Today's Reading

By the time Penelope returned to England, she congratulated herself on having spent an interesting two weeks in the Luberon. She had seen a bit more of local life than just wandering from her rented gîte in Menerbes to the restaurant to drink rose. There had been some interesting trips and—now that she had survived to tell the tale—a thrilling amount of danger provided by Mme Valencourt's reckless disregard of other road users.

She had a lot of fun talking up the house hunt, the loveliness of the valley, and her adventures. And it did the family no end of good to think that she just might move abroad and leave them to it. Since she'd taken early retirement, they had taken her too much for granted as an on-call unpaid babysitter, errand runner, chauffeur, and cook.

She did it all willingly and for love—but they might have been a bit more appreciative.

"Typical," said Justin, "always thinking of yourself."

At twenty-nine, he had grown disconcertingly like his father. He was certainly as self-centred, with the same willingness to blame her for everything. No wonder his girlfriend Hannah looked increasingly sour. And their two-year-old son Rory was a holy terror.

"If I were only thinking of myself, I would not be looking after Rory this weekend while you and Hannah go away for a break," Penelope reminded him. "Or collecting him from playgroup on Thursdays and giving him his tea while Hannah goes to Pilates."

"I thought grandmothers wanted to be involved. We're doing you a favour."

"Thank you for that."

"We could easily pay someone to do it, no problem."

He had his father's arrogance about money, too, now he looked to be making a success of his job at an investment bank in the City.

His elder sibling Lena was less rude, mainly because she was pregnant again and was counting on Penelope's support. Lena's husband James was trying to get his own adventure holiday business off the ground, and seemed to be away more than he was home, spending large sums in the process. Penelope was often called in to help with Zack and Xerxes, mini dictators of four and three respectively. Xerxes! What would they call the next one, for heaven's sake—Genghis?

"What am I going to do without you? You can't go!" wailed Lena. "Is this about all the plates the boys smashed because you wouldn't let them play football in your kitchen?"

The rows went on, with a few satisfying results. Lena promised to start disciplining her boys. Justin apologised and assured her that Hannah hadn't meant to be rude when she was overheard calling Penelope "an uptight, mean Home Counties throwback who has no idea about the modern world." That had hurt, at the time. Especially when Penelope thought of all the years of her relative youth she had devoted to being a good mother after she married David, a charming widower with a sad, baffled smile and two small children. On the plus side, it prompted her to book an appointment at an expensive hair salon in London for an overhaul.

She emerged with a choppy bob that showed off the thickness of her natural red-gold hair. Despite the inevitable signs of age in her body since she turned fifty the previous year, Penelope was proud that she had not yet found a strand of grey. Not that any of her friends believed her, but it was true. After that, she embarked on a mission to shop.

This was a rare event these days. Clothes shopping could be so traumatic, what with middle-aged spread and the shock of the initial glimpse in the changing-room mirror. But this time Penelope found it quite empowering. Despite appearances, she felt younger in heart than she had for a long time. After twenty-odd years of trying to be a good wife as well as a good mother despite feeling quite unhappy quite a lot of the time, she had left David five years previously after one affair too many. His affairs, not hers. Until the separation, Penelope had remained utterly faithful.

* * *

Penelope met friends for lunch at Cafe Rouge, tried to get interested in playing bridge, continued to do her bit for Lena and Justin and their families, and experienced all the usual irritations of living in the South of England: the sense that living close to London brought as many disadvantages as advantages; the endless traffic hold-ups and roadworks; the rudeness of young assistants in shops; the grumbling of people who then said, "Mustn't grumble"; the rain and the chill of depressing grey days; the television programmes featuring desperate searches for the few bargain antiques that hadn't yet had their day on-screen.

The unrelenting drizzle had become a deluge on the day the telephone rang from France.

"Allo? Mme Kite?"

"Oui," said Penelope.

"Clemence Valencourt, calling from the Agence Hublot in Menerbes. I thought you might like to know that Le Chant d'Eau is now available for purchase."

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