Learning To Read

Entry by: writerATGJFYSYWG

29th June 2016
'You know what I did the morning after don't you?'

Joanne sipped her Earl Grey and waited for her friend to provide the answer.

'I went out and bought croissants for breakfast. Defiant in the face of those Little Englanders who've ruined it all for us.'

Joanne smiled and Tamara sat back triumphantly. She always did hate losing, Joanne thought to herself.

Tamara sighed dramatically.

'Do you know what I feel the most?'

Denial? thought Joanne. She vaguely remembered the seven stages of grief from an A level psychology textbook. Wasn't denial the first stage? Or perhaps the second.

'Sadness,' said Tamara. 'Overwhelmingly, I just feel sad.'

She looked into the distance, her best side displayed for Joanne to admire.

'No more can we call ourselves European. I feel a great part of who I am has been ripped out and tossed back into the Channel.'

She scanned the horizon as if the coast was actually in sight. Not likely, thought Joanne, not from Chester.

'You know how continental we are in this household,' Tamara continued. 'Pasta al dente, Perrier, not to mention Leo's French.'

'I didn't know Leo spoke French.'

'And we only ever buy Italian red wine,' she said, ignoring Joanne's last comment.

Tamara picked up the little white cup from the table and threw the double espresso down her throat. Joanne frowned.

'Do you think it'll affect your bookings?' she asked, thinking of Tamara's recently decorated spare room. Pluise gris on the walls. 'You know, like Paris,' Tamara had said. 'It's forever raining in Paris.' As if she were a regular visitor. She'd listed the room on Airbnb but hadn't had much interest. Joanne suspected her prices were a little inflated.

'Well, of course,' said Tamara in answer to her question. 'Who would want to visit a place that has shut its doors to the outside world? No xenia here I'm afraid.' Joanne raised her eyebrows. 'Hospitality,' Tamara explained. 'Greek.'

Joanne left as soon as she'd finished her tea. Being an ear to Tamara's lamenting that morning had been tiresome. She'd have to give her at least a week before she'd worked her way through all seven stages and come out the other side.

The next time she saw her, Tamara had some good news. They'd had a guest. Two, in fact, a couple. And, what's more, they were French.

'Naturally, they were drawn to our property. They must have seen the Antoinette sleigh bed in the photos. La maison chic, n'est pa?'

She's gone to Waitress the day before and stocked up on madeleines, Roquefort and creme de cassis. 'For breakfast?' Joanne had said.

L'Occitane had provided the bathroom luxuries 'at quite a considerable expense, but it really is worth showing these people we didn't all vote out.'

The room was ready. They were due at five. For an hour, at least until six o'clock, Tamara had insisted on them staying at the garden table with their glass of wine each and bowl of olives. Al fresco, she said to Leo, was the European way. Leo pushed his glasses up his nose and huddled into his Marks and Sparks v-neck.

When it started getting dark they moved inside, but kept the TV off and instead sat on upright chairs, Tamara reading Madame Bovary - 'they need to know we appreciate them, despite what's happened' - and Leo following the cricket on Twitter. 'For god's sake, at least get rid of that,' Tamara said, shoving yesterday's Telegraph behind the sofa.

Eventually, at eleven thirty, a car swung into the driveway. 'The day is much longer on the continent,' Tamara explained as she peered out of the window. She nodded to the car. 'At least it's a Citroen.'

'Bonjour!' Tamara said as they got out of the car. 'No, wait, bonsoir.' She smiled in what she hoped was a welcoming fashion. Plenty of xenia here, she thought to herself.

The couple glanced at each other and the woman began to speak. Tamara looked her up and down. Not very Parisian, she thought. The woman must be in her fifties at least, she guessed, and she was wearing purple velvet joggers and a rain mac of some sort. She was gesturing at Tamara now, a little despairingly, and Tamara realised she should try to understand her. But the woman spoke quickly and slurred her words. How was she supposed to understand this woman if she spoke such sloppy French?

'Attende,' Tamara said, holding up a finger and then pointing to the front door. 'Entree.' Leo would be better speaking to them. His French was very good.

But when they got inside, she found Leo had slipped off to bed.

No matter. She would show them their room and tell them about breakfast.

'Voila,' she said as she opened the door on the pluise gris walls. She looked around the room and felt them doing the same behind her, taking in the Louis XV chair with its carved legs, the Camille style weathered towel rail.

The couple glanced at each other again and the woman began shaking her head and pointing to the sleigh bed. She pointed to her husband's head, which was at least two feet above hers, and stretched her arms wide and then pointed back to the bed again.

'What? Grande? Petit? Comment?' Unfortunately, Tamara's French couldn't quite keep up, but something was wrong with the bed. Well, she couldn't do anything about that now. Perhaps if they'd arrived on time the problem could have been solved.

'Bonne nuit. Bonne nuit,' she said, fixing her smile in place and backing out of the door. The woman was still gesturing as Tamara closed her own bedroom door. They'd come round at breakfast, she thought. Once they saw the effort she'd made for them. She remembered to set the alarm earlier than usual to give herself enough time to pop out for croissants first thing.

The next morning she was admiring her breakfast table when Leo emerged. She was still cross with him for disappearing last night but he could be useful this morning.

'How does this note read?' she said, handing him a piece of paper. She was rather proud of it, she had to admit. They were in England after all and here she was writing a little welcoming note in French.

He glanced over it.

'Well, I suppose it's pretty clear,' he said. 'Although the last sentence might need a little work.'

'What?' She took the note back. 'Salut!' she read out loud. 'Je suis aller le centre ville. J'arrive chez moi apres midi. Vous avez le petit déjeuner.' She looked up at him. 'What's wrong with that?'

'Vous avez le petit déjeuner sounds like an order. You might as well shout "You have breakfast!"'

She was reluctant to change it. They hadn't been anything like she'd imagined. The note was fine, she decided, and left it propped up against the hot croissants.

When she returned home later she found the breakfast table exactly as she'd left it except instead of her note there was another in its place. The croissants were rock solid and cold.

On the side, next to the kitchen sink, they'd left unwashed milky bowls and a packet of Nesquik. She would have to put that somewhere out of sight. She wouldn't be caught dead with a Nestle product, Swiss or not.

'Hello,' the note read. At least they were having a shot at English. 'Thank you for the table.' Perhaps they did have a few graces. 'No cereal. No croissants. Bread only.' The next bit was in French. 'Le lit est trop petit. Mettre une commode pour le linge ou amenager le placard pour que les hotes puissent ranger leurs affaires merci,'

Tamara leant back in her chair. Le lit est trop petit. She knew what that meant. Some of her friends had said that bed was too good for the guest room, but she couldn't help being generous. She'd regret it, they'd said, and she did. Some people simply didn't appreciate quality when they saw it.

The next part of the note was rather puzzling. Commode. She could have sworn that was some sort of portable toilet. A toilet dressed up as a chair. Surely they didn't want one of those? Funnily enough, she had seen one in a charity shop window just the other day. It came back to her now and she made a decision.

Despite their lack of good English, despite her velour tracksuit bottoms and his ungainly height, despite their astonishing lack of good taste, despite their complete lack of, well, Frenchness, despite all this, she had to show them that the recent referendum result did not reflect the vast majority of decent people in this country. She put the note in her bag and left the house.

They'd finished dinner and were in the upright chairs, awaiting the return of their guests for the night. When she heard them come in, Tamara put down Madame Bovary and listened as they climbed the stairs. All of a sudden she heard a shriek from the guest bedroom and then some rapid whispering. What on earth was going on? After a moment or two she heard footsteps tiptoeing back downstairs, the soft thump of a suitcase being dragged down behind them.

Tamara looked at Leo and then got up and opened the living room door.

'Are you leaving early?' Tamara said. 'You're due to stay the full week aren't you?' Leo stood behind her.

The couple glanced at each other and then she began her ridiculously incomprehensible French.

'They left that night,' she told Joanne, stirring the milk into her coffee. 'Cafe au lait,' she'd said to the bemused girl behind the counter.

'Without even a thank you. I've already warned Airbnb about them,' she sniffed. 'Other hosts need to be aware of people who don't know how to behave as proper guests.'

'And you have no idea why they left so suddenly?' Joanne asked.

Tamara shrugged her shoulders. 'It's difficult to fit in when it's not your own country,' she said. 'I expect it was a culture clash. They simply aren't used to the way we like to live, our high standards and so on. I told you about the bed didn't I? they had no appreciation of quality.'

'But what about their recommendations? Did you make any changes after you read their note?' Joanne said.

'But of course,' said Tamara. 'I did everything I could to welcome them. Of course I responded to their suggestion.'

'What did you do?'

'I bought the commode. Expensive for a charity shop and needing quite a clean, but I can't help being generous. Hospitality is so important. And there was the perfect space for it in between the chateau white dressing table and rococo Parisienne nightstand.'

Joanne lifted her cup of Earl Grey and tried to suppress the smile that twitched at the corners of her mouth.

'Xenia, Joanne,' said Tamara. 'It's all about the xenia.'