Gardening Leave

A man in France talks to an English couple who show him he has a choice.

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He parked his car in the yard at the back of the hotel. It was late afternoon. He took his suitcase from the boot and put it down while he shut it. He leaned back on the car for a moment; the air was warm, better than in England. Then after a moment he picked the case up and walked over to a door in the corner. He’d already collected his key card at reception, and he went straight to the lift and up to the second floor. He went into his room and put the card into the slot to work the lights. He knew what to expect, they’d stayed in the place several times. He threw the case down on the bed. What he wanted was a drink in the bar. He wondered if the barman would remember him.

This time he was driving down south on his own. He was uneasy—not because of the long distance still to come, but all the other things about the journey, the reasons he was going.

The bar was a long, thin, rectangular-panelled room with tables and comfortable chairs down each side. There were a few couples already installed; he couldn’t tell immediately if they were English. It wasn’t important, he didn’t feel like conversation at that moment. He ordered an Americano. The barman affected to recognise him; perhaps he did. He was friendly enough but turning away the smile quickly faded.

He’d booked for dinner. Afterwards he’d stroll down to the esplanade to watch the final evening sun setting over the sea.

Gardening leave. That was the name for it, suspension pending enquiries, no inferences to be drawn. He could have time out, run away, not face the music, have more time with the family, pursue other opportunities. But there’d be a reckoning eventually, and a verdict.

The drink relaxed him. He ordered another and asked for the menu. But he knew what he wanted there. Oysters followed by steak. They’d flambé the meat in a ritual brandy-fuelled hiss and flare. No cheese course. He liked tarte tatin, but it was only served for two people. He settled for crepes suzettes.

To the observer, he was a man in a casual well-cut suit, lithe, with a strong face, a martial face. He couldn’t tell you if what others could see of him was actually him or merely the representation of a type, a middle-class sixty-year-old suburban Englishman. In fact, he felt the threads holding him together were being unpicked one by one. His real self was being diffracted; only the thought of the food to come and the anticipation of its taste allowed the disorder he felt in himself at that moment to be obscured.

His table was ready. He followed the waitress into the restaurant.

He was an early diner. The tables near him weren’t yet occupied. He hoped that they would be, because if he was on his own it was interesting to watch other people, and sometimes when he’d had a few drinks, to talk, especially in France. Being away from England loosened the tongue, often pierced the reticence. He’d heard a lot of life histories over the years.

His oysters arrived at his solitary table. Holding one to his mouth and swallowing, the texture felt erotic, and it reminded him of parts which until recently he hadn’t explored again or tasted since he was a younger man, lying between the thighs of women. He tried to stop the memory. It put him on edge, a disintegration of decency.

He’d asked for a glass of Picpoul and took a sip slowly after each salty oyster mouthful.

Perhaps it was true, that the brain was like a computer, and with the wrong settings or damaged drives it was corruptible, not just morally—though that too, but systemically. It could go out of control, that’s what his mind was beginning to feel like. That board meeting, the decision, the alarming walk to his desk, the shock, the surge along the neural circuits unbalancing him, then and now. He’d lost an identity.

He noticed the waitress, dark haired, brown eyes, diligent. After the flames and flourish she brought the steak to the table, the sauce poured round the meat. He ordered a strong red wine from the Languedoc, a St Chinian. He asked about the grapes. The waitress struggled to remember, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre perhaps another. The food was delicious.

His mobile rang.

His wife. “Where are you, darling?”

“At the hotel. I’m eating.”

“I forgot, you’re an hour ahead. How are you?”

“All right.”

“You never say anything. What are you feeling? You weren’t good at home.”

“I’ve been thinking about Dad and my grandfather and his father; Korea, Burma, and Ypres. I’ve done nothing like that.”

“You’re not in the army. It hasn’t been necessary.”

“I know but I think about what it must have been like. Three generations. I’ve no experience to match theirs.”

“That’s not your fault. Why are you suddenly thinking about it?”

“Because of the rest of me. Everything’s undone, threads unpicked, glass crazed.”

“What you need is a project, something to take your mind off the past and everything else. I can’t seem to manage it for you. You’ve left me behind.”

While she was speaking his eyes had been following the waitress now serving at other tables; she had a very good figure, moved well. It was another trouble for him. He returned to the mobile.

“What did you just say?”

“You’ve left me.”

“I’ve gone away to get a distance.”

She didn’t reply immediately but sighed audibly down the phone. “Look, James. You’ve had a shock. Didn’t see it coming. Please don’t take it out on me.”

“I was careless. It’s unravelling me. The wallpaper is peeling off, there’s damp in the plaster, subsidence in the foundation.”

She cried out. “Are you drunk? You did nothing wrong at all.”

“But it was on my watch.”

“It’s not a cancer diagnosis, is it. You’re still alive.”

The waitress was now at his table. He noticed the line of her breasts under a thin white blouse.

His wife was saying, “Are you listening?”

“They’re trying to take my plate away. I’ve got to finish my food. It’ll be cold.”

“Before I go, do you want me to pause your gym membership?”

He’d have to decide, sooner or later. Was he going back?

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes, yes, do. Indefinitely.”

“Now I know. You have left me. Anyway, they won’t do that. A month at a time, I should think.”

“Whatever, whatever. Just do it.”

“I’d like you back sometime. Or I’ll come and find you. Drive carefully.”

Something else to unsettle him. The waitress brought him the crepes suzettes. He asked for a Muscat to drink with them. He watched her movements, clearing the table, brushing the tablecloth, straightening the cutlery, and felt he could be young again.

He had become obsessed recently with pretty women. It was another example of his deterioration. He struggled to hold himself in check. He clenched his fists, had to do nothing, nothing near a woman, not touch in any way, keep apart, be sensible. And all the time a great desire welled up from somewhere in his subconscious. He had to make himself behave yet didn’t want to. Mentally he undressed every attractive woman, assessed them physically, but at the same time he was sick with it.

It was not just the terrible sexual conflict which was adding to his sense of disintegration. The daily news, which he had always read with detachment, now filled him with unaccountable alarm. He couldn’t contain it properly without increasing his own anxieties. Previously he’d been largely apolitical, the troubles of the world were taking place elsewhere and domestic problems were in other places, not in his secure suburb. He didn’t experience rough life or know about food banks, knife crime, poverty, wastelands. They were items in the news, but he was not of the news himself.

He had concentrated on work, he was held together at one level, so to speak, by his suit, and at another, from the first light of day to nightfall, by the routine of rising, leaving, arriving at the office, appearing, speaking by rote, offering politeness, then returning home, gardening, tinkering with machines, sleeping, not reacting except as expected. But now there was no daily work, no function for him.

There was too much going on. It had begun to crowd out the daily round. He wasn’t in control of this noisy and intrusive world which was assaulting his senses with violence, invasions, cruelty, murders, war, and burglaries, frauds, scams, fake news, famines, fires, storms, glacial melting. They were a deluge, he had no control and he couldn’t keep up, couldn’t measure it or assemble it into some order.

As he sat in this dining room, he knew his appearance was straightforward, slim and upright in build, physically fit. He swam, played tennis, he walked with a certainty. He looked entirely stable. But inside he was shivering; he might fall into pieces.

He ordered coffee and an Armagnac. He was drinking more than usual. But it was a good meal. It might settle him temporarily until the night and the small hours.

An elderly couple had arrived at the next table. The man was carrying a guidebook which James noticed appeared to be in English. He considered them, heard their amiable and peaceful conversation. When the waitress attended, he heard them speak good French to her. As she stood there, he once again enjoyed the line of her body, its shapeliness, and he speculated how it might appear unclothed in a private place.

He was no hurry to leave; when there was a moment, he would talk to the couple who were now eating in a precise way. There would be a lull in due course.

The man finished a course and wiped his mouth with a napkin. As he did so he caught James’s eye and smiled.

“You’re English, I think,” James said. “Are you travelling, or staying here by the sea?”

The man half-turned in his chair to reply. As he spoke James was astonished, completely absorbed in the man’s face, his smile, his softness. He had far more than a bedside manner. He was completely reassuring. At once James was charmed, no, more than charmed. The man’s eyes, speech, and cheeks were a balm. One might trust this man, be secured by him. James could easily subside into confessing himself to such a person.

The man was saying, “I’m eighty-five—”

The woman with him interrupted, “And I’m eighty-two.”

James said, “You don’t look it, either of you.”

The man said, “Well, we do what we can while we can. My wife is more determined than me. We go to places all over, to explore. We used to drive in France, of course. Lovely roads.”

She said, “We go by train now. It’s rather pleasant and very fast sometimes.”

“And you?” asked the man, his face gently appealing and kindly.

James finished his drink. What was the truth about his journey? Could he begin to explain to this benign person, or even to himself?

“I have a house in the south, near Montpellier. I’m driving down there.”

“That’ll be a nice holiday for you,” she said.

“Sort of.” Why not tell them? “I’m meeting a friend and we’re going to the Italian Riviera for a while. Rapallo. I’m taking a break.”

Only partly true. He was going to meet a woman, make love to her and spend a long time, several months. It was all new, a trial. She wanted him to come to her, but at the same time seemed indifferent to starting a permanent relationship.

“Leaving England behind,” the man said. “Burning your boats.”

“I’d like to, but the past is like a sticky paper. No matter how you flail about it won’t fall away, let go.”

The man looked at James seriously. “At my age, the past is who I am.”

“Warts and all, dear,” the woman added.

James noted that their next course hadn’t arrived. He wanted an excuse to remain. He’d ask for more coffee and another Armagnac. He saw the waitress in the room and eventually was able to summon her. She first brought the couple their food and then fetched James’s request. As he poured himself coffee from the cafetière, he said, “The problem has been making a decision against my nature. I’m feeling unsettled, if I’m honest.”

“Well,” said the man. “You don’t have to be honest with us, just with yourself.”

“I’m going to do something while I can, as you say. The more I want to do it, the more I seem to disintegrate inside. You can’t see it as you see me here. You must think I look like someone in charge of himself. That’s how I thought of myself, how I was to my wife, to my family, in the office. I had a place and now I don’t.”

“I’d never have thought that going to Rapallo had that effect,” said the woman.

James laughed. “I made a choice which was exciting and now it seems my mind almost can’t live with it.”

“When I said we do what we can while we can, I was talking about physical things, like travel and visiting,” the man said.

“And I was talking about people, a person,” James replied, finishing his second glass. “Should I engage with another person, someone I can, while I can?”

The couple had finished eating and were intent on James.

The man said after a while, “You don’t need to go anywhere or to anyone. You could just stop and go back home.”

“But I shall be so angry that I didn’t have the guts to go on, to have missed something I might never have again, not like that. I wouldn’t have been tough enough.”

The woman said to her husband, “I think we should leave this poor man alone. He looks exhausted. We should have our walk before bedtime, don’t you think?”

James didn’t want them to go. They were safe, almost like parents and he the child wanting to be held. But they were standing up.

The man looked down at James who was still sitting at his table. “We may see you at breakfast, but if not, bon voyage to whatever destination you decide. I’m glad you spoke to us. Always be kind to strangers, you never know, you may be meeting angels unawares.” He smiled sweetly and took his wife’s arm. Stooping, they walked slowly out of the restaurant.

James was now almost alone in the room. Had he just met angels?

The waitress came across to clear the tables. She had the bill for him. He looked at it cursorily, then noticed that she had written a telephone number on it. He’d only once caught her eye properly during the evening and she had looked back at him, slyly with the hint of a smile, a clandestine acknowledgement. She lingered now with the card machine, intent as he opened his wallet. If her illicit promise was kept that night, he would have made one choice, acted decisively, crossed a boundary, and he could leave the hotel and go forward independently to something else.

He paid, and when her back had turned, after a moment tore the bill in pieces. What had those angels said? You don’t need to go anywhere or to anyone. Next morning, he would have to decide at the A16 junction whether to turn towards Amiens, Paris and beyond, or the other way, back to Calais, and the tunnel, and England.

He went early to bed.

A retired part-time resident of Broadstairs for twenty-five years. Roger writes fiction, especially short stories. He likes France and food.

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