Helen stood absolutely still. The jogger was disappearing towards the turn to the RER station, a pigeon cooed in the eaves of one of the houses on the other side of the street, and there was the snuffle. And again. From behind the next door fence, Helen was sure. She walked back along the pavement, put her fingers through the wrought iron and into the black mesh, and found herself looking over a neatly clipped hedge.
A girl sat at a small table, presenting a picture of total despair. She was rocking backwards and forwards, her crossed arms gripping her sweater-clad shoulders. Helen had known Constance Gravier for as long as Tom Williams had had the house next door, but she and Constance hadn’t met for several years. Helen wasn’t often here in Sceaux; she lived in the north of England and rarely saw the Gravier family. The father had business interests which kept him away a great deal, and so far as Helen knew, Constance’s mother was now dead. As she watched in appalled silence the girl caught her breath. Helen didn’t hesitate.
“Constance?” She spoke in French, and the girl on the pretty wrought iron seat dabbed her eyes self-consciously and stood up to stare at Helen.
“Constance?” Helen repeated. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes. I am Constance Gravier. Nothing is right. Leave me alone.” The girl was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, pale skin, and a short, perfect nose. Now the dark eyes were wide. “I’m sorry. I see it’s you, Helen. I hadn’t realised you were back next door.”
“Would you like me to make you some tea?” Helen was still clutching at the mesh of the fence and she couldn’t see Constance properly now that the girl was approaching the gate.
“Where?” Constance had reappeared. Her round eyes were blinking innocently and tearfully. “Can it be in your house?”
“Of course,” Helen responded. “Come round now. You’ll have to tell me what sort of tea you like.” She was unhooking her fingers painfully. “And there are some cakes. I got them in Bourg la Reine.”
Fifteen minutes later Constance, watching Helen’s kettle boil, was deciding between chocolate praline rolls and nougat marzipan wafers. She seemed more cheered up.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as Helen fixed the tray they were to take through to the sitting room.
“I’m just seeing that the house is in order before the next set of tenants arrive,” Helen explained. The villa belonged to her sister’s husband and it was frequently let.
“It’s nice,” said Constance, glancing round, “nicer I think than ours.” The kitchen was warm and comfortable, all earth colours and unbleached wood.
“But your house is bigger,” began Helen. But she didn’t go on. Constance had started crying again and Helen, not knowing quite what to do, poured a cup of tea, then transferred the tray from the counter to the kitchen table. Almost pushing Constance on to one of the high-backed chairs she moved to the other side of the table. “If you want to, tell me what’s upsetting you.” There had been a time when Helen herself could have used the services of a good listener. She said softly, “I think it sometimes helps to talk to an outsider. You regain perspective.” For Helen herself there had been no-one.
Constance was tearing rice paper from the wafer base of a tiny chocolate and caramel shape. “I’m in an awful mess,” she said weakly, “and I’ve no one to blame but myself. I know I should go away, but I can’t bring myself to do it.” The cake now lay in pieces on her plate and she began to shred the fluted paper case.
Helen got up. She found a packet of table napkins, extracted a couple and put them near to Constance. Then she sat down again.
“I’m involved with a married man.” The other girl spoke bluntly. “Or I was. I’m breaking it off.”