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The Bitter Red

Julia Breens

Everything is ready for his arrival, the man from the New York Times. There’s a new cloth on the patio table around the back and I bought cushions for the hard seats. I even ironed my blouse, which is pristinely white, although I’m wearing jeans and not something smart like a skirt because I want to feel comfortable during the interview.

What will he think of this place? This huge house in its cage of towering beeches and sweet chestnuts, the air ripe with the smell of overgrown vegetation. If I compare it to some of the mansions Saskia and I stayed at on our grand tour then it’s little more than a doll’s house, but it’s bigger than the place I grew up in, more than twice the size. He will ask me where I got the money, I realise. And I don’t know what I’ll say.

Standing in the front garden, on a threadbare patch of grass that isn’t worthy of the title ‘lawn’, I’ve found the one puddle of sunlight that’s managed to break through the crowd of trees. Between the trunks I can see fragments of the road a quarter of a mile to the east of the property and I wait, listening to the whistle and coo of the birds high above me.

I find I’m nervous for the first time in years and while I’m used to being scared, nerves are different. Nervousness is a reaction to a threat that won’t physically harm you. Being scared is what happens when you fear for your life. I’m worried about the questions the journalist will ask, whether I will answer them with confidence. Be strong, Ash told me on the phone a few hours ago, show him you’re unbroken. But I am broken, Ash.

I pat my pocket to make sure my pack of Camels is there. Of course it hasn’t gone wandering, no sticky fingers other than mine to take it wandering, but this is instinctive behaviour now, with me until the end.

A glint of silver to the south of the house catches my eye and I hold my breath. The glint moves from left to right, twinkling in the gaps between the trees. It’s definitely a car, but it’s not turning off onto the rutted track leading to the house. It’s continuing towards Fontenay. False alarm. Stand down.

My patch of sun is stolen by a cloud. I wait for it to return. Sometimes I hate Ash for choosing this place. The most remote he could find, he’d said, without being a hundred-year-old shack with an outside toilet and no running water, but I would have been okay with a shack, as long as it received its fair share of light, because it’s the gloominess that I can’t stand.

Until late afternoon, the sun has its work cut out trying to penetrate the foliage. On very fine days, it manages to break through in a rash of bright spots that shift around on the grey brick. Once the sun swings round to the west, about five o’clock at this time of year, it pries its way through a wedge of space between the trees and the wide frontage of the house is lit up in shades of amber and coral for half an hour or so. It’s lovely then, but it isn’t enough. Sometimes I drive to the nearest town and sit in the square, basking like a lizard on a bench by the fountain, my skin pinkening and growing hot, and yet in the car on the way back I can always feel the gloom latched tightly about my shoulders. It’s become part of me somehow.

The patch of blue hydrangeas in the border next to me is swaying in the breeze, the blooms bulbous and grotesque. I didn’t like them when I arrived. I thought about digging them up, but they’re everywhere in France, outside supermarkets, by the side of the roads, so I suppose I just got used to them. When the wind ripples through them they bob around on their stubby stalks as though they’re gossiping with each other. I hope it’s good gossip today. Quality gossip. Something to scandalise the hydrangea community. I wonder if they’re talking about me. I like to think so.

Another glimmer catches my eye, a fleck of red in the distance. Another car. This one isn’t passing by. It has already turned onto the track and is winding its way up to the house, so I walk over to the semicircle of dirt where my eleven-year-old Citroen is parked and where he will have to pull up.

There are three shallow bends in the track and when I next see the vehicle through the foliage he’s rounding the last of these. He’s close enough that I should be able to see him, but the interior of the car is dark compared to the bright September afternoon and I’m on full view, so I raise my hand in greeting.

The car rolls slowly onto the dirt drive and stops. It’s a Megane. French plates. A rental car. He’s little more than a shadow inside, further obscured by slats of sunlight that bounce off the windscreen, but I can see some movement. He’s ferreting around with things on the passenger seat, making me wait.

The door cracks open, the sound of the seals releasing from each other, and he reveals himself to me in pieces. A foot. A hand curled around the edge of the door. A shin and a knee. The rest of him all at once. A pleasant shape, broad shoulders, slim hips, all wrapped in jeans and a white shirt. Now this is embarrassing. We’ve turned up to the ball in the same gown.

He’s wearing a pair of aviators, which he removes as he steps towards me, and he’s smiling, broadly though not necessarily convincingly. I’m not surprised to see that he is handsome. Looks must be an advantage in his line of work; people open up to an attractive stranger more easily than an ugly one, a truth I learned a long time ago. It’s not an interesting kind of handsome though. There’s nothing about the angles of his face, the high sweep of cheekbones or the set of his jaw that speaks of uniqueness, and while I’ve always found that a good pair of eyes—a flash of hazel under hooded lids, for instance—can be the hinge upon which a face succeeds or fails, his are too pretty, the colour of bluebells in spring, and they’re at odds with the rest of his features. They belong in another face.

I hold out my hand and we shake.

‘Charlie McCartey. Thanks for inviting me to your home, Miss Lowell.’

So formal and professional.

‘Adele, please. How was your journey?’

I can still put on a show of normal human behaviour, but I’m not actually interested in his answer, so I watch his mouth move as he talks about delays at JFK and queues at the Hertz at La Rochelle. His American accent is all East Coast; he’s aiming for Long Island Lockjaw, I think, trying to inject a touch of old-fashioned class and status into his voice, but it’s mashing against some Boston and a touch of Brooklyn. If there’s something to be said for a stretch in a US prison, it’s that the jumpsuits focus one’s attention on the people inside them, their mannerisms, the way they talk, and I always had a talent for accents to begin with. I would mimic people after hearing them speak only a couple of sentences. It became my party trick, Saskia insisting I perform at every gathering we hosted or attended, usually for men she fancied or wanted something from.

‘Dan’s from Louisville, Addie, show him your Kentucky.’ Or ‘Zach’s grandmother was Minnesota born and raised’. And I’d have to respond with ‘Hey, ya guys, ya know d’eres a leak in the ruf’. And everybody would find it hysterical that it was coming out of the mouth of an English girl.

‘I thought we’d sit on the terrace out back, if that suits you?’ I say to my visitor.

‘Fine, fine.’ His gaze flits around, taking in the house, my car, up to the tops of the tall trees that are gently rustling all around us, briefly to me again, my face, my body, not lingering anywhere. Some people are easy to read. He is not one of them, though I detect perhaps the hint of a frown across his brow. Is he disappointed? Was he expecting me to look as I did back then? There was one image in particular of my arrest, in which I was being bundled into a police car, and that I later discovered was reprinted in almost every news article about me until the trial ended. I remember the moment it was taken, amid the confusion and chaos, hearing someone calling my name and looking up to be greeted by a piercing light. In the photo, I am wide-eyed, my skin bleached by the flash, though I must have had a healthy tan at the time, and my face is framed by the glossy dark hair that I thought suited me so well.

I no longer dye my hair, which is now its natural mousy nothingness and liberally streaked with white. These green eyes, my best feature as I was forever being told, are crowded out by wrinkles. I’m only forty-two, but it would be difficult to recognise me as the woman in that image and perhaps that’s why he frowns.

He goes back to the car to fetch his bag before I lead him carefully up the steps—five big concrete slabs gone crooked where the earth has subsided beneath them over the years—and tell him to go round the side of the house to the terrace while I make tea in the kitchen.

On the tray, I place the china pot, cups and saucers—covered in hand-painted irises—that Nana left to me in her will and which Ash delivered to me in my first week here.

‘A little taste of home, sweetheart,’ he’d said as I carefully unfurled the tissue paper it was wrapped in. When he left I cried, because it wasn’t a little taste of home; it was all that was left of home. Home was stripped down and sold after Nana’s death while I was in a cell an ocean away.

Carrying the tray out to the terrace I find that Charlie McCartey has already settled into a chair, leaving me the bench on the other side of the table. He stands up and offers to take the tray, which is good manners wasted in an entirely futile gesture, because I’ve managed to bring it all the way from the kitchen and it’s only three feet to the table. So I tell him it’s fine and to sit down, which he does, immediately. There it is, I decide. The first sign that he’s frightened of me.

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