Sweet Encore is delayed again, partly because of a challenging set of domestic circumstances earlier this year, but mainly because I decided to carry out another rewrite at five to midnight in the production schedule, having decided that I still wasn't happy with the manuscript.
It won't be long now, but in the meantime, I've posted the first chapter below.
I'll post more news soon, as to when the e-book will be available from Amazon; the print version will be a month or so behind it.
Chapter 1: What’s New, Kangaroo?
The call from my brother comes at the end of June, as I’m rushing around trying to find two matching shoes. I haven’t heard from him in several years. There is no particular reason for this; there has been no falling out. It’s just that he lives in the Caribbean, I live in France, and neither of us is very good at keeping in touch. After some basic niceties, he gets to the point: ‘Can Arianna come and spend the summer with you in France?’ he asks.
The request takes me by surprise. The last time I saw my niece, she was sitting under my desk in London, playing with a Buzz Lightyear doll as I typed out a feature entitled ‘Rubies are a Girl’s Best Friend’. Every now and then, I threw her a chocolate button, in much the same way as I throw dog biscuits to my little black terrier, Biff. It wasn’t difficult to entertain her as a toddler, but how would I keep a sixteen-year-old amused in a small French village, where it’s lights-out-and-everyone-under-the-duvet-by-10 pm even in the summer?
Villiers, where I live, has many charms – chief among them, for a writer, being the peace and the plentiful supply of Sauvignon Blanc – but not much to appeal to a teenager, especially not a teenager who has grown up on a lively Caribbean island, with the ocean on her doorstep and, by all accounts, a dynamic social life.
I point this out to my brother, but he is curiously persistent. ‘It will be good for her. She’ll have a great time,’ he says. ‘And she can learn French.’
‘In a few weeks?’
‘Well, she can learn the basics – bonjour and all that.’
‘And what does Arianna think about this?’
‘She’s already packed her bag.’
‘Listen, I’m running late to visit a friend,’ I say. ‘Can we talk about this tomorrow?’
I figure that my sibling will forget the plan. He often has crazy ideas – most recently to buy a holiday home in Papua New Guinea – that usually disappear when hosed down with the cold-water jet of reality.
‘OK,’ says my brother. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
I glance at the kitchen clock. I’m supposed to be at Gabriella’s at 8 pm and I don’t want to keep her waiting. ‘Come on, Biff,’ I plead, holding up a silver-hooped sandal. ‘Where’s the other one?’
Stealing my shoes and hiding them in strange places, like the woodpile, is his favourite thing. I spend a lot of time begging for them back. I know he understands because he tilts his head to one side, as if considering the request.
As I search behind the sofa, he trots out of the room and returns, his little tail bobbing, with my shoe between his teeth. ‘Thank you,’ I say, extracting it from his jaw.
He looks thoroughly pleased with himself, but realising that I am about to go out without him, rushes to park his enormous paws in front of the door, where he assumes his most beguiling expression. For a second, my resolve wavers. But the last time I took him to Gabriella’s he barked his head off for most of the evening. Gabriella is ninety-four years old, deaf and almost blind, so it wasn’t helpful, although she joked, probably with some accuracy, that he just felt left out of the conversation.
After some fancy footwork to get past him, I head down the cobblestone slope that leads to Gabriella’s, catching the scent of honeysuckle on the warm evening air. It’s on nights like this that I really love France. Gabriella’s house, a former coaching inn, is one of the oldest in the village, flanked by a mass of snowball-white hydrangeas and lavender bushes. The door is open and she is sitting at the farmhouse table in her kitchen, waiting for me.
She is always nicely dressed – Dolores, her Portuguese housekeeper, visits every morning to help with the cleaning and ironing – but tonight she looks particularly crisp in a mustard cotton dress.
‘Coucou, it’s me,’ I shout.
‘Is that you, Keren?’ (No one in France calls me by my correct name.)
‘Yes it is.’
I kiss her on the cheek, inhaling the essences of lemon and tuberose in the expensive Italian cologne that she wears.
‘Come on in. Come in. Have you got your little dog with you?’
‘No. He is at home.’
‘The dog is in Rome? How did he get to Rome?’
‘No, he’s at home,’ I say, a little more loudly.
‘Wait! I need to adjust my hearing aids,’ she says. Then, after fiddling around with them for a few minutes, ‘Say merde,’ she commands.
‘Merde!’ I shout.
‘Good. Now I can hear you.’ She motions for me to sit down next to her at the wooden table. ‘So what’s new, kangaroo?’
‘Nothing much,’ I reply, deciding to spare her the details of how I spent today leaving countless messages for Victoria Beckham, for a newspaper article that I am writing.
‘How was your day?’ I ask.
‘I’ve just been listening to a French political show,’ she says. ‘These stupid governments say they are fighting for peace, but fighting for peace is like f*****g for virginity.’
When I’ve stopped laughing, she takes my hand and squeezes it. ‘Now, I’ve made us some soup. Be so kind as to get spoons from that drawer over there. And in the icebox you will find a bowl of vegetables. On the second shelf down.’
Her kitchen is chaotic – copper pans simmering on the stove, fruit and vegetables strewn across the table, a string of garlic swinging from the ceiling – but Gabriella knows exactly where everything is. The jars and tins in her kitchen all bear big white labels, with their contents marked in giant capital letters.
‘There is a metal stand next to the gas ring. Can you see it? Good, now bring it here to the table’. I follow her instructions like a robot. ‘And put the vegetables in the computer [as she calls the microwave] and turn the dial to the right. That’s it. Now come and sit down and tell me your news.’
‘Actually, I’m feeling a little…restless,’ I say, hoping for one of the nuggets of wisdom that she often pitches my way. The former wife of an American diplomat, Gabriella was born in Italy, grew up in a decaying former convent in Mexico, and lived all over the world, including a stint in Washington, before landing, at random, in rural France. Much like me, in fact, except that I came here via west London and a career in fashion, rather than Mexico and the diplomatic service. Along the way Gabriella has learned to speak five languages fluently – ‘including swear words!’ – and collected friends in the manner that others collect shoes or wine.
‘You’re feeling reckless?’ she says, getting up and moving slowly to the stove to stir the pan of soup.
‘Restless,’ I repeat, loudly. ‘I want something fabulous and exciting to happen. To be surprised by life, but in a good way.’
‘My dear, life is full of surprises, even when you are as old as me. But you can’t just sit back and wait for them to happen,’ she says. ‘You have to make a move. Do something.’
I’m not sure why, but magical and unexpected things do seem to happen after visiting Gabriella. I nearly always leave her house feeling happier and more inspired than when I arrived. She manages to make you feel as if you are the most important person in the world. ‘If I were your mother-in-law…’ she will say, before delivering some pithy piece of advice.
But I must admit that she is my friend in spite of myself. I did my very best to dodge her acquaintance, when she knocked on my door unannounced one day. I stuck my head out of the upstairs window and saw a thin woman with white hair and a walking stick below.
‘Are you the writer?’ she asked.
‘Who wants to know?’ I said, annoyed by the interruption.
‘I’m Gabriella. Gabriella Hartgrove,’ she replied. ‘Someone at the mairie told me that we have a writer living in the village and I thought I would investigate.’
‘I am a writer, yes. But I’m very busy right now.’
‘Well, is there a time when it would be convenient for me to call back?’
Gabriella was determined to be friends with me and I think I was swept along by the sheer force of her personality. I did not know at that point that Gabriella was nearly blind and almost deaf. For her even to have found my house at all was testament to her character and tenacity – or ‘grabbing life by the balls’ as she calls it. We laugh about it now, but the truth is that I was not as polite as I could have been that day. ‘Don’t even mention it,’ she says, whenever I do. ‘The most important thing is that we are friends now.’
Over dinner of minestrone soup followed by Italian-style vegetables – Gabriella’s favourite diplomatic posting was Rome – I tell her about the call from my brother.
‘MORON!’ cries Gabriella. (I like to think it is a term of endearment, as she calls me this often.)
‘You should have bitten his arm off. Of course you should let her come. What have you got to lose?’
By the end of dinner, Gabriella has convinced me that a visit from my niece is the best possible thing that could happen this summer.
‘Do you need me to read any letters before I go?’ I ask.
‘Not tonight,’ she says, and I’m almost disappointed. She usually has a basketful of letters from friends around the world, waiting to be read. They’re always handwritten and sometimes up to twenty pages long; and before I start to read, Gabriella gives me a potted history of the writer, such as: ‘Her parents survived the Titanic’ or, ‘She left her husband for another woman, who then ran off with the family tiara.’ People have written novels with less happening in them.
‘Remember,’ she says, as I get up to leave. ‘One of the secrets to life is to recognise the opportunities when they come along. You’ve got to grab life by the balls.’
‘Got it,’ I say.
And then she sends me back into the summer evening with her usual sign-off: ’See you later, alligator.’
‘In a while, crocodile,’ is my reply.
I’m still smiling as I walk back up the cobblestone slope, past a stone wall topped with a froth of wisteria. I stop to admire the sky, turning milkshake pink above the church spire, and breathe in the sweet, warm air. Tonight is the summer solstice.
Biff is lying along the back of the sofa, his hairy face pressed up against the window waiting for my return. He races to the door, dangling his lead in his mouth. I get the hint. Heading up rue St Benoit for our usual evening walk, I can hear live music and laughter coming from the square. And voices. After 10 pm. What’s going on? And then I see that the Café du Commerce on the corner is lit up and there is a crowd outside.
The café appears to have finally reopened. A couple of months ago, a sign in the window announced that it was under new ownership and would reopen soon. (Cafés in rural France change ownership frequently. If someone lasts 18 months they are doing well; but most have closed the doors by year three, thanks to the punitive French tax system.)
Opaque white screens subsequently appeared in the windows, hiding the mysterious makeover that was taking place within. But often when I took Biff for his bedtime walk, I would notice that the lights were on, sometimes as late as 2 am, and the sound of hammering and drilling could be heard inside. Occasionally, I would see two men – one chubby and short, the other thin and with long hair – sitting in the moonlight, enjoying a cigarette break.
As I walk down one of the side roads leading off the square, I hear someone say ‘Bonjour!’ When I turn around, I see a man, barefoot and in loose-fitting shorts, smoking a cigarette in his garden. He’s in his late forties with once-dark hair and a five o’clock shadow. He reaches over the stone wall to pat Biff, before striking up a conversation in French.
‘Nice evening,’ he says.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘You live in the village?’
‘Yes. And you?’
‘I’ve just arrived. I’m renting here for the moment, while I renovate a barn nearby.’
I start to laugh. ‘You’re English?’
‘I am.’ He grins, switching to our native tongue. ‘You too?’
His French is excellent, though I thought I detected the faintest hint of anglais in his accent. But it was the mention of the renovation that did it: if someone is mad enough to take on an old barn in my region, the Poitou-Charentes, they are almost certainly British.
‘Well, welcome to Villiers,’ I say. ‘Don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not normally as lively as this.’
He laughs. ‘You mean the pot d’acceuil in the café?’ he says, revealing that his French is a cut above average by using the phrase for ‘welcome drinks’. ‘I was just about to wander over. Do you want to come along?’
I hesitate. I have to be up at 7 am tomorrow to work on ‘Who Wore It Best?’, a feature I agreed to write about the advent of the ‘It’ dress – one of them by Victoria Beckham – that countless celebrities have worn.
‘It looks like a private party,’ I say.
‘Nah, it’s an opening party. And anyway, I am invited,’ he says.
In my head, I can hear Gabriella shouting, ‘What are you waiting for, you MORON? GO!’ This is, after all, an opportunity to get to know a neighbour and meet the new owners of the café.
‘Well, I suppose… maybe for half an hour. But I might just take my dog home as it looks a bit crowded in there.’
‘Great,’ he says. ‘I’ll get my shoes and meet you on the square. By the way, I’m Matt.’
Biff looks outraged that I’m leaving him at home for the second time this evening. Cocktail parties, with their stray crisps and canapés and distracted humans, rate second only to barbecues as his favourite social event, so I feel rather guilty. He fixes me with an intense, black-eyed stare. ‘I know. Life can be cruel sometimes,’ I say, waggling his ears. ‘But I won’t be long.’
My fellow anglais is waiting for me at the top of rue St Benoit. ‘My wife Zoe will be arriving at the weekend,’ he says, as we walk over to the café. ‘Hopefully, you’ll meet her soon. You’ll have to give us the lowdown on the village, as we’re probably going to be here for a while.’
‘So how far have you got with your barn?’
‘Put it this way: you can still see stars through the roof.’
The Commerce is rocking as we arrive – literally, thanks to the live band playing in the corner. And what a transformation. Under the previous owner, Clément, the interior decor was pure 1970s Soviet Russia. (Think beige vinyl seating, Formica tables and fluorescent strip lighting and you’ll get the picture.) But all that late-night activity has paid off. The grim vinyl furniture and flooring has been stripped out and replaced with rustic wooden tables and chairs; and they’ve even hacked back the ugly suspended ceiling to reveal the original plaster cornicing and a centre rose.
It is easy to spot one of the new proprietors. Short and solid, with a cheeky grin, he looks quite pleased with himself, as well he should.
‘That’s Basile,’ says Matt. ‘The owner. Apparently, he’s worked for restaurants in Paris, Bordeaux and La Rochelle.’ This of course, begs the question: what is he doing in Villiers?
‘His wife is from the region,’ says Matt, as if reading my mind. ‘And wanted to move back.’
‘Is his wife going to help out in the restaurant?’
‘I think his friend Guy is going to run it with him.’ He nods towards a thin, rather wan-looking man, with long dark hair. He’s not from the village, but I recognise him as the man who helped Basile with his midnight renovations.
Our fellow guests are a mixture of local business owners and people that I haven’t seen before, many of them young and unusually well dressed for a Thursday night in rural France. Where have they all been hiding, I wonder? This is clearly the start of a whole new era for the Café du Commerce.
We take our complimentary drinks – chilled lychee juice with sparkling wine, which is quite exotic for these parts – and move outside. ‘Beautiful evening,’ says Matt. And it is. The sky is royal blue and there is a new moon above the mairie.
‘You’ve arrived in France at a good time,’ I say. ‘Just in time for summer.’
‘I know,’ he says, sitting back in his chair, looking pleased with himself. ‘
‘So what do you do?’ he asks, narrowing his eyes. I have the impression that I am being analysed.
‘I’m a freelance writer. You?’
‘Not really. I spend a lot of time on my own, surfing Twitter – oops, I mean drawing up plans – as I imagine you do.’
‘How do you know Basile?’
‘I don’t. I met him in the boulangerie this morning.’
It’s a little surreal, I think, that a couple of hours ago I was eating soup with my 94-year-old friend. Now, here I am enjoying cocktails and a musical quartet with a stranger. This is not at all a typical summer’s night in Villiers.
‘Let me show you a picture of the barn,’ says Matt, getting out his smartphone and showing me a photo of a cluster of stone buildings with the roof falling in, of the kind I see everyday when walking Biff.
‘Well, good luck with that,’ I say. ‘Where exactly is it?’
‘On the outskirts of Villiers, surrounded by green fields but only a ten-minute walk from here.’
He swipes through the pictures on his phone to show me a three-dimensional plan of the finished house. At the front, you see only the traditional stone facade; but at the rear, a modern, single-storey building will be built on either side, forming a U shape. Each side of the ‘U’ will have floor-to-ceiling windows opening on to a terrace and swimming pool. It is certainly going to break new ground in Villiers.
‘It looks like it’s going to be quite a party house,’ I say.
‘That’s the idea. Another drink?’
‘Um, I have to get up early tomorrow for work.’
‘One glass won’t do you any harm. It’s not like you have to go far to get home.’
‘OK,’ I say, showing the self-discipline that has got me where I am today.
Inside the café my new neighbour stops to chat to Basile, before reappearing with a bottle of Chablis and two glasses. ‘They’ve got a cracking wine list,’ he declares as he pours the wine. He clicks my glass. ‘Santé! To the good life in France.’
‘So have you actually started work on your barn?’
‘Not yet. We only bought it a few months ago. We haven’t got planning permission yet. It’s difficult because I have to keep flying back to the UK to deal with work projects.’
‘Would I recognise any of your work?’ I ask.
He laughs. ‘Sadly, no. We can’t all be Norman Foster,’ he says, referring to the famous architect. ‘Some of us have to design boring office blocks and public buildings.’ This seems unusually modest for a Brit newly arrived in France. Most tend to embellish their achievements, and in his shoes some would be claiming to have designed half of the City of London.
When I glance at the clock on the mairie opposite, it has gone 1 am. In the three hours that we’ve been chatting, we’ve covered all the usual ground – septic tanks, solar panels and French bureaucracy. I learn that he has two daughters from a previous marriage, both of them at university; and that Zoe, his second wife, is a textile designer and ten years younger than him. She is currently in India on a work trip. ‘Or at least that’s what she tells me,’ he says.
‘You and Zoe are going to get on like a house on fire,’ he continues. I’m not sure what makes him so certain of this, but in France it is quite usual to strike up instant friendships with fellow expats, the common bond being that, for whatever reason, you both felt motivated to cross the Channel and acquire a pile of old stones. At the very least, he and his wife will be interesting additions to the village.
Inside the café, the saxophonist is hitting his stride and the party is still going strong. ‘Time for me to go,’ I say.
‘Yeah. Me too.’
We say good-bye to Basile, who has been partaking liberally of his own largesse, and walk back across the square, tailed by the soaring saxophone.
‘Thanks for the drinks,’ I say, when we reach rue St Benoit.
‘Pleasure,’ he says with a grin. ‘Thanks for the company and the conversation. See you around.’
Back home, I find an email from my brother. ‘Please let me know ASAP if there are any dates that you can’t do,’ he has written. I type back a reply, though I’m still not convinced that the visit will happen. But Gabriella is right: life does keep delivering surprises. And, like buses, there are none for ages and then they come along in threes: the call from my brother; a new expat in the village; and most surprising of all, the fact that the local café has reopened with, by all accounts, a halfway decent chef. As for my niece, I cannot wait to see how the sweet, chubby-cheeked toddler who played under my desk, has turned out. All I have to do is grab the ensuing opportunities by the balls.
© Karen Wheeler 2015