I will never forget the day she came into my life. Until then, things had been great. Well, for the past two and a half years, life in general had been pretty good to me despite everything that had gone before it that had caused me to give up a job I loved and move to somewhere with a decided slower pace of life.
That somewhere is in a largish village in France. Not in Brittany or the Dordogne where lots of other ‘Brits’ congregate, but on the map, I’m about an hour and bit somewhere westish of Valence which if you don’t know it, sits on the River Rhone. I won’t tell you exactly where I am because honestly, I don’t want to spoil it for those who live here alongside me. I’m almost the only outsider in the area and frankly I like my adopted home too much to spoil it.
My home isn’t much to look at from the road. It was once a Garage come Filling Station. There is still an old hand pumped petrol dispenser in my garden. The front is a typical French ‘Garage’. A small door leading to an office and a pair of huge steel doors on sliders. There is a small door in the right-hand door. That is the entrance to my world.
Inside the Garage, there is my workshop but more of that later. A flight of steps leads up to my apartment. Two bedrooms and a huge living room come diner come kitchen. At the back a door leads patio with steps down to my hidden garden. It is very secluded and not overlooked on any side.
I bought the place at an Auction in Lyon for a fraction of what my old home in Docklands sold for. By a fraction, I mean less than 20% if you add in all the local fees and taxes.
The previous owner had suddenly keeled over and died one boozy night in the local bar. He was a tinkerer. He tinkered with all sorts of things but never seemed to actually finish any of his projects. The Garage was full of bits and pieces he’d collected and worked on over the years. His income was apparently, came from fixing things for local farmers. I needed a new career so I took over the work he’d started and with a lot of help and huge amounts of patience and understanding from the locals I managed to get all the things that needed fixing fixed. Doing this took me back to my time as a teenager when I fixed all my friends bikes. It was just what the Doctor ordered literally.
I recovered my health thanks to the clean atmosphere of the area, the great food and the help of Madam Le Mayor. She took me under her wing when I arrived and she discovered why I was living on her patch. Just saying that I was recovering from a serious illness was enough and she literally mothered me while I got myself settled. She was a wonder at finding the way through the literal maze within a maze that is French Bureaucracy. Many people think that it was the British empire that gave new meaning to the word ‘Bureaucracy‘ since the time of the Romans. That might be true but the French have taken it to entirely new heights of lunacy. One form that needed to be filled in needed my surname and only one forename. Another needed all the same details but in a different order entirely. She helped me get settled and improve my French no end. Thankfully, the locals were a patient lot and forgave my foo-pahs for quite a while. A willingness to put my hand in my pocket from time to time at the local watering hole no doubt had something to do with it.
As I said, things were going great until ‘she’ arrived on the scene. It wasn’t her fault as this tale will reveal but coincidences of her visit conspired to turn my life upside down.
It all started on one bright sunny spring day, I was working on Madam Le Maistre’s ancient 2CV van. She used it for everything including moving her livestock. Her prize Sow had put her foot through the floor the previous week. According to witnesses, the Sow got wind of the Boar that she was going to be mated with and… well chaos ensued. I was just finishing welding a piece of 10mm steel plate underneath the existing floor when I heard the door to my domain open.
“Bonjour? Hello? Is anyone there?” said the voice.
The banging from my hammer as I cleaned the welds of slag should have told whoever it was that yes, there was someone there. Also, if they’d opened their eyes, they would have seen my overall clad legs sticking out from the side of the vehicle.
I stopped banging and turned my head towards the voice. What I saw gave me a bit of a shock. There in my workshop was a woman with a pair of the most beautiful legs I’d ever seen. Well, the bit from mid-calf down was fantastic. She was also wearing heels. No one, not even Madame Le Mayor wore anything higher than 5.0cm in this place and that was only for the Bastille day celebrations. These were 10cm at least. The shoes didn’t look cheap either. To top it off, a red rose was lightly tattooed on the inside of her left ankle.
For a second, I forgave the interruption.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” I called out from underneath the camion.
I quickly connected up the exhaust pipe and slid out from under the vehicle to get a look at the owner of the voice.
“Hello, how can I help you? My name is John Archibald by the way.” I said as I faced her for the first time.
Immediately, I knew that I’d seen that face somewhere before. From her body language, I guess that she had the same thought as me. As for her body… Where do I start. She was thin, very thin. I guess the Americans would call her a size zero but for some reason it seemed perfect, not an ounce or should that be a gramme of excess weight anywhere as far as I could tell. Her clothes emphasised her body shape to a ‘T’. I could see the interlocking C’s on her belt. Again, her clothes were decidedly not cheap and totally out of place for a rural backwater like this.
She hadn’t replied so I added,
“We don’t get many tourists through here. We are somewhat off the beaten track.”
“I’m …. I’m not exactly a tourist. What is important is that my car died on me just up the street. A kind man wearing dirty blue overalls and with a cigarette glued to his lip directed me here. He mentioned something about ‘Les Rostbifs?”
“That would probably be Maurice De La Court then. His bark is worse than his bite. I guess I should take a look at the car then?”
“You don’t have to waste your obviously valuable time you know?” said the woman.
“Well, if you have breakdown cover on your car, you are welcome to use my phone. The last time we had to call them out it took them more than a day to find us.”
“It’s not a rental. It is my own car,” she said indignantly.
“Well then lead on, so that I can at least try to get you on your way as soon as possible,” I replied feeling as if we’d started jousting for position when clearly, there was no need.
She led me at quite a pace up the street. The vehicle we were heading for was pretty obvious. Not only was it the only vehicle for miles around to carry a UK registration but she’d left it right on the junction with the main road, the D2, out of here. At times, we can see oh, 15 cars an hour but that is the rush hour in these parts. As this was late morning traffic was very light so at the moment, no vehicles had been held up by the ‘dead’ car.
When we reached the car, I said,
“Can you pop the bonnet. I’ll take a quick shufti underneath while you try to start her.”
“There is no power at all. That’s the problem. It just died on me,” she complained but she did as I asked and pulled the release catch inside. The bonnet lifted by about an inch.
I quickly found the trick to releasing the catch and opened the bonnet. My attention was immediately drawn to the battery terminals.
One was totally furred up. The other, the earth was rusted through.
“When did you last have this serviced?” I asked.
“Two weeks ago, before I left England, why?”
“Then you need to sue them into oblivion. Here take, a look at this.”
When I pointed to the battery terminals she gasped.
“Can it be fixed?”
“It can but not here and probably not today.”
Her shoulders visibly sank.
“Why not today?”
“Firstly, in case you hadn’t noticed, we are in the arse end of nowhere. Secondly it is Saturday morning and the parts suppliers in Valence will be shut by the time I get there even if I started now and thirdly, it is a public holiday on Monday. Unless I can find the parts locally it looks like you are stuck here until Tuesday at the earliest.”
I heard a profanity said quietly. Although, to be fair, I’d have probably said the same if I was in her position.
“Is there anywhere to say around here?”
“The nearest hotel worth staying in is thirty klicks away back the way you came. However, Madam le Mayor will be happy to oblige I’m sure. She looked after me when I arrived on the scene. She’ll be happy to practice her very poor English on someone other than me. I now only speak French to her which annoys her immensely.”
“But first things first, we need to get this thing back to my garage. I’ll go and get my truck and I’ll tow you back there.”
She declined to answer. I could guess at the sort of things that were going through her mind at this point in time.
“I thought I saw a railway station as I came into the village. Is there a train by any chance?”
“Sorry. One train a day each way Monday to Fridays. Next train isn’t until this time Tuesday Morning.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I’ll go and get my truck.”
Twenty minutes later her stricken Toyota was parked outside my workshop.
“If you get your things then I’ll take you see Madame Le Mayor.”
She opened the boot to the car and heaved a huge case out. She was clearly not packing for a two-week holiday.
“Here, let me help you with that. We are going to the big house on the other side of the square.”
She turned control of the suitcase over to me with almost a smile. With what I hoped was a cheeky grin, I propped it up and ducked back inside my workshop.
I grabbed a ‘dolly’ from inside my workshop and quickly loaded the case onto it.
“Shall we go?” I said.
She turned about and strode purposely off in the direction of the village square.
I followed and soon caught her up. He fashionably cut skirt was not letting her stride too fast. I didn’t mind because she was just as stunning to look at from behind as from the front but all the time, I was still racking my mind as to where we’d met before.
I rang the bell to the house where Marie Pascale, the Village Mayor lived.
When she opened the door, there was a look of delight on her face.
“Jean, it is so nice of you to call.”
Then we kissed French style on both cheeks and a third on the left to show that I was a friend and not an acquaintance.
“Who is this, I see with you.”
“This is, sorry, I don’t know your name…”
“I…. I’m Madeline Fisher,” she replied quietly.
“Marie, Madelaine’s car has broken down and I won’t be able to get the parts from Valence to repair it until Tuesday. I was wondering if you could put her up until then?”
“Naturellement. It will be my pleasure to help you Madelaine. Jean taught me a lot of English when he first arrived in our little commune, but since he has become so proficient in French, I get so little opportunity to practice it. Please, both of you come inside. I’ll make us something to drink.”
Something to drink turned into Lunch and I didn’t get home until well after three. Madeline hardly said a word the whole time and what was worse in my eyes, she only pecked at her food and as for drinking? Three sips of the local wine which isn’t bad really and that was it. If starving yourself was the price to pay for looking like that then I’d rather have a well-rounded woman any day.
I left Madeline in Marie’s capable hands and down to cleaning the terminals on the battery of the Toyota. I took it inside my workshop and put it onto charge. Then I called it a day and went upstairs to my apartment.
With a bottle of beer open I tried searching on the internet for Ms Fisher. To my surprise, there was nothing on Google, Facebook or any of the other social media sites I still maintained an account on. I made a mental note to delete my profiles from as many of them as I could especially the one on LinkedIn. Once upon a time and in a different life, it had been useful. Now, I couldn’t care less what happened to my old colleagues in the City. Two of them had almost popped their clogs in the past year which was sobering to say the least.
The fact that I could not place her continued to bother me even in my dreams.
Sunday was not a day of rest for me now. Back in London, Sundays were for doing nothing in an attempt to recharge the internal batteries for the week ahead. Here, I would normally join the local Cycling Club for a ride. Many of them were off watching a stage race so I went out on my own. The downside is that every direction from home apart from one is uphill. Always a glutton for punishment, I took the road south out of the village. The first 8Km is all uphill. Still, I got on top of the plateau before 09:00 and headed away from ‘her’.
The relatively flat plateau gave me a chance to think where I’d met her before. I’d used this ride in the past to help me solve problems but today, I drew a huge blank.
After another 40Km, I turned around and headed home still no closer to solving that question.
When I got home, my phone was ringing. I let it ring. I wanted to warm down, have a shower and a drink before even thinking about anyone or anything else.
I breathed a sigh of relief when it stopped. Twenty seconds later, it started again. I picked the phone up and buried it underneath some cushions and went to have a shower.
Ten minutes later there was a banging on my door. Someone really wanted to talk to me. I put on a clean shirt and opened my bedroom window.
“Hello!” I shouted down.
‘She’ stepped back from my door.
“Marie wants to know if you are available for Lunch now that you are back from wherever it is you went at the crack of dawn?”
I groaned internally. I should have stayed out until later. ‘She’ was certainly clouding my judgement at the moment.
“I have some things to do but I can be there in around an hour if that is ok?”
Madelaine smiled up at me.
“I’m sure that it will. Marie told me not to take no for an answer.”
I knew Marie and that sounded just like her. It was how she got elected as Le Mayor when her husband died and how it gets her re-elected every few years. She gets things done so most people in the area don’t begrudge her little eccentricities.
I closed the window and sat don with a bottle of energy drink. I needed a high if I was going to face them all afternoon.
A short doze later, I was ready to face Madame Le Mayor and Madelaine.
Lunch was typical for the region. i.e. full of very fattening cuts of Pork. I thanked myself for riding out that morning. Madelaine poked at her food as I thought she would. I did think however that I saw a tinge of regret when the delicious ‘Mousse de Chocolat’ was put in front of her. In a way, I felt sorry for her, as Marie made some of the most delicious deserts in the area. She had been a Pattisiere in Dijon before getting married and coming to live in this neck of the woods. She loved these occasions to practice her art. It was a real shame that her efforts were not appreciated by Madeline.
As Lunch wound down, Marie said,
“Madelaine told me that she was from London. That is where you are from is it not?”
My heart sank a bit.
“Yes but London is not like Paris. It is a huge city and besides, no one speaks to anyone else.”
“Eh? How can this be true?” exclaimed Marie.
“Tell her Madelaine. Tell her what it is like to travel on the Tube?”
“He is right. No one wants to risk being caught being sociable,” replied Madelaine.
This allowed Marie to ask me yet again,
“Jean, you never really said why you left London and came to live here?”
Marie knew that I’d been ill but with what was still a point of interest to her. I could tell that this time I’d have to spill the beans.
“I was told to leave or I’d probably be dead by now. It is as simple as that.”
Then I did something totally out of character for me, I lifted up my shirt.
“This scar is from open heart surgery. I was told that I died three times before they were finished. The life that I lead in London was to blame. That is all you need to know.”
There was silence in the room. I saw my opportunity.
“Thank you for a delightful Lunch Madame Le Mayor. I will leave you now, I have some things to do before tomorrow.”
“But tomorrow is a public holiday?” exclaimed Madeline.
“But the world goes on and I have some things to do.”
I didn’t wait for a reply.
I got home and found myself shaking. What was ‘she’ doing to me and my comfortable life. After an hour, I had calmed down enough to start to think straight.
I slipped out of my home the back way, and made my way to the home of our local Doctor, Marcel. He was the reason I’d come to this part of the world. He was doing some post-graduate studies in London when I had my ‘episode’ that resulted in me having open heart surgery to correct two valves that had decided to give up the ghost at almost the same time. He and I became good friends while I was in Hospital. Both he and my consultant cardiologist made sure that I clearly understood that if I went back to my old job, I’d be dead within six months.
Marcel helped my recovery by telling me of his home area in France and why he was giving up the bright lights and going to be a country doctor. It all sounded too good to be true so I came to sample it. This was initially to recuperate after my operation but something seemed to click with me so I stayed. The slow pace of life and the art of the gallic shrug had ensured that I had a lot less stress and pressure in my life.
Until this weekend, I had not regretted leaving London behind it one little bit. To be honest, after the first couple of months here, I never even thought of going back. Then ‘she’ came into my life and wreaked havoc.
“Marcel, I need somewhere to crash for the next two nights,” I explained as he showed me into his kitchen.
“I heard about the English Woman. But why do you need to hide away?”
“Because I have met her before and can’t place where or when it was. She’s staying with Madame Le Mayor and they seem to be as thick as thieves. I have this gut feeling that she and me didn’t see eye-to-eye when we last met. I just want to stay out of her way until I can fix her car and she goes away.”
“I heard that she got the sack from M. Norris up at the Chateau. My Mother will get it out of her before the day is out.”
“That explains it. She must have been the new nurse come housekeeper.”
“As I heard it, the old lecher couldn’t keep his hands off her so she hit him with a bedpan or something like it.”
I had to chuckle. Apart from my good self, Monsieur Norris was the only other non-French Citizen living for miles around. The story or what had become almost a local legend, goes that his father was part of the US Invasion in 1944 and he formed a relationship with what he thought was a peasant girl. Inevitably, it led to her becoming pregnant and once the baby was born, she tracked him down in the Ardennes and gave him the Baby to look after. Given the difficulties of travel at that time, she’d become a hero.
Only, she wasn’t a peasant girl. Her family had lived in what passed for a Chateau locally for several hundred years. When the
Germans took over from the Vichy Government, they commandeered the place so the family turfed out and spent the rest of the war were living with some of their former tennant farmers. Even so, times were very hard and she thought that giving the baby to the father was the best thing after all, it was common knowledge that the American GI’s had everything in the world.
Nothing happened for years until after the mother died. In her will, she left the whole place to her son on the condition that he lives there for 10 years. M. Norris had been in residence for some 5 years and had been through a string of housekeepers and nurses. He kept himself to himself and rarely ventured off the estate.
Things started to make some sort of sense. ‘She’ had packed for a long stay but that hadn’t worked out but the huge suitcase now made perfect sense.
“Can you put me up Marcel? I’ll leave around dawn on Tuesday so that I can be in Valence early. Then I should get back here around lunchtime and hopefully, she will be on her way an hour or so later.”
“It will cost you, you know,” replied Marcel.
“What is it this time?”
“Nothing too bad. The playground equipment at the school needs some attention and I think you are the right person to do the job.”
I thought for a second or so before replying,
“As long as I can get rid of her first?”
Marcel just smiled back at me.
“Naturally. We would not want the… the equilibrium of the village to suffer now would we?”
Marcel had picked up a good dose of cynicism from his time in London.
Monday being May 1st and therefore a public holiday, the village was even deader than on a Sunday. The Boulangerie and the Pattiserrie were the only places to open but even they were closed by 09:00. For the rest of the day, the place basked in the sun and hardly a soul moved.
I spent the day holed up at Marcels but ‘she’ didn’t make an appearance at my front door which pleased me no end.
A little before 06:00 on Tuesday, I crept out of Marcel’s home and made my way to my truck such as it was. She was a Peugeot 504 that have been ‘converted’ into a pickup around 1985. It did the job but the engine needed some attention. I’d been saying that for the past year but had never gotten around to doing something about it. The springs and the tyres also needed to be looked at but ‘tomorrow’ was always there but ‘tomorrow’ never came ok! That was what life was like in this part of the world. The words ‘Allez’ and ‘Vite’ were almost never used.
As quietly as possible, I started her up and left the village heading for Valence. Around 10Km from home, I let out a huge sigh. ‘She’ hadn’t tried to derail me or my trip to get the bits for her car.
Luck was with me and I was back in the village just before midday. I didn’t hesitate or deviate for a coffee even though I was in dire need of one. I just got on with the job of replacing the main cables that connected the battery of her car. In less than 30 minutes, I was done and the car was running sweetly.
I was about to get washed and go in search of her when ‘she’ found me.
“I see you are done then?”
“Yes I am. I was just about to get washed and come look for you.”
“Well, I’m here now. How much do I owe you?”
“Call it an even hundred Euros. The parts cost forty and then there is my time…”
“A hundred? Is that all? I was expecting a lot more than that?”
“A hundred would be fine.”
She produced the requisite amount and handed it to me.
“Here, let me show you what the connections should look like?”
Without waiting for an answer, I released the bonnet catch and lifted it up.
“That is what they should look like. You have a fully charged battery but I’d get it checked when you get back to the UK.”
She made a feeble attempt to show interest in my work but it was obvious that she was not that worried.
Half an hour later, she was gone from the village. I still didn’t know where I’d met her before but at that moment, I didn’t care. All that mattered was that ‘she’ was gone and as far as I was concerned, she was gone for good.
Or, that was what I’d hoped.
With her gone, I felt the need to go out for Lunch so, I dispensed with my normal habit of making some lunch and sitting on my terrace to eat it. Instead, I went to what passed for a pub in this neck of the woods, “Le Bar Mistral”. We don’t get much of the Mistral wind here but what’s in a name eh? The prospect of some food and a couple of glasses of wine were just too tempting to resist.
I was about half way through the ‘Plat du Jour’ when in walked Madame Le Mayor. The place went silent. As long as I’d lived in the Village, she had never set foot in the den of iniquity that is “Le Mistral”. Today, she did and to me dismay, she made a bee line for my table. I suddenly thought that it was a bad idea to come here for Lunch.
“Ah Jean, just the person I was looking for!” she announced cheerily and in a voice that allowed everyone in the bar to know what her
business was. To my surprise, the chatter amongst the other people in the bar resumed.
She sat down opposite me and spoke while I still had a mouthful of food.
“Madelaine asked me to give you this letter when she left. Such a charming woman. Any chance that we will be seeing her again?”.
Madame Le Mayor pushed an envelope across the table in my direction.
Not if I can help it, I thought as I looked at the envelope.
“Thank you. I will read it later. At the moment, I am enjoying my Lunch. I was up very early this morning and didn’t get any breakfast so I’m rather hungry if you don’t mind.”
“Perfect. It does look good.”
Then she signalled to Henri Dubois, the Owner, to bring her some of what I was eating. As it was a Tuesday, Henri served ‘Cassoulet de Pork’. I’m sure that there was some pork in it somewhere but the beans and the spicy sauce were delicious all the same.
Thankfully, Henri took his time about preparing a plate for Madame Le Mayor. It was his way of saying that you really are not welcome here. The former Monsieur le Mayor had been a regular in the bar and shortly after his death, the new Madame Le Mayor had tried to get the place closed down but the women of the village put up such a stink that she dropped the plan very quickly. With the bar open, they would know where their ‘man’ was. Who knows in who’s house they’d be with it closed eh? Sometimes logic can be perverse.
I only had a couple of mouthfuls left to east when Henri put the plate of Cassoulete down in front of Madame Le Mayor. She looked aggrieved that she’d have to eat it alone.
I finished my lunch and downed the last of the wine that I was drinking and stood up from the table not forgetting to take the letter with me. After paying Henri for my lunch, I beat a hasty exit and returned home.
I looked at the envelope and decided that a pot of coffee was in order before opening it as I was sure it contained bad news.
To be continued in part 2 of 2
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