It Started With A Note: A brand-new uplifting read of love and new adventures for 2018! Victoria Cooke ‘An unputdownable read’ – Rachel Burton on Who Needs Men Anyway?One lost letter. A chance to change her life!Superhero single mum Cath always puts other people first. But now that she’s seen her son safely off to university (phew!), life seems a little, well…empty. So when Cath unexpectedly discovers some letters written by her great-grandfather during the First World War, she decides to take herself on an adventure to France to retrace his footsteps. Cath expects to spend her holiday visiting famous battlefields and testing out her French phrase book. What she doesn’t anticipate is that her tour guide, the handsome Olivier, will be quite so charming! Soon Cath isn’t simply unearthing the stories of the past – she’s writing a brand new one of her own, which might end up taking her in a very unexpected direction…Bestselling author Victoria Cooke is back with another hilarious, romantic, and heart-warming read, perfect for fans of Lucy Coleman, Sue Moorcroft and Jo Watson.Readers love Victoria Cooke:‘What an amazing author. A breath of fresh air to the literary world. ‘‘I will look forward to other books by this author and would definitely recommend reading this book, just brilliant!’‘I loved this book! It gripped me from the start, so much so that I read it in one sitting…and was sad that it ended !! ‘‘Definitely looking forward to reading more from this author.’‘Please get writing some more books Victoria!’ About the Author (#u4e7c981e-bfda-506d-8a8e-c7f5f06883e6) VICTORIA COOKE grew up in the city of Manchester before crossing the Pennines in pursuit of her career in education. She now lives in Huddersfield with her husband and two young daughters. When she’s not at home writing by the fire with a cup of coffee in hand, she loves working out in the gym and travelling. Victoria has always had a passion for reading and writing, undertaking several writers’ courses before completing her first novel in 2016. Praise for Victoria Cooke (#u4e7c981e-bfda-506d-8a8e-c7f5f06883e6) ‘Funny and poignant with a gloriously realistic cast of characters. I followed Charlotte’s journey avidly, cheering her on all the way. An unputdownable read’ Rachel Burton, author of The Many Colours of Us ‘Buy this book now and read it!’ Rachel’s Random Reads ‘A truly fantastic read, I couldn’t put it down’ Jessica Bell Also by Victoria Cooke (#u4e7c981e-bfda-506d-8a8e-c7f5f06883e6) The Secret to Falling in Love The Holiday Cruise Who Needs Men Anyway? It Started with a Note VICTORIA COOKE HQ An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2018 Copyright © Victoria Cooke 2018 Victoria Cooke asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. E-book Edition © December 2018 ISBN: 9780008310257 Version: 2018-11-19 Table of Contents Cover (#uf0559c4e-a67c-5d3a-a776-36df42d1b555) About the Author (#u4112b37b-7070-59ab-9139-831dcbefbb4e) Praise for Victoria Cooke (#u114f7c0b-3684-5274-b519-2f8e318bb887) Also by Victoria Cooke (#u813ab444-780d-50c0-8a49-d37a40eb4cf6) Title Page (#u7d92340b-3d42-52d5-b4d3-da77d1d6ef43) Copyright (#u7e146f5a-9c04-50b6-ad55-b73a2ab9578d) Dedication (#ua0708c0d-3db6-56e9-851c-a565865cc940) Epigraph (#u54045c79-ff3c-58d4-b649-343b7d378d4d) Chapter One (#u6f11de57-fafc-52fc-868f-b92c95ec9d3e) Chapter Two (#u43c3855e-cf1e-5570-afee-c21480ecf878) Chapter Three (#ud5b97c7e-91ce-5d29-af14-c68c7ce58066) Chapter Four (#udb3033bb-82e4-56d0-a6c2-799ed0572ad3) Chapter Five (#ud8a3f146-34c4-52f7-a778-637eabfcaa75) Chapter Six (#ud4f200b0-f3ee-5aea-8e85-4a733a88d6c8) Chapter Seven (#u7d8f8332-82a4-5d24-adeb-d95dd490d711) Chapter Eight (#ud75ed9a5-626d-594b-90f7-29fab6309f42) Chapter Nine (#ubcef50c7-4958-59eb-b372-dd4a05210242) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) One Year Later … (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) Dear Reader (#litres_trial_promo) Thank You for Reading! (#litres_trial_promo) Keep Reading… (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) For my great-grandfather, Private Thomas Edward Fitton, who served with the 1st Battalion in the Borders Regiment and was killed in action on 1/7/1916 in the Somme Valley aged 24. And, my grandmother Rose (his daughter) who was six years old when he was taken from her by the Great War. She became a much-loved grandmother who always had time for her grandchildren. *** In loving memory of my grandad, Kenneth Taylor Cooke, (1926–2018) a Second World War Royal Marine, spared from fighting the Japanese in the Pacific as the war ended during his training. Grandad is remembered for his bravery, patience, kindness, generosity and love. Rain (#ulink_d3bf4efd-ca21-5915-9b85-dbf17659e599) Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me Remembering again that I shall die And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks For washing me cleaner than I have been Since I was born into this solitude. Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon: But here I pray that none whom once I loved Is dying to-night or lying still awake Solitary, listening to the rain, Either in pain or thus in sympathy Helpless among the living and the dead, Like a cold water among broken reeds, Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff, Like me who have no love which this wild rain Has not dissolved except the love of death, If love it be towards what is perfect and Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint. Edward Thomas, 1916 Chapter One (#ulink_bc6867ed-5256-5dbf-b92c-e55673613049) I clutch the envelope tightly to my chest – so tightly, in fact, my nails tear into the crumpled paper, which has been softened by my sweaty palm and the relentless downpour. I release my grip slightly. It’s too precious to damage, but I’m so scared of losing it. I feel like one of those mad scientists in a James Bond film who has developed a mini nuclear warhead and has to transport it somewhere with the utmost care to avoid detonating it at the wrong time. I’m not sure comparing myself to a villain is wholly accurate, though. Perhaps I should have laid it on a velvet pillow or something, like a prince carrying a glass slipper. Yes, that’s better – a prince, not a villain. A princess? I shouldn’t be in charge of something like this. As I scurry down the high street, the eyes of passers-by rouse suspicion. Do they know what I have? Are they after me? I walk faster, heart pounding. It’s difficult because my bloody shoes are killing me. Pleather. Man-made leather. Plastic-leather pleather sandals – a bargain at £12.99, but seriously, I’ve already spent double that on plasters for all the blisters they’ve given me. The quicker I walk, the harder my bag-for-life bashes into my legs. Dented tins of peas, beans, stew and whatever else I’d salvaged from the ‘whoops’ shelf after work all unleash their fury on my shins. It isn’t uncommon for certain staff members to accidentally-on-purpose cause a few whoopsies themselves. Not me, of course; it’s a sackable offence and I can’t risk losing my job since I’m the sole breadwinner in our house and my baby boy has just gone off to university so I need every penny. Thirty-seven years old and I’ve already packed my Kieran off to university while most of my friends are waving their kids off to high school. It makes me feel so old. When I looked that handsome six-foot-two beanpole in the eye and kissed him goodbye, I blubbed like a baby. He was still my little boy, even if I had to stand on my tiptoes to get close enough to grab his cheek. Of course, he’d just grunted and wiped the residue of tears, snot and my kisses off on his sleeve almost instantly. Boys. He’s turning into his uncle Gary. I’m still scurrying, every step causing me to wince in pain. Bag-for-life. Bash. Sandals. Chafe. And so continues the pattern as I dash through the town centre towards the bus station. Rain is forecast, thunderous downpours no less – an amber weather warning had been issued by that gorgeous weatherman, David Whatshisface, on the TV. He could make any weather seem bright and cheery. I’d weather his storm. I chuckle to myself, not even sure if that would even make sense to anyone other than me. A deafening roar rips through the sky. Uh-oh. I try walking even quicker. Bash, chafe, bash, chafe. I don’t have a brolly, though I know they’re unwise in a thunderstorm anyway – David said so. I can see the bus station in the distance all lit up in the dusky evening like a heavenly portal to refuge. Just one busy road, several passers-by eyeing me (I’m still suspicious), and a plume of smoke from the smokers outside the pub to negotiate and I’ll be home and dry, literally. Just as I allow myself to dream of being home, the heavens open. Of course they do. They couldn’t have waited just five more minutes – where would be the fun in that? The rain is so heavy it soaks through to my skin almost instantly. My denim jacket is leaden with liquid and the nylon of my uniform is soaked. I’m cold and sticky and my feet are squishing about in my sandals, squelching with every step. The envelope is getting quite soggy now so I stuff it into my handbag and tuck my bag tightly under my armpit for safety. I slow my pace, unable to keep it up because my mascara and foundation have run straight into my eyes, partially blinding me. I wipe them with the back of my hand and notice it’s streaky black when I pull it away. I must look a sight. I’ve reached the road and the cars are coming thick and fast. Headlights, taillights, headlights, taillights. Gap. I make a dash for it, landing in a huge puddle by the kerb as I do. Brown water droplets dribble down my American Tan tights. Why didn’t I wear trousers? David promised rain! I make it across the road and begin negotiating the shrunken smoke plume, which is now concentrated to the little canopy above the door. My task is made all the more difficult by the next torrent of foundation and mascara liquid streaming down my face. The smoke makes me cough and splutter and I’m flapping my arms about as best I can with a one-ton carrier bag on my arm and a stiff denim jacket shrink-wrapping my body. As I near the edge of the smoking circle, I bat the air one last time – one time too many for my so-called bag-for-life, which bursts open, spewing bargain tins aplenty all over the pavement. As I scan the devastation, I notice that the pesky little pokey thing you never quite know how to work has fallen off the corned beef tin. Typical. I never swear. Ever. But if I did, Hells Angels would blush at the words I’d choose right now. ‘Cath, you idiot!’ I mumble instead. A tatty-haired man bends down and starts to pick up the tins and I follow. Warmth in my chest grows from the seed of his kindness. He has a lit cigarette in his mouth and the smoke from it is so close and raw that it’s burning my nostrils, but he’s kind enough to help so I do my best to ignore it. ‘Thanks, love,’ I say, my voice thick with implied gratitude. He just nods and hands me four of the five tins he’s picked up. I look at him, confused, as he stuffs the corned beef in his pocket and shrugs. The rain is beating down still, pummelling into my bag, and I’m shaking with the cold. Or shock. Before I can organise my thoughts and string together a sentence of scorn, he’s stubbed out his cigarette and vanished back into the pub taking my tea with him. As my eyes sink to the ground, I spot the glinting little silver twisty thing off the corned beef tin, and it’s mildly satisfying to know he’ll never get to enjoy my tin of deliciously processed meat. Striking corned beef hash off the menu tonight would be one more thing for Gary to moan about. Still, I have the envelope and no amount of whinging from my freeloading brother would change that. Hearing those words in my head makes me feel a little guilty. I’m supposed to be helping him, supporting him, but instead, I’m slowly losing my patience with him. I make it to the bus station and can see my bus has pulled in at stop number sixteen, which is right at the other end of the station, of course. I start running. I’m holding my shopping in two arms, cradling it like a precious baby so I don’t lose any more tins. Gary will have to have the stew. Just as I approach stop fifteen, there is a miracle. My bus is still in! Thank God! I slow to a walking pace, panting – the smoke, the bus fumes and the fact I haven’t done any exercise since my last year eleven PE lesson all contributory factors. Juggling my groceries, I stuff a hand into my bag, fumbling for my purse, which I locate quickly, and glance down at it to find some bus fare. The rumbling sound of the bus engine coming to life alerts me to the fact it’s about to leave. I have no choice but to barge past the people queuing at stop fifteen and pop my head and arm outside; I wouldn’t make stop sixteen. I’m waving frantically, balancing my precious tin baby in the other arm. ‘Please stop.’ The headlights get closer, but they’re gaining speed. Please stop. ‘Stop!’ I yell. He doesn’t stop. The next bus comes an hour later. Chapter Two (#ulink_6c9f83c4-04d1-5ef1-9f44-861a1d2a1005) When I finally arrive at the end of my road, I’m trembling, battered, and bruised, and all I’ve done is commute home from work. The off-licence near the bus stop is open, and I have an idea to salvage the evening. My spirits are still high; I still have the envelope and I’m almost home. I plonk a bottle of cava on the counter and rummage in my purse for six pounds. ‘Celebrating tonight?’ Jim, the owner, asks. ‘Ooh, yes I am.’ I can’t help but grin. ‘But I can’t tell you why – I don’t want to jinx it.’ I smile and give a little shrug. ‘Well, whatever it is, you enjoy it, love.’ Jim smiles back. ‘How’s that brother of yours doing?’ I want to offload and explain how exasperated I’ve become with him, how he never helps around the house and has yet to find a job, but I find myself unable to. I don’t know if it’s embarrassment or loyalty, or a complete unwillingness to bore the lovely Jim to death with my woes. ‘He’s good,’ I say instead. ‘Glad things are working out.’ He smiles. ‘I told him he could have a few shifts here to tide him over, but he said he thought things were looking up.’ Oh, did he now? ‘Yes, apparently so,’ I say. Jim smiles again and hands me my penny change, which I pop into the charity box by the till. When I finally make it through the front door, relief embraces me, tighter than my shrink-wrapped jacket. I’d make tea, then pull out the envelope and ask Gary if he’d help me celebrate, we’d have the bubbly and then I’d run a nice hot bath, putting that awful journey home behind me. Perhaps I’d book a meal for us at the weekend, at that new pub in town. I could even ask Kieran to come over and make it a real family affair. It would cheer Gary up and I’d quite enjoy the company and change of scenery. I smile dreamily as Gary approaches me. ‘I’m goin’ down the pub,’ he mumbles, barging past me and causing a few tins from my precariously balanced bag-for-life to tumble to the floor. My heart sinks. Gary always goes out for an evening drink, so it was silly to feel so deflated when tonight is no different. I should have expected it, and it wasn’t like he knew I had exciting news to share with him. I contemplate asking him to stay in but as I turn around, the front door slams shut in my face. At least I could have a bath and then make tea in my own time; that was something. My feet sting as soon as the bloodied blisters hit the hot soapy water, but the rest of my body needs a soak just to warm up because apparently it would have killed Gary to pop the heating on. The house is like an igloo and will take a good few hours to warm up. As much as I love him, I could batter him with a cut-price baguette at times. After my bath, I heat up the tin of stew and butter some bread, which has started to go a little hard. It isn’t mouldy thankfully, but bread never does seem to go mouldy anymore, which is a little odd come to think of it; I wonder what on earth goes into it nowadays. Still, this piece is okay – it just isn’t deliciously fresh. I could have brought some deliciously fresh bread home if Gary had managed to send a simple text message to let me know we needed some. I shake my head as I take a bite. I’d taken pity on him after our mum died. It had hit us both hard as we never knew our father and she’d been both mum and dad to us. I was so close to Mum and she was always there for me and Kieran – so much so that I’d never felt like a single parent. Gary was close to her too and after she died, he’d sunk into depression. He’d already lost his girlfriend, and a year or so after Mum died he lost his job too, but two years have passed since she died and I shouldn’t need to be looking after him anymore. I’d let him move in about six months ago while he got himself back on his feet, but so far he’s not displayed any signs of getting a job and moving out, and he only uses his feet to walk to the pub. I place my bowl and bread on the kitchen table and remember the bottle of cava in the fridge. Celebrating alone seems a little sad but what choice do I have? A little glass wouldn’t hurt, would it? One now, and perhaps Gary would have a glass with me when he got back from the pub, I reason. Maybe we could even have a chat about him moving out if he comes home in good spirits. The bottle is disappointingly warm despite having sat in the fridge for a good few hours. The blooming thing has two settings: frozen and lukewarm. I’ve asked Gary a million times to look at it for me or call someone out, but evidently, it’s been too much trouble for him. Remembering how fast corks can pop, I take a tea towel from the drawer to catch it in; I’d seen someone do that before at a party. Placing the towel over the cork, I begin to push at it with my thumb as hard as I can. It isn’t budging so I place my hand over it, trying to ease it out, but the thing is stuck fast. I try my other hand: more wiggling, more pulling and even a twist here and there, but it is no good. I even hold the bottle with my thighs and try with both thumbs but it’s useless and my hands are red and sore. Resigned to the fact I won’t be having a glass of bubbly, I dump the bottle on the side and put the kettle on instead before sinking into the kitchen chair, where I cry. I hate myself for it because I try so hard to be upbeat and positive, no matter how hard things get, but sometimes things pile up and the weight becomes too heavy to bear. It’s not just the fact I’ve had an awful journey home or that I lost my corned beef. It’s the fact that I’ve never complained about my life being samey and unadventurous in all the years that it has, but the one time I try to brave something new, the cork just won’t pop. I can’t help but wonder if it’s a sign from the gods to quit trying and just accept my fate. I let out a small humourless laugh through the tears before wiping my face and finishing making my tea. The house is still and quiet but I’m not in the mood for watching TV. I miss grumpy Kieran barging through the door, hungry, as he always is. Like most teenagers, he spent much of his time in his room, but just knowing he was up there was a comfort. I could always make an excuse to pop in and see him, to offer him a drink or collect his dirty laundry and if he was ever out, I always knew he’d be coming back. Now the emptiness of the house is a feeling rather than a state and it’s odd. But that doesn’t mean I want Gary to stay; he needs to rebuild his own life. It’s just something I’m going to have to get used to. No son, no Mum, no Gary. Just me. The stillness thickens and prickles my skin. I’m sure it’s emphasised by the sad deflated attempt at a celebration. Needing to busy myself, I have an idea. Kieran’s lifetime collection of junk is still cluttering up his room. It’s all stuff he hadn’t deemed important enough to take to university but apparently felt was fine to leave in my house. I decide I’m going to have a good sort-out. What’s that saying? Clean house, clean mind? I shake my head – that doesn’t sound right at all; I’ve always had a clean mind and no amount of mess in Kieran’s room could change that. My emergency stash of cardboard boxes from work come in handy once I’ve rebuilt them and filled them with Kieran’s junk. Old school books, piles of posters kept under his bed, superhero figurines he hasn’t played with in ten years and some board games that probably have most of the vital pieces missing. My loft hatch is stiff, but the stick I keep for opening it still works if I really yank it, and the steps come down easily after that. That’s something at least. I climb them, pulling the light cord when I reach the top. I clamber over the boxes I’d already stashed up there and feel a little bit of guilt at the fact I’m just as much of a hoarder as Kieran. I pick up a box to make some space and when the recognition of it registers, I have to sit down. For a moment, I just look at it. After Mum died, I’d inherited this box. It contains all her little keepsakes: things that Gary would have never wanted in a million years. He was more interested in the sandwich toaster and the little retro DAB radio she had in the kitchen. I know what’s in the box but I hadn’t been able to bring myself to open it yet. I was too heartbroken and now I feel terrible because I’d forgotten all about it. I cross my legs on the dusty boards and wipe the lid clean before lifting it. There’s a photo of me and Gary lying on top, which was taken when I was about five and he was eight. I take in my plaited pigtails and brown corduroy dress and can vaguely remember the day. Gary is wearing brown velvet jeans and a red jumper and is looking at me with disdain. We’d been to a park and he’d pushed me over and I’d grazed my knee. He was angry because I’d snitched on him to Mum. God bless the Eighties. My father had walked out about a year before that picture was taken and whilst I barely remember him, I do remember Mum’s smile that year. It was always there, plastered on, oversized and exaggerated, but her eyes didn’t crinkle in the corners. It wasn’t until I got older I realised how hard it must have been to maintain that brave face for us and I wish we’d have behaved much better for her. I continue to rummage. There is an old concert ticket for Boy George in the box, football match programmes from when she used to take Gary to watch Tottenham Hotspur, and my first pair of ballet slippers. Right at the bottom is an old wooden matchstick storage box that I don’t remember ever seeing before. I pull it out and examine it curiously. It’s quite intricate in its design, and I wonder why it hadn’t been on display at home. It was the kind of thing Mum would have loved to show off on her mantelpiece. I take off the lid and inside the red-velvet-lined box is a stack of ancient-looking notelets, each one yellowed and fragile. My heart is beating in my eardrums with anticipation. They are certainly old enough to have been from my dad all those years ago. Perhaps I’ll finally discover where he’s been for all those years. Hesitantly, I take out the top one and carefully unfold it. The date at the top strikes me hard: 1916. I have to double-check it before reading on, confused. 7th February 1916 My dearest Elizabeth, This is the farthest I’ve ever been from home, and I can tell you, France is almost as beautiful as the Home Counties. Perhaps one day, when the war is over, I can bring you and Rose here. The war is going to last much longer than we’d hoped, I’m afraid. Who knows how long we’ll be knee-deep in muck for. I hope Rose is looking after you. I know how you worry, but I’ll be fine. We’re working quite closely with the French and I’ve even been learning a little of the language. I’ll teach you both when I get home. Avec amour(I hope that’s correct) Yours, Will My eyes begin to burn a little and a ball forms in my throat. This is a letter to my great-grandmother from my great-grandfather. I remember my mum telling me the story of how her grandfather volunteered to fight in the First World War. He’d been killed in Belgium I think. Her mother, my grandmother, was five years old at the time and hadn’t really remembered him, something I could always relate to. Naturally, my mother didn’t know too much about him other than that he was twenty-four when he died. Kieran bursts into my mind. He’s not much different in age to what my great-grandfather had been. I try to imagine him going out to war. The thought of it twists and knots my insides, and I can’t fathom how the mothers of the WWI soldiers felt, waving their sons off to war. Of course, Kieran wouldn’t have survived the boot-polishing stage, never mind the trench-digging and gunfire. I love him to bits, but he’s a bone-idle little so-and-so, a trait that must be from his father’s side. I couldn’t imagine why a twenty-four-year-old man with a wife and daughter and his whole life ahead of him would want to go to the front line for the king’s shilling. It was so brutal and horrific, but I suppose back then people did it for their country. I read the letter again; the part about him wanting to take my grandmother and great-grandmother to France stands out. My grandma never even had a passport, never mind visiting France. That makes me feel sad – that one of the only surviving pieces of communication from her father said that he wanted her to see France, and she never went. Granted, there was another war soon after the first, but my grandmother lived until the late Eighties and still never made the trip. I take out the next letter, which is addressed directly to my grandmother. The date is too faded to read but I can just about make out the intricate penmanship. My dearest Rose, I hope your mother is well. I miss you. I hear you’ve grown somewhat. You’ll be as tall as me when I come home. When I return, I’ll have many stories to share with you. As I write this, I’m on leave looking out on luscious green fields with red poppies and blue cornflowers growing. It’s quite the picture beneath the blue summer sky. You’ll have to see this one day. It’s ‘un lieu de beauté’ as the French say. I’ve picked up a bit of the language. Some of my comrades have taken up poetry. It’s not something I’m good at, but I’ll send you a poem as soon as I get the chance. Take care, my darling. Yours, Daddy The letter squeezes my chest. Something about the upbeat tone suggests he really did think he’d return home – or he was putting on a brave tone for his daughter. Hindsight paints a tragic picture of a happy family destined for heartbreak. There are a few more letters and, strangely, some are written in French. I place them all back inside the box carefully and make a note to ask someone to translate the others when I get a chance. The letters play on my mind all evening. Knowing my grandma never went to France in the end saddens me somewhat. I’m a lot like she was: a homebody, unadventurous and happy in the safe familiarity of where I’ve always lived. But it was her destiny to travel to France, or at least it should have been, and that thought is still weaving through my mind when Gary returns, partially inebriated, from the pub. ‘Have you been buying posh plonk?’ he asks, picking up the bottle of cava and inspecting it as he walks in. ‘I … err … yes,’ I say, no longer in the mood to celebrate. ‘Two glasses, eh?’ I remain silent. ‘One was for me, wasn’t it?’ he says with a small laugh. Like it’s so implausible that I’d have company round. ‘You don’t have twenty quid I can borrow since you’re splashing out on fizz, do you? I’ve had a lot of outgoings this past fortnight and I need something to tide me over until my next JSA payment.’ He pops the cork with ease and pours two glasses of fizz into large wine glasses since I don’t own fancy flutes. The hair on the back of my neck bristles and I take a deep breath to ensure what I say next comes out nonchalantly. The last thing I want is an argument. ‘No news on the job front yet?’ He pauses, and his face reminds me of a Transformer as the different muscles pull together almost mechanically to arrange some kind of pained expression. ‘’Fraid not. They don’t seem to be able to find anything to match my skills. Twenty years I worked as an engineer and I’m not going to throw away that kind of experience sweeping school corridors or stacking shelves. No offence.’ I’m far from offended, but I’m very close to cross. ‘Well, maybe you’ll have to.’ I maintain an even tone. ‘You’re spending more than you have coming in and it’s a vicious cycle. Jim said he’d offered you a few shifts so you might have to take him up on it, or I can see if there’s anything going at my place if you like?’ ‘Cath, look, I’m waiting for the right job.’ There’s agitation in his tone. ‘If I take up a few shifts with Jim, my JSA will stop and I’ll be worse off.’ ‘You can work at my place while you’re waiting for the right job. You could work full-time there.’ ‘Oh yeah.’ He lets out a dry, humourless laugh. ‘And get stuck there like you did because there’s no time to look for anything better once you’ve been suckered in. What is it you’ve been there now? Eighteen years?’ His words sting and I glare at him. It’s true. I was bright at school, did well in most of my GCSEs and even got my A levels in English Literature, history and media, but after falling pregnant I needed money for the bills and the shift patterns worked well for me with a baby. ‘I think you’ve had too much to drink,’ I say eventually, standing up to leave. ‘Aren’t you drinking your plonk?’ he says, oblivious to how he’s made me feel. ‘You have it, it’s warm anyway,’ I say before storming out of my own kitchen. Hot tears well in my eyes. Not through sadness, but through embarrassment. Embarrassment that he feels he’s better than me despite spending the last half a year in a parasitic state. Embarrassment for thinking he’d be pleased for me when I showed him what I had in the envelope. And embarrassment for not standing up for myself. I hate how he makes me feel as if he thinks everything I’ve done is insignificant – but I’ve raised a child, I’ve always paid my way, and I’ve saved him from the streets. I may not have an engineering degree, but I like to think that being a good person counts for something. I know it’s his circumstances making him so bitter, but it’s still hard to take. He’s a good person underneath and I’m sure he’ll find himself again. I just don’t want to be in the crossfire. It’s time for him to leave. Chapter Three (#ulink_957dc01c-dacf-535b-9c33-dc7bf97365ea) ‘Look!’ Kaitlynn squeals, waggling her newly taloned hands in front of my face as I walk into the staff room the next day. ‘Oh, very nice,’ I say politely, acknowledging her luminous pink, sparkly-tipped nails. ‘Well, I had to treat myself with the annual bonus money, didn’t I? It was a whopper this year! Can you believe how much we got?’ Her voice is so high it penetrates my eardrums like a laser. ‘And I have a date on Saturday with this total ten I met on Tinder,’ she gushes. A total ten? Kaitlynn is about ten years younger than me, but somehow latched on to me when she first started at the supermarket, and we had developed a close working friendship ever since. Every so often, her reality-TV-inspired vernacular stumps me, and this is one of those times. The confusion must have manifested on my face. ‘A total ten, as in a ten out of ten. A hottie, Cath. F-I-T.’ She giggles. ‘That’s great, Kaitlynn.’ I smile. In a way, she is probably closer in age and generation to my son, but since he communicates mostly through Morse grunts, I’ve learned nothing about popular culture through him. ‘But …’ I pause. ‘But what?’ She pounces on me as if I’ve said something wrong. ‘I was just about to ask why he’s on a dating website if he’s so good-looking. Surely he has women falling at his feet wherever he goes? Especially if he has a nice personality, which he should have if you’re going to date him.’ Kaitlynn laughs and gives a simple, ‘Oh, Cath.’ ‘What? I’m not so out of touch, you know. Good looks and a nice personality are relationship fundamentals – they don’t go out of fashion.’ ‘Tinder is just a bit of fun, and not many people hang around long enough to find out the personality part.’ She winks and pulls out her phone. ‘Firstly, it’s not a website, it’s an app. Secondly, you can find all the hotties nearby within seconds, and you don’t have to leave your house. Watch.’ She starts flipping through pictures of men, muttering about who is ‘fit’ and who isn’t. It’s a bit like the Argos catalogue of blokes. Suddenly, she gasps. ‘Cath, you should totally try it.’ I couldn’t imagine what my tired old face would look like amidst the beautiful, taut-skinned twenty-year-olds. I’d be some kind of booby prize or worse. A dare. ‘Oh no, no, no. That ship has sailed.’ ‘Of course it hasn’t. You’re never too old for a bit of male company, if you know what I mean.’ I wince because I do, of course, know what she means. ‘What are you spending your bonus on? You got more than me, Miss Employee of the Year! Splash out, lady, you’re loaded,’ she gushes. I feel heat flush my cheeks. Employee of the year is quite a big deal and whilst I’m not struggling to cope with the pay-out, I am with the recognition. ‘We could get you some highlights and a few new tops: one for a selfie, one for a date, and you’d be good to go.’ ‘I’m not interested. I’m more than happy to watch a Noughties romcom with a glass of wine. At least that way, I always get the perfect guy.’ I grin because I’m right and have never been disappointed. ‘Fine. You stick to your old movies but don’t come crying to me when you realise Matthew McConaughey isn’t all that.’ She folds her arms and looks disappointed. ‘What are you planning on doing with your bonus then? Not giving it to that son of yours or helping Gary out even more, are you?’ She spits out the word ‘Gary’ like an unwanted lemon pip. Kaitlynn hates that Gary can’t stand on his own two feet at ‘his age’. She sadly lost her mother to the big ‘C’ a few years ago, which is partly what brought us together since that’s what I lost my mum to and it all happened at a similar time. From what I can gather, they were incredibly close, and the fact Kieran isn’t on the phone to me once a day and round visiting every Sunday really irritates her. I’ve tried explaining it’s a son vs. daughter thing, but she doesn’t buy it. I shake my head. ‘I haven’t decided yet.’ ‘Well, make sure you spend it on yourself,’ she warns. Later on, during a checkout lull, I tell Kaitlynn all about the tragic letters I’d found in the loft. The thought of my great-grandfather saying goodbye to his wife and child for what turned out to be the last time, and my grandma never fulfilling his wishes all weigh heavily on my mind. ‘That is so sad!’ says Kaitlynn when I tell her how my gran never fulfilled my great-grandfather’s dreams and left the country. ‘It’s like a John Green book or something. I actually want to cry.’ ‘I know,’ I say sombrely; though I’ve never read a John Green book, I get what she means. I’m about to offer something philosophical when Kaitlynn gasps again. ‘Why don’t you go to France? You could see where your great-grandad is buried. I watched a TV programme about the centenary and apparently, you can trace your relatives and see exactly where they are commemorated.’ She slips excitedly into her theme and throws her hands up dramatically. ‘You should do the trip your gran should have done. It’s perfect. Your bonus and prize money would cover it and you’d be fulfilling your great-grandfather’s dream. Plus, Kieran and Gary won’t get a penny of your hard-earned cash!’ ‘No. Not a chance am I going travelling to a foreign country alone! It’s a ridiculous idea. That money will come in handy for something much more necessary. A new sofa perhaps.’ She lets out a ‘hmph’ sound. ‘What, so Gary can leave an indent of his bottom on it? Stylish!’ ‘You’re missing the point. I’m not frittering away the money.’ ‘Why not? You never go away, and you have all your holidays left to take from about 1995, so it wouldn’t be a problem I’m sure. You never spend anything on yourself so it will just sit in an account until Gary wears you down and you end up loaning it to him. You won’t see a penny.’ ‘Don’t be silly, I can’t just up—’ I’m interrupted by the electronic gong of the tannoy. ‘Attention. This is a staff announcement. Can Jamie come to checkout four, please? Jamie to checkout four.’ I glance at Kaitlynn in horror but she just winks as she lets go of the button, and a rather fed-up-looking Jamie approaches us. ‘Yes, Kaitlynn?’ he asks impatiently. ‘Jamie.’ She smiles sweetly. ‘As store manager and all-round supermarket don, can you please give Cath some time off for a holiday? She is the employee of the year you know. She deserves a break.’ He looks from Kaitlynn to me and back to Kaitlynn again and shrugs. ‘I don’t see why not. She’s entitled to them.’ He turns to me. ‘You accrue enough of them. Off anywhere nice?’ Heat rushes to my cheeks when I don’t have an answer. ‘Oh, no. I …’ I feel like a numpty and glare at Kaitlynn. ‘Possibly France.’ There’s no way I’m going to France alone, but perhaps some time off wouldn’t hurt. I could finally get the fridge fixed but I can hardly say that to Jamie. ‘How long will you need?’ ‘I, er …’ I have no idea because up until forty seconds ago, time off wasn’t even on my agenda, but I’d feel too foolish to say it’s a mistake. ‘A few days,’ I say, feeling that would be reasonable for a fake trip to France. Now that I can afford one of those twenty-four-hour appliance repairmen it would still leave me a day or so of R&R. ‘Weeks,’ Kaitlynn interrupts, placing a forceful hand on my shoulder. ‘She means weeks, a few weeks.’ ‘Okay. Pop in the office tomorrow and we’ll look at dates.’ By the time I get home, I’ve managed to convince myself it would be fun to try and learn French. Being able to read my great-grandfather’s letters would not only be a real feat, it would feel quite special too. While Kaitlynn had a point about fulfilling my grandmother’s legacy, she still has the frivolous air of youth that leaves most people at some point during their thirties. I, on the other hand, am beyond that. By a pinch. When I get home, the electricity is off. Luckily, I’d topped my card up because I knew it would have been way out of Gary’s remit to go out and do it. He’s asleep on the sofa in the eerie twilight when I enter the lounge. The mail is still sitting on the mat, pots are piled up on the side in the kitchen, and when I check upstairs, I see the bathroom mirror he promised to fix back to the wall is still propped up on the floor. Bubbles of rage start to rise and pop in my chest as I storm back downstairs. I can’t facilitate this festering blob any longer. ‘Gary. Wake up. Gary!’ I prod him, and when he doesn’t move straight away, I wonder if he’s actually started to decompose on the sofa through sitting still for so long. That would be much worse than an indentation of his bottom. ‘What is it, Cath?’ He comes around slowly. ‘The electricity is off.’ I fold my arms and glare at him. ‘I knew you’d be back with a card so it seemed daft to go and top the spare up.’ ‘I bet you were more than happy to use up all the emergency credit watching daytime telly, though. Hmm?’ ‘Cath, I—’ ‘And did you fix the mirror?’ ‘I needed string. I wanted to ring you to pick some up from work but I didn’t have any credit on my phone.’ ‘And what’s your excuse for not washing your own pots? Or picking the mail up off the mat?’ I’m practically yelling at him now. ‘Calm down, Cath, I was going to do all that; I just nodded off. I was down the Jobcentre today and they don’t half wear you down with all their questions.’ ‘Do they? Do they wear you down? You poor, poor thing!’ Gary is sitting up now, looking at me with his eyes unusually wide. I’ve never spoken to him this way before. ‘I’m going for a shower,’ I say before something I’ll regret pops out of my mouth. When I come back down, I hear rustling in the kitchen and a pang of guilt hits me when I realise he must finally be fixing the fridge. Maybe that’s what he needed all along: some tough love. I tiptoe towards the door. I don’t want an awkward conversation about it, nor do I want to disturb him and give him reason to stop so I make a mental decision to just thank him when it’s done by treating him with my windfall money. He used to like golf. Perhaps I could buy him some time at the driving range. I hover in the doorway, watching his shoulders as he’s hunched over something. I wonder if it’s the broken part. I can’t profess to know anything about fridges or their accoutrements, but something about the way he’s holding himself seems odd – protective, like he’s shielding what he’s got in his hands. That’s when I notice he isn’t mending a fridge part at all; he’s got a knife wedged beneath the lid of my money tin, and he’s trying his hardest to unjam it. The sound of it popping off makes me jump, and I gasp. Gary turns around and already in his hand is a twenty-pound note. ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ I ask, shock and anger adding a punch to my tone. ‘Cath, I … er …’ He holds both palms up towards me. ‘It’s just a loan. I was going to put it back, and I saw that three-grand cheque you got from work … you can afford it.’ I don’t know what to say. The fact we came from the same DNA suddenly seems quite unbelievable. It’s as though every ounce of my goodness is mirrored by dishonesty in him. It hurts. ‘You—’ I jab a finger in his direction ‘—need to move out.’ His face pales and I notice his forehead is clammy. ‘Move out? You’re not serious. Cath, I’m sorry, I was going to put it back next week. You can’t kick me out. Where would I go?’ Desperation is etched in his features and his voice drops to a whisper. ‘You wouldn’t see your brother out on the streets, Cath, would you?’ A tremor ruffles the last three words. I walk into the lounge, sit on the sofa and sigh. No, I wouldn’t, and he knows me too well. ‘Gary, you were trying to steal from me.’ He slumps into the armchair. ‘I was desperate. I wouldn’t have done it if you weren’t so flush, and I did ask last night if I could borrow some cash. It was just a loan, I swear.’ ‘It’s the final straw, Gary.’ His eyes drop to the floor. ‘I just can’t trust you now. Not until you sort yourself out.’ ‘If you kick me out now, I’ll end up on the streets.’ He throws his head into his hands. ‘You’ve been here six months now and haven’t made any progress on the job front, and I’ve allowed you to coast along. I’m as much to blame as you are.’ I gesture to his slobby, track-suited self. ‘It’s time for you to get out of this funk and then we can both have our lives back. But right now, I can’t stand to be around you.’ I want to say the words again: Get out. But I can’t do it. I can’t see him on the streets. ‘What you did is going to take me a while to come to terms with, and at this moment in time I just can’t be near you, never mind share a house with you. You’ve betrayed me in the worst possible way.’ He nods sombrely, committed to his fate, and despite my better judgement, I feel sorry for him. ‘I’m going away, and I want you gone when I get back.’ The words leave my mouth before I can think about them, and I’m not exactly sure where I’m going, but the idea of a break of some kind suddenly seems so appealing. ‘Pah. You’re going away? By yourself?’ He sneers as he speaks. I fold my arms defiantly. ‘Yes.’ ‘Where to? An exotic cruise? An Amazon trek? A camel ride across the Gobi Desert? Or is it just a soggy weekend in Brighton?’ His tone is mocking, each word fuelling a new burst of anger inside me. I pause, and without anything better to say or any other ideas I blurt, ‘F … France.’ ‘France?’ He laughs. ‘Seems a bit cultural for you. You can’t even speak French and you dropped it for GCSE. What the hell are you going to do in France?’ I’m in no mood to explain myself, and I can’t bear the thought of listening to him mock me, so instead of answering him, I bore into him with my eyes. ‘It’s none of your business. I want you gone when I get back.’ He glares back until his nerve falters and he starts to back down. He knows I mean it. ‘How long have I got?’ he asks. I think back to Kaitlynn’s interjection. Am I brave enough to go to France alone? ‘Two weeks.’ ‘Two weeks?’ He looks aghast. ‘Better start job-hunting now then.’ I smile tightly. Chapter Four (#ulink_c3179ad7-d818-5b8d-954a-d741ae2f3a42) On board the ferry from Portsmouth, I take a solitary seat at the bar under strict instructions from Kaitlynn to have a glass of fizz to kick-start my holiday. I think ‘calm my nerves’ is more appropriate. I still can’t believe I’m doing this, going to France on my own. Well, bonjour madame indeed. I order a glass of champagne, my newly highlighted chunky lob bouncing around my shoulders as I speak. Some music starts to play and children gather around a small stage as some interestingly dressed entertainer comes out waving his arms around much to their glee. Despite eventually showing Gary the letters, I’d not managed to change Gary’s opinions about me going to France. I’d explained why I was making the trip and how it was the Darlington family destiny, hoping to generate a spark of emotion, but he just didn’t get it. Under different circumstances, it could have been a family pilgrimage of sorts: me, Kieran and Gary tracing the rich history of our ancestor. Instead, he’d just quizzed me about what I was hoping to see or achieve since everyone involved is dead and would be unlikely to care. That stung because our mum would have cared. I don’t know why she never showed me the letters but I do know she would have cared. I wipe the moist corner of my eye with the sleeve of my ill-fitting blazer that I’d got for eight pounds in the sale at H&M because I thought it looked smart. In the end, I booked four weeks off work, because my manager asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking all my annual holiday in one go. It was very unusual to be granted so much leave all at once, but he said it was a quiet time of year and it was better from a staff planning point of view if I did. I think he was worried about union action if word got out that the ‘employee of the year’ didn’t take holidays. It probably sets a bad example. Plus, as Jamie said, I’d never get around to taking the remaining two weeks if I didn’t do it now. He was right, of course, and it gave Gary a decent length of time to pull his finger out. And now here I am, sitting drinking champagne at breakfast time. I giggle and immediately look around self-consciously, but nobody seems to have noticed. I’d briefly studied WWI poetry for my A levels, and I’d left a library copy of Wilfred Owen’s The War Poems for Gary to read, along with instructions for returning the book. He may not have any sympathy for our grandmother and the loss of her father, but he could blooming well educate himself on the horrors of the Great War and learn a little about our great-grandfather’s sacrifice. Suddenly overwhelmed at the thought of losing my treasured letters, I check my tote bag in a panic. It’s there, exactly where I’d left it. I pull it out, handling it like a lottery ticket with all the right numbers on. A sleek leather wallet filled with my fragile pieces of history. I’d sorted the letters chronologically and placed each one in a plastic wallet for safekeeping. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them after the trip but I know I want them with me as I retrace my great-grandfather’s Great War journey. Another Kaitlynn idea – to treat myself. It seemed fitting to have something special to transport them in, and I’d got a pretty good deal, otherwise I wouldn’t have splashed out, but all that excitement is now wavering because the financial implications of four weeks abroad isn’t to be sniffed at. I’d be needing my entire prize money, my annual bonus, and there is a good chance I’ll need to dip into my modest savings too. As if on cue, the waiter slips the bill in front of me, and when I spy the charge I baulk. Surely he’s charged me wrong? I pick up the wine list and double-check the price – something I should have done before I’d ordered ‘a nice glass of champers’, but I got caught in the moment. Sure enough, it is fifteen euros a glass. I leave the cash on the plate, mentally calculating how many tins of corned beef I could’ve bought with that, before I decide to head up to the sundeck. Fighting the wind, I make my way to the railing and take out the first plastic wallet, clutching it tightly. The letters don’t cover his whole story and he never discloses his location so I had to use the internet to research the journey of his regiment and match up the dates. He’d been an early enlistee, one of the so-called ‘Kitchener’s Mob’ and he’d sailed from Southampton to Le Havre in December 1915 after almost thirteen months of training, prolonged partly by a lack of training equipment and uniforms. Most soldiers arriving after him had nowhere near that length of training. The first letter my great-grandfather sent was just after he’d landed in France during the winter of 1915. 12th December 1915 My dearest Elizabeth, It was a choppy trip across the old ‘salt water’ and the paddle steamer was bursting at the seams. I’ve not seen so many sick men before. We’ve travelled a bit by train and foot since. The combination of new boots and woollen socks hasn’t been fantastic but otherwise, I’m getting on all right. There are some pretty villages around and the locals I’ve met have been very hospitable, but we’ve not really been allowed to explore. Give my love to Rose. Forever yours, Will I glance out, over the railing, taking in the formidable grey rolls beyond. The same ‘old salt water’ my great-grandfather crossed on his first trip to France, no doubt feeling a sense of apprehension incomparable to my own. Though you wouldn’t know it from the letter. It’s hard to decipher his tone from so few words but I’m sure I’ve conveyed more terror in the three text messages I’ve sent to Kaitlynn already this morning: This is a bad idea. I should cancel. C x I honestly think I’ll get lost and I can’t speak French! What am I doing? Kaitlynn???? I certainly didn’t have the calm demeanour to use words like ‘choppy’ and ‘salt water’ colloquially. I tuck the letter back into the wallet and look across the waves, allowing my eyes to close whilst I feel the roll of the boat. My mind wonders to the men. Boys? For most of them it would have been their first time on a boat and their first time leaving their parents, never mind their country. If they could go off to France then I should stop being silly and put my big girl pants on. After some time on deck and a leisurely lunch, I can see land from the lounge and cannot fathom how five hours have passed already. My phone shrills to life. We must be close enough to land to catch a signal. Mum, I’m coming home this weekend.K I’d specifically phoned to tell him I was going to France and was met with the usual grunted response. I tap out a quick reply. I won’t be there, but your uncle Gary will be. Mum xxx His reply is instant. What do you mean you won’t be there? I almost chuckle, amused by his shock. It was typical he hadn’t listened when I’d told him about my trip. If you’d paid attention last time I phoned you, you’d know all about it. For the second time, I’m off to France on holiday. For 4 weeks xxx My phone shrills loudly and instead of a message, Kieran is ringing me. My face flames as the other people in the lounge look over at me, clearly displeased with the commotion, but if I don’t have my volume right up I can’t hear it in my bag, so what am I supposed to do? And anyway, who doesn’t love a bit of Beyoncé? I mouth ‘sorry’ and answer the call in a whisper. ‘What do you mean you’re going on holiday?’ Kieran demands before I have the chance to say hello. ‘I mean I’m going to France. I’m going to see where my great-grandfather is buried.’ ‘Is this some kind of midlife crisis?’ he asks. ‘Can’t you just buy a sports car like a normal person?’ I understand his shock, but perhaps he’ll listen to me better in future. Whenever I’d had money to spare in the past, I’d spent it on him instead. New trainers, a PlayStation, you name it. Year on year, I spent every spare penny, ensuring Kieran had the best I could provide so he didn’t stand out at school or feel like he was missing out. It’s understandable that he’s feeling like his nose has been put out of joint. ‘No, Kieran – look, love. I just felt it was time I did something for me. It’s just four weeks, and you’re away at uni anyway. I didn’t expect you’d be home in the first term. Isn’t it all fresher’s balls and one-pound vodka shots?’ ‘I know … I … I just assumed you’d be around to do a bit of washing for me. It’s no big deal.’ It’s silly to say, but I can sense this is his way of showing affection. He misses me, and the fact he does make my chest swell. ‘I didn’t know you were planning on coming home, love.’ My stomach twists with guilt and I wonder if I should head home and postpone my trip for a few days. ‘What are you coming home for anyway?’ I hear some loud jeering in the background. ‘Just a friend’s birthday. Mum, I need to go but … be careful and have a good time, yeah?’ I smile at his words. It’s the closest he’s come to showing any emotion since he stopped wearing Spider-Man pyjamas. ‘I will. I love you, Kie.’ ‘Yeah. Okay, Mum. See you soon,’ he says awkwardly. ‘Bye, love.’ When I hang up the phone, the ship is docking. I go to the window to catch my first glimpse of France, just as I’m sure my great-grandfather would have done. Chapter Five (#ulink_02cf931e-9d6f-542d-bc67-df23e0af6f8c) I arrive in Le Havre warm, sticky and tired but, luckily, my budget hotel is only a short taxi ride away. The taxi driver doesn’t speak a word of English and my French is just about on par with that, so I hop in and thrust my printout from Expedia his way and hope for the best. I glance out of the window, eager to catch my first glimpse of Le Havre but the blocky, grey, modern buildings are something of a disappointment. I’d hoped for rustic and charming not modern and unusual but as my mother used to say, ‘The world doesn’t revolve around you, Cath.’ Besides, I’d read up on the place and knew it had been obliterated in the Second World War so I should hardly be surprised. The lady at the hotel reception speaks to me in French and my cheeks flame as I sheepishly pass her the printout detailing my one-night stay. After dumping my bag, I decide to wander out for some food, and am relieved to spot a McDonald’s restaurant where I order a familiar Big Mac using the touchscreen menus and sit down, placing my receipt on the table so that the order number is clear and nobody should need to ask me a question. The last person I spoke to was the bartender on the ferry and that was hours ago and now I feel as though my voice has shrivelled up and died. That’s probably an over-reaction but I’m used to talking a lot more because of the job I do and it’s surprising how isolated and alone you feel when you’re unable to communicate. I feel like a mute, which would no doubt please Gary if the condition was permanent. As I stroke the condensation beads on the side of my cola cup it dawns on me that, actually, I don’t feel like a mute. I feel ignorant and stupid. I should have tried to learn a little bit of French before I came to France but I didn’t exactly make the decision rationally. I finish my food and go straight back to my room and flop on the bed. Four weeks is a long time to be trapped in this solitary bubble and I don’t think I can do it. My stomach hasn’t stopped churning since I arrived. I don’t know what possessed me to come. Kaitlynn had filled my head with silly ideas and Gary pushed me over the edge. No matter, I’ll put this right and draw a line under it. Tomorrow, I’ll go and get a ferry home. Chapter Six (#ulink_8e4d5251-77e0-514e-a1e9-dd7dcae514e7) After a fitful night’s sleep, I pack my case and head down for the serve-yourself breakfast. Sunlight floods the room from two floor-length windows and in its warmth, I’m put at ease. I should at least see the town today. I help myself to a banana and a yoghurt and sit down to look over the first letter from my great-grandfather once more. Something about being in the place where he wrote it fills me with a sense of warmth and excitement, like I’m connecting with him. When I read it again, I notice there is no sense of fear despite what he came here for. I’m obviously reading between the lines but I get the impression of a jolly old chap tootling off to war, not a scared young man heading towards life-or-death danger. It puts my own discomfort and fear of unfamiliarity to shame and if he could leave his homeland to fight a war for his king and country, I can bloomin’ well spend a bit of time touring the place he died protecting. Can’t I? I wander the streets aimlessly. The kind English-speaking lady in the tourist information place gave me some leaflets and I learnt about the rebuilding of the town after the Second World War and how they used concrete because they didn’t have access to stone or any money to transport it here. The results are quite unique even if I’m not quite getting what I’d hoped for. As I browse the patisseries and boutiques, I wonder what my great-grandfather saw. I’m sure the place was bursting with military activity then, not shoppers and couples strolling by the water. After collecting my wheelie case from the hotel, I make my way to the train station before I have a chance to change my mind about continuing my journey, only this time I walk to take in as much of the city as I can. On the train, I see some of the stunning views I imagine my great-grandfather saw. The green and yellow colours of the vast rapeseed and corn fields. The gentle roll of the terrain with beautiful rustic farmhouses and churches dotted about like decorations. This is more like it. Right! I need to make an effort with the language. I can’t stay silent for weeks. If my great-grandfather could do it, I have to at least try. I fumble in the front pocket of my wheelie case and take out my phrase book. Please. Thank you. What time is it? Where is the nearest payphone? The trouble with these phrases is that even if by some godly miracle I managed to pronounce them correctly, I wouldn’t understand the reply. I skip ahead to the ‘Ordering food and drink’ section and practise ordering some simple items aloud, which earns me the odd sideways glance from other passengers, so I end up stuffing the book away and staring out of the window. When I arrive at Paris, I have an hour to kill before my train to Arras. It’s a town I chose by looking at the map for somewhere quite central to the places I want to visit, and which was large enough to have a train station. The reality is, I don’t know what to expect. Sitting down in a small café I run over the phrase in my head – Un cappuccino, s’il vous plaît – but when the waiter comes over, he speaks so quickly that I don’t have a clue if he wants to take my order or wants me to move, leave, pay, or is complimenting me on my bargain blazer. Okay, that last one was a stretch. I freeze. Scrambling for the words, I manage to spurt out the sentence I’d been so sure of just seconds before, but it’s barely audible, even to me and doesn’t sound anything close to how it had in my head. ‘One cappuccino coming up,’ he says in perfect English before walking off. It is safe to say I won’t be masquerading as a French person any time soon – I feel such a fool. I’ve planned a few nights in Paris at the end of my trip before I take the Eurostar home and hope that by the time I come back, I’ll be better equipped to at least order a drink. The train ride to Arras is okay, mostly because I don’t have to speak to anyone other than the ticket inspector and I do understand the word ‘billet’, mostly because the ticket inspector repeats it several times whilst jabbing a finger at the ticket I’ve left out on the table. Thankfully, finding my hotel on arrival is a simple task since it’s right opposite the station. I stand outside and take a breath. It’s only four weeks; it will fly by. A horn honks as I step off the kerb and I jump back. I can do this. I definitely can. Chapter Seven (#ulink_320ee1a3-8a10-5fdb-9148-bed378f70ef3) I walk past a red coach towards the revolving doors of the hotel, nervously running the phrase I need through my head: J’ai une réservation pour Darlington. If I’m going to be in France for four weeks, then I’ll have to at least make an effort with the language even if I’m ruling out practising aloud on trains. Reservashon or reservacion? I run over it again as I step into the narrow cylinder, only remembering my wheelie case trailing behind me when it wedges in the doorway, jamming the entire mechanism. I yank the handle but it’s stuck fast, and within seconds a small handful of people have accumulated, waiting to get in. I yank again. Nothing. ‘Pardon,’ I say to nobody in particular. I glance at the reception, but the man at the counter has his head down, seemingly unaware of my predicament. I bang the glass with the heel of my hand but he’s oblivious. Becoming frantic, I search for a stop button or an alarm or something but there is nothing. Surely this happens all the time? A man from outside starts to try and prise the door open. He’s dressed in a red T-shirt that looks like a uniform of some sort, and I wonder if he’s here to fix the doors – surely they shouldn’t trap people like this. There was probably an ‘out of order’ sign somewhere. I tug the handle of my case while he heaves the two sides open with strong arms. Eventually, it springs free, throwing me back against the glass. That’s when my eyes meet his, deep and blue. The moment I catch them, I look away, but not before I notice his striking resemblance to David the weatherman. A fresh, citrussy smell hits me when I stumble out and my cheeks flame. ‘Thank you. Merci,’ I say hurriedly, before adding a half-bow for good measure. An action that I’ll dwell on later when I replay the whole embarrassing ordeal in my head. I scuttle towards reception without awaiting a reply. ‘No problem,’ the man shouts after me in perfect English. His deep voice has just a hint of a French accent. ‘Good afternoon and welcome.’ The cheerful man on reception greets me with a smile, instantly putting me at ease. I draw a breath to reboot my system. ‘Good afternoon. You speak English?’ I smile, relieved. My rehearsed French has vacated my brain; likely it ran away with embarrassment. ‘I have a room booked under “Darlington”.’ He clicks away at the keyboard. ‘I have it right here. It’s ten nights with breakfast?’ I hadn’t booked more than that because of the expense, and I wasn’t sure if I’d want to stay somewhere else and see a new place once I’d completed my great-grandfather’s journey, though I’d no idea where. My plan is to use the Airbnb app that Kaitlynn told me about to find something cheap, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I nod, and he hands me a key before he passes on some information about breakfast times and how to find my room. I’m about to head to the lift when I hear some American accents coming from the small bar area. There are two older couples drinking beer and, strangely comforted by their familiar language, I drag my case to the bar where they’re sitting, just to listen for a while. ‘Une petite bière—’ deep breath ‘—s’il vous plaît,’ I say slowly but confidently as I perch on a stool at the bar. The barman, whose name is Kevin according to his badge, looks up at me and smiles. ‘A small beer coming up.’ ‘Thanks,’ I reply, once again deflated by the fact my French was so painful he couldn’t bear to humour me. Still, I’m only half a day into learning French. I can only get better, right? ‘You’re English, huh?’ One of the older American ladies turns to me with a broad beaming smile. She’s tall and slim with a sleek silver bob and is wearing a green matching pants suit. ‘Yes, English,’ I give a half-wave, ‘Just over on holiday to visit the war memorials and museums.’ ‘Us too. We’re fascinated by the history of it all. My husband, Harry, over there, was a vet.’ She points to a crinkly, affable-looking man in a navy baseball cap. ‘Not in the First World War, though, obviously. I mean, I know he’s old but …’ She winks, and I warm to her recognisable Southern-belle charm straight away. ‘He had a British uncle killed in the First World War and he’s wanted to take this trip for so long.’ ‘Me too. My great-grandfather was killed in the war. In Belgium actually, but he was posted in France too. He was close to Arras when he fought in the Battle of the Somme. I’m here retracing his footsteps. Sort of.’ She gives a sympathetic smile. ‘So, are you here with your family?’ ‘Oh no, it’s just me. My son is away at university and my brother wasn’t really interested in coming with me,’ I say, not entirely untruthfully. ‘No husband?’ she asks, with unmasked surprise. ‘I don’t have a partner.’ Kevin places my beer in front of me and I take a big glug of it. ‘Oh, well that’s too bad, a pretty girl like you. Harry and I are fifty years in, and he drives me mad some days, but he’s my Harry and I wouldn’t have him any other way.’ Her eyes twinkle with affection as she gazes over at him and I mumble a ‘congratulations’ that I’m not sure she hears. ‘I’m Martha, by the way.’ She holds out a papery-skinned hand to shake and her pale blue eyes rest on mine. ‘Cath,’ I reply, taking her hand. Martha proceeds to introduce me to the other couple, Roland and Cynthia, who say a cheerful ‘Hi, Cath’. Cynthia’s voice is hoarse like a smoker’s and sounds almost as though someone is stood behind her cranking it out. I give a shy wave. Roland is in a sports jacket and chinos and he has a maroon baseball cap on. Cynthia is a little shorter than Martha with a fuller frame. Her hair is chin-length, snow-white and wavy. ‘If you’re alone, you should come and get dinner with us – we’d love for you to join us. We’ve found a pub in the square that sells decent hamburgers so we’re heading there soon.’ Eating alone was something that had always daunted me a little and some company would be nice. They seem like a friendly bunch and the familiarity of burgers is welcome, so I say ‘yes’. We agree to meet in the lobby half an hour later, which gives me time to dump my bags and freshen up with a quick shower. When I return to the bar, the four of them are already waiting for me. A man is stood talking to them. As I near the group, my chest thumps with recognition. The man who freed me from the revolving doors is stood drinking a glass of water and he has them all engrossed in whatever he’s saying. As he catches sight of me he grins and takes a bow with an elaborate hand-twirling gesture in reference to my earlier faux pas. Heat immediately floods my cheeks. Unfortunately, Martha spots me before I have the chance to dart back into the lift or hide behind a pillar or do some kind of tribal dance in the hope the ground might open up and swallow me whole. ‘Cath, this is Olivier. He’s our tour guide and we’ve badgered him to join us for dinner.’ ‘Pleased to meet you. Again,’ he says, his gravelly voice beautifully iced with that rich French accent. I glance at him, looking away at the exact same moment our eyes connect. My cheeks are still on fire. Realising I’m being rude, I mumble a quick hello and thank him again for freeing me earlier before turning back to Martha to make polite conversation about hamburgers. ‘Ahh, about those. I was just telling Olivier how I’m a bit of a connoisseur of French cuisine. Ever since Julia Child released Mastering the Art of French Cooking back in the Sixties I’ve dabbled in French cuisine and I’ve gotten pretty good even if I do say so myself. Olivier said there is a place near here I’d love. You don’t mind, do you Cath?’ ‘Not at all.’ My mouth is dry and the words feel thick and chewy. A burger had sounded safe, both to the palate and to the purse, whereas fine French dining doesn’t sound safe or affordable at all. It sounds terrifying. Excuses not to go whirl through my brain and whilst I surprise myself with my creativity at such short notice (I’m someone’s ‘phone a friend’ on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? reboot; I’ve discovered I’m highly allergic to the French air and must stay inside indefinitely; I’m OCD and have to eat a burger on a Sunday; eating French food in France seems so cliché) I don’t actually get any words out in time. ‘So, it seems you two have already met?’ she says, looking from me to Olivier. Olivier nods. ‘I bumped into Cath as she was checking in,’ he says, with his eyes fixed on mine. He’s being polite by not telling the story, and I appreciate that but decide to come clean anyway because laughing at myself has gotten me through some of life’s toughest challenges. ‘Actually, I got my bag stuck in the revolving door and Olivier here kindly freed me.’ ‘Ahh, so you were her knight in shining armour,’ Cynthia says, and I wince a little with discomfort. ‘It happens all the time,’ Olivier says, playing it down and I’m thankful. ‘Well, I do like a girl who can make an entrance,’ Martha says with a glint in her eye. We’re all chatting about food as we come to a stop before the road outside the hotel, and, instinctively, I glance right and put a foot forward. Something firm comes out of nowhere and pelts me in the stomach. I look down, surprised to see Olivier’s tanned arm stretched out in front of me. The contact causes me an unfamiliar flutter in my lower abdomen. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘It’s a force of habit. I’m so used to getting British people on my tours who forget to look left.’ The tips of my ears burn and I’m not sure if it’s in response to the fact I can’t manage to cross the road or the fact I had unusual feelings for a stranger’s arm. We walk for about ten minutes before entering the huge square, the Place des Héros, which is much bigger than I’d expected it would be and much more impressive with its Flemish-Spanish baroque-style buildings. The restaurant is a similar bistro style to the others in the square and given the fair weather, we decide to sit outside. ‘You sit there, honey.’ Martha directs me to the seat next to her, which is opposite Olivier. Obviously, I don’t know her very well, or at all actually, but I suspect she’s done it on purpose even if it is just because Olivier and I are similar in age. I take the menu from the waiter and study it to look busy. There’s a drought in my mouth once more as I scan the unfathomable offerings. There are a few recognisable words such as ‘fromage’ and ‘poulet’ to the more obvious ‘crabe’ and ‘porc’ but I’ve no idea what they come with. Whilst I’m not a fussy eater as such, something awful like tarragon sneaking into one of the sauces could come as a nasty surprise. My hands are clammy on the menu and I glance up for some respite only to rest my eyes on Olivier who isn’t looking and I get that strangely pleasurable flicker in my lower stomach again. He has messy light brown hair that is sort of styled in a floppy ‘Hugh Grant’ style circa 2003 (after the curtains but before the grey). It’s in great condition too, and the light from underneath the parasol glints off it like it does off the hair in those shampoo adverts. I try to refocus on the menu. It’s definitely unusual, but what is also unusual is the depth of blue to Olivier’s eyes. They’re hypnotic. I don’t think even David the weatherman could lose the entire British navy fleet in his oceanic eyes. I become vaguely prickly, aware of someone watching me, so I glance up from the menu. Sure enough, Olivier is looking at me. So are Martha and the others and then I notice a presence looming to my left: the waiter, who is looking at me expectantly in his smart black and white attire protected by a chequered apron. Suddenly, the thought of messing up my order or ordering something weird (‘oh, Cath, that’s a palate cleanser’) panics me but I’m out of time. ‘Oh, pardon, I’m sorry.’ My voice croaks. I skim the entrees one last time. ‘The porc please.’ I daren’t even try to pronounce the full title ‘Filet de porc sauce Normande’ even though it seems fairly simple. I can’t help but wonder what Normande sauce is. Is it garnished with fibres from the Bayeux tapestry? Seasoned with the ground bones of William the Conqueror perhaps? That would certainly explain the price. The others have gone for the filet mignon but at thirty-three euros a pop, I decide to give that a miss since I could buy two evening meals in a more low-key place for that. I don’t even feel that hungry since a thousand butterflies have taken up residence in my stomach, filling the cavity entirely. Taking a deep breath to try and neutralise them, I turn to Olivier, who looks relaxed, sitting back in his chair easily, resting his head on one hand. The underside of his forearm is turned outward and I can see the veins in his wrist like a map of his body leading back to his heart. In an attempt to look relaxed too, I mimic his position but something about having my arm exposed like that makes me feel naked so I turn it inward and eventually place in my lap. I must look noticeably odd, as Olivier asks if I’m okay. I nod but I’m uncomfortable, and I don’t really know why because I was fine earlier. Olivier’s presence has changed the dynamic somehow. Martha and the others have entered into conversation about something they’re all ‘in on’ from back home, and since I’m sitting on the end, I don’t even attempt to join in because I’m worried that if I say something and they don’t hear me, I’ll look foolish. Olivier doesn’t seem to suffer the affliction of inner turmoil as he looks around, soaking up the vibrant atmosphere of the square. I once again attempt to follow suit, glancing around, trying to appear nonchalant and comfortable, but I can’t shake the feeling of Olivier’s presence. My senses are heightened and I’m on edge, like I’ve entered an electric field or a flagship Primark store in the mid-afternoon. ‘Cath?’ Martha’s questioning tone brings me around, but I can’t tell whether or not she’s asked a question because sometimes Americans add that questioning infliction to anything they say, don’t they? ‘Sorry, I was miles away.’ I smile. Trying to appear normal exhausts me, and a part of me starts wishing I was back home in Berrybridge where I am normal and so is everything around me. ‘We were talking about our tour tomorrow, dear. The coach is going to Thiepval and Albert and we wondered if you wanted to tag along. If that’s okay with you?’ She looks pointedly at Olivier. ‘Of course,’ he says to Martha before looking me directly in the eyes. ‘There’s space on the coach so I don’t see why not.’ A tingle spreads across my back. Although Thiepval isn’t part of my great-grandfather’s documented journey, it’s in the heart of the Somme Valley and I’d perhaps see some of what he’d seen. I want to go but I haven’t looked into the costs yet. Having to fork out for this expensive dinner and a coach trip wasn’t budgeted for. My money is vanishing quicker than the frozen turkeys do at Christmas. ‘How much is the trip?’ I can’t look anyone in the eyes as I ask as casually as I can but inside my stomach is rolling with waves of embarrassment. Olivier bats the air with his hands. ‘Nothing. Like Martha said, there are spare seats and we’re going anyway.’ ‘Thank you but I’m more than happy to pay the going rate.’ I hope nobody else notices the subtle rise in the pitch of my voice. ‘Please, be our guest,’ he says in a way that feels final and a warmth fills my chest. ‘So how long have you been a tour guide?’ I ask, feeling braver. ‘I’ve done this for almost twenty years now. I wanted to utilise my English and most of the people who use our tours are either British or American. Plus, I love history and travel and since the company is Europe-wide, I get to see more than just northern France.’ He takes a sip of his beer. ‘I’ve always loved history too, and seeing different places has to be a bonus.’ His features lift a little. ‘Definitely.’ He nods. ‘So do you travel much?’ I shake my head. ‘Hardly ever. I wasn’t brought up in a family of ambitious travelling types and we never really had much money. My mother was a single parent and just a regular hard-working, working-class person who enjoyed relaxing at home on her days off. She took me and my brother on minibreaks to Wales and for days out and was great in the sense that she could create adventures for us without even leaving the house.’ I smile. ‘One time, she turned the lounge into Loch Ness. She covered the floor with blue flannel sheets from my brother’s bed, and our big brown sofa was a sailing boat. She used a snake puppet as the Loch Ness Monster.’ I stop talking, remembering how my mother used to make us close our eyes and imagine the gentle swaying of the boat. I can still feel it now if I really concentrate and it wasn’t too dissimilar to the ferry crossing to Le Havre considering there wasn’t any water or a boat in sight. ‘Sorry, you probably have no idea about what I’m blabbering on about.’ He looks bemused by my expression but smiles warmly. ‘Everyone knows of the Loch Ness monster. Not too many have seen him though, hey?’ His eyes glint mischievously before a more sympathetic smile forms on his lips. ‘Your mother sounds like a wonderful woman.’ ‘She was.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ He holds his eyes on mine for a moment too long, and I fight the urge to move my hair off my face. I’d read in some ‘women’s’ magazine in the staffroom at work, that doing that can be seen as a sign you’re attracted to someone, and I certainly don’t want to give off those types of signals, thank you very much. ‘Were you just talking about Loch Ness?’ Cynthia’s gravelly voice cuts through the tension that I’m ninety-five per cent sure I’m imagining. ‘We were. Have you ever been?’ I rest my chin on my hand and look at her, glad to have someone else to focus on. ‘Yes, Roland and I went about twenty years ago. It’s such a beautiful place, isn’t it?’ ‘I wouldn’t know, I’ve not actually been. My brother and I used to pretend our living room floor was Loch Ness.’ I don’t feel like sharing the story again; it seems strangely intimate all of a sudden. ‘Well, you must go. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and you live so near.’ ‘I’m sure I will,’ I say politely, though our opinions of what constitutes ‘near’ seem to differ somewhat. The food arrives and the conversation mostly centres around travel. Since I’ve very little to contribute, I listen with genuine interest and make a mental note to travel more whilst I push the food around my plate. Now Kieran is grown up, I should travel more. It makes sense to see the world. My annual bonuses will cover the cost of a trip once a year and even though I’ve only just arrived in Arras, I feel like I’m doing okay if you discount the door fiasco and the fancy menu. Travelling alone doesn’t seem so bad. ‘Are you going to eat that?’ Olivier asks. The sauce is a pale green colour and it smells sort of fruity with a tinge of alcohol but there’s no indication of delicate embroidery fragments or the DNA of an ancient monarch so I take a forkful and raise it to my lips with trepidation. ‘Yes.’ He leans across the table and whispers, ‘It’s an apple and brandy sauce.’ I give a small smile in response but feel ridiculous inside even though there was nothing mocking in the way he said it and I don’t think he was trying to embarrass me. I take a bite and it’s a delicious explosion of flavour with the apple complementing the pork and the brandy flavour cutting through perfectly. Mum had always thought fruit and meat to be an odd combination, so much so she’d laugh at the cranberry sauce display at Christmas and shake her head with utterings of ‘bonkers, fruit is for pudding!’ As a result, I’d never thought to combine fruit and meat but this works so well. I stuff the next forkful in and it seals the deal. Cranberry sauce next Christmas it is! Back at the hotel, I bid the others goodnight and head up to my room where I fall asleep, wrapped in the warmth of the evening, the aromas and flavours of France, and, strangely, thoughts of Olivier. There’s something about him that’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in anyone before. Chapter Eight (#ulink_3f4d2aed-318f-5fae-b436-bf3298f1bd3c) ‘Good morning!’ my new travel buddies call as I walk in to breakfast the next day. ‘Did you sleep well?’ Martha asks. She’s dressed smartly in pink capri pants and a matching blazer with a white T-shirt underneath. ‘Good morning,’ I reply. ‘Yes, very well in fact.’ I think the travelling had worn me out because once I dropped off, I had the deepest sleep I’ve had in ages. ‘Did you sleep in?’ Cynthia asks. I nod, unable to confess the real reason I was late. Ridiculously, I couldn’t decide what to wear. I’d eventually settled on a thin white T-shirt and denim shorts and left the room before I could change my mind. I head to the buffet and take a tray, piling it up with coffee, orange juice, a croissant, jam, yoghurt and some fruit. ‘I’d never normally eat this much at home.’ I chuckle as I sit down at the next table. ‘You’ll need your strength. Lots of walking today, girl,’ Harry bellows, punctuating each word with his spoon. ‘Oh, Harry, I’m sure Cath can manage a bit of walking, can’t you, Cath?’ ‘I—’ ‘Olivier has us doing a lot of walking,’ Roland interrupts before I can reply. ‘I think he does it on purpose to tire us out so we nod off on the coach home and don’t bombard him with questions.’ Cynthia pats his arm. ‘Oh, Rolly, you’re such a conspiracy theorist. He’s just making sure we don’t miss anything.’ ‘Anyway …’ Martha holds her hands up. ‘Before this gets all domestic, let us summarise and move on. Lots of walking. Hard for us old folks, okay for Cath. No conspiracy. Got it?’ She places her hands down firmly on the table and leans over to me. ‘If we don’t nip these things in the bud early on, those two will be at each other’s throats before we set foot on that coach.’ I stifle a giggle. ‘Good morning, my cheerful travellers,’ an accented voice booms above us. Turning, I see Olivier stood behind me. He’s in a crisp red T-shirt and navy chino shorts, and smells of that familiar, deliciously fresh scent, like a bottle of Original Source shower gel. Crisp, citrussy and minty. His messy hair has been arranged in some semblance of style with a dry product of some kind. Not that awful gunky stuff Kieran uses. I swallow as everyone else choruses ‘Good morning’. ‘We’ll be leaving in ten minutes. Please make sure you have everything you need. Your money, cameras, teeth and so on. I will be at the coach out front.’ I giggle as he turns and goes off to a few of the other tables. I doubt many people could get away with that kind of cheek with Martha, but she giggles too. Everyone excuses themselves to go and gather items, take medication, or pay a visit, and I arrange to meet them at the coach. After finishing my oversized breakfast, I make my way outside. I’m the first to arrive so lean against the wall at the entrance and rummage in my bag for no other reason than to look busy, but I do benefit from the reassurance that everything I need is in there. ‘You can get on board if you want.’ Olivier walks from around the far side of the coach as a few other people start to trickle out of the hotel. ‘Yes, thank you. I will.’ I follow behind as the small group climb the steps and make their way down the aisle. About halfway down, I take a seat and shuffle up to the window enjoying the quiet for a moment. ‘They’re a nice bunch – your new American friends.’ Surprised, I turn to see Olivier perch himself on the armrest of the chair across the aisle. ‘Oh, yes. Yes, they are. Considering I’ve only just met them, it’s so kind of them to invite me today. And you, thank you for letting me come along – I haven’t got my head around travelling alone and getting from A to B in a strange country yet. Not that France is strange, it’s normal just with the cars on the wrong side of the road and …’ My cheeks prickle. ‘It’s no problem,’ he says easily. His calmness is the perfect cure for my flustered babble and I start to relax. ‘Why are you here? In Arras alone, I mean.’ I give him the shortened version of my story – that I’ve come to see my great-grandfather’s name inscribed on the Menin Gate – and I try not to sound like Sad Sack from the Raggy Dolls when I explain why I’ve had to come alone. ‘Ahh that’s a shame. We’ve already been to Ypres on this tour, in fact we’re almost done with the war trips for now.’ I’m relieved his attention is focused on the trip, and not the alone part. ‘It’s okay. Without wanting to sound ungrateful, I think it’s somewhere I should probably visit by myself.’ He nods knowingly as more people start filing onto the bus. Our first stop is the museum at Albert. While Cynthia and Martha natter the whole way around about what they might buy from the gift shop, Roland and Harry are as engrossed in the fascinating exhibits as I am as we follow the journey of a real soldier from a card we were handed at the reception. The gas masks, the weaponry, the life and fears of everyday people are all completely unimaginable. The tour ends with a sound and light display, giving me a taste of what life might have been like during the night-time shelling that decimated the trenches on the front line. With each ear-splitting explosive bang, I flinch. It’s hard to imagine how my great-grandfather and millions of other men lived this way, not knowing if the next one would hit him or a fellow comrade. I close my eyes. I’m sheltering as the bombs drop and the guns fire whilst praying for survival. I become aware of my heart racing. ‘Are you all right Cath?’ Harry puts his hand on my shoulder and I nod. ‘I’ll catch you up,’ I say as they make their way outside. I rub my thumb across the card I’d been given at reception. I bet being out there was quite lonely really. Despite the camaraderie and brotherhood within the regiments, these men were expecting to die and death itself is the most solitary event in a person’s life because once your eyes close and you start to fade away, it’s just you versus the unknown. Complete loneliness. I imagine the smell of death, the sight of it, and the fear of it would be lonely too, because the feelings are so visceral, how could they be put into words? Something that deep is more a state of being and that’s a loneliness like no other. It’s not just having nobody to chat over breakfast with. It puts my first day in Le Havre into perspective, that’s for sure. The exit takes me out into a garden, the equanimity of which contrasts starkly with the underground depiction of hell I’ve just emerged from. In a way, it’s symbolic really because tranquillity and peace were built upon the sacrifices and horror of war shown below. Yin and Yang. I stop to sit on a wall and admire a statue in the garden. ‘It’s a cliché but life really is short,’ Martha says, sitting down next to me. ‘I know. Deep down, that’s probably one of the reasons I took this trip,’ I say honestly. It hadn’t escaped me that my life had become stuck in a bit of a rut for the last ten years or so and the fact it took Gary of all people to push me to do something different is quite sad really. ‘I don’t have much advice to offer the younger folk these days, but all that seize the day stuff is spot on. Life really does pass you by if you’re not careful. Anyway, I’m a bumbling old fool and I need to go pee.’ She uses my shoulder for support as she eases her way back up to her feet and then she’s off again, leaving just her words and the scent of lavender lingering behind. We have an hour to explore the town. While the others disappear off to the café, gift shop, or to walk around the town, I just sit for a moment, looking out over the river. I take out the second letter I have from my great-grandfather. 17th December 1915 My dearest Elizabeth, We’ve reached the camp safely. It’s enormous! We could see it as soon as we stepped off the train as it covers the whole hillside. We’ve been shown kit and read the regulations. On the walk over to the training ground yesterday I saw the sand and sea, though it’s freezing. I’m developing a taste for bully beef stew. All my love to you and Rose. Will I wasn’t able to find out where the training camp was with such little to go off and that saddens me somewhat. Putting the letter away, I notice my phone screen is lit up. There’s a message from Gary. Read some of those poems. Bit sombre eh? The leccy metre has run out. Do you have any money on your card? ‘Grrr.’ I grit my teeth. Can’t he put some money on it for a change? I’d emptied the tin in the kitchen so he can’t raid that, but I do contemplate telling him about my secret emergency stash of pound coins under my bed. I think better of it. No, sorry. You’ll have to dip into your beer money x I smirk a little bit as I hit send. There’s a first time for everything. Another message pops in from Kaitlynn. I must have just picked up a signal or something. How is it? Are you okay? Is the hotel nice? Did you find your GG’s grave yet? Work is hell – can we move to France? I’d rather eat frogs’ legs than work here xxxxx Always the drama queen. Martha and Harry are sitting on a bench outside the front of the museum, eating chocolate éclairs. The heat from the sun burns through my T-shirt, which feels odd because I hadn’t expected it to be quite so warm in France. ‘Those look good,’ I say when I’m close enough. ‘Mmm.’ Martha nods while licking her lips. ‘I can definitely recommend them.’ ‘Go and get one – the patisserie is right there,’ Harry says, pointing to a shop with a big blue canopy on the corner. ‘Hmm, well, if you insist,’ I say playfully. I return a short while later with my own in a paper bag. ‘Here, saved you a seat,’ Harry says, patting the bench beside him as I approach. I sit down, unable to speak because I’ve just taken a delicious bite. ‘Now I’m the envy of the town, what with two beautiful ladies by my side.’ He chuckles while Martha just shakes her head. ‘You old fool,’ she says, and then smiles at him. I can’t help but notice her eyes sparkle a little as they lock on his, and my tummy knots a bit, taking me by surprise. I don’t suppose I’ve ever witnessed real-life love like this before. I’ve been alone a long time, and it doesn’t bother me at all, but since Kieran left and Gary moved in, I suppose I’ve subconsciously wondered if this is all life has in store for me. Working to make ends meet and coming home to start all over again for someone who doesn’t really appreciate me. I suppose, soon, it will be just me and I’m not sure if that will be better or worse. I notice Martha leaning forward so that she can see me around Harry, and I hope I haven’t zoned out again, missing what she had to say. I relax when I notice her mouth is full of the last piece of her éclair. ‘You and Olivier seemed to hit it off quite well last night,’ she says after she swallows. ‘He seems like a very nice man,’ I reply diplomatically. ‘Oh, he is.’ Her face illuminates. ‘He has been so good to us on this trip. I’m going to miss him.’ She allows her soft features to drop. ‘Hey, do I need to have words with that young man?’ Harry interrupts in a mock-stern tone. ‘Oh, be quiet, you old fool,’ she replies, brushing him off, before turning her attention back to me. ‘I saw you chatting on the coach earlier.’ ‘Yes,’ I reply, unsure as to why this is becoming a ‘thing’. ‘He hasn’t really done that with anyone else. Usually, he hangs around by the door to answer questions and when everyone is on board, he gets on and sits at the front.’ ‘Oh Martha, come on, she’s the only woman on the coach who doesn’t need a Zimmer frame, incontinence pads and Super Poligrip! Of course they have something in common.’ ‘Speak for yourself! I need none of those things.’ Martha hits Harry’s arm playfully, causing him to chuckle. ‘She doesn’t realise she’s an octogenarian,’ he leans over to whisper to me. ‘My hearing is fine too,’ she says. ‘Harry is right,’ I say, before the senior citizen banter escalates to World War Three proportions. ‘Olivier and I are just similar in age and there’s nothing to suggest he’s single anyway.’ I curse myself for getting drawn into the debacle. ‘Well, he must be, the hours he works … I guess I’m just an old romantic. When I see two wonderful people alone I just want them to be happy together.’ ‘It’s not really how real life goes,’ I say softly, hoping not to offend her. ‘You’re here a while. There’s still time.’ Her eyes twinkle again, and I start to feel uncomfortable. Not least because she’s way off the mark and Olivier would probably be horrified if he knew. ‘Martha,’ Harry says, placing a gentle hand on her knee, ‘did you come here to matchmake, or did you come here to sightsee and learn about the Great War?’ She frowned. ‘Trick question. You forgot to say: raid the gift shops.’ ‘Well, that goes without saying.’ Harry shrugs. ‘Do you want to come and look around the shops with us? The others went to get a late lunch and I’m not sure they’ll be finished yet.’ I smile. ‘No, I want to just sit for a while. It’s been a lot to take in but thank you. You go ahead. I’ll catch up with you later.’ They were kind to offer and I know they genuinely don’t mind me tagging along, but to them, this is a once in a lifetime trip, and having me hanging around wasn’t a part of their original itinerary. Once they’ve gone, I lift my face to the sky, allowing the warmth of the sun to heat my skin, freeing all the happy endorphins. When I lower my head and open my eyes, Olivier is standing in front of me. My heart bangs in my chest. ‘Oh, hi,’ I say, hoping I hadn’t just looked like a complete idiot. ‘Sorry to disturb you. I’m just checking to make sure everyone is okay and seeing if you wanted any advice about the town or anything?’ He shuffles on his feet a little, and for the first time since meeting him, he looks a little vulnerable. ‘Thank you, that’s really kind, but I’m okay. I’ve treated myself to this delicious éclair—’ I gesture to the last partially melted bite that I’m clutching with my pincers ‘—and was just going to get a coffee and look around the shops. I’m easily pleased.’ Easily pleased?Cringe. Does that sound like I’m insinuating something? I’m definitely not. ‘Would you like some company?’ he asks. Perhaps I’m imagining it because of Martha filling my head with nonsense, but I think there’s a look of hopefulness on his face. ‘Yes, if you like,’ I say, trying to hold back my apprehension. It’s one thing chatting on the coach, but to go for an actual coffee seems a bit nerve-racking. I try not to panic thinking about it. ‘Great, I know a wonderful café just across the road.’ He points to a place with outdoor seating beneath a black and cream canopy that’s only about one hundred and fifty metres away. ‘Perfect.’ I stand up and we walk silently towards the place. My stomach starts to feel all twisty and I regret saying yes, wishing instead that I’d come up with an excuse and not mentioned the coffee. Shopping, I could have said shopping – men hate shopping! my brain screams, remembering how Kieran used to go pale and clammy at the very thought of it. When we arrive at the café, we spot a table outside, and as we approach it, he pulls out a chair but doesn’t sit down. ‘For madame,’ he says, making my chest feel all light and tingly at the unfamiliar gentlemanliness. I thank him and sit down, instinctively picking up the menu to avoid having to find something to say. ‘They do wonderful scallop and prawn skewers here.’ he says. ‘Oh, I’m not hungry. That was the biggest éclair I’ve ever seen and I ate it all. I’m sure it was meant for two people.’ I let out a small laugh and put the menu back into the holder. He laughs. ‘No way! They’re standard one-person sized éclairs. The ones I make are twice the size.’ ‘You can make éclairs?’ ‘I prefer to make savoury dishes like casseroles but yes, I can make éclairs.’ Olivier beckons the waiter over and orders coffees for us both. Blimey. ‘So, you can cook then?’ I ask, failing to hide the surprise in my tone but in fairness, Gary is my only real male comparison and I think he’d starve to death if he had to so much as open a tin of beans himself. ‘I wash the dishes too.’ He grins playfully. ‘I learned quite young,’ he says, glancing down at the table. When he doesn’t say any more I get the feeling there’s more to the story but I don’t ask. We sit in silence for a few moments. ‘The Basilica is a beautiful building,’ I say, struggling for conversation. At work we’re trained to ask the customers pre-set questions at the checkout to make them feel welcome and to avoid awkward silences but I think asking Olivier if he wants a five-pence carrier bag may strike him as a little odd. ‘It is.’ He perks back up. ‘It was hit by a German shell in 1915. See that golden virgin statue at the top?’ He points but he needn’t have. It’s huge. ‘It bent to a near horizontal position after the shelling. Legend has it, the Germans believed that the side to cause the golden virgin to finally tumble, would be the side to lose the war.’ ‘Really? Did it tumble?’ I ask, intrigued by the story. ‘Yes, however, it was bombed purposely by the British in 1918 to stop the Germans using it as a lookout tower after they occupied the town. Needless to say, the Germans’ belief was proven wrong.’ ‘That’s an interesting story,’ I say, finding myself wanting to absorb as much knowledge of the time as I can to build a picture of what life was like. ‘It’s hard to imagine it as a pile of rubble now,’ I add as the waiter sets two coffees down in front of us. Once the waiter has gone, I ask Olivier how he knows so much about history. ‘I was a bit of a history nerd at school.’ He grins. ‘A geek, I think they say?’ He’s still grinning as he speaks so it can’t bother him that much. ‘I didn’t care, though. There’s a rich history in the region where I’m from and it’s interesting to me. How about you? You’re here – were you the same?’ ‘What, a geek?’ I say with a dramatic hand on my chest. He studies me and the hair follicles on the back of my neck tingle. ‘Somehow, I can’t see it.’ I glance away self-consciously and think back to my comprehensive education in a failing school on the outskirts of London. Somehow, I can’t make it fit with the perfect image I have of him, reading history books studiously on an evening whereas I was probably chatting on the phone with my friend about which boys we fancied, whilst my mum yelled at me to revise. ‘History is something I’ve become more interested in recently,’ I say instead, before filling him in on the letters that I’d found. He nods animatedly as I explain all about them. ‘That’s fantastic. To have a piece of history that you get to keep for yourself. I’d love to read them … if they’re not too personal, of course.’ His interest is welcome and warm in contrast to Gary’s indifference. ‘No, they’re not personal, not anymore at least. I’d love you to look at them. It seems my great-grandfather was trying to learn French when he was stationed here and three of the letters are written in French.’ I bite my bottom lip, unsure as to whether I should continue. In the end, I dare myself to go on. ‘It would be great if you could translate them for me.’ ‘I’d love to. I’d be honoured if you’d allow me to.’ Once we’ve finished our coffee, we part ways. Olivier has some paperwork to take care of for the tour company and I’ve been desperate to browse the little shops. I have half an hour left to do it. *** On the coach, I take in more of the scenery. Olivier is sat in the adjacent seat. ‘You can’t drive very far without coming across a cemetery or memorial, can you?’ I ask as we pass another small garden filled with white headstones. ‘No. It wasn’t always possible to remove the bodies from the front line. Search and rescue teams were sometimes killed trying to retrieve the dead. In many cases, the solution was to bury men close to where they fell. What it shows us now, though, is how death was all around. It was everywhere. No living man on the battlefield escaped witnessing the horrors of the Great War.’ I swallow hard and fall back into my seat, gazing out of the window and trying to understand how and why it even happened. Soon after, I catch a glimpse of a giant archway. ‘What’s that?’ I ask. ‘That’s the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. That’s where Harry will find his uncle’s name.’ ‘Wow. I wasn’t expecting it to be so big.’ I don’t really know what I was expecting. ‘It has to be big. There are over seventy-two thousand names of missing men inscribed on it. It’s the biggest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world.’ ‘You’re like a walking, talking encyclopaedia,’ I quip and he grins. ‘I know, who needs Google, hey?’ I like how he matches my tone. ‘How can that many men have been lost in these fields?’ I say aloud, casting my eye back to the window and across the concealing beauty of the farmland beyond. ‘It was complex. Not just a case of a man killed, carried to a grave and buried. Some men were blown to pieces and others buried by bomb blasts. Some men who’d been buried by their comrades in the field were later excavated by further bomb blasts. Soldiers’ remains are being found to this day, usually when building works take place. But, as you can see, it’s a slow process as there is little building work going on here.’ The reality of what he’s describing is so far from what we see here today it’s hard to imagine. The coach churns up crunchy gravel before finding a place to stop before two grassy mounds with a path through the middle. Olivier stands up and taps the microphone twice. ‘We’ve arrived at Thiepval. That modern building over there houses the museum and visitors’ centre. There is a gift shop too and a couple of vending machines for refreshments. If you follow the path to the left it takes you up to the memorial. I’ll be wandering around if you need me.’ With that, he heads down the steps and begins helping the more infirm passengers off the coach, greeting everyone personally even if not by name. ‘Did you send that postcard?’ ‘Have you found your glasses case?’ ‘Is that a new handbag, Beryl? Someone went crazy in Albert!’ I can’t help but notice how genuine he seems, and I find myself smiling. The sky is the brightest blue, the weather warm, and the grass a luscious green. It’s a beautiful day in the Somme Valley, and the forecast shows no sign of it changing. It’s as though the views and weather here are acting as some kind of consolation for what happened in the early twentieth century. It’s like nature’s own memorial to the sacrifices made. I fill my lungs with fresh country air and follow the path until I see the red-brick and white-stone structure. The path ends and the last part of the walk is across a well-manicured grassy area. I slow down, breaking away from Martha and the others. Harry had gone all quiet when we stepped off the coach and I sense this is a more emotional part of the trip for him. He needs to be with his wife and friends and won’t want some stranger tagging along. I wander into the vast space of headstones beyond the memorial, and I’m taken aback by the abundance of pristine, white crosses, each representing a fallen soldier. I glance at the inscription on one: A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR KNOWN UNTO GOD They don’t even know his name. My stomach lurches. The headstones, each decorated with flowers, are aligned in four quadrants, symmetrical and all facing a larger, white-stone cross at the front. It seems like a beautiful testament to the heroics of these men. I sit on the steps of the archway, taking out a leaflet I’d picked up at the museum in Albert. It’s written in French. I’d paid no attention to the language when I picked it up, just the pictures, which are grainy, black and white images capturing the men in the trenches. Sometimes I feel like my life is hard. The thankless task of looking after Kieran and Gary, working a dreary job just to make ends meet and having no real friends to confide in, other than my teenybopper colleague at work. Most of my old friends drifted away when I had Kieran. There are only so many times you can say you can’t get a babysitter and go to the nightclub before people stop asking you. But I didn’t blame them then and nor did I care. And I don’t now. If this trip has taught me anything so far, it’s that I’m lucky. I live in a safer world, I’m with my loved ones and I have everything that I need. These men had it hard and how they got up and fought is beyond me, but they did. I glance across the archway, and in the corner, I can see Harry’s distinctive cornflower blue rain jacket. Martha has her arm around him as Roland and Cynthia hover behind them. It’s an emotional scene and whilst I feel almost voyeuristic, I can’t help but look on. Harry has these three people who’ve travelled thousands of miles to be by his side for this moment and it’s one of the most special things I’ve ever witnessed. As I dab the corner of my eye, I sense a presence behind me. ‘It is very moving being here, isn’t it?’ Olivier comes to stand by my side. ‘Yes. So many men lost. It’s hard to comprehend that each one of those names inscribed on the memorial and each of those crosses was a living person.’ ‘And as you saw before, there are countless cemeteries just like this one. That’s what is the most staggering. Not just the number of graves in the cemetery, but the number of cemeteries.’ He sits on the step beside me. ‘What I find especially sad are the graves of the unknown soldiers. Their families won’t have had the opportunity to visit their graves to pay their last respects,’ I say, wishing I could do something about it. ‘Not many family members had the financial means to come and visit back then.’ ‘I suppose, and we do have memorials back home. Every town and village has one.’ ‘Yes, I know, we do tours to the UK too.’ This interests me more than it should. ‘So, you go to England sometimes?’ I ask. ‘Yes, about once a month. I love it over there. Especially when we visit London.’ The thought of Olivier being so close to where I live sends little sparks of excitement through my chest. ‘What do you do in London?’ ‘You mean after I have lunch with the Queen, see my buddies in parliament and meet up with the Beckhams?’ ‘Hmm?’ I twist the corner of my mouth in bemusement. ‘Okay, we have a picnic outside Buckingham Palace, walk past Big Ben and go to Kensington Gardens. It just sounds more exciting my way.’ ‘So you do the touristy stuff?’ ‘I suppose – we cover some of the points of interest surrounding the world wars too of course.’ ‘So, you must know a lot about the Great War.’ ‘I do. It’s interesting, but I also like to think me spreading the word about how horrific it was helps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’ ‘Only it did happen again,’ I say sombrely. ‘Ahh, yes, but I wasn’t born then, and my predecessor must have lacked my charismatic charm.’ He smiles, and we fall into a surprisingly companionable silence, watching the Americans laying a poppy wreath before a stone fascia. ‘Hello,’ the lady in the gift shop says cheerfully as we enter. She has a southern English accent, broader than mine, but is wearing the same T-shirt as the other staff members. Olivier introduces her as Jenny. ‘Olivier has been filling me in. It seems you’re on quite a sentimental trip?’ I nod. ‘Yes. My great-grandfather fought in the area. He was out here for almost two years before he was killed in Ypres.’ She gives me a knowing look. ‘There’s lots of information in the museum if you want to know more about the battles in the region?’ she says. ‘There is the free exhibition too, just to your left.’ ‘That would be great.’ I look at Olivier, unsure if he’d prefer to leave me to it. ‘I’ll join you.’ He smiles warmly. We walk in silence, reading the accounts and studying the pictures, some graphic, depicting the haunting faces of the fallen; others depicting more triumphant moments. ‘Some of these men are my son’s age.’ The thought is incredibly hard to bear. Olivier nods and I notice his face is sombre. There is a film to view too, and once we’ve seen everything, Olivier suggests paying to go into the museum, which I happily agree to. As we walk the halls, I watch Olivier reading the information intently. He must have read it dozens of times, yet he is still engrossed, reading it like it’s new. A few of the people off the coach tour are dotted about and Olivier makes polite conversation as we pass. We approach a replica German fighter plane and he turns to me. ‘Do you know the exact journey your great-grandfather made?’ ‘Almost. All I’m missing is where he trained. He wrote a letter from the training camp he went to after landing in France but I’ve been unable to find out where it actually was.’ ‘Perhaps Jenny can help. She’s worked here years and is as interested in the war as I am. Almost.’ He winks. When we head back out to the shop, Olivier explains what we’re after and Jenny asks me for all the information I have. I give her his regiment and battalion information and find myself nattering away. ‘He was just twenty-four.’ She tuts and shakes her head. ‘So young.’ ‘It’s staggering how many were,’ Olivier adds. ‘He enlisted himself. Given the dates he served, he was one of the first out there and he was married too.’ ‘The propaganda was very compelling back then. Many men signed up out of pride for their country. I don’t think the reality always hit them until it was too late. Not the Kitchener’s Mob anyway. ‘Right, so it was the training camp you were after?’ Jenny asks, squinting at the screen. ‘That’s right.’ ‘This page here should have everything you need.’ She stands up and gestures for me to sit down. I read the in-depth log of where the regiment were from day one until the end. Most of the information ties up to what I’d found. ‘Étaples.’ I say. ‘That’s where he trained.’ ‘I thought that was probably the case, but I wanted to be sure,’ Olivier says. ‘Is it possible to get there from Arras?’ I ask. ‘Yes, it’s about an hour and a half away by car, give or take.’ I feel like a weight has been lifted now the missing piece of the puzzle has been filled. ‘I’m really glad I did this today. Olivier, thank you so much for bringing me, and Jenny, thank you for all your help.’ ‘Don’t be silly, we enjoy it,’ Jenny says. The coach journey back to Arras is quiet. Many people on board had a relative killed in the war, and seeing so many names on the memorial was such a moving sight. Others are perhaps worn out after such a long day. I sense that the thick silence is that of appreciation for the efforts to maintain such a fitting tribute. I glance around and most people are sitting gazing out of the window; a few have even nodded off in the eerie, dusky light you sometimes get on a summer’s evening. It isn’t long before my mind wanders to Olivier. Not because he’s good-looking – I can admit to myself that he is now – but because I saw a soft side to him that I didn’t expect. He seemed so confident in himself last night, which I suppose, being a tour guide, he has to be; but I didn’t get the impression he was quite so sensitive. But seeing him obviously touched by emotion earlier just made me want to hug him. I scold myself for being so silly. He could be a married man for all I know, and if he isn’t he would never be interested in me: a doughy checkout girl held together by Aldi’s own ‘I can’t believe they’re not Spanx’. What am I even thinking? I scold myself. I don’t even want a man; I’m happy with the way things are and a man would complicate things. Besides that, I’m sure millions of soldiers didn’t give their lives so that I could lust after attractive Frenchmen. I think my existence should be more meaningful than that. Then I think about what my existence actually is and can’t imagine millions of men would have given their lives for that either. A routine of work, bargain-hunting, romcoms and David the weatherman. But I have brought up a son, who has got into university, a small voice in my head says. ‘You know, during the Second World War, soldiers passed the Thiepval memorial and paid their respect to their fallen fathers.’ Olivier has slipped into the empty seat beside me. ‘Gosh, it’s unimaginable. What they were going through, and to see that on top. I don’t know …’ I reply, no longer surprised by Olivier’s sharing of random contemplations. ‘I’m sorry, I know I keep bothering you with my war trivia but I don’t always get much interaction from the tourists. Some, not all, seem to want to say they’ve seen the sights rather than actually absorbing the history. They want an Ypres fridge magnet or the Thiepval shopping tote but not always the knowledge, you know? That is sad to me.’ I nod in silent agreement. His passion for war history intrigues me. I’ve not met many men with such rich interests. Since being in school, most of the men I’d met were into the same things: football, computer games, and pictures of topless women, with regular trips of enrichment to the pub thrown in of course. Cardboard cut-out-and-keep activities for a limited range of stereotypically masculine interests. Different was drawing me in. Chapter Nine (#ulink_f77c044f-bcbc-5c26-8158-221dd3909876) The following morning, at Martha’s insistence, I tag along on a short trip to the beautifully kept British cemetery in Arras, which is followed by free time in the town centre of Arras in the afternoon. It’s slightly off-piste but I have plenty of time in France and part of the reason why I’m here is to do the journey my grandmother should have done and experience France. After the heaviness of yesterday, something light and breezy ticks all the right boxes so when the ladies decide to go shopping while the men catch a game of football I’m quite excited. We deposit the men, along with their mumblings of soccer being a ‘girls’ game’, in the pub and hit the high street. Martha and Cynthia are like magpies, drawn to the jewellery shops, whereas the great weather is giving me a penchant for some pretty cork-wedged shoes. If I play my cards right I’d need never wear my torturous pleather sandals again. By late afternoon, I still haven’t bought any but I have enjoyed ogling all the different ones in their pastels and metallic hues. The others, meanwhile, have all managed to secure some yellow gold items. A ring for Martha’s granddaughter and a necklace for Cynthia’s daughter, plus a few items for themselves, I notice. ‘Well, it’s a beautiful day and there’s outdoor seating at the cafés in the square. How about some alfresco lunch?’ Martha asks. ‘That sounds good to me,’ Cynthia replies. ‘Thank goodness.’ I sigh. ‘I was beginning to get embarrassed by my lack of shopping stamina in comparison to yours.’ ‘We’ve just had more practice.’ Martha winks. We find a table in the shade on the edge of the square and order three ham and cheese toasties and a bottle of white wine, and before long, we’re tucking in. ‘France is such a happy place,’ Cynthia says with a wistful sigh, before draining the last of her small tipple of wine. ‘Happiness comes from within and from the people you’re connected to, not from a place,’ Martha says between mouthfuls. ‘I know that, but the people here seem so relaxed.’ Cynthia gestures to couples ambling through the square and people sipping wine in the bars, chatting leisurely. ‘It’s the weather – it’s warm and sunny but not stifling like the summers back home in Georgia,’ she concludes, and I think back to my dreary bus commute home and mentally agree. ‘Well, I think it’s the company too,’ I say, raising my glass to a chorus of ‘I’ll second that’s. Cynthia rests her head on her fists dreamily. ‘We do love our men, but having a “girls only” day is just what the doc ordered.’ ‘So, these men you’re both sporting, are they your first husbands?’ I ask, spurred by my wine-induced confidence. Martha smiles fondly and nods. ‘Yes, Harry is the only man I’ve ever been with. Sixty-two years we’ve been married. Don’t get me wrong, I could throttle him sometimes, especially now he’s older as he can be such a cantankerous so-and-so.’ She pauses and then smiles again. ‘But I wouldn’t be without him really.’ ‘Same for Roland and me,’ says Cynthia. ‘Fifty-nine years.’ ‘How about you, Cath? Have you ever been married?’ Martha asks. Still chewing my toastie, I shake my head. ‘No. My son came along as a result of a few alcopops and a bag of Walkers prawn cocktail crisps.’ This draws a few blank expressions. ‘His father was an older boy who I’d idolised since year eleven. When I told him I was pregnant, he didn’t want to know. I heard he’d moved away not long after that and then, well …’ I realise I’m droning on, telling a story that’s probably the same one that thousands of women could tell. Cynthia looks puzzled. ‘So, what happened?’ ‘Nothing and there wasn’t anyone after him. With a young son to care for I can’t say I ever looked my best.’ I giggle at the memory of being complimented on the unusual pattern on my top that was actually dried formula that I hadn’t noticed had slopped down my side. ‘There isn’t much time for man-hunting with a little one. I don’t have any regrets though; I wouldn’t swap Kieran for a different life. How could I? He’s such a smart boy, off at university now.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/victoria-cooke/it-started-with-a-note-a-brand-new-uplifting-read-of-love-a/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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