“You like him?” Milo asked Corinth, which immediately grabbed her sister’s attention.
“You’re talking about Estevo?” Amelie leaned across the table, reaching for the potatoes.
“Who else?” Milo pushed the bowl to her.
“Where is he anyway?” She served herself.
Even in the shade underneath the veranda, it was hot. Nothing moved, the air was completely still, not even the hint of a breeze. Milo could feel his damp hair sticking to his forehead.
“He’s gone to get some paint,” Corinth announced. Then she took her serving from the large glass bowl. She smiled at Milo, passing it back across the table.
“Is everybody served?” Milo’s mother placed the salad in the centre of the table.
“It’s just us?” Milo asked.
She sat down next to him and began helping herself.
“Your father’s gone into town with Estevo. I don’t know where Uncle Morris has gone, and Mariane is not feeling too well with the heat. Your aunt is resting.”
Lunch passed quietly. Corinth kept her thoughts to herself about her parents and about Estevo. When they’d finished eating, and Milo was helping clear up, he got the chance to pose his question again. He and Corinth were alone in the kitchen.
“You do like him, then?”
“Look who's getting all curious,” Corinth teased.
Milo ignored the comment, occupying himself with drying and stacking the plates. Turning back to take the glass bowl from Corinth, he replied, “Just wondering, that’s all.”
“Well, you had your chance for a kiss.” She pulled the plug, and the water gurgled away, escaping the sink as easily as she slipped away from Milo.
Leaving him thinking, She does find Estevo attractive. He knew it all along. From the moment he left them in the room.
“You know, I don’t know why you are helping us.” Estevo was staring out of the passenger window. He was focused on the fields and trees, watching the countryside slide past. Milo's father was sat next to him, wondering how to respond.
“Let’s just say because I want to,” he said, glancing at the boy. He couldn’t help making the comparison between Estevo and his own son. Milo always had his head in books, Estevo was much more the athlete.
The town was some twenty minutes away in the opposite direction to the local village. It was the only place where you could get paint and building materials. The hardware store in the village sold lots of things, but the choice was limited, and his wife wanted rose. Pink walls. They'd debated it. He thought she was humouring him. They’d settled on white with a hint of rose, and of course, that meant a trip into town.
As they pulled up outside the building supplies shop, John turned to Estevo. “I’ve known your mother for a long time.”
This surprised Estevo, he had never met this man before the summer. Maybe he’d seen him in the village before, he couldn't remember.
“But we’ve never met. Not until a few days ago.”
They got out of the car and walked together into the shop. John didn’t say anything. He headed towards the paint section. Estevo let it drop, he didn’t want to spoil things. Having a summer job, having this man helping his mother, it was too good. But he would have to ask her.
This wasn’t a huge store, although bigger than any shop in the village. Estevo doubted the choice was any greater, but it did have the paint mixing machine. There were two checkouts, but only one was staffed, and the lady working was busy talking on the phone. No one was in the place, except an elderly gentleman lost somewhere near the end of one aisle. At least he looked lost to Estevo, looking up and down the shelves, then picking something up. He seemed to study each item before carefully replacing it. Like a treasure hunt for an elusive magical piece.
He had to leave the old man to his quest as the paint had been mixed and they’d already picked up a few other things, including brushes, filler, and a spatula. The checkout lady was off the phone as they arrived to pay. After loading the pots of paint and supplies into the boot of the old Peugeot, which John had to bang with his fist to get open, he led Estevo across the road to Le Chat Qui Pêche. You might think "The Cat Who's Fishing" is an odd name for a restaurant, but maybe you’d be wrong. Perhaps the feline is trying to hook lunch?
“You might ask Milo to help,” John looked up from his plat du jour.
“With the decorating?” Estevo wasn’t sure the boy would want to spend his holiday decorating the house.
“Yes. It would get him out from burying his nose in books all the time.”
“That’s not a bad way to spend your time.” Estevo wondered where this conversation was heading.
“No, but not all of the time. He needs some activity. And something else to do.”
“Sure. I’ll ask him.”
John smiled. “I’ll put a bed in the room next to his when we get back. That way, you can both share the bathroom. Have to be the fold up, but I guess you won’t mind?”
Estevo nodded. “No problem. I’m very pleased to have the job. Staying over is a bonus. Not having to go back and forwards to home. It’s really very kind of you.”
Milo’s father grabbed the paint and Estevo the bag with the other supplies. Together they marched up the steps onto the veranda.
“I’ll take everything if you leave it here,” Estevo suggested.
John nodded. “I’ll leave you to it then and go sort out that bed for tonight.”
Estevo disappeared into the house. Milo’s father sat down at the table, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his brow. Between two and four was the hottest time of the day, and today was no exception. It seemed as if the world was completely static, the silence was uncanny. He appreciated that aspect of living here, but was still struck by the almost total absence of any sound. Perhaps though, tranquillity had its price. Certainly, it would not endure eternally.
Inside the house was a little cooler. Still, the previously soaked walls of the large empty back room were bone dry. Estevo pressed his palm against them in several places to check, before returning to collect the paint left on the veranda. Milo’s father had gone. Estevo decided to occupy the afternoon by filling all the cracks. That way he thought he could get to painting the walls first thing in the morning and he’d ask Milo if he wanted to lend a hand tomorrow.
By late afternoon the whole room was finished. The spaghetti lines that had crisscrossed the plaster work were, if not invisible, suitable for painting over. It might, he thought, even make for a nice effect. Perfect and new wouldn’t quite blend with everything else. Pleased with his progress, he switched off the radio, picked up his t-shirt and threw it over his shoulder. Exiting out the back door it was still incredibly hot, although the intense heat had waned a little. He followed the rough path making his way around the house and along the drive to the gate and road. Not sure whether to turn left or right, he chose left along the road until he was near the poplar plantation. Soon he came across a track leading straight into the plantation. The hot air shimmered, making the trees waver off the ground in the distance. Insects buzzed, an occasional slight breeze rustled the leaves. Twittering birds indicated the world was emerging from its stupor. Once beneath the trees, the dappled shade broke up the sunlight but failed to do much to alleviate the heat. The track suddenly turned sharp left, so he cut across through the last row of trees and headed for the river. It wasn't very far.
Corinth and Amelie had the same idea, understandably drawn to the one place offering some respite from the heat. The one thing the old country house did not have was a pool. Corinth was swimming in the cool water across on the far side of the river. Amelie sat on the edge of the curved stone wall, her head slung back, the heat drying the water from her skin. This was a point in the river where a small dam had been constructed. The stone wall crossed from the far side of the river, where it crumbled into an earthen bank. But where Amelia sat, it formed an edge above the river until once more merging into a grassy bank. The river was broad at its entry, about three metres wide, and opened out into a large shallow pond after it dropped over the little dam. A rusty metal sluice gate held back the water which later continued, dividing into two. Neither girl knew who had made the dam or why; their father had said it was for irrigation and to control the flow of water. They thought that idea took no account of the flooding and it didn't look like the sluice had ever been opened.
“Why didn't you ask Milo to come?” Amelie shouted across to her sister.
She turned and swam back towards the wall. As she arrived, she splashed Amelie who screeched and laughed, plunging back into the water.
“He had his head in his book, lying in the hammock when I went to find him.”
“Still, you could have asked?”
“I did,” Corinth said, pulling herself up onto the wall. “He said, maybe later. You know what he’s like.”
Corinth shaded her eyes and looked along the river bank. Estevo had found their swimming pond.
“Well, ladies,” he grinned as he approached along the river bank. “This looks like a great place to swim.”
“How did you know we were here?” Corinth smiled.
“Or how to find it?” Amelie added.
“I heard you shouting and screaming.”
He dropped his t-shirt on the grass next to Corinth and unbuttoned his jeans.
“I was walking along the river and... well, here I am.”
He smiled broadly as he stepped out of his jeans the sat down next to Corinth.
“It's so hot.”
Neither girl disagreed with that. They had both been struck dumb, engulfed by the vision of this fit young man casually undressing.
“Yes, it is.” Corinth could not help staring.
“Well, excuse me while I cool off.” Estevo slipped off the wall and swam past Amelie across to the far side.
Milo had finally decided to follow his cousins down to the river. He thought to look in on Estevo and see if he wanted to come but decided not to. Then as he arrived, he saw Estivo walking along the river bank. He stopped and watched, not really hidden, but no one was looking back in his direction. When Estevo stripped off and sat down next to Corinth on the wall, he hesitated before making up his mind to leave them alone and turn back.
Corinth stared across the water. The sunlight glinted on the ripples left in the wake of Estevo’s passage. Amelie swam out into the middle as Estevo returned across the pond. The three of them spent some time joking and chatting, alternatively plunging into the river and lying on the bank. Milo heard their laughter as he reached the road. He felt as if submerged by a thundercloud, destined to be swept up and thrown down in a raging storm.
Supper was a family affair, and tonight, everyone was there. Uncle Morris and Milo’s father had both returned. The heat of the day did not lend itself to large meals, but the evening was different. It seemed that Mariane and Marie, Milo's mother, had worked their magic together because the dish they brought to the table wafted aromatic scents into the air that titillated the taste buds. Both sisters working together had created a magical feast.
This evening the two families were evenly balanced, Estevo had joined the ranks of the Cage family. The field of battle was prepared, Uncle Morris was at war with his wife over Milo’s mother. The Prince Estevo was finally separated from his courting Lady Corinth. They were kept apart by the full length of the table. Her younger Maid Amelie had also been confined to the far side. Leaving the ignoble black Knave Milo to take his rightful seat next to Prince Estevo.
“Did you enjoy your swim?” Milo spoke quietly to the young man sitting next to him.
“We thought you were coming, but you never showed up,” he replied, turning his head to glance at Milo.
“I came, I saw, and I left.”
The chatter at the other end of the table was animated and loud, both Corinth and Amelie were laughing. A scene which did nothing to improve how Milo was feeling.
“I didn’t want to intrude,” he continued, looking up at Estevo from the corner of his eye.
At the same time, he tucked into the salad, one of his favourites, topped with walnuts and warm goat's cheese. For a moment, Estevo did not reply.
“Have I done something wrong?” He had finished eating. He looked at Milo, waiting for a response.
Milo's father was filling everyone's glass with the lovely rosé, Moulin Caresse. The perfect wine for the end of a long hot summer's day, fresh and soft. It comes from one of those inimitable French chateaux vineyards where generations of the same family have produced the grapes and bottled the wine for centuries.
Milo finally relented. “No, not you.”
Milo thought Estevo seemed anxious, or perhaps just concerned, but why?
“The girls then?” Estevo ventured.
“No, not even them. It’s nothing.”
Milo interrupted the conversation by getting to his feet and helping his mother to clear the table. She smiled at him, “Thank you, Milo.”
When they returned from the kitchen, the centre pots were uncovered revealing their wonderful contents and more intense olfactory odours. Uncle Morris filled their plates with the steaming concoction of tender lamb and haricots blancs, in a rich sauce with onion, garlic, and a wafting fragrance of thyme.
As he sat back down, Milo's mouth was watering. Estevo watched him with a frown.
“It can’t be nothing,” Estevo told him.
“Just enjoy the meal. I don’t want to talk about it, and I don’t want to spoil tonight.”
A frog croaked out in the garden somewhere and was answered by another. It made Milo smile as if the Prince and the Knave had been transformed at the touch of a wand. Seeing his smile reassured Estevo, and he let his questioning drop.