The sun cut sharp as a blade across the floor tiles. Penny felt the warmth on her face as she padded to the window and pushed open wooden shutters to embrace the morning. Beyond the courtyard and the garden below, the wide blue ripples of the Luberon hills hung like a great curtain across the landscape. The only sounds came from the first sleepy cicadas.
Perfection: the beauty and peace of a month in Provence; the summer heat and light. This rambling farmhouse they had rented hadn’t disappointed, far from it. Inside and out, there was space to breathe and long, calming views from the hillside.
Trees whispered in cooling breezes. Sunk into the garden was a swimming pool with water the colour of glacier melt.
“Are you going down to get the bread or am I?” John’s voice carried a plea, a hungover-sounding appeal to her good nature.
He was still a sheeted walrus on the bed.
“It’s your turn,” said Penny. “And they’re your guests.”
And I wish they’d go, she thought. Not even in the sense of “leave”, just go to the boulangerie one morning for once instead of expecting to be waited on as if they were staying in a hotel. Because this holiday was supposed to be their anniversary treat (twenty-five years married!) but it hadn’t quite been the paradise she’d hoped for.
It had been fun while Sam and Lottie were staying, but they were adults now with jobs and commitments of their own, and plans that didn’t include spending too much time with Mum and Dad. After the children, their partners and assorted friends had gone, Penny and John had a huge empty house in the South of France to themselves. That was fine with Penny.
She had visions of sitting in the shady courtyard under a fragrant fig tree and reading, or wandering round gorgeous villages looking at brocante markets, and drinking glasses of light, fruity rosé at lunchtime, all the things she never seemed to have time to do at home.
But it hadn’t worked out like that.
Instead of drifting dreamily around lavender fields and spending long lazy afternoons doing whatever we want, Penny thought as she scooped up the car keys and her straw basket for the bread and croissants, I have been running a small hotel and restaurant for all the friends and family John invited to drop by as it seemed a shame not to make the most of it. It was amazing how many of them had taken up the offer.
And now, after three weeks of hot-flush-fuelled cooking and cleaning and bed-making, John’s old workmate Simon was the final straw. He had turned up, newly divorced, with a younger woman in tow – and she was awful. Her name was Sassie (Saskia), she was a pin-slim, groomed corporate lawyer in her early thirties, and she lay by the pool all day checking her Blackberry. And it went without saying she never lifted a finger to help and looked with pity at Penny and the cellulite that no sarong could mask – though not enough pity actually to get dressed and volunteer to do the supermarket run for a change, of course.
She was waiting for Penny downstairs, a vision of blonde good health in a wisp of beachwear.
“Are you going into town?” she asked. “Because if you are, could you get me some more sun cream?” Saskia studied one slim bronzed arm. “Factor 15 ought to do it.”
Penny opened her mouth to suggest that perhaps Sassie might like to go herself, as the chemist was only a few doors away from the bread shop, but closed it again as she realised that left to Sassie there would be probably be no breakfast. She seemed to exist on hot water and slices of lemon.
“Who owns this place, again?” asked Sassie. Penny had the impression their guest had had a good nose around while she was alone downstairs.
“A composer and his wife.”
“It’s all a bit of a mish-mash, isn’t it?”
“I rather like it,” Penny said, beginning to walk off. She supposed some of the old French furniture had seen better days. The large splashy paintings on the walls were flaking. And the brown wood statue of a monk in the hall was a little unsettling, as was the wall sconce of an arm reaching out of the iron frame with a candle. But it was shabby chic, wasn’t it? It was perfect for this house of white walls speckled with the patina of time and gleaming terracotta tiles on the floors, as were the rusty garden chairs and odd stone artefacts outside.
Anyway, Penny thought but didn’t say, if this doesn’t suit you, go somewhere else. But after three days Sassie and Simon showed no sign of moving on.
Later that morning Penny had returned with the supplies (and the sun cream which Sassie had just picked up from the kitchen island and hadn’t even offered to pay for), and was making a cheesecake for dinner. She absent-mindedly licked the mixing spoon then started to scrape the bowl. She felt fat and dragged down. It is a truth universally acknowledged (though not nearly often enough), thought Penny, that a woman approaching 50 is in need of a husband who likes a good armful because, by God, that was what he’d be getting.
Through the kitchen window she noticed that Sassie had taken her bikini top off. John – straining to hold his stomach in – was eagerly adjusting the parasol above her and taking his time about it, while Simon handed her a drink. Unless he leaves me for a younger model, of course, Penny hastily revised her homely assumption. He was still a good-looking man, big and broad with a lovely, generous nature. A younger woman would be lucky to have him.
The drinking went on throughout the lunch Penny laid out on the terrace: a vibrant tomato salad on a deep cobalt plate, goat’s cheese and sweet onion tartlets, pâté and fresh bread. The sun seared down from the bluest of skies. When everyone else slunk off for a siesta, a sober Penny cleared the dishes away, made herself a cup of coffee and went down to the pool with her book.
She tipped her face up to the heat, luxuriating in the time alone.
That evening, sunset burned a rosy tangerine streaked with gold. Everyone assembled expectantly by the table on the terrace. Penny produced more chilled wine and a sumptuous dinner, and repeated the catering process. Sassie only picked at the sea bream and ribbons of courgette. She was comfortably installed on a cushioned chair telling the men about the high-profile cases she had worked on, making them laugh and admire her even more with tales of defeated opposition and great men brought down, as Penny got up and cleared away.
In the kitchen she cut herself a hefty misery slice of cheesecake as she surveyed the stacks of plates. A light tinkling of laughter from Sassie wafted through to the kitchen. Penny drowned her out by crashing pans loudly, but no one seemed to notice.
After midnight, Penny lay in bed unable to drop off to sleep. Next to her, John had started to snore gently. The trouble was, Penny thought, I’m on my own with this. I am just myself, and Sassie is a sex goddess and invincible career woman. She tried not to think about what was going on in the bedroom down the corridor. But all that success shouldn’t stop her from behaving with basic courtesy, even if friendliness was too much to hope for.
Perhaps a fellow grumpy old woman might have noticed Sassie’s selfishness, but the men wouldn’t have a clue. And in comparison, there was no doubt about it: Penny had let herself go. She was wondering rather reluctantly whether she might have to start going to some kind of gym, when she gradually became aware of a scent carried on the air. It was a lovely perfume, of vanilla and sweet lavender, which then became a kind of chocolate smoke. Minute by minute it was becoming stronger, until it seemed to pervade the room.
It was either coming through the open window from outside, from some night-fragrant plant down in the courtyard – or was it a scented candle that Sassie had lit? Penny got out of bed and went out on to the terrace outside the bedroom and breathed in deeply. The scent was carried off by a faint breath of wind in the dark. Above was a luminous arc of silver stars, bright and burning in the black sky. All was still and quiet.
It was strange; the scent didn’t seem to be coming from the garden. Penny waited a while, enjoying the profound silence, then went back to bed. In the darkness, she lay on her back enveloped by the lovely scent from a source that was still mysterious and closed her eyes.
But when she mentioned it the next day, Sassie didn’t know what Penny was talking about.
“I can assure you it was nothing to do with me,” she insisted.
“It was quite pungent – lavender and rose and vanilla and chocolate and burnt almonds. Really strong and smoky. I was wondering if it was a candle or something…” persisted Penny.
But Sassie shook her head, and denied everything. “I only ever wear a very light delicate perfume. I absolutely loathe anything strong and smoky. The very thought gives me a headache and makes me want to run.”
That evening, at Simon’s suggestion, they went out to a restaurant on the edge of a beautiful hill-top village. Penny had put on a new maxi-dress and pulled herself together. She took a little more time and trouble with her make-up and decided that whatever happened she would make an effort. It was so lovely to be taken out to eat this evening instead of taken for granted.
From their table outside under a vine canopy, they could see for miles. All down the valley, the distinctive vertical crevices in the ridge of the mountain darkened as the air softened, until they seemed to be great dusky rivers cascading down to the valley floor.
“To Penny,” said Simon, raising his glass, “Who has looked after us so beautifully. Very much appreciated.”
It was so unexpected, Penny forgot any lingering annoyance. Candles were lit, and dishes of mouth-watering Provençal food arrived. Under the table, John squeezed her hand. Penny felt herself relax in the warmth of the evening and the effect of the wine, and let Sassie be the centre of attention.
They all drank too much. Simon constantly leaned back in his seat and ordered fresh bottles of palest rosé. Penny, sitting next to him, noticed the criss-cross patterns of red veins in his cheeks, and the way he looked at Sassie as if he couldn’t believe his luck that she was with him.
Everyone except Sassie finished with a trio each of crème brûlées, infused with lavender, thyme and peach. Penny sat back, replete and glowing from a glorious afternoon in the sun. But when the bill came and Simon tried to pay, his credit card was refused and it was John who settled up.
Back at the house, another bottle was freed from John’s stock.
“Push on through, eh?” roared Simon, pulling the cork.
“I’m going to bed,” said Penny. She didn’t want so much as another sip. She heard Sassie coming up about half an hour later, but the men stayed up into the early hours, drinking in the garden.
The next morning, though the sky was cloudless again and the heat rising, there was a distinct chill in the atmosphere.
Sassie was fuming.
“We are leaving, as soon as we can,” she hissed as they came downstairs.
Simon blanched. It was clear from her tone she expected to get her way.
“And as for you,” she said to Penny, though barely acknowledging her with a glance, “Drenching our room with that suffocating scent in our room after I’d specifically said I can only tolerate the lightest of fragrances… It gave me the most appalling night, made me physically sick. I can’t think why you did that.”
“But I didn’t –”
Sassie waved her words away imperiously. “You obviously don’t want us here, so we’re leaving, and that’s that.”
Penny decided to offer no resistance.
An hour later they were saying goodbye: Simon reluctantly and apologetically, struggling with the bags. Sassie strode ahead towards Penny, but the four-inch heels she’d put on for travelling caught on an uneven paving stone as she approached, throwing her towards Penny and forcing them to embrace far more closely than either intended. She was bony as a starved child, thought Penny, as they pulled apart awkwardly and exchanged thin smiles. She smelled of lemon pith, sharp and bitter.
“Bye, then,” said Penny.
“Was it you?” asked John. He didn’t seem concerned in the slightest.
“No, it wasn’t! I didn’t go near their room, not since I delivered the fresh towels Sassie asked for, but that was yesterday morning.”
She wondered whether to mention the mysterious perfume, but then John said: “Poor old Simon.”
“What?” Poor old Simon, the successful entrepreneur with the stunning younger woman? Had her hearing gone now?
John was positively jaunty as he measured out coffee and filled the pot with water. “He poured it all out last night. He’s pining for his ex-wife and he’s taken a massive loss on his last deal. There’s not much left, and no doubt when Sassie finds out, she’ll be off permanently. I know her sort.”
“I thought you thought she was marvellous,’ said Penny.
“I was being nice, for Simon’s sake. He hasn’t had much luck lately.”
Penny sat down with relief. “She was so irritating,” she said.
“Not a woman of substance,” smiled John, reaching out for her.
“Like me,” she said sadly.
John bent his head and kissed her gently. “In all the best ways.”
“Three whole days left to ourselves,” said Penny happily.
She pottered into the sitting room and noticed a book had fallen off a shelf. It was an illustrated history of lavender growing and she opened it instead of putting it straight back. The first picture was a photograph of a house, this very house. A piece of paper covered in handwritten notes fluttered out. “Marthe Lincel, creator of perfumes,” Penny read, “was inspired by her childhood home, Les Genévriers. Lavande de Nuit, her most famous fragrance, was said to capture the spirit of Provence…”
Penny took the book outside and spent the whole day reading in the garden. The tranquillity and the books she dipped into were balm for her soul.
That night, she woke and smelled the perfume again. It was a soft warm caress all around her, and it was heavenly.
This is a story I wrote some years ago for Woman and Home magazine in the UK, and it appears in the anthology The Coffee Shop Book Club. I posted it in short episodes over the course of last week on Instagram, as part of the Bookstagram Gala, and I thought I ought to post the whole story here in case anyone missed a bit. I hope any readers who know The Lantern and The Sea Garden enjoyed the nod to the setting and the characters who appear in them.