Ten Days In Provence
A beautiful setting and some time to think – what else did Polly need?
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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