Ed. Note: Welcome to Episode II of Elizabeth L. Smith’s superlative summer read, written just for us. If you missed the first chapter click here. It’s getting more exciting by the minute. Episode III will be in this space next Friday. Those of us who are Elizabeth groupies remember her from her late, great blog Mon Avis, Mes Amis.
Elizabeth L. Smith
Caroline smiled at the memory; thirty years’ perspective giving her the grace to acknowledge that it hadn’t been the most auspicious of meetings. The problem was, she thought, she’d simply had no experience of men. Her father had died when she was very small, and her mother had faded quietly into the wallpaper of their silent Somerset house. She had been sent to boarding school at eight, deep in the countryside, far from the seductive possibilities of city life.
It was there, inspired by her vital, passionate French mistress, that she had become a fervent Francophile. Her shadowy widowed mother, calcifying in the Somerset gloom, had astounded her by arranging a whole year in Paris for Caroline. Once she had finished her A’levels, and before she must be bound by the shackles of shorthand and sandwich lunches, Caroline was to have twelve glorious months living with a real French family.
She remembered the three of them as teenagers and wondered again about the man Alexis had become. A furtive Google search that morning had revealed only what she already knew — a financial lawyer who spoke regularly at conferences in Geneva, Hong Kong, New York. About his private life, she discovered nothing. She tried to imagine him in a domestic setting. Unloading a dishwasher, tending a sick child, making coffee after an ordinary weekend lunch. No, she still saw him as that intense boy, passionate about the brewing problems of immigration and unemployment.
And Annouk, who magnetized all eyes towards her. Her style eccentric and theatrical; her father’s dinner jacket, sleeves shoved up over an armful of African bracelets; her jeans rolled to show delicate white lace tights disappearing into biker boots; an ancient cashmere cardigan belted over opaque stockings and velvet heels. Her green eyes ever-watchful behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.
By contrast, Caroline was a stammering rush of manners and good intentions. Her sensible loafers and serviceable pleated skirts screamed English dependability; all hunter green and navy blue; one good bag and woolly tights. She was always on time, frequently early, and happy to perch in a café with L’Ecume des Jours or L’Etranger until the others showed up.
Caroline adored those hours in bars, parks, cafes, listening to the fierce debates — whether to eat falafel, was Ronald Reagan a hero or a joke, should they see Le Tartuffeor Beverly Hills Cop? Rangy and spare, in leather jackets and tousled hair, Annouk and Alexis could have been twins. He always had a hand on her knee, the back of her chair; she gave him neon lighters, a twisted blue bracelet.
A passing black Range Rover interrupted her reminiscences, showering her right leg with a deluge of cold puddle water. Now that really was annoying. She wondered fleetingly if the leg would smell of damp dog as it dried, then decided to hell with it. She had nothing to prove to Alexis — so what if her hair frizzed and her trousers were damp? She was, after all, a very successful headmistress. She hailed a taxi and hopped in.
“La Defense, s’il vous plait,” she said. As the taxi swished through the grey, familiar streets, her heart and stomach both felt a tiny squeeze of nervous excitement.