Holidays still felt wrong. Over the years, Diana had adapted to everything else. She had been independent and capable before she married, she was independent and capable after he’d gone. She reverted. The bed felt wider, the bills were harder. Otherwise the only things that mattered were the two daughters to bring up alone and a heart which felt as if it was made of cogs and gears running on oil, rather than flesh and blood powered by love.
But holidays were hard. When the girls were still little, there was no-one to plan the day with, argue over directions with, choose a restaurant with, count the pounds/pesetas/drachmas/euros with, sit up in the evening over a glass of wine and watch the sun go down with. As the girls grew, there was no-one to help them jump waves, to play jokes on silly, serious mummy; no-one to help kiss those sun drenched faces as they slept under strange skies, exhausted by new experiences. But she kept on anyway. At first, she decided where they would go and as years passed, she invited her daughters’ input and through their eyes, experienced the world anew.
Now they were nearly grown. Diana was no longer alone in the hot cicada evenings, one daughter would share a little of the wine and the other filled the evening with guitar music. But her bed was still cold on one side. And soon, the girls would fly the nest and she would vacation alone.
In the first week of their holiday, Diana took the girls a few miles upstream of the pretty town and watched as her confident, independent daughters, eschewing her help, phrase-book-Frenched themselves a canoe trip down the river. She saw them push off from the bank, all orange and yellow and red, insulting each other and arguing over paddling techniques as they disappeared under the trees; then she drove back to wait for them.
She had two hours to kill. This was the first time she had been abroad, totally on her own, since she had been in her twenties. There was no sticky hand to hold, no arm hooked through hers, no squabble to referee, no groans of boredom to contend with. To start, she walked the shaded streets along edges, peeking in windows, wondering who was watching her progress. She was the only person alone, washed along in a tide of families and couples.
Diana walked into a few shops and turned over the bright ceramics and lavender scented linen. She considered preserved delicacies and unusual jewellery. Under flapping awnings, waiters rushed to prepare tables for lunch, placing table mats and cutlery and reservation markers.
It was too early for lunch and besides, they would eat it together when the girls had finished their trip and handed the canoe back. But she was thirsty.
Going down a quieter side street, Diana found little businesses more unique than those in the main tourist area and among them, a shop selling English second hand books with a salon de thé attached. Diana could never resist a bookshop. She was pleasantly surprised with the selection, expecting tattered forty year old Penguins and musky hardbacks. The books were good quality and varied, the shop light and airy, with gentle piano music in the background. She could see through into the rear where a few tables stood neat with lace tablecloths and beyond them the light green of a narrow garden which must lead down to the river.
Diana chose three books and approached the till which stood between the open door and the empty tables. The music stopped and turning, she realised the piano was behind her and a tall man had risen to serve her. What nationality was he? After all, he was selling books in English. But his ‘Bonjour madame,’ was definitely French.
‘Bonjour monsieur,’ she said, handing over the books. The sounds of birds came in through the door and she could hear the laughter of people on the river and commentary on a passing tourist boat. She still had an hour to kill. Looking out into the garden, Diana noticed there tables were set up in the shade, a little vase of flowers on each one.
‘Et du thé aussi, s’il vous plaît?’ she asked.
The man smiled and handed her a menu. The range of teas was, like the selection of books, wide and varied. Diana’s desire for a taste of home was lost in the options. The day was very hot. It was too hot for English breakfast tea and milk.
‘Jasmin, s’il vous plaît,’ she said, struggling to remember in time to soften the J to make it sound French.
‘À l’intérieur ou..?’ he queried, indicating the cool of the interior.
‘Dans le jardin,’ she said firmly. She was pleased that although he knew she was an English speaker, although her accent was terrible, he continued to speak to her in French as he asked her to take a seat and said that he would bring the tea out to her.
Diana sat in the garden for a while, and then leaving her things on one of the spare seats, wandered down the length of the garden to enjoy its peaceful greenness and its slightly overblown flowers and herbs. She trailed her hands through lavender as she made her way to the end, where a little roofed store held spare tables and rusted garden tools. A small glass-less window looked down onto the river. Turning, she looked at the narrow back of the bookshop and its upper rooms and the stone walls enclosing this secret place of sun and tranquility. She ambled back to the table and took out her book.
‘Et voilà, Madame,’ said the man, putting a teapot and cup before her.
‘Merci beaucoup,’ Diana said, then, waving her hand added, ‘C’est très joli, ce jardin.’
Was that good French? She couldn’t remember. It sounded right.
The man paused and smiled, shrugging a little. He continued to speak in French, slowly but nevertheless in French: ‘it’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid, I’d like to make to more appealing.’
Diana understood him. Every word. Well, not every word. But she understood what he was saying to her. She started to formulate a reply and then decided just to talk and hope that what she said made sense.
‘No. It’s good it looks at this time,’ she replied, knowing the French was wrong. But if she stopped to work it out, she might as well not speak at all.
‘You’re very kind. Do you think it would be nice to have a tea garden?’
‘Yes,’ Diana could not remember the subjunctive, how to say ‘I’m sure it would’. She plumped for: ‘It’s very polite, gentle, tranquil… I’m sorry – my French is very bad.’
The man smiled. ‘Not so bad,’ he said.
‘I’m not at school during many years,’ Diana winced, imagining her A level teacher sobbing into her text books. ‘Depuis’ not ‘pendant’. Too late.
‘Are you holidaying alone?’ asked the man. Somehow it felt neither intrusive or creepy. It was just a question.
‘No, my daughters are with me too. They promenade on the river in a canoe.’ What a ridiculous thing to say. And what must he think of her, leaving them to do it on their own? ‘They’re eighteen and sixteen,’ she added. Although now she thought about it, he couldn’t possibly think they were little children, she was no longer a young woman. She was sitting in front of him. The sun shone on her fine lines and anyone, even a man, could almost certainly tell that her hair was coloured and spot the reading glasses on the table. For a second she felt silly but he didn’t seem to be appraising her. He was just chatting.
‘Your daughters – do they speak French too?’
Diana was ashamed, not for the first time, of the linguistic indifference of her nationality. ‘One – she learns Spanish only. The other loves music alone.’
‘Ah,’ he nodded as if in approval, ‘does she play an instrument?’
‘Yes, the guitar. She’s in a team…er… gang.. er…band.’
‘Yes, I play a bit on the …..’ what on earth was the word for piano? She pointed at the instrument inside.
‘Piano,’ the man told her without reproach.
Diana pulled a face in apology, ‘Sometimes …. when we’re on holiday, I ….’ (what’s the word for ‘miss’?) ‘want to play…I’m sorry. I forget more than I learned.’
‘Don’t be sorry, it’s nice for me to speak to a customer in French,’ he answered.
There was a silence but it was comfortable. Diana poured her tea and wondered how to ask what had made him start this business. He was looking down the garden as if envisaging it with more tables, filled with customers. Perhaps he preferred it as it was now, quiet, with just a few people dropping in from time to time, so that most of the time, he could play piano to his audience of pre-loved books. He was, like her, neither young nor old either. Just himself.
‘Monsieur, pourquoi…’ she started but then a voice called from the interior:
‘Yoohoo! Jacques! It’s us!’
The man bowed to Diana and smiled, ‘Pardon, madame,’ he said, ‘… et merci.’
‘Merci aussi,’ she replied as he turned to his other customers.
Thank you? What for?
She heard him inside, still courteous but now speaking impeccable English, ‘good morning Mr and Mrs Smith, how are you both today? What tea would you like? I have some green tea or lapsang souchong? Or orange blossom perhaps?’
‘Oh away with you and your teas!’ laughed Mrs Smith, ‘you know we don’t like that sort of thing. Just the usual, same as always.’
‘Inside or outside?’ asked Jacques.
‘Inside’s cooler I reckon,’ decided Mr Smith, ‘and no insects.’
In the garden, in the breezy shade, Diana finished her tea and carefully carried her things back to the counter. She paid Jacques and smiled, seeing him glance at the piano. ’Come again, even if you don’t want books or tea,’ he said in French, ‘just to play the piano. If you’d like to, that is.’
‘Thank you, I think on the subject of it.’
Outside in the street, Diana made her way to the canoe landing place, slowly. When she arrived, the girls were waiting.
‘What have you been up to?’ asked her youngest, ‘you’re all smiley.’
‘Aren’t I allowed to smile?’ argued Diana, ‘I’m so proud of you both, you’ll give anything a go. Daddy would have been so pleased to know that you grew up willing to try. He was never scared of anything.’
Her eldest gave her a hug damp with river water. It was eleven years since his death but she could remember him, just about, ‘Or maybe, he was scared but he tried anyway,’ she said, ‘just like you.’
Just like me, thought Diana.
‘So really, what were you up to?’ asked her eldest.
‘Bought some books, had a cup of tea.’
Her youngest looked unimpressed. ‘Can we go canoeing again, Mum?’
‘If you like,’ said Diana.
‘What will you do? More tea?’
Diana thought about it. ‘Yes, why not,’ she said, ‘and maybe find a piano to play. I’m going to try something new.’
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission