Penchant and Prejudice
Brittany in the spring: sea salt, garlic, coffee, gauloises…closing her eyes seemed to intensify the aromas. A woman on a mission, she knew she couldn´t keep them shut.
“Qu´est-ce que vous désirez, Madame?”
Anne opened her eyes, startled by the voice but not registering the waiter standing by her shoulder.
“Madame? Vous désirez?”
‘Desire, desire, what do I desire?’ thought Anne, smoothing back her blond hair from her forehead and tucking it behind her ear. She liked her new cut; a short bob with length at the front. It made her face look more youthful she thought, in fact her friends said it took years off. She´d taken this as a compliment.
Should she have coffee? Or maybe an herbal tea? Anne´s eyes met the waiter´s, just a slip of a boy. She imagined her mother’s voice, ‘You´re old enough to be his mother, now make up your mind what you want to drink!’ Anne mentally checked herself and attempted her best school girl French.
“Ah oui, un grand café au lait, s´il vous plait.”
“Très bien, Madame.”
Anne took a deep breath and watched the waiter weave his way through the late morning melee. She couldn´t help feeling butterflies rise and fall in her stomach, like a young girl on a first date. The irony of the situation would normally have made her laugh, but this time, there was a deep sadness. Indeed it was worse than that, it was a void. The hardest part was over, she was sure. There were stages apparently, she had a very good counsellor, but Anne often wondered whether true acceptance would ever dawn. Their children had seemed to take it much more easily and move on.
Anne sipped her café au lait and savoured every drop of warm, frothy milk meeting with strong, dark coffee. Yin and yang in a cup… ‘How true it is that opposites only exist in relation to each other’, she mused. She checked her watch and saw a pale reflection looking back at her. What did she have to do to get her eyes back? The ones full of life and laughter? She shifted in her chair and waited.
There she was! Barbara! Emerging from the back of the café, awkwardly at first and then walking on air, swinging her hips, strutting her stuff. Too tall for herself, she had to duck slightly as she passed underneath the ceiling fan. She adjusted her bra strap for the umpteenth time since leaving the ladies. She’d obviously been to freshen up as she was furiously licking her front teeth, removing traces of crimson lipstick. She sat down at a small table inside the front of the café, crossing her legs and pulling her bright red dress down her thigh. Her foot kicked nervously and she kept on tugging at the hem of her dress. Thighs and calves to die for though! Lean and muscular, Anne felt frumpy in comparison.
Tables and chairs spilled out on to the pavement to meet a faux box hedge border, marking out the café’s territory. Anne had a good enough vantage point from her seat near the outside edge. There was little chance Barbara would see past the oversized plant filling the long space between them. Drumming her fingers on the table, her restless hands needed another coffee. She didn´t dare draw attention to herself by calling the waiter. Instead she closed her eyes and took deep gulps of salty air. Someone on the next table was drinking aniseed - Pernod or maybe Ricard? The rhythmic clank of metal halyards on aluminum masts punctuated the incessant chatter of a foreign language. Heaven to her ears. Eyes open once more, Anne could see the tops of small yachts dipping in and out of sight at the marina. She breathed in the picture postcard setting; buildings of varying heights, some top heavy with more and more layers as they reached upwards; coloured wooden shutters, net curtains flapping in the cool, spring breeze. As close to bliss as it comes.
The sound of a cackling laugh pierced the air. Anne recognized it only too well. She adjusted herself slightly to get a better view. What on earth was Barbara doing now? She appeared to be reveling in eating an oyster, entertaining the neighbouring tables in the process. Head back, elbow stuck out at a right angle to her body, salt water streaking from the corners of her mouth as her long neck slugged the creature. She dabbed at her mouth delicately with a napkin, then forgetting herself, rubbed the side of her face a bit too vigorously, leaving traces of yellow paper along her jawline. Anne squirmed silently and deep inside felt a sudden pang of tenderness. She could see Barbara was talking to a man in a pin-stripe suit on the next table, but couldn´t hear what they were saying. She couldn´t even identify the language; the café was so busy, mostly with locals and business people on a working lunch.
Anne clenched her fists. Now she was here, she wasn´t sure what she should do. She glanced around; other people were mainly chatting or checking their phones. She should have brought a book. Her stomach started to rumble. She picked up a menu and tried to decipher the scrawl of the font. Too much choice. Her mother would say she had undoubtedly inherited her father’s ‘hesitancy syndrome.’
The unmistakable cackle exploded once more. Anne looked up. The pin-stripe suit was sitting at Barbara’s table! He was filling two glasses from a bottle of Moet et Chandon! Anne felt the back of her neck bristle. She watched from her vantage point as the man and Barbara talked and laughed together. He topped up her glass. He touched her knee!
Anne’s foot jiggled up and down furiously. She fiddled with her necklace and crossed and uncrossed her legs in an attempt to tame her agitation. The pin-stripe suit had his hand under the table. Anne strained to see, but another customer was blocking her view. Finally she could stand it no longer. She scrabbled in her purse for a five euro note and dropped it in her saucer. Adjusting her hair, she pushed her way through the maze of tables to the inside of the café.
Barbara stopped suddenly in mid cackle, the colour draining from her face.
“Anne, what are you doing here?”
“I followed you,” replied Anne, matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean…followed?” stammered Barbara, her voice wobbling.
“You’re coming with me. We need to talk.”
Anne marched off, clutching her handbag beneath her arm. After a few moments, she paused and looked back. Like a baby giraffe trying to find its legs, the gauche figure was following her along the pavement. She turned and kept walking.
“Anne, Anne, please wait! I can’t keep up with you in these heels!”
Anne slowed and came to a stop underneath the umbrella of a neatly manicured tree. She waited for the clumsy creature to catch up. Anne felt herself revving up for a real argument. Well why not? Letting rip once in a while made her feel better.
“So why exactly did you follow me?” a breathless voice over her shoulder asked.
Anne span on her heel and spat each word, “Oysters, Champagne, what was going to happen next?”
“For goodness sake, Anne, please...” came the reply.
“Well you looked like you were getting pretty cozy to me!” Anne retorted.
“Don’t be ridiculous! I thought you understood me. Yin and yang and all that. Your words, not mine!”
“Don’t you dare turn this round to be my problem,” snapped Anne, “I have supported you and done my best, but I don’t think I can continue watching you make a fool of yourself, because that’s what you are doing!”
Puppy dog eyes stared deep inside her. Anne felt a tension soften slightly in her chest, but then her resolve hardened again as she looked the pathetic figure up and down. She stood on the edge of the pavement, looking upwards through the emerging green of a tree, searching for a sign from her ‘perhaps-God’. She wasn´t sure whether she believed or not. She could hear her mother’s voice: ‘Stop dithering girl! Make up your mind!’ She was on the edge of a precipice; she just wasn´t sure which way to jump.
“Soul mates, best friends…” came a whimper.
“Stop, stop, I´ve heard it all before,” screamed Anne. “This is the end of the road for us because you are obviously not going to change!”
She turned, looked over her right shoulder and stepped off the edge of the pavement. In a moment of protracted stillness, Anne froze in the road as she realized she’d looked the wrong way…the red car came from the left, its engine roared, its brakes screeched, and a familiar voice crashed through the air,
Strong, broad hands shoved her shoulders. She was thrust to the tarmac. Small chips of stone embedded themselves beneath the skin of her chin, palms, and knees. The warm, metallic tang of blood seeped in to her mouth.
She lay there motionless for what seemed like an eternity. Soon there were voices, people, words she could hear but not understand.
Voices chattered all around her, but the words made no sense. She peeled her face from the tarmac and twisted her neck round. There in the road, sitting next to her was Barbara, mouth wide open like a fish in mid-breath, blood and mascara streaking down both cheeks.
“Are you okay? Please, are you okay?” pleaded Anne, “you saved my life. You saved me. Please, are you all right?”
There was no response, just a blank, staring expression.
A mound of blond hair, detached like an abandoned scalp, lay a few feet from them in the road.
A crowd had gathered, mostly pointing and staring, some laughing and others plainly shocked. A group of college students, three workmen, and a woman with a poodle under her arm. A man standing by a red car was gesticulating wildly and pointing at Anne. She could feel their sniggers and taunts even though she didn´t understand the language.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est, man or woo-man?”
This, Anne understood. She heaved her weight up from the road, staggered towards the roadside and spat the words into the crowd,
“Listen to me you people, this, this person, well, this is Barry.”
Anne spun round, pointing at the shivering wreck that she’d abandoned behind her.
“And I can tell you that Barry is twice the man that any of you will ever be. He’s kind, compassionate, intelligent; he’s a teacher you know, and he would never, not ever, judge anyone else because of their appearance.”
One of the workmen jeered and said something clearly obscene.
“Well sorry if the clothes and make-up shock you, but he was dressing up, you know, just dressing up. And I am proud of Barry. He is my husband and I am proud of him.”
The crowd started to disperse but the college girls stayed put, giggling behind their hands, whispering and tittering.
Anne felt blood rushing to her cheeks, beads of sweat gathering on her forehead. Damn this, she didn´t have the words to explain it in any language. How could she, when she didn´t understand it herself? All she could do was round on them with all her force,
“And you, the country of freedom and democracy, of enlightenment and…”
Anne felt strong, broad hands on her shoulders. This time they pulled her in and stopped her flow.
“Enough, Anne, enough. You´ve made your point.”
Anne turned round and looked at the sorry, broken figure in front of her. A feeling of deep calm flowed through her, bringing her down from her exasperated state.
“You said you were proud of me, Anne. Did you really mean it?”
“Yes, Barry. Let’s go home.”