Little Love SongbyEmeliaBell©
I have used some French in this story and there may be a couple of English words unfamiliar to the US contingent of readers. Should you be confused by any content, please check the end of the story for some explanatory notes and translations.
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"Seriously, Val, you need to get a hobby or something. It can't be good for you spending so much time alone."
Valerie looked sideways at her friend and smiled.
"I don't mind spending time by myself, you know that."
"I know you say you don't mind, but I still think it can't be good for you."
Like a spy resisting interrogation, Lucinda would stubbornly repeat her point over and over until the opposing party cracked and subjected themselves to her will. Valerie had known her long enough to realise this and accepted that it was just part of Lucinda's individual charm.
"Alright, if it means so very much to you, then I will start thinking about a hobby."
Lucinda subsided happily and Valerie smiled gently in the knowledge that she had only promised to think about it and not to act upon it - not yet, at least.
Valerie knew Lucinda had been worrying about her for a while now, but she had had the sensitivity not to push for any confidences. A divorce was a hard thing to recover from, almost as hard as a bereavement in some ways. You were, after all, grieving the death of a precious living thing: the relationship you had shared, especially one of nearly twenty years. No wonder she was still a bit shaky over a year later.
Valerie sipped her tea and mused over the troubles of the past year as Lucinda chatted away happily about some charity event she was organising. Valerie had long ago learned how to detect the tone of Lucinda's voice that meant she required some kind of response; the rest of the time Valerie tuned out a little bit, as a way of preserving her sanity in the face of so much relentless chatter.
"So you will come, won't you? If you won't commit to starting a hobby you must at least let me drag you out of the house sometimes!"
Valerie tuned back into the conversation in confusion and some consternation. She had been nodding away quietly while Lucie talked and now she had the distinct impression that she had unwittingly agreed to do something for her friend's charity event.
Last time she had been volunteered by Lucinda she had ended up in charge of the crèche, every moment of which was a noisy, bad-smelling nightmare that had haunted her for weeks afterwards.
"Where will you be dragging me to?" She ran a hand wearily over the top of her head, smoothing the loose strands of hair back into place. Her faint accent became more noticeable when tired, or under pressure, and she sounded more French now than usual.
Lucinda quirked her eyebrow slightly at the re-emergence of Valerie's Gallic heritage. The intimate knowledge of friendship went both ways and she knew her friend was feeling put upon.
"I just told you!" Her protest met with a blank look so she good-humouredly explained all over again. "We've organised a concert next Thursday. A young French pianist will be playing in the first half -- romance pieces, obviously -- then in the second half we're going to be having a medley by St. Peter's School Orchestra and choir."
"And you just want me to go along?" Valerie's tone of voice was tentative and wondering -- it seemed as if she was to be let off lightly for the cause.
"Well, yes. But we also wondered if you wouldn't mind liaising with the pianist. One of the board members knew him and sorted all that out, but they're not going to be available on the day and we're not sure whether the pianist speaks very good English..."
"...and you want me to translate if there is a problem?" Valerie interrupted with relief. A little translation would be easy after the emotional torments of the crèche.
"That's it exactly! Then you can, of course, stay on for the concert afterwards. You're fond of classical music, aren't you? Monsieur Vincente is supposed to be wonderful -- very emotive. Perfect for the occasion."
"Alright alright! I will be there! Just let me get my diary and you can give me the details."
Lucinda dictated exactly where Valerie had to be and at what time, lecturing her sternly about turning up on time and even spelling out what kind of clothes she was expected to wear.
"All the volunteers are wearing black, but with a pink or red top. You have a black suit don't you? Well wear that with your pink silk blouse under it -- that will be perfect!"
"Why do I have to wear pink?"
"Well, it's partly because we're trying to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness and partly..." she hesitated and looked calculatingly at Valerie as if assessing her state of mind before speaking. "Partly because it's Valentine's day."
Valerie looked sternly at her friend, but restrained herself from saying anything. She couldn't understand this strange obsession with dedicating one particular day to romance. Romance, if one were going to indulge at all, should surely be something one does every day.
She couldn't think of Valentine's Day without remembering the increasingly limp and pathetic garage flowers Martin had brought home each year. It made her shudder. Over a year on and she still felt embarrassed and ashamed that it had taken her so long to realise that he was making a fool of her.
Lucinda knew that she found the whole idea of Valentine's Day distasteful, which was probably why she had tried to downplay its role in the proceedings. Oh well, Valerie thought, at least they were exploiting it in a good cause.
"Don't worry Lucie," she laid her cool hand over her friend's warm one as it lay on the table, "I will be there. Wearing pink." She rolled her eyes and smiled and the two women broke into laughter.
* * * * *
Valerie laid down her brush and took off her glasses to rub her eyes. That was one of the major downsides of getting older -- needing glasses to do her painting. She'd started having trouble just before Martin left: shortly afterwards she'd succumbed and taken herself to the optrician.
Happy Birthday to me, she had thought bitterly, still in the 'anger' stage of grieving. Turning forty-one had seemed a far harder task than the commonly-accepted milestone of the big four-oh the previous year. Needing glasses had been the final straw.
The amount of concentration needed to do her fine watercolour paintings and drawings had weakened her eyes and rendered glasses necessary for all of her work. Every time she sat down to earn some money, so much more desperately needed now that Martin had left her, she suffered the reminder of her increasing age as she settled the glasses on her nose.
"I look like an old crone," she had said to her reflection many a time, turning away in disgust and swearing in French. She had lived in England for more than half her lifetime, but it was still more satisfying to curse in her native language, using the words her mother had so disapproved of.
She looked down at her hands now. The fingers of her right hand were all stained pink and black with paint and ink, and opaque splashes of masking fluid were spattered obscenely over the back of her left hand. A tight, itchy feeling on her cheek suggested that the fluid may have hit her face too, and she knew from experience that her lips, and probably some other parts of her face, would be decorated with dark black ink and the paint-colour du jour.
Pink, she thought, at least I'll fit the colour theme...
She smiled wryly, but whatever her personal desires -- to stay here and finish the illustration she was working on so she could get ahead of the deadline set by the publishers -- she knew the time of reckoning had come. She only had an hour before she had to leave and a shower was definitely called for.
"I must stop putting my pen in my mouth," she told herself as she looked in the mirror twenty minutes later to discover a strange-looking wild woman with wet hair, white skin and pale grey lips.
She chewed frantically on her lips as she dried, dressed and styled her hair into a neat chignon. Non! Still grey, only now they were sore, too.
She turned in desperation to her makeup bag. She rarely wore makeup, considering it a waste of time when she usually ended up splattered with the tools of her trade. Riffling through it hurriedly, she found a deep crimson lipstick in a shiny gold tube: a long-forgotten gift from the dictatorial Lucinda.
She applied it carefully, a little nervous of the vivid shade. She blotted her lips together and looked at herself critically in the mirror. It had hidden the grey completely and even looked quite nice. The rest of her face looked a little pale in comparison, though.
"In for a pound, in for a penny," she muttered, the aphorism coming out slightly twisted as they sometimes did, especially when she wasn't concentrating particularly.
Discovering more discarded presents from her friends she rubbed blusher into her cheeks, covered the shadows under her eyes and even brushed some mascara onto her long lashes. She drew the line at eyeliner, however. Poking herself in the eye with a mascara wand was painful enough without adding a pencil to it.
When she had finished she barely recognised herself. She looked... glamorous.
"Comme ma mère," she said, smiling sadly.
* * * * *
Officious women in a selection of garish pink and red tops rushed around the church hall frantically. Valerie stood quietly near the entrance, leaning against the wall, watching in amusement at all the worker-bees getting wound up over something that wasn't very important.
The heavy oak doors swung open behind her, letting in a gust of chill, damp air. She shivered in her thin silk top and turned around to see who had come in. A young man with thick, dark hair flopping into his eyes stood there with a supercilious look on his face.
"Ah merde, pourquoi j'ai accepté ça? Toutes c'te gang de femmes-là - j'perds mon temps pourquoi? Gang d'amateurs!"
Heads had turned at the rapid torrent of French, but it was obvious none of them but Valerie had understood what he had said.
"You are doing this for charity and I wouldn't call helping your local community a waste of time Monsieur Vincente." her tone was calm and polite, but she had a faint smirk on her face that let him know exactly how much she had understood. "Do you often commence engagements by insulting the organisers?"
To his credit, he blushed furiously and had the grace to look shamefaced.
"People expect me to be very flamboyant and ultra-French, so I like to make an entrance. If I talk fast enough I usually get away with it." He was muttering so as to avoid any of the other women hearing, though several were inching closer, drawn by the young man's attractive face and exotic demeanour.
Valerie frowned at him slightly, "And how many of them know you're not really French?"
The look of shock and embarrassment on his face proved her suspicions to be correct.
"How did you know?" he asked, his accent gradually vanishing as he led her towards the stage, away from all the eager helpers.
She waved her hands expansively, "Something in your phrasing -- or your tone? Only a native speaker would have picked it up, I think."
"You're French?" His hint of an accent had vanished entirely now, to be replaced by the same middle-class tones sported by Lucinda and all her charity-cronies.
"Mais bien sur! Born and brought up there. I only moved here when I got married."
"And you're here to translate for me?"
"Yes. For some reason, they seemed to think you'd need a French-speaker to explain everything and placate the temperamental artiste."
They laughed together and Valerie felt a warm, tingly feeling spread through her. I'm flirting! she realised excitedly -- and with a man almost half her age. It was a strange sensation, after all this time, to feel attracted and attractive again. Like the first time she drank champagne, the excitement fizzed through her, making her reel with the heady deliciousness of it.
She was sure he was flirting back, too, however ridiculous it seemed that a boy with an unlined face and no glasses would have any interest in an old bat like her. At the very best, she could probably manage Miss Moneypenny, but there was no mistaking her for a Bond girl of any sort.
She saw him up to the stage, ran through all the items Lucinda had asked her to check -- refreshments, start time, special requirements -- and all of it in rapid French to con the nosy women who kept gravitating towards the charismatic young man.
A nod from Lucinda indicated that it was almost time to open the doors to the audience. Valerie reluctantly wished the young pianist luck and withdrew.
She smiled ruefully to herself as she found the seat on the sidelines that she had been allocated. Finally, she felt her heart beginning to heal and warm itself a little -- and she was foolish enough to be drawn to a man young enough to be her son -- a man who was probably even younger than Martin had been when they'd first met.
She blushed in the shadows and hoped that nobody had noticed her silliness. Bad enough to be a fool, without it being witnessed by all and sundry.
A familiar voice rang out from the crowd behind her who were shuffling into their seats: Martin.
"Well, no, this isn't really my 'thing,' but Donna insisted we do something romantic, y'know? Couldn't let her down, could I? We're going to Boradello's after, of course. Had to book our table weeks ago..."
His braying tones ran on some more, but Valerie tuned them out. She sat rigid in her seat, resisting the masochistic desire to turn around and see her ex and his little poufiasse. Funny how he couldn't let Darling Donna down, but ditching his wife of eighteen years was absolutely tickety-boo. She smiled a little, realising that a true Englishman would be no more likely to say 'tickety-boo' than a Frenchman was to say 'Oh-la-la!,' but the phrase amused her and, frankly, she could use all the light relief she could get at the moment.
Silently, she cursed Lucinda for putting her in this position -- and herself. One of them should have realised that the happy couple would be likely to turn up. She sighed as the lights dimmed, at least she would be less visible now. She hated the fact that she was left looking like a pathetic reject in the eyes of the gossipy community she lived in. Perhaps she could sneak out in the interval when everyone crowded towards the drinks table, longing to top up the alcohol content of their blood before St. Peter's School Orchestra commenced their performance.
The hush that had fallen over the audience began to be replaced by a muted whispering, only to cease once more as a spotlight highlighted the sleek, black grand piano on stage. Footsteps were heard, and then 'Monsieur' Vincente appeared. His damp overcoat had been discarded, and he stood resplendent in white-tie and tails. Every woman in the audience drew a deep breath at the vision. His dark hair fell artistically across his broad forehead, and his eyes were mysterious, inky shadows in the bright lights.
Hidden from view, Valerie closed her eyes briefly against the visual impact, feeling the buzz of desire race through her long-numbed body. Squirming on her hard, wooden seat brought no relief, only a more insistent consciousness of her physical sensations. Even with Martin, she had never experienced such an extreme reaction to a man.
She looked up just as the pianist elegantly flipped out his coat-tails and sat down on the stool. He paused for a moment, then his fingers touched the keys. The first, haunting notes of the Moonlight Sonata drifted through the hall and Valerie felt herself softening as the music permeated through every part of her mind, filling it with an image of dark clouds racing across a silver moon. She swayed slightly as he continued playing; the notes running up and down, sometimes fusing together, sometimes creating clear and separate sounds.
It was a simple piece of music: in terms of difficulty only a few steps up from 'chopsticks,' yet the fluidity and emotion with which the pianist played gave the piece a sensuality and romance that reached every member of the audience.
In total he played about ten pieces. Mostly they were classical, but there were one or two jazz songs that seemed to be crying out for Ella or Billie to supply some heartbroken vocals to accompany the pianist in his renditions.
When the lights came up slowly, and Monsieur Vincente took his bow, Valerie floated down slowly from the higher plane she had occupied for the past hour. All resentment of Lucinda had passed, and she felt energised and refreshed by the music she had heard. It was like she had been scrubbed clean and all the nasty, dirty emotions had been washed away, leaving her unblemished and renewed.
Stifling the urge to cry a little, as a release for all the emotions that felt so perilously near the surface, she got up and pushed her way through the jostling crowd heading for the drinks table at the back. She wrapped her arms around herself to fend off the people encroaching on her personal space, trying to retain that heady feeling of possibility engendered by the music.
She reached the back with a sigh of relief. She was out of the crush of people and she hesitated, wanting one more glimpse of the handsome young man who had made her feel so alive again.
Turning to look back at the stage, she caught sight of Martin in her peripheral vision. Willing herself not to look, she nevertheless noticed a very protective aspect to his stance: his arm held around Donna's shoulders, but not touching them, as if guarding her from the outside world.
Something in Valerie's primeval subconscious translated the gesture before her brain did and cried out at her not to look down. Too late. As if in slow motion, her eyes drifted down and registered the noticeable swelling of Donna's previously flat belly and the way her hands rested lightly on it.
The world slowed down and the focus of Valerie's world became that one, horrifying sight. Barely registering Lucinda's concerned look as she, too, saw Martin and Donna, Valerie blindly turned and stumbled for the door, tears already filling her eyes and wetting her cheeks.
She ran out into the cold, wet night. The tears on her cheeks soon mingled with the falling rain and her coat and umbrella, left in the cloakroom, were utterly forgotten in her abject misery.
Her rapid footsteps soon slowed as she got further away from the hall where her ex-husband stood with his new, pregnant wife. She was still sobbing piteously, but she had begun to be aware of her surroundings. Cold water ran down the back of her neck and her sodden shirt stuck to her, hampering the movement of her arms.
She had been walking for nearly ten minutes before she noticed the footsteps behind her. She had been semi-aware of them for a while now, but at their continued failure to overtake her, even as she walked at the slowest pace possible, her curiosity grew.
Eventually the curiosity overtook the apathy of grief and she turned to see who was following her.
"It's you!" she exclaimed, with no thought other than surprise.
"Oui, Madame. It's me. Are you alright?"
"I'm... Yes, I'm... No. Not really. Why are you following me?"
"I saw you run from the hall and you seemed very upset. I wanted to make sure you were OK." He smiled at her kindly, squinting as water ran into his eyes from his sopping wet locks, plastered to his head like the dark plastic hair of a 'Ken' doll.
"I'm OK, honestly. I just -- needed some air."