Coffee cup in hand, Ben Crawly sat at his desk. One of his goals for this new stage in his life was to write a novel, so today he was doing research.
He was slightly hampered by the fact that he had no idea what the characters, setting, or event the plot, were.
In theory, the quarantine was an ideal moment to get creative and write. He felt cheated, as the reality was that he was bored and didn’t know where to begin.
So, he procrastinated, going this way and that in the information warren that is the internet. At some point during the morning, he found himself reading about “the fascinating history” of Aix-les-bains, where he had been living since leaving London.
What about a ghost story set in the city? It was certainly old enough to have ghost stories, having been founded by the Romans in the first century AD (thank you, wikipedia).
After a few minutes googling, however, he couldn’t find any. Of course, he could just make one up. And there were some suitably spooky places around: the Roman ruins (although it was just the one arch), the 15th century castle in the city centre, even his own house!
He decided it was worth thinking about.
Like many people, Ben preferred to o his thinking while doing something with his hands, and this situation certainly called for pizza (there was a flitting thought that, yes, making pizza helped him think, but maybe a salad would serve just as well?)
He went into the kitchen, measured the ingredients and began preparing the dough.
Yes, his house would do. After all, it was already old and creaky, and he could always tweak other details.
With that happy thought, he set the dough to prove and went on to find his toppings.
A few moments later Ben clambered on top of the kitchen counter. Rummaging through one of the cabinets, he realized that the canned tomatoes were finished. “I can’t make my special pizza sauce without the canned tomatoes”, he thought to himself hungrily. He had checked all the cabinets to see if there was anything tomato-like, and was now revisiting all non-perishable goods that he could find, in the hope of treasuring something that would suffice as a pizza topping.
Giving up and making a move to step down, Ben suddenly lost his balance. In a reflex, he grabbed on to the open cabinet door for support. His weight ripped the entire flimsy wooden structure off the wall.
A split second later, both Ben and the cabinet were on the stone floor, motionless.
He felt a splitting pain in the back of his head as he blinked his eyes open in bewilderment. He slowly moved his toes and fingers and lifted his throbbing head to look around. Ben noticed pieces of wood everywhere. Like a stiff old man, he gently got to his feet and touched his head where a huge bump was forming. He checked his hand for blood. And when it came back clean he sighed in relief. The remainder of the cabinet lay there solemnly in pieces. “What a mess”, Ben chuckled at the hopeless irony of it all as he studied the kitchen.
He looked up at the bare brick wall behind the crumbling plaster. “Mrs Pois won’t be happy with this one”. He scratched his head at the thought of his landlady staring with shock at the havoc he created.
Stretching his sore muscles, Ben’s gaze focused on an obvious and large crack in the brick wall.
He looked closer. Inside the hole, there was something that looked like old paper.
He pulled out what appeared to be a scroll of some kind. Unfolding the role of paper he noticed it was a yellowing delicate envelope. He checked the back. No address and it wasn’t sealed. Hesitating for a moment, Ben’s curiosity won and he rushed towards the living room and plopped on the sofa. As he fingered the delicate paper open, he felt a rush of excitement and nausea.
He examined a neat, curling, cursive handwriting. “It’s in French”, he said aloud. He would try translating it with his atrocious French capabilities and use Google Translate to help him further.
May 3rd 1920 Aix-les-bains, France
My dearest Gabrielle,
By the time you’re reading this, you already know I’ve gone.
Please believe me when I say I had no other choice. I want you to know that if things were different, I would have stayed here with you.
My parents never accepted our relationship and demanded me to join them in Paris. As you know, we had to sell the Villa des Chimères.
I have nothing without my parents, and they threatened to leave me nothing and to stop paying my tuition if I didn’t go with them. I’m so distraught, but staying would mean to live in poverty. I couldn’t provide for you without completing my education.
My parents have matched me with Antoinette, the daughter of the Baron Henri de Ricqlès. He is the successful botanist who bought the Villa as a favour to my father.
I do not love her, Gabrielle.
Enclosed are all my savings. Please, marry someone who will take care of you. I hope this money will let you follow your dream of becoming a seamstress and opening your boutique.
I will love you, always. Please find it your heart to forgive me.
Farewell, my love.
Villa des Chimères
Ben carefully placed the letter back into the envelope. He could feel a mix of goosebumps and sweat prickling his back. “This is it! This is my novel. I have to find out what happened to Charles and to Gabrielle.” he thought exhilarated, and wondered: “Why would this letter be hidden inside the wall of this house?”
Ben picked up his laptop and googled the Villa des Chimères. “It’s a museum now” he murmured to himself. “The Faure Museum.”
Forgetting about the pizza, the disaster in the kitchen, and his possible concussion, he grabbed his phone and dialled the number published on the website.
Ben woke up the next morning with a heavy head feeling, something similar to a hangover. Seating in his bed with his elbows on his knees, he grabbed his head and stared at the rug for a few minutes. Recapping the events from the night before he felt like an idiot: of course, the museum was closed, it was like 8 in the evening. He thought that probably hit his head pretty hard and wondered if he should go to the hospital just for a check but at the same time he didn’t want to be one of these people that goes to emergencies for nothing in times of global pandemic.
In any case, he had a more tangible problem than chasing ghosts from the last century. He went to the kitchen and observed the mess from the door. The cabinet was still on the floor and thousands of shattered pieces of tableware everywhere. “Just like my life”, he thought and smiled back at himself for such a dramatic thought. In the practical side, he could imagine that Mrs Pois will not be happy about it. Maybe the cabinet had some historical value? The last thing he wanted was to get in trouble with his landlady that he found a bit intimidating.
He noticed that his mind started to go at a hundred kilometres per hour. Maybe it was a good occasion to practice some of that yoga or meditation thing that his therapist back in London recommended to him. After ten minutes he gave up and went back to the kitchen, recreating himself in a feeling of self-pity while picking up the broken plates from the floor.
He spent the next hour in a mood until he realized that after the failed dinner he ate nothing at all. He had a quick shower and wearing his face mask walked downtown to buy some food. The streets were almost empty, on a normal day at that time all the French mamies would be out doing groceries. He quickly sorted out his lunch and with some goodies (and tomatoes cans, of course) started walking back home.
After an abundant lunch, he felt better and went back to the letter. At the end of the day, the letter was real. “What if it was some sort of joke?”, he thought. Even though it was a weird hiding place. He thought he should ask the landlady in which year the kitchen was reformed, maybe whoever hid the letter must have used the chance before the cabinet was installed, otherwise, it is not a reachable place.
He started thinking about Gabrielle: did she hide the letter? And when? The letter seemed addressed to a young lady, but maybe it was hidden many years later. Maybe he could start by finding out who Gabrielle was and when she existed exactly. Did she ever fulfil her dream of being a seamstress with her own boutique? He wrote down in his mental to-do list to check the boutiques in the town. As far as he knew, Aix-les-Bains was not famous for the fashion industry. He was submerged in Gabrielle’s hypothetical life when the bell rang.
Ben was startled by the bell. He hadn’t met anyone in days and felt uneasy encountering people in this time of the global pandemic. But he must admit that social distancing helped a lot with his complete awkwardness with “la bise”. French people have the strangest habits and this one he couldn’t comprehend, probably because of his built-in British phlegm! He peeked out the kitchen window and saw the plump figure of a woman with ginger curly hair, wearing a uniform. “I wonder what this is all about!” he thought to himself. “J’arrive” he shouted in his best possible French!
As soon as he opened the door, the young lady in question started a long monologue and didn’t give him a chance to tell her he had no idea what she was saying. She looked nervous. After what felt like a 10 minutes speech, she stopped and waited, anxious to hear his answer. They looked at each other, completely baffled. “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas Français” Ben replied in a sorry voice. That’s when she started laughing, nervously at first, and then a frank happy laugh, almost of relief. “I am so sorry,” she said in English, with only a hint of a French accent. “I am Juliette, I volunteer for the social services of the mayor’s office in this time of crisis. This is my first day, and I’m not used to going door to door and talking to my fellow citizens. I’m sorry for the rough speech, and for laughing at you. I really need to practice!”. He couldn’t see her smile, but her eyes were sparkling. “What a relief to meet a French person speaking English, may I ask where you learned? My name is Ben by the way!” And so, started the conversation. It turns out that Juliette’s family had lived in Aix-les-Bains for generations, and that her mother had decided to flee to foreign lands and seek adventure. She lived in England with her fiancé until Juliette turned ten, and finally came back to live in Aix, hence the perfect English! They chatted outside for a while before a chilly breeze gave them shivers and Ben invited her in, forgetting the incredible mess on his kitchen floor. “What happened here?!” she asked, in a teasing tone. “I’m afraid the ghosts who hid my tomato sauce were not expecting me to rip off the kitchen cabinet in my frenetic search!” he replied sarcastically. “Now I’m going to be in trouble with my landlady, and it will take me a while to clean everything up, but I have a mystery to solve…” “You’re serious? What mystery? I love mysteries! Tell me more” she replied excitedly.
Now Ben started wondering if he hadn’t said too much, but in the meantime, she could be a good resource for his book! She and her family knew the city and she might be able to help him untangle Gabrielle and Charles’s story. He decided that he trusted her. So, he told her about the crack in the wall and the letter, and his book, the research and the museum. They sat in the sofa and as she was about to open the letter, she suddenly remembered that she was supposed to be working! “Oh M€$%#!” she swore in French. “I need to get going, but I will come back after I finish today’s survey. OK? Wait for me around aperitif time, I’ll bring a couple of history books from my grandma’s library!”
And she was gone. He didn’t even know what the survey was about, she never came about to ask him the questions. Her sudden departure was strange, but he was now more excited than ever about this whole Gabrielle story.
As the hours were passing by, Ben wondered more and more if he had done the right thing telling his-newly-and-only-acquaintance in this solitary retreat about Gabrielle’s letter and even more about his unwritten-yet novel. While he was immersed in his thoughts, he amused himself picking up the wooden pieces of the kitchen cabinet and clearing the mess out.
Only then, it struck him… the conversation flew so naturally, talking to Juliette was so effortless that asking her to come in and even her self-invitation to “apero” did not appear anything strange, at least in his good times, “I still got it” -he smirked. But it still felt odd. He knew that his good times were all gone now and returning to the insane reality that they were living in, the so-called quarantine, even in that little remote place, neither Ben nor Juliette realised that.
Anyway, – “She may not come back after all,” he said to himself – so wiping off his thoughts and feeling triumphant of having the kitchen floor all cleaned, with no cabinet and a nude empty brick wall thought, he jumped to the sofa and grabbed his laptop.
It was Gabrielle’s letter and her story that should put his mind into. He would continue digging into the history of the village. After all, he knew very little of Aix-les-Bains. In fact, the only thing Ben knew about this place was that it is a perfect location as a hideaway as one of his colleagues suggested during his farewell party; well, not such a “party”, actually. Ben exhaled heavily. Only a few months had passed since he quit his job and yet it felt ages ago! He closed his eyes firmly and threw away that thought as quickly as he opened them back again. “Focus” – Ben said aloud accepting the fact that focusing on something has been a real struggle for him in the last few months when he would have never imagined that that little word itself would have such a power. It would appear that those endless hours of yoga and the fortune spent on therapy had been no much success. Somehow, Ben needed to go against all odds, against everyone who believed that he was just a runaway and that his lousy change of career, change of his entire life was just a passing-time in his middle-life crisis. It had to mean something.
The same for Gabrielle’s story, Ben felt in his guts that there needed to be a purpose. Since he couldn’t do much about this own emotional mess, Ben realised that he had to put the facts right back in 1920. There were plenty of hints in Gabrielle’s letter to start with and if he ever wanted to write at least a decent novel about her story, he needed to research any information, dates, and places, detail by detail.
In the attempt to run a search on all characters in the letter, Ben opted first for the one with the highest status in society with the hope that it would be easier. It turned out that Google had more than 30,000 results for Baron Henri de Ricqlès. “Ow” – Ben exclaimed. He needed to manage his own expectations. This was only the beginning and he could not give up just yet. He would jot down all names to be related to Baron Henri de Ricqlès and see if that would lead him to the whereabouts of Charles Mottet, his son-in-law, and apparently profoundly in love with another woman, Gabrielle. Ben thought that it would be a great idea to show then the list to his “apero date” and with her influence in the town to check in the registry. Provided it was open, of course! “Yes, that would be a good start” – Ben looked quite satisfied.
“Crap! What time is it now?!” 19:13 showed the screen of Ben’s laptop when he flung it into the couch at the same time, he got up to be ready for his “date”. “What time is apero in this town?” “Was he being stood-up?” – all sorts of thoughts crossed up his mind.
But besides his insecurities, he was hoping to see her again, so he didn’t hesitate to pull out his best wine from the fridge and whatever he had as a snack. He knew already that he couldn’t make a great impression but at least there was no harm to make a little effort.
By the time Ben finished, his very expensive G-Shock watch was displaying 19:41…
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
The sound of the old and antique grandfather clock was so incredibly, Ben thought as he looked frantically between the splendid clock and, an overpriced watch on his wrist. He felt his heart pound so strongly and he was getting more and more nervous.
Was it a panic attack? His palms were sweaty, and he couldn’t’ focus at all. He felt like he was going back in time. Back to the place that made him sick; it appeared that ‘the ghost of Christmas past’ had found him in France. He felt pangs and pains throughout his body, as beads of sweat began to form across his face. His heartbeat sped up and it sounded like his heart would catapult out of his chest, smashing through the glass panel of the sideboard that stood before him. The overwhelm started to brew and percolate thoughts, feelings, emotions, flashbacks.
The job, the parties, the friends, the family. Andrea.
Suddenly, he saw her stood in front of him. She was shining her subtle yet radiant light; with a soft and warm smile upon her pale face. She was always welcoming and calm, even when she’d visit since passing. To Ben, his wife had been his everything until she was gone.
He felt her arm on his shoulder and breath on his ear. It was as if his heart stopped beating altogether. She whispered to him, ‘My darling Benny boy, I am here. *Breathe*. Our love is ours; something that can never be replaced, but you must love again. *Breathe*. Show the world what it is to connect and love and live. *Breathe*. Be happy and whole again. *Breathe*. Please be willing to share your soul with another woman. Warts and all. *Breathe*.”
His eyes were closed, and he felt the pain soften and disappear as tears streamed down his face. She always said that was the best way to release pent up sadness or frustration. He counted to 10 and breathed.
Ten. *Breathe*. Nine. *Breathe*. Eight. *Breathe*. Seven. *Breathe*. Six. *Breathe*. Five. *Breathe*. Four. *Breathe*. Three. *Breathe*. Two. *Breathe*. One. *Breathe*.
He opened his eyes and felt a reassuring sense balance. Andrea was still standing there.
They locked eyes, embraced in a moment of utter silence; exchanging a look of love and a smile of ‘enough now’, and she was gone.
Andrea and Ben had met at the University of Sussex in 2002. Like most footloose and fancy-free young people, they fell in love and were inseparable from that day on. Their romance blossomed and grew, and they regarded the ‘perfect pair’ by anyone who knew them. In the summer of 2009, with just their immediate family and best friends, they wed with a will to live happily ever after. Then, in late 2014, their worlds crumbled and their hearts shattered – much like the kitchen cabinet – when they received the devastating news that Andrea had stage four cancer and had only months to live. She passed in February 2015 and Ben was broken.
Picking up the pieces was very hard for Ben, and he propelled himself into work. In fact, he lost himself at work, hence him burning out, selling his flat and choosing to jump across the pond and rent an incredible lake-house in France. It was the last resort to reconnect with himself, his heart and dreams. And, as Andrea said, see if it was time for him to love again.
At that moment, he decided to explore his feelings with the lively, albeit a little scatty Juliette – *did she manage to complete her survey quota or did she encounter much more wonderful experiences as the day went on?*. He grabbed his phone and Googled ‘apéritif time in France’. Of course, a three-hour window – how very French! Suddenly, the grandfather clock chimed 20.00, and the door knocked startling him to his feet. As he looked through the glass, there she stood with her sparkling blue eyes, fiery red hair and a sense of warmth; very much like Andrea. He mentally high-fived himself for chilling that beautiful bottle of Domaine William Fèvre Chablis for this occasion – digging deep not only for his novel but also his heart.
Ben walked to the door and checked his hair on the mirror before opening. Juliette was there but her smile was not fresh and joyful but a bit nervous. “I am sorry Ben, but I can’t really stay”, she said. “We had a meeting at la mairie and we were reminded of all the protocols, I shouldn’t have come in today, I am sorry for putting you at risk.” “No worries, I understand”, said Ben. They both could see the disappointment in each other’s eyes.
“But look -said Juliette- I would love to help you with your mystery. I can still go up and down the town, I would be happy to be your agent on the ground”. This time she had a true smile while she was instructing Ben to grab his phone to save her phone number. Once she left, Ben stayed for a few seconds with his hand on the latch after closing. That weird dream he had about Andrea made him feel unease. He told himself that probably was better that way, at the end of the day he didn’t go all the way to Aix-les-Bains to find love, but to write a book. He had no need to be disturbed by such matters, otherwise, he would end up writing a cliché story about some guy that leaves his life behind to find himself and finds love. One thing to thank for to this pandemic, he thought sarcastically. The bottle of wine was open, so he might as well enjoy it.
He felt actually quite well. The kitchen was cleaned and arranged, calling the landlady would be for another day. After some unsuccessful attempts to track down Henri de Ricqles and his family, he decided to take a different approach. Maybe he could pay a visit to the Faure Museum once the health restrictions were lifted. In the meantime, he would try to find out more about Gabrielle. He had now an ally in direct contact with the City Hall, so he texted Juliette and asked her if she could check in the registration archives who was living in that house in 1920, with the hope that the name Gabrielle will pop up.
That could be a good start, depending on the outcome he will try to track down Gabrielle. Charles left the town for sure, but maybe she stayed there and opened her boutique. Or maybe she also left town with a broken heart, however, Ben felt that he would have more chances to find something about Gabrielle as lower nobility was always more about appearances, so they would not have allowed such a scandal to go public.
There was no point to wait for an answer, so Ben decided to call it a night and went to bed early. He had confusing dreams, where Andrea became Gabrielle and Gabrielle became Juliette and all of them they converted into a different person. He woke up however feeling rested for the first time in the last month. The phone beep with a message from Juliette just before lunchtime: “I will call you in one hour! I need to check something first!”. Exactly one hour later the phone rang:
– Ben, you won’t believe this!
– Hi Juliette, thanks for calling back.
– Yes, hello, sorry. This is so exciting! Look, I looked in the archives and it seems that the family Dubois was living there at the moment. There is no record of a Gabrielle Dubois though…
– Oh, I see – said Ben. He knew that he couldn’t get that lucky.- Thanks for checking anyway, I will try to…
– Wait, wait! – Juliette interrupted- there is no record of any Gabrielle Dubois but appears registered from June 1919 until October 1921 the name of an employee of the house, G. Russo. You know, in 1919 a labour agreement was signed with the Italian government to make up for war loss, many Italians and Swiss people came to Aix-les-Bains to work. Maybe G. Russo is your Gabrielle.
– Interesting! Gabrielle doesn’t sound very Italian though – Ben hesitated.
– Ah bon! Maybe she changed her name or maybe she was born here from Italian parents if they came before. I mean many came at that time, but others were here before.
– Yes, you are right actually. Many thanks for doing this! I have now a new starting point. I hope this didn’t cause you a lot of trouble.
– Oh, don’t be silly! It’s my pleasure. If I find something else I will let you know. I gotta go now, have a nice day!
Ben couldn’t help but smile for the rest of the day. The name Russo sounded familiar… He was happy to have this new clue, but he was well aware that looking into some Italian family that lived in Aix-les-Bains a hundred years ago would be a hard task. After looking at the empty space left by the kitchen cabinet Ben went to the little shed in the backyard. He came back with a bucket of old lime that he freshened up with some water. After painting the wall he stepped back and contemplated that big white canvas, ready to record anything he could find about Gabrielle and probably the skeleton of his book.
So… where to start? There were so many questions!
Should he begin by researching Gabrielle the woman or the entrepreneur? Had she been successful? Had she opened her boutique? Had she found someone to take care of her (as Charles had suggested in his letter) and moved on?
Would there be any records?
What about Charles? Had Charles married the heiress? Had he been happy? Had he completed his education? (as what?) Had he ever come back to Aix-les-Bains to be with Gabrielle?
And more importantly, how could he find out any of this?
At this point, Ben realized he was a) getting way ahead of himself, and b) too emotionally invested. Much as he wanted this story to have a happy ending, the first thing he had to do was to find out the facts (and then if he felt they were not up to par, create a happy ending of his liking).
Having restored his focus once more, he sent a quick message to Juliette asking whether there would be records of businesses from the 1920s, and if they were online for a consultation.
Then he thought of other ways to find the information (or rather, any information). On a whim, he opened Google maps and started roaming the city of Aix-les-Bains, looking for possible boutiques. After a few minutes, however, he admitted to himself it was futile. He had no way of knowing if any of those had been opened a hundred years ago, or who had been the original owner.
As he was about to give up, he noticed the “rue Joseph Mottet”. He did a double-take on that. Mottet? That was Charles’ last name! Digging a little deeper, he found that the street had been named after Charles’ uncle, who had been the mayor of the city at the beginning of the 20th century. Maybe, just maybe, the family was still in the area?
He wondered who he could ask about it. He didn’t really know many people… Just Juliette and… Madame Pois. With a pang of guilt, he remembered he hadn’t yet contacted her about the kitchen cabinet. He decided he would call her first thing in the morning, and try and find out more about the house, the Dubois and the Mottet.
“Espèce d’incapable!” Mrs Pois was standing in the kitchen, gesticulating, and screaming in French. The look of profound despair on her face and the anger in her voice made Ben very uneasy. He felt like a faulty schoolboy, but at the same time could not grasp the reason for such exasperation.
The scene started about 2 hours before when he called to ask her questions about the previous owners of the house and the Dubois family. Between Mrs Pois’ English and Ben’s basic French, the conversation was not fluid, but not impossible. So, before she started screaming, he managed to gather quite a bit of information. The house had been in the Dubois family since its construction at the end of the 18th century. It was handed down from generation to generation until Mrs Pois (born Dubois) inherited from her grandfather. This house was full of memories for her family and her beloved grandfather would tell many stories during family reunions. She was very emotional talking about her family, and he felt like an intruder, but it was so tempting to know more, he needed it for his book. She started telling him about the scandal that almost ruined her family’s reputation. It took place in the 1930s when a former housemaid pretended that her 12 years old son was a Dubois and that he should inherit the house. This meant so much for a family at that time, having a child outside of marriage was just not an option. Especially in a notable family like the Dubois, this revelation could bring down their business and dreams. But suddenly, to Ben’s dismay, she stopped talking, realizing that she was speaking with an almost total stranger. “And why you are asking me all these questions young man?” she demanded. He hadn’t finished mentioning the cabinet that he heard her scream and she hung up on him.
In the heat of the moment, Ben couldn’t resist calling Juliette to tell her about his findings. This meant a lot for his book. Did Gabrielle bring this scandal on the Dubois family? Was her son really a Dubois or could he have been Charles’ son? Did his descendants still live in the area? These unanswered questions brought even more mystery to the story. They grew more excited by the endless possibilities and couldn’t stop laughing at how a top(ping)-less pizza started this whole novel! They were still on the phone having a vivid conversation and imagining all the possible scenario when Mrs Pois showed up at his door… So, there they were, Mrs Pois, this tiny middle-aged lady, rough on the outside, on the edge of tears, hysterically screaming at his clumsiness and disrespect for other people’s property. He could guess her repressed sensitivity under this façade. Her story must be tainted with hardship and heavy secrets, he thought. In an attempt to calm her down to understand the reasons for her reaction, he sat her on the sofa and went to get her a cup of tea. (Tea solves everything, especially if you’re British!). As he walked to the kitchen, he caught a glimpse of Juliette’s red hair. She was running to his house! This morning was starting to get more and more interesting…
The kettle was still bursting, when the bell rang and Ben with his usual “J’arrive” made his way to the door looking up in a plea way and saying to himself “Saved by the bell”.
Mrs Pois having heard the bell, made an effort to compose herself and her initial thought was leaving but then the curiosity of who was visiting the “young man” refrained her from attempting to move and so she waited for her promised tea.
As Juliette walked in, having figured out Ben’s faces, she could easily picture the situation, so she pretended to be in her active role of volunteer of “la Mairie”.
She greeted Mrs Pois in a very friendly way with the attempt to make a good impression. Juliette and her family did not fit in naturally within the “locaux” despite her family living there for generations. Since her mother went away, she and Juliette were still considered “etrangeres” in town – not proper French breed. Juliette was not very fond of pampering people, but she was smart enough to know Mrs. Pois and her family’s position in Aix and especially her “influence” in certain circles.
Juliette could just imagine the scene right before her appearance and she felt sorry for Mrs Pois or should have she been more sorry for Ben? When she started to apologise for interrupting, the kettle went off and Ben desperately looking for an “accomplice” whom to share his misery, invited her to stay.
– “Would you like to stay for tea? If Mrs Pois doesn’t object, of course!” – Ben said looking at Mrs Pois who was merely observing, more and more curious.
– “Bien sur!” Mrs Pois responded while grinning to Juliette.
Then Juliette looked around the living room, pretending it was her first time being there and took a seat keeping a reasonable distance.
– “Mrs Pois was sharing with me the wonderful history and memories of this house. Did you know, Juliette, that Mrs Pois comes from the Dubois family who has possessed this house since the 18th century?” – Ben continued talking while walking towards the kitchen to quickly fetch the teas.
Besides the early awkward moment, the conversation flew by so naturally that it became a surprise for the three of them. They even lost count of how many refills of tea.
Mrs Pois was a fanatic of ancient building architecture and she possessed some old property deeds and plan drawings of some of the most picturesque buildings in Aix. Juliette was not a fanatic herself but from what she got to learn during the last couple of days, she had good insight on the field, so Mrs. Pois was quite pleased with Juliette’s stories.
Besides that, Mrs Pois’ curiosity in these two, Ben and Juliette, was growing more and more… she didn’t bite in Juliette’s entrance, so she went with the flow and kept observing. She gave away a bit more information here and there in which Ben and Juliette seemed to be so interested. – “Why are they so into Dubois’ family and the history of this house?” – she wondered.
It would appear that Mottet and Dubois’ families came from the same ancestry family tree. There was a time when they were blood relatives many many years ago. Unfortunately, a big argument on the land boundaries, made both families break their long-lasting good relationship and they became terrible rivals. The entire town was divided in two, either you worked for the Mottet or the Dubois.
As Mrs Pois and Juliette were leaving Ben’s house, Mrs Pois surprised herself by offering to bring the deeds of the house and family’s pictures next time. After all, she needed a pretext to meet this “young couple” again to discover what they were after…
As he closed the door behind Mrs Pois and Juliette, Ben wondered what the heck had just happened. Drinking tea in a French mansion, connecting with locals over sappy Shakespearean family histories? Exchanging shy but meaningful glances with Juliette while Mrs Pois was fully absorbed in her stories? “Who do I think I am, bloody Colin Firth?” He always used to tease Andrea for insisting on watching ‘Love, Actually’ every year with Christmas. And every year, while Ben would sarcastically remark that “Of course she will marry you without ever having talked to you!”, Andrea would cry as Colin Firth’s character finally kissed his Portuguese housekeeper. But look at him now, all hung up on uncovering the historic love affair between an Italian housekeeper and a French noble.
“I need a drink,” Ben said to himself as he turned away from the door and walked towards the living room. At the antique liquor cabinet, he poured himself a big glass of Caol Ila. A 25-year-old single malt he kept for whenever he needed to feel ‘manly’, along with a case of Habanos. Another one of those great clichés, but this one actually worked for him. Ben sat down on the sofa, glass in hand. “What is wrong with me,” he sighed. “Why do I suddenly care?” “There’s no shame in caring,” Ben could hear Andrea say. And he knew deep in his heart that she was right. But this side, this romantic, caring, passionate side, was entirely new to him. So much so that it scared him. In London, Ben had fully indulged in the fast-paced life of the City. No time for emotions, always switched on, always aiming to be on top. This had also affected his private life. While Andrea was without a doubt the love of his life, he had never been very romantic with her once he’d become a successful businessman. He hadn’t given her the love and attention she deserved – coming home late, leaving again early to go to the gym with ‘the guys’ before work. Never more than a week’s holiday, during which his phone would always be on. He had always justified his behaviour with the idea that he was providing for his wife. The very same wife he was abandoning. Ben felt his heart sting with guilt as he thought about how Andrea never complained. She always remained her loving and caring self, even when he didn’t deserve it.
“Maybe that is why I care so much about this stupid love story,” Ben realised. Charles had left Gabrielle thinking money was more important for her than love. Just like he had abandoned Andrea in order to ‘provide for her’. It was too late for Andrea, she had died before he came to his senses. But maybe it hadn’t been too late for Gabriella and Charles. The hope that Charles had realised his mistake and had returned for his Italian love was what drove Ben to uncover this story. “I’m going to do this for you, Andrea,” he said silently. “To show that love can overcome all obstacles, and to proof that I do care.” He cringed at yet another banality and took a big sip of his scotch to compensate. Then he put down his glass and got up. “So, what are the facts?”
Ben had been working on his whiskey for a while now… thinking.
“Where to start?”
“What are the facts?”
“Facts…Facts…Fac” Ben paused.
“We are in France after all!” he said, “And that’s a fact!” With a cheeky grin on his face after a pun, he thought so brilliantly. He thought it was the case to prepare an appropriate atmosphere and get his investigative-creative juices flowing. He walked towards the speakers and connected his phone to them half-heartedly, logging on to his Spotify account. “This damned shack doesn’t even have a bloody record player! Andrea had a wonderful record player…”
“Andrea…” Ben sighed “Well, they better work.” Luckily they did and marked the beginning of a magical night for Ben. He decided to play a French Classic by Édith Piaf.
“Non, rien de rien! Non! Je ne regretted rien!” Ben started singing while dancing around the room, eyes closed, whiskey in hand. He started to let go, feel the vibe, the atmosphere was magical. He was fantasizing about the Muse of poetry dancing with him to this French tune. Ben was discovering the inspiration to start his novel and solve Gabrielle and Charles’ drama. Suddenly Ben was Charles, then Gabrielle, then Andrea… he was living the same problem, in another place, in another time. Loving or providing? If only he could say no to his father’s trip to Paris and stay with his love. If only She could find the strength to follow her love to Paris. If only she could make him realize that she loves him just as he is, a busy man with a big, good heart. If only he could have another chance at love.
Ben suddenly realised he had 3 stories, one he had lived, one from the past and one going on in the present… a gift.
The song played on, heading towards its climax and Ben was singing out loud: “Je ne regretted rien”, “I regret nothing!” This is it, it is my opportunity for catharsis, I regret nothing! I have had my life with Andrea and behaved how I did. But I did love her. Very much… With all my heart. And she knew this!”
“Je ne regret rien! I regret nothing!” he sang along in this cyclone of passionate determination that had gotten into him “I have learnt from this, I have loved, and I know I can love and shall love!”
“I shall complete my novel!”
“I shall honour my love by discovering the story of Gabrielle and Charles.”
“I shall love again!”
He felt alive. He stood up and gave a virile grunt of self-affirmation.
“Ugh! You always do this to yourself eh!? Lucky nobody was here! What the hell are you a Gorilla!? Oh, Andrea made so much fun of my noises…”
Suddenly the main door creaked. He walked towards the entrance wondering if he had closed it when he clumsily showed out the two guests of just a few hours earlier.
An old man was standing in the doorway. Looking like fate had caught up with him. And looking like he was ready for it.
– “Sorry to come in so late… and to open the door without knocking… I was hoping to see which cabinet fell out of the wall without being noticed. But yeah, I knew in my guts that it would be that cabinet. May I check? Oh, sorry, I’m Charles Pois, Mme Pois’ husband. She told me about the incident.” He held out his hand out of habit and pulled it back confused, not knowing what to do with the current regulations.
– “Your English is astounding for a French person of your age! Of course, please come in”, said Ben in a half-drunk haze, trying to not look as puzzled as he felt. And whatever the current rules were, this place had seen more visitors in corona time than his house the past years… So well, one more, one less…
In the kitchen, Charles Pois let out a deep sigh. Obviously, it was that cabinet. Ben offered him a tea, he looked like he needed one, and to take a seat where his wife has sat a couple of hours earlier. He accepted both and looked down at his hands while waiting for the kettle to whistle, on the sofa. When Ben came back from the kitchen with the steaming cup, the old man looked him straight in the eyes, his resolve clear.
– “You found the letter, didn’t you? My wife could not figure out why on Earth you’d be so passionate about her family history, so I guessed. I knew it was a lousy place to hide it, but somehow it belonged in the house and I could not keep it at home. She gets into everything. And she could not find that letter. Not ever! You see, my name is Charles and it’s a family tradition. The first-born boy is called Charles, from an old love story. Gabrielle, yes. She did have a child. But not with Charles. When he left her with some money, her heart was broken but her fury at society gave her the motivation required for a daughter of an Italian family to start her own business, a woman and a foreigner, by the town’s standards. She was braving everything and everyone. That fierce temper was irresistible to Jean Dubois, the son of the Dubois family for whom she had worked. He courted her. And she believed in love again. Life was looking up! But once more, she turned out not to be worthy of a wealthy family marriage. Once more, she got rejected.” He sighed, looking down at his hands again. And defiantly, back at Ben: “Except that this time, she was pregnant. She called her boy Charles, partly to spite Jean, partly because Charles had been her first love and at the birth of her child, only love remained of that old story. She was even fiercer after that second tragedy and decided that she’d get the house and the name that her Charles deserved, that no one would ever reject him the way she had been. And she tried. But fire does not catch on old wood. She lost.” Another sigh “That temper was in her son’s blood too. He understood that the times were changing. That old blood was running dry, that the world was opening up. Keeping only the love letter you found with him, he travelled the world, becoming rich, making himself a name. He took the one from the Lady he married: Pois. He was my father. He came back here after getting married and I was born here, in a wealthy family, with a good name. I also travelled and studied abroad, that’s how I learned English. And like my father, I came back here. Unlike him, it’s here that I found love. Irony? Coincidence? Fate? Isabelle Dubois swept me off my feet. Jean’s granddaughter. I tried to resist the idea, I fought with all my might, but with every attempt, I just fell deeper in love with her. So, I decided to ignore my secret and marry her anyway. My father had died. My mother never knew. Never got to realize that Gabrielle had her wish granted and that her descendants had inherited the house, after all. And the family line. No one could trace me back to the Dubois. Nothing but this letter. I should have burned it. I could not. It was my history. My fate. My flame. The love of my life is my cousin and I have to live with that. She does not have to know!”
The tea was cold in his cup. Ben was gaping, the whisky glass still in his hand. The silence stretched between them.
“What about Charles? Did he ever come back?” Ben could feel the smile of Andrea next to him in the dark, still hoping against all odds for a happy ending.
Ben woke up in the armchair facing the sofa with a headache. Part concussion leftovers part hangover. Wondering whether any of it had happened…
Ben sat on the bench and looked at the house, recapping the events of the last year and a half almost.
He remembered the night the cabinet broke and he found the letter, the day he met Juliette, the visit of Mr Pois… It was certainly a shock to find out that Mr and Mrs Pois were actually related. That was probably why they never had children. It was Mr Pois secret and now was his secret too. He was a man who knew what it means to reinvent oneself and anyway he had his own story to tell.
Juliette was about to pick him up anytime soon to take him to the airport. After all this time in Aix-les-Bains the prospect of getting into a plane and flying back to London was at least chilling. In order to avoid spiralling in his own thoughts, he started reviewing his schedule for the following week. An appointment with his therapist (who probably had quite a lot to say), gathering with his old friends and the most important: he had a meeting with the representative of a small editorial, which might or might not lead to something else.
“Andrea would have been proud of how far I have come,” thought Ben. Even though writing his book was a necessary catharsis for Ben, he was still not quite sure if he wanted to see it published. At the end of the day, it was about his most deep fears, his mistakes, his guilt for failing to the woman he loved. In any case, and according to his new approach to life, he wanted to keep an open mind. However, the thought of having a place where lost souls like himself could go and try to figure out their lives through writing was something in the back of his mind, seducing him for moments.
He wasn’t sure he would feel comfortable living in London again, at the end of the day his priorities and needs were no longer the same. He looked again at the house: the ivy climbing the wall, the wooden door, the bees buzzing around the yellow gentian, a common flower of the area and Andrea’s favourite colour. Suddenly the idea of finding a place in Aix-les-Bains for this retreat-slash-academy and honouring Andrea’s memory made more and more sense… Ben was immersed in his own thoughts when a loud noise behind him broke the spell.
Juliette klaxon again and shout: “Allez! You are going to miss your flight!”
Ben said goodbye to the house and threw his suitcase in the back of the card without knowing if he would ever come back. In any case, the story of Charles and Gabrielle and her descendants was safe in the wall behind the cabinet, waiting to be discovered when it could not hurt anybody.
Juliette was gaping on her doorstep. Surprise, disbelief, happiness and anger were spread equally in her eyes, her facial expression and her body language. Half good then!
– What? When? What are you doing here? When did you come back?
– May I come in?
– No way! You can’t ignore my emails, phone calls and text messages for 48 hours and just show up at my place with roses in your hands!
She was now leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed.
– Oh! So sorry! I had to get a new phone, and I was arranging the Internet at my new place, I forgot to check out my emails!
– A new phone? A new place? Do you mean a new place here? Are you kidding me? You’ve been in town for two whole days and you did not even bother dropping by?!? Alright, Mister, you’ve got some explaining to do!
Waving the enormous red roses bouquet at her, Ben obliged. After all, that was his intention all along.
– I went back to London and met with the editor, I’m going through with the book but now, we’ll arrange everything remotely… I met my friends and realized the crazy merry go round that is their way of life… Running from one meeting to an outing, rushing everywhere, all the time. I don’t belong there anymore. I’m not surfing that wave anymore…
Juliette’s arms were still resolutely crossed. Her eyes reading “so what?”, one eyebrow up.
– And suddenly it hit me, at my therapist’s. Remember how we found out in the museum that Charles did come back to Gabrielle? Breaking an everlasting engagement with the rich girl he had not committed to further, his diploma in his pocket? Ignoring the family wealth to live with his love? To live his life, not the life he was supposed to live. Which meant that the hidden letter was not a sad memory or threat to the Dubois family, but the magic of hope against all odds. He transformed bitterness and rancour into optimism and change. Because he came back.
Juliette jumped in Ben’s arms, crushing the red roses, and kissed him wildly. Their very first kiss.