“He died on the way to the hospital – a good death if ever there was one. Except that, according to my father, he did complain to the ambulance men that he hadn’t had time to finish his pudding.” – Terry Pratchett, Shaking Hands With Death.
I hadn’t been in Collobrieres in months. The pavement released a puff of dust as I stepped down. The sun was hot on my sandaled foot even before I was completely out of the bus.
It was Claire and beside her was Lynn, both grinning and waving at me from a table outside Café des Amis.
“Bonjour!” I ran across the road and threw myself down on them in a very Canadian hug. Lynn laughed, open mouthed and open-hearted in her very Pacific Northwest Coast sort of way. Claire, much more reserved, still kissed me warmly on both cheeks. I dropped my bag in the dust and draped myself over a chair, legs stretched out before me.
“Étienne! More wine!” Lynn called through the open door.
An old man, the wrinkles on his face a road map of the Côtes-d’Azur, shuffled out of the café carrying a wine bottle wrapped in jute. He stopped and looked up from his feet and his eyes traced a line up my lean legs. I sighed. I’d long ago given up trying to explain to the older French men why it was not appropriate or wanted.
“Eh, bonjour ma choute!” Étienne cried. He put the wine on the table and I leaned forward to accept his kiss on each cheek. “You are ‘ere for the summer? Or do we ‘ave you longer this time?”
“Just the summer, Étienne.” I replied.
He shook his head as if to say, why would you want to be anywhere else? I wondered that myself as I watched him shuffle back into the dark café.
Claire handed me a glass of rich red wine. “To you and the start of the summer. Now that you have arrived, it has officially begun.”
Lynn raised her glass in my direction. “Oui, you are here now and finally I can get Claire to the beach.”
Claire shrugged in that dismissive French manner. “You Anglos will swim when the water is like ice.”
Lynn snorted, leaned to me and said in a stage whisper, “She’s obviously never swum in the Pacific where we come from.”
I leaned back and savoured my wine. “So, where is Imogene? She’s always here in the afternoon.”
Lynn glared at Claire who shifted uncomfortably.
“Claire doesn’t think we should say, but you’re going to find out anyhow.”
“Find out what?”
Lynn stared intently at her wine and Claire looked away.
“Lynn, find out what?”
Lynn took a deep breath. “Imogene is sick. Really sick.”
“With what?” I asked.
“We don’t know. The doctors either didn’t believe her or they passed it off as nothing. And then she refused to go back – you know how stubborn she is – she said she would be fine. But when you see her…” Lynn’s voice trailed off.
“It started with a pain in her throat and heartburn that wouldn’t go away.” Claire added. “We all thought she just had a bad cold or flu but this is no cold. Then her hands and feet started to go from white to blue to red, especially if it was cold. And her skin.” Claire’s eyes dropped to her glass of wine.
“What’s wrong with her skin?”
“She’s itchy all the time. She’s scratched her arms and her neck raw.” Lynn answered. Claire just bit her lip and looked away. “She’s lost so much weight.”
“How much weight could she lose? She was already too skinny.” A picture of Imogene from last year flashed through my head. Sitting at this same table, a lit Gauloises hanging from her mouth, and Patrick, her shaggy, unkempt terrier lying at her feet, her clothes already hung off her – a function of too many cigarettes and too much wine.
“I don’t know. Twenty, thirty pounds maybe.” Lynn answered.
I gasped and sat up. “Twenty or thirty pounds? But that would make her… under ninety pounds?” Stunned, I slumped back. I couldn’t even picture it. I sat back up. “I have to go see her!”
“I, I don’t think you should see her today.” Claire’s voice caught as she answered.
“Think about Ayla. She hasn’t seen you in months. You two were so intense last summer and,” Lynn raised her hand to stop me as I began to protest. “I know you both agreed that it was okay for you to go off, but she really missed you last winter. She suffered a lot for it. She wouldn’t let me call you or anything. She knows how she looks now and she feels worse – she needs some time to get herself together before you go over there. Let me tell her you’re here. Let her tell us when you can go over.”
I nodded, but I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. “I guess I’d better go and open up the house. Thanks for the wine.” I stood up and swung my backpack up over my shoulder. “Étienne, can I borrow the bike?” I called into the café.
“Oui!” came his raspy old-man voice.
“Don’t go like this, Ayla.” Lynn said.
“Like what?” I answered. “Look, I’ve been travelling for hours and I’m done. I’ll – I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I took the ancient green bike from the side of the café and climbed on. As I rode away I heard Lynn call “I’ll phone you later!” I waved back without turning around.