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Authors: Hannah Tunnicliffe

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BOOK: A French Wedding
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‘Thought it might make her more sociable,' adds Nina. ‘Give her a hobby she could talk about.'

‘She talks,' Lars mutters.

‘She's obsessed with that thing.'

‘She takes really good pictures. You have to see them, Max. Even Rosie agrees.'

‘Pictures of dead things,' Nina says.

‘Dead things?'

‘Yeah, rats rotting in the gutter, birds. She wants us to buy her a cow skull for her birthday.'

‘I think it's an antelope. Something with those horn things …' Lars says.

‘She likes macabre stuff. She's “dark”.' Nina uses her index fingers to make quote marks.

‘Wasn't her mummy into
Siouxsie and the Banshees
at her age?' Max teases.

‘Yeah! That's right,' says Lars.

‘Oh, stop it. They weren't that dark,' Nina scoffs.

‘They were. You said your mum used to have a fit. The makeup you wore … the hair …'

Both Lars and Max are laughing.

‘Okay, okay, settle down. I wasn't asking
for skulls and taking snaps of dead rats,' Nina scowls.

Max can only imagine the intimidating, indomitable force Nina must
be at work. She's not backwards in coming forwards.
She has gravitas. It's no wonder Lars acts as
though everything is gonna be alright; with Nina around it
will be. She'd make sure of it. The secret is
that Nina is soft and loving underneath it all: the
intelligence, the wit, the drive, and the sarcasm.

Lars smiles at Max. ‘Sophie's a good girl, really, mate.
Stubborn as her mum and a bit of a creative, I guess. She's even been talking about Camberwell, can you imagine? We're really lucky.'

Nina looks down at her hands against the bench top.

Max notices the light spilling in from the kitchen window. He rarely spends much time in the kitchen, it's Juliette's domain. Now he notices it's the prettiest light in the whole house. Gentle and dappled as it falls through the leaves of the linden tree. Out on the lawn he notices a couple leaning against each other, holding hands. The woman is wearing floral-patterned shorts and a white sleeveless blouse with tan sandals. Her thick red hair is tied up with a silk scarf. The man scratches the back of his head.

‘Eddie. There's the bugger,' Max says. Lars and Nina follow his gaze. ‘Is that his American girl?'

‘Girl …' Nina tuts.

‘Had her tits out yesterday,' Lars adds.

‘Huh. Is that right?'

‘It's
France
. Women go topless in France,' Nina says.

‘Are you going to go topless, Mumma Bear? Get the jugs out?' Max asks with a laugh.

Nina says dryly, ‘There is something really disturbing about you talking about my breasts while using the term “Mumma Bear”.'

Lars laughs loudly. ‘Yeah, mate, that
is
weird.'

Max raises his palms in mock surrender. ‘I've been in France too long. See? It's made me kinky.'

‘You needed no help,' Nina says.

‘I better go meet this one. She sounds like my kind of girl …' Max mumbles.

As he leaves he hears Nina muttering, ‘
Eddie's
girl.'

Chapter 5

Juliette

H
ugo and Rosie, Nina and Beth squeeze into Juliette's father's old Renault, which she decides to take to the market rather than the van she hired; it is easier to park in the village and Juliette is a creature of habit. Lars opts to go for a run while Sophie is out taking photographs by the beach and Eddie and Max sit on the deck, slapping their knees, laughing till they cry. Helen and the almost-not-quite-sister aren't yet back.

Hugo sits in the back next to Beth, with Rosie on Beth's other side. Nina is in the front seat next to Juliette. The car rumbles over the driveway and turns onto the street leading back to the centre of Douarnenez. They twist along the coastline, the headlands dotted with pink thrift and plum-coloured heather. Juliette winds down her window, the cool spring air skating in, bustling out the musty leather seat scent that reminds her so much of her dad.

Nina and Rosie are murmuring to one another about Sophie, so Juliette turns her attention to Hugo and Beth.

‘Where are you from?' Hugo is asking.

‘Kentucky.'

‘Oh. That's a nice part of the States.'

‘Sure is.'

Juliette can hear the smile in Beth's voice. She has a slow, sure and pleasant way of talking. It makes her seem a bit older than she is. So far she isn't anywhere near as brash as Juliette guessed she might be; the topless American.

‘Full of horses, I hear,' Hugo replies, his accent polished and clipped.

Beth laughs. ‘Not the useful kind, though – that's what my daddy says. He's not keen on horse racing.'

‘What does he do?'

‘He's a preacher.'

‘Oh. Well, that's a noble profession,' says Hugo.

‘He's a noble guy, I guess. Also kinda suffocating. It's better that I live here and he lives there.'

‘Fathers can be difficult,' Hugo murmurs.

‘Yup. I have a lot of brothers and sisters though so he is kept busy being difficult to them. I'm one of eleven.'

Hugo pauses in surprise. ‘Eleven?'

‘Yeah. Eddie was freaked, too, I think. And worried I might wanna drag him off to church.'

‘Don't think you'd have much luck there,' says Hugo.

Beth laughs again. Juliette glances in the rear-view mirror. Beth has those teeth all the American tourists in Paris seem to have – perfectly white and straight, like cubes of sugar in a box.

Soon, the village comes into view. The stone buildings huddle around the marina, where boats bob in the water, masts moving like metronomes. Some of the cafés are open, tables and chairs out in front, a few people sipping coffee or reading the paper. The sun isn't yet high in the sky and the wait staff wear long sleeves. Juliette slows the car as the streets narrow. They drive past shop fronts and doors painted black and blue and red. A dark-haired woman pushes a pram across the road with her young son trotting beside it.

‘This is such a beautiful place!' Rosie says clapping. ‘Nina, can you imagine a Fleet studio here?'

‘Fleet is Rosie's jewellery business,' Nina explains to Beth and Juliette, adding, ‘She's amazing.'

‘No, I'm a mum mainly,' Rosie says. ‘We have three boys.'

Juliette nods, concentrating on manoeuvring the car around a pothole.

‘What do you do?' Hugo asks Beth.

‘I'm a hairdresser.'

‘Ah.'

‘And you?'

‘I'm an orthopaedic surgeon.' He gives a small, funny laugh. ‘So we both make cuts.'

‘Hugo!' Rosie reprimands from her side of the car. ‘That's unnecessary.'

‘It's my job.'

‘It's okay –' Beth tries to interject.

‘Make cuts … it sounds horrible,' Rosie mutters.

‘Last I checked it actually paid the bills.'

Juliette catches Nina giving Hugo a pointed look. Hugo glares back.

‘Look at that tiny church,' Nina says to Rosie, pointing out the window. Rosie follows Nina's finger and they resume their conversation about Douarnenez and its prettiness. The stone, the colours, the small windows, the smell of baking bread.

‘It didn't bother me,' Beth reassures Hugo, now staring straight ahead.

*

Juliette parks the car down a side street, pointing out the narrow house nearby, her parents' fisherman's cottage. The stone cottage is close to others in a curled row, like the back of a sleeping cat. It's all Juliette's now; she paid off the last of the mortgage with proceeds from the sale of
Delphine
; perhaps as a way of assuaging her guilt. For leaving, for not coming back earlier, for keeping secrets she probably didn't need to keep.

‘Juliette, it's so sweet!' Rosie exclaims. ‘When did your parents move here?'

‘The late sixties. Before I was born.'

‘I can see why. It's charming.'

‘What is it like inside?' Nina asks.

‘Small,' Juliette replies, crisply, trying not to sound too brusque. She doesn't want to take them inside. It remains untidy and too filled with treasures; a place where the pause button has been pressed, everything in a kind of suspended animation.

‘The markets are just down this street. They're not far.'

She waits and watches them gather up handbags and phones, before locking the Renault and pointing in the direction of
Les Halles
. The small, covered market is unlike the gigantic, sprawling
Les Puces
or the quaint, open-air book stalls by the Seine that they might have visited on vacations to Paris. At
Les Halles
the stalls are functional and orderly, all fitting in one large room, with jars or meats or vegetables in neat lines. It is busier and noisier in the summer, with greater numbers of tourists, and extra stalls making
crêpe de blé noir
with cheese and ham, locals selling chocolate-dipped strawberries and gelato in cones. For now, in the spring, it is just busy enough while still allowing the sounds of the village, someone practising piano, dogs barking, a skateboard rolling over stones, to weave through. Juliette knows all the stallholders here by first name. She speaks to Marcel about his son, Anton about his bad knees, Elodie about the book Juliette has just finished reading that she must remember to bring next time so she can lend it to her. Strolling down the wide aisles wearing her tan-coloured trousers rolled to the ankle, flat shoes and sage-green top with a wide cut neck, Juliette speaks the language that comes most naturally, the language she thinks and dreams in. And she feels good. Even pretty.
Jolie
.

While the others explore, Juliette buys bags of food – leeks, cheese, duck, herbs, spring rhubarb, almost fluorescent green cauliflower, more seafood, dark, glossy cucumbers, ropey
Andouille
sausage, and olives lolling in shining, golden oil. She doesn't carry her purchases, rather orders what she wants and the merchants keep the goods behind their stalls for her to gather when she is finished. They choose the best fruit for her, the firmest and brightest-eyed fish, the thickest bunches of sorrel. This is the reward for remembering names and accidents and sons and reading tastes.

Nina and Rosie join her as she approaches the last stall, a table covered in jars of honey, varying shades of sunshine, wheat and ochre. Juliette glances around for Beth but cannot see her. Hugo is ambling behind. Juliette has noticed him sampling cheeses and tasting wedges of fruit and slices of sundried tomatoes. He is carrying a shopping bag of his own.

‘
Ça fait tellement longtemps que je ne t'ai pas vu!
' exclaims Odette, the woman who sells the honey, kissing Juliette's cheeks. She isn't the one who usually sells the honey, usually it's her sister, Chantel. Juliette smiles as Odette babbles about her recent trip to Africa. She half listens, half eavesdrops on Nina and Rosie's conversation.

Nina is standing with her arms crossed.

‘But the food was disappointing, I'll tell you that. I could not wait to eat my bread, my cheese, oh, Juliette, the dairy is bad. Very bad …' Odette is saying.

Rosie leans towards her friend; her hand resting on Nina's arm.

‘Nina, you have to figure out what is going on.'

‘I will. But not now.'

‘But …'

Rosie looks as though she is about to cry. Juliette shouldn't be listening, but can't help herself. She tries to focus on Odette.

‘Well, you know your maman, she was crazy about buckwheat honey. And your father, crazy about those dogs!'

‘Yes, yes, you're right. He did love them,' Juliette replies.

‘I was so sorry to hear …'

‘Thank you. Yes, it has been … difficult …' Juliette feels herself flinch, still unable to summon the right words. If there are any.

‘Did you want some buckwheat honey?'

‘
Non, merci.
'

‘I'll put a bottle of
chouchenn
in the bag, my dear.'

‘Thank you, Odette.'

Juliette glances back to Rosie and Nina.

‘I know you care about me. But I will be fine, Rosie. Okay?'

‘After Sophie was born – '

‘You're getting obsessed with this. It's just another thing to think about instead of thinking about …'

‘What?'

‘I know you're unhappy. You've been unhappy for ages. And now that the boys are grown –'

‘Nina, no. Do not say that.'

‘Oh, I love honey,' Beth murmurs, suddenly beside Juliette.

Rosie and Nina turn to face them both. Juliette notices Rosie glancing down at Beth's small shorts, the long, lean legs below them.

‘Hi,' Beth says, cheerfully, to the two women. Rosie frowns. Juliette passes Odette a handful of notes. Hugo joins the group and looks around them all. His cheeks are ruddy. ‘Isn't this great?'

Only Beth agrees, Rosie and Nina are still distracted, Rosie's hand sliding down Nina's arm.

‘Right!' Juliette says brightly. ‘Are we ready to go?'

‘
Oui
,' sings Beth.

‘
Bon.
I'll pick up my things, perhaps you can help me, Hugo, and then we'll head back to the car. Lunch today is langoustine and artichoke
crêpes de blé noir,
leek tart, two salads and
gâteau Breton
with berries.' She ticks the items off with her fingers.

‘Yum!' replies Rosie, her voice a little too high. She is holding Nina's elbow.

They are all still facing each other when a man calls out from a shop across the lane. ‘
Mademoiselle! Excusez-moi?
'

He is holding a paper bag, standing in a stone doorway. Juliette recognises Pierre, the local pharmacist. Only Juliette and Hugo glance in his direction. Juliette waves. She hates to think how many pills and tablets she has collected from Pierre, her parents' names in tiny, black type on the white bottles. Pierre looks from side to side, reticent to leave the doorway, probably because he is sole charge. He gives a hasty wave and holds a bag up high. Hugo jogs over. When he reaches the door, Pierre passes him the bag, pointing to Beth. Juliette watches Hugo seem to have a conversation in French. Pierre even reaches over to pat his shoulder. Beth moves quickly to meet Hugo when he crosses back over.

‘Here you go.' Hugo passes the bag to her, which she takes and pushes into a handbag hanging from her shoulder.

‘Thank you.'

‘You speak French?' Juliette asks.

‘Yes,' Hugo replies. ‘I lived in Paris when I was a resident. It was a while ago.'

‘I didn't know that.'

Hugo shrugs.

‘That's cool,' Beth says admiringly.

Juliette notices Nina has wandered off towards the car and Rosie has headed off in the same direction, trying to catch up. Hugo turns to Juliette and reminds her about wanting help with the groceries.

‘
Tu as besoin d'aide pour les courses?
'

It's funny, Juliette thinks, that a person can seem to have a different personality when speaking a different language. She prefers French Hugo. His name, in her head, with the dropped ‘H', sounds like a completely different word.

*

Sophie is waiting by the driveway when Juliette pulls the car up to the house. She picks at a lavender plant. Her lanky frame is draped in an oversized t-shirt and she wears narrow grey jeans and black sneakers. Her hair hangs at the sides of her face like two curtains, threatening to be drawn any moment.

‘Hey, Soph,' Rosie says. ‘We got
pain au chocolat
.' She waggles a bag out the window. Juliette watches Sophie give a false smile.

‘Great,' she says. ‘Hi, Uncle Hugo.'

‘Hi, Sophie.' Hugo is already up and out of the car, holding the door open for Beth, who clambers out, all legs. She holds her handbag close to her side and smiles at Sophie.

‘You've met Beth?' Nina asks her daughter.

Sophie gives a wan smile. ‘You introduced us last night, Mum.'

‘Oh, right.'

Juliette remembers when everything her mother said or did was exasperating or odd or both. When, like Sophie, she used to chalk up every mistake. A never-ending performance review. She regrets it so much now.

‘Where's your dad?' Nina asks.

‘I don't know,' Sophie says, accusingly. ‘When I got back, everyone had vanished.'

Beth and Rosie head into the house while Juliette goes to the car boot and passes Hugo bags to carry inside.

‘Is Helen back?' Nina asks Sophie.

BOOK: A French Wedding
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