All Expenses Paid (Fact meets Fiction) by Helen Ducal


Chapter One

The way to a woman’s heart?

Somebody pinch me. Here I am, happily out of bed and it is only seven forty but then it is twenty six degrees in the shade already and I am sitting on the terrace watching the rhythm of the bright blue water as it laps against the curved end of the pool; sticking my tongue into the froth of my first cappuccino, listening to a lone cicada stirring behind me. No really, I am.
Deirdre and Gerard have just left for work and there is no sign of Betty yet, so I have this world to myself; and this is my job for the next six months.
Julia, I must phone Julia, also known as, the voice of reason. She’ll tell me if I’m dreaming.
Okay, it’s only six forty in England, better wait a while.
It’s amazing that I didn’t give up after my first live-in care job with Miss Belcher, pronounced Bel-shah.
But no, I remembered my years of sales training. Never give up; the next call might be The One.
Only trouble was, I soon found I was limited to what I could sell.

****

I have to believe in the product. I can’t just sell anything I had wailed, when my well- meaning- try- anything, friend Mary suggested I go for an interview with an upcoming Vacuum Cleaner company. Fabulous holidays to be won when you reach your monthly target. Worth a shot I thought.
“How did it go?” Mary had frowned when I returned to the pub where she worked sooner than expected.
“Well for a man who prided himself on his natural sounding sales scripts. I reckon he cocked up.”
“He did. And how did he do that exactly?” She stopped polishing a wine glass and came and sat on the bar stool next to me.
“I couldn’t help it; they all looked so bloody serious…”
Not much point expecting sympathy from Mary. She managed three children aged sixteen, twelve and seven, two jobs and a missing husband.  She sighed, reaching for some nicotine gum from the pocket of her denim jacket hanging on a hook at the end of the bar.
I continued. “Well we were all sat there, about twelve of us, all paying rapt attention, you unscrew this, attach that there, switch on…bla …bla… and bingo.”
“Sitting. You were all sitting there…” Mary could not help herself.
I sighed. Mary went to a Grammar school. I did not. We locked eyes.  Mary was still with me.
“Go on.” she said, “What did you do?”
“Moi?”
Mary nodded and glanced up at the clock, she had to pick her seven year old up from school soon.
“Well, you know how I’m not always very practical and he had only shown us once…”
Now she had her arms folded, bad sign; better hurry up.
“So you couldn’t put Humpty back together again, was that it?”
“Oh I did but apparently not the right way round, but it did seem to fit.”
“And you failed the interview over one attempt?”
“Erm, no, not exactly, you see I was about to switch on, thinking I’d got it right, when Mr-oh-so-smarmy- Area Manager says, “Stop. Think. Do you want to blow or suck?”
“Oh God.” Mary had her hands over her eyes, “And you said?”
“Shouldn’t you at least take me out to dinner first?”
Mary’s jaw line gave her away. She was laughing. “You’re hopeless. Look, got to dash.”

We had become firm friends after that. She came to my leaving- the- country do, with her best friend Ann. Julia hadn’t met her before but they got on like a house on fire. Turns out they were both nurses (this was Mary’s day job and it paid less than her bar job!) working for the same agency. Their paths had crossed a few months back.
On my last night the four of us had decided to go for a drink at our unlikely favourite hideaway; the bar of a faceless hotel but conveniently placed a mile and a half from each of us. Fridays were always quiet, until we arrived. All the business clients had scarpered back to their weekend lives. We would have one drink each and then just keep topping up with tonic or dry ginger. We did not need alcohol to lift our spirits. Then it was onto a club if we had the energy.  Mary asked if she could bring Doris along to the bar, then she would drop her off before we went clubbing. As the name suggested Doris was a bit older than us. She was Mary’s mum. At seventy nine, I thought we were going to be seriously restricted in our conversation.
Julia, Ann and myself were having an in depth discussion about whether size does matter, when they joined us.
“Men?” asked Mary looking at the three of us.
“No, last Saturday’s football results.” I suggested.
“Oh me god, I might as well go home then.” This was Doris, a mass of white hair, smelling of lily of the valley and a ring on every finger.
“Don’t worry Ma, they’re only kidding. So, what were you talking about?”
Drinks appeared as if by magic. Mary must have ordered them before we arrived. The young barman tall blonde and clean cut, eyed us all with trepidation.
“Nuts?” enquired Mary. We all nodded. “Large mixed, salted. Thanks.”
Mary in charge. You could just imagine her kids trotting obediently to bed. Our waiter took a moment to realise the instruction was aimed at him and he retreated to the bar. Mary lifted her glass and we all clinked in the middle of the table.
“So, tonight’s topic of conversation…hmm?”
I had already checked and Mary said her mother was as broad minded as the rest of us.
“Size versus technique.” I offered.
We all blinked at Doris as she said “Well, you do want it to touch the sides.”
The ice was well and truly broken. The nuts arrived courtesy of one of the regular barmen.
“Thanks Ben.” we said in unison.
The new recruit was at the far end of the bar and had been polishing the same glass for the last ten minutes.
“He’s new, he’s young.” Ben nodded at the bar, “Be gentle with him ladies.”

****

But there was no ice here. It was the start of the third day since I had left the girls behind and so much had happened already. I checked my watch, shaking it lose to make sure the white line was still there. Six sessions on the sun bed had paid off.
Where had the last hour gone? Eight forty. I could not wait any longer.
“Julia, it’s me…I know I’m sorry it’s so early…what? No nothing’s wrong…Oh is that your pager…Okay speak to you tonight.”
I put the white banana shaped cordless phone down on the white painted wrought iron table. It rocked back and forth. I was in a trance.
“Homesick already?”  It was Betty standing behind me. I had not heard her come downstairs.
“Oh, gosh no, I was just phoning my friend to tell her how wonderful it all is.”
I was grinning at Betty, transfixed. It was hard to tell her age. In fact if anything she looked just, radiant. Betty was dressed in a white cotton kimono with two strategically placed appliquéd pink fuchsias. Her hair was neither grey nor blonde, but somewhere in between. Her face was lined in all the usual places but it still seemed to have a baby soft quality to it. Her long dark lashes devoid of mascara, gave her a girlish look. This life obviously suited her. Betty dragged one of the white painted patio chairs, metal against stone shattering the peace and sat alongside me. I suddenly thought…Did she know Doris…maybe they were related? It was that recycled teenager twinkle in the eyes that did it.
“Think you’ll stay then?”
“Are you kidding? When do Deirdre and Gerard go?”
Betty laughed. “Want to get the cover off the pool, by any chance?”
I nodded as I grabbed my oversized blue and yellow cup off the table. “Can’t wait. Breakfast?”
“Did they tell you about the van?”
“Oh yes, at the end of the drive. I haven’t heard it yet.”
“Don’t worry he comes here last.”
On cue a klaxon horn sounded three times. Betty waved a five euro note at me.
“Just get pain au chocolat or pain aux raisins; we’ll get bread when we go out. I’ll explain later.”
I put my cup back on the table and slipped into my sandals.

****

“Is it usually this warm, this early?” I looked at Betty as she nibbled at the hard chocolate sticking out of one end of her pain au chocolat.
“You mean in the day or in the year?”
“Um, both I suppose.”
“Yes and yes.” Betty was swirling the rich buttery dough in the froth of her coffee. “And you still want to stay even though I’ve told you the truth?”
She kicked off her flat silk slippers and put her feet up on the seat next to me. I was wearing my old faithful denim shorts, which were in danger of splitting at the seams, especially if the food and pace of life were to continue.
“Oh sure. I’m all for people taking control of their lives. I reckon I might learn a lot from you.”
I tapped her feet with my left hand. Her tanned skin was amazingly soft for her age, I thought. I had already promised never to use the expression out loud but I could not help thinking it.
“So tell me, how was your journey, anything interesting happen?”  Betty had taken an emery board from the mysterious depths of her kimono and was filing the nail on her left little finger.
I moved my chair slightly so as to direct the sun out of my eyes and onto my shoulders.
“Interesting?” I echoed.
“Yes. When you arrived yesterday, every now and then you would drift off. I’m betting it was a recent experience.”
“Does Deirdre know you’re psychic?”
“Oh no dear. That would be a lot less fun.”
I could not decide how much to tell her. I mean she seemed so uninhibited. But would she think I was going to be unreliable; go off with first Romeo to appear, leaving her uncared for?
“Come on. Or I shall tell Deirdre to send you back”
For a moment I thought she was serious. Then she threw her head back and laughed like a drain.
“Okay. I’ll do you a deal.” She leant forward, screwing up her eyes in mock menace, “I’ll tell you about Jean-Louis, if you tell me what was making you smile last night…deal?”
She held out her hand; now perfectly manicured.
“Who’s Jean-Louis?” I asked
“Uh oh. No you don’t. You first and don’t spare the details.”
“Well, the first thing he said was, ‘You’re English!’ in the kind of voice previously used by those scientists discovering DNA. And I thought; this is going to be fun.”
Betty raised her right hand. “Erm, Laura, who is he and where did you meet him?”
“Ah sorry Betty. It was after Calais at the first service station on the A26 just before Arras, junction…”
“Good grief, you go from one extreme to the other. Motorway rest stop would do.”
“True. Anyway.”
I glanced at Betty who was giggling already and I had not told her anything funny yet. The perfect audience. She rotated her right hand in an effort to get me to continue.
“Anyway, to describe him as eager would do him an injustice. He was pure adrenalin on legs. He’d parked his black VW alongside my yellow and black Renault 5 and…”
I stopped as Betty was waving at my car parked underneath one of the pine trees. I had told her my car was called Beryl and she was now mouthing ‘Will she ever get to the good bits Beryl?’
“I was sitting in the car park and I sensed him before I saw him, so I opened my door; he opened his. I hesitated; he shut his. Wow, not bad. I looked at my watch, only two hours since my tyres had touched French tarmac. Then we got out at the same time and he asked if I was going to get a drink or something to eat. I said both, so he asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee. You know what Betty, if only I had a fiver for every time I’d heard that one.”
Betty nodded, and hitched her kimono up above her knees. I could not help but notice her excellent pins, no varicose veins, just the odd thread veins round the knees. Her toe nails were adorned with the obligatory old ladies peach nail polish; nothing flashy or vulgar. I was still hesitating over just how much to tell Betty but her eyes wide open with anticipation seemed to give me the answer. So I went on.
“We walked over the covered bridge that connects the south bound carriageway to the rest stops. His heavy boots clattered on the metal walkway. A coach load of children were gaining on us, their voices echoing in the enclosed space. He seemed to know the way so I let him lead and we chatted in a very long queue in Franglais. I explained that I was driving down to Marseille to start a new job looking after an elderly lady.”
Betty looked around, eyebrows raised as if expecting someone to appear. I kept a straight face and gave an innocent shrug, the first of many.
“He looked puzzled so I suggested…Like a nanny. He looked delighted and said that he was only a little boy who needed looking after. Somehow I doubted this; he looked like one of those slender bods with a nicely disproportionate…” I hesitated.
“Go on.” said Betty.
“Um… erection.”
I side glanced Betty’s smile.
“Ah what the heck, I thought, we were enjoying ourselves. I felt as though a fresh new face had appeared. Last night’s tired face now left in the car. My hormones were reaching simmering point. And to top it all, my new friend not only had an interesting name he had an equally interesting job, as well.  He said it was something to do with jewellery, but not like that, he was pointing at the ring on my right hand. No, much more interesting…body piercing. So of course I immediately apologised for only having my ears pierced. Very English. Then I looked him up and down, we were in the restaurant queue by this time…” I looked at Betty who had her eyes closed but she nodded so I went on.
“Foolishly, I wondered out loud, why he didn’t advertise his wares. At which point he started to pull out his shirt and then undo his belt, oh my god, I thought, not here in the middle of the restaurant, surely…”
Betty peered over the top of her sunglasses.
“No, not there” I said in answer to Betty’s silent question. “He had a ring through his belly button. I looked around; no-one else seemed bothered, amused yes but bothered no.”
“So what was his name?” Betty was all ears.

 

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