Ten Days In Provence

A beau­ti­ful set­ting and some time to think – what else did Polly need?

The People's Friend - - Contents - by An­nie Harris

IWAS bored wit­less tonight,” Tr­ish mut­tered. “I mean, Rhona’s usual book club taste, trans­lated from the Rus­sian, of course. Or was it Bul­gar­ian this time?” She gig­gled.

“And next month’s choice,” Kate said. “Some­thing I’ve never heard of, as usual, but know­ing our Tessa it’ll be the sort of book I’ll want to for­get.”

“Yes,” her friend agreed fer­vently. “I know we only joined to try to im­prove our minds, but there’s no sign of that yet. Why don’t we start our own club? One that’s bet­ter suited to what we ac­tu­ally en­joy read­ing.”

“You mean some­thing like a Con­tem­po­rary Ro­mance club? We would be OK there. All those lus­cious men. I fin­ished the one you loaned me last night. The hero – Travis – in that scene – oh!” They both col­lapsed in gig­gles.

Next morn­ing, Kate re­ceived a text from Tr­ish.

Hi. I have had a great idea about our sum­mer hol. Tell u tonight.

Later, Tr­ish was full of ex­cite­ment.

“I saw this ad in Mum’s magazine. It’s a place in France that runs writ­ing cour­ses. It’s owned by an English wo­man, Jackie some­thing. In Septem­ber there’s a ten-day course on – guess what? Con­tem­po­rary Ro­mance!”

“But I don’t want to spend my pre­cious break writ­ing all day,” Kate pointed out. “It’ll be like go­ing back to school.”

“No, it won’t.” Tr­ish sighed. “You have work­shops in the morn­ing then the time’s your own. You can go into town or just lounge by the pool, and some evenings they have cook­ery demos, too.”

“But we were sup­posed to go to Fuerteven­tura.”

“Oh, come on, love. You’re al­ways say­ing we’ve read so many ro­mances we could write one stand­ing on our heads. This is our chance.”

“Well . . .” Kate hes­i­tated. “The course tu­tor is that au­thor who’s on this year’s Best Beach Reads list,” Tr­ish added. “Polly Heath.”

Polly leaned on the sill of her room.

In the af­ter­noon heat, the air above the laven­der field and the olive grove be­hind the old farm­house shim­mered, and the slen­der cy­press on the far hori­zon pierced the cloud­less sky, but she wasn’t see­ing the beauty.

She shouldn’t have come here. She was a fraud, get­ting paid un­der false pre­tences. She was never go­ing to write an­other word.

She’d known it even when Carla, her agent, rang her in great ex­cite­ment to say she’d ar­ranged with her friend, Jackie, an ex-lit­er­ary agent who hosted cour­ses for as­pir­ing writ­ers in her lovely old house in Provence, for Polly to do the course on ro­man­tic fic­tion.

“The money’s good, and you’ll be able to get on with your own novel when you aren’t teach­ing. And lis­ten, sweetie, it’ll help you get over that hor­ri­ble man . . .”

Polly looked down in­vol­un­tar­ily at the fourth fin­ger of her left hand, where a pale band still re­mained from the miss­ing plat­inum and di­a­mond en­gage­ment ring she’d thrown at James when he walked off into the sun­set with that fel­low city lawyer.

No-one knew, not even Carla, but since that hor­ri­ble day she hadn’t been able to

write a word. Well, she’d writ­ten words, hun­dreds of them, but then the next day she’d scored them out.

In this morn­ing’s work­shop on Grab Your Reader – “You only have ten lines max to hook her or she’ll put your book down and pick an­other” – she’d used the open­ing to Jane Eyre.

“There was no pos­si­bil­ity of a walk that day.” It raised many ques­tions. Who was the speaker? Why was a walk im­pos­si­ble and why was a walk so im­por­tant? They all made the reader im­pa­tient to know more.

But then those two young women – Kate and Tr­ish – had solemnly as­sured her that they pre­ferred the open­ing to “Pas­sion­ate Awak­en­ing” and re­cited it word for word.

“The key was not un­der the mat, where it had al­ways been, and when Caro straight­ened up she felt a fris­son of fear as the door opened and a man, his face in shadow, stood gaz­ing down at her.”

Their warm words were in­fec­tious, prompt­ing oth­ers in the group to chime in with their own en­thu­si­as­tic com­ments, but they just brought treach­er­ous tears to her eyes, so that she had to look down at her notes to re­cover.

She must write; she must some­how get through this block.

She sat back down, switched on the lap­top and stared at the last sen­tence she had writ­ten.

“Jude an­nounced that he was leav­ing, off to a new wo­man Amber had had no idea ex­isted.”

It was just so flat. Abruptly, she blanked the screen, and snatched up her sun­hat, dark glasses and bag.

She went down­stairs and silently let her­self out of the back door, al­most run­ning through the grove of gnarled olive trees as if try­ing to es­cape her thoughts.

Once in the vil­lage, silent in the late af­ter­noon heat, she walked more slowly, paused at the old stone foun­tain to dab­ble her fin­gers in the cool wa­ter, then made her way to the lit­tle café she’d no­ticed when she ar­rived two days ear­lier.

There were a few metal ta­bles, shaded by trees, and she sat at one, clos­ing her eyes, weary af­ter toss­ing and turn­ing most of the night.

The bead cur­tain clat­tered faintly and the next mo­ment there were foot­steps and a man’s voice speak­ing for­mally, with a slight French ac­cent.

“Good af­ter­noon, Made­moi­selle Heath.”

Her eyes flew open and she saw the young man who was the chef at the farm­house.

“Oh! Good af­ter­noon, er –” What on earth was his name?

“Damien,” he said, clearly read­ing her con­fu­sion.

“Of course.” She blushed with em­bar­rass­ment. “I’m sorry. You did that cook­ery demo yes­ter­day.

“It was very good,” she added hastily.

What had he cooked? Her mind had gone blank.

“Thank you,” he said gravely. “What would you like? On the house, of course.”

“Oh, thank you. A cit­ron

pressé, I think.”

When he set it down, the glass misted with cold, she made an ef­fort to be so­cia­ble.

“You work here also?” “Well, my main job is here. My sis­ter Jeanette and I run the café be­tween us, but when Jackie needs me for one of her cour­ses I’m happy to oblige. The café closes at four so I am usu­ally free in the evenings.”

“I see.”

“Her stu­dents seem to en­joy my meals, and my demos – even if the next day they can­not re­mem­ber what the dishes were.”

She looked up to meet a pair of teas­ing dark eyes and blushed again.

“Yes, sorry. But I do re­mem­ber it was very good.”

“Yes, Damien, it was ab­so­lutely scrummy,” a voice came from be­hind her, then Kate and Tr­ish ap­peared. “In fact it was day-lish-i-euse.”

Polly sup­pressed a smile at their French pro­nun­ci­a­tion. They were a pair of nice, friendly young women.

Quite naïve, but a change from oth­ers in the group who were still a bit – well, up­tight, es­pe­cially about their writ­ing.

There was just that one man, Robert, but he seemed to spend ev­ery spare mo­ment glued to his smart­phone re­as­sur­ing his wife that he was hav­ing a great time, and re­ally feel­ing his writ­ing was on the verge of a break­through.

These two, though, had flirted out­ra­geously with Damien all through his demo, and as­sured her that they in­tended writ­ing a best­seller each.

She very much wanted them to suc­ceed, but on the strength of yes­ter­day’s as­sign­ment she con­ceded it was un­likely.

Damien had dis­ap­peared to get their drinks and she took the chance to es­cape.

“Good grief, is that the time? Do ex­cuse me. I want to check your morn­ing’s writ­ing. See you at din­ner.”

“Bye, Polly,” they cho­rused.

“We’re re­ally look­ing for­ward to to­mor­row’s work­shop on Plot Your Story!” Tr­ish called af­ter her.

“Yes.” She turned to her friend. “I don’t know about you, love, but I feel plot­ting is our weak point.”

“Mmm.” Kate’s mind was else­where. “You know, I think you’re right. She re­ally does look very sad when she thinks no-one’s look­ing. Some­thing’s gone wrong for her.”

“Yes, and I know what it is. Did you no­tice her left hand? There’s a pale patch on her ring fin­ger. It must be quite new be­cause it hasn’t tanned up yet.”

“I hadn’t no­ticed that, but I bet you’re right. Some guy’s given her the push,” Kate agreed.

“Like in that ro­mance we read last week – ‘Love’s De­ceiver’. The hero­ine was so dev­as­tated she couldn’t think straight.”

“That’s right. And when I asked Polly a ques­tion this morn­ing, for a mo­ment she looked miles away.”

“She needs an­other man,” Tr­ish said firmly. “And I know who.”

“Oh?”

“Damien.” Tr­ish dropped her voice. “Did you no­tice the way he was look­ing at her when we ar­rived just now? She didn’t see – I don’t think she re­ally sees him at all – but I’m sure he re­ally fan­cies her.”

Kate nod­ded.

“Yes, you’re right. And you know how you said we’re use­less at plot­ting? Well, let’s try a real-life plot – the hero­ine crossed in love un­aware of smit­ten hero.”

“That’s re­ally bril­liant, Kate.” Her friend’s eyes gleamed with ex­cite­ment. “I can see it al­ready. This is how we’ll work it . . .”

“. . . And, of course, in a ro­mance the path of true love can’t run smoothly,” Polly said. “Other­wise your novel would be over the first time the hero kisses the girl.

“So what I’d like you to do is see if you can take your ba­sic plot out­line and in­ject crises and con­flict at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals – what a writer once called bomb­shells in the text.

“For ex­am­ple, the hero­ine is happily pre­par­ing for her wed­ding when she sees her fi­ancé –” Polly’s voice trem­bled for a mo­ment “– em­brac­ing an­other wo­man. And take it from there. So what I’d like you to do for to­mor­row is . . .”

“Hi, Polly. Fancy com­ing down to the vil­lage with us for a drink?”

Polly looked up from the ta­ble on the

She must write; she must some­how get through this block

ter­race, shaded from the early evening heat, where she was en­grossed in a pile of pa­pers.

“Thank you, Tr­ish, but I’m run­ning through my notes for to­mor­row’s work­shop.”

“Oh, yes, Build­ing Mi­nor Char­ac­ters. It should be re­ally in­ter­est­ing. But do come with us,” Kate chimed in. “You know what they say – all work­shop and no play makes Polly a dull lady.”

Polly had to laugh.

“All right, then.” She pushed the pa­pers to one side. “I sup­pose I can do this later.”

“Great. See you in a few min­utes.”

As they went back in­doors, Tr­ish was smil­ing broadly.

“Chap­ter Two. Good thing I heard Damien telling Jackie he was in a boules match in the vil­lage square this evening. I asked her if he was any good and she said he’s the lo­cal cham­pion!”

“So, our hero will be flex­ing his pec­torals and slay­ing the op­po­si­tion while we sit along­side the boules court sip­ping our aper­i­tifs. It couldn’t be bet­ter!”

Polly watched them go, smil­ing wryly in spite of her­self.

They were only a few years younger then her, but lively and chirpy in a way she was sure she’d never be again.

Oh, well, an evening with them had to be bet­ter than an­other soli­tary walk through the olive groves and an early night, try­ing vainly to blot James from her mind.

“You know, I think men in white shirts are ir­re­sistible, don’t you, Tr­ish?” Kate prompted. “Yeah, they’re so dishy.” Kate rolled her eyes. “I bought Gary a white silk shirt for his birth­day. He looks great. What do you think, Polly?”

“Sorry?” Polly, who had been study­ing the ice swirling round her drink, looked up. “Oh, yes, ab­so­lutely.”

“I mean – just look over there.” Tr­ish ges­tured across the vil­lage street to where the boules match was near­ing a noisy cli­max, and where Damien was about to make the fi­nal throw, swing­ing his arm to and fro as he stud­ied the lay­out of the balls.

“It’s a pity we’re spo­ken for, isn’t it, Kate?” She gave an ex­ag­ger­ated sigh, then shot Polly a side­ways look. “How about you, Polly?”

Un­will­ingly, Polly looked across at Damien just as he launched the boule then leapt up, punch­ing the air in tri­umph.

She blinked, then jumped as though a bolt of elec­tric­ity had shot through her.

Polly gazed in­tently as Damien was car­ried shoul­der-high from the court to­wards the café.

As the team neared their ta­ble, he jumped down.

“I hope you ladies en­joyed the match.” He grinned down at them, his dark eyes sparkling.

“Oh, yes, Damien,” Kate and Tr­ish cho­rused. “You were ab­so­lutely great. Wasn’t he, Polly?”

But Polly didn’t an­swer. Her eyes were locked with Damien’s, as if the rest of the world had sud­denly ceased to ex­ist.

“Oh, my good­ness, I must go,” Tr­ish mut­tered. “I haven’t fin­ished my as­sign­ment for to­mor­row.”

Then she and Kate stole away from the ta­ble, nei­ther of them no­ticed, and Damien slid into one of the va­cated chairs.

“I can’t be­lieve how quickly these ten days have flown, can you, Tr­ish?” Kate said.

“No. I’ll be re­ally sorry to leave. It’s so lovely here.”

“And this is such a great way to spend our last evening.”

The young women looked around the farm­house court­yard.

Ber­trand, the handy­man, had spent the day set­ting out ta­bles and chairs and string­ing up hun­dreds of fairy lights, which in the dusk twin­kled pret­tily among the leaves of the vine on the per­gola. Kate gig­gled sud­denly. “Gosh, look at Robert – he’s re­ally let­ting his hair down.”

And it was true. Their fel­low stu­dent had fi­nally sep­a­rated him­self from his phone, and af­ter sev­eral glasses of the dark Provençal wine was at­tempt­ing a highly com­pli­cated tango rou­tine with Jackie.

“Mmm,” Tr­ish mur­mured. “Still wa­ters run deep there, if you ask me.”

“Yeah, but he’s still not ro­man­tic hero ma­te­rial. I mean, he’s got a bit of a paunch, for a start – and he’s forty if he’s a day.”

“Talk­ing of ro­man­tic he­roes,” Tr­ish whis­pered, “look over there.”

She nod­ded to­wards the ter­race round the swim­ming pool, flood­lit turquoise this evening, where Damien and Polly were deep in con­ver­sa­tion.

“Yes. And he’s got a white shirt on again.”

“And she looks lovely this evening – that white sun­dress sets off her tan. It’s a good thing we per­suaded her to hold our last two classes out­doors.”

“And that pale band on her ring fin­ger has fi­nally gone,” Kate added.

“And that up­tight ex­pres­sion when she thought no-one was notic­ing has gone, too,” Tr­ish com­mented.

“I think she must have started her next best­seller. I heard the printer go­ing in her room ear­lier.”

“And it’s all down to us. You know how you said we were rub­bish at plot­ting a ro­man­tic novel? Well, we have cer­tainly plot­ted one great ro­mance suc­cess­fully. Hey, where are they go­ing?”

Polly and Damien had got to their feet and were slip­ping away in the di­rec­tion of the olive grove.

Tr­ish and Kate watched un­til only a white sun­dress and white shirt glim­mered in the dark­ness, side by side – then came to­gether as Damien drew Polly into his arms and kissed her.

Kate sighed with sat­is­fac­tion.

“Mis­sion ac­com­plished there, I think. But it’s still true – I know Polly’s been re­ally kind and en­cour­ag­ing about our as­sign­ments, but I’m won­der­ing if we should give up the idea of writ­ing a whole novel.”

Tr­ish nod­ded.

“Well, per­haps for the time be­ing, un­til we’ve got a bit more life ex­pe­ri­ence,” she agreed. “But that needn’t stop us try­ing some short sto­ries.”

“Great idea. We could write one about this ro­mance au­thor who’s been jilted so she’s got writ­ers’ block, but then she comes out to Provence to lead a writ­ing course, and meets this hand­some French­man.”

“That’s sounds great!” Tr­ish beamed at her friend. “I can’t wait to get started.”

“Me, too. And we could call it ‘Ten Days In Provence’ . . .” n

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