This wasn't exactly the honeymoon Ed had been hoping for. He leaned against a railing and tried to scratch the mosquito bite on the back of his leg with his other foot while he looked for Juliette. A gîte in the south of France had sounded idyllic when Juliette had suggested it. Just the two of them, hot weather, beautiful countryside and romantic dinners in exquisite restaurants. The reality was somewhat different. Ed's English constitution was not made for the unbearable August heat. The roads melted and stuck to the underside of the tiny hired Citroën. Every time they went out, Ed spent most of the time looking for shade. And at night the windows had to be open, so mosquitoes felt free to come in and feast upon his uncovered flesh.
But he had been totally unprepared for the feelings of inadequacy that had struck him. It started on the plane. Juliette was unconcerned by the flight, but he found his old anxieties crowding in and became tense and terse with her. Why did Juliette have to be better at everything than him? No fear of flying for her. She laughed at him for being scared of the giant black French hornets which seemed to delight in tormenting him. And she was better at French than him too. He could remember où est la gare? from school, and how to describe the contents of his pencil case, but that didn't help much when trying to sort out the hire car, or work out what on earth he was ordering in a restaurant.
Today felt like another failure. They had slept late and then gone to the local supermarket to get food for dinner. But it turned out that it was the Feast of the Assumption, a Catholic national holiday, and the supermarket was closed. In fact everything was closed. For a secular country, the French certainly took their bank holidays seriously. Even the restaurants were shut. They had wandered wearily around town until they had seen a poster for the fête de l'assomption festivities. The town square was taken over by a fair with rides, music and stalls selling candyfloss and waffles. Juliette had pointed out that candyfloss was called barbe à papa - Daddy's beard - which she thought was cute. Ed wished he had some interesting or cultural tidbit to share, but he couldn't think of anything. He'd spent his student years playing football and working in a bar, while she seemed to have spent it watching French films and reading classic literature.
Ed started to fidget anxiously, still scanning the crowd for Juliette. One moment they had been walking together, and the next he had lost her. Or had she lost him? He took a deep breath and decided to walk on amongst the stalls, hoping to catch up with her. Strings of lights crisscrossed the square from tree to tree, twinkling and casting odd shadows here and there. Juliette had been delighted by the lights and had tried unsuccessfully to take a picture of them. Would their honeymoon photos consist of blurry night scenes and Ed looking hot and sunburnt?
Juliette would turn up soon, she had to. He was blasted by a burst of Europop as he passed a ride. It was the kind that whirled you round and round in something like teacup. Circles inside circles, like a mini planet orbiting the sun at breakneck speed. A child staggered off the ride, looking green. Ed was feeling a bit nauseous, but perhaps that was the moules et frites he had eaten. He wouldn't have thought of eating seafood from what looked like a burger van, but there wasn't much else on offer, and he couldn't subsist on candyfloss. He just hoped that he didn't get food poisoning. Ed reached the bandstand, where a band was playing frenetic French jazz and turned back. No sign of Juliette. He'd get some coffee, that would help.
"Un café, s'il vous plait."
He paid and received a tiny cup of strong black espresso. He really wanted a something large and milky, but there was no way his French was up to asking for anything different, so he knocked back the thimbleful of coffee, which did nothing to quench his thirst, and only added to his irritation. He couldn't even manage to buy a normal coffee on his own. What if he couldn't find Juliette? They hadn't arranged a place to meet up, and he didn't know enough French to ask anyone for help. The music was driving him slightly mad. He'd have to ask Juliette, if he ever found her, if this was the kind of jazz she liked. Hopefully not. He scratched his neck, where a new mosquito bite had appeared.
Wandering away from the music, Ed found a quiet square further from the crowds and sat on a bench overlooking the valley. He'd never seen a night sky like it before. There was so little light pollution, you could make out millions of stars. He could see constellations he recognised, but he was amazed to see so many other stars in between. From here the jazz had faded into more benign background music, and he listened to the voices of people ordering ice cream from a stall close by.
"Une boule de fraise."
Strawberry, he remembered that from school. Or was it raspberry?
"Une boule de chocolat."
Well that was obvious.
"Une boule de cassis."
Ed smiled. He knew that one. Crème de cassis was blackcurrant liqueur; he had used it to make kir royale cocktails when he worked in a bar. Who knew it would actually come in useful?
Suddenly, Juliette was there in the queue, beautiful in her summer dress and freckled shoulders. She was pointing at the picture of the blackcurrant ice cream, but couldn't remember the word. She looked a little lost and absurdly young.
"Une boule de ...."
Ed walked up behind her.
"Cassis," he said.
Juliette looked up at him in surprise and smiled.
"Oh, thank goodness you're here."
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As I was reading this I was already thinking to praise you for placing you ‘lost character’ in a setting where he doesn’t quite know the language to get around. That adds an extra element of uncertainty to your beautifully written prose. You can imagine how delighted I was with the way you ended it, with him remembering the word she couldn’t recall. Loved this. Such a clever and well thought out piece.
Thank you so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it! And thank you for your thoughtful comments.