Enrol today, said the large banner tied to the railings of the village hall. Why not? She could do with some stimulation. Kim scanned the list of courses on offer but nothing really appealed to her. She was about to turn on her heels and walk away when she spotted a poster looking for volunteers to join a French exchange society. It turns out that her Essex village has a French twin. That’s it, she thought. Perfect!

      “What do you mean you’ve signed us up?” asked Tony.
Her husband wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the whole French exchange thing. He didn’t mind the odd wine tasting event but as far as hosting a family was concerned she was to rule them out, understood?
      This was exactly the reaction Kim expected. Honestly, at times she wanted to grab him and give him a good shake. Well it was too bad because she’d already invited the Solanger family - mother, father and teenage son - to stay with them.  As a matter of fact, they were due to arrive at the end of next week.
      “But I don’t want to put anyone up,” he said as Kim broke the news to him over dinner. “I mean, what do we even know about these people?”  Kim rolled her eyes and told him he was being an almighty bore. Anyway, it was too late to back out now.  She just hoped he wouldn’t spoil things.
       She needn’t have worried. When the Solanger family arrived, Tony was charm personified.  He looked genuinely captivated as Yvette Solanger launched into a detailed description of her sleepy Breton village. The square in front of the town hall was the real heart of the village. You’d find everything you needed there, explained Yvette: a boulangerie, charcuterie, newsagent and a small café. Tony said he could picture it all – the narrow, cobbled streets and half-timbered houses, every window bursting with brightly coloured geraniums.
      “It sounds idyllic,” he said.
      Kim thought it sounded even drearier than her own village. She was kicking herself for not bothering to find out the exact location of the twinning.  She had assumed it would be somewhere warm, sophisticated and sunny, like Provence. Now that she knew it was windswept, rainy Brittany she would definitely give the return exchange a miss. Yvette was about to produce some photographs of her beloved village from her handbag when Kim interrupted.
      She ran through the sight-seeing itinerary for the next few days. Tomorrow, they would sample the Essex countryside (she’d already worked out a route, Tony would drive). In the evening they would join the other host families and their French guests for celebratory drinks at the local pub. On Saturday she and Yvette would take a shopping trip to London. Kim was desperate for some retail therapy.
      “Ok with you Yvette?”  But Yvette didn’t seem very keen to leave her husband and son behind, or go shopping. Kim told her not to worry about the men; they’d be fine on their own. While the girls were hitting the stores they could enjoy a proper boy’s day out. Yvette nodded mutely but still didn’t look convinced.
      Kim was feeling queasy. She’d been stuck in the back seat between Yvette’s lardy husband and her fidgety, pock-faced son for hours now. The car was filled with Yvette’s perfume, a heady infusion of lavender and musk. Kim hated musk. Yvette was revelling in every tiny detail of the unfolding countryside. She alerted Tony to a pheasant that strayed into the path of the car and sighed in delight when she spotted the wild flowers that had sprung up in the hedgerows. Kim was craning her neck to see through the gap between the front seats. The acid yellow of the rapeseed fields was hurting her eyes, even with her sunglasses on.
      Yvette listened intently to Tony’s running commentary on the local history but Kim had heard it more times than she cared to remember. Occasionally Yvette would lean towards him and ask him to repeat something more slowly. He would give her a quick sideways glance and smile before patiently obliging. Her taut jaw line and chiselled cheekbones looked even more attractive in profile, thought Kim. Yvette handed round boiled sweets. Seeing Tony struggle to unwrap his and drive at the same time, she offered to do it for him. He parted his lips and she delicately placed the sweet in his mouth. Yvette’s son proceeded to grind and crunch his way through a never ending stash of fruit bon bons. By the time they arrived home Kim was ready to throttle each and every one of them.
      They got back much later than Kim had planned which left her with very little time to freshen up.  She was only halfway through speed painting her toe nails Fiesta Pink when there was a knock on the door. Yvette wanted to know if she should change her outfit for the visit to the pub. Her eyes widened as she took in the tangled heap of clothes on top of the bed. Kim was having a crisis: she couldn’t choose between white jeans and silk top or sundress and strappy sandals.
      “Oh it’s very informal there. Wear whatever you feel comfortable in,” said Kim as she plugged in her curling tongs.
      They were all waiting for her in the kitchen when she finally reappeared. The men were drinking beer; Yvette was finishing off a glass of red wine. None of them had bothered to change.
      “Is everyone ready to go?” asked Kim.
      “We’ve been ready for ages,” said Tony. “We were just waiting for you.”
He didn’t comment on her outfit.
      A babble of French and English voices greeted them as they entered the pub. Some of the families were already seated on benches either side of a long, oak table. A small, rosy cheeked woman beckoned them over. It was Judy, the triumphant organiser of the exchange visit. She bustled around making introductions and checking that everyone had a menu. Tony said he’d get the drinks in. He was halfway to the bar when he suddenly turned and made his way back to the table.
      “Sorry Kim, what did you say you’d have?”
      “I didn’t. You never asked.”
       Tony returned with a tray of drinks and took his seat across the table next to Yvette. Kim did her best to converse with Monsieur Solanger but he seemed more interested in hoovering up the large portion of steak and kidney pie that had just arrived. Everyone around her was clearly having a great time but she needed a few glasses of wine before she could even begin to unwind. Several Pinot Grigios later, she was having a roaring time! The pub had laid on entertainment and as soon as the group struck up, she was first on the floor. She tried to prise Tony away from his new friend but he shook his head. So she turned her attention to the other men at the table. By the end of the night she had succeeded in dragging most of them on to the dance floor, including Monsieur Solanger. She shouted loudly over the music that, for such a large man, he was surprisingly light on his feet.
      When they got home she told Tony she thought the evening had been a great success. He clearly thought otherwise. He pulled her to one side and muttered something about spilt drinks, making a spectacle of herself, showing him up in front of their guests. What a killjoy. All she’d done was have a good time and as for embarrassing him… What about him embarrassing her? He’d done nothing but moon over that French trollop from the day she arrived. Kim pushed him away and made her way upstairs. She woke up a few hours later, fully clothed on top of the bed, with a stiff neck and a parched mouth. As she wandered down to the kitchen for a glass of water she could hear muffled voices coming from the living room.  Yvette and Tony were nestling close to each other on the sofa; their empty glasses sat on the coffee table. When Kim entered the room, they shifted further apart. Kim’s stomach lurched.
      “This is all very cosy,” she said.
Yvette blushed.
      “How come you two are up so late?”
Tony said they had simply lost track of time. Kim tersely suggested that they should call it a night and reminded Yvette about catching the early morning train into London. Yvette turned to Tony.
      “Actually, we’ve had a little chat about that,” said Tony.
      “Oh, have you now?”
Yvette shrugged apologetically.
      “Yeh, I was thinking that it might be more fun if we all stay here,” said Tony, “maybe wander down to the market together.”
      Every last Friday of the month was French market day in their village. Tony had never shown an interest before but now it seemed that he couldn’t wait to show Yvette around (or show her off?) and try out his pigeon French on the market stall holders.
      “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Kim. “Why would Yvette want to go to an English version of a French market when she can get the real thing back home?”
But Yvette said she’d love to. She offered to cook dinner for them that evening as a way of thanking them both for their hospitality and said she’d make a list of all the fresh ingredients she needed. So it was all decided, was it? Over their little ‘chat’. What about Kim’s plans? Nobody had given a second thought as to what she wanted. Kim had really been looking forward to her retail fix. God knows, she needed it. But now, all her plans had been sidelined. A bit like herself, really. She wanted to twist Yvette’s swan-like neck until she squealed.
      Kim woke up the following morning with a dull, throbbing headache. The house was eerily quiet and it took her a while in her fragile state to register that it was, in fact, empty. Right then, to hell with the lot of them; she’d make her own arrangements!  But first, she needed to top the car up with petrol. She spotted them on her way back from the garage, strolling down the street, arms linked. No sign of the husband or son.
      Kim hesitated for a second then pressed the accelerator to the floor and drove straight at the market. When she came to a standstill she was lodged firmly in the middle of the bakery stall. A woman cautiously peered into the car. She could see that Kim was moving and that she had a nasty cut to her head. One shopper called for an ambulance; another brought out a chair from a nearby house for an elderly woman to rest on. Kim’s car had stopped just short of her tartan shopping trolley and the old lady was in shock. In all the commotion nobody noticed the tall man with sandy coloured hair who strode up to the car and tapped the side window. 
      “What the hell are you playing at?” yelled Tony.
Kim wound the window down.
      “What am I playing at?”
The sight of her enraged husband, suddenly struck her as extremely funny. She began laughing convulsively. Kim was still laughing when Yvette surfaced, clutching her shopping list, from under a mound of croissants.



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