Monday, 23 May 2016

Life in a French Village

 Excerpt Six from 'A Life Lived Twice' by B A Spicer 

(Click on the title to go to Amazon and download Martha's story for 99p/99c 24th - 30th May.)



After two years, Claude had reluctantly left his apprenticeship under the guidance of Felix Dumas, to return to his father, who could no longer fulfil the occasional contracts required of him.  The time had come when he did not have the stomach for his trade and preferred to busy himself with his undertaking business, making arrangements for the dead instead of providing new corpses for the coffins he sold.  So, despite an overwhelming wish for his son to qualify as a lawyer, he sent for Claude one cold afternoon, when his heart had been touched by ice for the last time.
Claude had not hesitated. He would not have said so for the world, but he knew fundamentally and categorically that Felix Dumas would never make anything of him.  The former was restricted by the law he served, despite his undeniable intelligence.  The law was a prison.  Claude coveted his freedom, both physical and spiritual – he would never be able to abide by such petty rules.

And now, his father was dead.

Rosa Cousteau had grown older and fatter, her expression set and sullen.  She worried about the past and the future, leaving no time for the present.  She had no love for her son, but grieved still for the daughter she had lost years ago to a cruel virus.  Claude was no substitute, with his cadaverous features, his sunken eyes and his untidy, mouse-coloured hair. 
She could not bring herself to kiss her son when he came to visit, but listened politely to his descriptions of the places he had been.  It was always places that he spoke of and never people.  Almost never.  Only one name came up in conversation: Felix Dumas was a paragon of virtue, selfless and generous to a fault.  She was sick of hearing about him.  His father had been a constant drain on her husband.  Such a big man!  Wealthy and educated.  Pah!  Her husband had been caught in his flame, like a moth, bobbing and blundering to remain in the circle of light, just as her son now did, a generation on. 
The life had been sucked out of her husband slowly but surely, until his heart had given out one day during dinner and he had died in front of her, the agony on his face a memory she could not forget, his love for her too tragic to be savoured.  Dumas had not attended the funeral but his son had sent a message – she remembered how Claude had read it out to her.  It had made her sick to her stomach.
Rosa Cousteau’s bills were paid, and food was put before her.  She lived on, cared for by servants who whispered behind her back, and a son who fulfilled his professional obligations with a sang froid that her husband had lacked. 
      The sun rose each morning and lit the room where she slept, but could not warm her heart.  And when Claude came to visit, it was without love that she surveyed the dull features of a man who killed, she suspected, without conscience.  More than once, she had considered taking the shotgun from the cabinet and pretending that she had mistaken him for an intruder, for, the thought that she had brought such a monster into the world was, at times, unbearable.  

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Don't Judge a Book by its Cover!

Review: 'Jessica Lost her Wobble' by J. Schlenker






Both the cover (which shows a bicycle on a bridge), and the author’s plot summary set me on course for the tale of a ‘damaged’ woman who had moved to an island to begin a new life and who, metaphorically speaking, might lose her ‘wobble’.  It was a fairly under-whelming premise.

The style of writing is explicit - there were no real surprises.  I must admit that although the story of Jessie’s life on the island and her memories of when she moved to New York from England as a young girl are well-written and engaging, the candid nostalgia of a woman writing about life in the mid-nineteen hundreds was not ringing my bell.  Strange then, how comfortable it felt to pick up my kindle and retrieve Jessie where I had left her.  Strange, the vague affinity I had with this woman who seemed to be working through a tragic history and searching for a new interest: yoga, cooking Indian food, opening a tea shop… 

The people she meets are interesting and well-developed characters, the stories of her past are from another era, and demonstrate a shocking naivety and a touching vulnerability.  Jessie is nice, with a capital ‘N’.  But ‘nice’ just doesn’t cut it in the real world.  Not for me, at least.  Lots of people will enjoy the life and times of a woman like Jessie, who has lived a varied and interesting life.  A woman who it’s easy to like and for whom we wish at least some happiness in her new life on the island.  But I couldn’t quite understand why this book was a finalist in the 2014 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.

Then comes the twist.  Exquisite!

I wanted to know more about the author.  The only thing I could find was a single photograph on Amazon India.  In it, she’s wearing a huge grin.  How appropriate!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Life in a French village...

Excerpt Four from  'A Life Lived Twice'

Angeline had taken on one of the local girls and she had made a good choice.  Alicia was fast and careful, only needing the company of the radio to keep her amused.  In the three hours that she worked, she got through more or less all the ironing from five large loads of washing.  What was more, she folded the clothes beautifully and packed them neatly into bags so that, when Angeline returned at eleven thirty with more laundry, Alicia had done everything she had asked of her and more.
Adrian was booked in at summer school, so his mother took on more clients and made deliveries in the mornings, washing the next loads in the afternoons, ready for Alicia to iron, going out with a second delivery when she had finished. 
At first, the girl came three times a week, just in the mornings, but soon she was there four full days a week, working flat out.  The laundry room was large and light, with plenty of space for the extra business, but Angeline wanted to have sturdy shelves built to store the bags of laundry safely and neatly so she called in a neighbour and paid him to build some.  She bought a new washing machine to add to the one she already had, choosing one that took almost twice as many kilos and which spun the clothes so well that they did not need to be hung out, but could be tumble dried for a few minutes and ironed straight away.
The mornings were the busiest time for Angeline; she got Adrian off to school and loaded the van for her deliveries.  There was little time to spare, although she always made her clients feel as though she had all the time in the world to give them the best possible service.  In the afternoons, as the machines whirred, she sometimes slept and sometimes did the mounting paperwork that came with the new business.  This, she was good at.  Then, she went out with her afternoon deliveries, making twice as many as the previous month, sometimes coming home with more than twenty envelopes containing various amounts of cash.  She ran her affairs efficiently and profits were increasing.  As a result, her savings account was growing fast.
On Wednesday mornings, Alicia had said she could not come and so Angeline made herself beautiful, loading the van with a few bags and setting out early, as soon as she had dropped her son off at his school.
‘I will be here at midi, my darling.  Work hard and do your lessons well,’ she said.
Then, after making a few deliveries that would not wait until the afternoon, she would drive to the large house on the outskirts of the next village and pull off the road out of sight, taking two medium-sized bags to the door and knocking gently.
‘You look beautiful! I have missed you!  So much time to wait!’  he said, as she skipped into the hall and teased him with her carefree attitude.
‘I am busy.  I have to work.  I am not rich like you, and I need new shoes.  Look at these!  I would like to come with beautiful shoes to see you, but there are too many bills to pay and there is no money left for me,’ she simpered.
And afterwards, when they had made love and he had told her he would do anything for her, he gave her money and she laughed, saying she could earn more in an hour, that she would not have time to come every week to see him.  Then he would hand her his wallet and watch her dance down the steps, back to her husband and child, until the following Wednesday.  And the next time, he would make more of a fuss of her – telling her that he loved her and could not be without her.
Angeline Roche was a businesswoman.  She did not consider that she was being unfaithful to her husband, because she did not love Felix Dumas.  His love making was quick and gentle, almost as though he made no effort at all to arrive at his pleasure.  Then he would stare at her and say that she was beautiful and that he wished they could marry and move away to an island somewhere, where people would not know them and they could live a simple life.  She would listen and think to herself that he was mad to believe she would go away with him, unless it were to live in a palace with servants and money to spend on the high life she desired.  And, at the same time, she knew that he did not mean any of it, any more than she did.  He was happy with the arrangement they had and so was she.  Of course, now that the business was going so well and Guy had started at the hotel, there was plenty of money coming into her home and it would have been easy to put a halt to her affair.  But she saw no harm in it and always thought of the fatness of her lover’s wallet, as he handed it to her at the end of her visit.  She never took all of the notes; the most she had taken in the past had been the two hundred euros for the van repair.  Usually she had taken one hundred euros, estimating that there were always at least five hundred left.  Now she took two hundred, sometimes three.  She thought this was reasonable and supposed that he did too.
After she had showered and tidied her hair and make-up, Angeline left, never forgetting to take his laundry, pulling out onto the deserted country lane and sticking to the back roads, avoiding the village. 
Adrian would come out and wave to her as he said goodbye to his friends and chattered like a bird, throwing his arms around her neck, kissing her and telling her about his day.  Angeline rarely spoke to the other mothers, who, it was rumoured, thought her stuck up.  Of course, they were envious of her success.  She did not care.  Let them stare.  She had a few good friends in the village and that was all she needed.  If the others wanted to gossip about her and stick knives in her back, it was of no consequence to her whatsoever.
At home, Angeline would get lunch and wait for her husband to come in from work.  Wednesday afternoons were leisurely and she loved to watch Guy playing with their son, while she tidied away the dishes and straightened the kitchen.  It occurred to her that it had been over three weeks since she had seen her husband with a cigarette in his mouth and, although she could not be sure, she thought that he might have stopped altogether.  Certainly, when Adrian put a hand into his work jacket these days, there was nothing to steal.

 She would not ask him about it so soon.  It would be better to wait for him to tell her.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Life in a French village

Excerpt Three from 'A Life Lived Twice'by B A Spicer





Angeline Roche stood at her ironing board, steam rising, moving her hips to the music of her favourite band.  She liked British and American music.  Something with a beat, with a little life.  Something to make her dream. 
Adrian was visible in the lounge, playing FIFA on his Playstation.  She whizzed the iron efficiently over her customers’ shirts, trousers, jackets and dresses; folded them quickly and placed them into the special bags she provided, labelled with the appropriate names.  She never got the clothes mixed up, never had any complaints about her work or her prices, which were higher than they should be, her friends told her.  Her customers were wealthy, they could afford to pay more, and they were grateful for her service, always complimenting her and tipping her generously when she dropped the clothes off and collected a new load. 
Angeline Roche was a businesswoman, registered as self employed and paying enough of her taxes to escape scrutiny. 
By lunchtime, she had finished.  Guy arrived home at twelve fifteen as a rule, but today it was after twelve thirty when he came in whistling, shouting out to her that he was home, as though she may not have heard him.  The table was set and Adrian carried the dishes, setting them down on the mats. 
‘What’s up, you terror?’ 
‘I beat PSG!  And I bought Ronaldo!’
‘What! Spending again?  How much?’
‘Fifty million euros!’
‘Sit down, Adrian.  The food is ready,’ said his mother.
Guy winked, and the boy did as his mother asked.
‘How is the washer-woman today?’  He came up behind her and put his arms around her waist.
‘Be careful!’
‘Mmmm! Smells good.  What is it?’
Angeline swiped at him with the teacloth then passed him the fish to take to the table.
When they were seated, she asked him where he had been to make him late. 
‘Eat your salad, Adrian!’ she said, waiting for her husband’s response.
‘I went to see the Englishwoman, about lessons.’
‘Oh!’
‘She said she would teach me, so I took her up on it.  The hotel Bellevue is advertising for a groundsman.’ 
Guy’s non sequitur hung in the air as his wife finished her salad and served out the fish with peas.
‘Have you got time to play a match, Papa?  Before you go back?’  Adrian took the plate his mother offered him and, because he was looking at his father, knocked over his water.
‘Look what you have done!  Get a cloth, quickly!’  His mother stood and moved the plate of fish, waiting for her son to bring a cloth.  She could not hide her irritation.  Why should her husband want the Englishwoman to teach him!
‘How much are these English lessons going to cost?’  She started mopping up the water.
‘She said she would do them for free.  She has no need of my money.’
Angeline looked at him and he looked back at her. 
Adrian took the cloth to the sink and squeezed it dry before returning with it for his mother to finish wiping up the mess. The boy hid his disappointment.  He knew now that his father would not play a match.  It was no good asking again.
At just before two o’clock Guy returned to the garden centre, leaving his wife and child for the afternoon.  As he drove, he wished that he had not told his wife about the lessons and that he had had time to play a match with Adrian.  He put his hand in his pocket to take out a cigarette and found that they were not there.  She had taken them again.  He took out the packet he kept in the glove compartment and lit up.
Adrian had remained at the door as it closed and handed the packet of cigarettes to his mother, a solemn look on his face.
‘Don’t worry, darling.  We will make him stop.’
Later, Angeline carried the laundry out to her van and the smell of the fresh clothes made her smile.  She was careful to keep them in the chai – where the smell of smoke would not taint them. There were six large bags of beautifully clean and fragrant washing, expertly folded and packed so that her customers would be delighted with her excellent work. 
Adrian did not accompany her on her deliveries.  He was seven, he did not want to come with her, preferring to stay in the house and play on his computer games.  At least he didn’t play war games, like his friends.  He loved football.  It was the most important thing in his life.  On training nights he was happy and, one day, he would play for a team like Paris Saint-Germain – there was not a single doubt in his mind.
Angeline went in to say goodbye, reminding him to call her on her mobile if he needed her, but he barely heard her and she closed the door, wondering once more whether she should force him to accompany her, just to get him out of the house.  But what would that accomplish?  Her son would be miserable and her afternoon would be ruined.  So she got into her van and drove off to her first customer.  She would be finished by four thirty and then she could have some time with her son. 
The first house came into view, its enormous façade newly painted, its windows pristine and its shutters flawless.  When she rang the bell, the owner’s young daughter opened it and stood on the threshold, uncertain what to do.
‘Maman!’ she called, still staring at Angeline, who met her gaze with a cool expression.
She set the heavy bag down on the step and the girl ran off as her mother came down the stairs carrying a vase of flowers that had wilted.
‘Oh, Angeline!  Is it that time already?  Thank you so much.’
‘It’s just after two-thirty, Madame Fournier.  I’ll get the other bag from the van for you.’
The lady of the house handed over an envelope after Angeline had left the bags inside the door for her home help to put away.  As always, Madame Fournier had not brought down the new laundry and Angeline went up to the landing to look for it, while her client complained that she was sure she had asked Christine to bring the bag down.
‘I don’t think Christine does it on a Tuesday,’ said Angeline, as she went up the stairs.
‘Oh, yes!  You’re probably right, my dear.  Yes.  That’s right.  I think…’ Madame Fournier stood as though marooned, at the bottom of the stairs, not knowing where the bag might be, even after all these weeks.
As Angeline Roche drove away to her next customer, she dreamed that, one day, she would live in such a house and have servants of her own.  In fact, she did not regard her future success in terms of a dream.  A dream suggested that it might be unattainable in some way.  No, it was a plan; something she would engineer by using her genius for making her service second to none and therefore indispensable. Her client-base would grow and she would expand her business, taking on staff, assuming a strictly managerial role, conversing with her customers as a professional, no longer at their beck and call, but on an equal footing.  Yes.  This was what she would achieve.  And soon.
 She finished her rounds and went back to the house, where, after she had counted her money and recorded it in her accounts, she coaxed Adrian into the kitchen to help her make a cake for his father.  While they chatted, she glanced at the clock and wondered about her husband, sitting with the Englishwoman, learning a language he would never need.  It was doubtful whether a hotel groundsman would ever use such a skill, but, Angeline reminded herself, it was Guy who must choose the things he did in his life, just as she did in her own.

View book on Amazon

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Killer on the Move...

 Excerpt Two from 'A Life Lived Twice'



It was inconvenient, but to be expected in his line of work.

Claude Cousteau prepared his overnight bag and selected the papers he would be travelling under.  His contact had insisted that he follow the instructions he would receive in Verona to the letter.  It was an important client.  There would be no room for compromise. 
Claude disliked not knowing how his clients wished him to work.  It would be irritating to have to use a knife or, even worse, a garrotte.  Claude considered these methods old fashioned and messy.  What was more, he did not enjoy mutilating his targets, it was not a thrill he sought to see them disfigured or brutalised.   On the other hand, he hoped he would feel the life drain out of his victim and sense the moment when the heart, if not the brain, finally gave out.  And then, the exquisite lifting of the spirit; its separation from the body, subtle, yet overwhelming.  He closed his eyes, remembering.
The night was moonless, the road quiet, and his second-hand Peugeot unremarkable, turning no heads as he parked in the long-stay car park and took out his bag.  On the plane, he read the newspaper and drank a coke, trying to ignore the overweight passenger in the seat next to him, who couldn’t help spilling over onto his seat and who, by way of apology, it seemed to Claude, proceeded to engage him in minute conversation.
Eventually, in self-defence, Claude pretended to fall asleep. The buoyancy of the plane relaxed him and he drifted back to his childhood, remembering a second visit to the Dumas residence, at the age of sixteen… 
His father had parked right outside the main entrance, as the driveway was not clogged with cars this time.  No celebration was being held, and the place did not seem the same.  It was as though it were less alive, but infinitely more beautiful.
Monsieur Dumas appeared shortly before the maid, shooing her away and greeting his guests effusively.  He wore a cream-coloured suit and a silk cravat in a shade of blue that resembled the delicate petals of a cornflower. The man was too perfect to be real.
Once inside, they sat in ornate armchairs, while their host enquired politely about his father’s health and then moved on to the question of Claude’s studies – the reason for the visit.  The maid returned with a tray of tea and a glass of lemonade.
‘When you have had enough of old men’s chatter, perhaps you would like to see the apple orchard?’ suggested Dumas.
It was all Claude could do to answer, trembling over his choice of words in order to address the two statements successfully. 
‘I would love to see the orchard!’ he said, timidly.
‘Ha!  Of course you would.  Felix is about, I believe.  Why don’t you sneak up on him?’
 Outside, Claude felt the sweat on the backs of his legs evaporate and he began to relax a little, listening to the breeze coming up from the meadow, his senses alert to even the smallest sounds as he continued his walk down to the orchard, catching the scent of apples on the warm autumnal air.  Before him, the branches swung heavily with fruit.  It was difficult to tell whether the fruit was ripe enough to be harvested.  There would only be one way to find out.  He stretched out a hand…
‘Good enough to eat, eh?’ Felix Dumas, older and smarter than Claude remembered, moved almost as though he were floating a little above the ground.
‘Oh!  Good afternoon, Maitre Dumas.’ Claude dropped the apple he had plucked, holding his breath as it rolled towards Felix Dumas’ brown leather shoe.
‘Call me Felix, for goodness sake!  Here!  Try this one,’ replied his host, selecting another apple and handing it to his terrified guest.
‘Thank you.’
The man and the boy observed each other, Claude with an expression of restrained panic and Felix with the kind of smile that oozed benevolence, his handsome face exuding a wholesome glow.  As during their first meeting, Claude was overwhelmed, and fought to keep his composure in the presence of a man who seemed to grow in stature and in beauty, yes, beauty, even as he stood there in the shadows of the fruit-laden trees.
‘So, Claude, you want to study Law?’ Felix Dumas was amused and yet keen to encourage his future apprentice to speak without fear.
‘I…My father wishes me to try something… respectable,’ Claude answered, looking directly at his better.
‘Your father?  Respectable?  Of course!’ Felix laughed. ‘He has been a good friend to my father in the past.  I am sure we can come to some arrangement.’
Claude had never thought of his father’s being a friend to the proprietor of such a palatial residence, who must surely move in very different circles. To have such a person as a friend would be beyond belief.
Felix Dumas led the way down towards the stream and Claude wanted more than anything to open the chest that still stood beside the oak tree, but Felix seemed not to notice it this time and carried on along the narrow path, towards the bridge.  It worried the young boy that perhaps the smart notaire had forgotten all about the boats and the racing. 
Claude relived the afternoon, biting into the apple at last, casting frequent glances behind him, half listening to his host as he described the benefits of a career in Law.

The plane jerked and Claude opened his eyes.  It struck him for the first time, that Felix Dumas had known about the alternative that awaited his young protégé, if he did not take up the help that was offered.  Felix Dumas had wanted to save him!  It was not just a question of generosity towards a boy he hardly knew, it was the offer of an honourable life, a chance to rub shoulders as equals, the opportunity to reject the path his father had reluctantly planned for him, and branch out. 
The air hostess came nearer, offering drinks and snacks, in a voice honey-sweet but weighed down with routine.  Her neck was slender and fragile.
‘I’ll take a scotch, young lady!’ cried Claude’s fellow passenger suddenly. ‘And whatever this fine fellow would like!’
Claude realised that the patient smile on the young girl’s face was for him.
‘Nothing for me, thank you.’
A look passed between the man and the girl. 
Her neck would be oh so easy to break.  And the enormous lump beside him?  It would be better to finish him with a single, clean shot. Claude imagined his surprise, his body slumping to the floor – it would be difficult to move him, afterwards.
Conversation became impossible to avoid, now that the contact had become personal, and so Claude feigned interest in the perfume salesman, who was bent on launching his new and unique product on the Italian people, whom he pronounced to be the most stylish of the Europeans, and the most beautiful.
A fat tongue flicked out and wet his lips as he described the sophisticated women who would choose his product, how it would increase their powers of attraction and render them even more irresistible.  The sales pitch made the fat man sweat.  He didn’t seem to notice the expression on his neighbour’s face, which held a level of contempt only possible when laced with a deep-seated desire to do harm. 
At last, the plane touched down and Claude disappeared into the crowd.  Any contact with the public was always potentially awkward, but, with his new identity, it would be unlikely to cause any problems, and he doubted whether the man or the hostess would give him a moment’s thought.  Their lives would carry on without him and he would become a vague memory.
The taxi driver paid his passenger little attention, pre-occupied as he was with the rush-hour traffic.  He said that the streets were infernal and the tourists ripe for the picking.  Did Claude agree that there should be two fares – one for the foreigners and one for his fellow Italians?  Of course.  It was only right and natural, did he not think?  No need for a tip.  No.  It was a pleasure to transport a countryman.  Goodnight and good luck. 
Claude walked away, harbouring a complex loathing for this fawning hypocrite of a man, with his constant flow of bigotry, his lucky charms and brash display of signs bearing expressions of welcome in a selection of languages.

There was an hour and a half before the scheduled rendezvous with the client’s representative; just time to check into his hotel and close his eyes for a few minutes.  Then, he would go out into the early evening, his pulse steady and his heart unmoved by the task he would perform. 

Martha Burton has moved to France. Her new life is idyllic. Mostly.



Excerpt One from 'A Life Lived Twice'




‘Don’t worry, cherie.  I will get Christophe and Jean to help us!’
‘Thank you, Michel.’  It was difficult not to cry, all of a sudden, after an afternoon spent going over what had happened and imagining how gullible she had been.  Michel was the antidote to her self-doubt and she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.
‘Eh?  I like it!  You must buy an olive tree every day!’ he laughed.
‘Do you think the tree was too expensive?’
‘No!  It is a beautiful tree.  Look at its majestic trunk, its graceful branches.  For this you must pay a higher price, cherie!’
Martha knew that he was humouring her a little, enjoying her weakness and his strength.
‘It is a nice tree, I suppose.’
‘You’ll see!  When it is in its place, it will be wonderful!’  Michel laughed and left her then to change into some old clothes before his friends arrived.
Martha set about making some aperos for them all, for when the job had been done and they could drink and eat together in the garden and go over how they had accomplished such a great task.  She felt uneasy still, but reasoned that soon, she would have forgotten all about her foolish thoughts, as long as the tree looked all right next to the decking, as long as she didn’t hate it.
Christophe and Jean arrived, greeting Michel loudly and slapping him on the back, making jokes that she couldn’t understand.  When they came into the kitchen, their manner changed instantly, as they greeted her politely and with a reverence she found unnerving.
She watched them in the garden, working out how to get the tree out of the pot, laughing and joking with each other and not making a great deal of progress. She wanted to join them; to be the same as them, unconcerned and relaxed.
‘Perhaps we should water it in the pot?’ she suggested, standing with her hands on her hips.
For a moment, the men became quiet, noticing her change of clothes, seeing that she wanted to be a part of the group.  Then, although they were still not as they had been when she had watched them from the kitchen, they let her join them and gradually became themselves in front of her.
‘If we water it in the pot, it will be even heavier!’ said Michel, eventually.
‘Yes, but she’s right, you know.  The soil is dry.  It’s stuck to the pot.’ Christophe scratched his head.
‘We can cut the pot,’ offered Jean, ‘ if you have the right kind of tool for the job!’  At this the men eyed Martha shyly.
‘Oh, he has a very good tool!’ she said, wanting to break the ice once and for all.
At this, the men guffawed and clutched their stomachs, slapping Michel on the back and nodding shyly at Martha. 
After that, it was easier to get on with the job and, surprisingly, the innuendo ceased, more or less.
They watered the soil and, laying the tree carefully on its side, rolled the pot gently back and forth to loosen the roots and tease it out little by little.  Martha brought beers and they mopped their brows with their sleeves, wiped their hands on their trousers, before drinking.
‘Where do you want it planted?’  Michel asked, and they all looked at her, as though this important question should have been broached much earlier.
‘Next to the vine, I think, in front of the decking.  If the soil is easy enough to dig.’  This last comment set them flexing their muscles and joking again, while Martha got out the spades and a large, robust garden fork to loosen the earth first.  She brought a broom to sweep away the pebbles and some shears to cut the special permeable cloth that was supposed to keep weeds from growing. 
Soon the hole was dug and they argued for a while about whether it was the right size to take the tree, while Martha crept off to the house and came back with a tape measure, which she slipped into Michel’s hand. 
‘Perhaps, you idiots, we should measure the hole?’  Michel held out the tape measure and winked at Martha, to hoots of derision from his friends. 
The hole was too wide and not deep enough, but twenty minutes later it was ready.  It took all their strength to lift the tree, cursing and laughing all the while, listening to Martha telling them to turn it this way and that, as she strode around the garden, viewing it from different angles and finally gave them the thumbs up.  They filled in the hole, leaving the tree roots level with the ground, as Guy had instructed, then Martha filled a watering can three times and soaked the roots.  The olive tree would need to be watered regularly in the hot dry weather, Guy had said, until it had established itself.
The men went to wash their hands and faces and to get more beer from the fridge.  Martha brought out smoked salmon nibbles, houmous and raw vegetables to dip, prawns with a rosé sauce, and cheesy Wotsits, which Michel adored. There was fresh bread and Camembert too, to satisfy the men’s appetites. And, as the blue of the early summer sky paled, then darkened, they passed the time commenting on the tree, agreeing that it looked very fine where it was and that it would soon fill out and grow new leaves and perhaps some olives for bottling.  They promised to ask their mothers the best way to bottle olives and proceeded to tell anecdotes about their childhood and how it had been so different then, with the allotments and the fresh fruit and vegetables.  How they had helped their grandfathers picking beans and peas and even helped their grandmothers shell and cut them in the kitchen, listening to stories of their own youth. 
The men mellowed with the evening, becoming philosophical, looking up at the sky and watching for the first stars, enjoying the silence as much as the conversation. 
When they reluctantly agreed that it was late and they should leave, they returned a little to their loutish behaviour, joking about what their wives would say they had been up to, shushing each other and promising not to tell, as they moved unsteadily along the hall and carefully opened the front door, trying to keep quiet so as not to disturb the other people in the square.
Michel and Martha stood at the front door and waved to them as they slunk away, holding onto each other and giggling like schoolboys. 
It had been a very pleasant evening, leaving them all tired and satisfied.  The clock in the kitchen said two a.m. and, outside the back door, in the light of the moon, the olive tree looked lovely.  It had been the right decision to buy it, and with this thought, Martha wondered whether she had imagined all the things she had thought about Guy.  He was probably a very nice man, aware that the tree would bring happiness to his new customer.  Martha shook her head – she should beware of reading too much into things.  Life was simple, if you let it be, especially after several glasses of wine and a good deal of fun. 

Michel was already asleep on the bed, his shirt removed but his trousers still on.  Martha undressed and lay down next to him, closing her eyes and thinking of her new tree, alone and mysterious in the night.


Tuesday, 12 April 2016

More Holiday Fun with Bev and Carol





It wasn’t long before we had got into a routine of getting up late, eating brunch, reading and lounging about for a while, and then walking down to the beach for a swim.
We always went to the local beach, it was nicer than Canet Plage, where we had gone with Luc and his friends.  It was less crowded too.  That meant not many children and fewer children meant less noise and less chance of having sand kicked all over us, or concussion from various kinds of balls.
We set out as usual and met a girl carrying an absolutely enormous rucksack, leaning forward at a worrying angle, and wearing one of the biggest smiles I’d ever seen.  She was not English, you could tell even from a distance, from the colour of her skin and the tee shirt she was wearing with ‘Flugzeug’ written across it.
‘Hallo!’ she said, increasing her pace and looking as though she would tumble over at any moment.
We stopped.  Somebody had to.
‘I look for the Mermaid site!  Do you tell me where is it?’ she said, slowing her pace.
Carol was impressively helpful and the girl, whose name was Ingrid, said that she would see us later.  At least that’s what I think she said.
It was four o’clock by then and perfect for sunbathing and swimming in the sea.  We bought oranges from a man with about a million of them piled up on the side of the road and carried on our way. 
I enjoyed the walk to the beach.  It was rare to meet anyone, and the scenery was reminiscent of those paintings where the sky and the land seem flat against each other and the view goes on forever.  I mentioned this to Carol, curious to have her opinion.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Just like in Star Wars!’
As I had not expected this comparison, I probed her further.
‘Do you mean the idea of infinity, the amorphous nature of time and the universe?’
‘Nah!  It all reminds me of the intro.  You know!  When the screen is black and the words kind of roll out into the distance and vanish.’
I had no idea what she meant, so I told her so.  She ignored me and continued with her train of thought as though I had not spoken:
‘Trouble was, I could never read the words in time.  What are all those Japanese people doing?’
This really did fox me.  First Star Wars and now Japanese people.  Was Carol experiencing some kind of schizophrenic episode?  Had the heat of the sun eroded her power of rational thought? 
She pointed. ‘There!  What the bloody hell is going on?’
It was true.  There had appeared, as though from nowhere, a very large trail of extremely overdressed Japanese tourists, all middle-aged and all with cameras around their necks.  They moved as bees swarming, massing together and surging apart, as though breathing, as one.
‘Bollocks!’ said Carol.  ‘They’re going to the beach!’
I didn’t count them, but soon, we had caught up with them.  They filled the path and there was no way past.  In addition to this problem, I wondered whether it might not be the experience we were looking for to be on the same stretch as hundreds of beach tourists who had no intention of taking their jackets off and might never shut up.
‘Come on!’ said Carol, veering off along a path we had never taken before.

It was certainly quieter, and it wasn’t long before we found out why.
‘Does naturiste mean what I think it means?’ asked Carol, standing in front of a very large sign with a very large arrow on it.
I wasn’t sure, but I thought so.
‘I don’t mind getting my baps out if you don’t!’  she reasoned.
The beach was coming up fast and we clutched at each other, controlling our giggles as best we could.  We might have made it, had we not heard men’s voices behind us and looked round to see two bronzed gods swinging up fast.
‘Christ on a bike!’ said Carol, stepping aside and staring rudely.
‘Guten Tag!’
Please don’t stop and have a conversation with us!  I thought.
They passed in front of us and we watched their perfect asses for a while, breathing in for what seemed to be a very long time and, eventually remembering to breathe out.
‘Did you see the size of his cock?’ asked my gobsmacked friend.
‘Well, yes.  I didn’t have much choice in the matter, did I?’
‘Come on!  There must be loads more on the beach…’

I wasn’t sure that I fancied the idea of so much nudity all in one place, but I had never sunbathed topless before, so I was keen to give it a go in an environment where one extra set of, admittedly, perfect breasts would not cause too much of a stir.  To my horror, Carol was untying her bikini top before we even got there and soon it was difficult for me to concentrate on what she was saying as I felt a little seasick in the face of so much uncontrolled bouncing.