Sunday, 24 April 2016

Martha Burton has moved to France. Her new life is idyllic. Mostly.

Excerpt One from 'A Life Lived Twice'

‘Don’t worry, cherie.  I will get Christophe and Jean to help us!’
‘Thank you, Michel.’  It was difficult not to cry, all of a sudden, after an afternoon spent going over what had happened and imagining how gullible she had been.  Michel was the antidote to her self-doubt and she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.
‘Eh?  I like it!  You must buy an olive tree every day!’ he laughed.
‘Do you think the tree was too expensive?’
‘No!  It is a beautiful tree.  Look at its majestic trunk, its graceful branches.  For this you must pay a higher price, cherie!’
Martha knew that he was humouring her a little, enjoying her weakness and his strength.
‘It is a nice tree, I suppose.’
‘You’ll see!  When it is in its place, it will be wonderful!’  Michel laughed and left her then to change into some old clothes before his friends arrived.
Martha set about making some aperos for them all, for when the job had been done and they could drink and eat together in the garden and go over how they had accomplished such a great task.  She felt uneasy still, but reasoned that soon, she would have forgotten all about her foolish thoughts, as long as the tree looked all right next to the decking, as long as she didn’t hate it.
Christophe and Jean arrived, greeting Michel loudly and slapping him on the back, making jokes that she couldn’t understand.  When they came into the kitchen, their manner changed instantly, as they greeted her politely and with a reverence she found unnerving.
She watched them in the garden, working out how to get the tree out of the pot, laughing and joking with each other and not making a great deal of progress. She wanted to join them; to be the same as them, unconcerned and relaxed.
‘Perhaps we should water it in the pot?’ she suggested, standing with her hands on her hips.
For a moment, the men became quiet, noticing her change of clothes, seeing that she wanted to be a part of the group.  Then, although they were still not as they had been when she had watched them from the kitchen, they let her join them and gradually became themselves in front of her.
‘If we water it in the pot, it will be even heavier!’ said Michel, eventually.
‘Yes, but she’s right, you know.  The soil is dry.  It’s stuck to the pot.’ Christophe scratched his head.
‘We can cut the pot,’ offered Jean, ‘ if you have the right kind of tool for the job!’  At this the men eyed Martha shyly.
‘Oh, he has a very good tool!’ she said, wanting to break the ice once and for all.
At this, the men guffawed and clutched their stomachs, slapping Michel on the back and nodding shyly at Martha. 
After that, it was easier to get on with the job and, surprisingly, the innuendo ceased, more or less.
They watered the soil and, laying the tree carefully on its side, rolled the pot gently back and forth to loosen the roots and tease it out little by little.  Martha brought beers and they mopped their brows with their sleeves, wiped their hands on their trousers, before drinking.
‘Where do you want it planted?’  Michel asked, and they all looked at her, as though this important question should have been broached much earlier.
‘Next to the vine, I think, in front of the decking.  If the soil is easy enough to dig.’  This last comment set them flexing their muscles and joking again, while Martha got out the spades and a large, robust garden fork to loosen the earth first.  She brought a broom to sweep away the pebbles and some shears to cut the special permeable cloth that was supposed to keep weeds from growing. 
Soon the hole was dug and they argued for a while about whether it was the right size to take the tree, while Martha crept off to the house and came back with a tape measure, which she slipped into Michel’s hand. 
‘Perhaps, you idiots, we should measure the hole?’  Michel held out the tape measure and winked at Martha, to hoots of derision from his friends. 
The hole was too wide and not deep enough, but twenty minutes later it was ready.  It took all their strength to lift the tree, cursing and laughing all the while, listening to Martha telling them to turn it this way and that, as she strode around the garden, viewing it from different angles and finally gave them the thumbs up.  They filled in the hole, leaving the tree roots level with the ground, as Guy had instructed, then Martha filled a watering can three times and soaked the roots.  The olive tree would need to be watered regularly in the hot dry weather, Guy had said, until it had established itself.
The men went to wash their hands and faces and to get more beer from the fridge.  Martha brought out smoked salmon nibbles, houmous and raw vegetables to dip, prawns with a rosé sauce, and cheesy Wotsits, which Michel adored. There was fresh bread and Camembert too, to satisfy the men’s appetites. And, as the blue of the early summer sky paled, then darkened, they passed the time commenting on the tree, agreeing that it looked very fine where it was and that it would soon fill out and grow new leaves and perhaps some olives for bottling.  They promised to ask their mothers the best way to bottle olives and proceeded to tell anecdotes about their childhood and how it had been so different then, with the allotments and the fresh fruit and vegetables.  How they had helped their grandfathers picking beans and peas and even helped their grandmothers shell and cut them in the kitchen, listening to stories of their own youth. 
The men mellowed with the evening, becoming philosophical, looking up at the sky and watching for the first stars, enjoying the silence as much as the conversation. 
When they reluctantly agreed that it was late and they should leave, they returned a little to their loutish behaviour, joking about what their wives would say they had been up to, shushing each other and promising not to tell, as they moved unsteadily along the hall and carefully opened the front door, trying to keep quiet so as not to disturb the other people in the square.
Michel and Martha stood at the front door and waved to them as they slunk away, holding onto each other and giggling like schoolboys. 
It had been a very pleasant evening, leaving them all tired and satisfied.  The clock in the kitchen said two a.m. and, outside the back door, in the light of the moon, the olive tree looked lovely.  It had been the right decision to buy it, and with this thought, Martha wondered whether she had imagined all the things she had thought about Guy.  He was probably a very nice man, aware that the tree would bring happiness to his new customer.  Martha shook her head – she should beware of reading too much into things.  Life was simple, if you let it be, especially after several glasses of wine and a good deal of fun. 

Michel was already asleep on the bed, his shirt removed but his trousers still on.  Martha undressed and lay down next to him, closing her eyes and thinking of her new tree, alone and mysterious in the night.

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