Ingrid was eating a peach. Setting his guitar case on the dusty courtyard of the Pension des Arbres, Dean watched her white teeth peeling away ribbons of fuzzy skin. Having stripped the fruit naked, she inhaled its fragrant aroma before biting down. Trembling droplets of yellow juice clung to pale down above her lip. The scent of honeysuckle cascading over the pergola made him long to unplait the braid slung like rope over her tanned shoulder.
‘Sniffing fruit huh?’ he said, ‘That’s what passes for entertainment in Fontainebleau?’ He approached the trestle table where she sat with two blonde guys. They lifted puzzled faces. Smiling, she spoke to them in German. Pointing to his guitar, one said, ‘Beatles Jah. All You Need Is Love?’
‘Right on, Man,’ Dean replied, sticking up two thumbs.
Settling the peach stone in an ashtray overflowing with Gitanes butts, she appraised him with amber eyes.
‘Guilty as accused.’
‘You be the entertainment,’ she said. More instruction than request, ‘Play for us Jah.’ ‘Ah’d be honoured Ma’am,’ he replied in a voice sounding too much like his Daddy’s. Every day, before Dean left home, Daddy jabbed at the fading photograph of himself proud in blue dress uniform saying, ‘Marines flow in this family’s blood son. You’re gonna make me and your country proud.’
The Vietnam war ensured Dean had no say in the matter. All he could do while waiting for his call up papers was grow his hair ‘like a girl’, learn protest songs and buy a ticket to Paris. ‘You can’t run away from the draft boy,’ his Daddy yelled as he swung open the porch door.
‘Don’t intend to,’ Dean said, hefting his guitar case down the steps, ‘Just wanna live before I die.’
Free as a medieval Troubadour, he roamed France playing for coins outside ancient churches, in village squares and on railway platforms. Beatles songs, he discovered, were a universal language. That first night in Fontainebleau, Ingrid’s voice tangled with his while his fingers pressed familiar chords against the fretboard. In entwined harmony, they sang ‘Yesterday.’ It was tomorrow he feared.
In the forest, he lay beside Ingrid breathing in the perfumed pine trees shading them from a lazy Autumn sun. The pleasurable pain of pine needles piercing the skin on his back would be nothing compared with things to come. Back home on the streets of Phoenix, he’d seen veterans, limbless and friendless, their features ravaged by rage. To obliterate their faces, he turned to hers and whispered, ‘My peach.’
In Fontainebleau Palace, she quoted from the guidebook in slow low English. Those gilded rooms could not compare with gold threaded through her hair. Painted ceilings held no candle to her skin’s ripe bloom. Ingrid told tales of treaties and edicts signed in this Palace plotting invasions and condemning thousands. Like petals on a breeze, her words floated over him until the word ‘Vietnam’.
‘In 1946,’ she enunciated, ‘to find a solution to Vietnam’s struggle for independence, Fontainebleau hosted a Franco-Vietnamese Conference.’ So, this country he’d be fighting over was struggling even back then?
‘Why do you look angry?’ Ingrid asked.
Her voice sudden razors. ‘‘Sag mir nicht.’ His confused expression forced a translation. ‘Don’t talk of war. My parents. For them it is still here. I travel to escape this.’ ‘I can’t.’ he sighed. ‘After Mom died, my Daddy raised me on his own. He’s a good man, proud to have fought for his country. I gotta go back. Fight like he did.’
‘Don’t,’ was all she said, leading him from the palace.
At the foot of curved stone stairs overlooking ornamental gardens, a shuffling, shabby coated old man approached. Supported by two sticks, he stopped before them swaying on spider legs. Jabbing one stick at Ingrid like a sword, he shouted, ‘Allemagne. Allemagne. Je vous touer.’ A crowd gathered. Spittle shot from his toothless mouth leaving a snail’s trail dribbling down Ingrid’s cheek.
‘Do somezing,’ she commanded, wiping away spit with her sleeve. Gravel beneath Dean’s sandals made a grinding sound as he started towards the frothing figure. A man wearing staff livery arrived placing a restraining arm across Dean’s chest.
‘Please excuse. This man, la guerre existe…….’ His voice trailed away as the old man crumpled to the floor clutching his chest. Dean knelt beside him, loosening his frayed collar whispering, ‘It’s ok man. Be ok’.
‘Appeller une ambulance,’ Dean heard a voice repeating while he witnessed life leave. When he turned, Ingrid was gone.
The German boys drinking beer in the Pension courtyard had not seen her. One of them started singing, ‘Wait, oh yeah, wait a minute Mr Postman.’
The other pointed towards the reception saying, ‘Telegram come.’ The concierge, brittle as a day old baguette, handed him a brown envelope. Ripping it open, Dean read, ‘Call up papers arrived. Stop. Do your duty. Stop.’
‘Ingrid?’ he asked the concierge. She pointed towards the railway station. Running upstairs to his room, he saw a bag of peaches on his bed. Throwing them in his haversack, he seized his guitar and, thrusting a bundle of francs at the concierge, ran through the streets of Fontainebleau.
At the station, he barged past an irate guard and onto the platform. It was deserted. Mumbling apologies, he slouched to the ticket office and bought a one way single to Paris. On the platform, perching on an old-fashioned luggage cart, he watched clanking trains passing through and thought of Ingrid running from a long dead war. She’d offered a choice. Daddy’s telegram confirmed there was none.
Remembering Ingrid’s peaches, he selected one and taking a deep breath, savoured the florid fragrance before biting into sweet fibrous flesh.
Something within writhing fat and white caught his attention. Repulsed, he hurled the maggot infested fruit on the tracks as his train drew in. From behind, a voice called his name. Without a backward glance, Dean took up his guitar and boarded the train.