Leah drove her dusty silver estate car in through the once grand old wooden double doors leading from the street to the back of the house, a then a second set of doors leading into the gravelled courtyard. She quickly got out of the car and closed both sets of doors, ensuring that the locks were set and returned to stand in the courtyard savouring the moment of being home again. The sounds of the street were blocked out and this was her world, left to her by her parents, both of whom had died two years ago, within months of each other. There was only one other member of her family now, Celia, who lived with her husband and four children in Corsica. “You will of course be selling it straight away, won’t you?” Celia had pronounced with an irritating self-assurance after the funeral. Celia wasn’t someone who understood emotional attachment or sentimentality in any form. The Will had left Celia a reasonable sum of money, but Leah had been left the house and all its possessions, probably because her parents had based their decision on the characteristics of the two sisters.
Leah turned towards the flower beds, watching the birds feeding at the table. In two years she had created a vibrant garden out of a series of neglected lawns. And now although it was still only very early in Spring, the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths were pushing back through the soil to bring colour to another year. The roses were just tinged with red where the buds would break through. This was her paradise.
Leah was now 36, but since her late teens she had travelled widely doing voluntary service overseas, unpaid conservation work and she had even spent some months helping a team to build a school in Africa. She had swum in coral reefs and flown above mountains. At 29 years of age, she had fallen madly in love with Jake, a wild romantic, and given up everything to marry him. Six months of bliss had followed, but then drop by drop a bitter reality had filled her bowl of happiness and smothered it. Jake didn’t want children, he didn’t like animals and Jake didn’t want to settle down. Jake did like other women though! Leah’s parents needed care and she frequently had to go and stay with them here in this grand old house in France. Within months her marriage had ended and Jake had moved on to another relationship. By 32 she was on her own, caring for her parents and trying to re-establish her identity. Then her parents had died and she still missed them enormously. Joy was a thing that belonged to the past, like a sad and abandoned cuddly toy left to gather dust in the loft.
She wandered slowly down to the river and watched the dappled sunlight gently playing on the water as it smoothly slipped over the rocks. In these last two years of semi reclusion she had found a kind of personal peace and a mellower happiness. Some might have called it selfish, but this is where she had wanted to rest from the world for a while. She’d had enough excitement and challenge. There were days when she felt as if she was wilfully confining herself to a comfortable ‘waiting room’, where everything was still and silent, but then in a waiting room at some point something or someone would break that silence and she really didn’t want life to change. She just wanted to create her garden, do her freelance work, and enjoy being sheltered away from the world with just her cat, Jules, for company. She giggled to herself as she contemplated the vision of her becoming a white-haired witch with her black cat, but no, Leah could never really become that. She loved life, loved growing things, caring, creating all the positive things. It was just hurtful people that she wanted to block out.
Then the ever pressing problem of money, or the lack of it, came back to her thoughts. It had been with great reluctance that she had decided at the end of last year to open up the annexe, an old uncared for part of the house and develop the rooms into chambres d’hotes. During the winter months she had cleaned and decorated, inasmuch as funds would allow and in May it would be ready for the first guests. She had come to the conclusion that it should be possible to welcome the guests, provide them a clean and comfortable place to stay, a good breakfast and yet still keep her privacy and then when the summer ended she would reclaim her seclusion. Good plan, she thought!
May finally arrived, bringing all the beautiful colours that nature could conjure. The first guests came and went in a blur of nervous anticipation. It was actually happening and it was working out. The chambres d’hotes were up and running! She even enjoyed the confidence of seeing that she had started her own business.
But then the unexpected happened and eight weeks into the venture, one of the guests arrived on a motor bike, like a huge black leather-clad monster, although in fact after discarding the outer casing he revealed himself to be a tall, but relatively lean man in his early thirties. He had signed in is as Craig Styles. Leah felt an immediate resistance to him. She found him repellent. The other guests just came and went, but he kept bothering her for information or an extra pillow, or it seemed to her anything that he could think of, in order to intrude on her privacy. He stayed for the three days that he had booked and then asked if he could extend the reservation to a week. “I don’t think I have a
room available” Leah had stated with as much confidence as she could. “Well there’s nothing noted in your diary” he had responded, looking at her arrogantly. She felt her cheeks colour a little and she realised that she would have to give in. Two days later she had found him standing in her dining room. She felt annoyed, but just as she was about to remind him that this was the private part of the house, he offered her a bouquet of flowers which he had been hiding behind his back. “You’ve got a great garden” he said and before she could stop him he was through the open French windows and walking down the path. Leah wasn’t quite sure how to deal with this and watched him for a while as he wandered past the rose bed and descended the lower steps into the vegetable garden and dahlia beds.
Leah decided to go and collect in the washing, so that she would be keeping an eye on him but not encouraging him in conversation. He came bounding up to her like a puppy Labrador. “You know, he said. I could help you out with a couple of things here. You see I worked as a stone mason for a while and both the walls have fallen down in places. I’d gladly fix them for you”.
Leah hesitated. “That’s very kind of you she stammered, but I’m not sure the budget would run to that”.
“Oh that’s no problem” he said. “I’m sure we can work out something about that”.
Leah felt cross with herself. There was something that wasn’t comfortable about the arrangement but for some reason she found it hard to disentangle herself from this annoying interference in her little paradise. Having guests was one thing, but they were meant to be in the annexe, just staying for a while and then moving on! “Oh well”, she told herself “by the weekend it will all be good again! But he was still there on Monday morning. With no other bookings that day Leah went out shopping. Anything of value was in the study and she’d locked the study door so she felt that she had taken care of all eventualities. She put some washing out and walked back past the rose beds. The roses in the central oval bed were blooming splendidly. She bent forward to hold the satin white head of a real beauty of a rose and breathed in deeply to savour its delicate scent. That evening she came back to find the roses gone! The central rose bed was now an empty hollow.
Leah was beside herself. What had happened!? Craig was leaning against the wooden outbuilding smoking. He seemed to be enjoying the expression on her face. “Have you done this?” Leah demanded, recognising a vaguely hysterical tone in her voice.
“Oh come on don’t be like that” he said. “I thought you’d like it. I thought we might build a pond there”.
“The use of ‘we’ was too much for Leah and she rounded on him. “I would like you to go” Leah said angrily. I would like you to take your things and to go, right now!
“Ooh” said Craig mockingly. He drew heavily on his cigarette and then added, “I don’t think you want to do that, because I could spread the word that no one should ever come to stay here. I could tell them how the proprietor is a little crazy and very unwelcoming”.
“Where are the roses?” she demanded helplessly.
“They’re there” he replied calmly, pointing to a pile by the pampas grass.
With tears in her eyes, Leah plunged the roses into water. Tomorrow she would plant them and see if there was any chance of saving them.
Once in the house, she looked for Jules, her cat. At least he would be company. But he wasn’t there.
Craig appeared at the door. The evening was drawing in and he was just a black silhouette against the colourless sky.
“Have you seen my cat?” Leah asked acerbically.
He gave another mocking smile, drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke into the night air.
“Not lately” he said and walked past her almost purposely brushing against her.
Leah sensed fear and foreboding. What was she to do! She spent an hour looking for Jules and then went upstairs and locked herself in her room.
The next morning she made a valiant effort to welcome in new guests and to appear bright and calm.
At 11.00 the doorbell rang. Leah opened the front door to find a policeman on the step. She welcomed him enthusiastically into the house. If only she could tell him everything. She showed him into the kitchen and just then Craig joined them. Leah tried to get Craig to leave the room, without making a scene, saying that he hadn’t finished the walls yet. But Craig stayed, like chewing gum on the heel of a shoe, she thought, and instead of asking Craig to go, the policeman seemed to
include him in his questions. “Had she had a guest staying with her by the name of Matthew Lawrence?” “No, definitely not” said Leah impatiently. “Had she noticed any newcomers in the neighbourhood?” “No” added Leah feeling frustrated with the futility of the questions. And with that the policeman closed his notebook and said that was all he needed to know. Leah followed him out onto the road and drew the front door behind her. To her surprise the policeman turned and said “If you think of anything, just come to the station and ask for Bernardo. He held her stare for a second or two and crossed the road to his car.
A week later and the pond was still a dry hole where the roses had been and the walls were still un-mended. Jules, the cat, returned but was obviously wary of Craig. But the worst thing was when she went to change the bedding in Craig’s room and found that he had fitted a lock! It was the sense of menace, not an overt threat which held Leah captive to the situation. It was his mocking arrogant air and imposing physical presence.
One morning she saw Craig talking to two rough looking men in the courtyard and she saw them hand over a canvas bag to him. There was something about the transaction that looked suspicious. Something had to be done. She fetched her handbag and went down to the car but Craig, who was now on his own, stopped her and caught her by the wrist. She pulled away and said that she had to go out. She had to get supplies for the guests.
He looked at her as if he didn’t believe her and toyed with her hair. She could smell the smoke on his breath. “That’s a lovely cat you have” he said with a dead stare. She felt the evil from him like a damp chill in the bright sunshine, but she stood her ground and said “I’m just going for food”.
She parked in the supermarket car park. It was raining, so she changed into a different coat and hid her face behind an umbrella. She was almost trembling when she got to the police station. “Can I see Bernardo, please?” she said.
“Bernardo, eh” the officer behind the desk answered flippantly. “I don’t think he’s here. Can you tell me what it’s about?”
“No, I just want to see him” she said. “He told me to contact him”.
Reluctantly the young officer rose from his chair and disappeared through a door in the screen leading through to the offices. It seemed an eternity to wait. What would she do if he wouldn’t see her. There would be no more chances. But to her utter relief Bernardo appeared, dismissing the
young officer curtly. In the small bare interview room, events and facts poured out in an indiscriminate order and when she’d finished, she almost pleaded “What do I do?”
Bernard reflected for a moment. “What you need to do” he said “is be very brave. I want you to go back again, with the shopping which you said you had gone for. Tonight I want you to make sure you leave both double doors unlocked”.
“But he locks them every night she said”.
“Then you have to find a way” said Bernardo. “I know that the man staying with you is the one I’m looking for. He’s working under an assumed name. He’s a major drug trafficker and a dangerous individual. But you can do this. We will make sure you are safe!”
Leah thanked him, rushed to the supermarket, threw some items in a basket and checked out through the self-checkout till. She’d been far too long, but she would just have to make excuses.
It seemed like an eternity before nightfall. The double doors were locked. Craig was sitting in a chair by the back door. She was hungry but couldn’t prepare anything because she wasn’t going to offer him food. He knew that and cut himself bread and took cheese from the fridge. At nightfall she said she was going to bed. The gates were still locked. Just then his mobile started ringing. Leah slipped into the annexe and out through the side door to unlock both sets of double doors as quickly as she could. Once back in the house, she left the side door unlocked too and with her heart pounding she ran up the stairs. When she got to her room, Craig was standing in it”. He grabbed her by the arm. “Where have you been?” he demanded.
“I wanted my cat” she said. “That’s all”. The caller was still on the phone and Craig carried on with his conversation. “Whilst he was talking” he took a knife from his pocket and started playing with opening and closing the blade. Leah sat on the bed. What could she do but wait for him to go. “He traced a line with the blade over her shoulders and she shivered. Then there was the sound downstairs as if the wind had blown a door shut. Craig stopped his conversation and swiftly went out onto the landing. Leah ran to the en-suite bathroom and locked herself in. Suddenly there was a commotion of shouts, heavy footsteps running up the wooden stairs, more shouts, a shot, breaking glass, men’s voices issuing commands and then all was silent.
“Leah” someone was calling. “Are you in there?” Leah kept silent. “Leah, it’s okay. It’s safe now”. Then a voice that she recognised, Bernardo, said “Trust me Leah. It’s all right now”.
Slowly she opened the door and Bernardo held her reassuringly. It was over.
Leah took no more bookings, just those that she had to honour and tried to regain her normal life. It took time though. Leah was more nervous than before. All she really wanted to do was completely destroy the memory of the incident which had pushed her yet further back into a wish for seclusion.
The most damaging thing was the ability to trust people anymore; their motives, their loyalty and Leah found that she now treated even the nicest most innocent events with suspicion. But there were things that made her feel happiness like the big box that arrived one morning from Bernardo with a dozen rose bushes in it, which she planted instantly. That did make her feel really happy. Bernardo came to see her on a several occasions after the incident to make sure she was alright and she always felt the same joy when she saw him. He made her feel like a teenager again, with a crush on a handsome sixth former! He was just totally lovely and kind and generous.... and. Oh, she could go on listing his qualities. But she told herself to grow up. Life had taught her to be very cautious, especially with affairs of the heart and not to believe in magic! Fairy tales were for children.
Then one day Bernardo suggested that he would really like his mother, sister and brother-in-law to come over from Tuscany and stay in the chambres d’hotes. “In fact”, he laughed “I have a very large family and can supply you with all your clients!”
And so it was that not just three, but five of his family came to stay for ten days that summer. On the last day, they had become more than just guests and already felt like lifelong friends. Bernardo’s mother was a particularly dignified, ‘wise’ character with a mischievous sense of humour. She had lived for some years with her French husband in France, but when he’d died she wanted to return to her birthplace in Tuscany.
On the evening of their return home, Leah cooked a meal for all of Bernardo’s family to enjoy outside. Bernardo would take them all to the airport to catch their flight back. Leah was so happy that evening, she felt she was glowing but as always tried to hide what she was feeling. Whilst some members of the family were preparing to go, Leah was left alone for a while with Bernardo’s mother. Leah went to fetch some water for her and when she came back she thought she saw her take something from Bernardo’s jacket pocket. But just then Bernardo was calling everyone together and
there was a noisy and rapturous goodbye with promises from Leah to go to Tuscany at the earliest opportunity. Bernardo’s mother said she’d left her handkerchief behind in the garden and asked the others to go ahead of her to the car. She returned quickly, gave Leah a last hug and off they all went.
When they had gone, Leah went to clear the table. Amongst the things, she found a tiny book with a blue cover with a neatly folded note protruding from it. The note said thank you to Leah for the very happy few days they had spent with her but then, to her surprise it asked her to read the lines underlined in the little book. Leah opened the book carefully and read “Don’t let the passing of the years diminish the youthful gift of joy. Joy is something that is so light and so delicate, that it must be welcomed with spontaneity. Do not inspect and weigh it down by negative experiences. Joy wants and needs to fly. A child sees joy and instinctively flies with it. Sometimes joy tangles and crashes like a wilful kite and the child learns that joy is vulnerable and so as he gets older, he begins to worry before accepting it, looking at all the possibilities for joy not to last. Swiftly and silently it’s too late and the joy withers and no longer has the strength to fly. Remain nimble and take the risk for opportunities for joy, for if we don’t fly we forget the view from way up high, near heaven”.
Leah sat outside by candle light that evening with a glass of wine, reflecting on where she was in her life. Her own feelings puzzled her. She had made a promise to herself that she would stay safely in this paradise and never get involved in any relationship again but there was something about Bernardo; a feeling that wouldn’t let go of her. But then she would be an utter fool to take another risk. Suddenly there was a ringtone, coming from somewhere. Leah traced it to a mobile in the flower pot on the balcony. “Hello” she said. “Hello”, answered a surprised voice. “Is that you Leah”. It was Bernardo.
“Yes” answered Leah. “Where are you?”
“I’m standing outside your door actually, just wondering if I could possibly have left my mobile with you. Well, obviously I did, but I’m sure I put it in my pocket”.
“Just a minute said Leah” and she ran to let him in.
“They stood there in the half-light looking at each other and unexpectedly the joy she felt when she saw him was reciprocated and they fell into each other’s arms. He kept repeating her name and Leah was both laughing and crying at the same time.
After a long and emotional embrace, they slowly made their way through the house to the garden. The stars were coming out. “Where did you find my mobile, by the way?” Bernardo asked, laughing.
“In that flower pot” replied Leah with a mixture of amazement and amusement.
“Do you think someone did it deliberately?” asked Leah.
“I’m sure of it” Bernardo said smiling. “I know of two remarkable ladies in my life and one of them is on her way back to Tuscany!”
“And the other?” Leah delicately enquired. Bernardo scooped Leah up in his arms and spun her round and together they stood looking up at the stars. As they watched one of the stars streaked across the sky.
Bernardo looked down at Leah and almost in a whisper he asked “Would you consider spending the rest of your life with me?
And without giving that moment of pure joy the chance of losing the magic of its brilliance she kissed him softly and answered “Any number of lifetimes”.