Return to the Little French Guesthouse

By: Helen Pollard

1





I knew there would be many unusual things in my new remit as manager of Rupert’s guesthouse, but I hadn’t guessed seeing the guests naked would be one of them.

It was early morning, just a couple of days into my new life at La Cour des Roses. I’d made myself an espresso – first things first – and taken it outside. With my feet bare so I could feel the grass between my toes and the refreshing dew against my skin, I pottered down the lawn, past beds of ornamental grasses and begonias and daisies, weeping willows, stepping stones leading off to secret arbours and seating spots, until I reached the chicken run, surrounded by shrubs and trees.

Draining my coffee, I donned flip-flops – bare feet were all very well, but nature lost its appeal when you found yourself toe-deep in chicken poop – and let the half-dozen fussing birds out of their safe house, giving them breakfast and water.

Backing out, I said a polite ‘Good morning’ to Gladys, one of our guests, who had wandered down after me.

‘Morning, Emmy. I thought I’d come out for a little peace and quiet before breakfast.’

I nodded my understanding. Gladys was an elderly lady holidaying with her daughter – an overbearing, middle-aged woman with a brusque manner. She didn’t take after her mother, a gentle soul whose company I enjoyed very much.

‘Clare’s planning our day,’ she explained wearily. ‘I’m sure it will be lovely.’ She fingered the draping leaves of a weeping pear as we wended our way back up the garden, the skin across the back of her hands paper-thin. ‘I love this colour, don’t you? Almost silvery.’

‘Yes. Beautiful. Gladys, why don’t you tell Clare that you’re tired and you’d like to spend the day here? You could relax and enjoy the garden.’

Gladys gave a short laugh then put on an unconvincing smile. ‘Don’t worry. I like sightseeing, and I can’t complain with Clare doing all the hard work.’

Hearing a clatter of shutters, it was a natural reaction for both of us to glance up at the house. How could I have known we should’ve looked anywhere but there? If only I’d had a great big cappuccino instead of a tiny espresso, and lingered over it at the bottom of the garden. If only I’d taken my time admiring the silvery weeping pear leaves. If only I’d linked arms with Gladys to steady her as we walked.

Because there stood Geoffrey Turner in all his glory.

He’d pulled aside the voile curtains to open the shutters and unfortunately the bedroom windows were tall and low slung on the upper storey of the house… As was Geoffrey Turner. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d been young, fit and tanned – but mid-fifties, white and pot-bellied was not a sight I wanted to see on an empty stomach.

My mouth dropped open in shock. As did his. The voile curtains were hurriedly tugged shut – although since the whole point of voile is that it’s practically see-through, that didn’t help much. And by then, it was a tad too late.

I heard a gasp from Gladys. Unsurprisingly, she hadn’t been watching her feet. She tripped over the edge of a flowerbed, stumbled and fell. I caught one of her arms, but she landed with the other awkwardly underneath her.

Crouching, I waited for her to catch her breath. ‘Gladys, are you all right?’

She tried a wobbly smile. ‘I’ll be fine, Emmy. I just need to get myself back up.’ But as she used both hands to push, she yelped in pain.

I didn’t want to risk hurting her by tugging her around. ‘I’ll go and get Clare.’

Gladys managed a wan smile. ‘Didn’t think a naked man could have such a dramatic effect at my age!’

With an answering smile, I shot off to the house and up the stairs to their room.

Clare, her hair wet from the shower, expressed immediate alarm and came running out, helping me to lift her mother so we could walk her to the kitchen and sit her on a chair.

‘What hurts, Mother? Have you broken something?’ Clare’s voice was brittle with anxiety, her hands fluttering at her sides.

‘There’s no need to fuss,’ the old lady said, although she was still shaken. ‘Nothing hurts other than my pride and my wrist.’

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