Some days, I can almost feel too lucky to live. What have I ever done, to deserve this?
-- the words might as well be painted in great white sky-letters above my head, like clouds that follow me around and never rain on me.
This particular day there were no clouds, no hint of a cloud: only a heat-haze to smudge the pale sky, deep shadows from the trees that bordered the canal. And me on deck, perched on the stern rail with a rod in my hands and nothing in my head, watching the slow drift of the water, utterly content. Best job in the world, bar none…
Occasional people passed by on the towpath -- an elderly man whose moustache was bigger than his dog, two middle-aged women with baguettes and leafy greens thrusting out of their shopping bags, a whistling boy on a bicycle. They only underscored the privacy, the freedom of my solitary state. They had homes, families, possessions, schedules: everything that fixes a person, everything that ties them down. Me, I was just passing through, alone and unencumbered. Best life in the world, bar none…
It was late afternoon, late summer, and I had two weeks of this to come. No troubles, no hurry: just a slow cruise, a few photos, an article to write up at the end of it. Perfect.
Tonight's supper was already in the keepnet. I was only fishing on because I could, because I wanted to. If I caught nothing more, it really wouldn't matter. Today was all about the idleness, catching the mood that I intended to keep all fortnight long.
Movement again on the towpath, someone in about as much hurry as I was, drifting along barely faster than the water. I glanced up, and --
I couldn't look away. I suppose I should be embarrassed about that, ogling a stranger, but hey. He was beautiful. And there's a separation between boat and land, a different kind of distance: almost like a window -- you can see but not touch; it doesn't seem to matter so much if you look.
If you look and look.
He was a young man, a little younger than me: early twenties at a guess, where I was just turning late. His hair was floppy blond, almost a match to the gold of his skin. I could see quite a lot of his skin, as he was wearing an unbleached linen suit and nothing else except a pair of sandals. No shirt. His jacket hung open, to show off exactly how thoroughly tanned he was, how fit, how…
Hands in pockets, he idled down the path towards me like a Greek god on a day away from Olympus. If he was looking for maidens to ravish, he certainly wasn't in any rush about it. After a while, I realised that I was trying to see just what colour his eyes might be -- which meant, of course, that his eyes were very much turned in my direction. He was looking at me, in fact, with almost as much attention as I was giving him.
Oops. Even through a window, it's rude to get caught staring.
Even so. He wasn't turning his eyes away, as strangers do when they snag glances unexpectedly; so neither did I. I'm not sure that I could have without a better reason. He was just such a pleasure to watch, with that easy grace and total self-assurance, a young man who knew just exactly where he stood in the world, and what he was worth.
By the time he reached my stern rope where it was tied off to a peg in the bank, we obviously had to exchange something more than looks. I tried a smile -- which was not hard at all, he was delightfully easy to smile at -- and said, "Bonjour."
I got the smile back in full measure, and a cheerful "good afternoon."
"Ouch," I said, laughing. "Is it that my French accent is so bad, or just that my Englishness is obvious?"
He shrugged and couldn't have been more obviously French if he'd tried. His English was near-perfect, though, enhanced -- I thought -- rather than marred by a soft, liquid slur, as though the canal ran through it. "The accent is…unusual, but one word is not enough to say about the French. Your clothes are English, though, and so is your fishing rod."
"My jeans are American," I protested. "I got the shirt in Kuala Lumpur and the shoes in Beijing --"
"And the Blue Jays cap in Canada, yes. That's what I mean. Only the English would do this."
He was teasing, of course. It was the rod that was the giveaway, to anyone who knew. I said, "You fish?" though I knew the answer already; I just wanted to hear him talk some more. His voice was as charmingly seductive as the rest of him.
"When I can. Where I'm allowed to," with emphasis.
I frowned; that was more than a hint, it was an accusation. "I have a licence." It had come with the hire of the boat: two weeks' unlimited rights on this canal and the river that fed it.
He shook his head. "Not for this stretch. From the bridge above to the bridge below" -- his arm pointed, upstream and down -- "this is all private water. It belongs to the vineyard." Beyond the trees, both steep sides of the valley were staked out with heavy vines in neat array.
"And, what? You're the warden, are you, patrolling to catch culprits?"
"Something like that." He was firm but seemingly quite unworried. I wasn't quite sure what game we were playing here, but I thought both sides were having fun. "I'm afraid you must pay a fine. How many fish have you caught so far?"
"Just the one." I lifted the keepnet out of the water to show him: a fine brown trout, fat supper for one.
"That's unfortunate. The fine is two trouts, payable at sunset. You'd better go on fishing, until you have enough to meet your debt. Do you have fresh bread?"
"Yes, actually." The women on the towpath earlier weren't the only ones who had been to market. "But --"
"Good." He interrupted me ruthlessly, voice and smile still working good magic together. "I'll see you later, then. Don't worry about the wine, I'll bring that."
"Of course. That will be my fine, for impersonating a warden of the canal."
One last flash of white teeth and he was going, was gone, long loping strides carrying him away from me, leaving me startled, bewildered, enchanted --
At a stretch, one fat brown trout would probably feed two. It just seemed a shame to stretch on such a day; and besides, I rise to a challenge as fish rise to the bait. I like mystery, I like being teased, I rather like to be goaded. I liked him, I thought, very much indeed.
And I really didn't want to give him the chance to mock my failure, as I was sure he would; so I was suddenly much more serious about the fishing. I changed to my lucky fly, because all fishermen are superstitious, no matter how scientific we may be about the art of fishing. I turned my back to the distracting towpath and concentrated entirely on the water and the slippery shadows I could see gliding beneath the surface.
If sometimes that surface seemed more like a mirror to my imagination, if I did keep seeing a very particular blond head, a deeply attractive face, a wonderfully open smile -- well, that was like the gold at the rainbow's end, you know it's not really there, but it draws you on regardless. He was my reward for a landed fish. Strictly in my imagination, of course. I didn't expect ever to find him in my bed. Still, I allowed myself to dream just a little, while my hands went through all the familiar motions, casting the fly across the water to a particularly tempting stretch in the shadow of a poplar, where I had already seen all the telltales of a trout rising for his supper.
At last I struck lucky, felt him bite and struck hard. He was a big, strong fish, and I was only using a light line; my heart was in my mouth as I played him. It would be all too easy to lose him now and be left with nothing.
He fought as strenuously, as determinedly, as I did. It was touch-and-go, but I won in the end; I reeled him aboard, took the hook out, and slipped him into the keepnet to join his unfortunate brother.
I heard a light applause at my back and turned around to see my dinner guest leaning in a tree's shadow, lithe and lovely in the evening light.
"Have you been there long?"
"You should have said."
A little shrug and, "You were busy. And I like to watch a thing done well."
He stretched a long leg across the water before I was ready, before I could offer him a hand; he found a foothold and stepped neatly over the rail, doing that thing very well indeed, the epitome of grace. "Permission to come aboard, captain?"
He already had, but I forbore to point that out. "Of course, and welcome. Make yourself comfortable." Take your shirt off
, I'd have liked to say, but he'd only just put it on: for the sake of good manners, presumably, being properly dressed for dinner. "What's your name, anyway? I'm Charlie."
Now he held out his hand, and I shook it.
Took it, at any rate.
Really didn't want to let it go.
It always lingers in my memory, that first time of touching. Sometimes there's a tingle, a promise, as though the body knows what the mind hasn't quite caught up with yet. This time it was more, almost a shock of recognition: his warm fingers enfolding mine as we stood palm to palm, saying nothing, letting skin and flesh and bone do all the talking.
It had to end, of course. It had to be him who broke contact, because I couldn't move.
He slipped his hand out of mine, his mouth giving a little twist that was almost an apology; for excuse, he swung forward the satchel he was carrying over his shoulder.
"I brought olives, to nibble while we talk; good butter and almonds and watercress for the trout, which I will clean and cook because you are English --"
"Hey, I can cook!"
"Of course you can. Or you can stand and watch with a glass of wine in your hand, while I cook. That would be better, I think."
I tried to glare at him, but it dissolved into a giveaway giggle, no dignity left to stand on. "All right, then. I have been working hard, after all, to catch our supper. While you just moseyed along the towpath causing trouble. Wine. You mentioned wine?"
"Of course." He reached into his satchel again and produced a bottle.
For a moment, I was almost disappointed in him.
Some French supermarkets will sell you a plastic litre bottle that only identifies itself as vin
-- whether it's red or white or rosé, you have to judge for yourself, by looking. Don't ask me what it tastes like; I've never been that desperate.
Just for that little moment, Matt's bottle reminded me of those. It was clear glass, and the wine was white -- or at least a pale green-gold, that colour that we traduce by calling it white -- and there was no label at all.
At least it was real glass, though. And there might be no capsule over the neck, neither traditional lead nor modern plastic, but that did allow me to see the long traditional cork that stoppered it, with a chateau's name and crest stamped around its length.
"I'll get a corkscrew."
He had one in his pocket and used it with the simple grace of long familiarity. For a moment, the summer's breeze seemed full of flowers.
He beamed at me, and I gathered I had said the exact right thing for once. I tried to be twice lucky -- "I'll find us some glasses" -- but he smiled, shook his head, stopped me with his hand against my chest.
Stopped me dead, almost; he almost stopped my heart.
One thing for sure, he was safe to break it. Before the night was out, most likely.
"No need," he said again.
"Oh, you didn't…"
But of course he did; from the other pocket of his jacket, he produced two fine long-stemmed glasses wrapped in silk for the journey.
"This wine," he said, "deserves better than rented tumblers. At least, I hope it does."
I was sure of it. I felt hopelessly out of my depth here, out-thought all down the line, floundering in the wake of his elegant manoeuvres. The game was still fun, but I didn't stand a chance.
Grasping at straws, I said, "I checked my fishing licence. It doesn't say anything about this stretch of water being excluded."
This time, his shrug was a confession. "Of course not. I am a bad, dishonest person, telling lies for the sake of a free supper."
"Hardly free," I said, with a gesture towards all the treats he'd brought.
"The butter and the almonds and the olives come all from our own land. The watercress I picked myself an hour ago, from the stream below the kitchen garden; and the fish you caught, of course. It could hardly be more free."
"And the wine?" Just the perfume of it rising from the glass caught at my throat like a promise of wonder.
"Ah," he said. "Well, I made the wine."