Dear friends, here is a short story. Please enjoy it. In these dark difficult days, I hope this story sent from the warmth of the French Riviera will bring a smile to your days.
Happy Winter and stay safe,
HARRY AND MELANIE
Once Upon a Time, a little magic dropped into a troubled boy’s life. Harry Bennet was on his holidays, waiting to hook up with his dad who he hadn’t seen in a year. He was heading for the beach. A cone with two generous scoops of ice cream, two flavours, held triumphantly in his right hand. Ten yards ahead stood Melanie Lebrun. Melanie was unaware of the boy’s approach. The cries and laughter from the crowded beaches barely penetrated her thoughts. She was in shock, digesting the facts she had just received. Was she afraid? Not really. Not yet. She paused to steady herself, seeking comfort from a non-existent sea breeze. She was dressed formally in a summer suit while all around her, holidaymakers wore shorts, bathing costumes. The boy was drawing closer. His ice had begun to melt, trickling down his fingers. He picked up pace, licking it as he ran, before the pistachio and vanilla thawed to nothing and his precious pocket money had been wasted on a soggy cone. He was not paying attention to his path ahead, too busy slurping his delicious confection. This explained why he smacked into Melanie, who hadn’t stepped out of his way. She hadn’t noticed Harry. Her eyes, thoughts, were directed towards the pale purple horizon made hazy by the boiling sun. She was lost in her past while pondering her future. Ice cream and boy whacked hard against her thigh, knocking her off balance. She grappled for an empty chair, one of those installed all along the Croisette by the council for passersby to rest a while, to relax in the shade of towering palm trees and contemplate this glorious Bay of Cannes. ‘Oops.’ ‘Qu’est-ce que tu a dit?’ Harry’s focus travelled upwards. Rheumy eyes met his gaze. ‘Ever-sa-sorry.’ His freckled face was crumpled by concern. Not only had he lost his precious ice cream – now a darkening splodge on the paving stones beneath his bare feet - but this elderly lady’s fancy clothes were stained, and it was his fault. His mum would give him hell when he returned to their umbrella on the beach. She’d be wondering where he was, what was taking him so long. He mumbled another apology, keen to be on his way. The woman, half-smiling, didn’t appear angry. Had she even noticed the damage? Harry sucked his fingers, salvaging the remnants of wet sugar. His eyes never left the woman’s wrinkled features. ‘You lost your ice cream,’ she observed. She was speaking in English now with a sing-song accent. ‘My fault. Let me buy you another.’ ‘Shall I ask my mum to wash your dress?’ Melanie glanced down at the congealing stain on her Chanel skirt. ‘Oh, dear.’ But in the light of recent revelations, what did it matter? She shook her head. ‘I think replacing your glace is far more important. In fact, I fancy one too. What do you say?’ The boy gazed at her, puzzled. ‘I think Mum might ...’ ‘Your mother?’ Melanie glanced about, focusing beyond Harry. ‘Does she also like ice cream?’ ‘She never eats sweets. Too fattening. She’s sunbathing, wondering where I’ve got to.’ ‘Of course. Well, it was very nice to meet you... erm.’ ‘Harry.’ Melanie held out her hand to shake Harry’s who glared at her, bewildered. ‘Are you on holiday, Harry?’ ‘We’re waiting for Dad. I’m gonna stay with him. Mum’s going home tomorrow. They’re divorced.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ Harry shrugged. ‘Sorry about your clothes, missus.’ ‘Think nothing of it. It was a pleasure to ... bump into you,’ the lady winked. ‘Actually, I bumped into you.’ Melanie laughed loudly. Harry grinned. He liked her. Anyone else would have hit the roof. ‘See you.’ With that he scooted off, thundering down the cement steps to the public beach. Melanie watched the boy disappear within the throng of bodies on the sand. Sadness overwhelmed her. Loneliness. She lowered herself into the chair that had broken her fall a few minutes earlier. What a kind, well-mannered lad, she was thinking. I should have insisted on replacing his ice. The following day, for no particular reason or perhaps for every reason, Melanie found herself back at the spot where she had collided with the English boy. She took a seat and a deep breath. The late-morning sun caressed her flesh. She had not slept well, tossed, turned. Matters were in order, but even so ... A lengthy, journey awaited her. Alone. Three months, possibly four, Carl, her specialist, had informed her, reassuring her there’d be no pain. ‘Excuse me, forgive the intrusion. Harry pointed you out. I want to apologise on his behalf.’ Melanie twisted awkwardly in the chair. Her frail limbs no longer supple. A young woman with dark tangled hair, pretty but strained features, was smiling at her anxiously. Harry’s mother. The resemblance was uncanny. ‘How nice to meet you. Sit down, won’t you, Mrs ...?’ ‘Bennett. Elaine Bennett.’ Elaine made herself comfortable alongside the old girl. ‘We’ve been waiting for you most of the morning.’ Elaine was rummaging in an embroidered cloth shoulder-bag. ‘Have you, dear?’ Out came a purse. ‘Ten euros. Will this cover it?’ ‘Cover what, dear?’ ‘The dry cleaning, your skirt. Harry told-’ Wihout a thought, Melanie rested her liver-spotted hand on Elaine’s. ‘I won’t hear such nonsense. In fact, may I invite you both to lunch?’ The restaurant was very smart, like nowhere Harry had ever set foot before. His mother was chatting to the old lady who insisted they call her Melanie, recounting their tale of woe. Prattling non-stop, gulping wine topped up by a hovering waiter. Harry prayed so hard his mum wouldn’t speak badly of his dad, even if his dad hadn’t returned their calls. ‘He crews for a yacht moored in the new harbour. ‘Course, they might have set sail. He should have let us know though. Harry’s meant to stay for the summer. I have to get back to Croydon, to work. It’s a worry.’ Their hostess listened politely, nodding occasionally, the epitome of patience. The main courses arrived. They ate in silence though Melanie barely touched her grilled fish. Harry supposed that, like him, she hated fish and he was puzzled as to why she had ordered it in the first place. He’d finished his hamburger and chips. Scoffed the lot. ‘Melanie, d’you want your chips?’ ‘Harry!’ Melanie nudged the bowl towards the boy with a wink. Harry dug in, stuffing a handful into his mouth. ‘Such a hearty appetite,’ she laughed. He really liked her. A dream grandma. Not always squabbling like his family. ‘Do you live in Cannes, Melanie?’ he quizzed. She nodded. Laugh lines like crinkled paper. ‘In a duplex overlooking the new port. I bet we could see your father’s yacht from my roof terrace.’ ‘It’s not his yacht.’ ‘Would you like to visit after lunch?’ And that was how Harry Bennett came to stay with Melanie Lebrun. His mother protested the generous offer. Harry certainly didn’t. It was a palace. So many rooms. He kept quiet, fingers crossed his mum would accept. ‘Just till Saturday then. His dad’ll surely collect him by then.’ ‘Excellent, shall we send for your luggage?’ Luggage? Two duffle bags and Elaine’s scruffy suitcase. Harry and his mum spent that night in a room together at Melanie’s. The next evening, Harry waved her off at the station as she climbed aboard the airport bus. Melanie had offered her chauffeur, but Elaine insisted on public transport. It was three weeks before Harry’s dad made contact. Harry watched the harbour eagerly from the terrace. During those days, he and Melanie became firm pals. He learnt to say Bonjour and Merci. He walked to the sea, swam and hurried back bearing a baguette for their lunch. They ate ice cream out of glass coupes. They shared wishes, like how Harry wished his parents could afford the plane tickets for him to visit more than once a year. Everywhere were dozens of silver-framed photographs. A maid came in to dust, and make his bed! Harry was entranced by Melanie’s stories. Hours reminiscing about her life, her husband. ‘Do you miss him?’ ‘Pierre? He passed away many years ago.’ Such sadness in her eyes. ‘l miss dad.’ Harry was packing, off to stay with his father. ‘Thanks for everything, Melanie. See you next summer?’ Melanie stroked his hair. ‘Very soon, I’m going to be reunited with Pierre,’ she confided to Harry. He was perplexed. How could that be? Unless she was going to die. Which she did. Elaine Bennett received a letter from a French solicitor the week before Christmas. It announced the passing of Mme Lebrun. Attached was a gold-embossed card, hand-written. ‘Dear Elaine, thank you for the loan of your splendid son, Harry. His marvellous company made all the difference to me. Please assure him I’ve taken care of the air fares.’ A trust had been set up in Harry’s name. There was more than sufficient for ice cream and air fares for the rest of the boy’s life. ©Carol Drinkwater 2021