Authors: Jan Ellis
Michael was as good as his word about the money, and Rachel got a regular lump of cash every month to help with the children. But she found herself more and more uneasy at the idea of being a ‘kept woman’. She also discovered that losing a husband
– unsatisfactory though he might have been – left a big hole in her life. She seemed to have more time on her hands for some reason. She channelled a lot of energy into her work, occasionally stabbing right through the sheets of lino and imagining Michael’s sensitive parts under the roller as she worked the heavy press.
Chapter 3: An Unexpected P
It was the beginning of November and Rachel was busy completing orders for her regular customers. That morning she decided to drop off a box of small framed prints and greetings cards at ‘Jolies cadeaux’. After the usual polite chit chat the shop’s owner, Madame Piquot, caught her firmly by the wrist.
“It is time for lunch. Come with me.”
Rachel was surprised. She knew Madame Piquot quite well, having supplied the gallery for many years, but they had never socialised. Now Madame indicated to her assistant that she was going out and led Rachel to a quiet restaurant in the next street.
The owner greeted her warmly and led the women to what was clearly Madame’s usual table in the window, from where they could watch the world go by.
“Pastis for Madame, and what may I bring the young lady?”
Rachel didn’t really like the old-fashioned aperitif with its strong anise flavour having got very drunk on it with Michael many years before, but she ordered one to be polite.
The women sipped their drinks and Rachel ate an olive and looked across the square aimlessly, wondering what Madame wanted to speak to her about. After several minutes of silence, she couldn’t bear it any more.
“Madame, is there something that you wanted to say to me?” She suddenly felt anxious. “Is there a problem with my work?”
Monique Piquot put down her glass and looked at her steadily.
“There is nothing wrong with the work, my dear. But I am worried about you.”
“Worried? About me?” This was not at all what Rachel had expected to hear.
“I can see from the prints that you are not happy.”
Rachel looked puzzled and said nothing, waiting for her to go on.
“Your work has taken a somewhat, let’s say ‘Gothic’ turn lately. Fortunately people like black and white prints, and your starlings and crows are very striking.”
Rachel ran through some of the recent work in her mind’s eye and had to concede that she had become rather fond of stormy skies, jagged mountains and black, silhouetted birds. She bit her lip, but before she could speak Madame went on.
“The work is strong, but it is not . . . ,” she looked up to the ceiling, searching for the word. “The pictures are not
.” She raised her hands as if grabbing something. “Your work used to be joyous!”
Rachel felt her throat tighten and feared that she was going to cry. Madame Piquot saw this and patted her hand.
“You have had a difficult time, I know.”
Rachel never discussed her personal life with any of her customers, but Dreste was a small town and Madame Piquot was at the centre of it. As well as the gallery, she also ran a
that was always full of regular guests who loved its old-fashioned charm. With all her contacts it was inevitable that she would have heard about Michael and the new baby.
“I have a proposal for you.” Madame waved over the waiter and ordered a carafe of chilled rosé wine and two omelettes. Rachel had an agonising wait until their meal was brought out and Madame was ready to continue with her speech.
“I can no longer manage the gallery and the
. My guests are always delightful – I choose them well – but I am too old to be nice to people all the time.”
Rachel nibbled on a rocket leaf, intrigued by what was to come.
Madame took a dainty sip of wine and nodded to a passing gentleman.
“Your house would be perfect.”
Rachel was puzzled. “Perfect for what, Madame?”
Monique raised her eyebrows as if she had made herself quite clear.
“Perfect as a
,” she said at last. “The house is a good size, the village is not too far from town and my guests would find it charming.” She smiled at the young waiter who tipped the last of the rosé wine into their glasses and refreshed the bread basket. “And – most importantly of all,” she added, waggling one immaculately polished nail under Rachel’s nose, “It will bring you joy.”
* * *
After lunch Rachel wandered around town and attempted to do some shopping, but found it hard to concentrate. Her imagination had been fired up and her head was spinning with questions about the
. Madame was right: she had got into a rut with her work and what she needed probably was a brand-new project. But, what did she know about running a guest house? “Precisely nothing,” she said to herself.
On the other hand, how hard could it be? She had plenty of experience skivvying for her own household, after all. ‘Paying guests’ would bring fresh, exciting people into her life
– and keep the coffers topped up. She couldn’t depend on Michael forever, especially now that he had a new family to support, she thought ruefully.
What she needed was a second opinion. As the town hall clock chimed the quarter, she realised that she had time to drop in on a friend before collecting the children.
A former catwalk model, Philippe had retired when he hit 30 and work started to dry up and retrained as a florist. He now ran a shop that made beautiful floral arrangements and, at certain times of the year when business was slow, he also did some light gardening for a select bunch of clients. Rachel was lucky enough to be one of the chosen ones and they had gradually got to know each other as they worked side-by-side to create an approximation of an English garden in a corner of her otherwise ungovernable plot of land.
The shop was empty as she went in, the old-fashioned doorbell tinkling behind her. Philippe put down the bouquet he was making and wiped his hands on his apron before greeting her with three kisses.
“So, what’s up?” He looked her up and down. “You look different.”
Rachel dropped her bags on the floor and slumped into a chair by the counter.
“I’ve just had the most wonderful lunch,” she said, kicking off her shoes.
Philippe raised a quizzical eyebrow. “With a man?”
“Good heavens, no,” she said laughing. “With Madame Piquot and she has given me a great idea. Actually, it was all her idea, but I think it could be great for me, for us and . . .”
“Wooah! Hold on. Let me make some coffee, then you can tell me all about it.”
“Okay, but hurry up!”
Rachel played with a ball of raffia and thumbed a magazine, impatient for Philippe to return so she could tell him the news.
It seemed an age before he reappeared with two tiny cups of strong coffee and a plate of petit fours. “I’m ready – tell all.”
It didn’t take Rachel long to outline Monique Piquot’s startling suggestion.
“So? What do you think?”
Philippe said nothing for a moment, just looked thoughtfully at her as he sipped his drink.
“I think it could be just what you need, though we’ll have to do something about the lower garden, and the pots on the terrace will need refreshing.”
“You’re teasing me now!”
“Not at all. I think it’s a great idea.”
“Really? Could I really do it, do you think?” Rachel had got to her feet and was anxiously picking the petals off a gerbera.
“Sorry!” She put the flower back with the others on the counter and sat down guiltily, chewing on her nails instead.
“Of course you could do it – your home is like a guest house anyway, with the children, their friends and your visitors from England.”
“That’s true, but I couldn’t expect paying guests to put up with Pokémon bed linen, creaky beds and cupboard drawers that come apart in your hands,” she said, nibbling on a biscuit. “Do you think anyone would come? We are in the middle of nowhere.”
Philippe smiled. “I think in a brochure they would call that rustic charm in a tranquil location.” Rachel looked at him doubtfully. “Which is not to say that you won’t have to make a few tiny improvements here and there.”
Rachel got to her feet and stared out of the window at the shoppers going by. There were definitely a few tourists among them, come to visit the mediaeval church and walk the city walls. Some also hired cars to visit the local villages, including Pelette.
“I suppose I have nothing to lose. And I can bribe the kids to help get everything ready.” She looked at her watch. “Anyway, I’d better go. It’s nearly chucking-out time at school.”
Philippe embraced her again and opened the door onto the street.
“Thanks so much,” she said, manoeuvring past him with her shopping bags. “I think that I’m probably definitely going to do it.”
He laughed. “Let me know what you decide, and I’ll come over to the house and attack that wilderness of yours.”
She smiled and attempted a wave as she ran backwards along the road.
“How are you with a paintbrush?” she asked.
Philippe raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow in a way that conveyed deep disdain. “Terrible. I leave all the DIY to Albert, but there’s no one better with a trowel and a pot of pelargoniums.”
“In that case, it’s a definite maybe.”
Leaving the shop, she collected the car and drove around to the school where Alice and Charlie were lolling around with their friends on opposite sides of the road. They tolerated each other – much like the cats – but were not exactly the best of friends. Rachel hoped that they would become closer when they were older, just as she and her brother Henry had done. He had moved to the States some years before, which improved their relationship no end.
Rachel waited until they had got through the school traffic and were heading towards Pelette before mentioning the guest house to the kids.
“So what do you reckon?”
“That’s it? ‘Cool’?”
Charlie shrugged without lifting his eyes from the game on his phone.
“And what do you think?” she asked her daughter, who was curled up in the front seat next to her. “Is it cool with you?”
Alice had her eyes fixed on the dusty road that headed out of town and up the hill. Eventually, a similarly Gallic shrug came from the girl, who was pulling dark blonde curls between her fingers and watching them bounce back in place.
“What does Dad say?”
Rachel sighed and fixed her eyes on the road. “I haven’t spoken to Dad yet.” And he was far too obsessed with the baby business, though she didn’t want to say that. “Anyway, I wanted to see what you two thought of the idea first.”
“But it’s his house,” said Charlie from the back seat.
“Yes, yes it is. Partly. But it’s your home.” Rachel could feel some of the earlier enthusiasm start to fade. “And Dad wants us to be happy.”
They drove on a little further in silence apart from the crunching and pinging of stones hitting the car.
Rachel looked at her daughter. “Okay?”
“If Dad says it’s okay, then okay.”
Rachel turned and smiled. “That’s great. Good. Cool!” She felt relieved and surprised by how much the guest house scheme had come to matter to her in just a few short hours. “I’ll ring Dad later and see what he says. I’m sure that it won’t be a problem.”
She waited until after supper when Charlie was out at a neighbour’s and Alice had retreated to her room before ringing Michael. She said that she had something to ask him and could he come over for coffee to discuss it?
The next morning he turned up at the house looking tanned and relaxed with a big grin on his face. The baby had been born a week before and it was clear that he was still full of adrenaline. Rachel could see that it was a good time to speak to him about the guest house because all his attention was focused on becoming a father again.
After she had listened to a full report about the health and well-being of the new arrival, Rachel outlined the plan.
“I think that’s a marvellous idea, Rach,” said Michael, beaming. “It will give you something to do when the children are at school.”
“You mean apart from painting my toenails and watching daytime television?” God, he was infuriating. “I do already run a business you know!” Rachel was trying
– and failing – to keep her temper. “You really can be a patronising bastard sometimes.”
No one admired Rachel’s prints and paintings more than Michael, but he worried about her financial sense: she was successful but he had always managed the money aspect for her. He was also very good at the promotional side of things and every home they went into seemed to have a print of hers on the wall or a greetings card propped up on a book shelf.
Some years before Michael had even got Rachel a commission to do some book illustration, but that work had dried up when publishers turned to artists who could create designs on computer more quickly and cheaply than she could manage.
“My work is important enough to feature in
magazine, or have you forgotten that?”
Michael’s smile indicated that he hadn’t forgotten it and was still amused
– as they had both been at the time – by the description of her as a leading British artist who had been compelled to move to France because of the superior food and weather. In fact, Rachel had never worked as a print-maker in England, but the magazine was not about to let facts stand in the way of a good story.