He never slept late, the light creeping around the faded curtains was a natural reveille. The windows were fragile; that was his mother’s term, you could open them with extreme caution. The correct term would be rotted, and the shutters were permanently fixed to the walls, they most definitely would fall apart if you ever tried closing them. Probably collapse on someone’s head as they stepped off the veranda, Milo’s bedroom was just above where the veranda roof finished. That was one reason why he always woke early, it faced east.
The sunlight made a weird display, like a halo lighting up the window frame, announcing a new day. A new day which would be a repeat of the previous and identical to the next, save for the interactions that occurred between dawn and dusk. Those variations on a theme, but what theme exactly, what song was playing today? Milo’s thought process was convoluted, but there was indeed music playing. His mother must have the radio on.
Breakfast was on the veranda where the table had taken up residence since yesterday, the covered terrace offered welcome shade from the heat of the day. Corinth and Amelie were eating and drinking, Milo sat himself down. His mother was not there, nobody else was up.
“What did you do last night?” Corinth studied him as he poured a mug of coffee.
“I went to bed and read.” Milo was tempted to ignore both of them, but on reflection decided to be polite.
Amelie looked at her older sister, a sort of conspiratorial glance. He wasn’t paying much attention until Corinth leant across the table.
“Did you play with yourself?” She spoke softly, her tone halfway between secretive and sexy.
“Did you play with yourself?” Milo repeated, throwing the ball back at her.
She didn’t move, didn’t flinch. Resting her elbows on the table and supporting her chin, she pouted her lips and batted her eyelids.
“I could do that for you,” she offered like some kind of cheap sluzzy.
But he was used to their games, although yesterday she had certainly cranked things up a notch when she grabbed a feel. He wasn’t falling for it, he was not that stupid, but he played along.
“I bet you could,” he smiled sarcastically.
“You’d love me to play with you, wouldn’t you?” She pointedly placed her index finger between those ruby lips, sucking it lasciviously.
“Screw you,” he whispered under his breath and returned his attention to the mug of coffee.
“You’d like to do that, I know.”
She sat back down smiling, her little sister giggled.
Milo stood up and wandered down the steps into the garden with his coffee. As he was standing there looking towards the forest, his mother called out from the window of her bedroom.
“Ten o’clock, Milo,” he turned around and looked up. “The hairdresser, ten o’clock.”
He waved, and she moved away from the window disappearing inside the house.
▪ ▪ ▪
“Are you ready, Milo? Because we need to leave now.”
His father was standing next to the old Peugeot. Milo hurriedly crossed the garden, opened the door, and climbed in. As his father joined him, he smiled. “Let’s go then,” he turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed and sputtered, complaining like an old man getting out of bed before it growled into life.
They drove out through the gate posts. The gates themselves were broken relics adorning each side of the track. Milo was quiet, he made no attempt at conversation, preferring to study the two-tone interior of the old car or gaze at the countryside. The track turned sharp left as it twisted towards the main road and they bounced over a bump.
The route to the village was bordered by farmland interspersed with the occasional house. The river that meandered along the valley was invisible from the road. Milo studied the tall poplar trees that followed the banks of the river, lined up like soldiers in uniformed rows. Tall and sleek their branches started up high, leaving an impression of looking through a field of thick poles. These were the only viable plants for the marshy, sodden ground, which easily flooded.
The early morning sun made the windscreen look like smoked glass that needed cleaning. Milo kept those thoughts to himself, not wanting to be given car washing duty. His father had the sun visor down, but that did little to fight the glare. Reaching across into the glove compartment, he fumbled around until he found what he was seeking. He flipped open an old pair of tortoiseshell Ray Bans and put them on. Milo wasn’t sure whether his father looked more like Bob Dylan or Kennedy, but he veered towards John F Kennedy. It was perhaps the crow’s eyes and lines on his forehead that decided it.
Pulling into the village square in front of the church, his father switched off the engine. The hand brake squeaked as he pulled it up, complaining like the rest of the car which always made odd metallic noises.
“I’ll meet you back here,” he told Milo.
Taking his cue, Milo got out, stretched, and headed across the square back in the direction they’d arrived from. Towards the hairdresser.
It was too early, and Monsieur Fournier had someone in front of the mirror with whom he was engaged both in styling her hair and deep conversation. “…yes, I heard that too. And she doesn’t have the money.”
Milo sat down in one of the old wooden chairs by the window. Monsieur Fournier turned his head smiling at the boy and continuing chatting to his customer. “…What can I do? I’ll just have to wait. I’m not going to turn them out on the street.”
The shop was empty other than for the three of them, Milo looked around, taking in the stack of old magazines on the little table. Their edges turned and worn, he suspected they had been read many times over. The cat was curled up in the chair the furthest away. A fluffy grey and white monster with a squashed face that looked up at him, but ignored him, curling back into a ball of fur. The image of Maurice Fournier stroking the fluffball whilst sashaying around in an embroidered dressing gown, presented itself to Milo’s imagination. Probably inspired by the magazine cover with a picture of a Chinese Mandarin sitting on some ornately carved throne. Maurice was the king of the hairdressers, the oldest and longest established in the village.
Milo turned his attention away from the shop and found the place where he had left the story. He started reading his book. “…it was certain the prisoner had, for longer than that, been in the habit of passing and repassing between France and England, on secret business of which he could give no honest account...” The snipping of the scissors along with the conversation became the soundtrack, the shop took on the air of a scene in an old black and white movie, as Milo disappeared into the eighteenth century Dickens was describing. “That, if it were in the nature of traitorous ways to thrive (which, happily, it never was), the real wickedness and guilt of his business might have remained undiscovered.”
He took his place in the now vacated throne, as Maurice rang up the sale on a cash register that was the same age as the shop and the rest of its fixtures and fittings. He waited, mulling over in his mind the thought that he, himself, was in some fashion involved in secret business. That he was a traitor, who hid his treacherous ways. That perhaps it was inevitable that his own business would not remain undiscovered.
“And how might I help you, young man?” Maurice was fluffing around, brushing his hair with his hands whilst looking at Milo in the mirror.
“Maman said I can’t stay all summer looking like a street urchin.” Milo looked at Maurice’s reflection. He saw the man smile before moving to one side and instructing the boy to follow him across to the wash basin.
“Let’s see what we can do.”
▪ ▪ ▪
The little bell rang as he closed the door behind him. Walking back to the square, Milo noticed a group of youths in front of the church. One of them was standing on the stone bench. They were playing around, pushing each other, being loud. He headed towards the cafe, if his father had finished his business, that’s where he’d be.
There were a few people inside. The owner, Pierre, was at the bar talking with one of the customers. At a table on the left, another man had his head in a newspaper, sipping an espresso. His father was there. On the other side, standing, talking to someone at the table next to the baby-foot. He moved across the room. His father had his back to him obscuring who he was talking to.
“Papa!” he announced his arrival.
Milo’s father stood back and turned around. “Your mother will be happy,” he grinned. “You’re looking respectable.” He brushed his hand across Milo’s forehead.
Milo dodged away, at the same time taking in the guy sitting at the table. He stared, taken aback. In front of him was a beautiful young man, short black hair, olive skin, small ears with a piercing. He wore a red and white t-shirt with broad horizontal bands. Their eyes locked for an instant before Milo turned away. Those eyes were a hypnotic deep green. Milo suddenly felt very nervous.
“This is Estevo,” his father announced oblivious to the mixed emotions coursing through his son’s body. “He’s going to be doing some work for us at the house.”
Milo gulped, looked at the floor. He felt that the young man’s eyes were boring a hole through his chest. His face felt hot.
“I have one more errand to do,” his father’s hand touched Milo’s arm. “I’ll meet you back here in twenty minutes.”
With that, his father left them and walked across the room. Milo followed him with his eyes, noting Pierre was still in the same place behind the heavy polished counter, talking to the same customer. Milo stood there, paralysed.
“Sit down.” The voice was soft.
Milo looked once again at the young man sitting at the table. He was sure he was blushing. Embarrassed, he quickly took a seat opposite Estevo. There was a silence. The little noises of the cafe seemed to leave them enveloped together in a tiny bubble of solitude.
“Are you happy to be here?” Estevo broke the silence.
His remark left Milo unable to interpret the meaning. The expression on his face must have shown his confusion.
“To be on vacation, I mean.”
Milo made no reply. He didn’t know what to do. Maybe he should get up and leave, but that was no answer, and very odd.
“You alright?” Estevo too seemed a little ill at ease.
“I’m sorry,” Milo finally managed, but he still couldn’t bring himself to look directly at Estevo. He thought the young man would see straight through him.
“Do you want something to drink?” Estevo regarded the boy.
Milo finally regained some composure and forced himself to look up. “Nah, I’m fine,” he replied. “So you’re gonna be working at our house?”
Estevo grinned, looking a little more relaxed. “That’s the idea. Your dad offered me a job for the summer.”
“You live in the village?” Milo was driven to find out all he could about Estevo.
“Yeah, with my mother. You sure you don’t want a coffee or something?”
“Okay then, a coffee, thanks,”
Estevo stood up and walked over to the bar. Milo watched. His eyes took in the tight blue jeans and a well-worn pair of sneakers. Milo waited. The coffee machine whooshed and sputtered. He desperately tried to think of what he would say when Estevo came back. He turned to the table and placed his book down on top.
“So,” Estevo put two coffees on the table. “Your vacation, you enjoying yourself?”
Milo studied his coffee.
“I got two large coffees… with milk. It’s less strong. Lasts longer.”
There was a certain hesitation in the young man’s voice.
“It’s fine,” Milo looked up and smiled. Now he noticed the worried expression on Estevo’s face. “Are you, okay?” he asked, returning the question Estevo had posed.
“I’m worried,” the young man admitted.
“About a lot of things, but right now, about you.”
Milo watched the man sitting across the table in front of him. “About me? I said I’m fine.”
“I know, but…” Estevo hesitated. “Something’s going on here. Your dad offered me a job and then… Well, it just got odd.”
“Sorry,” Milo sipped his coffee. “Thanks for the coffee.”
Estevo watched him.
“Let’s start over.” Milo was more at ease now. “How old are you?”
It was a banal question, but ordinary, normal.
“Eighteen,” Estevo replied. “You?”
“I’ll be sixteen in two weeks.”
“And you always spend your summers here?”
“Yes, always. With my uncle, aunt, and cousins.”
“You must know the place then. Have friends here?”
“I guess I know the place, but we are usually just at the house. Sometimes we go out, for a picnic or to visit somewhere.”
“It’s just you and your cousins then, all summer.”
Milo grinned, “pretty much.”
They fell into a silence, each drinking their coffee. Milo didn’t know what questions to ask or how to maintain the conversation.
“So you live here with your mother?” He finally broke into the void.
Estevo smiled and nodded. “Since nearly a year.”
Milo was desperate to talk and find out more about Estevo, but he felt uncomfortable, self-conscious, and scared about saying the wrong thing.
“You like reading?” Estevo tapped a finger on the book.
“It’s Dickens” Milo announced.
“A classic,” Estevo smiled reassuringly.
“Have you read It?”
“No, I have not yet had that pleasure.”
“All done!” Milo’s father placed a hand on his shoulder. “You two got acquainted?”
Milo looked up over his shoulder, but it was Estevo who answered. “Yes, your son was just going to start telling me all about Dickens.”
Milo’s father chuckled. “You’d be here all day once he started. It will have to be another time. We need to get back. I’ll see you at the house tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” Estevo smiled.
“Please, call me John. Sir makes me feel much too important and much too old.” He squeezed Milo’s shoulder and winked.
“Yes, John. Tomorrow.”