MICHAEL MINASSIAN is a Contributing Editor for Verse-Virtual, an online magazine. His chapbooks include poetry: The Arboriculturist and photography: Around the Bend. His poetry collections Time is Not a River, Morning Calm, and A Matter of Timing are all available on Amazon. For more information: https://michaelminassian.com
FERME DU VERT
A blood curdling scream woke Gordon, and he sat straight up in bed. Next to him the girl who had screamed rolled over and muttered, “ice cream…next door.” Gordon, wide awake and breathless, sat in the darkness of the hotel room, his heart pounding in his chest. Had he been the one dreaming, he wondered? And why wasn’t the entire hotel now beating down their door to discover the reason for such a scream?
Gordon’s breathing slowed to normal, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Count backwards from one hundred, he thought. Maybe that will help bring on sleep. In the distance a dog barked, but the French countryside yielded up mainly silence. Sleep entered his eyes and made its way to his brain. A large insect, a winged creature, brushed his cheek, shocking him awake again. As big as a fucking bat, he would tell Judi later.
This time he got out of bed. He closed the window tight against the night and poured himself a glass of champagne and drank. Behind the sheer curtains the sky appeared to grow lighter. He wondered if he would ever get to sleep.
Four hours later he woke again. Judi was on the phone, speaking in rapid French. Gordon recognized a few words: petit dejeuner, cafe au lait, merci. A good thing he had asked Judi along at the last moment, he thought.
They had arrived the evening before, after taking the ferry from Dover and landing in Calais. Armed with a brochure and Judi’s flawless French, Gordon hired a taxi driver to make the half hour trip. Driving through a small village on the way, they passed a cemetery with a life size crucifix outside the gates. The driver explained it was one of the many monuments to the murdered partisans from World War II. During the war, the Nazis had nailed French men and women to the sides of barns and houses.
When the driver told them the story, Judi looked very agitated, and Gordon was afraid of another outburst like the one on the train from London to Dover. They had taken the train from Victoria Station in London. On the outskirts of the city, another couple had gotten on the train, both of them tall and thin and reeking of cigarette smoke. In Feversham, Judi and Gordon had to change trains, and the same couple had taken seats directly opposite them. At first, Gordon thought they were French, but he couldn’t pick out a single word or phrase from the low murmur of their conversation.
Judi, who spoke five languages fluently and had a passing acquaintance with at least that many more, couldn’t identify the language either. “They must be from Eastern Europe,” she sneered. “Judging from the way they’re dressed.”
Gordon decided to ignore them and concentrated on his tour book of the French coast. Judi tried to nap but found the train ride too jarring. “First time I ever hit turbulence on a train,” she muttered.
Opposite, the aliens, as Gordon dubbed them, continued their low volume conversation. The right shoulder strap on the woman’s dress kept slipping down her arm, threatening to reveal her breast. Each time that would happen, Judi elbowed Gordon in the ribs.
Judi turned her head and whispered in Gordon’s ear, “Every time she pulls up that strap, she gives us a dirty look.”
“Maybe she thinks we are from the International Breast Police,” he joked. A few stops later the couple got up and moved across the aisle. Gordon put up his feet on the seat opposite and leaned over to kiss Judi, but she pushed him away. “Look at her,” she hissed. “She can’t keep her eyes off you.”
Gordon looked across the aisle just as the train jostled to another stop. At that moment, the strap on the woman’s dress slid all the way down and her breast popped out. It was thin and small but, Gordon noted with surprise, her nipple was large and erect. She pulled up on the strap and neatly tucked her breast back into her dress and glared at Gordon who gave her a slight smile and a shrug of his shoulders.
“Stop looking at him,” Judi said, her face red and mottled. “Leave us alone.” Gordon looked at Judi. He was surprised at her fury.
At first, the other couple appeared stunned and spoke to each other in their unidentifiable language. Then the man addressed Gordon in a thick accent. “She no should my wife yell,” he said.
“Judi, that’s enough,” said Gordon. “Everyone in the train is watching.”
“I don’t care,” she said and burst into tears. She stood and ran to the toilet.
“I’m sorry,” Gordon said, but was too late. The embarrassed couple had gathered their belongings and disappeared into the adjoining car
Fifteen minutes later, Judi returned. “God, I am so sorry,” she said to Gordon. She sat down and buried her face in Gordon’s chest. “My pills,” she said, raising her head. She reached into her purse and took out two prescription bottles, extracting one pill from each. She swallowed both pills without water. When they had left London, Gordon had watched Judi sweep a whole shelf of medication into her purse: sleeping pills and anti-depressants, tranquilizers and sedatives for every occasion, antibiotics, an inhaler for her asthma, and enough antihistamines for a month.
Now, half a day later, they had arrived at the hotel. The Ferme du Vert was a converted 13th century farmhouse and restaurant. The concierge had told Judi on the phone that the dining room closed at 9:00 p.m. and it was already twenty minutes past the hour. Gordon feared another explosion from Judi, but they were first led to the room and then escorted to the restaurant. They were expected and a table had been reserved.
What followed was a truly remarkable dinner, or as Gordon later called it, the last supper. The menu was entirely in French, so Judi translated and ordered. They started with a bottle of white wine, fresh baked bread, and freshly churned butter. Next came a creamy vegetable soup and green salad with avocado followed by the main course: broiled salmon in a white sauce garnished with tiny garden vegetables.
After the fish came a cheese board and more bread. For desert, Gordon had an apple pie with custard filling, and Judi ordered slices of honeydew melon bathed in a sweet orange sauce followed by cups of black coffee.
Back in the room, Judi insisted on taking a bath while Gordon rested on the four-poster bed. Judi emerged from the tub, unwrapped the towel, and straddled Gordon. Afterwards they drank champagne and Judi poured drops from her glass onto Gordon’s body, licked the still bubbling liquid from his skin.
“I love when you taste like champagne,” she whispered before she fell asleep.
After breakfast Judi and Gordon packed and waited for the taxi in the courtyard of the hotel. n Calais, they stored their bags in a locker at the train station.
“Most of this region was bombed out during the war,” said Judi.
“Looks like the Russians built Calais on a bad day,” said Gordon, looking at the gray, squat ugly buildings.
For lunch, they ate at an outdoor cafe. Judi spoke French and Italian with the proprietor and they ordered pizza and cokes with lots of ice.
“Every time I order ice in England,” said Gordon, “I get one piece of something that looks like ice but doesn’t melt and never makes the drink cold.”
“Well, this is cold,” said Judi, clinking the ice cubes together in her glass.
A ferry was scheduled to leave Calais for Dover at 2:00 p.m. and the taxi got them to the terminal with ten minutes to spare. Judi wanted to visit the duty-free shop first so Gordon picked out a table next to a window near the bow. Dark clouds rolled towards the French coast and soon the ferry sailed into a rain storm. Gordon hoped he wouldn’t get seasick and sipped at his beer, wishing Judi would return soon. But when she did get back to the table, Judi seemed upset and distracted.
“Here,” she said, “I bought you a bottle of champagne.”
“Thanks, Judi,” said Gordon. “Are you OK?”
“Of course, I’m OK,” she snapped. “Why shouldn’t I be OK?”
“Nothing. Sorry. I’m going to get another beer. Can I get you one?”
“Yes. A pint of lager.”
But when Gordon got back to the table, Judi was gone. Her boarding pass was propped up against the ashtray and she had scribbled a note to Gordon: “Gone outside to upper deck.” She had also emptied her purse of pills; prescription bottles lay strewn across the table. Gordon glanced outside. The rain had stopped but dark clouds choked the horizon and the sea felt, and looked, choppy.
Gordon read for a while and finished his beer but became concerned when Judi didn’t return. Ever since they had met, she had occasionally seemed depressed, and he had learned to leave her alone during those times. Judi had frankly confessed to him her bouts of depression and the years of therapy and medication.
Then he recalled the incident on the train and remembered another time when Judi had yelled at a cab driver in London who she accused of overcharging them. Except for the train, none of these episodes had caused him much concern, but added together they formed a worrisome picture. Was she despondent, wondered Gordon, or suicidal?
The ferry approached Dover and other passengers were braving the bad weather to take a look outside. Gordon went outside, climbing the steps to the upper deck. There was no sign of Judi. He walked around the entire deck and then went back to the lounge. Her pills and the half a glass of beer were still there. On her chair, she had left her book, Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies.
As they were docking, Gordon picked up his bottle of champagne and Judi’s book but left the pills. Passengers had bunched up at the exits, but still he could not spot Judi. Gordon took one last look on deck; not a single person was at the rail. At the far end of the lounge, other passengers were already disembarking. Should he report Judi missing, he wondered? But Gordon imagined the bemused expression on the faces of the French crew. Your girlfriend has left you, monsieur? C’est la vie.
Had she jumped overboard or had she merely grown tired of his company? In another week they were both leaving England, she to Toronto, he back to his teaching post in South Florida. Why not just wait until then to break it off? She hadn’t seemed suicidal. Gordon approached the gangplank and opened his mouth to speak to the knot of crew surrounding the exit. But a uniformed officer with gold epaulets brusquely waved Gordon aside. “This way please,” he said.
Gordon continued his way down and boarded the bus to customs. He scanned the faces on the bus. At the terminal, he half expected to see Judi, smiling at her great joke. Once again, he considered revealing she had gone missing or possibly jumped overboard. But what was his proof? A handful of prescription pills and a book. And had she left a note? “Gone outside to upper deck.” He had left it on the table, just a quick scrawl on a boarding pass. The note was probably in the trash already.
And what would happen if he decided to report her disappearance? Even if they took him seriously, there would be endless questions, hours’ worth of delays. He felt anxious to return to London. Tomorrow started the last week of the summer term at the University. Who knew how long he would be detained if they investigated his story? He really didn’t want to get involved. After all, he had known Judi for only three weeks.
Gordon chewed on his lower lip while waiting his turn at customs and immigration. At the immigration officer’s desk, he was asked how long he had spent in France, how long in England, business or pleasure? The official poised her stamp above Gordon’s passport. “Are you traveling alone?” she asked.
“Yes,” Gordon replied.