to a small plaza where two men played boules, watched by four silent onlookers. She walked on until she came to a large café, behind whose glass windows three chandeliers twinkled.
Her coffee was brought to the table by a waiter in a white shirt, velvet bowtie and circular gaping holes in his ear lobes. She wondered if he’d had the giant empty holes punched into his lobes or had his skin stretched out over time.
In the far corner she could see the two sisters and the red-haired child. The child looked about the same age as Naomi. Would have been the same age as Naomi, if Helen hadn’t been in such a rush that day to get to the yoga class. If only Helen hadn’t been so selfish, Naomi would still be alive.
Watching the red-headed child yet again, she felt the ache in her gut that preceded tears. She sipped the coffee. It was hot, but bitter.
Louis Armstrong’s voice sang, When you kiss me, when you press me to your heart. Just then, her thoughts were interrupted by a friendly male voice saying, “Un autre café creme?”
Startled, she looked up to see the waiter with the hollow rings in his ears poised with pen and notepad. She murmured “Non merci,” expecting him to move away; she could hardly invite him to sit down and join her.
“Australienne?” he enquired, in a voice that was slightly flirtatious in its lilting upward inflection.
At least he didn’t think she was English. She gave a distracted smile, intending to discourage him from asking any more questions, but changed her mind and asked him instead about his earrings.
He told her it had taken a long time for his ear lobes to stretch. “I make since I was fifteen,” he said. “Very painful. You like?”
“Yes, they look good,” she said.
“Ca va?” Skyped Damion. She watched as he realigned his bushy eyebrows with a lick of his finger.
“Comme ci comme ca,” she said. “Some of the faces are becoming familiar.”
“How did the weekend go?”
She waved her hands in the air in front of her face, like a pair of windscreen wipers, and shook her head. “I got through it.”
“You made it to Monday?”
“Yes. Exactly. I made it to Monday,” she said. Damion laughed his big laugh. She looked at him. This week, she said, she would attempt to walk to Eze Village to check out the ancient ruins and the cactus gardens.
“A long way to climb up to Eze,” he warned. “Very, very steep. You can catch a bus, you know.”
“I need some strenuous exercise or I’ll go crazy here.”
Sleep did not come easily that night. She was a beautiful little girl. A really beautiful child, both inside and out. Helen shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She lay awake searching for an image of Naomi, listening for the sound of her voice but she could see and hear nothing.
And here was Helen in Villefranche, when she should be at home giving support to Leah over the difficult period of Christmas and New Year. She was the eldest, after all. The big sister. Hold their hands. Don’t let go of their hands. Wait until your sisters get off the bus.
Between disjointed dreams that flashed in Helen’s head she saw a woman being run over by her own car. The woman was trapped underneath the vehicle. She’d walked behind it and somehow the car had rolled over her and crushed her body. Police said that neighbours called emergency services immediately, but when paramedics arrived the woman was pronounced dead.
When Helen woke up, much later than usual, it was with the familiar and deadly knowledge that the day would be a write off. She took a shower but felt dizzy and disorientated, just like jet lag. She spoke sternly to herself. She knew that depression hovered and must be prevented. Writing was out of the question. Practice kindness and compassion, she counselled herself.
The bells of the Chapel rang. It must be Sunday.
A Plan B, of the kind at which she had become very skilled, was what she needed. Maybe she could allow herself to just lie in the sun on the terrace and read. She felt so tired, a tiredness that ruled out any enthusiasm for anything, any peace of mind, any relaxing into the moment.
The bright day had within it the possibility of a change of direction: it was the beginning of winter after all. Sun burned through the clouds: flowering bougainvillea and violet-coloured irises stood resolute in the weakening light. The trees had lost their abundance and were grieving for the dull brown leaves which lay on the ground beneath them. The only sound now was the clinking of the ships’ bells.
Deciding against Plan B, she knew that vigorous exercise was what she needed. That’s what she’d do. A walk to Eze Village. She packed food and water in a day pack and laced up her hiking boots. She opened the door, walked down the steps, let herself out of her dark cave.
She made her way towards Promenade Maurice Rouvier, where she saw the waiter from the café, dressed today in jeans and black jumper, a book in his hand leaning on the side railing and looking out to sea. Catching sight of her, he called out, “Bonjour.”
He asked where she was going.
“To Eze Village,” she said.
He said he could drive her there. It was a long and difficult uphill walk. 400m above sea level. His name was Gilles.
She fiddled with the straps of the backpack that dug into her shoulders, feeling self-conscious that he was looking through her clothing. She’d unintentionally put on a black bra beneath the white sweat shirt. “No thanks,” she said. “I want to walk.”
She gave him a wave goodbye, turned and crossed the road.
After half an hour of strenuous climbing on washed-out paths and over loose stones, she saw Gilles drive up the hill towards her in a small black sedan.
Again he offered her a lift.
Perhaps she should have accepted his offer, she thought later. It was all too hot and too far to walk in the end. She’d given up and gone shopping to the supermarket in Beaulieu sur Mer instead.
That’s when she’d seen Gilles again.
She was sitting outside at a café surrounded by her white plastic shopping bags. Not a very sexy look. He sat down beside her and ordered a coffee.
He told her he lived in Paris but was staying at his grandmother’s house in Beaulieu to earn some extra money in the holidays. “And you?” he asked. “Why are you here?”
“I’m working on a book,” said Helen. “I’m here to read and to write and to go for long walks.”
He took a sip of his coffee, then told her his passion was for poetry and philosophy.
“I was hoping you come with me to the beach to watch the colour of the clouds at sun set,” he said after a pause. “It is too beau to waste.”
Yes, go, Helen said to herself. What the hell? She always did admire persistence.
An unexpected pleasure, she thought, grateful to have a companion, as they walked slowly away from the little village along the water’s edge. Soon the sun would drop behind the mountains. The day was very slowly darkening, the blue of the sky fading in that in-between hour which signals the end of the day. The sadness that comes with the approach of night sank heavily into her being.
Gilles glanced at her. “Will we sit here by the rocks?” he suggested, guiding her to a sandy spot against the sea wall. Taking his shoes off, he asked if she minded if he lit a cigarette.
Helen shook her head.
He lit up. “I need to have more life experiences,” he sighed. “So I have something to write my poems about.”
So that was it, thought Helen. How funny. That’s what he wants? Well, it was the same for her. For the first time in forever, she giggled. The sound, so unexpected, surprised her. Once started, the giggling soon turned to laughing. She could not stop laughing. Gilles looked at her with a puzzled expression as the laughter brought tears to her eyes. Eventually, he laughed too while Helen dabbed at her cheeks. She took a deep and steadying breath, then put her arm around him.
He leaned in closer. “I would like to suggest that I take you out one day soon,” he said. “Have you been to Saint-Paul-de-Vence?”
She shook her head.
“A medieval city,” he said. “All the tourists like to go. And there are some nice little restaurants. We can have lunch there.”
They retraced their steps to his car.
“I’m going on an outing with a French waiter tomorrow,” she skyped to Damion. “His name is Gilles.”
Damion grinned at her. “I’ve heard about those French men.”
“You’ll have to tell me if it’s true or not.”
“Sure, sure. As if! He’s got a car. That’s the attraction.”
She looked out to the bright pink clouds in the darkening sky and watched as the evening light diffused over the honey-coloured walls of the old stone houses.
The next morning, she made her way up the steps and archways of the narrow winding streets that were lined with shops selling souvenirs and artisan products: paintings of Villefranche and its deep harbour, hand-painted ceramics, clay and figurines. On the main square, Gilles, dressed in black trousers, charcoal grey jumper, and cashmere jacket, stepped out to greet her.
“The only life around here seems to be on the Petanque Pitch,” said Helen with disappointment as they watched a group of men play boules.
“Yes,” agreed Gilles. “Saint-Paul-de-Vence used to be full of artists. You could see them at work. Chagall, he painted here for twenty years. He loved the trees, the amorous couples, the goats and the cockerels flying across the village. We can see his grave.”
They were seated outside a small cafe under a bougainvillea-covered archway, a bottle of chilled Rose on the table between them. At this height, the air smelt fresh and invigorating. The morose and lethargic person that she had been in the low-lying basin by the sea had evaporated on the way up, after the beautiful drive through the countryside and the walk past the art galleries and shops tucked into the meandering traffic-free streets. By some far-flung and opaque process new patterns were forming, resulting in something more definitive, more glistening, more substantial, able to appreciate pleasure, even to feel entitled to it.
A noise from the computer woke her up. It was the familiar boom boom music of Skype calling.
“So how did the date go?” asked Damion.
“It wasn’t a date. He drove me to Saint-Paul-de-Vence.”
“Amazing place, isn’t it? So … how did the day go?”
“Great. Really great. Very cold up on the ramparts, though. He offered me his coat. A real gentleman.”
“Don’t be fooled by that. He probably just wants to get into your knickers.”
“How crass of you, Damion,” she laughed. “Keep your opinions to yourself and don’t spoil things.”
She didn’t tell Damion how Gilles had opened his jacket to her up on the parapet and how she’d snuggled in close as he wrapped his coat tightly around her. She’d inhaled the freshly-washed smell at his neck and the olive wood scent that rose from the valley below.
Back in her room she’d sat down to wait for Gilles.
When he came, as she knew he would, one or two hours later, they said nothing but looked at each other with the ache of desire.
He frowned when she tried to lead him into the bedroom and asked what’s the rush. Didn’t she know that’s not how a French man made love. “French men love women,” he said. “We have all the night, ma cherie.”
Later, she lay on the bed in her satin nightgown which had not been torn but was pulled off her shoulders and twisted up around her. Gilles was kissing her mouth, lips, nose, cheeks, ears, eyes and forehead. The room was brimming with gratefulness and indulgence, a rich potage of love and lust.
Then suddenly she rolled over to the edge of the bed and curled around a pillow, her hair covering her face. She’d begun to cry.
“Mon petit,” he soothed. He pushed the hair away from her eyes.
“A child died because of me,” she murmured.
“A car accident.”
Gilles wiped her wet cheeks, then kissed her eyelids closed. “Ma cherie,” he was saying.
She felt far away, as if she were back home, walking through the neighbourhood and looking in the lighted windows at the weekend parties, the family dinners. She’d breathe in the smell of food cooking. Borscht? Was it the same as her mother used to make? The thing was, she could forgive her Russian mother. She’d come to that realisation on the day her mother died. She understood that Mother had done the best that she could—with her limitations. But Father? He should have known better.
She turned away, towards the window. No, she’d never forgive Father. But could she forgive herself?
Above the spiral of the chapel, where the mist had lifted, she thought she saw a plane. For a moment it seemed they were all there behind the window of the aircraft, all the random car victims, all the faces of the mothers and the children, and the spirit of the dead child telling her it was okay, it wasn’t her fault.
There was a moon, she noticed, opening the thick curtains and stepping out on to the terrace, and the air was fresh and new. She sat for a time, turning many thoughts over in her mind. A beautiful night, lovely, peaceful. More peaceful than most.
Back in bed, with Gilles’ arms wrapped around her, in that moment just before sleep, she became aware of a softness in her limbs—realised how rigidly she’d been holding herself—and of how much safety was available, here, in this moment, in the embrace of this man.
It was her last day in Villefranche. She stepped again through the iron door into a late afternoon of such tranquil beauty that she wondered how she could possibly have missed it. A winter sunset, soft like a peach, gilded the clouds; tiny waves sighed into the sand of the beach; a huge cruise ship passed noiselessly off in the direction of Nice; and at her feet, on the pebbly path, she saw the flicker of a lizard as it made its escape—in less than a heartbeat—through a gap in what looked to be an impenetrable brick wall.
Copyright © 2015 Libby Sommer