This is a small excerpt from the short story Scorpion, available as part of the book Shy Feet: Short Stories Inspired by Travel .
The sun shone with alarming consistency, giving me sunburn and the boys mild cases of sunstroke despite my best efforts to keep them in the shade. When a cooler, cloudier afternoon arrived, it was with great relief. It was the same day that Marcel chose to cling to me in an unsettled mood. I suggested I stay at the hotel and walk through the gardens with him. Maybe then he would settle for a nap. A little too quickly, Madame Charron agreed and the three of them left for the beach.
I enjoyed spending time with Marcel. He was the gentler of the boys; the first to rest his head on my shoulder and the first to cry when I went home for a few days at Christmas. But he was very particular for a child, always wanting things a certain way, a trait I knew his mother was responsible for.
Marcel’s mood lifted almost as soon as we were away from the others. He held my hand loosely and sang made-up songs to himself as we walked down the path and past the fountains until steep pink rose bushes surrounded us. They looked uncompromisingly wild. I had no idea rose bushes could grow so tall.
I listened to Marcel singing and pulled my bikini out from between the cheeks of my bottom. I remember doing that a lot that week. Now I’m older and better informed about the pleasure of underwear that fits, it’s not an action I miss. When Marcel let go of my hand and wandered on towards a corner ahead, I stopped and pointed my nose into the bud of a rose, inhaling its airy scent. As I did I heard a sound.
Snip, snip, snip. Metal on metal. Quick, precise, repetitive.
I followed Marcel around the corner he’d turned and there stood a young man on a folding ladder. He was perched on the second step from the top and leaned against the frame, attacking a small area of the rose bush with a pair of wood-handled shears. Dead flower heads and browning leaves lined our path to him.
Marcel had stopped singing and side-by-side we both watched him work. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and I saw the muscles in his back twitch with every snap of the shears. His jeans were cut off at the knee and hints of him poked through a scattering of holes and rips in the denim. His skin was the same colour as the brown sugar Monsieur Charron added to his coffee.
He was oblivious of his audience. I took Marcel’s hand in mine again and walked towards the gardener. As we approached I noticed he had a small tattoo on the back of his right shoulder. I’d never seen a real tattoo up close before.
“Bonjour.” His voice was deeper than I expected.
“Can I help you?” he smiled the question.
“We didn’t mean to interrupt... we’re just taking a walk around the gardens.” My French was suddenly stilted. I grew red in the cheeks, but conversely felt a calm close in on me. It encouraged me to lean towards him conspiratorially, “I am trying to tire this little one out. He needs a nap.”
He smiled again and there was his face. A foreign-looking composition of a narrow nose, summit-like cheekbones and a chin decorated in patchy, dark stubble. His hair was long – all men had long hair back then – and it curled in each and every direction. He had a small gold hoop in his left ear. He reminded me of a gypsy or a pirate.
“What are you doing?” Marcel’s eyes were fixed on the shears.
“He’s a gardener, Marcel,” I said.
“I am helping to make these roses grow. Don’t you think they are pretty?”
Marcel shrugged. “What are those?” He pointed to the gardener’s shears. They were nearly as long as Marcel was tall.
Suddenly I was clueless. I had no idea what the word for shears was in French.
“Les cisailles?” The gardener came to my rescue. He jumped down and took a step closer to Marcel, keeping the closed shears behind him. He was close enough to smell and I breathed him in: dry soil, coffee and grass clippings. There are few smells I love more now than the scent of our garden after my husband has mown the lawn.
“If you help me tidy up my mess, I will let you have a go with the shears,” the gardener said to Marcel.
A deal was done and for many minutes, Marcel and I used an old metal rake to scrape the cuttings off the ground and into a cloth sack. The gardener returned to his ladder and lit a cigarette, watching us. When I looked back at him, he winked and once more, I became aware of the bikini under my summer dress. As we neared the end of our work, he climbed down and helped us collect the last stray leaves and dead petals.
“You did a good job,” he said to us but he was looking at me.
“Merci,” I replied.
“And you’re staying here, in the hotel?”
“Yes. Until Saturday. I work as an au pair for the family, in Paris.”
The gardener extinguished the stub of his cigarette on the ladder. He licked the tips of his finger and thumb and used them to caress the stump, ensuring it was completely out. He then threw it into the cloth sack, on top of what we'd gathered. Nodding at Marcel, but looking straight into me, he spoke again. “I can tell he’s not yours. He doesn’t have your eyes.”
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before settling down with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. She collects vintage clothes, loves 70s disco music and writes stories that move you.
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