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By the time I returned to the Savoie, the rain had finally stopped, and there was a streak of blue sky to offer some hope the day would improve.
The ship was not crowded, the possibility of bad weather perhaps holding back potential passengers. Of those I saw, a number of them would be aboard for the lunch by Phillippe Chevrier. I thought about it, but the Concierge had told me about several restaurants in Yvoire and had given me a hand-drawn map of the village. I think he came from the area because he spoke with the pride and knowledge of a resident.
I was looking down from the upper deck observing the last of the boarding passengers when I saw a woman, notable for her red coat and matching shoes, making a last-minute dash to get on board just before the gangway was removed. In fact, her ungainly manner of boarding had also captured a few of the other passenger’s attention. Now they would have something else to talk about, other than the possibility of further rain.
I saw her smile at the deckhand, but he did not smile back. He was not impressed with her bravado, perhaps because of possible injury. He looked at her ticket then nodded dismissively, and went back to his duties in getting the ship underway. I was going to check the departure time, but I, like the other passengers, had my attention diverted to the woman in red.
From what I could see there was something about her. It struck me when the light caught her as she turned to look down the deck, giving me a perfect profile. I was going to say she looked foreign, but here, as in almost anywhere in Europe, that described just about everyone. Perhaps I was just comparing her to Phillipa, so definitively British, whereas this woman was very definitely not.
She was perhaps in her 30’s, slim or perhaps the word I’d use was lissom, and had the look and manner of a model. I say that because Phillipa had dragged me to most of the showings, whether in Milan, Rome, New York, London, or Paris. The clothes were familiar, and in the back of my mind, I had a feeling I’d seen her before.
Or perhaps, to me, all models looked the same.
She looked up in my direction, and before I could divert my eyes, she locked on. I could feel her gaze boring into me, and then it was gone as if she had been looking straight through me. I remained out on deck as the ship got underway, watching her disappear inside the cabin. My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to keep an eye out for her.
I could feel the coolness of the air as the ship picked up speed, not that it was going to be very fast. With stops, the trip would take nearly two hours to get to my destination. It would turn back almost immediately, but I was going to stay until the evening when it returned at about half eight. It would give me enough time to sample the local fare, and take a tour of the medieval village.
Few other passengers ventured out on the deck, most staying inside or going to lunch. After a short time, I came back down to the main deck and headed forward. I wanted to clear my head by concentrating on the movement of the vessel through the water, breathing in the crisp, clean air, and let the peacefulness of the surroundings envelope me.
It didn’t work.
I knew it wouldn’t be long before I started thinking about why things hadn’t worked, and what part I played in it. And the usual question that came to mind when something didn’t work out. What was wrong with me?
I usually blamed it on my upbringing.
I had one of those so-called privileged lives, a nanny till I was old enough to go to boarding school, then sent to the best schools in the land. There I learned everything I needed to be the son of a Duke, or, as my father called it in one of his lighter moments, nobility in waiting.
Had this been five or six hundred years ago, I would need to have sword and jousting skills, or if it had been a few hundred years later a keen military mind. If nothing else I could ride a horse, and go on hunts, or did until they became not the thing to do.
I learned six languages, and everything I needed to become a diplomat in the far-flung British Empire, except the Empire had become the Commonwealth, and then, when no-one was looking, Britain’s influence in the world finally disappeared. I was a man without a cause, without a vocation, and no place to go.
Computers were the new vogue and I had an aptitude for programming. I guess that went hand in hand with mathematics, which although I hated the subject, I excelled in. Both I and another noble outcast used to toss ideas around in school, but when it came to the end of our education, he chose to enter the public service, and I took a few of those ideas we had mulled over and turned them into a company.
About a year ago, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. There were so many zeroes on the end of it I just said yes, put the money into a very grateful bank, and was still trying to come to terms with it.
Sadly, I still had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. My parents had asked me to come back home and help manage the estate, and I did for a few weeks. It was as long as it took for my parents to drive me insane.
Back in the city, I spent a few months looking for a mundane job, but there were very few that suited the qualifications I had, and the rest, I think I intimidated the interviewer simply because of who I was. In that time I’d also featured on the cover of the Economist, and through my well-meaning accountant, started involving myself with various charities, earning the title ‘philanthropist’.
And despite all of this exposure, even making one of those ubiquitous ‘eligible bachelor’ lists, I still could not find ‘the one’, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Phillipa seemed to fit the bill, but in time she proved to be a troubled soul with ‘Daddy’ issues. I knew that in building a relationship compromise was necessary, but with her, in the end, everything was a compromise and what had happened was always going to be the end result.
It was perhaps a by-product of the whole nobility thing. There was a certain expectation I had to fulfill, to my peers, contemporaries, parents and family, and those who either liked or hated what it represented. The problem was, I didn’t feel like I belonged. Not like my friend from schooldays, and now obscure acquaintance, Sebastian. He had been elevated to his Dukedom early when his father died when he was in his twenties. He had managed to fade from the limelight and was rarely mentioned either in the papers or the gossip columns. He was one of the lucky ones.
I had managed to keep a similarly low profile until I met Phillipa. From that moment, my obscurity disappeared. It was, I could see now, part of a plan put in place by Phillipa’s father, a man who hogged the limelight with his daughter, to raise the profile of the family name and through it their businesses. He was nothing if not the consummate self-advertisement.
Perhaps I was supposed to be the last piece of the puzzle, the attachment to the establishment, that link with a class of people he would not normally get in the front door. There was nothing refined about him or his family, and more than once I’d noticed my contemporaries cringe at the mention of his name, or any reference of my association with him.
Yet could I truthfully say I really wanted to go back to the obscurity I had before Phillipa For all her faults, there were times when she had been fun to be with, particularly when I first met her when she had a certain air of unpredictability. That had slowly disappeared as she became part of her father’s plan for the future. She just failed to see how much he was using her.
Or perhaps, over time, I had become cynical.
I thought about calling her. It was one of those moments of weakness when I felt alone, more alone than usual.
I diverted my attention back to my surroundings and the shoreline. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman in the red coat, making a move. The red coat was like a beacon, a sort of fire engine red. It was not the sort of coat most of the women I knew would wear, but on her, it looked terrific. In fact, her sublime beauty was the one other attribute that was distinctly noticeable, along with the fact her hair was short, rather than long, and jet black.
I had to wrench my attention away from her.
A few minutes later several other passengers came out of the cabin for a walk around the deck, perhaps to get some exercise, perhaps checking up on me, or perhaps I was being paranoid. I waited till they passed on their way forward, and I turned and headed aft.
I watched the wake sluicing out from under the stern for a few minutes, before retracing my steps to the front of the ship and there I stood against the railing, watching the bow carve its way through the water. It was almost mesmerizing. There, I emptied my mind of thoughts about Phillipa, and thoughts about the woman in the red coat.
Until a female voice behind me said, “Having a bad day?”
I started, caught by surprise, and slowly turned. The woman in the red coat had somehow got very close me without my realizing it. How did she do that? I was so surprised I couldn’t answer immediately.
“I do hope you are not contemplating jumping. I hear the water is very cold.”
Closer up, I could see what I’d missed when I saw her on the main deck. There was a slight hint of Chinese, or Oriental, in her particularly around the eyes, and of her hair which was jet black. An ancestor twice or more removed had left their mark, not in a dominant way, but more subtle, and easily missed except from a very short distance away, like now.
Other than that, she was quite possibly Eastern European, perhaps Russian, though that covered a lot of territory. The incongruity of it was that she spoke with an American accent, and fluent enough for me to believe English was her first language.
Usually, I could ‘read’ people, but she was a clean slate. Her expression was one of amusement, but with cold eyes. My first thought, then, was to be careful.
“No. Not yet.” I coughed to clear my throat because I could hardly speak. And blushed, because that was what I did when confronted by a woman, beautiful or otherwise.
The amusement gave way to a hint of a smile that brightened her demeanor as a little warmth reached her eyes. “So that’s a maybe. Should I change into my lifesaving gear, just in case?”
It conjured up a rather interesting image in my mind until I reluctantly dismissed it.
“Perhaps I should move away from the edge,” I said, moving sideways until I was back on the main deck, a few feet further away. Her eyes had followed me, and when I stopped she turned to face me again. She did not move closer.
I realized then she had removed her beret and it was in her left side coat pocket. “Thanks for your concern …?”
“Thanks for your concern, Zoe. By the way, my name is John.”
She smiled again, perhaps in an attempt to put me at ease. “I saw you earlier, you looked so sad, I thought …”
“I might throw myself overboard?”
“An idiotic notion I admit, but it is better to be safe than sorry.”
Then she tilted her head to one side then the other, looking intently at me. “You seem to be familiar. Do I know you?”
I tried to think of where I may have seen her before, but all I could remember was what I’d thought earlier when I first saw her; she was a model and had been at one of the showings. If she was, it would be more likely she would remember Phillipa, not me. Phillipa always had to sit in the front row.
“Probably not.” I also didn’t mention the fact she may have seen my picture in the society pages of several tabloid newspapers because she didn’t look the sort of woman who needed a daily dose of the comings and goings, and, more often than not, scandal associated with so-called celebrities.
She gave me a look, one that told me she had just realized who I was. “Yes, I remember now. You made the front cover of the Economist. You sold your company for a small fortune.”
Of course. She was not the first who had recognized me from that cover. It had raised my profile considerably, but not the Sternhaven’s. That article had not mentioned Phillipa or her family. I suspect Grandmother had something to do with that, and it was, now I thought about it, another nail in the coffin that was my relationship with Phillipa.
“I wouldn’t say it was a fortune, small or otherwise, just fortunate.” Each time, I found myself playing down the wealth aspect of the business deal.
“Perhaps then, as the journalist wrote, you were lucky. It is not, I think, a good time for internet-based companies.”
The latter statement was an interesting fact, one she read in the Financial Times which had made that exact comment recently.
“But I am boring you.” She smiled again. “I should be minding my own business and leaving you to your thoughts. I am sorry.”
She turned to leave and took a few steps towards the main cabin.
“You’re not boring me,” I said, thinking I was letting my paranoia get the better of me. It had been Sebastian on learning of my good fortune, who had warned me against ‘a certain element here and abroad’ whose sole aim would be to separate me from my money. He was not very subtle when he described their methods.
But I knew he was right. I should have let her walk away.
She stopped and turned around. “You seem nothing like the man I read about in the Economist.”
A sudden and awful thought popped into my head. Those words were part of a very familiar opening gambit. “Are you a reporter?”
I was not sure if she looked surprised, or amused. “Do I look like one?”
I silently cursed myself for speaking before thinking, and then immediately ignored my own admonishment. “People rarely look like what they are.”
I saw the subtle shake of the head and expected her to take her leave. Instead she astonished me.
“I fear we have got off on the wrong foot. To be honest, I’m not usually this forward, but you seemed like you needed cheering up when probably the opposite is true. Aside from the fact this excursion was probably a bad idea. And,” she added with a little shrug, “perhaps I talk too much.”
I was not sure what I thought of her after that extraordinary admission. It was not something I would do, but it was an interesting way to approach someone and have them ignoring their natural instinct. I would let Sebastian whisper in my ear for a little longer and see where this was going.
“Oddly enough, I was thinking the same thing. I was supposed to be traveling with my prospective bride. I think you can imagine how that turned out.”
“She’s not here?”
“She’s in the cabin?” Her eyes strayed in that direction for a moment then came back to me. She seemed surprised I might be traveling with someone.
“No. She is back in England, and the wedding is off. So is the relationship. She dumped me by text.”
OK, why was I sharing this humiliating piece of information with her? I still couldn’t be sure she was not a reporter.
She motioned to an empty seat, back from the edge. No walking the plank today. She moved towards it and sat down. She showed no signs of being cold, nor interested in the breeze upsetting her hair. Phillipa would be having a tantrum about now, being kept outside, and freaking out over what the breeze might be doing to her appearance.
I wondered, if only for a few seconds if she used this approach with anyone else. I guess I was a little different, a seemingly rich businessman alone on a ferry on Lake Geneva, contemplating the way his life had gone so completely off track.
She watched as I sat at the other end of the bench, leaving about a yard between us. After I leaned back and made myself as comfortable as I could, she said, “I have also experienced something similar, though not by text message. It is difficult, the first few days.”
“I saw it coming.”
“I did not.” She frowned, a sort of lifeless expression taking over, perhaps brought on by the memory of what had happened to her. “But it is done, and I moved on. Was she the love of your life?”
OK, that was unexpected.
When I didn’t answer, she said, “I am sorry. Sometimes I ask personal questions without realizing what I’m doing. It is none of my business.” She shivered. “Perhaps we should go back inside.”
She stood, and held out her hand. Should I take it and be drawn into her web? I thought of Sebastian. What would he do in this situation?
I took her hand in mine and let her pull me gently to my feet. “Wise choice,” she said, looking up at the sky.
It just started to rain.
© Charles Heath 2015-2020