The English woman across the street, a short story, Part 1
It was the night before Christmas ! No, wait, it was the night before the night before Christmas, I remember now. And preparedness had been the keyword of the day for Reglisse and myself. Well, Reglisse didn't do much, because he's a dog, and dogs are not known for doing much more than giving their masters unconditional love, and he was no exception. However, having sensed something unusual, he followed me around all day, and his company was helpful, I could tell he cared. Reglisse is a four years old black Labrador, and a smart puppy if I may say.
For the past two days, the National Weather service had been broadcasting messages about the oncoming from the West snow storm. And if we believed the media, this could leave us with around 24 inches of snow by next morning. Since we heard the news, Reglisse and I had been on a mission to preparedness ! First we went grocery shopping, by far his favorite trip ever. If we'd get snowed in, as I expected, we didn't want to starve, did we ? Later, we put on the snow chains over the four wheels of our old but faithful Land Rover Series III. Not to mention the installation of the ingenious snow plough in front of the said vehicle, a brilliant project engineered and manufactured by yours truly. We also had to carry inside the house a massive load of firewood, in order to fuel the boiler and the Rayburn kitchen range. So we were busy all day, as the wind picked up, the temperature dropped sharply, and dark clouds full of snow gathered over our heads.
We live in the countryside, in a remote area of Western France, about three hours from Paris by car, but only about one hour by the fast train. We are close to everything, shopping, doctors, pharmacies, antique shops, you name it, but far from everybody. Our house is a modest stone cottage with 2 foot thick walls and hand made terra-cotta tiles. It was built when Louis XIV was king of France, almost a hundred years before the French revolution of 1789, or if you prefer, some 90 years before the official birth of the United States in 1792... My official occupation is "Retired", meaning I work only about twelve hours a day, doing odd things. There is always something to keep you busy when you live in a house of that vintage, or some work to do on the cars. Besides the Land Rover, our fleet includes a 1971 Mini Cooper, and a 1953 Jaguar XK 120 Fixedhead Coupe. During Spring and Summer, we grow a large vegetable garden, selling the excess of our production twice a week at the local farmer's market. For two weeks in June, we open our house to a small number of gentlemen drivers who travel from England in their Aston-Martins, Bentleys, and vintage Ferraris to attend the 24 hours of Le Mans race. During this frantic womanless time, we hardly ever go to sleep before three in the morning. But I wouldn't miss it for the world. And then, during my other spare time, I lock myself into my small but well stocked (by my standards, of course) library where, getting inspiration from my favorite oil on canvas paintings hanging on the wall, I write short stories for a woman's magazine that buys one from me every month, Reglisse sound asleep in a comfortable chair...
By the time darkness had set in, snow had started to fall, but we were ready. All the shutters had been closed, and a gigantic enamelled cast iron pot had been simmering since the morning on the corner of the kitchen range, filled with more than half a dozen different vegetables, and half of a ham for good measure. We should survive was our motto ! Before settling in for good, we had a taste of our own home cooking. Not bad at all. Not sure a woman could have done any better. Well, Mother could have, of course, but she was no longer around. We had set the crisis headquarters in the living-room, by far the largest room in the house and also the most practical . Plus, that's where the television set was located, and we had plans on making good use of it. The open fire had been lit in the massive stone fireplace original to the house. The TV set was on as, after watching the news, it was going to be movie night. We were going to watch "Bullitt" with Steve McQueen for about the fifteenth time or so, but were still looking forward to it. Can't get too much of a good thing, can we ? I had put on an old fleece sweat suit in order to stay warm, and was sitting on the sofa facing the tube, my feet resting on the ottoman. I had covered my legs with one of the wonderful wool plaid we purchased on our trip to Scotland the year before. Reglisse was laying on the sofa, right next to me, his head resting on my thigh. I mean, how more ready could we have been to ride that storm? I had even called father Bernard on the phone, to make sure he was all right and didn't need anything. He said he did'nt. Father Bernard is the Catholic priest in charge of the local church. Even though I do not attend his church myself, we have become very good friends. Shortly after my arrival to the area, he showed up one day in his old beat up Renault, to introduce himself and assess if he was going to be able to drag me into his church. I said I would gladly buy a ticket, but skip the show, meaning I would make a visibly badly needed contribution, but he would most likely never see me in church. That didn't seem to bother him much, rightfully thinking he couldn't win them all. But we became friends anyway. He was a nice man, and I admired his dedication, his honesty and respected the sincerity of his faith, and I liked the fact that we agreed to disagree... Priesthood in France, these days, is a pretty tough job ! Attendance is way down and so is the revenue. So, I help him sometimes. And he comes to have dinner with us every Wednesday night. On occasion, I do some maintenance work on his piece of crap Renault, or should I say perform a miracle, and when the car is out of commission for a few days, I let him borrow one of our cars. He likes to drive the Mini ! Fast too ! After dinner, every week, we play cards or a game of Scrabble which I usually miserably loose, while sipping a glass of fifty years old brandy I inherited from my father.
One last look outside before starting the movie. There were already almost three inches of snow on the ground, it is was still falling densely, and showing no sign of melting. As Reglisse and I were all set to watch Bullit again, I pressed the "Play" button. The opening credits started to roll on the screen.
And that's exactly when we heard the noise !
To be continued...
Copyright 2012 by Austinhealy, his heirs and assigns.
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