He’d lost it, again. Sometimes he felt that it had a will of its own, that it didn’t want to be associated with him. And he’d taken it to the Languedoc in the warm south of France, carelessly, thinking that he wouldn’t need it. But as in so many things he was wrong. Actually living in St Nicholas des Puits was not to be anticipated. It was cold in the winter, especially at night. The scarf was necessary. But it tried to escape even though it was wanted, indeed cherished. Then it was lost.
In the mornings he would get up late, and later and later. Somehow he couldn’t keep control of his daily routines. With slippers on, he would shuffle across the tiled floor and open the long windows in the living room and then push the shutters wide and, stepping outside in the fresh morning, pin them back to the walls with metal tongues. The air was like a cool drink, pure and almost intoxicating. And it was silent outside, except, as the season rapidly warmed, there was soon a cheerful exuberant sound of birds. Eager darting insects foraged among the flowers, varieties of cistus, a campsis, solanum, ubiquitous lavender and other plants he knew nothing about. There were bees clinging to the scented sage and as the sun warmed throughout the spring, butterflies darted, on seemingly purposeless and frivolous expeditions with coy encounters against blooms and emerging buds.
Going back indoors still weary from the night’s heavy sleep, he would fill the kettle and switch it on, finding a tea bag and mug. On the terrace under the pergola, beneath the already thick and burgeoning vigne vierge covering it, sitting at the table, he might think fitfully about the day ahead, or more often, himself. He visited his past life in random episodic recollections as patchy in his memory as the random pools of light on the table, filtered through the leaves layered above him on the frame of the pergola. If he had any breakfast it was at midday.
He’d probably mislaid the scarf at the supper party. It was a cashmere grey herring bone scarf, rather soft and elegant when draped round his shoulders and tucked under his coat. When he left to go home it wasn’t to be found. He hadn’t dropped it in the car, he hadn’t left it in the sleeve of his coat, and it wasn’t found where he had eaten and drunk. It had vanished. He was exposed to the cool night round his neck, without it.
The party was in the next village, Colombette-le-Fiere, a buffet at the house of one of his new friends, Petra. When he came out from England, he’d thought originally he would be soaking up French culture with French friends, but he was an ex-pat, and his friends were those who had washed up in the area like himself, from all over the world, speaking English.
Eileen had given him the scarf one Christmas and even then it had gone missing at once. The rectangular box which he had opened in the morning to find his scarf folded and neatly interleaved with tissue paper, was empty when they cleared up that night.
“I hope it’s not an omen, John,” she said.
“Don’t be silly. It’s here somewhere. It’ll turn up sometime,” he’d replied
“Just like you.”
It did turn up, with the wrapping-paper rubbish about to be thrown in the bin. In the past he’d left it in the cinema and had had to remember which screen and which performance they had been at, and collect it from the manager after a tense conversation. Once on a journey to Peterborough it went with his coat on a train all the way to Edinburgh by itself..
He’d go over to Petra’s house again and have a look for it in daylight. It would be an excuse to see her again. She had the same ambivalence about living in France as he had, and when he met her she lingered with him just enough for him to sense her physical presence. But a tease, really. Hans was a big glowering presence hovering in the room, watching. The south of France was not a colony, there was no country club. He observed that some relationships had deteriorated with time and inactivity rather than adultery.
He wouldn’t be reporting the loss of the scarf to Eileen, or, if he found it, the recovery. They were living separate lives. After he bought the French house originally, they had come over together for short trips, but as he wanted to stay out there longer so she got impatient with trying to run two houses and a social life in London as well as the Languedoc. Then he made his mind up to move permanently to the village, and she made up her mind to stay in England. It was almost inevitable.
As Eileen had got older she began to look more severe. She stopped painting her nails or using lipstick. Her lips retreated across her teeth; her eyes hollowed out. Earrings were her sole decoration, small silver pendants with inlaid coloured enamel. She stopped asking him how she looked when she dressed for anything social. She was almost camouflaged now, indistinguishable from the greying middle class to be seen at the National Theatre on weekday evenings.
He was wearing the scarf when he said goodbye to her, on the day he finally left London in his loaded car.
“There, you see, you’ve got a bit of me round your neck,” she said tearfully. “I know it’s for the best, for the time being, but I shall hold a candle for you. And miss you. I can’t seem to make you happy here. Oh John, why are you so impatient, so restless?”
“I must have Viking in me; I need a longboat and maidens to ravish.”
“Be serious; you’re leaving me. I should be very angry that you chose France rather than me. You’ve always wanted your own way in things, and you’ve got it now. But I’m not angry; I’m just disappointed, I’m really very sad, John. I hope I’ll be resigned to it. But I’ve failed somehow.”
“You ought to be angry. If anyone’s failed it’s me. I can’t be tied any more to the suburbs. I must live somewhere else. You’ve got things to do. The choir, the garden, bridge, your sisters; and you’ll come and see me. Montpellier isn’t Australia. You can get there by train for God’s sake.” But as he said it he knew she might not, and wondered if he would be glad if she didn’t. He’d had enough of their life; he didn’t hate her or dislike her, but he didn’t love her enough to want to stay in England. She was independent, so was he. Living together was an act of will, a contract, a choice. And now he was calling time to do something he wanted to do, live in another country. And she had refused. That was that.
He hugged her, and she patted the scarf and tidied it round his neck.
“Ring when you arrive will you,” she said, and suddenly with both hands she brushed them through her short hair, twice or more. It was a familiar gesture when she was upset.
He got in the car and lowered the window. “I’ll let you know how I get on.”
It had taken him a while to settle down on his own, longer than he had imagined. He had been to the house by himself in the past. He’d found the plot and organised the builders and lived in a gite to see that they turned up and finished it. He’d had the garden laid out and enjoyed planting it. Eileen had come out when it was habitable and they had chosen some furniture together and they had equipped it. But he had always thought of it as his project, his house. And now it was his, and his alone he found living in it full time was different to visiting. Disconcertingly, now he was there permanently by himself, he kept finding evidence of Eileen and hearing her in his head. She had ironed the sheets and pillow cases and put them in order in the cupboard. Briskly she had organised the cleaning things under the sink, she had bought the bed covers and equipped the kitchen. Now he had to be his own housekeeper. He could do it but he’d relied on her, and there was no one to ask any more. His life wasn’t just about living in France; domestically it was about living as a single man again.
He liked being in the south, near the Mediterranean, not so far from the Spanish border on the one side nor from Provence on the other, surrounded by vineyards. And he liked fetching croissants and the ‘Midi-Libre’ newspaper every morning, until he changed his routine and stayed in bed and drank his tea first. He had had plenty to do at first, putting down some roots. He had tackled French bureaucracy, bought a left hand drive car and got it taxed, changed his domicile, sorted out his tax. And he picked figs and apricots in the garden in his first summer, and was surprised by the sudden sharp cold spells and blustery wind in winter. In the heat he allowed himself his leisurely waking time, in the cooler weather he lay on his settee in front of log fires. He bought a proper bike, and the clothes to go with it. French cyclists regularly passed by on the lane outside his house, calling to one another before they began the climb up into the hills. He explored himself.
He could speak French a bit. He’d been well taught at school, had had pen-friends, stayed in their families, topped it up at University and then his firm had offered him some refresher courses. It improved with practice and the dictionary and the newspaper. And he was going to start classes in the autumn. But he didn’t feel French, it was too late in his life to be conditioned; he should have come when he was ten, like his North African cleaner. And films were hard work. It was the speed of speaking and the slang which made them hard to follow. He felt mildly guilty about it. The Scandinavians he met could speak fluent English. He would never speak fluent French. It required real mental effort to capture the necessary grammatical constructions, visualising the accents, and apostrophes and word order. But he felt he ought to try, which was more than most of the Brits and others he met who practically boasted of their inability to speak French.
What had seemed to be an extended holiday began to change. He was there permanently and hadn’t quite entered the exiles’ frame of mind. He looked round him and knew that he had to face a life like this all the time if he was permanently settled. He wasn’t composed. In spite of all he had done to bed down, he was still restless.
“Why are you here John?” Petra had asked him at the supper table.
“I don’t know.”
She smiled at him. “You don’t know? You must have had a reason,” and she leaned towards him, and poked him on the arm, “I guess it’s an experiment in living on your own, without your wife.”
He smelled her perfume, her hair just brushed his temple.
“I didn’t want to live in England, and if I didn’t live there, France is the best place I reckon.”
“I can understand that. Hans and I didn’t really want to live in Holland. But you’re by yourself, a mysterious almost-bachelor. Quite dangerous. How old are you?”
“Like a widower then. Actually, Hans and I came here to escape the gossip as much as anything. He picked me up on a cruise; I was working on the ship, he was with his wife. Then he came for me. He’s a ship broker in Rotterdam and the family and his wife didn’t approve. But he’s got plenty of money; he’s tied up some for me. I was glad to get off the boats. Here we can just be ourselves and people take us as we are. He’s seventy now and I’m not yet fifty. Perhaps it’s my turn to go on a cruise as a paying passenger.” She winked.
Petra moved once more close to him, “Look at all these people round the table. They’re new to you. I thought you might like meet them, but they’re no different to us really. One or two came here because they’ve never lived in England; their family was in India once, or they worked in oil, in the gulf or Borneo, like Henry and Sylvia. People like that miss having servants of course; Henry expects things to be on the table just like they used to be. He doesn’t clap his hands or ring for his wife, but poor Sylvia always looks as if he might. But a lot of people settle here to escape. Not crime of course, or at least not obviously; no, they don’t like what they were so they come here and buy a cheaper house and build a pool and go to parties and organise things. My God how you Brits organise. Christmas fairs, concerts, clubs, cricket, magazines in English, teashops and bookshops. You’ve been to Pezenas.”
“A lot. I bought most of the furniture in the antique shops.”
“Watch out for worm. Lots of English round there, teahouses and books. So what are you going to do with yourself? Have you got any money?”
She poured some more wine into their glasses, and said “Do you mind if I smoke?” producing a long holder.
“I retired, and there’s a pension and things. I don’t worry about money.”
“But you don’t have a lover. Not yet. There’s a few wives whose husbands are much older. They’ll be available sooner or later . Look at me, you could reserve me.” She laughed.
Someone came up to speak to her. John turned to his other side.
“Hi, I’m George,” said the man sitting there.
“Do you live here?”
“Yes, my partner Chris and I came out about seven years ago.” He pointed to the man beside him. “And you?”
“I do now. I’m on my own, my wife wouldn’t come.”
“So who were you running away from? Her, yourself?”
“Suburban life, the everyday, something like that. I thought I’d start again.”
“What do you do? Write, paint, golf? I don’t know how people play it four times a week. It’s substituting for life, it must be. You’ll have to join something. There’s a choir, lots of clubs if you look. Books; do you like books? You can’t just live in the climate. You should do something with it that’s my philosophy. Isn’t that right Livy?” He looked across the table to a woman with long dark hair, who seemed to be even younger than Petra. No more than thirty five.
“This is John, just settling in. Needs a purpose.”
Did he? So far the only thing was learning to live there and get his bearings with these new people. Those he’d met seem to have arrived and left their baggage behind. It was seductive. He looked round the table. There was a lot of noise and laughter, plenty to drink, people at ease.
It was different now to the time when he and Eileen came out for holidays. Then he knew what he was, an investment adviser in Moorgate, with a middle-class house in Orpington and a wife who used to teach, one daughter in Bristol, a qualified accountant with a boy-friend.
What was he now? He wasn’t sure if he belonged or not. He thought he had abandoned who he was, but the question remained, who was he now? Living permanently in a French house didn’t give him any identity. He signed ‘retired’ when asked on forms. These people round the table might become his new friends, but he didn’t see himself belonging to them. Petra said he was a widower and in a way he was. When he lived in Orpington he was part of a couple, with other couples. But if Eileen had died and he’d stayed there he would still have been somebody. It wouldn’t have been like this.
He had occasional phone conversations with Eileen. He wasn’t sure what to say. Since he had left her, it would be completely artificial to carry on as if he was just on holiday. She tried to interest him in the neighbours and their children, and in what she had been doing in the garden. And although he had made sure she was financially independent, there was still the house; it was half his, and she didn’t let him forget it when there were repairs, or there were problems with the fences, or gutters. He wanted a clean break but there wasn’t one; he’d shut the door behind him, but it sprang open from time to time.
“You seem very busy,” he said. “I knew you would be.”
“It’s not the same.”
“You chose it,” he said. That was always his line. “Think of yourself as a widow.”
“But it’s not like that at all. People don’t treat a separated woman as if she’s a widow. The feelings are totally different. They blame me for letting you go. It’s my fault. They don’t say so but that’s what they think.”
“Perhaps we should get divorced,” he had said, more than once.
“I’m not ready for that. It’s not final. I’ll come out and see how you’re getting on.”
He was alarmed. He didn’t want her in France. He wasn’t so sure of himself yet; she might undermine him, and his resolve.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said.
“Well, come home for my birthday.”
“We stopped celebrating that years ago, or at least you did.”
And so it went on, each occasion more awkward than the last. But paradoxically, he knew he would be disconcerted if she never rang again. Hearing her reminded him why he wasn’t in England anymore. But not hearing her would mean the moorings were finally slipped. He was certain, but not yet fixed, not wholly established.
Petra was murmuring something to him. “You see the man at the end, with the gold chains?”
“The swarthy one?”
“You could put it like that. He’s got a big house. Not as large as this, but older and with a view and a park, not a garden. It’s not his of course, well it is now. He inherited it. The gossips say he’s a predator, picks up older men on the beach, takes them on, and looks after them and when they die, surprise, surprise they’ve left him most of their money. The families sue of course but it’s pretty much signed and sealed. He’s still quite young and charming and careful and gives a big garden party in the summer. I’ll introduce you if you like. We all call him Bish, but I think his real name is Bhaskar. ”
She nudged him and he laughed.
“Not my scene. I’d better find something to do. What shall I do Petra?”
“What did you do before? People manage all sorts of things here they didn’t do there. Reg, down at the end sitting next to Bish, is a plumber, quite good, but he owned a garage in High Wycombe in the old days. Elisabeth, she’s Dutch too, she makes jam. Before, she was a Rechter, a judge.”
“When he’s here, looking after Hans is full time and so’s this house and keeping up with people and going out. I’m a, what do you call it, a butterfly is that it, or a man once said to me I was a blue arsed fly? What’s that?”
“Steady on,” George called out.
“John, answer me. What did you do, you’ve never told me.” Petra put her arm round his shoulder.
“I try to forget. Investment advice, boring.”
Petra stood up at once and shouted down the table, “Dames en heren-John here used to be an investment adviser. We need him.”
There was a cheer and one or two raised their glasses to him.
Then he hadn’t been able to find the scarf. As he stepped outside with some addresses and phone numbers, and cries of farewell, Petra was standing on the steps, still fingering her cigarette holder, Hans was at the gate directing the cars into the road outside. As he drove by, Bish stopped his Mercedes and wound down the window to speak. He was thick lipped, with swept-back thick black hair, dark glasses pushed back over his forehead, a Riviera man John decided.
“Come and have a drink. I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk. I’m always in need of advice. The bloody exchange rate doesn’t help. Here’s my card. Don’t forget.”
John thought he would forget. He was annoyed about the scarf. He went over to his car and drove off, unsettled by the whole evening.
The next morning he rang Petra to arrange to go over and search for his scarf.
She said, “Leave it till tomorrow. If it’s here it won’t run away. Hans is going back today and I can have you to myself.”
He had had a tepid sexual life with Eileen. He learned to manage it; he hadn’t had other women. And since coming to France he had continued in a sense to be married to Eileen. He hadn’t set out to find anyone else. Petra’s interest was disconcerting. It reminded him about sex which he’d lived without quite successfully. If she wanted him to go to bed he wouldn’t be ready. He might be too old. He wouldn’t match her experience, even though he was certain he wasn’t a prude, and that he was broadminded. Thirty-five years married and the erotic had passed him by; she would have to excite him if that was what she wanted.
He arrived at the house, cross with himself for being nervous.
It was a substantial place, three storeys high with blue shuttered windows and a wide front entrance, and a wisteria thick across the walls. The supper party, the other evening, had been in the enormous kitchen with a stone flagged floor, and the latest kitchen appliances. There was a panelled dining room, almost a ballroom, which Petra told him was rarely used, and a sitting room overlooking the pool. In the hall a stone staircase with a wrought iron balustrade led to the upper floors. John’s modern workmanlike villa was characterless in comparison, but he said to himself, while once again admiring Petra’s establishment, ‘at least I can heat mine and sell it easily if I want’.
The front door was open. He went inside and stood in the hall, listening. He called out.
“Is that you John? I’m coming down.” She was upstairs. He waited; it wasn’t warm, too much stone, he thought.
She appeared on the landing and walked down the steps, white silk shirt and flared black trousers.
Then he noticed. She was also wearing the scarf loosely slung round her neck.
“Suits me don’t you think?” She walked over to him and put her arms round him and kissed him full on the lips, and then tried to search out his mouth and tongue.
He pushed her gently away.
“Don’t you like me, John?”
“Yes, yes I do. But I’m rusty.”
He saw the scarf again.
She was fingering it. “You could leave it with me. How do you say it? A pledge, that’s it, a pledge, and then one day you can redeem it when you’ve oiled your hinges.” She laughed and took his hand and tried to walk towards the sitting room. But he held back.
“What is it?” she said.
He didn’t want her to keep the scarf. He definitely and overwhelmingly did not want Petra to wear or to keep his scarf. He was indignant that she was wearing his scarf. He had a surge of pain; he could hardly speak. The scarf was Eileen’s present, it was part of her and it was what he had of her. Suddenly he felt very lonely, and he couldn’t tell anyone properly or honestly why he was living there on his own, because he realised at that moment, he couldn’t tell himself. He didn’t want to play games with Petra, he wanted to talk to someone safe and regular at night. He stood transfixed. What he had hidden from himself had burst out. Perhaps he didn’t really like being there after all; it wasn’t enough, or it was too much.
He approached Petra, gently unwound the scarf, and put it round his own neck.
“I’m sorry. I’m going home.”
He went to the door and then walked over to his car. Petra stood on the steps as he drove off. She blew him a kiss, but he wasn’t looking.