She's eighteen months old. Two years ago, she was twenty-five years old.
They made love slowly but it was a hot afternoon and soon their bodies were slick. Laurent Masson was a tall man with no fat on his sinewy frame; dark-haired, dark-skinned, dark dirt beneath his fingernails. When she'd first seen him, Stephanie had thought he looked slightly seedy, which she liked. She, by contrast, had never looked more wholesome, which she also liked. Plump breasts, the curved suggestion of a belly, a dimple in the soft flesh above each buttock. She'd allowed her hair to grow; thick and dark, it fell between her shoulders down half her spine. Summer sun had tanned her normally pale skin, a healthy diet had improved her complexion.
The first-floor bedroom was small; a high ceiling, floorboards worn smooth, two tatty Yemeni rugs, a narrow double bed with a wrought-iron frame. On one wall, there was a mottled full-length mirror. On the opposite wall, there were six sepia photographs of Provence's brutal beauty.
Masson was on his back, Stephanie above him, his body between her thighs. Slowly, she rocked back and forth, trailing her fingertips across his chest and stomach. Neither of them spoke and there was no hint of a breeze to cool them. When she came, she closed her eyes, dropped her head back and bit her fleshy lower lip.
Later, Masson smoked a cigarette, rolling his ash onto a dirty china saucer. Stephanie stood by the window, naked and damp. Her gaze followed the land, falling away from the farmhouse, across the vineyard and the dirt track thatbisected it. The vines shimmered in the heat. Somewhere at the bottom of the valley, screened by emerald trees, there was the road. To the right, Entrecasteaux, to the left, Salernes. Beyond either, the real world.
"Last night, the dogs were barking all down the valley."
Behind her, Masson shifted, the bedsprings creaking. "They kept you awake?"
She nodded. "Some were howling."
"You should have spent the night with me."
"Actually, I liked it. It sounded...sad." She crossed her arms. "Sad but beautiful."
"Will I see you later?"
"If you want to."
"Do you want to?"
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. I never know what you think."
Laurent leaves. From the yard, I watch his old Fiat lurch along the track, kicking up clouds of golden dirt. When the dust has settled, Igo inside and make tea. The kitchen is cool and dark; a stone floor, terracotta walls, a heavy oak table flanked by benches. Bees murmur by the small square window over the sink. French windows open onto a terrace. A blanket of greenery laid over wooden beams provides dappled shade. Behind the house, olive trees are organized along terraces that climb the hill.
The farm belongs to a thirty-five-year-old German investment banker who was transferred from Frankfurt to Tokyo eighteen months ago. Initially, I rented it for six months through an agency in Munich. That was just over a year ago; I'm seven weeks into my third rental period. The roof leaks in places, some of the plasterwork is crumbling, the windows and doors are ill-fitting. But I don't mind. In fact, I prefer it this way. It feels more like a home. Then again, how would I know? I've lived in too many places to count but not one of them has been a home.
When the tea is ready, I take it outside. The fragrance of summer is as strong as its color, scents of citrus and lavender envelop me. I love days like this as much as the severed days of mid-December, when fierce winds scrape the harsh landscape, when rain explodes from pewter clouds that seem only just out of reach. Then, the dusty track turns to glycerin, cutting me off from the road. I always enjoy the artificial isolation that follows.
There is a large fireplace in the sitting room and a good supply of logs in the lean-to behind the outhouse. For me, there is a childish comfort in being warm and dry as I listen to the storm outside. I was raised in north Northumberland, close to the border with Scotland. Wild weather was a feature of my childhood. More than a mere memory, it's a part of me.
That's the thing about me, I suppose. I'm a collection of parts that never adds up to a whole. With me, two plus two comes to five. Or three. Or anything except four.
As far as the people around here are concerned, I am Stephanie Schneider, a Swiss with no parents, no siblings, no baggage. I live off a meager inheritance. I spend my days reading, drawing, walking. I came from nowhere and one day I'll return there. That's what's expected by those who gossip about me. Apparently, I've slept with a couple of men in the area - surprising choices, some say - and now I'm seeing Masson, the mechanic from Salernes. Another outsider, he's from Marseille. The local word is, it's a casual relationship.
This happens to be true. It's because I can't cope with commitment. Not yet - it's too early for me - maybe not ever. But I am making progress.
I read my book for ten minutes - The Murdered House by Pierre Magnan - and then lay it to one side. From where I'm sitting, I can see my laptop on the fridge. There's a fine layer of dust on the lid. It must be nearly a month since I last switched it on. In the beginning, it was two or three times a day. Slowly but surely, I'm severing my ties to the old world. With each passing day, I feel increasingly regenerated. But this process has not been without its setbacks...
Chameleon. Copyright © by Mark Burnell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Title: Chameleon Poster
Author(s): Mark Burnell
ISBN: 0-00-765962-8 / 978-0-00-765962-3 (UK edition)
Publisher: Harper Collins Pb