Being back in the Peugeot was comforting, the smell reminded them of their long drive, ancient fag-smoke and an edge of vomit. They rested their arms on the open windows, spring sunshine on bare skin, roaring past pastures in a stream of warm air, flying by the closed-up houses, and around the bends, towards the village. They had come through Arnay the day before, and seen almost nobody. Today the main square was filled with market stalls, which, even as they got there were being taken down and removed. The meat and fish on the shaded side of the square, the cheese, fruit and vegetables, all the way to the sweets, and children's Disney dresses on plastic hangers, all of it, was being packed up, like a circus leaving town.
'They had a market,' said Bea.
'But we missed it,' said Dan.
The terrasse of the Café de la Place was crowded. French families organised their shopping and children, and tourists watched like anthropologists. Dan and Bea found a table at the edge, hard up against the plastic awning, the only one free because it was in full sun. They both put on their sunglasses. Bea was uncomfortable in the heat. Other people felt cool and sexy in the sun, but it set her body into opposition to itself. A small shiny truck was picking up rubbish.
‘J’arrive,’ said a waiter, taking money from a man drinking a Cognac.
She was going to order, but Dan interrupted, and asked for two coffees in French. She looked away so he wouldn't feel embarrassed.
‘It’s good to get out of there,’ he said.
She didn’t speak. He saw her face.
‘No offense,’ he said.
The waiter brought their coffees, and they drank them. Afterwards, they left the café and crossed the road, holding hands, like stepping into the frame of a picture. Children ran across their path, and a rack of clothes with the person pushing it invisible. They reached the top of the square where a long, narrow tabac and bar occupied the corner under the concrete colonnade. They started up a small street, looking for prettiness, but it soon closed-in, and became an alley, and then barely more than a crevice. The pavements disappeared, and there were bricked-in doorways and graffiti on either side and heaps of wipes or tissues, lumping underfoot and the smell of piss.
'Desirable,' said Dan, in his estate agent voice, 'well-appointed.'
The noise of the square faded. They passed a bicycle with no wheels, leaning beneath peeling posters.
'What's that, about the beautiful villages of France?' said Dan.
They heard running feet, shouts, and a clatter, and two teenage boys careered around the corner towards them, jumping into their way, wild-eyed. The boys swerved, one to each side, their shoulders bouncing off the walls, and shouted, and were gone. The yells and laughter faded.
'Shit!' said Dan. 'Thought they were going to rob us.'
The alley seemed even emptier. The street ended in a lopsided fan-shape, with a few back-doors and guttering, the only way to carry on would be footpath that was more like a concrete drain, going downhill past a chicken-wire fence. There was a cat lying against the wall in the sun, and a plastic mop with a red handle.
'Dead end,' said Dan.
They looked at the closed doors and loose shutters, and a balcony above a door that was open to a vestibule with a lino floor.
‘When I was nine,’ said Bea, ‘my parents went to the Carribean, for Easter, and forgot me.’
She nodded. ‘We had this Australian au pair, called Jo. It wasn’t her fault, she didn’t know the housekeeper wasn’t home either, and she went to visit her boyfriend. Anyway, my parents were on a plane, so I couldn’t call them.’
‘Nine?’ said Dan, again.
‘Yes. I went to sleep under the bed, so nobody would find me. And in the middle of the night, I was woken by a window smashing, and the alarm going off. It was unbelievably loud. I hid under the bed, under my teddies. And I remember seeing the blue lights, flashing on the wall, from the police cars.’
‘It was Alex. It was completely fine. He was meant to be somewhere else, and he knew our parents were away, and thought the house was empty. It was one of the best nights of my life.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I remember hearing him talking to the police at the door. You know, I was hiding upstairs, and he was doing the whole posh-boy, oh yes officer, Alexander Adamson, thank you officer. And the police went away, and I came down - and I thought he was going to be angry, but he was unbelievably sweet. He let me stay up -’
‘He let you stay up?’
‘Yes, and gave me supper, and made all his friends be nice to me. And the next day we had breakfast. It was just amazing. It was just the best.’
‘And your parents?’
‘I don’t even know where to start with this,’ said Dan. ‘What about the window?’
‘I told them I broke it - he wasn’t meant to be there. But the point is, it wasn’t anything bad. It was Alex. And he was lovely. And I felt this... joy.’
‘That was your take away, from being dumped by your parents, and scared witless in the middle of the night? Joy.’
‘I’m trying to explain how nice he is.’
‘I see he’s nice.’
They faced one other in the awkward, private, space. He took her other hand.
'We should have gone the other way from the square,' said Bea.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said.
A radio above them somewhere was playing French pop, a man’s deep voice pronounced Europe Deux smoothly to the empty air. They stood close in the asymmetrical sun-trap. It wasn’t picturesque. It wasn’t anything to do with their shared vision. It was just a place they had stumbled upon. He kept hold of her hands but looked at the ground.
'Why is it,' he said, 'that you feel lucky, and I feel unlucky? What is that?'
'I don't know,' said Bea.
He touched her hair, lightly, with his fingertips, where the sun was catching it, then her cheek, like a blessing, then the small blue stone hanging from her silver necklace he had given her for her thirtieth birthday. They were going to kiss. The radio started playing Ed Sheeran. They both started laughing.
‘Boy. No escape from that,’ said Dan.
They walked back the way they had come, and in a few moments, they were out in the square again. Already, there was almost no trace of the market, just bareness, and scraps of litter, eaten up by the small truck as it went back and forth. They went back to the café, with the feeling it was their café, now they were there a second time, and found a table in the shade and ordered ice-cream.
'About your art,' she said, pouring the hot chocolate sauce.
‘Let’s talk about it another time.’
Art. Even the word came more easily to her than it did him. The notion of fulfilment had expectation at its core.
'I'm thirty,' said Dan. ‘The runners are already on the track. They’ve started, and I’m laps behind.’
'It's not impossible,' she said. ‘Just doing it. Just doing it would make you happier.’
He watched her scooping up the chocolate sauce and melted vanilla ice-cream with her wafer, and licking her fingers.
'Messy girl,' he said.
He made her feel adorable for spilling ice-cream on her hand. She didn't know how he did that.
They walked around the village, and looked at the shops, but didn't buy anything, then went back to the car. Bea remembered the way to Paligny, and Dan remembered to drive on the right. When they got back to the hotel, it was almost six o'clock.
As they came through the gates, they heard the thick thud of a rock bass-line. The sun was behind the trees. They parked in the smoky shadows. Dirty guitar and drums, soaked the air. Nirvana's Love Buzz. Alex came running out of the hotel. He was barefoot, and he flung his arms wide.
'Just in time!' he shouted.
Bea and Dan exchanged a look.
'What for?' said Dan warily.
'Tea? Booze? Booze? Tea?' his voice was shrill. 'Booze?'
He rushed inside ahead of them, and disappeared through the fire-door.
'Is he high?' said Dan.
'I don't know.'
The garden was strewn with traces of recent activity. The mower stood abandoned in a stretch of tattered stalks. There were two empty bottles of wine, half a baguette, a t-shirt, and a five litre pot of white paint, on its side on the grass, with a skin forming over the puddle.
'Getting some things together!' they heard Alex shout, from inside. 'Hold on!'
'Look at all this,' said Dan, setting the paint-pot upright, and shaking his head.
Alex came running out, clutching the hotel visitors book to his chest, and a fistful of pens, which he threw down on a table.
'I thought, if I paint the tables they won't look so nasty,' he said. 'I should sand them, but I don't have a sander. I should sand them. I should've done it before. I haven't done it.'
They tried not to stare at him. He sat down, and rubbed his hands together and opened the visitors book.
'Robert Robertson!' he said. 'Too obvious? Tom Thomas. Tom. Tim. Andrew. Thomason Anderson. Shit. Can't think.’
Bea walked slowly towards her brother. Her skirt was pale in the dusk. The white paint on the grass glowed and the sky shone like opal above the black trees.
'Has something happened?' she asked.
Alex looked up at her. 'Kind of.’
‘What is it?’
‘They're coming out.'
He didn't answer. She was surprised she'd had to ask.
'Our parents,' she said.
He nodded, looking up at her, as if there was something she could do. There was nothing. She sat down next to him. They didn't speak.
'Your parents are coming here?' said Dan.
Bea and Alex were looking at one another like people clinging to wreckage.
'When?' she asked.
'It's OK,' she said.
'When were they here last?'
'He comes - ' he shook his head, 'they come - every couple of months.'
'How long for?' asked Bea.
Alex looked down. 'A few days, a couple of days,' he shrugged, blinking as if he might cry. 'She came alone, once.'
Dan was embarrassed. He started to pick up the bottles from the grass.
'What's really sick,' said Alex, 'is that it's sort of nice they bother.'
She tried to take his hand but he pulled it away to bite his thumb-nail. Dan approached the table.
'We’ll help you clear-up,' he said.
Alex looked at him blankly, as if they'd never met.
'What do they come for?' asked Dan.
'Just normal shit,' said Alex. 'Whatever.'
'What does that mean?' said Dan.
'Dad's got stuff to do,' said Alex. 'She just likes it.'
'She likes the hotel?' pressed Dan.
'Yes,' said Alex.
'She likes staying here?'
'Dan,' said Bea, with a look which meant stop talking.
She was blocking him out. They both were, but he wasn't married to Alex. He waited for a moment, then he went inside.
Neither Alex nor Bea reacted to his leaving.
They didn't speak.
The minutes went by.
The evening settled over the garden like a gauze, hiding detail. Bea looked up at the blurry sky.
'Remember waiting for the first star?' she said at last.
'I still do sometimes,' said Alex, but he didn't look up.
'What else? What else do you do?' she asked.
'That,' he said. He moved his head towards the open pages of the visitors book. 'It's stupid. I don't know. It helps.'
Bea looked down at the pages of the book. She picked up two pens and held one out.
'Anne and Richard Henderson from Stroud,' she said.
There was a pause, and then he took the pen. She straightened the book for him. Slowly, carefully, he wrote the names.
'What did they like?' he said.
'They liked the weather, and the cooking,' said Bea, steadily.
'Wait, when were they here?’ he asked, panicking. ‘When did they stay here?'
'April the fourteenth,' said Bea. 'They were on their way to Paris.'
'April in Paris,' he enunciated.
He wrote the names, and date, then put down that pen, and she handed him another.
'Malcolm Elford,' she said. 'From Guildford.'
'Elford-Guilford,' said Alex, and giggled. He wrote the name, and filled in the dates himself. 'Mr. Elford couldn't be arsed to write a comment. He was only here on business.'
He picked up another pen and stretched his arms up. 'Rebecca and Ian Price from Hull!' he declared to the evening air. 'The Prices of Hull!'
'They loved the food,' said Bea.
They put in twenty in names, only pausing for Alex to turn on the outside lights.
'That's better,' he said. He closed the book and the only sound was the whisper of the treetops. 'Does Dan know how shit they were to you?'
'Me?' Bea answered. 'Bits and pieces.'
'Listen you don't have to stay. I'm used to them.'
'Don't be silly,' said Bea.
'Seriously, go. He sends me off to do stuff, she likes to think we're going to turn this place into something - it's fine. You can come back when they're gone.'
'No,' said Bea. 'I'm here.'
Bea came into their room to find Dan at the window, in the dark, as if he had been watching them in the garden. She switched on the light.
'Fucking hell,' she said.
'Did you sort him out?'
'You ok?' he said. 'We can just leave if you want.'
'No, no I can't. I'd like to, but I can't. I'm really sorry.'
‘Fine,' he said. 'We’ll handle it. Why is it so terrible? You haven't seen them in two years. They'll only be here a couple of days. We'll be polite, do the in-law thing, I get to charm them - '
'No, stop it - '
'How bad can it be?'
She sat on the edge of the bed. She covered her face.
'What?' he said. 'What makes you so crazy?'
'I'm not crazy.' Her voice was muffled by her hands. 'I'm just dreading it.'
He couldn't see her face. He couldn't read her.
'Why?' he asked.
'I just am.'
'Because your mum's a bitch?'
She shook her head.
'Why?' he asked again.
'I don't want you to see them,' she said. ‘I’ve never wanted you to have anything to do with them.’
'I don't want you having anything to do with them.'
'Why not?' he said. ‘What are you afraid of?'
She looked up, quickly. He took a step back, and crossed his arms.
'Look, whatever it's about,' he said, 'who gives a shit? Let's just go. Before they get here. We've got enough to deal with. Bea, let's go - ' He saw her eyes flicker, imagining it. 'We can pack up in ten minutes,' he said. ‘Alex will handle it. Bea - '
He was going to say more but they heard Alex's footsteps, running in the corridor, towards them, and then the bedroom door flew open.
'There you are!'
He was carrying a bottle of wine, a shovel, some bamboo sticks, and a fire extinguisher. Three red plastic boxes were slung over his shoulder, on strings. He held them up and shook them.
'What are you doing up here? It's time to check the snake traps!'