Short fiction by Lander Hawes
It was an interruption. Mark had reached the end of the table where the actors were talking, and they’d reacted to his unfamiliar voice. It appeared each one had assumed that his approach was of a colleague who’d entered the villa to rest or shower after the performance and had now returned. So, the seated company were startled when the breach of Mark’s voice sounded so close, including of course the glamorous lead who’d played Beauty in the production that Mark and Emily had taken their daughters to that afternoon.
“We’re just next door…”
Mark was accustomed to making decisive compliments.
“…And well I just wanted to say how much we enjoyed the show.”
As he finished speaking, he panned his line of sight across them, so as not to make it obvious, and then stopped at the desirable woman to gaze, to linger his attention in an excusable way, and to allow her fresh splendour to impress upon him more fully.
One of the others: a bare-chested, lean man, strongly muscled in the shoulders, replied in heavily-accented English.
“We sign your programme?”
He had the kind of tan Mark associated with pre-mechanical harvests and bygone rural life; the colour of the syrupy honey sold by the litre in the local markets, and the same hue as the attendant the family had hired canoes from the day before. It wasn’t a colour that a visitor or tourist, a mere passer-by like him, could realistically set out to acquire.
Another man, older and with a goatee, murmured a comment in French, whilst rotating the base of his wine glass using his thumb and forefinger.
“The girls have the programme. I’ll bring it along tomorrow.”
Mark kept up his unfocused enthusiasm, hoping that in the stalled pause of their diverted attention the actors would notice his TAG-Heuer watch, or the designer tags on his expensive shorts and T-shirt. He felt reminded of when, in a brief period in his mid-twenties, he had acted professionally, as if he and these actors were together in a bar post-show and he was confirming their orders on a round of drinks. In fact, had he stayed in that career, he thought that this was the kind of company he might have managed. Despite his present success in digital marketing, he felt that these were his people, that he had a claim to them.
The actor that had spoken half-stood and outstretched his arm to shake hands, and Mark grasped.
“See you around,” he said, contriving a guileless smile he supposed was typical of fans. As he left, the silent actors watching, Mark wondered if the handshake man was sleeping with the remarkable blonde, and he thought about what he could say or do to make such an exclusive woman fascinated by him. He was a married man, a father, and in his mid-forties: a moment of fascination would be enough.
His objective was sitting in the cool of the kitchen.
“Can we help?”
“I was hoping for some signatures. You remember yesterday?”
She began pushing aside the papers on the table, searching for a pen. Her hair was tied back with a simple band and she wore a denim dress; he felt an inner quiver as he marvelled at the delicacy of her fine-cut mouth.
“I have one.”
Mark passed the gold-nib fountain pen he’d been careful to bring, and sat down opposite as she leant over the programme.
“Actually, I was hoping to discuss something else. It’s just an idea really…”
“What’s your name?”
“Mark. Very English. I’m Simone, and she is Beatrice.”
Beatrice smiled and rested a hand on Simone’s shoulder.
“Hi. Yes, you see, it’s my wife’s birthday next week, and I thought we could arrange for you to teach my daughters your song; the one from the feast in the castle. We’re working on their French out here, and Emily would love to hear the girls sing it.”
Simone commented in French to Beatrice, who nodded.
“It’s a perfect idea.” Simone said.
“Obviously I can pay a tuition fee. Usually I’d spend 600 euros on a necklace or earrings.”
As he spoke he frowned and faced the window, to prevent the shifts and probe of his gaze betraying the grip and appetite of his need.
Beatrice squeezed Simone’s shoulder.
“If you like,” Simone said.
She placed her hand to cover Beatrice’s and turned up to her. This exposed her soft, coppery underarm, and the groin-like stubble of her armpit. She looked back to Mark.
“Are you having a nice holiday with your family? We have noticed your car in the mornings.”
“The girls love it here.”
He wanted to touch her slender, supple face; he felt excited by the casual tactility between the two women. Then, Simone leaned forward and touched his forearm.
“We will be part of your holiday.”
Mark felt this moment of fascination sink in and expire: it wasn’t going to be enough.
“Can we start tomorrow?”
“Yes, I think so.”
They arranged the first session for the following afternoon, so when the family returned from sightseeing after lunch Mark told Emily of a picnic table in the woods on the hill, where he and the girls, Isla and Millie, would go to learn French nature vocabulary. For a moment he feared she would ask to come, but fortunately she was glad for the space. She went to lie down, and as Mark prepared the girls to leave he heard laughter from upstairs: at posts on Facebook perhaps, or prompted by a novel.
Once away from the villa, Mark squatted to speak to his daughters.
“I’ve got a surprise. Do you remember the castle song in the play? Well the actors are living in this villa just there, and they’re going to teach it to you.”
“Will you come too, Daddy?” Millie asked.
“Yes don’t worry. And then we can sing to Mummy. But we’ve got to pretend it’s going to be Mummy’s birthday soon, or otherwise the actors won’t teach us the song.”
At the actors’ villa, Simone answered the door, in costume.
“It’s Beauty, it’s Beauty, Daddy.” Isla said, hopping up and down.
Inside, Simone and Beatrice had prepared outfits for the girls: floor-length dresses and headbands made of coiled plastic vines and fabric flowers. Presently, they were outside on the terrace, sipping cloudy lemonade and listening to Beatrice as she plucked chords on a guitar.
“Are you ready?” Simone asked the girls, who nodded in a rapid, adorable way.
For much of the session Mark sat and observed, his role confined to encouraging Isla and Millie, and correcting when one mispronounced an unfamiliar consonant or forgot the order of the words. Simone sang from the bench opposite him, or demonstrated steps from the stage dance. Early on, Mark had noticed her gladiator sandals, and he struggled to stop glancing at her toes, so neat in their tight restraints.
“Is Daddy a singer?” Simone asked.
“Yes, yes,” Isla and Millie said.
And for a while Mark joined in on the chorus, his voice awkward, uneven and loitering in his throat. He danced a few steps, feeling poorly made so near to Simone’s physical grace, and overgrown in his middle-age.
Towards the end of the lesson the actors’ red van parked up at the side of the villa, and Mark watched from the corner of the terrace as Simone went to greet them. She nodded and smiled to what seemed to be serious questions from the two men in the cab; and the driver, the handshake actor, nodded solemnly to him, so Mark touched his forehead in response. As it was, they took the gear inside via a back door, and the lesson went uninterrupted.
The session the following day was even better, although during the morning’s sightseeing Emily had heard Isla humming the tune from the song, and Isla had giggled uncontrollably when Emily had remarked on it. This time Beatrice sung a verse, they all joined in on the chorus, then Isla and Millie sang the next. Simone, recently showered, played the guitar, and Mark tried not to smile whenever their eyes met. Today also, the red van arrived during the hour, but this time the three male actors sat at a picnic table in the garden, smoking and conferring just out of earshot.
“There is an argument with the manager of the theatre,” Simone explained once Beatrice had taken the girls in for pastries.
She was inserting the guitar into its case.
“It’s always the same when these country shows are very popular.”
She closed the lid and straightened up.
“It’s me they come to see,” she said, her young face taut and sullen.
Mark sighed and propped an arm against the house. He wanted to convey that this next question was a difficult one, that taking risks and disregarding boundaries were unusual behaviours for him.
“There was another thing. It’s just that generally when I buy my wife a present, I buy myself something too.”
“Yes. And this year, I wondered if my present could be you?”
Disengaging from eye contact, Simone busied herself closing the clasps on the case, and frowning a little. He tongued the back of his teeth whilst examining her downcast face.
“I have two thousand here.”
She took a full breath.
“That is a very different type of question. And a very different, arrangement.”
“Yes, but equally simple.”
She finished the clasps and stood up, the case held lengthways across her thighs.
“We can talk tomorrow afternoon, under those trees on the hill behind.”
“See you then.”
“Now, I want the money for the lessons.”
Wanting to refuse and require she wait until tomorrow, but aware of the men in the villa, as well as Isla and Millie, he thumbed out sufficient notes.
“I should say goodbye to your girls.”
She pushed the money into a rear pocket, and with a brief, squinting smile at him, went inside.
The next afternoon Mark told Emily that he was going to the picnic table to make some prospective calls to clients and update his spreadsheets. After kissing her and the girls, he managed to carry off two rolled blankets without anyone noticing, as well as a condom from the packet in his luggage. His laptop bag slung on his shoulder, Mark hurried away from the villa and up the hill, exerting in the dry heat, passing alongside the massed sunflowers.
Approaching the wooded crest he saw a yellow hem of Simone’s stage dress flutter out from behind a stout oak tree, fanning in the breeze, and he swallowed, relishing. He had imagined her dressed in the Beauty outfit, perhaps even in a tiara. It would make sense, she was an actress after all, a performer; she would want to do this properly. He wondered what restrictions she might impose, what flimsy boundaries she might set; in these situations there were always those. If he was lucky, he thought, she would be wearing the gladiator sandals.
On reaching the other side of the tree he stopped in anger and shock; a burning diffused inside his torso. A mop and a headless broom handle were tied in a crucifix and leant against the trunk, the horizontal handle supporting the arms of the stained yellow dress. A black wig was fixed to the crotch, and its middle had been rubbed with Vaseline or other jelly; there was a red smear in there too: lipstick, Mark thought. The ropy strands of the mop had been daubed with yellow paint, and a pair of sunglasses pushed in. The dress stain appeared to be the brown of a wood preservative: a spillage backstage, he supposed.
Disorientated and breathing hard, his neck flushing, Mark looked amongst the trees and at the crowded sunflowers to see if any actors were there, or worse, a camera was positioned on a tripod. Seeing nothing of concern, and unable to bear the heated quiet, he pulled the grotesque scarecrow over and hurried back to the villa. Once there, he hyperventilated on the terrace for a few moments, before trying the door. It stuck in a familiar way, and realising that Emily had slid the low bolt, he leant his forehead against the planks, and from there he heard her laughing, louder and less inhibited than in a long time, raucous and exultant, and so he waited: a man outside.