Romantic comedy in a French setting. When Amanda arrives in St. Malo on the run from a failed love affair, all she's looking for is somewhere quiet to lick her wounds. But then she meets Gilles and his children, who have been abandoned by their mother. Although Gilles is as arrogant and unpredictable as his pirate ancestors, Amanda agrees to look after Corinne and Jonathan for the summer. Gradually her distrust of Gilles vanishes, despite interference from his glamourous girlfriend, his feckless ex-wife, and his sexy neighbour Simon.
When I reached St. Malo, it was just after noon. The ferry slid through the rocks towards the harbour. A bright June breeze rippled across the water. Over to my right, I could see the rocky coves of Dinard, and to my left rose the austere grey houses of St. Malo, shuttered behind their ramparts.
Standing on the foredeck of the ferry, I eyed the corsair city with mixed feelings. I wasn't meant to be in France right now, I was meant to be in London. In the past ten days, my life had been turned on its head. I wasn't sure if I was glad to be here or not.
The ferry was about to land, and I had to get back to the car. Turning away from the rail, I headed for the heavy doors that led to the inner deck. The last of the passengers, a tall man in a navy blue anorak, was just shuffling through. I quickened my pace so he wouldn't have to hold the doors for me. I needn't have bothered. The doors slammed shut in my face just as I reached them. One second later and they would have trapped my hand.
The near-miss rattled me. I swore out loud. I heaved the doors open and nearly walked into the man in the anorak, who was standing just on the other side. His back was towards me, and he was talking into his mobile. He was so absorbed that he didn't even notice.
I was suddenly so angry that I didn't stop to think. The mix of rage and misery and humiliation that had been simmering inside me for days came to the boil.
Desertion, betrayal, abandonment - and now homicidal morons on the cross-Channel ferry? I caught up with the man and tapped him on the shoulder.
"You slammed those doors in my face, you stupid fool!" Startled, he swung round. "Are you talking to me?"
"Yes I am! Those doors are heavy, and you let them slam right in my face! I could have been injured! They only just missed my hand!" He stared at me disbelievingly. I didn't altogether blame him. I could hear the hysterical note in my voice, and I belatedly realized I was over-reacting.
He snapped shut his mobile. "I apologise," he said tersely. "My mind was elsewhere." The tone was that of a cool social brush-off.
"You'd do better to pay attention to what's going on around you," I snapped.
"Next time I certainly will."
He looked me over in a way that left no doubt as to his meaning. His eyes were a very deep blue. To my annoyance, I felt myself beginning to blush. He was extremely good-looking, with dark, intelligent features and a slightly arrogant air.
The kind of man who was used to getting what he wanted.
I was about to snarl something back at him, when another voice sounded behind us.
"Darling, who's this? Whatever's going on?"
The woman who appeared by his side looked as though she had stepped straight from the pages of Vogue. White T-shirt, navy trousers, and a navy and white striped blazer: it could have been a feature on the latest season's cruise-wear. Her dark hair fell softly to her shoulders, and her make-up was flawless.
She was his girlfriend, not his wife, I could see that at once. It was clear from their choice of clothes. His anorak, though expensive, had seen better days, while she looked as though she had just breezed out of Emporio Armani. My anger collapsed. I was suddenly conscious of my flushed face and tangled hair, and of the old black T-shirt and shabby jeans I had worn to travel in.
"This is a lady in whose face I let the door slam," said the man. I detected a faint note of mockery in his voice, and even more in his syntax. Miss Armani paid no attention.
"Gilles, what on earth are you talking about? Do hurry up, we need to get off this boat. I must get to the gallery as soon as possible."
She took his arm and swept him down the gangway towards the stairs to the lower deck. I watched them go. As they turned the corner, the man looked back over his shoulder. He was too far away for me to distinguish his expression, but I guessed he was savouring the pleasure of cutting me down to size.
Well, what did it matter? I would never see him again. And it was true I had mainly myself to blame for the whole disgraceful little episode. I should never have let myself get so worked up. My nerves were still on edge since the scene with Roger.
I noticed the couple again ten minutes later, as I was driving out of the ferry terminal. Their car, of course, was a Jeep. Pushy, chic and expensive, just like them.
The woman was sitting in the passenger seat, rummaging for something in her bag.
She didn't see me. The man was leaning against the wing of the car, with his telephone glued to his ear. As I drove past, he caught sight of me, and gave me an odd little salute. I did not respond.
I turned out of the terminal towards the town, and instantly forgot him. The sight of the pirate citadel rearing up before me wiped the incident out of my mind. I caught my breath. It was exactly as I remembered.
For centuries, St. Malo had been an island. Even when it was finally linked to the continent by a causeway, it remained the lair of corsairs authorized by the French king to prey on passing traffic. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Channel was not a safe place to sail. But time after time, the corsairs had escaped retribution, protected by the guns of the fortress, the rocks of the bay and, in some cases, sheer good luck.
I parked at the foot of the ramparts and entered the town on foot. The sun was warm on the back of my neck and my doubts had vanished. I hadn't been here for years, and it was good to be back. When I was fifteen I had stayed for a month with a friend whose family owned a holiday flat inside the old walled city, and I retained fond memories of walking on the ramparts, sunbathing on the beach, and tentatively checking out the local talent. But that was eight years ago. It was a long time since I had heard from Virginie, and it was unlikely she would be here now.
The hotel my grandmother had recommended was near the Grande Plage.
Bonne-Maman made regular excursions to France, to visit her cousins in southern Brittany, and she always stayed at the same hotel when she got off the ferry. It was called the Hotel Saint Maclou. The receptionist took me up to the top of the building to a small white-painted room with a view of the ramparts. There was something plain and monastic about it that pleased me at once. Saint Maclou was the Irish monk who had founded St. Malo back in the sixth century. Even though he and his kind were outnumbered by souvenir sellers these days, up here away from the crowds it felt as though I had found one of the few monachal vestiges that remained. A white monk's cell was perfect for my needs. It corresponded to my celibate state of mind, and my single status.
I set off back to the car to collect my luggage. Since the hotel had no parking lot, I left the car where it was. The bags were a struggle in the narrow streets, and when I got back to my room, I was hot and tired. I lay down to rest, and promptly fell asleep.
When I awoke, the sun had moved round into the room, and I could tell it was late afternoon. I lay unmoving in a shaft of sunlight, listening to the gulls shriek overhead. I had slept more deeply than I had done for days, and it had done me good.
Roger seemed suddenly very far away. Our last meeting was blurred and unreal. I could no longer remember clearly the meeting in the pub, nor the interminable walk home, nor the sleepless night I had spent pacing up and down the flat. There was nothing in my mind but the square of blue sky framed by the open window, the curtains shivering in the clean sea breeze, the swoop of birds above the pirate city.
I took a shower, and went out. I left the city through the Porte St. Vincent, the main gate, and walked along the old causeway that united the former island with the continent. After a few hundred yards I came to the Digue, a dyke which ran for several miles along the beach. It was edged by grand old villas that had been built by wealthy families at the turn of the century. Most of them had now been turned into hotels or holiday flats, but a hint of their former grandeur still remained.
I walked the whole length of the Digue, past the flats and the pensions de famille and the great H?tel des Thermes, all the way down to Rochebonne, at the far end of the beach, where the headland jutted out into the sea. The tide was out. I sat for a while in a caf? overlooking the beach, and drank a beer. Then I took off my shoes and walked back along the edge of the sea, letting the little waves lap against my ankles. When I got back to the town, I wiped the sand off my feet as best I could and headed into the walled city in search of dinner. I had not eaten since breakfast at my grandmother's in St. Peter Port that morning, and I was starving.
I was wandering down the Rue de Dinan, sizing up the restaurants and cr?peries that beckoned from either side of the street, when I suddenly caught sight of a familiar face. I stood still and stared. Older, yes, thinner and taller than I remembered, but with her dark hair pulled back from her face in exactly the same style, and the same way of walking fast and shouldering her way obliviously through the crowd. It was eight years since I had seen her.
"Virginie?" I said, as she came abreast of me.
It took her a second or two to place me.
"Amanda?" she said disbelievingly. "It can't be. Yes it is! How amazing!
Amanda! My God, after all this time. What are you doing here?"
She still talked the same way too, with the speed of a sub-machine gun, firing off questions, too impatient to wait for the answers. She gave me a hug and launched another assault.
"How long have you been here? Where are you staying? How long are you here for? Why didn't you call?"
"I didn't expect you to be here yet. Not for another few weeks. Are you on holiday already?"
"We're all down for the weekend for my father's birthday. He insists on celebrating it here. It's a bit of a nuisance since I have exams next week, but we have the same argument every year. Listen," she glanced at her watch, "I have to get back.
It's Papa's birthday tonight, I only came out to get bread. I want you to come to dinner tomorrow night. You'll still be here won't you? They'll all be delighted to see you. We can catch up on everything then. Say about eight. You remember where it is?"