Picture Perfect. fiction by Cath Barton

CB.Dec2021.4

Picture Perfect                                                                                                         

The gîte looks exactly as advertised in the brochure: Blue pool, shady terrace (for long, lazy lunches), vineyards dripping with ripening grapes stretching into the distance. Three spacious double bedrooms. Peace and absolutely quiet. Perfect for a relaxing family holiday.

The only thing it doesn’t say in the brochure is that it’s a long way to the nearest shops, but for the moment Nina, newly arrived with husband Ed, isn’t worried about that. She’s floating in the blue pool. The trilling of her phone on a lounger by the pool pulls her back to reality. It’s her daughter Alice, calling from the airport back in England to say she will be late getting there, she doesn’t know how bloody late, and she could do without this after the term she’s had. Nina makes soothing noises. She’s looking forward to having the family together again after Alice’s first year away at university.

Nina and Ed have driven down over two days. They watch their carbon footprint. Ed is not Alice’s father but as good as; he loves her to pieces. He’s from California, so that’s the kind of thing he says. There’ll be Josh coming too, the son they spawned together. He hasn’t called, so when he is going to arrive neither Nina nor Ed knows. But that’s the way it is with Josh and now he’s eighteen he is able, as he likes to constantly remind them, to make his own decisions. Let him be, Ed tells Nina, it’s best not to ask the boy too many questions.

Nina notices, as she sits waiting for Ed to bring her a first glass of wine, that there is a fancy device for cleaning the pool, a sort of remote-controlled under-water hoover. She is pleased to see this, because she knows about the risks of picking up waterborne diseases abroad. Alice will tell her mother, when Nina repeats this at dinner that first evening, a late dinner because Alice’s plane was delayed for four bloody hours, that she is completely paranoid. This, Alice will say, is the south of France, not bloody Africa. Nina will purse her lips and want to ask her daughter if she could please refrain from using that word all the time, but there’s Ed jumping up before she can get the words out and saying let’s all have another glass of wine. Not very good wine, true, but there will be better after he’s checked out the local vineyard, he’ll say. And Nina will be itching to say something about watching how many units they’re drinking, and he’ll see that in her eyes. She will, of course, say nothing at all, drop her eyes and chew on the rather dry pork which Ed has (over)cooked on the barbecue.

Back in the promised quiet of the late afternoon Nina watches the water bubbling in the blue pool as the hoover does its work. The peace is disturbed only by Ed clanking around in the kitchen, preparing for the barbecue. Nina is thirsty, she knows she ought to have a glass of water before she embarks on the wine. But doesn’t. It’s wine which, as Alice will point out with a triumphant snort at some point in the long evening, is made from grapes from Different Countries of the European Bloody Community, and surely that’s no longer legal she’ll say. Alice has a lot of opinions; she always has had.

After Alice has eventually flounced off to bed, Nina and Ed sit in dulled silence for a while by the still blue pool, unspoken questions hanging between them in the still air like mosquitos biding their time.

Next morning Nina gets up early to swim in the blue pool. Ed does not stir as she rises from a night’s sleep disturbed by nameless fears. There is, as she walks across the terrace where the detritus of the night before litters the table, no sign of Alice, who has a room on the other side of the house. The water is clear and fresh. Bloody cold, Alice will say when she waggles a finger in it. But that will be later. For now, Nina is happily alone in a benign watery world. Her phone, which she has placed on a lounger, vibrates while she is in the pool, but she doesn’t notice. Only when she is towelling her hair ten minutes later does she see that there has been been a missed call. Not a number she recognises. Not Josh then, she thinks.

Ed and Alice both rise late and ask where the fresh croissants are, that’s one of the things you come to France for, they say together in an annoying chant, fresh croissants, decent croissants. Neither of them asks about the absent member of the family, and Nina is relieved about that, because it is bad enough one of them worrying. So relieved that, without demur, she drives the ten kilometres to the nearest boulangerie, where she is dismayed to hear that there are ‘plus de croissants, Madame, j’en suis désolé’, but cheered by the abundance of fresh baguettes and tiny, exquisite tartes aux fraises. When she returns with bags full of them Ed calls the price ridiculous and Alice says she can’t eat those bloody pastries, they are full of sugar. And this time Nina does say it. Please, she says, for the love of God will you stop using that word? And Alice shrugs her shoulders in the way that she knows will wind her mother up and mouths something, fully aware that that will annoy her even more. In spite of her determination that this holiday will be happy, Nina’s mood is changed, and she sits on a sun lounger, gazes at the picture-perfect pool and tries to practice mindfulness. Until the insistent unspoken question about the absence of her son tugs her into action. But when she calls his number there will be, as she expects, no answer.

At lunchtime Nina goes into the kitchen and makes a salad with tinned tuna, leaving her phone on the sun lounger. While she is doing this there is another missed call. Something twangs in Nina’s mind over lunch, and she snaps at her husband, who surely, she says, surely must care just a little tiny bit that he has not heard from his son? Ed puts his fork down when she says that. My son? he asks. Yes, your son, she replies, remember you were once capable of producing one, Edward?  Immediately wishing that she could pull the words back into her mouth.

Nina, Ed and Alice (who says nothing during this exchange) sit and gaze out from the shady terrace over the now-empty plates and wineglasses onto the indifferent lines of vines, baking out there in the heat of the day. This heat renders torpid everything and everyone that ventures out into it for more than a few moments. Even on the shady terrace cogent thought soon becomes impossible. The blue pool, with its hoover quiescent in a corner, looks inviting, but not one of the three has the energy to swim.

They go to their bedrooms for a siesta. Ed has drunk three glasses of the inferior wine at lunchtime, for there is, he says, no point in wasting it. He is on his back snoring before Nina has even slipped off her dress, dispelling her hope that they would rekindle some semblance of a physical relationship in the warm afternoon. She curls her disappointed body away from him, but sleep eludes her. On the other side of the house, she can hear Alice padding about in her room. Nina’s phone, abandoned on the lunch table, records two more missed calls.

In the late afternoon Alice, who after trying on all her new swimwear has selected a hot-pink bikini, is in the blue pool. Ed emerges from sleep, staggers across the terrace, and sits down heavily on a sun lounger. Through half-closed eyes he watches the young woman swimming up and down; under the still-bright sun the water is a coruscation of gold, pink and blue. As Alice pulls herself from the water the barely covered curve of her bottom arouses him. Ed knows that he should be shocked at his reaction but finds that he is not. He is excited by his excitement; it has been a long time. He is tempted to reach out a hand as his nearly-daughter passes his sun lounger but stops himself in time. She picks up a towel, wraps it around her body and pads off, back towards her room. Ed closes his eyes and indulges his fantasy. Nina, noticing his erection when she approaches the pool, bends over to kiss him and places a hand on his groin. He opens his eyes, gasps and, unable to stop himself, says Oh, it’s only you. And she asks who in God’s name he had thought it was?

Now it is Nina who is swimming in the blue pool. The water has warmed up, but no longer seems benign. She’s thinking about all those missed calls, worrying that there has still been no word from Josh. And there is something else nagging at her, something she cannot or dare not name. When she clambers out of the water her husband looks at the way her flesh sags and bags at the tops of her legs. He pats her bottom as she passes and laughs, over-loudly. Nina bats his hand away and says something which he doesn’t quite catch but thinks includes the words dirty old man. He lies back on the lounger, closes his eyes and returns to his fantasy of young, firm flesh. Alice, coming back round the corner just moments later to pick up her sunglasses which she had forgotten by the pool, sees him moving his hand in his shorts and watches, wide-eyed, before retreating to her room. Where she messages a friend back in England. She sends a photo of the blue pool. Wow, her friend will write back immediately, how lucky are you! And Alice, unable to put her complicated feelings into words, will select a string of cheerful emojis to send in reply and her friend will be none the wiser.

Ed barbecues local sausages for dinner, knowing that at least one of the women in his family will ask if they are going to have to eat pork every day, but he does not care. He swills down the last of the red and then realises that he should have gone out in the afternoon to buy the better wine and would have done had he not been distracted by the insistent demands of his body. By now he is, technically, over the limit for driving. He smooths his apron and his hair and goes over to Nina, who is sitting on the terrace reading a book. She can see what he is going to ask and tells him before he even opens his mouth that there is no way she is driving anywhere at this hour to get wine. Shit! he will say and she’ll reply that he can ask his son to pick it up on the way, surely he is on his way by now, isn’t he?

Ed will hold up his hands in a gesture of surrender and walk back to the barbecue, which is out of sight, but not sound, from the terrace. Alice is there now, complaining to Nina that the bloody stupid water hoover gets in the way when she swims, and she needs a drink this is supposed to be a bloody holiday sorry I swore mother but for Christ’s sake why couldn’t that husband of yours have gone and got some decent wine like he said he would instead of what he was doing. Her voice will tail off all the end of the tirade because she’s said too much, and Nina will be asking What, Alice? What was Ed doing? and of course there’s no way Alice is going to tell her.

After that it is Nina who, despite what she said before, gets in the car and drives to the vineyard, but it has closed for the day, there is just a worker sweeping up who is ‘désolé, Madame’. He tells her that there is a supermarket only six kilometres to the south-west which will surely be open, even at 8pm, and where they sell ‘de bon vin, vraiment c’est du bon, je vous assure.’

Nina drives what must be at least fifteen kilometres to the supermarket, where she puts two boxes of local red and a bottle of cognac into her trolley. As she turns towards the checkout, she sees a gangly young man with fair hair at the far end of the shop and feels a rush of relief. She waves and calls the length of the shop, Josh, Joshua, hey! But when the man turns it isn’t him, of course it isn’t.

When Nina gets back the (burnt) sausages are cold. She makes herself an omelette and takes it out onto the terrace, where her husband and daughter have already drunk the best part of a bottle of the new wine and have stupid smiles on their faces. Ed pours Nina a glass of wine and she glugs it as she eats the omelette, too quickly. The wine and food feel greasy in her mouth. Ed and Alice are looking at her. Go on, tell us, they are saying. Nothing, she says, there’s nothing to tell. Yes there is they say, they want to know about the supermarket. Oh, oh, okay, yes, the supermarket. She tells them that it’s a perfectly good supermarket and that it’s open from 8am till 10pm. So one of them can go there tomorrow and buy croissants and get food for the day as well, she says and pauses, waiting for them to argue. But they don’t argue, and Ed says to Alice Hey! why don’t we go together, and the smile stiffens on the girl’s face as she says That’s a great idea, sure, brilliant, why not?

When Nina wakes next morning there is no residual warmth on the other side of the bed. She listens and hears only bird calls. In the bathroom she looks at her body in the long mirror and sighs. She pulls on a robe and goes into the kitchen to make coffee. Her phone rings and she grabs it.

Ed and Alice, returning from the supermarket, stop to look at the view. She points quickly at a hare running through a field of wheat and her breasts quiver. His groin is aching, and he wants, very much, to touch her. She turns and walks back towards the car but he, racked with desire, grabs the barbed wire of the field boundary to still himself. Alice is shocked to see the blood and takes hold of his hand, sending quivers through his body. She tells him he should be more careful, dabbing at his torn fingers quickly with a tissue and pulling away because she knows, of course she does, she is nearly twenty years old for Christ’s sake, not a stupid child anymore.

Back at the gîte, the atmosphere is febrile. Not one of the three of them can speak what they are thinking, and they disperse after breakfast to separate activities. At lunch Nina tells Ed and Alice about a phone call which she has supposedly – at last! – received from Joshua, full of apologies. He will not be coming this week, but maybe next. Nina is a convincing liar, and neither her husband nor her daughter doubt her. They are, they each tell the others, really disappointed, but it is not so.  Only later that day will worry about Josh reassert itself in Nina’s mind. And now that she has told the lie, she will not be able to share that worry with Ed or Alice.

The days settle into a pattern of early morning drives to the supermarket, lunches on the shady terrace and evening barbecues. In between meals Nina and Alice take it in turn to swim in the blue pool. They come to realise, as their skin begins to burn and peel even after they have applied sunscreen, that after ten in the morning it is too hot to sit in the open by the pool. Ed finds a comfortable chair on the shady terrace and keeps his eyes down on his book. Nina takes a lounger to the other end of the terrace, where she too pretends to read. Alice spends a lot of time in her room, talking to her friends on Facebook Messenger. They all take a siesta after lunch, during which they sleep off the strong local wine. It begins to look very much like the relaxing family holiday which the brochure had promised.

The long lazy days pass quickly. On the Saturday of the second week Nina tells the others that Josh has texted her. Sadly, she will tell them, he can’t join them, he’s been invited to Greece by friends. By this time, they have all settled into the illusions they have created for themselves and not even Nina knows whether this is the truth, or another story. Maybe next year, she tells herself, they’ll have a proper family holiday, all four of them. And she dives into the picture-perfect blue pool, turns on her back, floats and empties her mind.

*First accepted for publication in doppelgänger – Issue One, July 2018

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Cath Barton is an English writer living in Wales. She is the author of three novellas: The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review), In the Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books)  shortlisted for Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards 2021, and Between the Virgin and the Sea (forthcoming, Novella Express, Leamington Books). Her short stories are published in The Lonely Crowd, Strix and a number of anthologies. Cath is also active in the online flash fiction community. https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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