Authors: Jan Ellis
Rachel patted her belly. Although splitting from Michael had taken pounds off her, she was still curvier than Margot who was all smooth lines and sharp edges. “I guess I’m just not anxious enough.”
“I’m very glad to hear it.”
“But you are right Margot . . .”
“When am I not?” she responded with a shrug, placing a sliver of tart on each of their plates.
“It’s time that I gave up on Michael and made a new start.”
“Très bien. Now eat.”
After Margot had gone, and Rachel was back in her studio, she thought abou
t what they had discussed. “Damn it, Fudge. If Michael can have a brand new life, then so can I.”
The cat paused from cleaning its belly and looked at her with its amber eyes. “I can tell you agree,” said Rachel. “So that’s what we’re going to do: open a guest house and
– just maybe – find ourselves a new man.”
Chapter 5: At the Picture Framer’s
Since her discussion with Madame Piquot, Rachel had had a burst of energy and created a new batch of work including sun-baked landscapes and images of cats with eyes the colour of sea glass that she knew people loved.
There was too much for her to frame herself, so she decided to take it to Monsieur Callot’s shop. She loved her visits to the picture
framer’s because she knew that, if she was stuck, Bernard Callot would always find just the right mount and frames for her prints. She had been coming to him for years and told anyone who asked that his beautiful frames were responsible for many of her sales.
She went in now, with a portfolio of prints under her arm. She was looking forward to getting Bernard’s opinion on the new work she had produced
– sinuous trees, mysterious-looking animals and meadows with jewel-like dots of colour that were a far cry from her jet-black rooks.
She was examining the tall rack of mouldings when she heard an unfamiliar voice asking if she needed any help.
She turned, startled by the question – she knew the contents of the shop almost as well as Monsieur Callot did – and by the unknown grey-haired man she saw there. He stood in the doorway to the workroom wearing a red shirt with the sleeves rolled up – despite the chilly weather – under Monsieur Callot’s work apron, and had a pencil tucked behind one ear. She was so surprised by the presence of a stranger in the shop that she was momentarily lost for words.
“Oh, I came to see Monsieur Callot, to discuss the frames for my new work.” She didn’t really want to leave all her prints with someone she didn’t know. “It’s okay, I can come back later.”
“I’m afraid he won’t be in for a while,” said the man, walking into the shop to greet her. “He had an accident and needs to rest for a while.” The man saw Rachel’s evident alarm. “It’s okay – he had a fall and has dislocated his shoulder. He has been told to rest, but he will be back.”
He smiled and extended a hand, having first wiped it on his apron. “I’m his nephew, Paul Callot. And you are?”
Rachel shook his hand and introduced herself. “Thompson, Rachel Thompson,” she said, digging out a rather dog-eared business card from the depths of her coat pocket.
“Ah, yes. My uncle mentioned you. So, may I see your work?” he asked, pointing at the bag she had clutched by her side.
She lifted her portfolio onto the workbench and slowly unzipped it, not sure that she wanted to entrust her prints to a stranger.
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling. “I am a picture restorer, but I also make bespoke frames. My uncle taught me everything I know!”
Rachel smiled back, relaxing a little at the thought that all might not be lost. She lifted out the prints and handed them to Paul Callot who spread them out on the table. She watched him as he rubbed his chin for a moment then went to the plan chest and pulled out different-coloured mounts for her to see.
“I think a dove grey mount for that one, don’t you? And perhaps this for the frame,” he said reaching for a length of pale oak.
The new Mr C. had a good eye and Rachel found herself nodding in agreement, impressed with his choices. Gradually they worked through the stack of prints, finding mounts and frames for all of them.
They had pretty much finished, when Rachel pulled out a watercolour from the side pocket. It was a
seascape that she had painted on a visit to England years before and then forgotten about. Finding it again recently she’d decided that it would look nice in one of the guest bedrooms. She hadn’t known what to do with it and had intended to ask Monsieur Callot his opinion.
“Ah, that’s a tricky one,” Paul said now, taking the painting and walking over to the window with it, obviously enjoying the challenge. He put the picture down and rummaged in a drawer by the counter. “What about this?”
Rachel wrinkled her nose when she saw the ruby red mount, thinking that it would overpower the image, but in fact it was perfect. The colour brought out the details on the sides of the boats on the pebbled beach and echoed the flecks of red she had put in the evening sky.
– well I would never have chosen that, but it really works.”
He grinned at her. “So, do I get the job?”
His eyes crinkled into a smile. “Good! If you’re happy to leave everything with me I’ll tot up the costs and let you have a total at the end of the week.” He went to the counter and made a note in the diary. “Do you want to come and collect them or shall I deliver them to a gallery for you, Madame Thompson?”
“Call me Rachel, please.” Even after all her years in France, she still sometimes found the formal way that people addressed each other stifling. “If you could bring them to the house, that would be great.”
He looked at the address and frowned.
“You’ll have to help me out here,” he said, passing his hand through his thick mop of grey hair. “I’m from Paris.”
“Oh, sure,” she said smiling. “It’s easy: go 12 kilometres out of town on the Chevandier road, turn right at the Auchan and continue for about ten minutes. Go left into the village, carry on through and we’re past the old mill on the left.”
She thought for a second. “Or put the postcode into your sat nav, ignore it when it tries to send you down past the vineyard, take the second turning, come up the hill and ask for us at the
Taking a pencil from behind his ear, Paul frowned as he jotted the instructions in his diary. “Fine. I’ll be over in a week or so.”
Chapter 6: G
Arriving back in Pelette, Rachel strode into her house determined to sort the place out. How difficult could it be to transform the old farmhouse into a tourist paradise? Having decided that she was going to get into the B&B business it was time to get organised.
“Right,” she said, to no one in particular. “I need to make a list.” She dug out a notebook from one of the kitchen drawers. Flicking through it to find a blank page she found an old shopping list:
Chicken Kievs x 4
She wrinkled her brow, trying to remember why Michael had been in need of Vaseline but failed.
Rummaging around a bit more, she found a pencil and was sitting at the kitchen table chewing it and wondering where to start when
Irina came in.
Irina was probably the same age as Rachel, but no one had ever dared ask her. She had turned up at the house after Michael had advertised in town for a cleaner. They had had other applicants, but Irina stood out from the pack, and not just because of her hair, which was a fetching shade of aubergine.
Since then it had been jet black and blonde, but was now a less excitable shade, a little like the bottom of a copper pan. To begin with, Michael had had a theory that she was on the run from Russian gangsters. As the family got to know her better, it became clear that Irina was not the kind of woman to run from anyone. She was a woman of few words and the kind of expression that said ‘Don’t mess with me’.
Over the years she had acted as nanny, cook, gardener and confidante, as well as cleaner. These additional roles had never been discussed: Irina simply saw a gap and filled it. Because Alice and Charlie had grown up with Irina in their lives, they could curse quite impressively in Ukrainian.
Her relationship with Rachel was half housekeeper, half stern friend.
“Ooh, yes please. That’s what I need to get the brain cells firing.”
So far all she had written was ‘Legal stuff, tax, etc. Ask Michael.’
Well, he had said that he wanted to help, and it was his line of business after all. Michael had made his money selling crumbly ruins to pink-skinned Brits in search of The Dream and he was good at it. Clients were inevitably charmed by his genuine enthusiasm for their sometimes bonkers schemes, and some of them had become friends of theirs.
“Is short list, Madame,” said Irina, peering over Rachel’s shoulder as she placed a mug of tea down by her side. “Kiev, beautiful city,” she added, before heading back to the utility room and her stack of ironing.
Rachel sighed. This is hopeless, she thought. She grabbed the phone.
“Hi Jilly, are you free? I need help!”
When her friend arrived ten minutes later looking perky, Rachel was doodling on the note pad on which she had now added ‘Buy paint’.
“You okay, Rach? You look a bit tense.”
“I’m fine,” she said, nodding towards the utility room. “It’s just . . . Well you know.”
“Ah, enough said.” Jilly smiled. She knew what Rachel meant. Skinny and fierce, Irina could be an unnerving presence. She was able to convey the impression that she didn’t approve of whatever it was you were doing by the subtlest of signs. However, she was a boon to the household as well as a staunch friend who saw it as her duty to defend Rachel in her new single life.
“Shall we get started, then?”
“Sure. Er, what do you suggest?”
Having worked with Michael for a while, Jilly knew a thing or two about how to present houses. She now ran a shop selling ‘antique’ furniture to incomers looking for period charm.
“I think that we should walk through the house and make notes of what needs doing.”
“Splendid! That’s just what I thought,” said Rachel, handing the notebook to her friend and leading the way out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the top of the house.
The building was in two parts, shaped like an ‘L’. The shorter section of the ‘L’ was where the kitchen and the small sitting room were. Above, were the family bedrooms. The other, larger, part of the house had become somewhere for the kids to play when they were little, a storage area, and emergency accommodation for guests who didn’t mind saggy mattresses and cobwebs.
A walk through the house revealed that the Big End, as it was known, was in reasonable condition but full of stuff. Rachel’s heart sank as the list of accumulated junk lengthened, but Jilly bounced from room to room opening the shutters and cooing over the space and the light, just like the estate agent she used to be.
After half an hour, the note pad was full and Jilly was looking pleased with herself.
“It’s really not that bad, Rachel. What you need to do is throw away anything that’s broken, dust the beams and titivate the old furniture,” said Jilly, investigating a wonky chair. “Then you give everything a good scrub and a coat of white paint and you’ll be all set.”
Looking around, Rachel was beginning to see that Jilly might have a point. The whole house had been properly renovated when they’d bought it; it had just been unloved for rather a long time.
“For example,” said Jilly, warming to her theme, “this room would make a lovely guest bedroom and you could put an extra bathroom over there in the old dressing room.”
Rachel looked at her doubtfully. “Won’t that cost lots of money?”
Jilly sighed. “You have to ‘speculate to accumulate’ as they say. And I’m sure that one of Irina’s cousins could sort that out for you fairly cheaply.”
Irina had a never-ending supply of relatives who had pretty much cornered the market in plumbing.
“Here you go,” she said, handing the stack of neatly written lists to Rachel. She flipped through them, reading. “Bedroom 1: fit bathroom, replace shutters, mend gap in floor, repaint windows,” she looked up. “I’d better ask Irina to bring the whole family round.”
Jilly laughed. “They’re the best. You won’t regret it.”
* * *
Rachel set out her plans for the guest house on the phone to her father that evening.
“So there you are, Dad – I’m going to be a landlady. Do you think I’m mad?”
Harold went quiet for a moment, obviously mulling the idea over in his head. “No, I think that sounds like a super plan, darling.”
Rachel had always been close to her father and they had taken to speaking on the phone every day after her mother, Jean, had died. These conversations had become less frequent since Harold had found what his grandchildren referred to as ‘lurve’ with Connie. One of the many things the pair had in common was children who had spent time in France, although Connie’s daughter Eleanor had gone back to England after a year or so.
“You don’t think that I’d be taking on too much, then?” asked Rachel. “On my own, I mean.” She could hear muffled voices at the end of the phone and knew that Harold was conferring with Connie.
“If you open a guest house, sweet pea, it will be Number 1 in all the travel guides before you know it.”
Rachel could hear more mutterings as her father turned away again.
“And we’ll come and help, you know. We’re good at decorating, and Connie makes wonderful breakfasts.”
Rachel smiled to herself and wanted to cry a little bit at the same time.
“Thanks Dad – and Connie,” she shouted down the phone. “I appreciate that vote of confidence.”
“Okay darling. Just let us know if there’s anything you need. Better go now. Connie’s making margaritas to get us in the mood for our salsa class.”
Rachel chuckled and wiped a tiny tear from the corner of her eye – whether it was of sadness or amusement at the picture of her octogenarian father shimmying across the dance floor in his Cuban heels, she wasn’t sure.
Her parents had known Michael almost as long as she had, and Harold had been hurt and disappointed when he had left the family ‘in the lurch’. Her brother Henry had snorted and pronounced Michael a prat.
She was glad that her mother hadn’t been around for the break up, though she knew that Jean would have been fascinated to see how Michael was dealing with his second go at fatherhood.
It was time for an early night
– she had a major sorting-out project ahead of her.