The Reunion

Paul gazed across the room recognizing many faces he hadn’t seen for years, well in fact most of them, as he’d been living and working abroad for the last twenty years. He looked around to see who else was there, especially certain old members whom he’d hoped very much to meet up with again. Something had suddenly spurred him a few months ago into accepting the invite to attend and booking his flight from Toulouse.
He greeted them and chatted, some he remembered he’d liked and been friendly with – Phil, now a classics teacher at a private school in Dorset (unmarried, but in a “committed relationship” he’d admittedly slightly nervously); Johnnie, the Jewish sportsman who’d strayed so often from the path of righteousness it used to be a standing joke – along with the fact he used (not so) secretly to eat pork sausages with relish – but who was now married with four children and MD of the family business; Sean, the Essex lad who’d gone to school with a former West Ham and England footballer, a decent footballer himself but now a consulting engineer in South East Africa Africa; Tim, a quietly spoken maths student, now a respectable and prosperous accountant in Birmingham.
Then the women. The college had been one of the earliest to admit women – Geraldine the philosopher and currently a newly minted Professor at King’s London, Jenny the earnest and starchy lawyer and now a Q.C., Harriet, the medic, now a GP in prosperous Stratford-on-Avon.
Yes, Paul had read all the brief biographical summaries the College had circulated.
And then those he’d rather disliked, James the still utterly self-assured lawyer who now “managed funds” in the City and oozed wealth from every pore – as he had as an undergraduate; Martin, the brash Birmingham boy who still had the short bandy legs and the beard – greying now – still talked the loudest, clearly still thought he was the most important person in the room and was “something in the City” and Chris, one of the smoothest people to glide across this earth, still smooth and obviously so wealthy from being in banking – wealthier, that is, than when he was an undergraduate. They wouldn’t be out of place in a Parisian salon or a Geneva soiree Paul thought.
There was a loud bang of a gong and Sir Thomas Ewen, the College Master, stood a on a chair at the back of the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, can I formally welcome you all back to St. Matthew’s College for this gaudy. I will say a few more words later at the end of dinner but in the meantime renew old friendships and enjoy the meal. Oh, and Ted assures me the bar in Deep Hall will be open for a good few hours after dinner.”
Gosh, Paul thought, Ted was still going strong though he must be in his late sixties. He was glad, he reflected, as the College servants had mostly been very kind to the students and Ted had been – still was presumably – one of the best.
The old members filed into the Hall, with Paul still looking around to see if certain old friends were present. So far, no luck. They finished the traditional college grace (read in impeccable Latin) by Phil and sat down to dinner.
He seated himself next to several old friends with whom he chatted politely and, in some cases, quite animatedly. A number of them were interested, even slightly puzzled, by his permanent move to teach in France.
“Well, as you know, I read Modern Languages, qualified as a teacher, then after a year or so at a public school in Dorset, saw an interesting job for a teacher at a private school in Tours and I went for it – yes, they do have private schools over there. Having been in France twenty or so years, I now have a really good job as deputy head teacher at an international school in Auch down in the south-west. I’m accepted by the locals so really pretty content. Never got on with my family, as some of you might remember – well, except for my sister – but she lives in Switzerland so I see her quite often.”
“But who are your pupils?” Sean enquired. “An international school in the south-west of France?”
“Oh, we take boarders so we get pupils from all over, Airbus people and other employees from the Toulouse send their children to us…. And some French people want their children to have a broader education. We teach the International Baccalaureat mainly. I like it as it’s better than teaching GCSE and A level stuff. And the lifestyle is better.”
“I have to say, you sound a bit French,” Phil joked. “Your dress sense is a bit more sophisticated than the rest of us.”
“Really,” Paul raised an eyebrow. “I had a devil of a job to hire the dinner jacket in Toulouse – couldn’t get one in Auch- as we don’t tend to wear them in France, at least not in the country – not worn one in twenty years. It took me a while to hunt one down.”
The dinner finished with a few speeches, mercifully fairly short, though Sir Thomas made his usual appeal for funds before the guests filed down to the cellar bar to continue the convivial conversations, fuelled by Ted’s seemingly inexhaustible memories of individual students.
It was then he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a soft quiet voice behind him,
“Hello, Paul, how are you after all these years?”
He spun round recognising the voice immediately.
“Jeanette…. I’m fine, thanks, and enjoying life and it’s really lovely to see you again. But more importantly how are you?”
Paul beamed at the woman in front of him, somewhat shorter than him with a broad smile, short but curly dark hair, greying a bit in parts, piercing blue eyes, a slim face and a reasonably trim body suitably attired in a blue evening dress. He gulped then politely asked her how she was as they moved away from the crowded bar area.
“I’m well too, given life’s little bumps. But what are you doing with yourself? I keep reading in the College Record you’re living in France and are a deputy head teacher. I guess you seem to have done well. You live in Toulouse now, don’t you? Isn’t that in south-west France?”
“In Auch actually but it’s quite near Toulouse. I’m a deputy head at a private international school.” Paul laughed. “But what about you? I gather you’re one of the editors of “Europe” magazine – yes, I read the Record too, you know.”
“Oh, I live in London….. Have done since I left the College. I went into journalism as you’ve probably guessed – started as a junior reporter with the Evening Standard then worked my way up steadily with a slight hiatus after a couple of years….”
Paul raised his eyebrows questioningly, though half guessing what was coming. He had already glanced at her left hand and observed the absence of a wedding ring.
“You know,” Jeanette continued, “I was with that wretched man from Balliol when I left, when you were on your year out in France and Germany….. Of course, you do….. Well we married although I’m not sure why…. Seemed to be a natural progression. Anyway after three years I got pregnant but miscarried and lost the baby at six months. I got a bad infection and I was in and out of hospital for some more months.”
“I didn’t know, I am so sorry,”
“Well, it left me incapable of having children. And then Robert, the bastard, walked out. So, I thought bloody great and devoted myself to my career with the odd “dalliance” along the way. And I climbed the ladder pretty successfully. What about you?”
“Finals – I managed a First….. but I suppose that was because the best distraction was gone and the rugby only took up the Michaelmas term.” Paul smiled at Jeanette knowingly, “Then I thought to myself, I fancy teaching as I’d done that whilst abroad on my year out. I did my CertEd and went off to teach at a good private school in Dorset for three years but got bored. One evening, I saw an advert for a modern languages teacher based at a private international school in Tours – so I thought, what the hell, I’ve no real ties here as my sister had gone to Switzerland and I couldn’t get on with my parents – and I applied. I got the job and off I went…..”
“Wasn’t it – or isn’t it – odd living full-time in France?” Jeanette asked. “After all, I’ve travelled – still do – a huge amount mainly in Europe, but I’ve never thought I’d feel really settled except in England. That said, I’ve never had a reason to consider it.”
“No, not really,” Paul answered smiling. “I knew the culture fairly well, I spoke the language and I was pretty rootless. Besides teaching in France is different to an English boarding school. One has a bit more time to make friends, be social. I had time to play rugby again so I had a good social life that way too.”
“Then, since you’re bound to wonder,” he paused, his voice starting to crack, “I too got married – another teacher called Nadine. She taught at a school across the city in Tours. I met her at a quatorze juillet dance and we married eighteen months later. I think her parents were a little worried about her marrying a Brit but in the end I won them over. My parents, well they said nothing about me marrying a French girl whatever they thought, but at least they came to the wedding and managed to stop themselves being an embarrassment to Nadine’s parents.”
“So you’re married then?”
“No, Nadine was killed in a hit and run on her way home from work two years after we got married. ” Paul went silent for a minute, gazing at the floor, his eyes watering. “It’s a painful memory, the policeman coming to the door…..”
“She was pregnant with twins….. I found out it was twins after the accident…..”
Jeanette put her hand on his arm.
“I’m so sorry,” she answered gently as a tear rolled down his cheek. “Shall we go and sit in the garden as it’s pretty warm this evening. Then you can tell me as much or as little as you like and I can do the same.”
She picked up a wrap and grabbed a bottle of wine and two glasses. Paul followed her up the stairs admiring her still trim outline under her dress. They sat in a quiet corner of the garden, gently bathed in warm moonlight, sipped the wine and talked about their lives and experiences since leaving.
“Are you happy in France?” Jeanette asked after a while. “You sound fairly settled. But the loss of your wife must have hurt.”
“Oh yes. I’m settled. Of course, I miss Nadine – and the twins – and sometimes think of what could have been but the pain has got less with the years. But it was really to get away from Tours and the memories that drove me to look for a job away from the capital. So the job in Auch came up and I love it. I live in a small hamlet on the edge of the city. A really nice house with views over the countryside and a swimming pool. I had this small barn in the garden done up to make a two bed apartment which my sister and her husband and their children can use in the summer and I occasionally let it out to people I know. I’ve made lots of friends and these days I help with rugby coaching – Auch is a big rugby town – but I’m a bit too old to play and veterans rugby in France can be – well – let’s say, rough and tough! It’s a really civilised lifestyle and I enjoy it – and not far from Toulouse. But what about you? I couldn’t imagine living in a large city anymore.”
Jeanette sipped her wine and thought hard. She was quiet for a while.
“Do you know, I don’t know….. I’ve never ever really stopped to think and answer that really. I live in Fulham, have a nice flat in a reasonably quiet road, have a really interesting but busy job, I have a good circle of friends, the odd boyfriend – but nothing too serious – I’m well paid, I travel a lot. I’m just busy busy and I mostly enjoy it.”
“Yes,” Paul gently interrupted her, “But are you settled….? Do you really enjoy it? What do you do for time off, to relax, at Christmas or Easter holidays, in the summer. You must take holidays. Or does the work enjoy you rather than you enjoy the work?”
He sensed Jeanette’s discomfort at his questions.
“Oh, I go to visit my relatives or friends. Summer holidays, I normally go with friends for a week or two……But now you ask, I suppose I’m on a treadmill of my own making.”
She stopped and Paul realised that her shoulders were shaking gently in the moonlight. He took her wrap, placed it round her shoulders and have her a gentle hug. Jeanette leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Paul, do you ever think of me these days?”
“Yes, quite frequently actually…..” He squeezed her shoulder gently. “But can I ask you the same in reverse.”
“Yes, often. Can I ask a personal question?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“Do you have a girlfriend hidden away out in France?”
Paul burst into a loud chuckle. “No, I don’t. Not currently…. I had a girlfriend but that finished over a year ago.”
Jeanette gave him a peck on the cheek then snuggled into his shoulder. Paul kissed the top of her head gently and then squeezed her thinking how much he’d really liked Jeanette when they’d been together and how he’d missed her over the years even if only at times subconsciously.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Jeanette asked after a while
“Getting the train to Heathrow for a flight back to Toulouse as I have school on Monday,” Paul answered. “Would have flown to Bristol or Stansted but I needed a Sunday flight back.”
“Have you time for breakfast in the Market? Just like old times…..” Jeanette turned her face to him with a beseeching smile.
Paul looked at her face then answered, “Of course. And, of course, if you ever fancy trying a holiday in the south west of France or just popping in for a short stay……”
“I think that’s a lovely idea. But where would I stay?”
“Oh, I recommend Auch as a good centre – a private house preferably somewhere with a private swimming pool.”
“Is that an invitation?” Jeanette asked very quietly.
“Anytime you like,” Paul replied softly then kissed her for the first time in years, savouring her response, gentle at first then more passionate.
“Time for bed.” Paul said very quietly after ten minutes or so. “What time shall I see you tomorrow? I need to get the train at half eleven.”
“Half eight?”
“Suits me…. Let’s meet in the Lodge,” Paul whispered.
****************************
The 4th July, at L’Abris, and Paul poured two glasses of the lovely local chilled Cotes de Gascogne for himself and his guest before taking them out on a tray with some tapenade and rillettes de porc on bread he’d bought from the boulangerie on way back from the airport. Jeanette was standing out on the patio by the pool in her enticing sun dress and straw hat enjoying the quiet of the garden and the evening sunshine and surveying the surrounding farmland.
“Salut” Paul toasted her, “it’s so lovely to see you here.”
“Well, I think it’s just idyllic,” Jeanette replied smiling at him, ”so peaceful and beautiful. I can quite see why you love it here. I didn’t know this existed – so different to Paris or one of the big cities.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes, then Paul said,
“I’m cooking supper which we can eat out here. Then tomorrow I thought we’d go into Auch and have dinner at a really nice restaurant I know. Perhaps in a few days we could drive over to Tarbes and the Pyrenees. Otherwise, there’s the pool here…..”
“Don’t worry, Paul,” Jeanette replied, “this is so relaxing. I’m quite happy just doing very little for a few days. I think I could just truly relax here.”
She turned her face to Paul and they just smiled broadly at each other, exchanged a kiss and gingerly held hands.

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