The small Provencale cafe looked as if it had emerged from another time and Emma suddenly felt a painful longing to let herself slip completely away to that other Now.
However, Stephen’s incessant commenting on the locals pulled her back to the present.
Every fucking time.
“I bet that guy over there has come here every morning for the last 30 years to get his morning pint. And his mate—”
And on it went.
She carefully downed the last of her stale white wine. “What happened to us, Steve?”
Stephen turned toward her on the venerable cafe chair. “Did you say something, honey?”
Emma blinked and saw only the ancient bar desk behind her boyfriend, dark and squarish like a mausoleum of oak.
“I was just … wondering what year this house is from,” she said and looked down.
“Oh … ” Stephen shrugged. “I think it’s the 17th century or something.”
“—It is from 1815,” someone said to their side.
They both looked at the waitress who was removing an empty bottle and glass before a bushy white-bearded man at the neighboring table.
She smiled apologetically. “Lots of our guests ask that question. I’m so used to answering. I didn’t mean to—.” She looked at Stephen, her eyes for a split second seeming to linger at the point on his arm where ebony muscles were no longer constrained by his t-shirt.
Emma cleared her throat. “So I guess you have many English-speaking guests, then? Your accent is quite … nice.”
“We mostly have Italian this time of year.” The waitress nodded politely at the bearded man as he slowly and methodically unearthed three euros from his wallet to leave as a tip.
“And I’m from Brighton, by the way.” She pocketed the money as if they were a curious artifact and turned her full attention to Emma and Stephen.
“I see,” Emma said, glancing at Stephen. “So you work here in the summer?”
“All year round.”
Emma pondered this when Stephen interrupted her train of thought. “Can we get a coffee?”
He said that and then quickly looked away from the curves that strained the waitress’ uniform around her chest.
Emma quickly looked away from Stephen. “Uhm, yeah, coffee. That would be … nice.”
The waitress went off to get it, and Stephen looked at Emma now, eyes suddenly alight. “Maybe we should go back to the B&B after coffee? Call it a day?”
“It’s only 5 o’clock.”
“Well, I could use some R&R.” He grinned.
Emma looked at her empty wine glass and didn’t long for more of that. Coffee would be perfect. Except …
“I don’t want to go home,” she said. “Why not see the Château des Ducs de Bourbon? We missed that yesterday.”
Stephen seemed absent. “Yesterday we arrived late. And you were tired.” His dark fingers made circles on the white napkin, like some invisible Rorschach test. “Come on … ”
“There is a nice coffee bar nearby,” Emma added, crossing her arms. “Weena said it has only five-star reviews.”
“I just ordered coffee.” Stephen crossed his arms, too. He leaned back on the old chair, scouting the room. The bearded man had left but a couple of more tourists had come in and were chatting loudly.
“Well, we can have more,” Emma said. “And there is some of that great local cake, too. They don’t have it here.”
“I’m not sure I trust Weena,” Stephen said. “It hasn’t been configured correctly.”
Emma waved dismissively. “‘She’—not ‘it’.”
But okay, her PA wasn’t the best virtual PA on the market, there were spiffier prototypes. However, her computer superhero-brother had insisted that it was the one she needed for the trip because it didn’t track the hell out of every step you made, like those from Apple or Google. And it was easier to set up, too, for “average neurotypicals” as her brother had put it without blinking. Then quickly adding, “or people who don’t like setting up apps much.”
God, she loved Michael. If only he could understand how much she cared. But perhaps he could? Even with his diagnosis and—
Well, whatever. What mattered was that Michael understood her personal mission to tell the big Goo-Apple to fuck off and to be independent. So did Stephen. One area where they were in perfect alignment. And there were more, wasn’t there?
Emma saw that the waitress was heading back towards them with a small tray and two steaming coffee cups. Her professional smile was raised as well.
And Stephen’s face was one big smile in return.
“I’ll pay for everything now,” he said to the waitress, pulling out his phone and scanning the barcode on the side of the table with one swift movement. “And here’s a little tip.”
The waitress beamed at him and Emma felt a gray fog inside her, growing rapidly, spreading from a place just under her navel and filling her lungs from the bottom up. Finally it got to her sight and she saw only that grayness that made everyone appear like ghosts.
It had to be that eerie sensation of being pulled into the past, which had first hit her like an electric jolt when she entered the cafe. Something about this place made her feel out of … sync.
Just like that B&B where they had slept that night. Maybe even this whole town.
She felt her fists knotting.
Stephen is not doing anything wrong. I should—
“You don’t look well,” said the smiling waitress. “Can I get you some—”
“Okay.” She left quickly.
Stephen looked sullenly at his coffee. Outside a few cars whirred by, but otherwise a sleepiness seemed to have settled over the rustic streets of Montlucon even if there was still light in the sky.
“We should go back to Besson,” Stephen then said. “You really don’t look well.”
“I’m fine. And I don’t want to go back to … those rooms.”
She regretted that the instant she said it. In fact, she didn’t know why she said it but somehow, something there in the cozy little chateau-now-B&B filled her with dread. The feeling had been there since yesterday and she had slept badly but she had suppressed it because it was illogical.
And Emma prided herself on her logic. She wasn’t emotional. She was—
She got up. “Let’s just get out of here. Take a walk.”
Stephen looked one last time at his full coffee cup like he was a child about to leave a favorite toy behind. “Okay.”
He got up, though, and then motioned to hand Emma her jacket from another chair. But she took it herself before he could touch it.
When they emerged out on the narrow street a slight drizzle was falling. The afternoon sun was still strong, behind a smatter of clouds. Its rays made the milk-white facades of the houses appear warmer.
“It’s just a bit of cloud,” Stephen said and pulled at the collar of his own jacket. “It’ll pass soon.”
Then he turned to Emma, with genuine worry. “You know, you cried out—last night. In your sleep.”
Emma swallowed. “I did?”
“Yeah, but you fell asleep again, so I thought it was okay. I didn’t want to wake you and ask. Did you have a nightmare?”
“I … don’t remember. What did I cry?”
“—Excuse me. You speak English, right?” It was the white-bearded man again. He suddenly appeared around a corner, as if he had been standing there, outside the cafe, waiting.
“Yes?” Stephen took a step to stand in between Emma and the man. He was well into his seventies, it seemed, and wore a dusty green coat that looked too big, even for the spell of summer rain.
“I was just wondering,” the man started, then looked from side to side as if someone was following him, “ah, never mind. You probably haven’t seen her.”
“What?” Stephen looked in both directions on the street but saw no one. “Who are you looking for?”
“My wife, actually. It’s a long story. But I need her to help with the horses … ” He trailed off and looked over his shoulder, as if he had heard something from that direction now.
“Are you lost?” asked Emma, moving forward. “Can we help?”
“No, no—there is no problem.” The old man shook his head. “It’s just when I heard you talk, I remembered something and I had this brief idea that, you see … but it is all right. No harm done.”
Then he began to wander off.
“Do you think we should follow him?” Emma took Stephen by the arm. “What if he … has dementia or something?”
“It’s not our responsibility, is it?” Stephen covered her hand with his. “We should make sure you are okay first.”
“I’m fine.” Emma let him go.
“Yes.” She looked down. “Are you sure you still don’t want to go to the Château des Ducs?”
Stephen shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. “Why not?”
She smiled. “It’s right down that way, says Weena.”
“Weena is always right,” Stephen harrumphed. “But does she know what you cried last night in your sleep? Because that was really fucking weird.”
Emma looked like she had trouble breathing for a moment, then she straightened herself and took Stephen by the arm once more, almost leading him on. They walked in silence a few steps down the narrow street, past the silent white houses.
“I guess you want to tell me what I said?” she said after a while.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” Stephen said.
“It does now. Come on. Was it really that bad? Was it something … dirty?”
He grinned. “Maybe. You said ‘iron cage’.”
“‘Iron cage’?” She frowned. “That’s weird.”
“And then you said—well, cried actually—‘no!’ Several times.” They turned a corner and now they could neither see the cafe nor the old man anymore. It was like neither had ever existed.
“Maybe I dreamt I was trapped in a cage,” she suggested at length. “But I honestly don’t remember.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Stephen repeated.
“Well, for one thing—you are not trapped anywhere now, are you?”
She squeezed his arm. “No, I am not.”