My entry for the Grazia Writing Competition. As I am not female, it cannot be entered.
She stood looking up at the house. At the blank grey walls, the shuttered windows with empty boxes on the concrete sills, the stern front door. The house said nothing about what it was or what took place inside, it was unassuming and nondescript and uninviting. She’d come here several times before, but never got the courage to go in. Now, there was no choice. The deadline was today, no last chance of a reprieve or change of heart. If she was going to do it, it had to be now. She shivered, chill from the sudden drop in temperature now the light was fading, or from excitement or from fear, she didn’t know. Also, the sense of possibility that, by pressing this suburban doorbell, her life could – would – alter for good. But still she lingered on the unwashed step, picking at a thread of wool come loose from her glove, caught between the girl she was and the woman she might be. A deadline she never thought she would face…
Three weeks earlier, almost to the day, a voice message was left on her mobile phone answering service.
‘Please contact me as soon as possible,’ said the male voice. ‘Your application to join the French embassy in Rome as a language specialist has been successful. Congratulations! Call me on my direct line to make the formal arrangements, and, welcome to the service.’
She had been overjoyed at the news, so unexpected, and so welcome. She had originally applied without much hope but, because of her degree in European languages, she had apparently sailed through the interviews. This was despite her lack of experience, or connections with the diplomatic service. Perhaps her modern language course at the Sorbonne had, after all, been worthwhile.
The next few weeks had been hectic. Firstly she had to sign legal documents to join the civil service; attend a familiarisation course, the first of many, she was told, and undergo a security clearance. She also had a medical examination to enrol in the civil service pension scheme and the diplomatic service health insurance plan.
On a more mundane level she made arrangements to leave her present student accommodation, which she shared with two female friends. Then sort through her possessions and pack those she would take to Rome. The rest would go into storage, at the government’s expense.
And finally, she now had to say goodbye to her mother who lived in a Paris suburb. She could have written a note, or phoned, but that would have been the cowardly way out. No, Guillemette decided that a meeting was the proper way to behave, despite the awkwardness between them.
So here she was, outside the parental home. The building brought back so many emotions. It was looking drab and unloved, compared with her childhood years. The empty window boxes were a most striking reminder of how the death of her father had affected them all. Fydor had died of a brain tumour three years ago, at the age of 50, after several years of suffering. It had been difficult for the whole family, including her older brother Phillipe (now somewhere in Cambodia with the Red Cross), and was a relief when the end finally came. Since then, Guillemette had focused on her language studies, seeing little of her mother, Francoise.
She had felt the loss of her father deeply, once a middle-ranking official in the Transport de Paris. And this, along with her mother’s withdrawal from life, had made trips home more and more painful until finally they stopped altogether. Which was why today was going to be fraught. What do you say to someone you haven’t seen or spoken to for over a year? How do you tell them that you are moving abroad and may never return? What reaction will she get? Will her mother even care?
These questions had been going round her head for the past week, and now she resolved the only way to move on, and to leave with a clear conscience, was to talk face to face. And today had to be the day because tomorrow she was taking the train to Rome and to a new life.
But it was proving harder than she’d expected. The house looked so forlorn. Perhaps she would just walk to the end of the road one more time to gather her thoughts. Maybe pop into the small café around the corner? Yes, that would do the trick. A coffee and a small cognac; yes, some Dutch courage would help her get through this.
So she began to walk more purposefully, filled with new confidence, and thinking that really, this is not going to be so difficult after all.
The Vin d’Table café was a single room, large enough for half a dozen circular tables, with a bar and a waitress. Only two tables were occupied so it was easy to find an empty one, and catch the eye of the waitress. She ordered a coffee and a small glass of cognac, and looked around. Sitting across the room was a middle-aged man, reading a magazine and taking his time working his way through a carafe of red wine. Opposite, on another table, was a woman, she vaguely remembered from her childhood, sipping coffee and leafing through a daily paper.
The waitress came with her order and placed the bill on the table.
‘Mademoiselle, is there anything else?’ Guillemette declined and opened her bag, took out a note and said keep the change.
There were several items in her bag; copies of documents she had signed, a passport, a street map of Rome with an address written on the front, and tickets for her journey. She checked them while she finished her coffee. The cognac was having the desired effect; she was beginning to feel stronger and more relaxed, ready to face her mother.
Then she felt the presence of someone next to her. She looked up to see the woman she vaguely recognised standing by her chair.
‘Guillemette Nabokov?’ the woman asked.
‘I thought it was you. My dear, we were worried about you. No one knew how to contact you.’
‘Oh, and why would anyone need to contact me?’ asked Guillemette, feeling guilty about not telling her mother about her latest address and phone number (although the university knew them, she reminded herself).
‘Well, we have some news for you about Francoise, your mother,’ the woman said, somewhat formally.
‘News, about my mother, what are you saying?’
‘There is no easy way to put this, I’m sorry. She hasn’t been seen for two weeks now, and the police can’t find her. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it. It’s been in all the papers and on the news. We even tried to contact your brother, but the Red Cross haven’t heard from him, either, for more than two weeks. We were worried about you too. It seems that you may have had a lucky escape.’