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by Sheila Cornelius

‘Monsieur Barb’ Ed, why are you are still ‘ere? You ‘ave not gone with Madame to the airport?’

Ed looked up at the closed shutters, paint-brush in hand. If he’d stopped to ask himself that question when he first alighted in Bergerac he’d have taken the next flight back to Blighty. Still, the old man was just being neighbourly, and at least he spoke English.

‘No, Jacques, I decided against it. Not enough room in the car coming back if I went along too. Grandchildren on school holidays - I expect they’ll bring all their electronic gadgets.’

‘Ah! Les gosses!’ Jacques shrugged and smiled, then hobbled off up the street, leaving Ed to his regrets.

For a long time he’d been Edward Stirling, chief accountant. Time slipped by and retirement took him by surprise but there must have been a moment when he could have stopped the train of events. If so, he’d failed to notice.

The house in France had been Clara’s idea. Back then everyone was doing it – repairing cheap tumbledown manors in the Dordogne and talking about retirement in the sun. At least he’d had the sense to insist on a village location.

The heat was at its fiercest when Ed began painting, a battered hat shielding him from the mid-day glare. With luck and solid application he’d be finished before Clara returned from the airport. She wouldn’t appreciate his little joke, but there’d be no fuss in front of Clive, Jane and the grandchildren.

‘Sang froid’- it was a term they’d appreciate, perhaps, in what passed for a pub here. Bistro, Clara called it, the single village bar where the clean-shaven, black-suited old men had bestowed on him the soubriquet, ‘Barb’ Ed’. His beard marked him out as a foreigner, albeit the well-clipped goatee proclaimed he was no hippy. As was his wont, he’d let it pass without comment.

In England, it was ’ keeping a stiff upper lip’, a knack  he’d acquired, aged seven, at boarding school. Closing the shutters had been useful all his life; painting them was a new venture.

He was soon lost to the afternoon heat, the drowsy scent of mimosa and pine and the whirring cicadas. Clara had instructed him to wait until Clive arrived; not to go up the ladder.

She was right. His old bones had complained, but the rung against his knees kept him steady.

When the car turned into the street it was easy for the children to spot the house, distinctive against the bleached brick and faded green woodwork of its neighbours. Ed smiled as he rested on an old wicker chair. Behind him, four wooden rectangles glowed in the dusk. At his side was the empty paint can, labelled: ‘English Pillar Box Red’.