by Katie M. Anderson
Laura woke with two languages on her tongue. She gave herself a moment to remember where she was, then she eased back the sheets and pulled herself out of bed. Crossing the bedroom, she pulled the window wide. When she leant out, she could see over the garden to the Château at Valençay. In the light of the early morning, it looked more imposing than ever. Laura let her gaze drop back into the garden. The sun had already started to heat up and patterns of shade were appearing on the lawn. She felt a flash of contentment that was quickly followed by disappointment: already she knew this would be the best part of her day.
Laura pulled her shoulders back inside. She left the window open, and the sounds of the countryside drifted in as she dressed. Crickets, birds, cars on the main road. She pulled her thick blonde hair into a ponytail, then approached the full length mirror.
Like almost everything else in the house, the mirror was ornate and dated. More importantly, it was right in the line of light from the window and provided a truer reflection than the one in the bathroom. Laura breathed a deep breath out, then pulled her t-shirt tight around her stomach. From the front, nothing was visible. She turned to the left, her fingers still pulling the fabric of her top. In profile, she was beginning to show.
Laura whispered her favourite French word, “merde”.
At the door of the room, Laura stood and listened. She pushed her ear right up to the stripped wood and waited. If she was lucky, she'd hear the children in the bedroom next door. If she wasn't, she'd hear the faint sound of them breakfasting downstairs. She'd find them with chocolate milk stained lips and their Grand-mère at the head of the table. Laura knew from experience that she wouldn't have an easy day after that. Grand-mère would make sure of it.
That morning, Laura was lucky. Luc and Céline were in their room, a mass of dolls, cars and storybooks between them. She stood quietly for a moment, her hand reaching unconsciously for her abdomen while she watched them.
The children turned and saw her.
“Laure!” They called, using the French version of the English au pair's name. She tried not to resent the missing 'a'.
Little Céline stood up and toddled towards the door. She had a toy bottle in her hand, and she waved it at Laura.
“You be baby,” she ordered. “I'll be mama.”
Laura stepped backwards.
“No,” she said quickly, “clothes first, then breakfast.”
The children fussed at the table. Laura was not surprised. In the months she had been with them they had rarely not fussed at the table. Their bad behaviour had become boring.
Luc and Céline were whispering to each other, but Laura didn't try and listen. She already knew what they were going to ask.
Céline, two years old, went first.
“Can I have a spoon of Nutella?”
There was one spoon on the table. Laura moved it to her plate.
Céline's lip shook. A redness started to grow in her cheeks, and she picked up a piece of bread and threw it to the floor.
Luc, three years older, attempted a more sophisticated technique.
“We'll let you read...” he said, sweetly.
The deal was a good one. The children knew that Laura preferred her books to their games. She might have been tempted, too, if she thought a five year old could be held to account. But knowing what she did about Luc and his 'deals', she got up and put the spoon on the sideboard. It was barely past nine and she was already irritated. Her day off was well overdue.
“No spoon,” she said. “Drink your milk.”
Grand-mère swept in from the kitchen with two cheek kisses for each of the children and another two for Laura. She wasn't as old as the title made her sound. Dyed hair and harem pants, Laura guessed she was under sixty.
“Laure,” Grand-mère said, resting a hand on the back of Luc's chair, “will you take the children to visit the horses this morning?”
It didn't sound like a question. Thinking again of her missing days off, Laura was tempted to suggest that Grand-mère took her own bloody grandchildren to see her own bloody horses.
In reality, she looked down at the table and nodded.
“Good,” Grand-mère said. “I have a lot of preparations to do.”
Orders made, Grand-mère disappeared and Laura was left alone again with the children. She began to clear the table, bending to collect the piece of bread Céline had thrown. She rested down there for a moment, pressing her forehead into the smooth wood of the chair. How had she found herself in the middle of French nowhere? She hadn't known, before that summer, that the company of children could be so lonely.
Out of view in the kitchen, Laura unscrewed the lid from the Nutella jar. She helped herself to a spoon and scooped a heaped portion straight from the jar to her mouth. With her eyes closed, she reflected on the joy of the moment; part chocolate-induced, part revenge. She savoured it.
They set off to visit the horses. Dressed in shorts and sun hats, the children ran ahead. Laura looked behind her, scanning the house and its windows to be sure they weren't being watched. When she was sure they weren't, she started to jog, calling to the children and catching them up.
They hadn't even reached the end of the lawn when Céline stopped moving and started to scream. Without looking, Laura knew Céline would be clenching her fists while her face got redder and redder. Laura decided to lead by example. She took hold of Luc's hand and together they continued to walk. The method wasn't as successful as she'd hoped it would be. The only difference it made was that Céline's screaming got louder.
When she turned back, Laura saw that the little girl had sat down and was pulling at the grass with her clenched fists. Laura let go of Luc's hand and covered the distance between her and the girl in four wide strides. She picked Céline up and continued the walk as if the interruption had never happened. Luc had to run to keep up.
The heat of the sun irritated Laura's bare skin. She had hoped that time in France would improve her capacity for high temperatures. Instead, each day she found herself slathering the same sun cream on herself as she did on the children. Back in England, when she'd signed the contract, Laura had hoped for a tan and an escape from her life. She hadn't got either.
They were completely out of sight of the house now, and Laura slowed her pace to take in the lush green surroundings. She breathed in, heavily, then out again. Her time in France may not have turned out to be everything she'd hoped for, but it was all relative. It was still better than what she might've had at home.
Down on Laura's left side, Luc kept up a constant stream of conversation. She wasn't listening. Céline sat quiet and content on her hip and Laura concentrated on the feel of her. She wondered how different it would be if it was her own child sat there instead. She hadn't decided, yet, what to do about the baby. If she kept it, she'd have to forfeit on her contract and go home. She could stay for a few more months maybe, but her situation would soon become obvious and Grand-mère might not want her to stay. Laura would have to go home, move back in with her family. Her dad would not approve.
They rounded on the stable and Luc ran ahead. Céline stirred and demanded to be put down with sharp smacks from her pudgy hands. When she was on her feet, the little girl ran awkwardly after her brother.
It was shady at the stables. Laura waited with the children by the fence as the two careworn horses lumbered over. Luc climbed up the wooden rungs, but the horses' noses were still to high for him to stroke. Laura obliged instead, patting their hot fur and looking deep into their dusty eyes.
Luc said something she didn't catch, and Céline echoed it. When Laura didn't respond, they tried again: louder. Laura understood the word food. The children gestured to the horses, but she just shook her head and held up her empty hands. She hadn't brought anything.
Laura wandered a few steps away and waited for the children to lose interest. The heat was starting to make her feel dizzy, so she sat down on the grass. Lazily, she sorted through mental images of her friends, her family. She pictured their summers, summers that could've been hers if she'd chosen differently. A retail job like her sister's. A package holiday somewhere hot and alcoholic with friends. An attempt at a relationship with Joe. Joe. She reached for an image of him, of what he would be doing, but she couldn't find one.
When she looked up, Laura saw that Céline had wandered over and was reaching out for her hand.
“Come and stroke the horses,” she said.
Laura nodded and started to stand. Half way up, her vision spun and she ducked again, away from Céline. She vomited into the long grass.
When it was over, Laura sat back and wiped her mouth with her hands. Luc and Céline were standing together a metre away. For once, they were silent.
“Don't tell Grand-mère,” Laura told them.
Laura didn't realise that it was Bastille Day until lunchtime came and they didn't eat. Instead of food being put out on the patio, cars began to arrive. Three of them pulled off the main road in near tandem, parking in the courtyard at the front of the house. Laura sat watching with the children in the shade of the lawn. The preparations Grand-mère had mentioned at breakfast suddenly made sense.
A middle-aged woman wearing shorts and a jacket emerged from the first car. She moved lightly to the back passenger door and helped out a child. The flash of pink from the child's dress must've caught Luc's attention. He stood and headed across the grass.
“Aunt Jeanne!” He called. “Caro!”
Céline got up too, and Laura expected her to follow her brother. Instead, she sat down again, this time in the bowl of Laura's crossed legs.
“Laure?” Céline said. “I love you.”
Momentarily, Laura softened. The baby would love her too.
Grand-mère appeared on the scene, her shape imposing in the grand front doorway. She sauntered down the stairs to greet her guests. Laura counted six new people; Jeanne, Caro, Jeanne's husband, two more men and a younger woman. When Grand-mère waved in Laura's direction, it looked like an instruction. She picked up Céline, shield-like, and moved towards the group.
“This is Laure,” Grand-mere said when she was close enough. “The au pair.”
The group nodded and Laura found herself caught in an unenthusiastic cycle of cheek kissing. She kissed, and was kissed by, Jeanne, Jeanne's husband, the two other men and the younger woman. Even Caro was involved, though close up Laura saw she was younger than Luc.
Jeanne began to speak and it seemed to Laura as if everyone joined in at once. She tried to keep up, but the conversation was moving too fast. Her stomach had begun to ache with hunger. When she thought no one was watching, she slipped away, taking Luc, Céline and Caro with her.
Inside she fetched a packet of biscuits. She ate them with the children, sitting on the playroom floor.
* * *
In England, three months before, Laura sat in the office of a childcare agency. She'd borrowed her sister's suit and fabric she didn't need gathered at her hips and shoulders. On the other side of the desk a middle-aged woman sat typing into a laptop. She looked as if she knew Laura had no real childcare experience.
“And why are you interested in a position in France?” The woman asked.
Laura's first instinct was to shrug. She wanted to go to France only because it would be more of an escape than staying in England. She wanted to get away, and the French job, the childcare agency, felt like her only option.
“Well,” she began, thinking hard, “I liked French in school. It would be nice to improve my language skills.”
“Right, and how good is your French?”
This was a response Laura had practised. “Very good, I've been taking refresher lessons.”
She hadn't, but the lie worked. The women's expression changed to one that was more encouraging. She typed a few more sentences into her laptop before reaching for some paperwork from her in tray.
“The family are looking for someone to start straight away.”
Out of the suit and into her own clothes, Laura leant over the mirror in her friend Amy's bathroom. There were specks of toothpaste on the glass, a thin crack across one corner. Laura was holding a cheap palette of eyeshadow and the tiny brush that had come with it. From downstairs she could hear the thump of the bass from the stereo. Amy, she knew, would already be halfway down her first beer.
Laura's phone was resting on the closed lid of the toilet. It vibrated. With one eye made up and one not, Laura leant over to check the text. It was from her dad. This conversation isn't over. Come home.
She deleted it without replying.
When Laura got downstairs, Amy was sitting with a handful of friends in the living room. Like Laura, Amy was wearing a cheap party dress. But Amy's was a brighter colour, and it looked more expensive against her fake-tanned skin. Not for the first time, Laura felt outshone. She went to get herself a beer before she sat down.
“Laura's got some news,” Amy said when Laura joined her on the sofa. “Are you going to tell everyone?”
The beer was fizzier than Laura had expected. She'd taken a sip when Amy had started talking, and it took her longer than it should've to swallow. She felt like the room was waiting.
“I've got a new job. It's in France,” she said, finally.
Joe, who they knew from college, screwed up his forehead. “What does your dad have to say about that?”
On Amy's sofa there was a faint pattern of repeated triangles. Laura traced the outline of a few of them before she answered.
“He isn't keen,” she said.
The conversation moved on and Laura was grateful: she wasn't used to so much attention. Amy got up to change the music and Laura shifted into the space on the sofa she'd left behind. Quietly, she took in the people, and the conversations, around her. It was April, and Joe and the others were home from university for Easter. Their chat was about lectures and club nights and societies, and it all went over Laura's head. Since they'd left college, she'd been working on the checkout at her local supermarket. Her dad hadn't liked the idea of university.
The room filled up and the fridge emptied. Laura had made a line of her spent bottles on the arm of the sofa. Joe crossed the room and sat down beside her. He was wearing a shirt he'd never have worn at college. She could tell his first year away had changed him.
“So you're going to France?” He shouted over the music.
“Yes,” she shouted back. “Next week.”
He raised a single eyebrow and Laura felt herself blush.
“That's a bit soon, isn't it?”
“Maybe. The family need me straight away, and I can't wait to get out of here.” She gestured at the lounge as if it were her own.
From the other side of the room, Amy caught her eye. She mouthed something, but Laura was no good at lip reading. It might've been do it. The alcohol helped. It had started to settle in Laura's limbs, making them lighter, easier to move. She thought of all the times she hadn't taken Amy's advice, especially when it came to Joe. And what did it matter now? She was leaving next week.
Laura leant forward and kissed Joe. To her surprise, he kissed her back.
When he pulled away, Joe tipped his head to reach the dregs at the bottom of his bottle. “You want another beer?”
Laura shook her head. “Can we go upstairs, instead?”
Amy's bedroom door shut with a solid click. Still touching the handle, Laura stood for a few seconds, listening to the sound of the party downstairs. She turned to face the room.
Joe had already sat down on the bed. He'd kicked off his shoes and left them, askance, at the foot.
“Come here,” he said.
Laura crossed the room to sit beside him. He kissed her again, and Laura felt herself relax. First off were Laura's leggings, then her mini-dress, her necklace. She got hold of the bottom of Joe's shirt and pulled it up over his head. It made his hair stick up in a mousy brown quiff. She didn't smooth it.
They shared a level of inebriation that allowed them to go through the motions easily, if clumsily. Laura didn't ask about a condom. Joe didn't produce one.
Someone changed the music downstairs and Laura recognised the song. She imagined she was still in the living room, dancing round the carpet with Amy like they used to. Upstairs with Joe, his hand on the small of her back, she felt like she'd already left.
* * *
Late-afternoon, Laura woke again to the windows flung wide in her room. There were sounds from outside; the visitors talking, the crack of ceramic on wood. She got out of bed, pulled her t-shirt straight and smoothed her hair. Outside someone laughed, and to Laura the sound was strangely adult. She'd become too used to the company of children. She closed both windows and the laughter faded.
In the next room, Laura hovered over Luc. He was sleeping with his mouth wide, one palm stretched across the pillow. She didn't want to wake him, but she had to. At Grand-mère's instruction the children had already slept for an hour longer than usual.
“Luc,” she said, resting a hand on his small shoulder, “it's time to get up.”
He stirred and scowled.
Behind her, she heard movement from Céline.
“Come on,” Laura said, “I think there's food downstairs.”
In the garden, the patio had been set for a feast. An extra table had been carried out from somewhere, along with an assortment of chairs. Sitting amongst the adults, Laura did her best to follow what was being said. She was able to catch words and phrases; will we drive there, the children, Laure. But when the food was put down she lost the thread, and she couldn't pick it up again, even when everyone had settled. She thought about the baby instead. If she was going to stay in France, she'd have to visit a doctor. She could tell Grand-mère it was for her migraines.
The other women at the table had chosen delicate portions. Laura had not. She caught a few more words from Grand-mère; English, food, too much. Laura played her ignorance to her advantage and pretended not to have understood.
Just when she hoped she'd been forgotten, one of the men caught Laura's eye.
“We were thinking,” he said. “What do you English celebrate that is like Bastille?”
Laura panicked at the question and forgot the context of the day. She said something about the August bank holiday, the Jubilee, but her verb endings were wrong and the group around the table smirked at her. She blushed a very English pink.
She tried again. “November 5th. The anniversary of an attempt to destroy Westminster.”
This time they didn't just smile, they laughed. Loudly. Even Luc joined in, though Laura knew he didn't understand the joke. She didn't, either.
Laura had been hoping to use the telephone for days. After the meal the adults stayed at the table, topping up wine glasses and exchanging stories. The three children began to get restless, and Laura saw her chance. She gathered them up and took them inside, heading straight for the living room. She settled Luc, Céline and Caro on the sofa, finding a picture book to keep them occupied. Then she picked up the phone and dialled Amy's number, remembering to precede it with the country code.
Amy's mum answered. The familiar tone of her greeting soothed Laura. For a moment she imagined she was back in her own home, calling up about a piece of homework or a shopping trip. Movement from the sofa, the three children who were sitting there, reminded her quickly where she really was.
“Hello love!” Amy said when she reached the phone. “How are you?”
“I'm fine,” Laura said, “but I haven't got long. I need a favour.”
“Joe. I need his number.”
Grand-mère and the visitors had begun to clear the table. Laura could hear them coming in and out through the kitchen door.
“Joe?” Amy asked. “Why?”
Laura wasn't afraid to say it in front of the children. They were too young to understand English, and they hadn't managed to repeat anything she'd said so far. But the voices of the adults were getting closer and Laura couldn't be sure how much of what she said would be heard.
She lowered her voice. “I'm pregnant, Amy. I just need the number.”
“Shit. Are you sure?”
Luc snatched the book from the girls and they screeched in response.
“Shh,” Laura said, dropping into French, “share it.” She turned her attention back to Amy. “Yes I'm sure. Have you got the number or not?”
“We're going out,” Grand-mère said after they'd drunk coffee at the table. “For Bastille.”
She was speaking louder than she usually did, perhaps because she wanted to be clearly understood. Laura was sitting on the floor with the children, cradling a plastic doll Céline had left in her care. She titled her neck to look Grand-mère in the eye.
“Okay. Will I stay here with the children?”
It seemed perfect. She needed to call Joe, and it looked like she might have the whole evening to do so. If her pregnancy was starting to show, she needed to make some decisions about the future. Without the family around, without the need to maintain a level of communication, perhaps she could really consider her options.
Grand-mère shook her head and her auburn hair swished. “No, you and the children will come with us.”
Laura nodded and tried to put the doll down. Céline pushed it back into the crook of her arm.
“We'll be leaving soon,” Grand-mère said. “You should put some warmer clothes on.”
When Laura came back down in jeans and a cardigan, the front door was already open and the group was outside. Jeanne's husband was organising who was to get in each car. Laura ended up in the back of Grand-mere's Renault, sandwiched uncomfortably between the two child seats.
Valençay only had one car park. That evening, it was almost full. They parked in two spaces at the far end and collected at the rear of the vehicles. The children stayed close to Laura. One of the men pointed out the lights of the school building ahead. A crowd had formed around it and Laura guessed that was where they were going.
The other adults spoke as they walked. As they did so, Laura ran through a list of vocabulary in her head. She thought about the French words she knew that never changed in tense or gender. Night. Fire. Blood.
When they reached the school, Grand-mère led the way to a table in the main hall. She passed over a handful of Euro notes, enough for the whole group, and in return was given a paper lantern on a long stick. A lit candle was placed carefully inside it.
Laura hung back while each member of the group was presented with a lantern. Even the children were trusted with their own. When she received her own brightly coloured lantern, she forgot to worry about the children and their exposed flames.
On the school field it seemed as if there were a hundred people waving a hundred lanterns. The atmosphere told Laura that something was going to happen, but not what it would be. She looked to the adults, to Grand-mère, but they all just shrugged.
Just as Laura was starting to wonder whether the pinnacle of the evening had already passed, the attention in the field switched to the road beside it; a minivan was pulling up. Nineties dance music blared from a speaker on it's roof, and it revved its engine aggressively. Laura's instinct was to pull back, but everyone else did the opposite. The van was obviously some kind of signal, and the crowd surged forward in an organised mass. Laura was swept into the movement.
There was a flash of orange below Laura's sightline: Caro had let her candle touch the paper. She was holding a ball of fire on a stick. Before Laura had time to react, Grand-mère had snatched the lantern and stamped it out with her foot. She replaced Caro's lantern with her own and they all moved on again. Laura wondered what the British health and safety regulations would have to say about it all.
The minivan was on the move again, music still blaring. It drove slowly, the crowd forming a fire lit congo line behind it. Nobody spoke as they began their slow loop of the town. Laura recognised the walk for what it was: a ritual. She started to enjoy it. She'd been waiting for peace like this ever since she'd arrived.
When she'd first thought of coming to France, Laura had been excited. The thought of being so far from home was exhilarating. Without her family, her dad, pressing in on her, she'd expected to be more in control of her future. But soon after she'd arrived she'd discovered the pregnancy, and the limbo of hot weather, baby speak and indecision had set in. All she'd done was swap one family for another, and the new family were strangers.
They reached the far side of the town and the minivan began a gentle turn. The line of people paused to watch it move, and Laura became aware of Céline next to her. The little girl was resting her head against Laura's jeans. The warmth of it was pleasant, and for a moment Laura wondered whether her problem wasn't a simple one. Yes, if she had the baby she would have to go back to England. That didn't mean she would have to go home.
Up ahead were the lights of the château. Each window was lit up and the effect was almost mystical. Laura felt herself relax further.
The minivan started back in the direction it had come and the line started to loop back. Céline had slowed beside Laura, her lantern blown out and drooping. Laura made sure her own candle was out, then she lifted Céline onto her right hip. Ahead of them, back on the school fields, there was a sudden movement; a shimmer of gold shot skyward. The bang that came half a second later made Céline flinch. There was another firework shimmer, then another. They seemed to be going in time with the music.
The calm of the evening, the fireworks and the sleepy two year old turned the Bastille celebrations into something like the idyllic summer Laura had been expecting. She closed her eyes and breathed in the smoky air. She felt a quiet happiness she hadn't felt since getting off the plane. She could do this. She could.
When they got back to the house Laura took Luc and Céline up to bed while the other adults and Caro gathered in the kitchen. She was carrying Céline again, and she ushered Luc to her spare side. The three of them climbed the stairs slowly, the children still talking about the paper lanterns. Céline was clutching hers, the stick of it resting against Laura's collarbone and the paper bulb tapping her gently in the back. Luc dragged his carelessly behind him.
“Did you like the fireworks?” Laura asked.
Céline nodded, her hair stroking against Laura's cheek. “They were pretty.”
“What about you, Luc?”
The boy nodded too, lifting his lantern from the floor in emphasis. “I liked the bangs.”
The children were wide-eyed but beginning to get tired. Laura felt a sort of fondness for them. She decided to let them both have a spoonful of Nutella at breakfast the next morning.
They reached the bedroom and Laura set Céline down while she fetched their pyjamas. Luc was still energetic enough to insist on changing independently, but Céline was happy to let Laura help. They let the lantern fall to the floor.
When Céline was changed, she put her arms in the air. Laura reached down to lift her. Mid air, Céline realised that the lantern had been left on the floor. Mid air, she changed her mind about being lifted into her cot. She sunk her teeth into Laura's bare shoulder to make her point.
The pain was so unexpected that Laura almost dropped her. She held on and managed to complete the full lift, releasing Céline into the cot. She was too shocked to be angry. The bite had been deep enough to draw blood.
Laura looked down at the wound, then back into the cot.
“Sorry,” Céline said.
The lights in the kitchen were bright. Jeanne and Caro were gone, but everyone else was sitting around the wooden table. In the centre was a bottle of Pastis and a jug of water. Laura stood in the doorway for half a minute before anyone noticed.
“You look pale,” Grand-mere said.
Laura stepped forward. She gestured at her shoulder. “Céline bit me.”
Grand-mère and Jeanne's husband got up to look.
“She bit you?” The man asked. “With her mouth?”
Laura nodded. Her shoulder was throbbing and her mood had soured. She'd already forgotten the Bastille fireworks.
Grand-mère stepped back. “She's in shock. Get her a drink.”
Immediately, Laura thought of a cup of tea. She closed her eyes and for a moment she was back at home, cradling a mug of milky tea. When she opened her eyes again, Grand-mère was handing her a glass of Pastis.
Laura crossed her arms in front of her stomach. She shook her head. “No.”
“Do you have any Port?” Asked Jeanne's husband. “The English love Port.”
Grand-mère opened a cupboard and reached in. She pulled out a dusty bottle of Churchill's.
“I don't drink,” Laura said, trying to keep her voice firm. It came out unusually high.
“Just a little one,” Grand-mère said. “For the shock.”
Laura knew she should tell them the truth: she was pregnant and she'd decided to go back home. But when Grand-mere pushed a glass into her hand, she took it.
The adults watched as she finished the port in three gulps. When Grand-mère took the empty glass from her, Laura knew she didn't have the courage to leave.