Sample chapter. All Expenses Paid.


A  Dancer from Lithuania. A lesson in Melancholy .

As the coach pulled into the village square I made a pact. Please God let him be, was going to say tall dark and handsome but no, God is probably sick of those requests so I just settled for fun. Do Lithuanians ‘do’ fun? I am not being racist here, I just mean humour, there is such a division between cultures. Being a Midlander, some might say, Brummie, I can do my fair share of sarcasm. This does not go down well with the French and I must admit I have found it much more irritating since I moved away- i.e. south of Watford. But I digress.

Pay attention Laura, the coach doors are opening. Be a good idea to hold up the sign with our new guests name on it. Deirdre of course had already made the sign out of cardboard and used jolly coloured felt tip pens. His name is surrounded by pictures of sunshine and smiley faces. Betty confirmed that Deirdre had been an avid Blue Peter watcher in her girlhood. In the end, Betty told me, she had to buy a dishwasher or Deirdre would stand over her waiting for the next empty washing up bottle…

With a whoosh and a clang the coach doors are firmly open and I momentarily let the name card drop to my side. Why not let everyone get off and see who is left? Genius. Then if he looks like he might smell, snore loudly or sing before seven a.m. I could just wander off. However if he has washing up hands (Betty’s idea, as the nice man in the village can’t fix the dishwasher until Friday) or understands the custom of bringing morning tea to two ladies in bed, I can produce the sign with an apologetic flourish. Manipulative…moi?

I am still holding the name card at a hundred and eighty degrees, close to my thigh when (oh, so there is a God) an amused six foot Adonis tilts his head to read the Lithuanian name inscribed on the card. They have to be the tightest blue jeans I have ever seen and in this heat. It is thirty two degrees this afternoon and no discernable breeze. So sticky, just about sums up the situation. Adonis is wearing the regulation white tee shirt with the name of his dance troupe emblazoned across it. I can’t pronounce that name either. Deridre assured me that he spoke some English. But then Deirdre had been married to a Frenchman too long to remember that if you don’t know the answer to something you should not make it up in the guise of being helpful.

“Oh hi.” I raise my eyes all the way up to meet his. He simply nods. His thick brown locks fall across his forehead and I resist the temptation to reach up and …

“Vous parlez Angalis?”

“Oui.” I said.

Now, my new charge looks really confused because it was him asking me if I spoke English and I replied in French. Duh. Obvioulsy my ‘Oh hi’ was not English enough. So we began again.

“Do you have luggage?” I asked pointing to the coach driver unloading bags from the hold.

Adonis’ real name begins with an E but with no other vowels, I decided to call him Ed. I will tell him later, just so he knows.

As he hauls his rucksack onto the back seat of my R5 I open the passenger door for him. He of course looks confused until he realises it is a right hand drive.

I have begged Betty to hang on in the house until I get back with our new charge. Betty had nodded sympathising with the fact that I had only just arrived and Deirdre had ‘thrown me in the deep end’. If only. It was now thirty four degrees and a mistral was expected anytime soon. A breeze would be nice, but no need for the three day extravaganza that whips everything up into a frenzy leaving cars covered with sand from the Sahara. Jean- Louis will get the cover off the pool for us when comes this evening and show us how to put in back on in an emergency.

You mean if D and G come home early? I had asked Betty. She nodded.

Poor old (probably twenty years younger than me) Ed looked shattered. Should we try and make conversation? Will he think me rude if we don’t? How much English does he speak?

“It’s just a ten minute drive to the house.” I smile at him, raising both hands at the same time. Universal speak to indicate ten minutes?

He nods as his eyelids flutter. Poor lamb. I start the engine and Ed leans towards the radio giving me a querying look. “Sure.” I keep it simple. He looks puzzled. Not simple enough. Think universal words and signs. Think; Christmas after Christmas of charades.

“Yes, ok.”

Ah. Better. He turns on the radio. It is tuned to NRJ. Robbie Williams springs to life…

Ed rests his head against the headrest. At least he can reach it. I am coming back as a tall man in my next life. The world seems to fit them better.

It is five –o- clock by the time we get back to the house and Ed is jolted awake as I pull up too abruptly, at the edge of the patio. No Gerard here to grizzle about disturbing the gravel. If Ed had been surprised to meet me how was he going cope with wonder-woman?

I watched as Ed’s eyes opened to their maximum and locked into a glazed stare. I suddenly wondered what the French word was for stroke as he looked in serious danger of having one. Betty surely must have heard us but I did not like to pip my horn. Ed blinked. Phew. His breathing had resumed and I gave him my most reassuring sideways grin. The grin that said, ok this is the asylum but I know where the back door and escape route are.

I turned off the radio and realised that Spandau Ballet were not after all in the living room but reverberating from the ghetto blaster that Betty normally kept in her room. Ed titled his head until it touched his left shoulder.  Betty blinked furiously. I was so glad she did not try and wave.  Ed and I watched, mesmerized as Betty brought her legs back down to the ground and elegantly unfurled from her head stand. Great for the circulation, she had assured me when I had been greeted by the upside down Betty yesterday evening, in her room.  ‘Can’t have too much circulation. Stroke prevention. Plus, she insisted, it helps defy that permanent advisory; gravity.’

Of course as a dancer Ed was no stranger to limbering up in a yogic fashion but I think what really took his breath away was the fact that Betty had unleashed a whole new wardrobe for the occasion. Her puce leggins glimmered in the late afternoon sun and her white tee shirt read: Sisters are doing it for themselves.

Although from what Betty had already told me about Jean- Louis, was neither true nor necessary.

I switched off the engine and Betty waved. Ed’s eyes did a tour of their sockets. Before I could say anything Betty was opening his door and extending a hand. “Welcome, bienvenue…what’s that in Lithuanian Laura?”

I shrugged. “Don’t worry, I think Ed gets the message.”

Ed allowed himself to be hauled out of the car by Betty before he found his voice. He introduced himself with a half bow. Betty curtseyed.  Good grief. Whatever next?

I showed Ed to his room. Betty went into the kitchen to prepare tea.  Giving Ed one more quick appraisal I would guess he was either not a cake eater or had a metabolism to kill for.

He was going to be using the tiny single bedroom, usually used for storage. He glanced at the bed. Thoughts of Gulliver’s travels came to mind. Maybe I should offer him D and G’s room.  I will see what Betty thinks. I led him into the bathroom and explained how to switch the taps from bath to shower. He gave me a look I shall never forget as he said. “I’m foreign, not stupid.”

Yikes.  I explained that Betty was making tea and he should come and join us when he was ready. Two hours later Betty and I looked at each other. What to do? I went up and tapped on his closed door. Ed opened the door a smidgen. He had an earplug in his left ear and out of the right side was dangling a wire. I held up a take away pizza menu. He nodded, said OK and shut the door. He looked so forlorn. And for once I did not have a plan.

Betty had showered and joined me on the terrace wearing a calf length lemon seersucker dress. “You can’t see the creases.” She nodded in my direction with a grin.

Jean- Louis was coming to pick her up at eight o clock. I had ordered pizza for me and chatterbox. Betty thought I was being too hard on him. He could be suffering from any number of emotions. Give him a chance. As always, a word from the wise, aka Betty.

I soon discovered that the French love takeaway pizzas as much as their Italian neighbours. So the sound of an approaching motorbike, changing gear as it reached the end of the drive was no surprise. Only this bike did not have a square red box on the back. A serviceable scooter it was not. More like a giant black insect. A turbo charged one at that. It was driven, or rather propelled by a lithe gentleman clad in jeans and a black leather jacket.  A black crash helmet with an orange flash across the front completed the outfit. A matching crash helmet dangled from the left handlebar.

Uh-oh. Betty had started to tell me about Jean- Louis last night and the fact that he was taking her out tonight but mode of transport seemed to have been omitted. Now what was I supposed to do? Betty was obviously compos mentis …more that many people half her age but I was being paid to look after her.  Did this come under the; I never interfere except in matters of health and safety? Yes, definitiely. But how the heck could I prevent it?

Luckily for Betty the aforementioned pizza delivery bike appeared at exactly the same moment as Ed walked onto the terrace, bleary eyed and crumpled. He looked in disbelief as Jean-Louis hopped off his pulsating beast, ran over to Betty, scoped her up, round her waist with one arm, and plonked her astride the pillion of his bike in one very deft move. The pizza guy turned out to be a girl who had stopped alongside Jean- Louis’ beast, a Kawasaki 1200, and let out a ‘Genial’ as Betty quickly placed the spare helmet on her head. The pizza girl was staring at Ed who had apparently not fully recovered from waking up as his shorts had a discernible tilt to starboard. His very long brown legs encased in flip flops and bed hair completed his look.

“Don’t wait up!” Betty shrieked.

I followed the pizza girl’s gaze and Ed started to tremble with embarrassment.

This was not going well.

I paid the pizza girl and went into the kitchen to get plates and cutlery. By the time I got back onto the terrace Ed had devoured half of the pizza. He handed me the open box and mumbled goodnight. I was about to ask about breakfast and whether he needed a lift and what time in the morning but he was already at the top of the stairs. Ah well. I supposed I would hear him moving about and it was not as though I was expected to produce a full English.  In the meantime I could worry about what time little Miss- head -stand would rock up. So far, more had happened in three days here than in three weeks with my first job.  I put the clean plates and cutlery back in the kitchen and went to my room.  The beauty of such warm weather meant I could be dressed in a jiffy but I got my clean jeans and  turquoise tee shirt out ready for the morning.

I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard the putter of a motorbike engine coming to a halt.  Jean- Louis had obviously parked at the end of the driveway to avoid the sound of scattering gravel permeating the house. I wondered if Ed was asleep yet. Maybe he was just out of his comfort zone. Not everyone is as chatty as you and I, Betty had chastised me. ‘He’ll come round. He’s probably nervous about the dance festival, meeting so many new people. And he’s probably gay!’ Good point Betty.

With the reassuring sound of Betty’s kitten heels click clacking on the stone stairs at the back of the house, I turned out my light. I had set the alarm for seven, giving me chance to use the bathroom and start breakfast before Ed appeared, or so I assumed.

As lovely as the pale lemon curtains in my bedroom were, they let in way too much light. So much for setting the alarm clock for seven I had been awake for ages. I looked at the clock. Seven fifteen. Ah well. Another beautiful morning, better get up. I would have a shower later when I had got rid, (still not giving Ed the benefit of the doubt) of our guest. Who would have thought that a twenty something Adonis would be less fun than an eighty two year old woman…So far.

 I flip flopped down to the kitchen expecting to find everything as I had left it the night before. The dishwasher had clicked off before I went to bed but I decided I would empty it in the morning.

The sight of Ed, wearing swimming trunks with a yoghurt in his hand was not what I had been expecting.

“Good morning.” He said and almost smiled. He still looked tired but not quite so much like the rabbit caught in the headlights. I glanced down at his damp trunks and quickly realised that Jean -Louis must have taken the cover off the pool as promised. Thank goodness.

He glanced at the kitchen clock and said “Eight- o- clock. We go.”

I nodded as I grabbed the box of muesli from the wall cupboard above the kettle. I opened the dishwasher door to retrieve a clean bowl only to find it empty. This time Ed smiled as he reached across me and opened the next wall cupboard door and handed me a large white cereal bowl and then got milk from the fridge. I thanked him and retreated to the living room. I fancied a comfy chair. I flicked on the radio which I kept on low volume. Did not want to disturb sleeping beauty.

I need not have worried.

“Morning all. “  It was Betty of course, appearing from the side of the house, carrying a large peach bath towel and yoga mat.

“Oh, morning Betty. Sleep well?”

“I most certainly did. Camomile tea. Works every time. You taking Nureyev soon?”

“Yep, I shall drop him off then come back here. What are your plans for today?”

“Ooh, a bit of this and a bit of that.”

It was like asking a recalcitrant teenager. “Will any of it require my taxi services?” I really hoped not I was still somewhat in a daze…

“Nope, don’t worry. You look like the octegnarian today. Have a lazy day and we’ll go out tomorrow. OK?”

“Yes, Betty, you’re right I am still a bit tired.”

Before I could say anything else, Ed came bounding down the stairs, two at a time. Sports bag in hand, he smiled at me. “We go?”

We went. I dropped him by the church alongside the harbour. He showed the piece of paper given to him by their dance group leader and this was definitely it but there were no signs of other athletic limbs. Maybe it was a French eight thirty not an English eight thirty. Meeting the French for coffee often entails patience as twenty minutes either way is considered…c’est normale!  I was tempted to stop for a coffee but decided to get back. It was agreed I would pick him up at five thirty.

When I got back, Betty was dressed in a flowing pale blue kaftan.  She had her Jackie Collins novel open and face down, resting on her knees.  Her eyes were closed but her smile told me she was awake.

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