Home > The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris(7)

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris(7)
Jenny Colgan

“Well, it’s all decided,” she said, as the Reverend looked up from his grapefruit half.

“What?” he growled.

“For the summer. Claire has been invited to go and au pair.”

Claire had never even heard the expression.

“You’re going to nanny. For my pen pal.”

“That French woman?” said the Reverend, folding his Daily Telegraph. “I thought you’d never met.”

“We haven’t,” said Claire’s mother proudly.

Claire looked from one to the other. She didn’t know anything about this. “Who is it?”

“Well, I have a pen pal,” said her mother, and Claire suddenly remembered the Christmas cards that arrived with Meilleurs Voeux written on them. “From school. When I was eleven, we all got pen pals. Like you, remember?”

Claire remembered, guiltily, that she had stopped writing to Jerome in Rouen before she had turned fifteen.

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“Well, Marie-Noelle and I have kept it up…here and there of course, not very often. But I know she has two children now, and I wrote to her and asked if she would like to take you for the summer. And she said yes! You will look after the children; she has a cleaner she says here…goodness.”

Her mother’s face went a little strained.

“I hope they’re not terribly posh,” she said, looking around at the very nice but plainly furnished vicarage. A churchman’s stipend didn’t go terribly far, and Claire had always known better than to expect new things. It wasn’t until much later in her life that Claire reflected as to whether her bright, spirited mother had ever regretted falling in love with the committed, passionate young reverend, and the life that followed it. But Claire lost her beloved mum far too young, a victim of the cancer that had already set itself ticking in her own DNA.

“I don’t care if they’re posh. Are they decent people?” asked the Reverend.

“Oh yes,” said her mother cheerfully. “There’s a little boy and a little girl, Arnaud and Claudette. Aren’t those the loveliest names?”

Claire’s heart was starting to race.

“Where…whereabouts in France?”

“Oh, sorry, where’s my head?” said her mother. “Paris, of course.”

The settlement from the chocolate factory was not at all life-changing. It was barely anything-changing once I’d paid off my credit card. I wondered if maybe we should have gotten more, seeing as I now walked with a pronounced limp and had nearly died and everything, but they said that bit was the hospital’s fault. The hospital said I was getting better now and getting me better was technically all they had to do really, and I did mention to Dr. Ed that actually if the hospital hadn’t let me get so sick, they would have been able to reattach my toes. He had smiled and patted my hand in the manner of doctors he’d seen on television and told me if I ever had any questions, just to go right ahead, which completely bamboozled me as I thought I’d just asked one, and then he gave me a smile and a wink—I have no idea what the wink was, maybe it was his “style”—and floated on to sit on Claire’s bed.

It was time to go home. After dreaming of being set free for so long, I suddenly realized I didn’t actually want to go. Or rather, that it would be weird to lose the institutionalized days of drugs and meals and physio and not having to focus on anything else but getting better.

Now I had to face the world again and find a new job. It was a feature of the settlement that I didn’t go back to Braders, presumably in case I had another one-in-a-million freak accident. If anything, I would have thought I’d have been a safer bet than other people, statistically speaking.

And I was going to miss Claire. We’d chatted more and more in French, to the annoyance of almost everyone, and it was truly the one good thing in my life, demonstrating that I could learn something, that I had a new skill. Everything else was just dread. There weren’t any jobs, I knew that much. Cath said I could come and sweep up in the hairdressing salon, but that paid about absolutely nothing, and I wasn’t that good at bending down without falling over yet. On the upside, I’d lost about fifteen pounds. That was the only upside. But I wouldn’t recommend my method of losing the weight.

I told Claire about my worries, and she looked pensive.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said.

“What?”

“Well,” she said, “I knew…I knew someone in Paris who worked in chocolate. It was a long time ago though. I don’t know what he’s doing now.”

“Ooh,” I said. “A young flirtation?”

Her thin face took on a little color.

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“Where you madly in loooove?”

We’d gotten to know each other well enough that I could tease her, but she could still get a teacherly glint in her eye. She did so now.

“He is not very good at writing letters,” she mused, glancing out the window. “But I will try. I shall ask Ricky to use that email thingy when he comes. You can find anyone these days, can’t you?”

“You can,” I said. “But if he’s a friend of yours, why haven’t you gone back to Paris for so long?”

Claire’s lips pursed.

“Well, I was busy raising a family. I had a job. I couldn’t just jump on a plane whenever I felt like it.”

“Hmm,” I said, suspicious. She was very touchy all of a sudden.

“You could though,” said Claire. “You can do whatever you like.”

I laughed. “I don’t think so. Hopalong Cassidy, that’s me.”

- - -

I realized later that the impact—the emotional impact—of the accident didn’t really hit until I went back home to Mum and Dad’s. In the hospital I’d been, well, special, I suppose. I’d gotten flowers and gifts and was the center of everyone’s attention, and people brought me drugs and asked after me, and even though it was kind of horrible, I was being taken care of.

Home, though—it was just home. The boys clattering in late at night, grumbling because they had to share a room again; Mum fussing around, steadily predicting doom for my chances of finding another job and how they would cut disability living allowance, to which I said, “Don’t be stupid, I’m not disabled,” and we both looked at my crutches, and then she would sigh again. My face in the mirror: my pale blue eyes looked so tired, and my fairish hair, without its usual highlights by Cath, just looked colorless. I had lost weight, but because I hadn’t moved around at all, I just looked slack and saggy sometimes. I used to love putting makeup on to get ready for a night out, but it had been so long I’d kind of forgotten how, and the drugs had made my skin so dry.

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