THE NICE BOY
“But Ellen, he seems like such a nice boy!” I supposed that Mrs Sullivan (whom I was now allowed to call Sandra which, oddly, seemed less awkwardly intimate than the Auntie Sandra of my childhood – though of course, she was no relation at all). It would be unfair to say that she peppered her speech with the catchphrases of 70s comedians intentionally, but she would not have gone out of her way to avoid them.
It would be very easy – and perhaps not entirely inaccurate – to say that Melvyn Ainslie, the local doctor’s son, who was training to be a maths teacher, was the son she never had. But she did have a daughter. A daughter somewhat fancifully called Clementine, though her mother, resignedly, allowed it to be shortened to Clemmie, born “on the change”. She was thirteen, and I was twenty-one. And at those respective ages, an 8-year age gap matters. I couldn’t help thinking that the name Clementine, as it turned out, was both appropriate and unwittingly cruel. You might say a thirteen year old CAN’T have cellulite, but she managed it, especially on her thighs. I didn’t dislike the poor kid, who didn’t have much going for her, but most definitely didn’t see her as the little sister I never had.
I didn’t dislike Melvin, either. It would have been like disliking a rather earnest puppy. But even if bestiality hadn’t been illegal, that didn’t make him someone you wanted to marry! Mrs Sullivan looked on both of us with (it sometimes seemed) more fondness than she did on Clemmie, for all she referred to the unprepossessing, dough-faced child as “my precious late gift”.
“He is a nice boy,” I agreed, truthfully, rejoicing that we were not only in different years, but attended different universities, not precisely at opposite ends of the country, but far enough apart for even Mrs Sullivan to realise that regular visits weren’t really practical, especially as (at that time) neither of us could drive. Both of us were taking lessons and Mrs Sullivan perpetrated the myth that we were locked in mutually affectionate rivalry as to who passed first. Personally I didn’t care less, and he probably felt the same.
I “vented” my frustration to Mum, and she understood, but advised me to let it wash over me. “She’s always been a matchmaker,” she said, affectionately enough, and with a wry expression at the word “always”. Sandra liked to give the impression they had been (and she crossed her fingers in a conscious or unconscious imitation of the National Lottery logo) like that since they were embryos. It wasn’t strictly speaking true. Their mothers had been friends, and they’d had spells at the same school, but had drifted in and out of their connection and it was pure coincidence that they ended up living three doors apart from each other. “Mind you, when it comes to herself, she certainly pulled it off!” I knew what she meant, of course. Don’t get me wrong, she was quite pretty, and (fair enough!) a nice person, but she was forty and a volunteer at the animal sanctuary, and Clive was ten years younger and a highly-regarded vet. Something seemed to click, and it appeared to be a very happy marriage.
As ever, I was sorry to say goodbye to my parents when I went back to university, but it most definitely combined with relief at being out of the ambit of Sandra Sullivan’s determined efforts at matchmaking.
Towards the end of that academic year, I obtained a “significant other” called Josh. We’d always got on well, but almost drifted into what my friend Steph called “itemhood”. We had a lot in common – we both were in the choral society and the chess club, and both enjoyed getting out into the countryside at weekends though neither of us took it to extremes and you would have looked in vein for heavy duty hiking boots in our clothes. He was a keen ornithologist, but to my relief, not a twitcher. I had known one once and discovered that early mornings on a marsh in constant drizzle looking obsessively for some confused little bird that probably had no wish to be found was not my idea of fun. Josh did own a pair of binoculars, but he used them sparingly. Our relationship was comfortable rather than wildly romantic. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. He doesn’t sound that much different from Melvyn. I can’t deny it. At one point I found myself thinking rather worriedly that he even looked like him, but no, he didn’t. True, they both were of medium height and had brown hair, but that applied to a large chunk of the population.
There was never really much of a flame, just a well-meaning spark, but we had some good times together. Our relationship ended gently, and if not exactly painlessly, then without any deep anguish. I think we both realised that it was, at heart, a student thing, and when we went our separate ways, and didn’t belong to the same clubs and choirs, it would peter out. To be frank, my only abiding worry was that I supposed I’d have to tell Sandra we were no longer an item. When she had found out I did have a Significant Other she had at least eased off with her determined campaign to marry me off to Melvyn. She was sorry, but she had her principles.
I genuinely didn’t go overseas for a couple of years to escape Sandra. I won’t deny it was a pleasing side-effect, but not the main reason. I hadn’t been able to earn as much as I’d hoped with translation work, even though I’d also achieved a postgraduate qualification. I was thinking about taking a teacher training course, and I know it sounds remarkably petty to say one of the things that put me off was that Sandra would be bound to say that as Melvyn and I were both teachers that gave us something else in common (I would have questioned the “else”!) and that could have become very trying.
I compromised and DID do a course in Teaching English as a Second Language. It wasn’t entirely a random thing. Steph, who was half-French, had told me about an opening in a languages school her Aunt Marianne managed in Normandy, but as she believed in doing things “properly” I would have to have a qualification. Not a particularly high-flying one, and I did it online. Though I begrudged the time that I might have spent on translation work between my shifts at the local coffee house, I told myself that I had to be pragmatic.
At first my life at the Maison Poirier (called after the pear-trees that grew in the extensive walled back garden) seemed too good to be true. I suspected it was something of a sinecure, but frankly I didn’t care. Marianne was a kind and lenient boss, I had a view of the garden from the casement window of my comfortable room; was privileged to be selected as a “favoured human” by Marianne’s large, imperious, snowy-white Persian cat Minette, and walks down tree-lined alleys took me to the sea or to a village with a medieval church. I only restricted my intake of Camembert (from a local cheesemaker, not the supermarket stuff!) because I was worried I might sicken myself of it – likewise Marianne’s own Tarte aux Poires. She joked that she was a rebel, favouring pears in apple country! Oh, and I wasn’t averse to a little glass of Calvados now and then, either. Marianne, with a twinkle in her eye, said she must get round to distilling her own pear version. I wouldn’t have put it past her.
The work itself was easy and pleasant. I didn’t have a true vocation for teaching (as Melvyn, apparently, did) but did have a certain flair for it, made easier by the fact that my adult pupils were eager to learn. Though it was hardly a hotbed of academic excellence, as Steph had said, Marianne still took it fairly seriously. The youngest pupil at the language school was 18, but after a couple of months, I did obtain a much younger pupil. One of the students, a hardworking, courteous young man called Antoine, told me that his much older half-brother, Jean-Louis, was looking for someone to help out with his daughter, Patricia, who was nine. “Her mother died a year ago,” he said, sadly, “Cancer. He’s done his best, but she is falling behind at school. You could certainly help her with English – her primary school has an early learning programme in languages – and maybe a bit with other things, too, and be a friend to her.”
At first I hesitated, but then I met Jean-Louis and Patricia, and agreed at once. I know it’s a fallacy that shock and stress can turn your hair white, but I still wondered if the premature grey hairs on Jean-Louis’ head were there before his wife fell ill and died. He did not clothe himself in mourning, but there was sadness at the back of his smile. Patricia was delightful – a red-haired sprite of a child, who said things that genuinely were droll, not the ones doting grandparents assured you were. But at times it was still all too obvious her young life had already been touched by tragedy. I saw her panic when she thought she had lost a favourite doll (mercifully, the doll was found) and unsuccessfully fight back her tears when a song that had been one of Maman’s favourites came on the radio. I made to switch it off, but she put her little hand on my shoulder and said she still wanted to hear it.
Jean-Louis quickly became more of a friend than an employer, and then more than a friend. Marianne was concerned, and spoke of it frankly. “I am very fond of you, Ellen, and have great affection for Jean-Louis, too. The last couple of years haven’t been easy for him. But relationships that are – what’s that English phrase – on the rebound – don’t always work out. And what about little Patricia?”
“We’re very close!” I objected.
“I know you are. You’ve been a godsend. But my dear – you cannot ever replace her mother.”
“I’ve no intention of trying!” I objected. “I know I have no right to!”
“Well – I can only wish you well,” she said, kissing my cheek, but still not hiding her misgivings. My parents were hesitant about it, too, not least because it meant I would now be living overseas more or less permanently.
I won’t deny that troubled me, too. “But Mum, it’s only France, not Antarctica!” I pointed out. “You can be there on Eurostar in no time at all.”
They didn’t try to put any emotional obstacles in my way. And Patricia was happy about the whole thing, though I wonder how much the thought of a bridesmaid dress featured in her enthusiasm. We would have a civil ceremony, as he was Catholic and I was Protestant (not that either of us was particularly religious) but though it would be a simple one, it would still have some of the “trimmings”. I joked that made me sound like a turkey, and of course that led to an impromptu English lesson.
At first, our life together in his rambling old house seemed even more perfect than my life at the school (where I still taught). He was quite a practical man on the surface, but not averse to romantic gestures – we had quite a few candlelit dinners and sunrise walks by the sea! Our one regret was that we didn’t manage to have a child. After a few years, we went to the doctor about it, and were sent for tests, and told that there was no medical reason for it they could find. We must be patient. Sometimes it did take longer. Perhaps it would be best just to relax and not think about it for a while.
We took the advice (though of course we couldn’t stop thinking about it) and went for a holiday in the Pyrenees. Whether coincidence or not, it seemed to have worked. I didn’t tell him until I had missed my period twice and done the home test. It was as if the sun we had seen rising by the sea rose in its full glory in his expression. We decided to tell Patricia at once. She was on the verge of her teens by now, totally clued up on the facts of life, and didn’t miss much. She was, to our relief, as pleased as we were, and not remotely jealous.
No point to dwelling too much on what happened. I went into labour at eight months, but though it was early, it was not, or so we thought, dangerously early. Not that long ago, one of my former pupils, Sophie, had had a child at only 7 months, and though her daughter was very small and needed to be in an incubator for a few weeks, she was fine now.
I was not fine. Nor was the baby – a boy – who was stillborn. My life hung in the balance for more than a week, and Jean-Louis only left my bedside when his mother (who took over the vigil) and the medical staff virtually dragged him away for a couple of hours rest. I remember some of it, in shadowy flashes.
Anyway, I pulled through. Mum came over from England, too, to help out with Patricia. I deeply mourned my little lad, and the hospital helped us have a special ceremony to honour him. We would have called him Armand. They told me that though it may be wise to wait a while, there was no reason I shouldn’t bring a healthy child to full-term.
I tell myself that Jean Louis’ personality could not have changed completely in so short a time. It was latent. He was never an unkind man – not really. He certainly never meant to be. But it was as if nearly losing his second wife as well as his first triggered something that had slept. He became obsessively over-protective. He did not let me go back to work – though I pointed out that he could not stop me. “I could!” he said. The dark look on his face unsettled me far more than the implication of the words. He didn’t, anyway. He never tried to lock me in or restrain me. But it just wasn’t worth it. He kept phoning to see if I was okay, and, gently, Marianne pointed out that once in a while was fine, but when it got to twice in a lesson …. I could see her point.
I left my job and tried to take up my translation work again, with only limited success. Jean-Louis became even more obsessive. He would not let me do even any housework and employed a cleaning lady. You might think that was no great privation, but it was entirely unnecessary and I began to feel more and more useless. I told myself he would get over it, but as the years passed, it only grew worse. I wasn’t, physically, a prisoner in my own home, but wondered how long it would be until I was. I realised I was getting obsessive myself, wondering if a light cold signified something more dangerous; if a slight scratch would turn septic.
In the end, I knew I had no choice. I didn’t do it lightly, and not without a whole overbearing burden of regret. I was especially upset about leaving Patricia. We remained extremely close, and oh, I would have loved to be a part of her becoming a woman. I also worried about what would happen to her, though I knew her father would never, ever, harm her.
My parents were sad, but not surprised. Yes, and they were relieved, too. “We could see it coming,” Dad said, quietly. “I’ve always been fond of Jean-Louis, but nobody can live with a man like that forever. It would have destroyed you.” He wasn’t a man given to melodramatic language, but he wasn’t wrong.
It was a couple of years before I began to truly be my old self again – and perhaps I never was, not deep down. But I had finally found a half-way decent translation job, was also giving conversation classes at the local adult learning centre and was, though still emotionally fragile, ready to at least think about another relationship.
Melvyn’s dad was still the local GP, and was a good friend to me. I was genuinely pleased to make the acquaintance of his son again, too. I realised that Sandra had been right all along. He had been a nice boy, and was now a lovely man.
That was why she was so pleased, even though she thought she was still a bit too young, that Clemmie, who had grown into her looks, was engaged to him. I wished them well, and thought of what might have been!