What Happens at the Beach... (4 page)

‘I'm so pleased to hear you say that, Natalie. You're so right. But, anyway, don't let it get you down too much. You're doing the right thing, I'm sure. And you're not on your own, darling. You've got me, after all.' She gave Natalie a comforting smile. ‘And anyway, like I say, you're a very pretty girl and you'll soon have the men fighting over you.'

Natalie shook her head. ‘The last thing I want for now is anything to do with another man. The fact is, all that'll happen is I'll think I've found somebody to be with and then, a year or two down the line, it'll all fall apart again, just like it's done with David. My number one priority for now is to find myself a job and a place to live. I'm going to concentrate on becoming self-sufficient. Maybe I'm better off on my own anyway, Granny.'

‘Nobody wants to be alone. You'll find somebody, when the time's right. And in the meantime you concentrate on your career and, remember, like I say, you've got me.' Then her grandmother surprised her. ‘And another thing, Natalie; don't you think you're a bit too old to be calling me
? It makes me feel so ancient.' Natalie found herself grinning at her. ‘You're a grown woman now, so do you think you could bring yourself to call me by my real name, like everybody else?'

It took Natalie a few moments to remember her grandmother's first name. ‘You mean Colette?'

‘Of course. Do you think you could manage that?'

‘Yes, of course… Colette. I mean Gran. I mean Colette…' She paused. ‘Oh no, it's no good. I can't, Gran, I just can't.' Natalie caught her eye and shrugged her shoulders helplessly. ‘Sorry, Gran. It just doesn't feel right.'

‘I understand, dear. I only asked you as I was rather hoping people might start thinking I was your big sister.' The old lady erupted into a fit of giggles.

Just then, their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a visitor.

‘Ah, here he is, Natalie. This is my special friend. I forgot to tell you about him. He comes to visit me every day.' She sounded very animated. Natalie looked up and saw that the object of her attention was a handsome black Labrador with a red collar who had appeared round the side of the house and was heading straight for the table. He was wagging his tail enthusiastically and he came across and nuzzled Colette with his nose. He sat down beside her and put a paw on her thigh.

‘What a beaut.' Natalie had always loved dogs and her grandmother had always had a dog in the house until the last few years. ‘Where does he come from?'

Hearing her voice, the dog relinquished Colette and trotted round to Natalie's side. He looked up at her with big brown eyes and Natalie fell instantly in love with him. The feeling was obviously mutual as the dog reared up on his hind legs and did his best to climb onto her lap. Kindly, she pushed him back onto the ground and took the big black head in both hands. ‘Who needs a stupid fiancé when there's a handsome chap like you around? And where've you come from?'

‘I think he's from the chateau. You know it was sold last autumn?' Natalie vaguely recalled her grandmother telling her something to that effect, but she had been here so rarely over the past few years. ‘It's been bought by some rich people, most probably for a holiday home. At least, that's what I hear from Marie who got the news from Maître Delatour. They're foreign, maybe even English.' A note of regret entered Colette's voice. ‘No surprise there. All the most beautiful places are being bought up by foreigners and turned into holiday homes. The local people can't afford to buy houses down here any longer. It's a real problem.'

By this time the dog had collapsed onto his back on the flagstones and was grunting happily to himself as Natalie scratched his tummy. ‘So does he have a name?' She spotted a medallion hanging from the dog's bright red collar. Squinting down at it, she saw that it only bore a telephone number, no name.

‘I call him Charlie and he doesn't seem to mind.' No surprise there. All the dogs her grandparents had ever had had been called Charlie. Up till now they had all been cocker spaniels, but the name seemed to suit the big black dog just as well. Natalie looked down at him again.

‘So, Charlie, would you like a biscuit?' The dog clearly understood what was on offer. He rolled to one side and leapt to his feet, tail wagging. Natalie glanced across at her grandmother. ‘Have you been giving him bad habits?'

‘He always gets a biscuit when he comes to see me. I got Jeanne to buy some proper dog biscuits when she did my shopping. I'm just being hospitable, after all. You'll find them inside on the window ledge.'

Natalie went into the kitchen, located the packet of bone-shaped dog biscuits and removed one. Back outside, she gave it to the dog who took it delicately from her fingers and settled down at her feet, the biscuit held vertically between his front paws, to crunch it up. Natalie glanced at Colette again. ‘And here I was thinking you might be lonely.'

‘I could never be lonely down here.' A distant expression crossed her old face. ‘Everywhere I look, I see friends and I remember them. I see the bench your grandfather made, where he used to sit in the evenings, smoking those disgusting yellow
papier maïs
cigarettes of his. I see the flower bed he planted and obstinately watered all the way through every long dry summer. I see the path up which the fishermen would come every morning to sell us fresh fish from the bay. I see the towers of the chateau where Madame de Gruchy lived. She used to give us kids sweeties and serve us lemonade made from the lemons in her garden. I'm not lonely, Natalie, and now that you're here, that's just perfect.' She looked across and caught Natalie's eye. ‘And you mustn't feel lonely either. It'll all work out for you, just like it worked out for me.'

She closed her eyes and Natalie saw the weariness in her face. Ninety was, after all, a grand old age. Meanwhile the dog, having finished the biscuit and then having licked the stones all round him for any remaining crumbs, stood up and took his leave. Natalie watched as he trotted off back the way he had come, his tail still wagging lazily, until he disappeared from sight into the scrubby bushes alongside the path. Just visible above the roof of her grandmother's house were the twin turrets of the chateau. Natalie reflected that this was a very lucky Labrador to live in such a place, with a whole hillside where he could roam free. Like Colette, she looked forward to seeing him again. As it happened, this was to be sooner than she expected.

She spent the day helping her grandma and chatting, catching up on all the news. Just before lunch, she took the little Renault and a long shopping list and drove down to the shops in Banyuls-sur-Mer. As well as food, wine and water, she also found a rather nice new bikini; fairly minimal, but not obscene. It was comfortable, a good fit, and not too expensive. That was all that mattered.

After lunch, they both had a little siesta. Colette retired to her room, while Natalie chose to snooze on the old wooden sun bed under the vines. It had been built by her grandfather and had been there for as long as she could remember. It was made of cypress wood and the aroma was still intoxicating even after the passage of the years. Miraculously it was still solid enough to take her weight. She dozed for an hour, aided by the two glasses of ice cold rosé she had drunk with her lunch, before getting up and digging out her laptop. She scanned her emails and spotted one from David. The content was far from inspiring.

Nat, sorry you felt you had to leave. Everybody was asking where you had gone off to on Saturday. I said you weren't feeling very well. I haven't told my parents about your moment of bad temper. I've put the ring on the bedside table. When are you coming back? There's the office summer party at the end of the month and I really need you with me for that.


Moment of bad temper
? Only the presence of her grandmother in the next room prevented Natalie from squealing at his crass choice of words. If she had been harbouring any lingering doubts as to the wisdom of breaking off the engagement, this email confirmed she had made the right decision. He really had changed from the man she had first met. And, she told herself firmly, she had changed as well. She was no longer the helpless, lonely girl who had latched on to him in her moment of crisis. She had grown up and she, like David, had changed. She no longer needed a man to look after her and hold her hand. She was fully capable of standing on her own two feet.

She turned her attention to the other emails, hoping that one of them might at least bring good news on the employment front. She had been scouring the internet for lecturing positions anywhere in the UK or France, but the sad fact was that good jobs in medieval history were few and far between. There was nothing of interest, except for one from Amy in Cambridge, and a very kind and heartening email from her professor, telling her she was casting about, looking for jobs for Natalie. She said she would be in touch if anything suitable presented itself.

Finally, she read Amy's email. The night she had spent with her before taking the plane to France had been a pretty downbeat affair. She had recounted to Amy the events of the garden party, in particular the conversation she had overheard in the kitchen. As ever, Amy was supportive. They had known each other since their schooldays and there wasn't much about Natalie that Amy didn't know. She had been a tower of strength when Natalie's parents had died and they had stayed close ever since. And, since the break-up with David, she was her closest friend in the UK. Today's email from her, predictably, was to see if Natalie was feeling better. Before answering, Natalie sat back and reflected. Seeing her grandmother again had been wonderful and this place, with the sun shining outside and the hum of the bees in the flowers in the garden, had cheered her immensely. Being with her grandmother was beginning to remove, or at least reduce, the sense of loneliness that had haunted her for so long and make her aware that she was a stronger person than before. Here, in Colette, she had somebody with whom she knew she could talk about anything. She found she was able to reply to Amy in all sincerity that she was indeed beginning to feel better now.

Natalie closed the laptop and sat quietly for a few minutes, doing her best to banish her anger at David, before going out onto the landing. She decided she had better check on her grandmother, so she tiptoed to her door and peered into the shadowy interior. The shutters were firmly closed as this room faced south and, without them, it would have become intolerably hot in there. As it was, it felt pleasantly cool. There was a movement from the bed and she saw her grandmother turn her head towards the door. ‘Hello, dear. It's all right, I'm awake. Did you have a little sleep?'

‘I dozed a bit, and it was lovely out there under the vines. There are already little grapes forming in bunches. Looks like it'll be a bumper harvest.'

Colette nodded. ‘Shall we have a cup of tea? I've been lying down for long enough. I need to get up and tidy up the house. Jeanne comes in at five, so I've got an hour before that.'

Natalie smiled to herself. It was the carer's job to do any tidying up for her grandmother, not the other way round. While Colette went out to the table under the trellis, Natalie went into the kitchen and made two mugs of tea. She brought them out and they sat and chatted until the carer arrived. Once Jeanne had taken over, Natalie decided to go down to the beach for another swim and maybe a drink at the beachside bar. This time, as she walked down through the pine trees, the air was scalding hot and it felt almost suffocating beneath the shelter of the branches. It was a relief to come out onto the beach. Here, at least, a light breeze cooled the air and she began to breathe easily once more. Two sailing boats were now moored to the jetty and a couple of towels on the beach showed that she would no longer be alone. However, considering it was the middle of July, it was remarkable how few people had discovered this little bay. As she stepped onto the sand, she spotted a familiar figure.

‘Hello, Charlie.' Hearing her voice, the Labrador turned round and sprang to his feet. He had been sitting right by the water's edge, his eyes glued on the sea. Seeing Natalie, he came trotting over, tail wagging, to greet her. She dropped down onto one knee to pet him, the heat of the sand almost unbearable under her bare skin. ‘What're you doing down here?' Natalie looked out to sea, following the direction of the dog's eyes, but couldn't spot anybody or anything in particular. She straightened up and went across to the rocks, stripping off her shorts and setting them on a warm rock along with her towel and her dark glasses. She then hopped hurriedly across the burning beach until she got to the blessed relief of the damp sand at the water's edge and waded into the sea.

The dog followed her as far as his elbows but no further. She even picked up a few stones and threw them into the deeper water for him, but without success. It would appear that this particular Labrador was not a fan of the water, unlike most of his breed. Unable to persuade him to accompany her, Natalie left him on the beach and waded out until she could sink gratefully into the deeper water, feeling revitalised as it cooled her down. She swam slowly out, parallel with the rocky shore, diving down from time to time to check out the sea bed. She spotted shells, some patches of weed and one little crab, but nothing else of interest. However, the sea was crystal clear and she loved the sensation of the cool water on her skin and in her hair as she twisted and turned under water like a mermaid.

She was hanging on to her same mooring buoy, floating on her back with her head in the water, when she suddenly became aware of a noise and then a moment later felt something bump into her shoulder. She swung round to find it was another swimmer. Clearly he had been swimming in from the open sea with his face down and hadn't seen her before ploughing into her. Realising his mistake, he stopped and straightened up, his expression apologetic. He shook the water out of his eyes and ran his hand across his short-cropped hair. He caught her eye and summoned a smile. ‘
Excusez moi, madame
.' Then he turned and resumed his apparently effortless front crawl back towards the shore.

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