THE HOST (short story)

Friday 20th April

“Come in.”  The host smiles, glances round the porch and shepherds her in. “What a terrible evening.”   The heavy front door glides silently shut. “Such unseasonal weather, you must be soaked.”

“Yes, but I’m not that wet.” She replies. “I came by taxi actually; it seemed more sensible.  I’ve heard the Gendarmes round here are hot on drink-driving.  Not that I intend to drink much, of course.”

“Here, let me take your coat.”   He holds his hands up like two pegs at shoulder level.  She instinctively turns her back to him while he lifts her suede coat.  As it slides away from her arms she has the strangest feeling, an almost imperceptible suspicion, that he is leaning in just a touch too close.  She chides herself for being suspicious and turns to meet his knowing smile.

“Let me guess” he says nodding, “Samsara?  Yes?”

“Yes, it is” she says, comprehending ‘why the closeness’. “How did you know?”

“Oh, it’s just a little hobby of mine.  Perfumes. Well, the classic ones anyway.  It is actually – quite a late fragrance, by Geurlain, as, of course, you must be aware.  1989 – if memory serves, but a classic none the less.  Sadly, almost everything since the Sixties is synthetic and smells like it too.  Samsara…mmm – don’t you just love it?  Very Eastern, ylang-ylang and jasmine, with hints, but not too much, thank goodness, of sandalwood.  Very refreshing.  And so rewarding that some women of today are still wearing it.”

“It was a present.  From my husband.  Many years ago now.  But – I still wear it occasionally.  Am I the first to arrive?”  she looks round the large deserted room, a couple of white sofas, matching armchairs, a round black rug, a glass coffee-table, and very little else.

“Yes,” he drawls, “I expect it’s the weather.”

“I hope I am not too early?” she tentatively queries.

“Oh no.” he reassures her, “I too am a stickler for punctuality; such a pity others are not.  Some people think it is actually polite to turn up at least an hour late.  I am sure the others will be here soon.”

“Tell me, who else is invited?  It is just drinks, isn’t it?  I’ve eaten already.”

“Oh just a few old friends.  I have a little soiree every year around this time, just as people are coming back from the Easter break.  I invited you because you are new to the village.  Everyone is nosey really, I suppose.  A single woman in her, let me guess – early forties? moving into our little community.  Quite intriguing really.  Tell me about yourself.”

“Well, what do you want to know?”

“First names would be a start.  I hate formality.  I am Edward.  Ed to my friends, which I hope I can count on you becoming.”

“Angela, actually.  My husband…my…late husband…always wanted to retire here.  He had holidayed as a boy.  Sadly, he passed away a year ago.  I bought the house here for him really.  Silly, as he isn’t here to enjoy it, but still.  I am not sure if I will live here or just use it for holidays.  I stopped working when he passed away, but I have a reasonable income and a house in London.  That’s all really.”

“Fascinating” he languidly lets out, and, for the briefest of moments, she has an image of Leslie Phillips eyeing up some piece of totty in a Sixties romp. She reminds herself to be on her guard – but then – tells herself not to be so silly.

“What would you like to drink?”

*  * *

And they drink one and then two, or is it three, glasses of a rather good red wine.  Her mind is veering between a growing nervousness, like a monkey squatting on her shoulder, and a comforting warmth seeping through her as the wine slinks its way into her brain.

“Where is everyone?” she is trying to sound nonchalant, as if she is mildly surprised, but deep down there is this nagging concern.  She has never met her host before, the invitation had been sitting on her doormat two days ago when she came in from the market.  Here she was, to all intents and purposes, a single woman – and yet – she wasn’t really single.  She still loves and yearns for her late husband, for the comfort of his, often silent, presence, for the warmth from his side of the bed.  She is having trouble sleeping. Or – rather – she wakes in the early hours feeling desolate, abandoned, alone and cold.  She thumps the pillow in frustration, turns over, tries to read, watches some television even, but sleep refuses to draw her in, to safely harbour her.

It is only as dawn creeps through the slats of the shutters that she can close her eyes and drift towards shore.

And she is still unsure of her host.  His urbane charm, his obvious intellect, his repartee, his dazzling smile – all serve to both soothe and alarm her by turns.  He is sprawled lazily on his sofa, one leg on the floor, one stretched out full length, his fingers idly stroking the neck of his glass.  She sits opposite him, her knees, in what she now suspects was a ‘too-short’ skirt, firmly clamped together, only too aware that she must not send him confusing signals.

“I really must be going” she suddenly says, forcing herself to break the spell.  She reaches for her phone scanning recent calls for the taxi company.  She phones but the beeps ring out unheeded into the empty void.  He notices her slight panic.  “No answer?  I expect they have given up for the night.  Just like our other guests, I imagine.  Just listen to that wind, and the rain is pelting the windows like fury.  I am afraid you may be forced to stay the night.”

“What?  What are you suggesting?  I…I have to get home.” She looks across at him in alarm; he is smiling; a beaming Cheshire Cat of a smile, a self-satisfied job-done, smirk of a smile.

“My dear woman, there is no way I could have planned this, I am simply offering you the best solution.  I do live here – alone – but have two guest bedrooms ready and made up.  And despite your obvious charms I can assure you I am a gentleman.  Or, if you prefer, you can try and walk the two kilometres home.  That suede coat of yours will offer scant protection though; and will be ruined in this weather.”

“But I don’t even know you.” She protests.  “I…I don’t know what to do.”

“Relax,” he almost leers at her. “Have another glass of wine.  You are in France, we do things slowly here.  Honestly, I am your perfect host, my only desire is to make you comfortable.”

“But this is ridiculous.” She is now, really, quite frightened.  “Whatever sort of woman you think I am, I can assure you…” and then her words dry up, her mouth dries up, her brain seizes up, she reaches for the glass her host has silently re-filled.  “I don’t know what to do.  I’ve had too much wine already.  I don’t know what to think.  Please…”

“Please what?” he smiles strangely at her.  “Look, you are new here.  This is not quite what it seems.”  Her heart is pounding, she thinks she might be having a panic attack.  She wasn’t ready for dating, for even thinking about another man.  Another relationship?  The thought horrifies her.  It feels like betrayal.  Surely, it hasn’t come to this. She only buried her husband a year ago.  Not so soon, surely – not so soon.  Could she say no?  Of course; she has to say no.  But suddenly she feels desperately lonely.  Her whole life is lonely.  She nursed her husband for four years.  Four long years.  Five now, with no loving, no touch of gentleness, no passion at all.  Surely, this isn’t how the evening is destined to end.  Why, oh why had she come?  Why had she had so much to drink?  Confused, lonely, scared, wary of her host, and yet, and yet….

“Listen, one thing you are obviously not aware of.  I do love the company of women.  I have always worshipped them; their beauty, their elegance, the way their perfume melds with their own smell.  But….”

“Oh please….” She almost cries, “what are you trying to say?”

“My dear.  Much as I can see how splendid you are, how, I almost said, desirable.  The simple truth is – that I am not attracted to women.  Not in that way, anyway.  I am, what you might call a passive gay.  I only desire my own sex; though I have rarely actually consummated my fantasies.  I prefer to remain sublimely celibate.”

She breathes an audible sigh of relief.  “Oh, how silly of me.  You must think me so rude, you have been the perfect host, I must admit.  It must just be the wine making me so jumpy.  I am truly sorry.”  She almost laughs, embarrassed at her own stupidity, of course he was gay, it was obvious, all that perfume nonsense – and takes another gulp of wine.  “Perhaps I had better stay the night after all.  I’m feeling quite tipsy. Would you kindly show me my room – If that it is okay?  I mean, I am so sorry I misjudged the situation.”

“Please don’t apologise, it’s an easy mistake.” putting his glass down beside her empty one.  “let me show you the way.”

As he opens the door to her bedroom the host leans in for one more heady draught of Samsara while his right hand slides down and gently caresses her bottom.