Henri was dubious about accepting the invitation in the first place. The Oyster Festival was not something that appealed to him. Oysters didn’t appeal to him at all, except as the source of pearls, which he had always loved. He had been given some pearl cuff links for his eighteenth birthday but rarely had a chance to wear them. Formal attire was not the fashion among his friends.
He came to Le Manoir in the end, not to enjoy the oysters but to luxuriate in the Lutyens house with its strange chimneys, unexpected windows and rooms that were somehow organic rather than constructed. However, he found himself uncomfortable.
When he saw the festival advertised he immediately thought, not of oysters and revelry, but of architecture and beauty. Now, in the middle of it all, he was not so sure.
The other guests were all paired off, not necessarily with the same partner each afternoon or evening but in a definite, decadent sequence of semi-affaires from which Henri felt excluded. Miranda, he knew, would have included him and made numerous advances. Michael, on the other hand, was apparently not interested. Last night Henri tried to work out from the noises of opening and closing doors just who was where and when. He thought Miranda consoled herself with Michael but was not quite sure of the layout of the bedrooms. He hoped he was wrong. Michael deserved better than Miranda even if those deserts did not include Henri.
He found himself retreating from the house, seeking his own consolation in the garden. Gertrude Jekyll designed it around the building, extending the experience into formal outdoor rooms, constrained by immaculate hedges, presenting intriguing views of the structure from outdoors and in turn providing glimpses of flowers and shrubs from those beautiful window alcoves.
Each garden room had a different theme, the planting focussed on a type of flower or a particular colour. Sometimes there were carefully concealed statues or tiny fountains. Sometimes there was topiary or a glorious bed of trailing roses that echoed the ones climbing the man-made walls. The rooms were alive, too, with lazy insects humming and hidden birds making music.
He found a plain wooden bench placed among sweet lavender and facing the morning sun. His book lay unopened on the dark slats as he closed his eyes and drank in the warmth. The quietness, intense despite the natural sounds, soothed him; he tired quickly of the strident voices speaking English and French and other tongues too loud and too fast. He thought at first that it was just by evening that the strain was almost insupportable but this morning at breakfast he wanted to run out of the room, his head swimming with noise, all languages sounding alien and impossible.
Then he was aware of a shadow falling across him and looked up. Michael was standing there, a hesitant but hopeful expression in his grey eyes.
‘May I join you? Or do you want to be alone here?’
Henri gestured to the other half of the seat and moved his book. He felt tongue-tied; it was one thing to fantasise about Michael, another to share the sunshine with him in the privacy of the lavender and the irises. They sat in silence for a few moments then Michael sighed.
‘I love the garden. I thought I would love the house, but…’
‘Moi aussi.’ Henri’s English deserted him. His understanding was suddenly no longer backed by an ability to speak.
‘Out here,’ Michael continued, ‘I feel at peace.’ He glanced at his companion. ‘I think we have a lot in common, you and I.’ Henri nodded. There didn’t seem to be a need to answer. He listened to the bees buzzing in the flower bed and relaxed for the first time that weekend.
‘We should, of course, go back indoors for lunch,’ Michael pointed out with mock severity.
‘Pour les huitres,’ Henri agreed, solemnly, and then they grinned at each other. ‘Mais nous avons une heure et…’
‘And in any case, the oysters can wait,’ said Michael. ‘But this, I think, can not.’ And he twisted sideways, enabling himself to encircle Henri’s shoulders with a confident arm. ‘I’m glad I found your retreat.’ And after that there was no need for words.
Inspired by Le Bois des Moutiers near Dieppe. House by Edwin Lutyens, and gardens by Gertrude Jekyll.