Miss Elizabeth Mary Flowers smiled broadly as she emerged from the Hotel Le Grand.
Nothing, she decided, could possibly spoil such a perfect French morning. She revelled in the early morning sunshine, and rejoiced as she breathed in the warm summer air. Her footsteps echoed lightly as she strolled between the tall, wisteria-clad houses and down the gentle slope that would lead her towards the Place de la Ville, the Town Square. Her taste-buds burst into life as, towards the bottom of the slope, she encountered the tantalisingly succulent aroma of fresh coffee emanating from her favourite café in St Germaine Sur Correze – the wonderful Café Arabica.
Had she been at home, Miss Flowers would normally have had toast for breakfast, with a cup of tea. No sugar, just a little semi-skimmed milk. She liked toast. She liked her toast a little overdone for most people’s taste, and spread with butter and a thin smear of orange marmalade. Not too much, just enough to flavour the toast. But Elizabeth Flowers was not at home. In fact she was a long way from home. She was having what she liked to think of as….’a little adventure’. She had decided upon it quite suddenly one morning last week, and, uncharacteristically for her, had made up her mind to act upon the impulse rather than to over-think and procrastinate, as she usually did, until it was either too late or she’d gone off the idea.
So that’s why she found herself here, sat at a neat little pavement table outside a neat little café in a neat little French town, enjoying the sunshine, the quiet, the view, and, most importantly at the present moment, her coffee and croissants. And she was enjoying herself. She really was. She was enjoying herself despite the occasional concern that such an adventure might not perhaps be quite the ‘thing’ for a lady who was no longer in the first flush of youth, and despite the odd twinge of guilt at not sharing the experience with….but such doubts were quickly pushed from her mind.
‘No,’ she thought, stretching her legs under the table luxuriantly, ‘this is my adventure, not anybody else’s.’
And it really was an adventure, too, she reminded herself. She had decided early on that if she was really going to do this, she would take each day as it came. She’d try all sorts of different things to eat and drink, and she would, as far as possible, converse only in French.
Indeed, that’s why she was having coffee and croissants for breakfast. She could have taken breakfast in the small hotel where she was staying, but had decided that that would be nowhere near adventurous enough for such an adventurous holiday. So she had walked, on her first morning in St Germaine Sur Correze, down to the Place de la Ville, and to the little café she had spotted from her taxi window. It looked typically French. Romantically French, she liked to think, with tables on the pavement outside in the sunshine, and with typical, romantic-looking, French men, some wearing blue serge jackets, others with sweaters tied around their shoulders, sat at them drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. That, after all, was why she had chosen to travel to France, wasn’t it? Not the French men, particularly, but the French atmosphere? Had she not wanted, as far as she could, to blend in? To absorb ‘France’? To be as ‘French’ as she could manage? Had she not dreamed of doing this for long enough? Yes, she had! ‘Vraiment.’ she chided herself, regretting that she had forgotten most of her school-girl French over the years. ‘En Francaise, s’il vout plait!’
Since the idea of coming here had wormed itself into her brain, she had forced herself to think in French as much as possible. Sometimes, even, when she was alone, to try speaking her French thoughts out loud. She had stumbled and mumbled, of course, and was quite convinced that no self-respecting French person would ever be able to understand what she was saying, but she was sure that she would improve with practice. The worst part, the most limiting part, was that her French vocabulary, never expansive at the best of times, had shrunk to almost miniscule proportions. She simply couldn’t for the life of her remember more than a few of the most basic words. The blurb on the back cover of her new French phrase book, however, had promised that it would be ‘useful for tourists and holiday makers’, and she’d read most of it on the long train journey here. So it was that, after a few stumbling attempts, she was able to give her taxi driver clear enough instructions, and the hotel receptionist a clear enough idea of the sort of accommodation she wanted.
‘Encore du café Madame?’
Startled from her reverie, Elizabeth turned sharply towards the hovering waitress. It was the same girl every morning. With her limited, stilting French, she had ascertained that she was called Bernadette. She had, Elizabeth thought, a very friendly smile, and, from the size of her impressive bump, was very clearly heavily pregnant. She had wanted to ask Bernadette when the baby was due, but hadn’t been able to find quite the right words in her phrase book. So she guessed for herself. A few days perhaps? Maybe a couple of weeks? Not that it mattered, really, but it would have been nice to have conversed with someone, in French, on a topic a little more profound than simply ordering food. Fortunately, in addition to a friendly smile, Bernadette proved to have been blessed with a smattering of schoolgirl English. Miss Flowers adamantly insisted on speaking French even after she discovered this, but where her limited vocabulary broke down, which was often, they managed, between them, to muddle through her orders.
Elizabeth glanced at her wristwatch. It was approaching ten o’clock, the hour, she knew, when Bernadette’s shift ended. She had also observed that, whilst the poor girl looked as though she really needed to take the weight off her feet, she wouldn’t be able to leave until the breakfast things had all been washed and tidied away. Today, it seemed, it was Miss Flowers herself who was that last awkward person still lingering at the tables. Not wishing to delay her any longer than necessary, Elizabeth shook her head.
‘Non merci. L’addition, s’il vous plait.’ she said.
Bernadette smiled and looked quite relieved as she lumbered tiredly indoors to fetch the bill.
Miss Elizabeth Mary Flowers took the opportunity to enjoy a last few minutes at her usual table, enjoying the sunshine, the quiet birdsong, and the lack of bustle and noise. It was a pretty little square. There were a couple of shops amongst the tall, heavy, ancient-looking buildings, each with its own, often slightly weathered, window shutters. From her position she could see, almost side by side, a ‘Boucherie’ and a ‘Boulangerie’, and a few doors along a small ‘Patisserie’, none of which ever seemed to be very busy at all. Taking up almost the whole of one side of the Square stood the substantial ‘Hotel de Ville’, the Town Hall, and, just out of sight up one of the contributory streets, were a couple of very nice little cafes and bookshops. She’d discovered them on her daily walks, and had promised herself a visit to each of them at some point.
But she really liked the Place de la Ville best of all. It was the sort of place where, she imagined, little of substance ever changed. It was all so wonderfully calm and quiet, and she just so enjoyed sitting back in her chair, relaxing and absorbing what she felt was the essential ‘Frenchness’ of it all.
The waitress returned and placed a small plate containing the bill (‘L’addition’, Miss Flowers reminded herself) on the table before her. Elizabeth added to the plate sufficient euros to pay for her breakfast, together with what she hoped would be an appropriate tip, and stood to leave for her usual ‘promenade’.
That, unfortunately, was when Miss Flowers’ idyllic French morning started to disintegrate.
It was as she stood from the table, discretely dabbing the corners of her mouth with a paper napkin, that the peace and quiet was shattered abruptly by a cacophony of noise. A man’s voice shouting, a woman’s voice screaming back, all accompanied by the frantic barking of a small but very loud dog, invaded her world like an unpleasantly chilly wind from across the Place de la Ville. Their voices echoed around the square, scattering a small flock of starlings from various perches.
Miss Flowers found herself rooted to the spot with shock, her nerves jangling. Even the owner of the café emerged from behind the bar to stand, wiping his hands on his apron, and glower at the goings-on across the way. He said something to one of the closer patrons, pursed his lips, gesticulated across the street in what Miss Flowers interpreted as a mixture of impatience, annoyance and resignation, and retired within muttering words she was sure wouldn’t have appeared in her phrase book.
Miss Flowers was still stood by her chair when Bernadette returned to clear the table. Forgetting entirely for a moment to speak in French, she asked in English ‘What on earth is going on?’
The girl, mimicking her employers gesticulation, replied in heavily accented English.
‘They are mad, these two!’ she replied ‘Crazy-mad! Is a….what word… Yes. Is war! Every week is same thing. L’ancienne…pardon – the old woman – tries to goes into shop and Boulanger he throw her out. And her little chien. Is chien – sorry – is dog that make ‘im mad.’
‘Because is dog, of course. Dog is not allowed in shop. Only allowed is dog for…err…no-see people?’
‘Blind people? So ‘Guide Dogs’ only?’
‘Yes! Is right. No else. But ‘e make sign to say ‘Blind Dogs Only’. Stupid man! Is very clear! But woman insist she is right. She say she can take dog in shop parce’que….because….dog is old and he is no-see….pardon…. is blind dog.’
‘So the dog is blind? Not the woman?’
‘And this fight goes on every week? That’s ridiculous!’
‘Yes! Is stupid! But. She is stupid woman and he is stupid man and they fight for years.’
‘Why so long? Why have the Gendarmes not stopped them before?’
‘So. This Boulanger, Monsieur Bernard, ‘e also is Monsieur Le Maire. So ‘e say ‘e is important. Nobody can tell him. But also is ‘orrible man. ‘e is….erm….’
She paused, unable to think of the right words in English. Instead she threw her head back, puffed out her cheeks and waved her fingers in front of her chest. ‘….ouff….what word….Yes! Small bird, big feathers!’
‘Self-important, you mean?’
‘Yes! Just so! So she start this game, this fun, because he is ‘orrible stupid little man, this Monsieur Bernard. ‘e is also ‘orrible boulanger….not good bread. Nobody like him, so she play game. But now they don’t stop. Nobody win. They shout, he slam door, she scream through window and then she go to other Boulangerie for buy bread.’
The din from the other side of the Place de la Ville seemed to be escalating even further. Miss Flowers head started to throb…and before she realised, she found herself marching briskly towards the arguing pair.
At first she tried speaking calmly and rationally to them. Her presence, if they even noticed her at all, went ignored. She tried again to attract their attention, this time more loudly and more firmly. Still they continued to fight, by now screaming into each other’s faces.
‘Please!’ Miss Flowers found herself shouting ‘WILL YOU STOP?’
They hardly even glanced in her direction.
‘SHUT UP!!!’ Miss Flowers screamed, forgetting all of the ‘conflict management’ techniques she’d ever learned, and banging her fist on the shop’s glass door. ‘PLEASE SHUT UP!!’
By now she was banging so hard on the door that it opened without warning. She fell through the resulting aperture and landed heavily on the floor. The pair in the doorway glanced at her, then at each other.
Miss Flowers heaved herself to her feet, painfully conscious that she was, as she preferred to describe it, ‘approaching advanced middle-age’. She winced at a sharp pain in her right hand and turned to groan, through gritted teeth, at the pair by the door ‘Oh, why won’t you just shut up?’
The Boulanger shrugged his shoulders and circled a stubby forefinger at his temple. The old woman shrugged back.
‘Qu’est-ce-que-c’est, ce ‘Shut Up’?’ the Boulanger asked nobody in particular.
Miss Flowers, if she didn’t quite understand his French, certainly understood his meaning.
‘It means just what it says, you stupid little man!’ she spat at him ‘You two have just ruined my perfect French morning with your screaming! So now I’m telling you again! SHUT UP!’
The Boulanger seemed to take exception to her tone, and started towards her. His face reddened and his eyes bulged from his over-inflated face as he approached, and Miss Flowers was sure, in that moment, that he meant to strike her. At that point, Miss Flowers became aware of another presence in the room. A thin, pale, timid-looking woman appeared in her peripheral vision and said something she couldn’t make out to the approaching fury. The Boulanger hesitated momentarily before turning to bark, his top lip curling disdainfully, at the woman. In a fluttering, bird-like voice the woman said something else. The old lady at the door gave a sharp intake of breath as the Boulanger snarled something unintelligible and raised the back of his hand towards the weedy woman.
After that Miss Flowers was aware of very little until, feeling rather sore and sorry for herself, she sat in a hard chair opposite a tired-looking gendarme. Her hand hurt and she glanced at it, wondering where the piece of towel that encircled it had come from. She had no idea what he was asking, and from the way his eyebrows lifted when she tried to ask him questions back, he clearly could muster no English at all. Eventually he grew tired of the game, and, shrugging resignedly to himself, indicated that she should follow him.
‘Au docteur, Madame, pour votre main’ he told her as slowly as he could. She understood ‘docteur’ well enough, and was more than a little relieved as she realised that he was not going to lock her up in a cell somewhere.
The gendarme guided her out of his office, across a side-street and up a small alley. He stopped outside a building, discernible from its neighbours only by a small pot of flowers on one side of the door and an impressive-looking brass plaque on the other. As far as Miss Flowers could gather, the plaque indicated that this was the docteur’s office of whom the gendarme had spoken.
His knock was quickly answered by a petite, pretty-looking girl who showed them into an office towards the rear of the building. The girl sat down behind a neat, heavy-looking desk and picked up a pencil to make notes. She fired questions at the gendarme in the fastest French Miss Flowers had ever heard. Though he answered at slightly more moderate pace, Miss Flowers was quite unable to make out more than the odd word or two due to his thick accent. She did make out her own name here and there, though, and was more than slightly embarrassed when they pointedly turned towards her whenever her name was mentioned. Then the girl began, much to the gendarme’s clear discomfort, to giggle, and then to laugh quite loudly. He seemed to protest, but she waved him down and sent him on his way.
Then she invited Miss Flowers to take a seat, and introduced herself. Madame DuBois was not, as Miss Flowers had imagined, the receptionist, but was in fact the docteur herself.
‘I know’ Madame DuBois laughed in response to Miss Flowers’ obvious confusion, ‘people are often surprised!’ She spoke in excellent English, much to Miss Flowers’ relief. ’But believe me, I am not as young as I look! So. I will examine your hand, and then we will have some tea and a chat. You have had a trying morning, I understand?’
‘Yes,’ Miss Flowers agreed, wincing as the docteur began to examine her hand, ‘that would be one way to describe it.’
It was such a relief to converse in English that Miss Flowers had very soon explained all about her perfect French morning; her breakfast of coffee and croissants, the small birds in the trees, the peace, the quiet….and then the awful, headlong screaming battle between the Boulanger and the old lady.
‘I’m afraid I just lost my temper’ she told the docteur regretfully. ‘I just wanted so much for them to stop screaming. I remember going to the Boulangerie to ask them to be quiet, but after that it’s a bit of a blur.’
Later, as they sipped their tea from what Elizabeth considered delightfully thin china cups, the docteur outlined what she had heard from the gendarme.
‘Well,’ she began, ‘it seems that you were successful! Partly, at least. It seems that at one point you were screaming even louder than they were!’
Miss Flowers was mortified. She couldn’t remember the last time she had lost her temper, and the thought that she had been screaming seemed so far removed from her normal behaviour that it was scarcely believable.
‘Oh my goodness!’ she muttered, covering her reddening cheeks with her hands and wincing again as she did so.
The docteur laughed gently. ‘Oh, don’t worry! The shock that someone would fight with Monsieur Le Maire, especially in his own shop, has been the highlight of the day for many people!’
‘Oh no….me? I don’t fight! I’ve never fought anybody in my life! This isn’t me, surely!’
‘Ah – but the best part’ the docteur said, leaning forward conspiratorially in her chair. ‘The best part was when you saved Madame Bernard!’
‘How on earth….’ Miss Flowers started, before remembering, with painful clarity, the Boulanger’s raised hand and snarling lip. ‘Surely not!’
‘But yes!’ continued the petite docteur ‘It is….what is the phrase….the ‘talk of the town’!’
‘I don’t remember any of this!’ insisted Miss Flowers. ‘And I’m really not sure I like being the ‘talk of the town’ at all….’
‘Oh, but it is true! You saved her from another beating. Her husband is not a nice man. When things do not go his way he often takes it out on his wife. It would have been this way again today, but you saved her. This is but a good thing!’
‘Oh my goodness….’ muttered Miss Flowers, cringing in her seat.
‘The gendarme was amazed to see this thing happen. He was in the Place de la Ville and heard the noises. As he approached the shop, he could see you defending Madame with sticks of bread!’ the docteur, by now, was almost howling with laughter. ‘You were beating Monsieur Le Boulanger with his own sticks of bread!’
‘Oh!’ Miss Flowers said, memories flooding back quickly now. She could remember flailing sticks of bread at the Boulanger. And crumbs. Lots of crumbs. And she could remember the Boulanger yelping as the stale bread caught him on the neck, on the shoulders, on his face. Oh yes….she could remember welts appearing above his eye….
‘This is why I was laughing when the gendarme told me!’ laughed the docteur. ‘The thought of that stupid little man being beaten with his own bread!’
‘I remember the waitress telling me that nobody likes him,’ said Miss Flowers, still horrified at having been involved in such goings-on ‘she said he was a ‘little bird with big feathers’….’
The docteur laughed so much at this that she slopped her tea into the saucer and had to mop it with a tissue.
Then she took a deep breath to compose herself.
‘So’ she said, clearing her throat. ‘Anyway. This is, of course, a serious matter….’
‘I know, I know….’ whispered a very remorseful Miss Flowers.
‘Yes, to attack somebody like Monsieur Le Maire is not to be laughed at. You understand this?’
Miss Flowers grimaced, wondering how many years of imprisonment might lie before her.
‘But don’t worry’ continued the docteur. ‘The gendarme has said there will be no charges. Monsieur Le Maire was so embarrassed by the whole thing that he has taken himself off to stay with his cousin near Paris. We will not see him for a long time. The gendarme was laughing….’
‘Really? I didn’t see him laughing?’
‘Well, as close to laughing as he will allow himself. He has the dignity, of course!’ the docteur giggled. ‘But I know him. Believe me, if he was allowed to laugh out loud he would have!’
Miss Flowers was very relieved, and said so.
‘So, for now, anyway, you are the hero! Enjoy! They are call you ‘The Formidable Miss Flowers!’
‘Oh dear….’said Miss Flowers, pulling a worried face ‘I’ve never been called that before….’
‘Ahh….’ the docteur let out an amused sigh, and struggled to compose herself again.
‘And so, all that is left is to clear up a mystery that is troubling the gendarme, and then he will be able to forget all about this thing. Except when he off duty, of course. Then it will be his pleasure to tell all his friends when he goes to the bar…’
‘Oh dear….what mystery is troubling the gendarme?’
‘It is, I think, a small thing. A confusion, I am sure….’ said the docteur, inclining her head slightly to one side in a sympathetic manner.
‘What is?’ asked Miss Flowers, concerned at being the focus of any enquiries at all.
‘Well. You are called ‘Miss Flowers’, yes?’
Miss Flowers nodded quietly, cringing inwardly.
‘So. He tell me, the gendarme, that at the ‘otel, you are registered as ‘Mrs Miller’?’
Miss Flowers pulled a face.
‘So this is true?’
‘I’m afraid so’ confirmed Miss Flowers in a resigned tone.
The docteur looked at her sympathetically again. ‘So he wondered….?’
‘It’s quite simple, really’ Miss Flowers sighed, ‘and quite complicated….’
The docteur smiled encouragingly in reply.
‘Well. You see I retired recently….’ said Miss Flowers, hoping vaguely that that would suffice.
The docteur raised her eyebrows.
‘So I was bored, you see. My husband works long hours. He is also a doctor. A hospital consultant. Very grand. Very busy. He gets home late. He’s tired. He never feels like talking. Whereas I, on the other hand, have been at home by myself all day and all I want to do is talk!’
‘I can see this would be a problem….’
‘So I got to dreaming. And wondering. I thought to myself ‘what do I really want to do with the rest of my life?’’
‘And so…?’ prompted the docteur patiently.
‘So I have dreamed for many years that it would be nice to come to France. To experience what ‘real’ France is like. Maybe even to be French for a while, or at least to pretend to myself that I was.’
‘And so you are here!’
‘Yes! I am!’ started Miss Flowers excitedly ‘And it has been wonderful! It has been everything I imagined. The peace. The quiet. The smell of the air. The coffee….at least, it was all perfect until this morning.’
‘It is good that you like France. But why not use your married name?’
Miss Flowers offered an embarrassed shrug. ‘Well, this was to be an adventure, you see. My adventure. This whole thing. An adventure. But I am not really an adventurous person. Not now. Not for many years. But I was when I was a girl. Then I was adventurous. Then I felt that I could do anything. I did all sorts of adventurous things then. But….not since I was married. So, I thought if I wanted to be adventurous now, that I had better become ‘The Adventurous Miss Flowers’ again, like people used to call me. And that’s what I was, for a while.’ She shrugged again.
‘Ah! Of course! Now I understand. Now I will tell the gendarme these things so ‘e will no longer have the suspicions. ‘
Miss Flowers was relieved, and said so.
‘But what of your ‘usband, Miss Flowers?’ the docteur asked, smiling as she emphasised the name ‘will he not be worried for you?’
‘Honestly? I wouldn’t think he’ll have even noticed that I wasn’t there. Not for a few days, anyway, Maybe when he ran out of clean clothes….’ Miss Flowers retorted, pursing her lips and smiling inwardly at the thought that, even if her language skills were not so good, she seemed at least to be absorbing some of the French mannerisms she’d observed over the last few days.
‘So.’ The docteur said, changing tack. ‘Why did you choose our town, when you had a thousand others to choose from?’
‘I heard about it, from someone I met a few years ago. She made it sound so lovely, so I knew exactly where I must come if I ever had the chance.’
‘Somebody who lived here, then?’
‘Indeed. She was a student teacher, and she came to the school where I worked. To polish her English, before she could qualify as a teacher. She was very nice, and although we were never great friends, what she said in the staff room about this place stayed with me ever since. She made it sound so perfect!’
The docteur re-checked her bandaging and smiled. ‘Voila!’ she said, satisfied, ‘C’est finis!’
By the time Miss Flowers returned to the hotel later that afternoon, she was feeling quite exhausted. The docteur had been right. It had been a trying day, and the more she’d walked, the more the morning’s events had tumbled around in her mind until her head had started to ache. By the time she opened the door to the Reception area, her temples were throbbing. She was desperate for a cup of tea, but didn’t think she stood much chance of getting one.
‘Madame?’ Madame Le Grange hissed loudly at her as she approached the desk. ‘Madame!’
‘Now what have I done wrong?’ Miss Flowers thought to herself, her temples by now threatening to explode.
‘Madame!’ Madame Le Grange hissed again, rubbing her hands together nervously ‘Un homme! Ici!’
‘What?’ Miss Flowers asked in return, confused as to why Madame felt the need to tell her that the hotel had a male guest.
‘Oui!’ Madame continued conspiratorially. ‘Un homme! Un Anglais! English!’
‘Oh?’ asked Miss Flowers, wondering if her skills at interpretation might be needed. If so, Madame was sorely out of luck.
‘Non, Madame’ Madame continued excitedly, realising that Miss Flowers hadn’t grasped what she was trying to tell her. She pointed sharply towards the bar, and the outline of a tall man with his back towards the door. ‘Pas ‘Un Homme’, Madam, mais ‘Votre Homme’! Il dit que t’il est votre Mari! Your ‘usband!’
Miss Flowers closed her eyes momentarily, the room spinning. Tim. Now she understood.
‘Madame? Comment ca va? Are you alright?’
Miss Flowers muttered ‘I think so….’
Madame Le Grange hovered protectively at her shoulder as she started hesitantly towards the door. ‘C’est vrait? Is true?’
Elizabeth gave a brief nod of her head, and turned the handle.
‘You came all this way?’ Elizabeth asked quietly as they took their seats on the Hotel’s garden patio.
‘I was worried about you. You weren’t at home, and nobody seemed to know where you were. ’
She was surprised to hear a note of nervousness in his voice. He never seemed nervous of anything.
‘I tried to call you loads of times’ he continued, ‘but then I found your phone on the stairs, near the front door. Then I was even more worried!’
‘Oh yes.’ Elizabeth frowned, ‘The phone. I didn’t realise it wasn’t in my bag until I was on the train. Too late to do anything about it then. If I’d tried to go back for it, my nerve would have gone and I wouldn’t have made it here. But how did you find me?’
‘I followed your breadcrumb trail…’ he said, sitting back in his chair and smiling smugly.
‘What?’ she asked, confused. Had he heard about her adventures at the Boulangerie already?
‘Like I said, I was worried,’ he said ‘so I looked for clues everywhere. The girls hadn’t heard from you. They were as worried as I was. One of them suggested that I check your laptop to see if I could find any clues there.’
‘Well!’ Elizabeth replied huffily, ‘Neither of our daughters have been in touch with us for ages, so what would they know? They couldn’t even be bothered to come round at Christmas!’
‘Well, that aside’ he continued, ‘the ‘laptop’ suggestion was a good one. The lid was still open, so it had run out of charge. It took me ages to find the right lead, and then I had to wait for it to charge enough to start up. But then I found it…’
‘What, exactly?’ asked Elizabeth. She couldn’t imagine what clues he might have found there.
‘Well there wasn’t anything obvious when I first looked, so in desperation I checked your browser history. From that, it was clear that you’d been researching this town, and travel plans and so on, so I took a guess that you were heading here.’
Elizabeth looked at him across the table while he spoke. He was wearing that quietly smug look she’d noticed before, usually when he was relating tales of his successes at work. When he could be bothered to talk at all, that was.
‘Well that was resourceful of you’ she said, folding her arms irritatedly.
‘I thought so!’ he beamed.
‘So why did you bother?’ she asked
‘I asked why you bothered? Looking for me? Coming here? You went to all that trouble, but why?’
‘Because I thought you were missing, of course!’
‘But I wasn’t, was I? I knew where I was all the time.’
‘That’s not the point’ he blustered, getting increasingly frustrated. ‘I didn’t! I was worried about you! About us!’
‘What do you mean,’so’?’ he demanded, his neck reddening under his shirt collar.
‘So what are you going to do now?’ she shrugged, ‘You’ve found me, so what are you going to do about it?’
‘Take you home, of course! That’s where you belong! At home, with me!’
‘But I’m not ‘with you’ at all, really, am I? You’re hardly ever home, and when you are you fall asleep!’
‘Well I’m sorry about that!’ he huffed loudly ‘But I do work extremely hard, you know!’
‘But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?’ she replied, deliberately lowering her voice as his rose in volume. ‘It’s always about you, isn’t it!’
‘Now look!’ he said, very firmly. ‘I’m taking you home, and that’s all there is to it!’
‘Thanks….‘ she said quietly, but equally as firmly ‘….but no thanks. You can go. I’m staying here.’
His mouth opened and closed a couple of time. Frustration was written all over his face, but he couldn’t think of what to say next.
She sipped her wine, waiting for him to say something.
Eventually, he took a deep breath.
‘So what it is that you want, then?’ he asked quietly.
‘I want to stay here’ she said firmly. ‘I like it here. It’s just what I wanted. Very French. It’s quiet. It’s friendly. It’s perfect. But you can stay here too, of course, if you want.’
‘But we don’t know anybody here….and I have my work! People rely on me – I can’t just walk away!’
‘Au contraire,‘ she replied quickly, leaning forward, ‘I do have friends here. They like me, and I like them. They talk to me. You don’t. The girls don’t. They do. So I’m staying. ’
‘And as for work…. you could easily leave if you wanted to. We have savings. I have my pension, and you’re plenty old enough to get yours too. We’d be quite comfortable. You might be able to relax for once. We might even talk….’
‘About what, for goodness sake? And what about the girls?’
‘About whatever we wanted to. And if we lived here, maybe we might actually see more of the girls anyway. They could come on holidays. Spend some quality time with us. With me. If they can be bothered. The grandchildren would love it!’
‘No,’ he said after a pause ‘ wouldn’t work. Can’t see it working at all.’
‘But I can’ she said firmly. ‘And I’ll make it work. I will.’
‘But where would you live? You can’t stay in a hotel forever!’
‘I’ll find somewhere. Rent, if necessary. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.’
‘So that’s it, then, is it? Fait Accompli? You’ve made up your mind, and bugger what I think?’
‘If you want to put it that way, then yes’ she stated, holding up her hand to stop him butting in. ‘Think of it like one of those life-saving operations you’re always boasting about. You tell the patient what you think needs to be done, and they choose either to let you do it…or what? Face the consequences?’
‘In the end, it’s always up to the patient. I can advise, but yes, in the end it’s up to them.’
‘So how do you put it? ‘Mr So-and-so, here’s the situation. Either you let me cut out this bad thing, or you’re going to die’?’
‘Perhaps not quite in those words, but yes, something like that.’
‘And if they hesitate, what do you do? Say ‘Look, I’ll leave you to think about it overnight. Let me know your decision in the morning’?’
He spread his hands in front of him in agreement.
‘But then you’d clearly lay it out for them again, wouldn’t you? Give them the clearest picture you could of the consequences of not letting you operate? You’d offer them….what, like a roadmap to salvation? What do you say, something like ‘you’re here, you need to be there, but only I can guide you through the mountain pass?’
‘I guess so…’ he condescended.
‘So that’s what I’ll do for you, then’ she said, rifling through her bag. She spread a town map across the table between them, then, quietly reaching across the table to take his hand, she continued ‘so this is my map. This is where I want to be. This is where salvation is, for me – and for you, if you want it. Hopefully for both of us. Read the map. Let me know in the morning which way you want to go.’
Elizabeth slept fitfully, dozing on and off until sunlight broke through her curtains. She roused herself, then washed and brushed her teeth distractedly. What would he decide? She’d ask him to wait before telling her, at least until they’d had breakfast at her favourite café.
When she reached the reception desk, Madame Le Grange confirmed that Tim had left the hotel in the early hours. He had left an envelope, which Madame handed over with an apologetic shrug. Elizabeth blinked quickly, determined not to show emotion. Not in front of Madame. The Formidable Miss Flowers would not allow that. It would be impossible. Impossible!
She ordered café et croissants, as usual. As she sat waiting for her order to be filled, she gazed at the unopened envelope on the table before her. Clearly he had made up his mind. She’d hoped he might have stayed. She loved him. He was the father of her children. There were so many years of memories. But she’d had to do this. It had started as a moment of madness, and at first she’d felt the exhilaration of freedom….but only for an hour or two. Then had come the guilt, the remorse, the fear, the regret. She had felt them all, over and over, all the way here. But still she had persevered. For once, just for once, she’d put herself first. It would have been better, easier, less painful, if she’d remembered to put her phone in her pocket….but she hadn’t. If she had, he would have been able to contact her. His mind would have easier, knowing that she was alright – not at home, where she should have been, but alright. But she hadn’t. In forgetting it, she knew that she’d forced his hand. She hadn’t wanted to do that. She’d wanted to explain, to invite, to persuade, to cajole….maybe, if he’d have listened. If he’d even called. Now, of course, she knew that he would have. But too late. He’d made his choice. He was gone. The envelope was proof of that.
Her breakfast arrived. She picked at the croissants. The coffee was too hot. She would wait.
Inevitably, she had to open the envelope. It had to be confirmed. She would write to him, of course. She’d express regrets, offer olive branches, keep the door open. But….
The envelope ripped as she pulled at the flap. Her phone fell out, cascading across the table. She caught before it fell to the floor.
A slip of paper. Hotel notepaper. His handwriting. Blinking again, she opened the page.
‘Dear Liz,’ she read ‘I’m so sorry that I can’t meet you for breakfast. I had a call in the middle of the night. One of my patients needs an urgent operation. I’ve booked a taxi, and the first flight out. Sorry.
Anyway, I have given what you said a lot of thought. I really have. Your words echoed through my head all night.
I don’t have long before the taxi arrives, so I’ll keep this brief. You’ll remember that we did make a deal when we got together. You knew what you were getting into. You knew that if I worked hard, I would do well. You wanted a home and family. So we did a deal. You would choose a house where we could be comfortable and raise a family. You would look after our children and make sure there was always dinner on the table. I would work hard and make sure that we could afford the sort of lifestyle we always dreamed of. I did that. So did you. We raised our kids, we were comfortable, we had a lovely home. Somewhere along the line, though, we seem to have lost our way. We seem to have lost each other. We seem to have taken different roads without even knowing it, without even noticing.
The taxi is waiting. So. To sum it up. Here’s your phone. I hope you remembered to pack the charging cable. Let me know when you find a house you like. I’ll take time off and come over.
You’re right. I am tired. I love my work, but it really is time to get off this treadmill before it kills me. It’ll take a while for the hospital to find someone to replace me, but I agree…it’s time to be adventurous – and I can’t think of a better place to start being adventurous than here, with you.
You’re a formidable woman, Elizabeth Miller, and I love you.
The kids can do what they like. I love you. So we’re moving. Call me.
Elizabeth read the last lines with difficulty. For once her coffee went unnoticed.
Bernadette, from the Café door, watched in awe as the Formidable Miss Flowers held a simple piece of paper to her lips, and quietly wept.