Authors: Jan Ellis
Chapter 15: A New Day
Josh had hardly taken in his surroundings on arrival – the furniture looked rather old-fashioned, but he had spent enough time in Europe not to expect shiny new fittings. Taking off his conference gear, he had just washed his face quickly and scrubbed his teeth before falling into bed.
Waking early the next morning, he slipped on the courtesy dressing gown
– nice touch – and pattered over to the window. As he unlatched the shutters and folded them back he was impressed by the view: from the window at the top of the house what lay before him was the garden and, in the distance, the mound of St Martin’s church was backlit by the sun that was still low in the sky. Somewhere close by he could smell coffee brewing. He felt better. It was obviously going to be a beautiful day.
At the end of the garden he could see the owner hanging out washing, the wooden pegs clamped in her teeth. He ducked back into the room, not ready to deal with Madame quite yet.
He opened the bedroom door, made sure the coast was clear and dashed into the bathroom unwilling to encounter the other guests – assuming there were any – until he was decent. Washed, beard trimmed and freshly dressed in a pale-blue shirt and chinos, Josh felt ready to face the world.
Downstairs Rachel could hear the distant creak of floorboards and clank of plumbing that advised her that her guest was up. After the disaster of last night, she was determined to put her best foot forward.
When Josh came into the breakfast room, he found Rachel in a floral pinny with her hair brushed and lipstick on.
“Good morning Professor. Breakfast inside or on the terrace?”
“Call me Josh, please.”
“It’s lovely outside, if you have a sweater and don’t mind the chickens, er, Josh,” she added, even though it didn’t feel right to call a professor by his first name.
“You keep chickens?”
Rachel smiled. “It’s sort of an unwritten rule around here: if you’re English and you live in rural France, you have to have chickens or they kick you out.”
He gave her a look that suggested that he wasn’t entirely sure whether she was joking or not. Maybe it was true and Americans really didn’t do irony. This was not going well, but Rachel decided to keep calm and carry on with her impersonation of a competent hostess. “Would you like scrambled eggs and bacon?”
“Sure, that would be great.”
“And help yourself to coffee and fresh pastries. The honey is made by an elderly neighbour so that’s local, too.” She smiled nervously. “It’s just like The Little House on the Prairie here!” Why was she talking nonsense to the poor man?
Rachel retreated to the kitchen as Josh went onto the patio. From the window she could see him open a serious-looking magazine.
“I can’t see this one wanting to play ‘Guess the Troll’,” she muttered under her breath as she whisked eggs for Josh’s breakfast.
“Good morning, Madame. We have new guest?” Irina had come into the kitchen with the post.
“Yes, we do. And he looks rather serious.”
Irina shrugged. “Serious is good. I have to buy new head for mop because of other guests.”
“Yes, I’m sorry about that. Mr Karlsen does seem to have taken it away with him.” Rachel smiled. “But at least he left us the rug.”
Irina made a noise that indicated that she was not placated by this, then started to load the dishwasher.
A Bee Gees tune was on the radio, the sun was out and the smell of bacon wafted through the air. Rachel bopped along to ‘Stayin Alive’ as she piled Josh’s breakfast onto a warm plate.
“I take it for you, Madame.”
“Oh, thanks Irina.” This was good. Suddenly Rachel felt like a proper guest house owner as she prepared a lovely breakfast for her sophisticated visitor.
After a while she went out to check whether Josh needed anything else.
He folded his paper and smiled at her. “No, that was just right, thanks.”
Rachel picked up the plates, bread basket, coffee cup, jar of honey and cutlery, balancing everything precariously on a tray which, she now realised, was far too small. It was pretty obvious from Josh’s expression that he had sussed that waitressing was not one of Rachel’s skills.
“So how long have you had the guest house?” he asked.
Oops, this was going to be tricky. She really didn’t want to let on quite what a newbie she was. “Oh, we’ve had the house for about 15 years.”
“Yes, my husband and I
. Though we’re not together anymore.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Rachel shrugged. “It’s okay. We still see each other all the time. Unfortunately,” she added, under her breath. “In fact, that’s who I thought you were last night.”
“I see.” Josh remembered the greeting he had received and felt sorry for the poor guy. “So you set the guest house up all those years ago? You must have been very young. You and your husband, I mean,” he added, in case she thought he was flirting.
“Oh, no. I started the guest house on my own,” she picked up a fork that had slid onto the grass and wiped it on her pinny. “Since we split up.”
Josh nodded, waiting for her to go on. “So . . . ?”
“Okay, actually, this is my first season. Which is why we’re not quite on top of things yet.”
“So, I’m your first guest, right?”
“Oh, good heavens, no!” she said, nervously plucking at the tea towel that she had slung over her shoulder to look professional. She wafted a hand in the general direction of the Big End. “There are lots of other guests.”
“Okay,” said Josh, doubtfully. “It’s just that, well,” he looked over at
the house. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone else here.”
“They’re here but just not here at the moment. If you see what I mean.”
Josh shook his head slowly. “No, I can’t say that I do.”
explained that her other guests were on a tour but that she had agreed to keep their rooms for them while they were away.
You’ll know when they’re back, believe me.”
looked alarmed. “Are they noisy? I was hoping to get a little bit of work done while I was here.”
No, not particularly.” How to describe her latest guests? She thought about the evening before they had gone off on their trip and had insisted on showing her and the children how to make proper pizzas. It had been great fun throwing dough into the air and twirling it around, but Irina was still finding flour and bits of anchovy on the walls three days later. “The guests are just rather, er, jolly.”
savoured the word. “Jolly? That’s okay. I can cope with jolly.”
just smiled. Maybe he wasn’t so dull after all.
Chapter 16: The Great Outdoors
After breakfast on Josh’s second day Rachel cleared away the pans and went out onto the terrace where he was reading under a tree. She was still a little wary of him. Her other guests had all been so boisterous that she didn’t really know how to deal with this rather quiet academic.
When Josh saw her standing there and nodded a greeting, Rachel decided that it would be rude to duck back inside so she decided to make another attempt at small talk.
“Good morning Professor, er, I mean Josh. What brings you to Pelette? We are rather off the beaten track here.”
“Partly this,” he said, indicating the stack of papers on the table. “I’ve been doing research and attending a conference in Grenoble, so I thought I might as well take advantage of the trip to see a bit more of the country.”
“What was the conference on?”
“Oh, it was called ‘Mother Church: hegemony or harlot?’” Josh smiled. “Conference organisers like to have question marks in their titles. It adds an air of intrigue.”
Rachel nodded and smiled, not quite sure what to say next. “And you were speaking about the hege-watsits or the harlots?”
“Both and neither,” he answered, with a frown. “Sorry, that’s the kind of answer you get from an academic.” He took off his glasses and put them down on the table. “Sorry,” he said again, rubbing his eyes with the flat of his hands. “I’ve been in the Bibliotèque nationale in Paris for weeks then trapped in a conference centre for days. It’s hard adjusting to normal life again.”
“You’ve come to the right place then – we’re a kind of halfway house between sanity and eccentricity.”
“That’s just what I need,” said Josh, smiling.
Rachel looked thoughtful. “I can imagine it’s hard to get those harlots out of your head.”
He laughed outright now. “My work is not that exciting, believe me!”
She smiled, waiting in vain for him to explain what it was. “You haven’t told me what you work on.”
“Oh, I’m researching the Huguenot experience in the southern states of the US. That’s where I’m from, if you hadn’t guessed.”
“Ah, that explains your accent. I mean, I wondered where you were from exactly,” she added, hoping she hadn’t sounded rude.
He leant back in his chair and smiled at her. “Yours is quite something, too
– if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Rachel wrinkled her nose. “I know
– my English friends say I sound like a cross between Pam Ayres and Maurice Chevalier.”
“I’ve no idea who Pam Ayres is, but I’m sure she’s charming.”
“Thanks – I think?” She stood there for a minute longer as they smiled at each other, not knowing what to say next.
Eventually Josh turned and looked across the tops of the trees at the Alps in the distance, still misty in the morning sun. “Do you happen to have any walking guides for the area? I’d like to get out into the countryside while I’m here.”
“Lots. Come into the house when you’re ready and I’ll dig them out for you.”
Josh picked up his papers and his glasses. “I’ll come now, if I may. I’ve done enough reading for the time being.”
Rachel led him into the guest sitting room where there was a cupboard full of hiking guides, maps and photographic studies of the area.
“Wow, that’s quite a library.”
“Oh, it’s stuff we’ve collected over the years. Some of it is rather old, I’m afraid,” she said, as a thin piece of paper fluttered out from between the pages of a restaurant guide to Chevandier. “You won’t get lunch at Chez Christophe for 10 francs anymore, I can tell you,” she said, peering at the receipt, its words faded with age.
Putting the book back on the shelf, she pulled out a couple of walking guides and handed them to Josh. “I think these are actually from this decade. Have a look and let me know if you need any help.”
He smiled, taking them from her. “Thanks, I’ll do that.”
It was after breakfast the next day that Josh asked Rachel if she would like to join him for a hike at the weekend. “If you don’t have other plans, obviously,” he added. “And maybe the kids would like to come, too?”
Rachel was surprised and pleased to be asked. It had been years since she had done any proper hiking. When they were first together, she and Michael would often pack up their rucksacks and go off exploring the Ardèche gorges and even the lower Alps. Having the kids had put an end to that, though the family had occasionally driven into the hills for short walks.
“My children don’t walk, I’m afraid. I’m hoping
that when they have got through adolescence and turned into proper human beings, they will want to come hiking with their old mum. But I’d love to come,” she said, beaming at him. “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Hey, you’ll be doing me a favour. I’d probably get lost or eaten by bears or something if I went out on my own.”
Rachel laughed, relieved to find that her guest did have a sense of humour after all.
When she woke on Saturday, she realised how much she
was looking forward to her outing. She had checked the weather beforehand to make sure there were no storms on the way and had prepared a delicious picnic for them.
was fun doing something different and she felt quite wicked ‘bunking off’ from work. She realised that getting all her prints and cards out for Christmas on top of setting up the guest house had taken it out of her and hoped that a day in the fresh air would clear her head.
The Italians had returned from their wine tour. She had given them breakfast and they were now out.
Irina had been put in charge of the house, and Alice and Charlie were staying with Philippe and Albert in town that evening. Albert’s teenage children were sleeping over, and he and Philippe liked to lay on some entertainment for them in the form of youngsters a bit closer to their own ages.
Josh had left the route planning to
Rachel who suggested that they do a circular walk starting from a neighbouring hilltop village, cross the valley and get back in time for an aperitif before driving the short distance home.
couldn’t remember the last time that she’d gone for a walk with a strange man – or woman, for that matter. Her life was so focused on the house, her work and the children that she no longer explored the countryside around her.
She parked the car at a local beauty spot, they put on their boots and off they went. As they strode along in silence, t
he sky overhead looked vast and the crisp winter air was invigorating. Rachel felt as though the walk was washing all her tiredness away. She stopped and breathed in deeply. “It feels good to be up here.”
If I lived in Pelette, I’d be out all the time.”
You wouldn’t want to walk in high summer. It’s far too warm then.”
shrugged. “I’d get up early or wait till evening.” He stood still and looked out at the view. “It really is beautiful here. You’re very lucky.”
gazed across the patchwork of fields – some of them fragrant with lavender in the summer – and nodded. “I know. This landscape and the buildings are what first inspired me to become an artist, if you can call me that.”
I would definitely call you that, and I want an original ‘Rachel Thompson’ to take back to Atlanta.”
“That could be tricky.”
Josh looked disappointed. “Really, why?”
She smiled. “I’ve started to use my maiden name on the new work, so you’d get a genuine Rachel Greaves.”
“So how come someone from the Deep South developed an interest in this bit of France?” she asked. “I mean, most of your compatriots visit Paris and some of them might even venture down to Arles or to Carcassonne in search of Cathars, but that’s about it.”
Josh looked thoughtful. “I guess I feel a connection because of the family history. This region is where the Perrys came from all those years ago.”
ould you ever consider moving back to the old country?”
Sure. Actually I’m hoping to get a teaching post in Grenoble next term.”
“How exciting. And d
o you think you’re in with a chance?”
shrugged. “Maybe. I know virtually nothing about the subject area but I’m cheap and keen.”
laughed. “Sounds hopeful, then.”
“What about you? Do you plan to come over to the States sometime?”
“Oh, I’ve been once. My brother lives over there so we spent a few days in Massachusetts a few years ago.”
“And were the natives friendly?”
“Very,” said Rachel, glancing around. “This looks like a good picnic spot. Fancy lunch?”
* * *
Back at the house, Rachel left Josh in the guests’ sitting room in the Big End while she went into the garden to shut up the chickens. When she came back in, she was disappointed to find that her guest had disappeared up to his room. Over the course of the day she had definitely warmed to him. He was much younger than she had originally thought and entertaining company.
The Italians and her kids were all in Dreste, so the house was spookily quiet.
It was strange being a mother/landlady – one minute you had a house jammed with people, then you were completely on your own again.
Rachel went back into the kitchen to
feed the cats, poured herself a glass of red wine then hobbled upstairs to change. Having walked all day she decided to have a soak in the lovely old roll-top bath instead of her usual hasty shower. She sank under the bubbles, enjoying the sensation of being enveloped by the hot water and wriggling her tired toes with pleasure. Mousey had crept in after her and was sitting on the edge of the bath, patting the mountains of froth with one delicate paw then licking it dry.
After the bath, s
he pulled on some comfy jogging bottoms – not that she had ever jogged in her life – fluffy bed socks and a warm wool sweater and headed down to the kitchen. It looked like she’d be having a quiet night in. On her own.
Generally she savoured those evenings alone and enjoyed her own company but s
ometimes, when she was feeling particularly maudlin, she wondered what life would be like when Alice and Charlie had both left home. Would she end up a toothless old crone surrounded by cats, turning out ever more lugubrious prints?
“Quite possibly,” she said to herself, taking a sip from her glass.
She was about to call Margot to see if she wanted to come over for supper when Josh put his head around the door.
“Knock, knock. Sorry to bother you in your private quarters.”
Rachel smiled, pleased to be interrupted. “No problem –
mi casa es tu casa
, and all that.”
“Hey, you speak Spanish. Great.”
“No, that’s pretty much it. Anyway, how can I help?”
“Well, I wondered if I could take you out for a meal tonight. To say thanks for a really great day.” Josh paused in the doorway and looked her up and down, from her damp hair twisted up in a scrunchy to the pink spotty bed socks. “But I guess you’re planning a night in, right?”
“Actually I was heading out to my philosophy class.”
Rachel frowned. “That was a joke.”
“Gee shucks.” Josh put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “I guess I’m not quite attuned to British humour yet.”
“Sorry, I’m a very unprofessional landlady, tormenting my guests like that,” said Rachel, feeling chastened by Josh’s mocking tone. “Can I make it up to you with a glass of wine?” she asked, getting another glass from the dresser.
“Sure,” said Josh, rubbing his stomach, which emitted a low gurgle. “But I do need to get some food.”
Rachel handed him the glass of Pinot Noir. “This is great with Chinese food. I mean, if you fancy a take-away meal.”
“That would be perfect.”
“Great. I’ll give them a call and you can pay!”
“It’s a deal,” said Josh, clinking his glass against hers.
They ordered a huge meal and chomped their way through it, both ravenous after their day’s walking.
Sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by dishes, Josh smiled.
“I’ve had a lot of fun today, Rachel. Thank you.”
“It’s all part of the service.”
“Really? And there I was feeling special.”
Rachel laughed. “Okay. The hiking service is only available for our VIP guests.”
Josh was looking at her intently now, his hazel eyes locked on hers. “I wish I was staying around here a little longer. So we could become friends.”
“That would be nice,” said Rachel quietly. He was attractive and single and there was no one in the house. She could feel the colour rise in her cheeks as, for several long seconds, she actually considered taking him upstairs. If it hadn’t been for the aborted relationship with Paul, she might well have done it. However, she didn’t feel ready to hop into bed with another passing stranger quite so soon.