I wandered out of the marina and took a brisk walk towards the heart of the walled city. As I expected, the streets were busy. I tried to take an interest in the local sights but the afternoon dragged and I knew I just had to get away from the tourist areas. As soon as I got back to the hotel I went to see the tour guide. Her name was Simone de Valieur and I found her lingering over a cup of coffee in the foyer. Her body graced the seat as if she was built for public display.
She was tall and, when on her feet, she moved with the purposeful grace of a model. It was a talent which alone must have captured the attention of every male member of our party. She filled the angles and crevices of her courier uniform almost to perfection and she exuded natural charm. Her ebony hair had a glistening sheen which was the real thing; no bottle could offer that sort of effect. Her face was bright, her complexion flawless and her deep, dark eyes held a promise of something which, to the casual observer, could never be fully explained nor explored.
“Can we talk?” I asked, standing over her. “If you’re not too busy.”
She gestured to a seat opposite her. “Never too busy for any of my group.” She put down her coffee and a smile washed over her face like she was genuinely pleased to see me.
I sat down in the uncomfortably low seat and came straight to the point. “I’m not coming with you on the ferry tomorrow.” I blurted out the words with no attempt at small talk to lighten the impact.
Her face broke into a frown. “You’re leaving us, Henry?”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Simone was half French, half English and she spoke with a strange mixture of accents. She said she could speak four different languages, but I had heard her speak only French and English. She had a clear, soft voice which was publicly prim like an English governess and privately sensual like a French courtesan. A neat trick and she managed it to perfection.
“I want to make my own plans from here on.” I shifted uneasily on the seat, not sure how much I should reveal.
“Is it anything we’ve done wrong?” she asked.
“No, nothing like that,” I said. “It’s me. I guess I’m out of place in this group: a lone male amongst all these happy twosomes. I want to get away on my own for a while.”
“I’d noticed that you were uneasy.” Her eyes interrogated me with something amounting to compassion. “Want to tell me about it?”
I shrugged uneasily. “The past catching up with me, I guess.”
“Something personal?” She inclined her head, as if inviting me to spill the beans.
I stared into her eyes. “Very personal.”
“I’m ready to listen.”
“There’s not a lot to tell.” My voice choked. I’d told no one on the tour much about me, not the relevant bits. But now I guess I just had to get it off my chest. “It was my wife. She died in childbirth and the baby died with her. There was nothing anyone could have done to save them.”
“Oh, Henry….” She put a hand to her mouth.
“I thought a vacation would help, but—” I stood up then and began to turn away from her. I knew I’d break down if I had to tell her more. I was about to wander off when she rose up from her chair and put out a hand to me.
I swung back to face her, wondering if she really did understand, or was she simply playing a part.
She quickly made it clear she wasn’t acting. “I didn’t realize. I thought you were being aloof, but now I understand. This trip hasn’t helped you at all, has it?” She came close up against me and put her hands to my shoulders. “I’m so very sorry.”
I stared down at the floor, unable to meet her gaze. “It’s something I have to get out of my system, but I chose the wrong way to do it. My fault. And it’s up to me to sort it out.”
“I see now why you’ve appeared to be so strange these past three weeks. I wish I could help you.” She was close up against me now, soft and smelling like a hint of roses wafting on clean fresh air.
“You’d think a guy like me would be able to handle this better,” I mumbled.
“Forgive me for not understanding earlier. I’m so sorry.” She leaned closer still and kissed my cheek lightly, soft as a feather. Just like Penny once did. A gentle touching of her lips against my cheek, a gesture that meant so much. “I understand now why you feel you leave us.”
“Yeah, sure,” I muttered. Then I looked her in the face and I tried her with a forced smile. Even tried to laugh. “You know, I met this girl on the beach. A youngster, half naked. Seduction unwrapped and then some. Made me think of all the good times Penny and I had together. You know what I mean? It reminded me of all those intimate moments—”
She smiled warmly. “If a sexy young nympho can turn you on, you’re probably getting over the worst of it, Henry. All you need is one last thrust—”
“Figuratively speaking. But keep the other in mind.”
“I suppose the kid had no idea what she was doing to me.” I drew a deep breath and took a step back. “Anyway, enough of this. Thanks for listening, Simone. I’m sorry if I’ve upset your tour programme.” Then I walked away decisively before I let my feelings get really out of hand.
Before I allowed her to turn me on the way the youngster did.
I kept to myself over dinner that evening, much as I had throughout the tour. None of the couples made any attempt to draw me into their conversations and, in a way, I was glad of that. I was just finishing my coffee when Simone came to my table. She sat down right beside me and smiled.
“I’ve been thinking about you, Henry. Wondering what I could do to help you. Would you let me do something?” Despite the smile, she sounded curiously unsure of herself, as if I might be an undercover cop and she was about to offer me the crown jewels at a knock down price.
“What did you have in mind?”
She leaned closer, lowering her voice as if afraid someone might overhear. “I get the picture that you miss you wife physically as well as emotionally.”
“We were good together.”
“Maybe I can help you there. Give you some animated rehabilitation?” She stumbled over the words, like a ham actor with badly-written lines that didn’t fit the part. A blush ran up from her neck to her cheeks.
“What the heck, Simone?” I almost laughed.
“Sorry. I’m making a bit of a mess of this.” She took a deep breath and leaned closer to me. “Would you like to come to my room after dark?” She whispered the invitation and her gentle breath fluttered against my face.
“Am I hearing you right?” It sounded like an offer I couldn’t afford to miss. But I could have misunderstood.
“You heard me rightly. Would you like to come?” Her lips were still close to my face. If we’d been anywhere but the hotel dining room I’d have kissed her there and then.
“There’s been no one since…” It wasn’t what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how to get the words ‘you bet I’d like it’ through my lips.
“You can spend the whole night with me, if you’d like to. I thought you would. Like to, that is.” Her eyes held just a hint of begging.
I thought about it for a few seconds. She was damn right: I was lonely and this would be one helluva good start to the process of moving on. A chance to taste some new wine before the vines went out of season.
“I guess I’m up for it,” I said.
Her face broke into a grin. “Oh, but you will be, Henry. You will be. You won’t think badly of me for suggesting it?”
“As long as you don’t think badly of me for accepting,” I told her, recalling all those times in the past three weeks when I’d secretly admired her body. How could I possibly think badly of her? Other women—friends back home in Los Angeles—had seen my loneliness, but none of them had been willing to do what Simone was offering.
“That’s a relief. I haven’t slept with a man in a long while.” She said it with an air of longing.
“I’m a bit out of practice myself,” I said, and hoped I would be able to stay the course.
“Don’t worry.” She smiled brightly but kept her voice soft and gentle. “I’ve been thinking about it. Thinking about what we’ll do.”
“That explains the smile on your face.”
Her confidence seemed to bloom, along with a flush in her cheeks. “Tonight, if you wish, we will make love three times.”
“You’re expecting a bonus as well?”
“I can dream, can’t I?” She smiled coyly and began numbering off on her fingertips, like a kid with a counting frame. “The first time we make love, it will be pure animal sex because that’s what you need in order to get all that built-up tension out of you. We will enjoy each other’s bodies, and then you’ll sleep.”
“Strike one. And then?”
She moved to the second finger. “And then I’ll wake you after a few hours and we’ll make love again, but this time it will be slow and gentle. It will be love-making as you and your wife once knew it and it will bring tears, but that will be good. That is also what you need. Afterwards, you’ll sleep again.”
Goddammit! This was more than I could ever have hoped for. I put my mouth close to her face and whispered, “Guess I’ll really need to sleep after that.”
“I’ll be disappointed if you don’t.” She numbered off the third finger. “The final time we make love will be when dawn breaks. That will be the best of all because you will be ready to show me what you can really do as a man.”
“Seems like you’ve got it all mapped out. How can I refuse?” I felt a sense of warmth towards her that I couldn’t explain. It was like Christmas had come early and Santa was unloading all his goodies onto my bed.
“Come after dark. I’ll be waiting.”
She left me sitting at the table and I studied her figure as she walked away. Couldn’t take my gaze off her. Then I noticed some of the other travellers eyeing me curiously. I gave them a cheery grin and wondered if they guessed what was in the air.
With a couple of hours to spare I wandered back down to the marina at le port des Bas Sablon. My mind was now firmly on Simone, which was hardly surprising. I strolled across the quayside boat park and stopped at the end of a pontoon near the slipway. The Breton Belle was still moored from that same pontoon. There was no immediate sign of Viola Bracewell, in fact the Sunseeker looked unoccupied. The dinghy was tied up close by and the outboard was missing, presumably lodged with a marine mechanic. I went back to a small, roadside café and bought a cup of coffee at an outside table, aiming to pass the time until dark. Sitting there, watching the evening activity, I felt strangely at ease with myself, more than I had in a long time.
Viola appeared about ten minutes later, ambling slowly across the quayside boat park in jeans and sweater. She was carrying a heavy bag which I took to be her groceries. It had the logo of a local supermarket on one side. She was almost at the pontoon where the Breton Belle was moored when a wiry little man ran onto the quay from a narrow alley. He was thin with a sour-looking face and he seemed to be in something of a hurry, racing towards the same pontoon. If he wanted to draw attention to himself, he was making a good job of it. He was only ten feet from Viola when a loud blast erupted from somewhere behind me.
I hadn’t heard the sound of any explosives since that time I was in Belfast. This one caught me unawares and I leapt to my feet; an automatic reaction. It was a shotgun blast, I was certain of that. All around me, people began to panic. Some ran into nearby houses and shops, some ducked and some simply stood rooted to the spot, their faces fixed in expressions of sheer horror. Viola was spread out on the ground, her groceries spilled out beside her. The wiry little man was already running back the way he came. Probably a wise decision.
I started across the boat park, but a couple of other guys got to Viola first and hoisted her to her feet. I backed off when a couple of gendarmes appeared from nowhere and ran into the scene. Viola was moving under her own steam by now. She dusted herself down and didn’t seem to be hurt; not physically. But she sure as hell was frightened by what happened. She squealed at the cops and waved her arms in a clear sign of agitation. I would have tried to help, but the gendarmes were obviously taking control so I left them to it. Slowly, other people emerged into view from the shops and cafes. Whoever the gunman was, there was no obvious sign of him and I figured he’d now be long gone. If Viola was his target, he’d missed his chance. I went back to the café table and finished off my coffee. Feeling somewhat calmer again, I glanced round at the animated conversations now taking place. All in French and entirely incomprehensible.
Before I walked back to the hotel, I took a detour towards pontoon and stared at the Breton Belle. Viola and the gendarmes were climbing down into the cabin. They didn’t notice me when I paused close by and studied the ground at the end of the pontoon, close to where the girl had been standing. Something—probably the round from the shotgun—had chewed up the tarmac.
Word of the shooting had got back to the hotel before me, but I kept out of the conversations. Figured it was nothing to do with me and I sure didn’t want the cops interviewing me. For all anyone else knew, I’d never been anywhere near the marina.
I waited until full darkness before going to Simone’s bedroom. Her door was ajar and I walked in to find her stretched out on her bed reading a paperback copy of Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. Rimless reading glasses were perched perilously across the tapering end of her nose. She glanced at me tantalizingly, lips just parted, eyes half shaded beneath long dark lashes. “I hoped you would come, Henry.”
“Never miss important appointments.”
“You won’t regret this.” She stood up and undressed, doing it quickly because she was already naked beneath her uniform. I grinned and asked her why she wore such smart, expensive clothes outside and not a stitch of underwear beneath. I recalled young Viola on the beach and compared these two. One was a teenager who couldn’t fix an engine, but loved being semi-nude, the other was a mature, twenty-something woman who knew how to use her sexuality to best effect.
“My clothes are part of my public image,” she said.
“And what sort of public image do you aim to give?”
She thought for a moment. “To the tour party, I’m reliable and respectable. The sort of person you would see in church every Sunday morning. For them I wear smart clothes.” Then she put a seductive finger to her lips and grinned. “But to myself, ‘I’m deliciously wanton.”
“Two images at one and the same time?”
“But of course. We all do it, you know. Public image and private image. It’s human nature.” Simone was clearly a student of all aspects of human behaviour. She lay back on the bed and beckoned me to join her.
She must have known exactly what she was doing because her plan worked to perfection.
Later that night when we started to make love the second time, something magical happened. It wasn’t just my imagination. Penny was there with me, guiding me, wanting me. It was Simone who made all the action, but it was Penny who fed all my emotions. And that was when I felt tears running down my cheeks, but they were good tears, necessary tears.
And I thanked God for bringing Simone into my life.
I awoke as the first light of the new day was reaching out across St. Malo. Simone was already awake, standing out on the balcony with sunlight highlighting her soft skin. When she saw that I was awake, she came back to the bed, smiling broadly, and lay down beside me.
“Last time it was good, Henry, very good. But this time it will be the best of all. This time you will show me that you’re a complete man again.”
Guess I did just that.