Look Back To Love
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by Vin Packer
Description: Springtime in France, cruel in its beauty, tore them apart. Six people on a vacation in the hopes of redeeming their seemingly lost lives: Todd Phelps--the American newspaper columnist, whose drive for ambition has left him frustrated and discontent; Fran Phelps--his wife, who feels that having been married to Todd did not fulfill her dreams of marriage and family; Edward Allen--the aspiring writer, who believed that his detachment from humanity was because he is not capable of feeling love; Janet Carew--the mysterious Englishwoman, forever seeking what she believes to be love and somehow finding it; Henry Carew--her grotesque husband, outwardly appearing to enjoy his wife's infidelity; and--Philip Carew--the lonely misguided son, who had a reason for his bizarre attachment to his mother. It drew Todd into a vortex of destructive, wanton passion--for another woman. It gave Fran a glimpse of the forbidden and terrible paths of desire. Then France, mistress of the world, taught them the deeper of meaning of love. Their relationships intertwine, and they will have to embrace these demons in order to survive! A novel poignant and searing, by Vin Packer, author of Spring Fire and Dark Intruders. This book was originally published as a Gold Medal paperback original in 1953.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, 1953
eBookwise Release Date: September 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [211 KB]
Reading time: 136-190 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
Todd Phelps slammed the carriage of his typewriter back and pressed the margin key.
He said, "For God's sake, I don't have to go running in and out of the ocean to enjoy it, do I?"
His wife sat on the edge of the wide iron bed wearing shorts, cuffed white ones that hugged her thighs and set off the deep bronze color of her slim ankles and legs, her narrow midriff, the smooth shoulders and thin arms, her fine even neck, and her face, soft and classic, younger than her thirty-six years. She was rubbing her short blonde hair with a long red Turkish towel.
"I wasn't suggesting," she answered him, "that you run in and out. You haven't even been in once!"
Todd sat on the same bed with his back to her, balancing the portable precariously on his knees. His yellow linen slacks had smudges of carbon-paper stain up near his belt, and so did the front of his blue polo shirt. He had bought a new ribbon and a dozen sheets of carbon before they left the States and this afternoon was the first time he had used them. His hands were large, like his body, with great thick fingers that were clumsy working the small machine. He wished he were back in New York, where he could dictate the column. That was the lesser of his reasons for wanting to be home. There was something grotesque about this effort Fran and he were making to enjoy themselves in a pint-sized French village, stagnating with peace and quiet. It had not been his idea, and if it had he would have liked Paris, Rome, even London, where there was life, the noise of idiot horns and the noise that people make. But here! Here his nerves were shredded to bits, and this was the vacation that was to salvage--that was the word, all right--to salvage a marriage of fourteen years, his marriage and Fran's.
He began to bang on the keys, the words coming automatically:
TALKING WITH TODD
I was awakened this morning by the sound of oxen toiling on the dirt road below our window in the inn Itsas Rendia. My watch was strapped to the iron bedpost in our room, and while my beautiful b.h. slept on, I reached for it and saw that it was six o'clock.
Bidart is the name of the village. Bidart...?
"How long before you'll be finished with that, Todd?"
His jaw set rigid, his fingers knotted into fists. She was shaking the bed, pushing the towel through her hair vigorously. He could see her from over his shoulder, and he had a sudden urge to swat her forward on her face. Instead, he continued, slower now.
is a basque village in Southern France, close to Spain, clinging to the Bay of Biscay, oblivious of the rowdy, honky-tonk ways of nearby Biarritz. This "is the...?
land of lost content," as Housman might have put it, the blue remembered hills, the spires and...?
"Todd, I asked you a question!"
"When will you finish that?"
He said quickly, "When you shut up!" The words in front of him suddenly had no meaning. He could not think of the rest of his reference. He said to her, "God, you've messed this up! I don't know what the hell I'm trying to say now!"
The bed stopped jiggling. Todd waited. He turned around, holding his typewriter steady, and saw her back, stiff, erect, her head held high, the yellow hair a mess of tangled half-dry curls. He frowned before he made his voice lower, steadier.
"It's just that I have to finish this, Fran."
Still she did not answer.
"I'm sorry, Fran."
"You're always sorry!" She slapped the towel against the side of the bed and stood up and walked across the room to the window. Todd started to speak but she cut in. "You had a whole day to do that damn column! All morning! I didn't bother you all morning, I was swimming. Running in and out of the ocean, if you like! What in the name of heaven were you doing?"
He slid the typewriter off his knees and crossed his legs, reached for a match, a cigarette.
"I was at the station, post office, store, then lunch."
"Then your nap!" she snapped.
"That's right. Then my nap. After lunch."
"Did you find out about the busses to Biarritz?"
"On the hour. You can get the last one at--"
She said, "I thought so! You're going to wreck it right on the first day. You can't even wait to wreck everything!"
He sucked on the cigarette. "Is there anything wrong with Biarritz?"
"I thought when we began this trip we agreed, Todd."
He shrugged his shoulders and watched the smoke spiral up, mingle with the late afternoon sun rays from the window. Far out there was the ocean, down from the hill, and he could follow the path with his eyes, see the sand and the green waves spitting at the sand, the cloister of jagged rocks at one end of the shore. He did not have to stand to see the view. The long windows in the room opened onto it and the view kept the drab yellow and green wallpapered room from being ordinary, plain, and third-rate. To the left of him, near the door, behind the screen, the white sink with its yellow pipes, the three-legged stool, cracked on the seat, the immense white pitcher with the pansy painted on its side, and the ubiquitous French bidet could be forgotten, solely because of what could be seen from those windows. The bath was down the hall, way down at the end, and it was not easy to find the woman to run the water, not likely that the water would be warm. Still, it was the best, the only inn in the village. Bidart was that kind of village.
Fran had been silent momentarily, allowing him those few seconds of reverie before she began again. "Do we really need it, Todd? Do we need the glitter, the drinks, the music, the everlasting night life to keep us happy? Todd, isn't that what we've always had, what's been the cause of us, of the way we are now, Todd? Don't you see?"
"All right," he answered her, "all right, Fran. We won't go to Biarritz."
"If you want to go," she said, "I don't want to stop you. I'll go with you, Todd. But it just seems..." Her words trailed off, leaving the sentence dead in the middle.
He said, "I don't want to go."
"That why you looked up the bus schedules?"
"Drop it, Fran! Will you drop it!" Todd stubbed the cigarette in the ash tray and wiped the perspiration from his face. It was June, not half so warm as a Manhattan June, but warm despite the breeze. He thought of what they had been saying to each other, what Fran had been saying to him, and he reacted practically, simply, he thought. "What do you want to do nights, then?"
He said, "What do you want to do nights if we don't go to Biarritz?"
She began to laugh, her shoulders heaving, her back jerking forward, laughter striped with sarcasm, disgust, the laughter a fool deserves. Todd got up and walked over to her. He reached for her to turn her toward him, to see her face, but she wrenched free of him.
"That's the best question you ever asked," she said.
Her laughter kicked at his ears and he heard the break in her voice, as though she were in pain, and he was responsible, responsible.
She said, "It's that bad, isn't it? It's really that bad, isn't it, Todd?"
"Why do you want to make something out of everything? Can't say anything!"
"It's true, though, isn't it?" He stood looking at her, her head, held high, the shoulders and long arms framed against the window. She had a beauty, he knew that, a strong beauty. Her beauty was her strength, he had known that always, before they were married, when she was Frances Talborti, reporting on economic conditions in Greece, Turkey, France, for the Herald and he was nothing, a kid then. Well, two years younger. He seemed to be a kid, she was a woman.
He could remember depending on that strength, asking Franny what do you think of this, Franny, look, listen, Franny, he could remember all right. He could remember later, asking still, but not listening then, not any more, and finally, he could remember that it was no longer important, that Talking With Todd was syndicated, they lived in Greenwich summers, and Fran wanted children.
"Why don't you admit it, Todd? Why don't you come right out and say it's not going to be any different? Funny, isn't it, that I thought it would be different? Because we're away, Todd, for the first time in fourteen years, and I thought we'd get to know each other again." She turned her back to him and looked out the window. "I never thought of the fact," she said slowly, "that we have known each other very well all along."
He took a step to her, touched her arm to turn her to him, to say, "Fran, give us time," not sure that time would make any difference, not sure that anything would because it was too late. He had been twenty when he married her, he was thirty-four now, thirty-four and tired, tired not of her, he was sure he needed her, but tired of her need for him, which he no longer nourished.
At his touch, she whirled and seemed to spring at him. "No, don't, Todd! It's messy enough!"
Messy. A word he had heard often. It was a deflating, weakening, accusing word. He despised it. His hand moved swiftly. His palm struck at her face, sent her reeling back. He stood there staring at her face then, red from his slap. There was a look there he had seen before at rare intervals, and each time it had sent him numb and crazy inside. There was in her expression a special horror of disbelief, as though she had awakened in the grip of an awesome nightmare and found it real. To see it was to run naked in a long dream where people laughed and pointed, scoffed and ridiculed, to run with lead feet and get noplace, to suffer the most severe humiliation and know that it would not end soon and running did no good. To see it on Fran's face was to hear her say how had she come to be with this man and who was he? Where had they been and where were they going? He could read it in her eyes, and the intensity of it made him quake, and his senses staggered and were shamed. He was shamed, like a thief caught stealing by a great flood of light shining on his hands, poised for the theft, or shamed like a rich man with a hole in his sock, or shamed like Todd Phelps the boy had been shamed years back, when she had ripped the first awkward copy from his typewriter in the Herald office and called him an ass and he had fallen in love with her. And he stood before her suddenly sure in that room, suddenly grateful for this moment and the moments in the past when it had happened this way.
"Franny." He was choking the name back in his throat, fearing his voice would sob out wretchedly. She came to him then. She knew, and he held her. Standing there, he could feel the dampness of her hair, cool on his neck. He kept murmuring her name. * * * *
Madame Renay was a wisp of a woman with giant ankles, wiry gray hair, and eyeglasses with endless layers through which she saw her guests at Itsas Rendia as shadows, ghosts, outlines. As she served them their meals in the long hall at the back of the inn, she would know them by listening to the things they said, but if they did not speak her tongue, if they were like the Americans who had arrived only a day ago, she considered them suspiciously, strangers whom she could neither see nor hear. She set the Phelpses' place at the rear of the dining room, back beyond the potted palm, away from the window and the view of the hills and fields. She did not have to speak their language to know that the sound of their voices coming from their room in the inn was a bad sound, suggesting the evil of an unhappy man and an unhappy woman who was his wife.
They were unlike the other English-speaking people, the big man and his pretty wife and their handsome son, always happy together, these three, and laughing, not quarreling. Madame Renay had set their places by the open window two months ago and they had taken their meals there every day since, eating quietly, seldom talking, but contented people.
She fluffed the napkins up on the plates and moved to the small table near the door, paused, and laughed to remember that Edward was an American, too. He did not seem like one. Edward did not seem like a guest. He had been there two years this summer, living and writing in his small quarters in the attic of the inn. When he had first inquired about the room, he had spoken no French at all, but he made her know with his hands, and with the strange pictures he drew on the lined yellow paper, that he was a writer, that he wanted to live and work in Bidart. She trusted Edward; she would wait to hear what he said of these Americans. One day she would simply ask him if he had met the Phelpses, and in a yes or no, she would be able to tell. It was not important, but Madame Renay satisfied her curiosity over all things because there was very little that truly was important any more.
The French family from Lourdes was leaving in the morning, she realized, as she struck the gong for dinner, and that would leave only these three tables. There would be less linen for Marie to curse, and less money for an already slow summer season. Madame Renay shuffled into the kitchen and waited for them to come down to be served. * * * *
The sky was a gray-red with streaks of dark blue and white summer clouds becoming fainter as evening began. Fran Phelps sat watching it on the front porch of the inn, waiting for Todd to finish dressing upstairs in their room. She was hungry. The day's swimming, the brisk sea air, and finally the brief moment of love had her ravenous. The brief moment ... Fran took a cigarette from her slacks and lit it, tossing the match over the rail to the green bushes and parched brown dirt below.
He had cried afterward. She pretended that she had not heard, that she was asleep. It was strange that for all their years together she still did not know why he wept at those times, whether from gratitude or self-pity, or whether the moment enlarged his desire to be humiliated and made this sadness. She did not think that Todd had ever looked deeply into his own character. He saw what the mirror saw--a tall, muscular man, a successful man in neat tailored clothes, his hair black and thick, a sudden contrast to his light blue eyes.
She had given up so much to marry Todd Phelps. She thought of it all again. Her career--was that really all? It was the only concrete, tangible thing she could name as having been relinquished for her marriage, but associated with it there were countless lost freedoms and dead interests. He had asked her to do it. She never would have resigned from the Herald, but he had suggested that it would make him feel he had to compete with her if she were to stay, and now she wondered how, how had she done it? What had he been like then, in 1939? What had Todd Phelps been like? Young, handsome, and...?
Fran turned and looked at the man standing before her. He was thin, of medium height, wearing immaculate white linen shorts, a fresh white shirt, straw sandals. His hair was gray, but he was not an old man, in his forties, Fran guessed, early forties.
She said, "I didn't know there was another American within two miles of Bidart."
He laughed and sat on the edge of the railing facing her. His voice was soft, his words slow, deliberate.
"A few stray in from Biarritz now and then."
"Did you come from there?"
"No, I live here at the inn. My name's Allen. Edward Allen."
Fran introduced herself, grateful for someone to talk with. "My husband and I just arrived," she said. "We thought no one would speak English. Are there any others?"
"Americans? No. An English family, though. Interesting group. You'll see them at dinner. I don't know them very well, of course."
The final setting of the sun was slow off in the sky, dark now, filled with the blue streaks banded together. Fran stubbed her cigarette out in the tin ash tray beside her chair. "Why do you say 'of course'?" she asked. "Aren't they friendly?"
"Friendly?" He brushed a small army of mosquitoes away with his hand and sighed. "Oh, yes, I imagine they are. But they seem wrapped up in one another. The boy, their son, paints. You often see him mornings on the beach--with his family, of course."
"Of course again," Fran said. "They sound strange. Is it an English custom for families to stick together that way?"
"I don't suppose it is. I didn't mean to imply that they were strange, although the implication is there, I guess.... That's funny," he said.
"Nothing, really." He shifted his weight and changed the subject immediately. "How long will you and your husband stay?"
"Six weeks, maybe two months. I don't know, to tell you the truth. It's a peaceful place, isn't it? Don't you get lonesome, living away from civilization like this?"
"No," he said, "not at all."
Fran held her watch out toward the light coming from the window of the inn.
"It's past seven, isn't it?" he asked.
"Half past. Are the dinner hours regular here?"
"Oh, people straggle in from seven to nine. Madame is most patient. Do you like her?"
"I don't really know her," Fran said.
There was a sound of voices in the hall and Edward Allen stood, as though it were a signal. "Some of the others are going in now. The English family, I imagine. There are some people here from Lourdes, French people, but they rarely eat before nine." He smiled and brushed the dust from his shorts. "You'll wait for your husband?"
"Yes, he'll be along."
"I think I'll go in now," he said. "We'll see each other again."
He had a stiff, erect walk, as though he had practiced his posture, worked to correct it and be straight. The screen door banged after him, and before he went on he apologized. "Sorry, didn't mean to let it slip like that."
Fran sat alone again. It was dark now, and cool, so that she pulled the sleeves of her sweater around her arms. Todd was late. She knew he was finishing the column, stuffing it with cheery little references to his vacation in a quaint French village, to the food he pictured so deliciously and invariably suffered indigestion from, and to his "b.h.," his beautiful better half. Well, there was no sense in disillusioning the public, she decided, and with her hand she swatted the mosquito on her cheek. * * * *
Edward Allen had ordered his third cup of coffee. The meal was over, and he sat smoking a cigarette, his solemn profile staring ahead of him as Fran Phelps watched from the table where she and Todd sat finishing the ice cream. He was studying the English family closely, and Fran knew that Todd was observing them too, less obviously than Allen, but with equal interest. He had said nothing throughout dinner. She had known he would be sullen when he had first come downstairs, and perhaps she had known before that, because it was like the other times.
"They seem to be the center of attraction," Fran said to him.
"Odd combination." Todd laid his spoon down and reached for the demitasse of bitter coffee. He broke a sugar lump in half and dropped it into the brown liquid, and he watched the woman now, more than the man or their son.
Her hair was a deep chestnut color, long at her shoulders. She was beautiful. The pure features of her face, virginal, unreal in their perfection, the round brownness of her eyes, the delicate tilt of her nose, and the bold, aggressive fullness of her lips made her beauty arresting. It was there in her body too, the rich body of a woman, her bosom full and rounded, the slim waist before the generous curve of her hips, and finally the even shape of her legs, smooth with the faint muscle, and the ankles, narrowed. The rust-colored pedal-pushers she wore fitted tightly, molding her figure exquisitely, and the lemon shade of her sweater and the downy Angora texture gave her a soft, fragile look. She was aware of the interest focused on her in that room, and she answered it with aloof poise, giving her attention only to the two people with her, speaking to them, speaking quietly so that it was barely possible to hear her voice and not the things she said.
The boy was about twenty, with sandy hair, the fine hair of a baby, golden under the light. He had the face of a young poet, dreamy and wistful. His eyes, and you could see their color from across the room, were jade green, sad eyes. He had a petulant expression, smiling only occasionally--at her, at the words she spoke to him.
But it was the man who commanded attention even more than the other two, for he was as ugly as she was beautiful, as vulgar and hardy as the boy was soft and quiet. He sat in his chair kinglike, the fat of his body overflowing the small wooden seat, his flabby jowls twitching mechanically as he ate and drank, talked and laughed. He did not say a great deal, but his few words of conversation were affirmative in tone, and he laughed often, sometimes during a brief interlude when no one at their table had spoken. Whenever he laughed, she smiled as if to answer him, and the boy watched her eyes. He adored her. His eyes announced that each time they were fixed on her face.
The man wore a blue slack suit, his flesh seeming to burst inside of it. He was wretchedly fat, inevitably sloppy in his appearance. When his pudgy hands lifted the glass of wine, tiny drops fell to the front of his shirt, and he rarely lifted the glass to his mouth more than twice without the necessity of refilling it from the tall wine bottle in front of him. He looked older than his wife by approximately twenty years, and his attitude, interpreted by his gestures, by the toss of his head, seemed to be entirely assured in the confidence that she was his possession, solely his. Toward the boy there was a quality of bland indifference, and it seemed that when he did notice his son, he was amused by what he saw.
Save for the light squeaking noise that Madame Renay's shoes made as she entered the dining room and went out carrying the Phelpses' ice-cream dishes, there was a stillness while the fat man, his wife, and their son finished their meal, and while Edward Allen and Fran and Todd Phelps watched them. It was just at the moment that the French family from Lourdes entered the room that the fat man wadded his napkin and thrust it on his plate, pushed his chair back, stood, and waited for the woman and boy to do the same. As they rose, Edward Allen ground out his cigarette and followed them at a polite distance. The door swung shut. The French family began an argument with Madame, who had re-entered to insist that it was very late to be served, that they had purposely come late each evening, and that she would be glad to see them go tomorrow.
"Well," Fran said, "perhaps we should take a walk now. You don't want more coffee, do you?"
Todd was still staring off toward the door. "He seems interested in them, doesn't he?"
"That fellow Allen, the one you met on the front porch. He watched them all through dinner, then went tagging after them."
Fran sighed and put her cigarette case into her purse. She said, "We all watched them. As if they were a sideshow or something. You come on a vacation to enjoy yourself, get away, and then you end up watching other people on a vacation enjoying themselves."
"Do you think they are--enjoying themselves?"
Madame was banging dishes down on the table of the French family, her face rigid with anger and indignation. She was complaining aloud and they were ignoring her, sitting silently, a tall skinny man with hollow eyes and a gaunt woman who looked enough like her husband to be kin to him.
Fran began to make her fingers drum on the tabletop. It was an irritating sound. She said, "It was a lousy idea, wasn't it?"
"What are you talking about now, Fran? I don't understand you." The drumming persisted. He wanted to slap her hands to make it stop.
"It was a lousy idea to take a vacation," she was saying. "We don't even know how to relax. We don't know how to relax with each other!"
He had to stop it. "C'mon," he said. "C'mon, let's take a walk." She did not move. He said, "You said you wanted to take a walk."
"Well, we can't just sit here. C'mon, let's go on the damn walk!"
"Go by yourself," she said, and he could see the thin tears at the corners of her eyes. He felt no pity for her, but disgust, and angry embarrassment now because it was a public place.
"All right!" he said. "All right, I'll do just that. You go to hell!" He tried to say it softly, through his teeth; his words sounded sinister that way. As he left the table and swung out through the doors, he was surprised at his own vulgar demonstration, at the way he and Fran were in this village. Barbarians, he thought, and the French couple must have thought so too.
There was a pebble road leading up the hill before the dirt path that led down to the sea, a winding path that took a long time and had planes of flat ground. You could see the water breaking against the rocks and sand at several levels as you went toward it. Todd Phelps walked quickly, still angered and nervous, breathing in the fresh, tangy air that was brisk but not cold. The night was lighter than any night he could remember, lighter than before dinner too, because the moon was full and round now, bathing the landscape in its light. In his ears there was the distant sound of the spitting ocean waves, and Todd walked down the steep path to a level just above the beach where he could see it. There was a bench, an old wooden one with no back, worn from the rains and the sun beating on it, and Todd sat there. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette.
He had tried not to think of the afternoon. He knew that he must think of it now when he was alone like this, he must think of her and of the two of them together.