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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Heron Wray

Still Life



 

 Stepping down from the plane Ria was hugged by a blanket of warmth, heavy with the scent of foreign climes. Her anxiety began melting like an ice cube in the midday sun.

“Get out there girl, it's time to make new memories, you need a holiday, what about a painting retreat?  you have wanted to try painting forever” her best friend had declared two months ago, with more than a hint of exasperation.

“Who knows what, or who is out there waiting for you?”


Biting her lip and twirling her locket, Ria moved her weight from one foot to the other as she waited for her case.  Looking around she recognised some of the other passengers who had been on the plane. She spotted the elderly woman who had chattered nonstop while her husband nodded now and then.  Ria also saw a tall man, he was wearing a pair of sunglasses nestled comfortably into his dark, grey peppered, hair. Then she spied a woman sporting a large, brimmed, hat. She was examining her perfectly painted fingernails with a practiced air of boredom that made Ria feel inadequate.

A siren blasted out into the fog of babble as the baggage carousel began its never-ending journey.

“Calm down Ria, you have done this hundreds of times, take some deep breaths” She rolled her shoulders while keeping her eyes glued to the trundling river of luggage eager for a glimpse of the distinctive suitcase, chosen with the sole purpose of making it easy to spot in thick baggage soup. Ria exhaled deeply

“Ha, there it is, one of the first ones off, so far so good”

  She suppressed a smile when she spied a sign that read Welcome to Bergerac Dordogne Périgord Airport. Her pulse quickened as she experienced a forgotten and pleasant sensation of giddiness.

 Hiring a car and driving had felt like a step too far, and now, looking out of the minibus window Ria congratulated herself for making the right decision as she was transported to the hotel.  She marveled at the lush green meadows speckled with butterscotch-tinted cattle and what looked like acres of vineyards.  Hamlets of honey-coloured houses embellished with rustic window boxes, full to brimming with bright red geraniums, came and went, seemingly untouched by time.

“Is it your first time in the Dordogne? “

Ria turned and looked over her shoulder.  It was the chatty woman; her nodding husband was beside her. His head buried in a book.

“Yes, it is. I hope there will be time to explore as well as paint. I read about the amazing markets; I plan to buy a string of pink garlic” Ria beamed.

“You will have plenty of time to explore.  We came here last year, the artists are magnificent, Geoff, she held her palm out towards her husband,” had dabbled in oils and watercolours, but I hadn’t painted anything previously except the garden gate” She laughed uproariously

  Geoff looked up from his book and smiled cordially, tipping his Panama hat in Ria’s direction.

“I am Ria. This is my first solo trip, I have been feeling so nervous, my stomach has been in knots for weeks”

“Call me Betty” The woman tapped her chest and then continued.

“Bless you, maybe we could do some exploring together, an evening market perhaps?”

Reaching instinctively for the chain around her neck, Ria began twisting it around her fingers exposing her wedding ring.


“Hubby not into painting then?”  A frown instantly replaced the smile as Betty saw tears well up in Ria’s eyes

“Betty, what have I told you about jumping to conclusions?” Geoff looked apologetically at Ria who was blinking rapidly.

“Oh, my dear, I am so sorry, me and my big mouth” Betty cupped her mouth with her hand.

“Please don’t apologise. My husband died several years ago. This is my first holiday since…”

Ria did not add that her life had been at a standstill.   She slept, ate, and worked.  Work meant less time to think. Less time to recall those fateful words three years ago that had ripped through the air like a jagged knife straight into her heart.


 “It is cancer, and I am afraid it is terminal”


 Ria remembered staring at the Consultant, her eyes bulging and her heart pounding. She had covered her mouth with her hand to prevent a spiel of angry words from tumbling out.   Hadn’t she suggested to Ben that he should see his doctor? She advised, she asked, and then she begged him to make the appointment that had started the roller coaster of a ride toward his final destination.

Betty reached out and grasped Ria’s hand.  “Painting will be like a salve for your soul Ria, it is cathartic. This is such a beautiful part of the world where remarkable things can happen if you let them”

 

When they reached the small country house hotel Ria’s eyes widened. It was breathtaking. More beautiful than photographs had suggested.

 The small expectant group was welcomed by a petite woman with shining silvery grey hair worn in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She had the most wonderful dimples in her pink cheeks and a huge smile reaching her eyes and beyond.  It became obvious by the enthusiastic greetings that this was not the first visit for many in the party.


“For those of you who don’t know me, je m’appelle Celine, Bienvenu dans Notre Maison!   Place your luggage over there” she gestured towards a well-used cart propped up in the corner of the lobby.


 “Jacques will take them up to your rooms shortly.  Join me on the terrace for some refreshments, much needed after a lengthy trip am I right?”  Celine invited the group in perfect English enhanced with charming inflections.

Ria looked beyond the stone balustrade towards emerald fields dotted with vibrant sunflowers. Moving closer, her eye was drawn to a shimmering caerulean swimming pool below. It was surrounded by banks of lavender, alive with productive buzzing bees. An assortment of tables, chairs, and parasols in varying shades of lilac and turquoise were located around the periphery.  Ancient-looking steps leading down to the pool were flanked by huge terracotta pots full of vibrant pink bougainvillea. The buttercream façade of the house was heavily frosted with violet wisteria, and a magnificent magnolia grandiflora provided some much-needed shade in the courtyard.

A shallow valley to the right housed numerous olive trees, many of which were centuries old, Celine had divulged. The gardens burst forth with a variety of fruit trees, apples, pears, cherries, and almonds.  Blue glazed pots populated by fig, orange, and lemon trees completed the scene.  A picture-perfect vista to encourage creative juices to pour onto a blank canvas like fine French wine into a glass.


A wooden refectory-style table took centre stage on the upper terrace, groaning with an abundance of fresh produce. Dewey tomatoes, fruits, and figs glistened in golden sunlight.   An assortment of breads and delicious-looking cheeses looked almost too good to eat, decoratively displayed in rustic baskets as if waiting to be captured in a still-life painting.  Bottles of wine wallowed contentedly in frosted ice buckets, and gleaming decanters of rich golden, locally pressed, olive oil basked alongside dishes brimming with olives and nuts.


 Ria joined Betty and Geoff who had bagged chairs in the shade beside an optimistic-looking German Shepherd Dog who occasionally lapped water from a huge bucket.  Conversation flowed around the table as easily as the water dripping from the dog’s jowls.

A girl approached the now lively gathering. She was calling Ria’s name.  Dabbing the corner of her mouth with a large white napkin Ria cleared her throat and went over to her.

When Ria re-joined the now merry group, Betty looked at her through knotted eyebrows.


 “Is everything Okay? “Betty asked, genuinely concerned about her new friend.

“Yes and no, I feel terribly guilty.” Ria dropped back into her chair.” Someone called the hotel to say there had been a mix-up with the suitcases.  They think I have theirs, they need it urgently. Something to do with the sale of a house, paperwork to be signed, that sort of thing, I hadn’t even noticed I had the wrong one! Someone will pick it up tonight” The words ran untethered out of her mouth.


“You weren’t to know, was she Geoff? It was an accident, pure and simple, although I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason “

 

After excusing herself from the party, Ria freshened up using the exquisite lavender-scented soap and lotion in her room. After finger-fluffing her blonde hair, she applied a shimmer of pink lip gloss before venturing downstairs to wait.


The evening brought with it a subtle luminosity, creating an enchanting atmosphere.  The cicadas and crickets had taken this as their cue to begin their night music which they did with gusto.

Sitting alone by the pool, Ria sighed. Despite this hiccup, she felt happier and more relaxed than she had done for an extraordinarily long time. Hearing footsteps Ria swallowed hard before turning her head.

“Hello, I am Nick, I believe you are expecting me, or rather this” It was the tall man from the airport. He lifted the suitcase in his hand a little higher. Ria noted his cream linen suit and café au lait-coloured shirt, which matched his eyes perfectly. He also wore a warm smile, and he still had sunglasses on his head.

Ria rose and moved towards him; her lips parted involuntarily, and she flushed slightly.


“Ah yes, I am Ria, I am so sorry about this” She pointed to the case.  Her skirt wafted around her shapely ankles; she smoothed it down before extending her right hand.

As their hands touched Ria felt a spark. A deeply buried mixture of excitement and anticipation rose into her chest causing her to gasp.

 His coffee-coloured eyes lingered as they looked into her crystal blue ones. Had he felt it too?

“I was about to indulge in an aperitif, would you like to join me?”

“I’d love to, I am rather partial to a pair of teef.” Grinning broadly, he groaned dramatically.  In my defense has been quite a day” “The airport didn’t have a hire car for me, I had to wait for more than two hours before one became available, which meant a meeting was canceled, and then, I got to my hotel” … Nick stopped mid-sentence and slapped his hand into his tanned forehead, Surely, I am allowed one bad joke?”


Two hours and one poolside supper later they were still talking animatedly.  Ria discovered that Nick was a widower. He and his late wife had planned to move to The Dordogne.  It had been a dream of theirs. Now, moving here alone seemed unimaginable, but then so did living alone in their family home, especially since the kids had flown the nest.

“I know I am being forward, but I have come to realise that if an opportunity presents itself that we should grab it with both hands, don’t you?   I mean look at him.” Nick pointed to the dog who was watching them intently from the shadows. “He never misses an opportunity to scrounge, he never loses hope does he”


 He smiled and said “You mentioned a free day on Wednesday.   Would you consider spending it with me? There is a morning market in Salat.”  he paused and swallowed deeply, “I would truly value another opinion about the farmhouse I was planning to buy and renovate. We could finish the day back in Salat, I know an excellent little restaurant with the best escargot in town."


Ria instinctively reached for her locket. It felt warm and reassuring. She pushed her coffee cup towards the edge of the table, the movement made the dog spring onto his feet.

Unanimously Ria and Nick laughed and said “There is still life in the old dog yet”

Ria smiled and sighed “Yes, let's make plans for Wednesday.

 

Jacqueline Heron Wray

2024

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