“You’ve been more than a help,” Estevo's mother told John.
“I only wish we could do more.” He said, looking her.
She was an attractive woman, some years younger than himself. He could not imagine how his father-in-law could have done what he did, then keep it a secret for so long. It was the kind of thing which could destroy a family. When they had discovered the secret, he had felt compelled to find her and somehow attempt to make recompense for the wrong.
Marie had said that it was not something that fell properly on his shoulders, it was her family, her father. He had simply confirmed that it was their family when he married her, he took on everything. She had smiled and kissed him softly. He knew that she in some way agreed, although it ignited strong emotions in her. She had not spoken to her father since. The rupture was painful, but she could not bring herself to forgive him. She wondered if her mother knew; they had never had the chance to discuss it.
Everything had happened so suddenly. Would she have had the force to talk to her mother? But circumstances overtook events and she was gone. Lost to that despicable disease that lurks in all of us.
“You gave Estevo a summer job. You've driven me to Montpellier. I think you’ve done a lot.”
She gestured for him to sit down. It was dark inside. Coming from the intense sunshine, it took a while to adjust to the gloom. Like every house in the village, the shutters were closed, to keep the heat out and maintain a coolness inside. The towns and villages in the South of France resembled ghost towns during the day. The closed shutters gave the impression of boarded-up buildings, not a soul on the streets, not even a cat. You might easily think the bomb had been dropped and all life wiped out.
“And Monsieur Fournier?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Well, no doubt tongues are wagging. But he’s a gentle old soul and has been very patient. He’s not going to throw us out on the street.”
“Why won’t you come and live at the house?” He tried again to raise the topic although she had already said that would not work. It would not be right and would pose difficulties. It was a long walk to the village and she had no transport.
They had been through all these arguments. He knew it wasn’t true. Estevo could cycle into the village. It wasn't far, she could walk. Still, he wouldn’t insist.
“If you won’t change your mind, then let’s hope you get the job.”
She smiled, “I think I will. And I’ll be able to pay back Maurice. Monsieur Fournier.”
“And Estevo? What does he think?”
Alice stood up, “Would you like a coffee?”
“I haven’t mentioned anything. No point, until we know.”
“But how will he react to moving to the city?”
She filled the kettle and spooned some coffee into the cafetiere.
“It won’t be the first move. It will be fine.”
“I do think you should talk over everything with him. Tell him the whole story. He’s eighteen, an adult.”
John watched her pour the boiling water into the cafetiere, then slowly press down on the plunger. She brought it over to the table, returning to take two cups from a cupboard in the kitchen. Finally she joined him, sitting down.
“I will explain everything, of course, I will. But he’s working at your house now. Why risk spoiling his summer.”
She poured out the coffee and took a cube of sugar, stirring it slowly in her cup.
“But it was spoiled when Albert left.”
“Thank you for reminding me.” She sipped her coffee, looking at him, cradling the cup in both hands.
“Have you heard from him?”
“A phone call. Said he was fine, but not where he was, or if he was coming back.”
“It's a mess,” he picked up his coffee. “What did you say to Estevo?”
“That we needed time, some space.”
“And how did he take that?”
“Badly. I think he thinks his father walked out on us. But he didn't ask why.”
They drank in silence for a while.
“You know what I think. You should sit down together and explain everything.”
“And if Albert comes back?”
“You think he will?”
“I don’t know. Can we drop it for now?”
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I know it’s difficult.”
“Well, let me know when the job interview is.” He stood up to leave. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“You’re welcome. And I’ll let you know the day.”
As he stepped out into the sunlight, she added: “And I will talk to Estevo.”
“Alright.” He wasn’t at all certain she would talk to the boy, but it wasn't his place to interfere.
Milo's father was back in time to join everyone for the picnic. The old Peugeot clattered up the drive just as they were all about to set off. Milo's mother was pleased to see him, as it meant they could all bundle into the car and take off for the Lac du Salagou. This was a favourite spot of his mother's, and Milo also loved the place. It was simply special, unspoilt, and offered everything from beaches to walking and fantastic views. He well remembered when they had trekked up Mount Liausson at the southern end of the lake. It was the highest point at something over five hundred meters. That trip had taken all day, but the panorama and views had been worth it.
Milo's father flung open the doors, they packed the picnic basket in the back and Amelie squeezed in alongside, propped up with a large cushion to rest against. The car was only meant for five people. Milo sat in the middle of the rear bench seat with Estevo on one side of him and Corinth the other. He smiled to himself, pleased the ignoble Knave had separated the Prince and his Lady.
The engine growled into life. They swung around the drive heading back out through the gate posts and onto the tarmacked road. Estevo wound down the window, as did the others, and a hot breeze flew through the car as they picked up speed. It was never the most comfortable of vehicles, and fully loaded, with three teenagers on the back seat, the springs complained along with the rest of the car.
But Milo was happy squashed up next to Estevo, their legs touching in an almost intimate embrace. Whereas on the opposite side of him, Corinth hugged the window trying to avoid touching him, although that was not really possible.
They eventually arrived at a spot next to the lake on the edge of a hamlet. To get there, it was a drive down a dirt track where they were thrown together as the old car bounced around. Milo could not decide if anyone actually lived in the hamlet. Apart from the church, most of the buildings were ruins without roofs or otherwise derelict. They weren't alone though, there were three camping cars, four, if you counted the old VW campervan.
They fell out of the car, stretched, dragged out the picnic basket, and headed on foot towards the lakeside. There was a massive square stone pillar the other side of the barrier that blocked anyone continuing by car along the track up to the water’s edge. It was set in the middle of a flat piece of ground, with a little wall on one side next to the track. At some time in the past, a cross would have adorned the top of the pillar, but that had long since disappeared, probably like most of the inhabitants.
They followed the track down to the lake where it vanished into the water. This was not a natural lake. It had taken five years to complete the dam across the valley, which was finished in 1969. Sceptics had predicted it would take years to fill the lake, but one huge storm half filled the whole valley the same year it was completed. The lake was some seven kilometres long and two kilometres wide. Several hamlets and even an entire village were lost forever under the water.
Milo’s mother laid out blankets to sit on and a table cloth, ready for the picnic. Corinth asked Estevo if he wanted to take a walk before lunch, but he had other ideas.
“Come on, Milo. Let’s go for a swim!”
His invitation caught Milo off guard, but seeing how he’d rejected Corinth, he had to accept. The two boys headed to the water’s edge where Estevo stripped down to his boxers. Not to seem like a wuss, although a little embarrassed, Milo did likewise. Estevo went charging into the water whilst Milo stood still, watching.
“What you waiting for?” Estevo shouted back.
This prompted Milo to join him, walking in up to his waist. Estevo laughing, splashed him and dived into the water. Milo shouted at him and took the plunge. It was cold, the difference in temperature accentuating the chill, but it was also a pleasant respite from the heat. They swam around, with Estevo joking and smiling, circling the boy like a shark about to take a bite. Milo saw a sparkle in the young man’s eyes that he hadn't noticed before. When Estevo swam up close to him and grabbed him around the waist, his heart started pounding in his chest. Being so close, touching, Estevo’s skin pressing against his body, Milo was oblivious to the world. At least until his father called his name and he turned to see him standing on the bank.
“Come on, lunch is served!” his father shouted.
Estevo made his way back to the shore with Milo right behind him. Together they followed his father up the track. The picnic was laid out ready, they even had glasses for the wine. His mother was great with picnics, she’d thought of everything. She had brought towels and handed one to Estevo.
“You two dry off a bit. I don't want the lake on the blankets,” she smiled.
Estevo stood there quickly drying himself watched closely by Corinth and her younger sister. Then he passed the towel to Milo, who smiled at him complaining it was too wet to use. So Estevo grabbed the towel and started rubbing his hair, whilst laughing and making Milo giggle. Corinth turned away, losing interest in the boy's antics, whilst Milo snatched the towel back to finish drying himself.
After lunch, everyone relaxed before either paddling or swimming in the lake. Corinth seemed less than pleased when Estevo left her and Amelie in the water and went to join Milo, lying down side by side sunbathing.
“You know something, Milo?” He propped himself up on one elbow, looking over at the boy.
“You can be a lot of fun when you want to.”
Milo grinned, he was happy, his Prince had joined him and was being nice to him.
“Is that a smile?” Estevo leant on top of Milo and began tickling his sides.
This made Milo wriggle and roll about trying to escape and getting a fit of giggles at the same time.
“No, no, stop... please,” he managed to say between attacks.
Estevo relented, staring into Milo’s eyes. Those deep green eyes captivated him, he was caught by a magnetic attraction and unable to move. He could feel Estevo's breath on his face and then... the lightest touch of his lips against his own.
Milo gulped, almost unable to breathe. Did that really happen?
Estevo looked a little worried, he’d retreated back, but was still looking at him.
“I’m sorry,” he told Milo. “I… I don’t know… sorry.” He stood up and brushed the dirt off himself, then quickly walked away.
Milo watched, instantly overcome by a dark sadness, an immense feeling of loss. What had he done? Why didn’t he say something? Anything.
Corinth joined Estevo by the side of the lake where he was standing staring out at the water.
“Haven’t seen much of you,” she said to him, which startled him out of his contemplation.
“Nah,” was all he replied.
But even though he was less than receptive Corinth remained, doing the talking for two as she rambled on about nothing. He heard her talking, but whatever she said didn’t actually register.
Milo decided he needed to find Estevo, to tell him everything was okay. But when he went back towards the lake he saw him standing there in deep conversation with his cousin, so he turned and wandered off towards the old ruined houses. He needed to think.