‘Wake up, we’re here!’
Caroline came to with a start and guessed she must have been asleep for hours. Sebastian’s car was so comfortable, so quiet and with gorgeous big seats that adjusted in every conceivable way. Once they had passed that awful traffic around Paris and were speeding down the AutoRoute again, she had fallen fast asleep.
She knew they were in France but had no idea where. Sebastian had said that it would be a surprise, just a long weekend (but it would be somewhere nice, if she wanted to know what to bring).
Well, here they were, with the big Mercedes crunching up a long driveway. It seemed like a tunnel, lit only by lights shining up into the trees that arched over the drive. And then they turned a bend and, oh, my God! A bloody great floodlit Chateau! All rounded turrets and honey coloured stone. This was going to be a weekend to remember!
She’d only known Sebastian for a few months. Was it love at first sight? She didn’t know but if she was honest, it was certainly attraction at first sight, he was a handsome, elegant dog!
One solicitous member of staff took their bags & another then parked the car. The manager, waiting in the hallway, effusive in his greetings and chatting away as he showed them up to their room. Room? It was an enormous suite with a bedroom in one of the towers, a four-poster bed and a bottle of champagne chilling in an ice bucket in the lounge area.
‘OK?’ grinned Sebastian.
‘Oh, Seb, this is just…so wonderful. Thank you.’
Caroline was stunned. She hadn’t had a holiday for years, unless you called rainy days, off season, in some English seaside cottage or another a holiday.
‘Only the best for my princess. Shall we grab some dinner?’
‘Dinner? Gosh, is there still time? Must have a quick shower – 5 minutes, promise!’
‘I’ll bring you a glass.’ Grinned Seb, uncorking the bottle with a flourish.
The dining room, in the adjacent orangerie, was filled with exotic plants that Caroline thought would warrant a hothouse of their own in Kew Gardens! The silverware and crystal shone with the light from the flickering candles, the waiters spoke in hushed voices and the other diners, seemingly wishing to maintain the atmosphere, did likewise. The overall impression was of a timeless tranquillity.
Caroline smiled at Seb who had tucked his napkin into his collar and sat with an impish grin on his handsome, lined face. She had met Seb at a fund-raising dinner for the charity where she worked. They had agreed to meet again, she had been captivated by him and things had gone on from there. He had told her he was a widower and she had heard from one of the long-standing members of the staff that he was a major donor.
The evening, assisted by delightful food and heady wine, passed quickly and the last memory she had of that wonderful time was of her head resting on Seb’s broad chest before she fell asleep.
The morning dawned bright with sunlight bursting around the heavy drapes at the windows. She heard talking in the other room and then, Seb poked his head around the door and announced in a mock serious tone –
‘Bonjour, madame, le petit-déjeuner est servi!’
They both collapsed into peals of laughter. After she had pulled on the luxurious dressing gown she found hanging in the bathroom and made herself presentable, she joined him in the lounge where a delightful selection of croissants, breads and jams was arrayed. Pouring the coffee, Seb looked up and smiled,
‘Didn’t know what you might like for breakfast but thought something traditional wouldn’t go amiss.’
She kissed him on the forehead and joined him at the table.
‘Thought you might still be a little tired after that long journey yesterday,’ Seb announced, ’so, whaddya you say we just go exploring around the gardens this morning. Sun’s shining and they are supposed to be quite something.’
‘Sounds just the ticket!’ said Caroline treating him to a peck on the cheek.
An hour or so later, after bathing and a second pot of coffee, they stepped out onto the terrace behind the chateau.
‘Wow! Just wow! ‘Caroline exclaimed as she took in the view.
‘Yep, quite something, isn’t it?’
Below the terrace there were acres of impeccably manicured gardens flowing away downhill leading the eye down into the valley below. Caroline took a few steps down from the terrace into the gardens. And then she saw it….!
Across the broad valley with the gently flowing river, the hills rose up steeply on the other side. Below the ruined castle, perched on a hilltop, nestled a small village and there, on the very edge was the old gîte. She could see that the roof had gone and the wall enclosing the little garden had fallen away. At first, she just felt numb. Then the tears started down her cheeks and great sobs wracked her body.
‘What is it my love?’ enquired a devastated Sebastian trying to put an arm around her shaking shoulders.
Pushing his arm away, she tried to get her emotions under control. Just when she began to feel she was pulling herself together and could perhaps reply, a vision floated into her mind. There was Tom, suntanned and handsome, standing in the garden of the old gîte, holding out some flowers he had picked for her. Her honeymoon, her husband…all those years ago. All those years with him slowly dying by inches in mind and body. And when the end finally came, she had thought that she had mourned already and would be able to get on with the task of living a life alone.
Original image from A. J. Armstrong