They say that if you sit long enough on the old waterfront at Marseille, sooner or later everybody you know will pass by.
I don’t believe that for a moment--you’re never likely to find my mother in Marseille, for example; she hates spending a single night away from home, and I don’t think she even has a passport--but I’d be happy to test it out as a theory. To keep testing it, for as long as it takes. I like Marseille. The people there are crazy and they should never be allowed behind the wheel of a car, but I like it anyway. I’ve got good reasons.
My first time, I’d barely been sitting there ten minutes, and the first person I noticed was a total stranger.
Technically, he was the second person I spoke to. I’d gone to the Miramar for lunch, and I’d already had a conversation with a waiter. That had won me a table in the shade, a menu, and an intimidating wine list. I wasn’t really reading it, just letting my eyes scroll down over famous names and appalling prices, wondering how they’d feel if I just asked for a glass of rosé.
Which is probably how come I listened in, when a young man somewhere behind me had more or less my own conversation with the waiter. “Je regrette, m’sieur, c’est impossible
”--the waiter likely said the same thing a dozen times a day. Maybe it’s also how come I acted so totally out of character, twisting around in my seat to interrupt, saying, “Excuse me, are you English?”
Blond hair, sun-bleached almost to white; hazel eyes, tanned skin, a generous mouth smiling a little wryly as he said, “Damn. Is my accent that bad?”
I grinned. “By my standards, it’s immaculate. For me, the gentleman had to translate his refusal. I’m guessing he can be adamant in any number of languages. What gave you away was the question. I gather a Frenchman would know not to ask for bouillabaisse if he was on his own. But what I was thinking--if you joined me, then neither one of us would be on our own anymore and they’ll do it for two sharing.”
“Fabulous. If you’re sure you wouldn’t mind?”
“Not in the least. I’d be glad of the company.” Actually I’d started out being no more than polite, finding a way around a frustrating difficulty. Even as I said it, though, I realized it was true. More ways than one. I’d be glad enough just to speak English for an hour, glad to have someone else across the table for a change: someone to catch my eye and pass the water and share a basket of bread. Doubly glad that it should be this lean, attractive boy who was sliding gracefully onto the banquette and reaching over, taking the wine list with a firm, decisive hand, saying, “You’ll let me buy the wine, then. To say thank you, you’ve just saved my day.”
“I’ll let you choose it, for sure. I confess, I was sitting here feeling...a little overwhelmed by it all. I only want a glass, anyway, as I’m driving.”
? Are you insane
“I will be, by the end of the day. I didn’t know...”
He tutted and shook his head sympathetically, flicking over leather-bound pages. “Would you prefer red or white, then? A good bouillabaisse can stand up to either.”
“To be honest? I was just wondering whether it would be utterly outré to ask for pink. In this heat, red would just put me to sleep. I’d like something with a bit of chill to it, and a bit of body too; and I don’t know my way around the whites well enough. Maybe you do?”
“Maybe so--but as it happens, the finest rosés in France are made right here in Provence, so you really couldn’t ask for anything better. Tell you what, let’s make the sommelier’s day.” He set the list aside, beckoned, had a brisk conversation in French that was fluent but obviously not native. I’d been flattering him by suggesting I couldn’t tell his Englishness from his accent. It’s a bad habit, that deliberate charming of strangers; it gets me into heaps of trouble, and this day was no exception.
It was totally true, though, that his command of the language was streets ahead of mine. I shook my head ruefully when we were alone again. “Too fast for me. What did you ask for?” Hoping it wasn’t anything too extravagant, as I wasn’t actually planning to let him pay. Unless he turned out to have a trust fund or a yacht in the harbor, in which case all bets were off.
“Something local. They always have a few cases off list, and it’s always worth asking. You can turn up some real surprises. And they do like to be asked.”
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who flattered strangers. The sommelier came back not with a bottle and a bucket of ice, but a pichet
, a half-liter carafe beaded with condensation, and a babble of enthusiasm that I couldn’t keep up with, could barely follow from a distance. He was genuinely pleased, though. I could read that in his face, in his gestures, even when his words left me far behind. And the wine, when my new friend poured it, was crisp and dry and everything I’d hoped for. More.
“Wow,” I said, genuinely startled by the first sip. “That’s amazing. It’s not really pink, is it? More sort of tawny. Sunlight in a glass.”
He nodded. “And herbs in the nose, rocks under the tongue, and a dash of salt at the back of the throat. What Provence is all about. They make this about twenty kilometers from here, and the locals drink it all. It’s what the chef likes, apparently, when he has bouillabaisse.”
“That too. It’s cellar cool, not iced; you can’t taste it properly if you let it get too cold.”
I sipped again, surveying him over the rim of the glass. “How old are you?”
“Isn’t that a little young to be such an expert?”
He grinned. “Not really. It’s my job. I’ve worked for an English winery since I was eighteen, but I’m spending a year over here for the experience, to learn the French way of doing things. There’s so much we can pick up from them, especially when it comes to making reds--”
“Wait, what? You can’t make red wine in England!” I might not know much, but I knew this absolutely: we make good whites these days, but we just don’t have the climate for a decent red.
“Yeah, we can.” He sounded absolutely confident. “We will do. Haven’t you heard of global warming? Climate’s shifting, summers are getting warmer. There’s a bloke planting olive trees in Oxfordshire; by the time they’re mature, he reckons it’ll be hot enough for their fruit to ripen. Way before that, I’ll be making good red wine in Kent. You watch for my name, doubting Thomas.”
“Well, I would,” I murmured, “only I don’t actually know it yet. I’m Jeff.”
“Oh. Whoops. We missed that bit, didn’t we? Hullo, Jeff. Doubting Jeff. My name’s Benet. One n
, one t
. It’s officially short for Benedict, but you don’t call me that. Nor Ben, neither.”
It was a litany, all too clearly: a song he sang to all his new acquaintances. It led into a spiel about his parents and this dreadful name they’d seen fit to burden him with, his appalling childhood, and how barely he’d survived it. I just sat back and enjoyed the performance. What had started as an exercise in practical good manners was becoming a swift, deep pleasure, flinging open unexpected doors. Benet’s voice was like warm honey, sweet and light and liquid; even when he was talking sheer nonsense, I was happy just to listen to the sound of it.
And happy just to look at him, that too. It had been too long since I’d been free to enjoy the simple act of watching a young man move. I’d have been just as happy to watch him sit still, actually, but that didn’t seem to be an option. He talked with his hands, with every feature of his face; with his legs too, most likely, except that I couldn’t see them under the tablecloth. I knew they were shifting around, because more than once his foot nudged mine.
He was such a hypnotic companion that I was actively resentful when the waiter interrupted us. Technically this was what we were both here for, what had brought us together: the bouillabaisse. As soon as I saw it, I understood why they wouldn’t do it for one person alone. It wouldn’t be possible. One man’s appetite couldn’t encompass this great bowlful of fish, half a dozen different kinds all poached together in saffron liquor, gleaming gold and steaming, aromatic and irresistible. Almost irresistible. I’d rather have gone on listening to Benet. But now there was all the fuss and ritual of bowls and croutons, garlic and rouille, first spoonfuls of the thin, delicious broth while the waiter took the fish away again and lifted flesh from bones at another table.
“You know, I am so
glad you overheard me asking for this,” Benet murmured. “It’s what I came to Marseille for today: to sit out on the Vieux Port and eat bouillabaisse.”
I was glad too, for reasons that had little to do with the complications of soup and fish. Even in the shade, his skin seemed to gleam with captured sunlight. And it wasn’t just the attractions of his body, though that would have been enough; his personality, his cheerful satisfaction with the world shone brighter even than his eyes. He seemed utterly content with who he was, where he was, how he was living. Another man in the same situation might have seemed smug or self-centered, but not Benet. He did truly seem to think that this was the best of all possible worlds, and he’d work as hard as he needed to keep it that way.
And eventually, inevitably, the bright, inconsequential thread of his chatter was cut off by a question: “What about you, then, Jeff? What are you doing in Provence on your own?”
“Nursing a broken heart, of course,” I said, brittle and facetious, all defense.
His expressive face betrayed him, showing just how much that stung. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I didn’t mean to--”
“No, I’m the one who should apologize.” I despised myself for that ungenerous response, even as I wondered what had brought it out. What did I have to defend myself against, over a casual lunch with a stranger? “It is actually true, but--well, I shouldn’t use it like a weapon. I was booked to come on holiday with my partner, but we split up a few months back.” He left me
was the way I usually said that. Not today, apparently. This wasn’t about hurling blame at absent men. Not here, not now. Not anymore
would have been welcome, but I wasn’t sure I was that far recovered. “It was too late to cancel the flight or the accommodation, so I thought I might as well use it.”
Actually, my coming out alone was almost an act of spite. It had been Tony who wanted to see Provence; it was my petty vengeance to use the booking on my own behalf. That, and an experiment in solo living. I’d never had to do this. I had no idea how to holiday alone. I’d brought my camera, my laptop, and a stack of books.
It had been six months. Not long enough; I really, really wasn’t looking for a boy.
“What happened?” he asked gently. “Was there someone else?”
“Apparently so. Apparently there had been for a while, only I was too blind to see it. Or just too busy, maybe. I’m a hospital doctor, so I work crazy hours; it’s probably unreasonable to expect anyone to put up with that.” Never mind that Tony worked in the same hospital, if not quite on the same brutal schedule. “But we’d been together since I was a student. I just never thought...”
A shrug, a glance across the bay; even after all this time, I still didn’t have the words to describe the depths of that betrayal. Not to my closest friends, let alone to a chance-met young man I’d presumably never see again. I sipped wine and waited for him to change the subject.
Instead, he said, “Tell me how you met.”
Maybe it was some kind of exorcism, though it didn’t feel like that at the time. I didn’t understand myself, really. I don’t generally unburden my soul at the prompting of an attractive stranger. That day I did, though. I laid the whole story out across that little table.
And found the memories easier to bear, perhaps, when I was done: when plates and bowls and glasses were empty, when--
“How much of that wine have I drunk?”
“A fair share,” he said.
“Meaning most of it, I think. You should have stopped me.” I glowered unreasonably at him. “I won’t be fit to drive for hours now.”
“No, you won’t,” he agreed cheerfully. “You’d better spend the afternoon with me instead. What shall we do? I want to play tourist. That’s the thing about living here; I never do the holiday stuff. Let’s go out to the Château d’If and see where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. There’s a boat trip that leaves from the quay, right here.”
I had all sorts of reasons to say no, and I really meant to do it. But first there was the difficulty of the bill, where neither one of us wanted to give way; somehow an equitable solution turned out to mean that I would buy the tickets for the boat ride.
So then I was committed, except that when we came to the ticket booth, it was unexpectedly closed. Mechanical difficulties, the sign said, had taken the boat out of service.
My relief must have been obvious. Benet gazed at me, a bit nonplussed; I grinned shamefacedly, and confessed. “It’s just as well, to be honest. I can get appallingly seasick on a bridge, never mind a boat.”
“Oh, what? You should have said!”
Yes, of course I should. Why hadn’t I? I didn’t know. I might have blamed it on the fog of wine, but I really hadn’t drunk that much, a share of half a liter; I wasn’t feeling it at all. Except when I looked at him, and that was a different kind of drunkenness, a growing sense that no boy should be that pretty. Or that alluring, that charming, that intensely desirable.
Okay. Maybe I was feeling the wine, at least a little. I shrugged and said, “Well. I still need to sober up.” Please? The last thing I needed right now was this kind of complication, yearning for an unattainable beauty. “What shall we do instead?”
Apparently I was already at war with myself, not wanting to let him slip away into the hectic city any more than I wanted to be left burdened with a hopeless lust.
He gazed around him at all the sights--the churches and fortifications, the bright waters of the bay, the fishermen selling their catch from little stalls right on the harbor--and said, “There’s lots of tourist stuff and lots of shopping. Or there’s this park I know, just behind the museum. We could snag another bottle of wine and go sit in the sun and watch the cats and just talk.”
“Another bottle of wine,” I repeated. “And just how is that supposed to help me sober up?”
“Oh, it’s not. I am forming an alternative plan, where you abandon your car overnight and come back to my place. The house is practically a château, there’s loads of room, and you’d be very welcome. And if you’ve never been on a French bus, you should probably do it just for the experience, something to write home about...”
His words ran on, but I’d stopped listening to his voice. I was listening to his body instead, what he was really telling me.
Maybe this lust I was feeling was not so hopeless after all. I didn’t think he was seriously suggesting that they’d find me a spare room at his château. Or that either one of us would want them to.
“Here’s an alternative,” I said, “to your alternative. How’s about we just get a hotel room somewhere here in town? Somewhere with parking. That way I don’t have to worry about the car overnight, and I can run you back in the morning so that neither of us has to chance those buses, and...”
And he was chewing his lower lip in a way that had nothing whatever to do with doubts or uncertainties; it was just sheer and immediate desire. I wanted to do the exact same thing, to chew on that pert lip myself. He glanced up at me through his lashes, practiced and seductive; he whispered, “Could we go now? Find a room? Right now? I’ll need to call my boss, but that can wait...”