When it was all over, she resigned her job, packed a case and flew to Montpellier. It was strange really. While it was all unravelling – thirty years of careful working life – she knew, at the end of it, she would need to go away for a bit. But where? Night after night, stiff with horror at the accusations levelled against her, her mind taut with McGowan’s sweaty face, she lay awake until birdsong began and the window fringed with light. The only thing that would sometimes help – if not sleep exactly, a kind of drifting wakefulness – was a systematic list of possibilities, each night a little longer like the game she used to play as a child, “I went to the shop and I bought…” Holland, Vienna, Lake Garda; Spain, Tunisia, Venice; The Canaries, Morocco. Money wouldn’t be a problem. She knew that. Whatever happened, they would pay her off; no one wants a scandal, especially in a well-known company like theirs, struggling for survival against other giants.
So it was with a breath of surprise that she found herself on a plane to the south of France less than twenty four hours after she’d messaged Annie and bought a ticket. It had all seemed so clear in the end. Walking away from the brick building that held most of her life, determined not to look back, she ran for the 381, sat down in a seat offered by a spotty youth with sideburns, and opened Facebook. And there it was.
Kate – it’s been such a time. Saw you were friends with Ali and added you. Would so love to catch up. Come see us! We are in Almeres, near Montpellier, in France. I’m at a bit of a loose end. P away a lot. Come any time…
As suburbia had jerked past – grey October people and concrete – she’d remembered; photos, some Christmases ago – a stone house, blue shutters, an olive tree. It had struck her at the time as being the kind of place you saw in tourist brochures, not the sort people actually lived in. When she got home, she dug them out of the old tin box that had held special things since her teens. They were a little creased and she’d had to hold them up to the light to see them properly. She messaged Annie.
Coming in to land, the plane shuddered and creaked in that way that precedes impending death. Kate gripped her seat. God, I’ve been through a lot. Don’t let me die as well. Not til I’ve seen Annie again, and eaten olives…For the tenth time she counted the seats to the nearest door. None. Good. Booking the seat next to the middle exit was the best thing she’d learned from her fear of flying therapy. That and the fact many peaceable people wear rucksacks.
She and Annie examined each other with wonder by the double doors near Arrivals. She supposed she had changed as much as her old friend, a shy dark eyed girl who had somehow chrysalised into an elegant woman entirely at ease with herself.
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t remember you being so tall!”
“You’re practically French now!”
They talked all the way to Almeres, spinning past fields, around hills and under leafy archways of filtered light. Kate stared at the space, the sky, tiny villages with their twists of olive trees. It was such a relief to exclaim over things other than work. Other than the latest development on the case. On McGowan and his newest angle. On her certain demise. She had worried for six months that the worst would happen. Well, the worst had happened, and here she was in France, in October, with her old friend.
Annie had negotiated a narrow street, crested a hill and pulled into a driveway edged with pots. Kate, punch drunk with exhaustion, felt herself opening the passenger door and sliding dream-like into this other world; a breath of wind, of lavender; through the gate, fields bathed in amber light. The stone house, perched on a rise above the village, was low with blue shutters. Her heart lifted with pleasure.
Inside – filled with polished wood and stone – Annie left her to rest while she prepared supper. She drowsed, aware of drifting across a sea of sunlit geraniums, tomatoes and olive oil. Until McGowan’s angry face thrust itself into her dreams in its usual way – large, red, devoid of all feeling, all humanity. Shouting, always shouting.
“Do you honestly say you were unaware of this? That you had no idea? You are the last check, Kate, the last check, before it gets to me! That is your job! How was I to know the risks if you didn’t tell me?”
She jolted into consciousness. Beads of sweat pricked her scalp. A familiar surge of antipathy towards her old boss overwhelmed her. She had never liked him – the hearty laugh, the self-interest – but now she found herself inventing his ruin. He was a hard man. The only time she’d ever seen a glimmer in him, a softness, had been when mentioning his daughter. There were no photos, no clues to the man ever having had a life, a family. But he had mentioned her once, and his whole face had changed. Kate had never forgotten.
The distant clink of china was replaced with Mozart, Kate got up, washed her face, went down.
“Ah! Bienvenue en France! How was your journey?” Pierre was an English gentleman with a French name. He was solicitous, seating her by the window, pouring wine. She smiled. Annie appeared, carrying olives and a baguette.
“I love olives! Are they from that tree?”
Pierre nodded. “It was a dry, stunted little thing,” he said, “I had to move it. Quite a tricky business. Had to prune it, dig a moat, soak the roots…but look at it now! And just taste these olives!”
They ate, reminisced, filling in the gaps, but still there was no talk of work, of how they’d really spent the years.
“What do you do, Pierre?” A different job, a safe topic.
“I’ve been seconded out actually. An airline.”
A beat. A gust of wind. The patter of rain, olives falling.
She cleared her throat, “Which one?”
He named it. “I have to travel a lot. Not so good!” His eyes shone behind steel rimmed glasses, belying his words, “But it’s mostly trouble shooting. I’m never away for long. Actually, I’m in your neck of the woods next week. Our HQ’s on your doorstep.”
Spearing asparagus, Kate was aware of her heart, pausing, stepping out, staring. Her fingers, slippery, struggled to hold her glass. How could she have travelled so far, to be in this place again?
Pierre poured wine, became expansive, “Sad case really. There’s been a complaint – bullying behaviour, a dismissal. And the gentleman concerned is now fighting for his own job. There’s a disabled daughter apparently. No mother…”
A roaring in her ears, a memory. McGowan in his office, late one night; she, thinking he’d gone, not bothering to knock. He had reacted instantly, pretending to be asleep but she had seen – the look of despair, the head lowered along a length of arm, flung out, palm up, fingers splayed like drowned sausages. She pushed aside a shred of pity. Now, at last, she had a chance. She would tell Pierre everything.
Annie served sizzling meat, gratin dauphinois.
“I was the one he dismissed. Well, I resigned in the end.”
Her voice, quiet, calm, held a steadiness she did not feel. Her hosts did not respond at once. Annie took ratatouille, Pierre a mouthful of wine, they resumed their placid eating. It was only then she realised she had not said it out loud. She had not said it at all.
“Where do you work these days?”
Kate observed her old friend over the rim of her wine glass. Her eyes, still huge, were warm and wise.
“Oh,” She replaced her glass carefully on the coaster, a slim square of wicker, “I’m between jobs at the moment. That’s why I decided to take up your invitation. How long can I stay?”
That evening, she sat at the window, looking out. The rooftops, threads of orange and red, dipped and rose into liquid indigo. There was the sound of doves. Below, the olive tree’s silver leaves trembled in twilight. She thought of her job, of the years of early starts and late returns, of the sacrifices, hours and hours of effort, of energy, of giving ‘til there was nothing left to give.
“You and I,” she said softly to the olive tree, “We were the same, really. All washed up, and nowhere to go.” She remembered something she had read in the middle of it all, derided, pushed aside.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
“I do not need revenge,” she told the olive tree, “I’m beyond that now. But it will be a long time before I can forgive him!”
But as she lay down and slept a sleep she had not known for years, she knew in a way, she already had.
The olive branch is usually a symbol of peace or victory. Greek myths tell how a dove brought an olive twig from Phoenicia to Athens, where it was planted on the Acropolis to become their first olive tree. The early Christians often allegorised peace on their sepulchres by the figure of a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak.