Authors: Jan Ellis
Chapter 20: Best of Three
After the dance, Paul went back down to the house with Rachel and the children for a cup of tea before heading in to Dreste. Rachel had agreed to call him later in the week; the party had been fun, but she needed time to get accustomed to the fact that he was coming back and to decide what to do. Was he the man for her? Would she have fallen for Josh if her time with Paul really had meant something? Post-party she wasn’t in the right state to make any kind of decision. Yawning, she climbed into bed and turned off the light.
She hoped to get a few hours sleep before it was time to let the chickens out and feed the cats. If they weren’t fed promptly, the cats took turns to sit on her head and chew her hair. There was only so much purring and dribbling that Rachel could take, so she batted Fudge away and went into the kitchen to feed him and Mousey.
It was another bright clear morning and despite her woolly head she found she was smiling as she measured out grit and pellets for the chucks. Paul or not Paul? It was quite a nice dilemma to have.
Back in the kitchen, she gazed vaguely at the phone while waiting for the kettle to boil. The light was flashing, indicating that she had messages. Yawning, she made tea then sat down to check the phone.
“It’s probably Dad and Connie calling from a casino. Or jail,” she chuckled to herself as she stroked the cats. She pressed the button and listened to slightly drunken New Year messages from Irina and the cousins, Philippe, Jilly, Margot and other friends. Then there was one from Michael sounding drunk and sentimental, and a cheery one from Harold and Connie. She smiled as she listened to the fireworks whizzing in the background as they shouted their New Year’s greetings from the capital.
The last message caught her completely by surprise: “Hi Rachel. It’s me, Josh. Hey, guess what? I got that teaching job in Grenoble, so I’m coming back! Yes, and I’m arriving tomorrow. Warm the bed up for me! See you soon, beautiful.”
Rachel played the message through again then sat staring at the phone. “Damn and blast it.” Things were getting very complicated indeed. She staggered back to bed and fell asleep.
Waking two hours later and feeling blurry, she showered and woke the kids. After lunch, she called Margot and told her about Paul turning up out of the blue the night before and the phone call from Josh.
“This sounds like an emergency, darling. I shall be right over.”
“Come for supper and bring some of your special herbal remedy.”
“Don’t worry, you can count on me.”
By the time her friend turned up that evening, Rachel was in a bit of a state.
Christ, Margot. I’ve got myself into quite a pickle. What am I going to do?”
sat down at the table pulled out a note pad, a pen and an enormous spliff from her bag and waggled an empty glass at her hostess.
grabbed the bottle and topped them both up.
Lists, my darling,” she said, lighting the spliff and inhaling deeply. “I would say spreadsheet, but a list will do for now.”
curled up on the sofa with her feet tucked underneath her. “Okay. Where do we start?”
Come and sit at the table. You need to concentrate – this is your future happiness we’re talking about.”
pulled a face but uncurled herself and sat down opposite her friend at the big wooden table and took a puff from the joint.
Right,” said Margot. “Headings. Number 1: Michael . . .”
Michael!” screeched Rachel. “We don’t need him in the equation.”
narrowed her eyes as the smoke swirled up and coughed lightly. “
, darling. He needs to be on there because he may be a cheating, lying little toe rag . . .”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
But despite all my words of wisdom you’re still in love with him . . .”
snorted and nearly choked on her wine. “Rubbish! I hate him.”
And he’d be back in a flash – baby or no new baby – if you’d have him.”
her, Margot wrote ‘Michael’ firmly at the top of the page.
Then there’s Paul,” she said, adding his name in the next column. “And last but not least, The Professor.”
Okay, now what?”
Down the left-hand side we list things that are important to you, then we give them a score out of five.”
Rachel tried and failed to stif
le a laugh.
carried on. “Then you can add and deduct points for other things.”
twirled the pen between her fingers and gazed up at the ceiling.
Oh, I don’t know.” She watched as Fudge sashayed across the table and rubbed his head against Rachel’s cheek. “Maybe they get points if they’re nice to the cats.”
Okay,” said Rachel. “So that’s
for Michael who always claimed to be allergic to them and made them sleep outside, didn’t he pusskins?”
Cats are more of a tie-breaker, if you will,” said Margot, clearly keen to get down to the nitty-gritty. “Let’s start with the basics.”
Okay – I’m ready!”
Points for who’s actually available?”
frowned. “Two for Michael, 3 for Paul – because he still has a wife – and 5 for Josh.”
marked the scores. “Right. Attraction?”
Michael 0, Paul 5, Josh 4.”
I thought you said Josh was cute?”
Okay. Intellectual stimulation.”
We’ll get on to the other kind of stimulation in a minute,” said Margot, trying to stay serious. “Who would be your best match when it comes to things of the mind?”
relit the spliff and took a long puff.
That’s a hard one,” she said, blowing the smoke over her shoulder and trying not to cough. “I guess Michael gets a 5 because he knows me so well, the bastard.”
Yes, but does that count as ‘stimulation’? Rachel, try and be serious.”
had her hand over her mouth and was giggling again.
Sorry, sorry! Okay, right. Well, I suppose top points for intellectual stimulation should go to The Prof, because he tells me things I never knew about.”
marked a 5 under Michael and Josh. “What about Paul?”
Who cares! He’s just sex on a stick.”
sighed and took what was left of the spliff back from her friend. “I really don’t know why I bother sometimes.”
stood up and came round to the other side of the table to give her friend a hug. “Because,” she said, making a big effort to sound serious, “it’s fun, but it’s only men and they don’t really matter. So what’s the score so far?”
sniffed. “Can’t say because you haven’t scored Paul on ‘intellectual stimulation’.”
Okay,” said Rachel, perching on the tabletop. “Let’s say 4, because he appreciates my art but his skills lie elsewhere.”
gave her a sideways look before totting up the scores. “Woo,” she said, in a whistle. “This is interesting.”
slid down off the table and lent over the note pad. “And?”
The scores are in, Mesdames et Messieurs. In reverse order: third is Michael the Love Rat. Second is Sex on a Stick Paul, but our winner this evening is . . .” Margot beat a drum roll on the table – “The Professor, with an unbeatable 14 points.”
Wow,” said Rachel, retreating to the sofa.
women were silent for a moment, each lost in thought.
Is there any of that cheese left, Rachel? I feel a bit peckish.”
“Sure, I’ll bring some out. Crackers?”
Rachel mulled over the results as she fetched the goat’s cheese and biscuits. Who would have thought that Josh would come out the winner?
The women were sitting deep in contemplation in front of the fire with mugs of coffee and empty plates when Alice came in.
her mother, she sniffed suspiciously. “It smells funny in here.”
said Rachel, trying to look innocent.
“I hope y
ou’re not smoking dope again. I could be taken into care, you know.”
“Don’t worry darling, it’s only a little herbal relief for my bad back,” said Margot. “T
he doctor said it was good for me, and the occasional puff won’t do your mother any harm either.”
Alice looked unconvinced but gave Margot a New Year’s hug, kissed her mother and went off to bed leaving the women to ponder the results of their highly scientific survey.
“Well,” said Rachel, when her daughter had gone. “I need to think about our research a little bit more.”
“And I need to go home,” said Margot, rising a little unsteadily to her feet and looking at her watch. “Claude will be here to whisk me off any moment.”
At the sound of Claude pulling up outside the house, Rachel hugged her friend and smiled. “Thanks Margot. This has been a very interesting and informative evening,” she said, giggling again.
“Any time my darling,” said Margot, as she tottered off towards the taxi and home.
21: Decision Time
The next day Rachel kept taking the sheet of paper with Margot’s lists out of her pocket and looking at it. She knew it was silly, but the exercise had got her thinking about what she wanted – and what she could and couldn’t have.
Margot was right. Until baby Olivier had arrived, Rachel had secretly hoped that she and Michael might one day get back together. Now that Michael had the baby, Rachel knew that he wouldn’t desert Amelie. At least not for a while, she thought sourly.
She was back in the studio, leafing through some of her reference books in search of inspiration for a new range of birthday cards. She looked up as the alarm clock clanked: Claude would be depositing Josh at her door very soon and she had no idea what to say to him.
At the sound of an engine, she sank to her knees and crawled over to the window. Peeking out over the sill she could just see the taxi snaking its way up the road towards the house. There was nothing for it: she was going to have to hide.
“Oh buggeration,” she muttered, running down the stairs and into the laundry room where her housekeeper was extracting sheets from the dryer. “Irina,” she hissed, “tell him he can’t stay and that I’m not here, will you?”
Irina drew herself up to her full height and looked fierce. “I make Mr Claude take him away, Madame.”
“Thank you,” said Rachel, dashing into the pantry and closing the door. Although she referred to the place as a pantry, it was actually more like a large broom cupboard. Once inside, Rachel managed to wriggle in between the Hoover and the ironing board, resting her bum on a shelf.
She sat there for what seemed like ages, unable to hear what was going on because of the noise from the washing machine. Eventually, the cupboard door was pulled open and Irina stood there triumphantly.
“All safe now, Rachel. I tell him to ‘bugger off’ – no room here. He looked very sad, but I make him go back to town.” Irina actually chuckled. “Mr Claude is happy because he has double taxi fare!”
Poor Josh. Rachel did feel guilty as she dusted herself off and thanked Irina. She knew that hiding in a cupboard was a cowardly thing to do, but she really couldn’t face him. Sitting in the dark surrounded by spiders and tins of cat food she had made a decision: she wanted to be with Paul Callot.
Irina tried to look cool but had clearly enjoyed her role as defender. “Not a problem, Rachel.”
“Could you feed the kids later?” asked Rachel. “I have to finish off some work then I need to go into town for a couple of hours. There’s someone I have to see.” With that, she bounded back upstairs to her studio.
After an hour or so she decided that she couldn’t wait any longer. Having made her decision, she wanted to see Paul right away. She was going to go into town just as she was but, catching sight of herself in a mirror, decided that the cobwebs in her hair were not attractive.
“Okay. Shower, clean clothes, then I’m off.”
She was in a bathrobe drying her hair when her son came into the bedroom. “Hi love. What is it?”
“There’s a man downstairs asking for a room.”
“Damn, is there?” Rachel was hoping not to have any guests until later in the week. “Can you tell him I’ll be right down?”
“Oh, and did he say where he was from?”
Charlie shrugged. “America, I think he said last time.”
Rachel put down her hair dryer. “What do you mean by ‘last time’, love?”
Her son rolled his eyes. “What I said
– when he was here last time. You know, just before Christmas.”
Rachel’s heart sank like a stone. “You don’t mean it’s Josh, do you?”
“Oh, yeh. That was his name.” Charlie grinned. “Forgot.”
The sympathy she had felt for Josh when she was sitting in the pantry now turned into indignation: the cheek of the man coming back when he had been told quite categorically that there was no room. Fuming, Rachel threw on her clothes and marched downstairs.
As she got to the last step, Josh scooped her up and swung her around. “Hey, I’m back. Isn’t it great that I got the job? It means that we can go on lots more hikes together!”
When she was down on the ground, Rachel unpeeled herself from Josh’s embrace and stepped back with her arms folded over her chest. “Well,” she said, “I’m very surprised to see you here again when Irina made it quite clear that there wasn’t any room.”
At this point Irina came in from the kitchen. “Plenty of room, Madame,” she said with a smile.
“That’s my girl!” said Josh, with a wink at Irina who blushed girlishly.
Rachel stood there with her mouth open thinking that everyone had gone mad. “No there isn’t Irina. Remember?”
Claude, who was standing in the doorway, cleared his throat. “Does it mean that I have to take this one back as well?”
“As well as what?” asked Rachel crossly.
“As well as the gentleman from the picture shop.”
Irina smiled. “The one I told to ‘bugger off’.”
Rachel put her hands to her face and whimpered. “Oh no. What have I done?”
Irina put on her fierce expression again. “Rachel, you ask me to tell Mr Claude to take the other man away.”
Claude opened his hands in a gesture of defeat. “What Irina tells me to do, I do.”
Josh was sitting on the staircase looking perplexed. “I have no idea what is going on here, but can I have a room or not?”
Rachel went over to him and took his hands. “Okay Josh, you can have a room,” she said gently. “But you can’t have
“Not even as a friend?”
“Friends yes, of course. But not . . .” she could see Irina, Claude and her son straining to hear what she said. “Not in a bed sock kind of way, if you get my drift.”
“Sure thing,” said Josh. “That’s fine by me.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks Josh. I’ll let Irina sort you out.”
Irina smiled and went to fetch a key.
Rachel went over to Claude. “I’m so sorry about the muddle.”
The taxi man just shrugged. “That’s okay. I’ve had some good fares today.”
She gave him a kiss. “Can you take me back into town?”
“Hold on a minute though,” she said, dashing into the kitchen and returning with a bottle of champagne. “Right. Let’s go!”
* * *
There’s nothing a cab driver likes more in the world than a chase, and this was a chase. As they left Tournesol, Claude told Rachel that Paul Callot was planning to catch a Paris train that evening.
They went first to the shop, only to find it locked and dark. They’d missed him. Jumping back into the taxi, Rachel felt desperate. What would she do if Paul changed his mind and decided not to settle in Dreste after all? Having decided that he was the man for her, she wasn’t sure she could bear it.
Claude screeched across town, swung his taxi onto the station forecourt and slammed on his brakes. “Try Platform 6, Rachel,” he advised, as she jumped out of the car. “I’ll wait here.”
“Thanks Claude. Wish me luck!” She dashed into the station, scanning the Departure board. It was only a small station, but Platform 6 was at the far end. Claude had been right: that was the place for the Paris trains. Rachel couldn’t help a sob escaping from her throat as she dodged around the commuters, desperate to find Paul.
It wasn’t long until she caught sight of him, sitting on a bench gazing up at the board.
“Paul, don’t go!” she cried, throwing herself at him.
Paul swept her up in his arms, laughing as he hugged her tightly against his chest. “My goodness, what’s all this?”
Rachel was crying now. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to send you away. It was all a mistake.” She stepped back, gulping. “Please don’t go.” She held up the bottle. “I brought champagne.”
Paul laughed and kissed her. “Rachel, I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’re not?” She looked at him, surprised. “But Claude said you were going back to Paris. After Irina told you to, er, leave.”
He caught her by the shoulders and kissed her firmly on the lips. “I think Claude misunderstood. What I meant was that I was
a Paris train.” Just at that moment, the train slowly entered the station and slid towards them. “My uncle went to Paris for New Year and I said that I would meet him and carry his case back to the shop. He’s not allowed to strain that shoulder of his.”
“Oh.” Rachel stood in silence, looking stunned. “Have I just made a complete fool of myself?”
Paul smiled and brushed strands of hair away from her face. “No, but you have made me very happy.”
“Yes,” he said, grabbing her hand. “Now let’s find my uncle.”
* * *
Back at Tournesol, Rachel smiled as she held her glass of champagne up to the light and watched the bubbles ricochet through the pale amber liquid.
Next to her sat Paul. Around the table were Charlie, Alice, Monsieur Claude, Irina and Josh, all with their glasses raised in a toast.
“Let’s drink to health, happiness, new and old friends,” said Rachel.
Paul kissed her and smiled. “And to a very happy New Year.”