Favour Day

by Alan C. McDonald

Caution: This Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Consensual, Romantic, Oral Sex, .

Desc: Sex Story: Sometimes redemption comes through realisation; sometimes it comes from a selfless act. In an idyllic setting which may or may not exist, a selfish man meets a very selfless woman.

"For what is a man? What has he got
When he wears hats, and he cannot
Say the things he truly feels
But only the words of one who kneels?"

THE SEX PISTOLS - My Way


Things fall apart.

I don't know who said that, but it's true.

Things fall apart. All things. Health. Happiness. Love. Oh, yes, certainly love. Because emotional commitment, like a washing machine, has a built in obsolescence factor. You know that as well as I do. Even though you may be in a position where, for the moment, you prefer to believe otherwise. That's your choice, of course.

Look, view me as a cynic. View me as a sad case. I don't really care. But things will fall apart, and one day you'll need the focus to deal with that. The point of this story is to help you when they do.

And I'm not a cynic, as it happens, or a sad case. Oh, I was for a time, after Lisa. For quite a time, actually. And I do believe that cynicism can be a powerful tool, in the short term. When you're between better things. Between one love and another, one pleasure and another. Between one moment and another.

But, you see the good news is that even cynicism can't last forever. Even cynicism falls apart. And new loves, new pleasures, new moments do come. Unbidden, they come. Unsought, they come. Actively resisted, they nonetheless still come. I learned this yesterday. Just yesterday. And I won't forget.

Do you know the city of Basel? Probably you don't, unless you're in the chemical business. And it isn't vital in the absorption of this story that you make a visit. But I'll tell you a little about the place in any event, because as I write this story, it's my geographical base. And my prison.

My prison? Well, more accurately, I've thought that it was. Now, I'm starting to understand that there is truth in old wisdom, and that the mind can imprison at least as competently as stone walls and iron bars.

Basel. Yes, I was telling you about Basel.

Right then.

Basel is an industrial community, home to a number of the most corpulent chemical companies in the world. As such, it has a voracious appetite in the international labour market, sourcing legions of Americans, Canadians, Brits and Germans for well paid posts in those areas of the companies which can't afford to be insular, such as marketing, legal, technical and sales.

I'd joined Ciba-Geigy's Research and Development Department two years previously, a month after losing Lisa. As a new challenge. As a departure. As the start of a new life.

And you're right. Of course it didn't work. But you know as well as I do that naivete often links arms with loss. And it did with me. Which I suppose was just tough, as Yvette, the only girlfriend I've had in my time in Switzerland often told me. Life's like that. Live with it. Live with life.

Switzerland? Oh, sorry. Yes, for those cartographically challenged amongst you, Basel is in Switzerland - although not, I hasten to add, in the Switzerland familiar to ski fanatics, buyers of chocolate and avid viewers of James Bond movies. From the streets of Basel, for one thing, there isn't a mountain to be seen. For another, cuckoo clocks are pretty damned hard to obtain. And snow is an infrequent visitor.

Tourists drive through. There's nothing special about the place, and in evidence of that, western born residents like me do what western born foreign residents do all over the world. We work, get drunk or sleep, as the hour of the day requires. We follow the standard expatriate lifestyle.

Oh, don't get me wrong. There's nothing awful about Basel either. It has a rich history, and the Rheon runs broadly and impressively through its centre. The city social calendar is full of odd, entertaining events, and, as you might expect in Switzerland, the streets are clean. But in general principle it's a city like any other city. Basel is Berlin, and Basel is Liverpool, and Basel is Chicago. Like all cities, it's unwelcoming to those brought up outside its sprawling borders.

Well, that's my experience at least.

It took me a year to realise that taking the new job had probably been a mistake. Although getting back with Lisa would have been an impossibility even had I stayed in Manchester, I began to dwell upon the fact that I at least had family in Manchester, and some friends too. In Basel, there is a large and insular British community, but I'm sorry to say that insularity does not necessarily breed emotional closeness. We're a disparate group at the best of times, made up of professionals and airport workers, family folk and single loners, washed and unwashed. If you gel with one or two people, then you're lucky.

I hadn't been lucky, because I'm a dismal soul at the best of times, and seekers of joy give me a wide berth. Yes, just tough. You don't have to tell me.

Look, I don't exactly know what I'd expected from the move. Someone to step into Lisa's shoes, you suggest? Well, perhaps. But if so, that possibility would have been very much at the back of my mind. And just as well that it was, because opportunities here are few and far between. At work, the majority of the female staff is Swiss and married or Swiss and xenophobic. And socially, well, suffice it to say that I couldn't have afforded the company of any British or American woman who was footloose and fancy free in Basel, even if I could have attracted one such. The bar bill would have been too high.

For the most part, then, I've been a female free zone recently. Except, of course, for Yvette. Yes, keep up. I've already mentioned Yvette. Who was definitely a female of our species.

But a valid romantic relationship?

Well, no. Not really.

We'd met over the Christmas holidays, Yvette and I, as a result of my choosing to pull on my best hair shirt by not going back to England for the festive season. Our paths had crossed because at the time she was waitressing in a café on the river, a café where I ended up after a heavy, moribund drinking session on Christmas Eve.

She was Belgian, six years older than me, and was more obviously battered by disappointment than any woman I'd ever met.

Consequently, she was none too fussy.

Consequently, we clicked, desultorily.

A consequence is when one thing leads to another. Which, on and ever on through that long night and longer Christmas, it did.

She invited me to her pleasant flat on Strassburgeralle, about a mile from the city centre. I spent Christmas Day there, and we to be fair we were temporarily well matched, not least because she too had cast herself adrift. Scrooge and Scroogette, we ignored festivity for carnality, but there was no magic in the practice of that, for her or for me. Looking back, it was as though sex was our way of telling the world, as individuals rather than as a couple, to go stuff itself.

The periods in-between copulation were punctuated by little of value - forced caresses, faked intimacy, arid conversation. Occasional moments of shared self-pity.

By Boxing Day, she'd wanted me to move in. That was an awful prospect, and I couldn't seriously consider it, but I was too cowardly to cut the thin string that bound her to me, convincing myself that if I did that I'd be no better than Lisa. Also, I romanticised my situation, pathetically, deciding that I couldn't hurt Yvette because she had been so benign, and because (I supposed this somewhat uncertainly) she was starting to depend on me.

We danced around one another for another day or two, but her general gloom quickly headed south towards depression, and the anger I'd seen crouching sneakily behind her eyes found the courage to start to express itself.

And so I compromised. With a pusillanimous flourish, I moved in, but simultaneously I made secret arrangements to maintain the lease on my own flat.

We lasted a week. After which she threw me out, which was exactly what I'd wanted to happen. My lack of understanding of the needs of a serious relationship was, she said, at the root of the failure, and that accusation was the wedge she used to lever me out. But we both knew that there were other tools lying unemployed in the debris around us. Other fights were left unfought, and motives were left unquestioned.

Relieved, I returned home, feeling only a vague resentment, a resentment which I suppose stemmed from the fact that she could have been kinder. But I comforted myself with my mantra of the time. Women, I had come to believe, were strangers to kindness, were harsher and more professional in their decision making than a prison governor.

I lolled in my misery, bathed lazily in the new betrayal, easily ignoring the fact that I had actively sought it.

For a week or two, I was more conscious than ever of that prison of skin and bone.

Some of you may be a little confused about my state of mind? Why was I so damned depressed? Over nothing worse than lost love. Sad bastard. Not the end of the world.

I'll try to explain.

The colour had drained out of my life when Lisa left, and at first I hadn't wanted to even try to get over it. Of course, the longer that lack of heart and soul and courage and energy went on, the more it became a way of being, a destructive habit. I fed on mental reruns of the past, and they weren't very nourishing.

In the end, there was only one possible destination for the road I'd taken, and that was a prescription for antidepressants. I reached that destination. And I took the tablets willingly, because doing so seemed somehow to relieve me of the responsibility for changing the way I felt.

I think, though, that I took them ineffectively.

I found a new road yesterday, and neither chemical intervention nor stirring act of will was the signpost. Arguably, some greater power provided. Arguably, I was in the right place in someone else's time.

Basel stands at Switzerland's crown, bordering both Germany and France. The French border belongs to the Alsace region, which I mention because it's in Alsace that the events I wish to describe occurred.

I have taken, since my move to Europe, to walking, and the borderlands were the obvious choice for me. I'd lived in Alsace for six months prior to attending university, and knew that area particularly well. I did my shopping in France too, and quite a bit of my eating, always alone, often returning to Basel quite late in the evening. But it was the walking that I most enjoyed.

At first I visited the towns, particularly nearby Mulhouse, but one day, a little more open to external stimulation than usual, I decided that a walk in the hills would be a good way to spend an otherwise empty few hours.

Taking a city tram from Basel as far as its terminus at the city limits, I followed the road on foot. After a time, the road became a farm track, and soon the farm track petered out into woods, which in turn opened out onto broad sloping grasslands.

On that first walk, I'd merely acknowledged the beauty of my surroundings as a background, had registered rather than enjoyed. Obsession with what might have been, back in England, had still consumed me entirely.

But I found myself tracing a similar route every weekend, and gradually I came to realise that the walking was no longer to ensure peace in my isolation, but was done for pleasure.

If you aren't fortunate enough to know, then it's hard to describe the way that nature can calm the soul, especially when you can afford the time for total immersion. So I won't try. I'll simply tell you that week after week, I wandered the woods and fields and hills, investigating the tiny wine making villages which dot the landscape in that part of Alsace, visiting the tiny restaurants for bread and a beer. I had my solitude, but I was adding value to it. Looked at in a Wordsworthian way, I suppose I fell in love again, but this time my lover was bound to me, was not free to reject me.

Ever that romantic, I took to calling my weekends grace and favour days. If you haven't heard that old expression, it basically refers to times when there are no duties to perform, when a human being, for a brief time, is entirely relieved of stress. I know, I know. It all sounds too self-absorbed. But I was too self-absorbed. So it fits, doesn't it?

And if I tell you that there were even periods of an hour or more on these jaunts when Lisa didn't cross my mind, when, released from that burden too, I often found myself thinking that I would refuse to return to the real world, that I'd walk these routes forever, then you might understand. At the core of my black mood was, I think, the wish to live in a perfect, different world, in a place where my past didn't exist and my future wasn't important. I wanted, bleakly put, to be part of something greater than I, with no discernible independent existence did.

Now, that's all changed. Now I know now those months, becalming as they were, held out no promise of a long term answer for me. In the end, whether the events of yesterday had occurred or not, I would have needed to find something new or give up entirely. Do or die, in short. Sink or swim.

So in truth those Alsatian wanderings were never any more than a sabbatical. Louise, thankfully, taught me that.

Louise?

Yes.

Let me explain.

Yesterday, I was meandering through the hills as usual, about fifteen miles west of Mulhouse. In the early afternoon, the sun was blazing heat out of a clear sky, and noise had deserted the world. No insects buzzed and no birds chattered. Cows went silently about their chewing.

I hadn't seen another human being in over two hours.

I was fifty yards short of the lip of the hill when she came over it, the unexpectedness of her appearance stopping me dead in my tracks, the unexpectedness of mine bringing her to a halt also.

It took me a moment, but I realised that she might be a little scared of me. We were not, after all, approaching one another on a crowded street. So, embarrassed and anxious to reassure, I transmitted her a sheepish grin, which she seemed to find reassuring. We both then began those awkward manoeuvres which people use to put an imaginary dividing line in place, to enable them to pass one another without the need for speech or further acknowledgement.

Well, we almost achieved that intent. Would have done. Had she not lost her footing on the slippery grass.

I wasn't surprised. It had been raining quite heavily mid morning, and the ground still held a light sheen of wetness. Added to this, the gradient was steep.

Until she slid, I hadn't noticed that she was carrying a basket. Now I did, because the basket jerked, flinging some of its contents, all bottles, into the air. The bottles hit the slope before she did. Unbroken, three of them started to roll down the slope towards me. I reacted quickly enough to impress myself and quickly enough to help, stopping the leading bottle with my right foot, then dropping to block the progress of the other two with both hands.

As I steadied myself, I heard her laughter. It was a wonderful, uplifting sound, and I hadn't heard it in a very long time. Laughter, uncomplicated and unrestrained, encouraged not by cruelty or hidden agenda but by honest amusement. I resented it nonetheless, mean spirited man that I am, and looked up from my prone position with a frown, dignity assailed. But when I saw that she was laughing as much at her own predicament as mine, I couldn't help but transform the frown into a grin.

She had landed on her bottom, legs akimbo, and her long red ringlets of hair had flopped forward, vaulting the crown of her head to hide her eyes. The basket was upended in her lap, and one of her bottles had chosen not to roll but rather to empty its contents into her pinafore, resulting in a spreading red stain and a sharp vinegary smell. As a side issue, the smell convinced me that if she was as I suspected carrying wine, the vintage definitely fell into the "beware" category.

Pinafore, you enquire? Do I really mean pinafore?

Well, yes. And I know that's probably confusing. To be fair, it confused me too, because I know as well as you do that even in rural France, a pinafore isn't really considered to be a young girl's garment. That assessment was one, though, which could equally be applied to the rest of her clothing, in particular her dress, a simple white cotton garment which a decent seamstress could have knocked up from basic material in an hour or less. As for the black boots visible beneath the hem of that dress now that its wearer was effectively spread-eagled, they were chunky enough to suit a coal miner and were tied not with laces but rather with string.

I manoeuvred the three bottles I'd salvaged into a securer position, vertical against the gradient, and went to help the damsel in distress.

She was still laughing when I offered her my hand, which she took, still laughing when I hoisted her gently to her feet.

She brushed herself off, not making too good a job of it. Then she pushed back her hair and looked at me.

I was instantly smitten. I had never seen such a pretty girl in all my life. Even Lisa wouldn't have come close, although Lisa perhaps never was a girl, rather a woman before her time. That had been one of our many problems, one of the few that I couldn't blame on myself.

"I'm Louise", the young lady said formally, the polite introduction escaping from behind a broad smile and involving a slight and anachronistic curtsey.

"Martin", I replied, responding to her formality by extending my hand again, this time for her to shake it. Well, I couldn't help myself. The situation was so absurd.

She took my fingers gently between hers. Her touch was pleasantly cool, and she seemed to linger over the contact.

I realised that she was looking up at me from beneath her eyelids. Okay, I'm tall, but not that tall. This was the sort of "I'm so shy" gaze that I'd only seen before in movies. It was an attractive gesture, and teasing, but it wasn't manipulative. It seemed honest.

It also encouraged eye contact, allowing me to study her face with some frankness without appearing to be rude.

Her hair was still a mess, even though she'd swept it back where it belonged. This made her seem somewhat in disarray, as though she's spent the last hour or so lying in a haystack. I guessed that in the correct light those complex ringlets might make her look rather sultry and mysterious, a gypsy masquerade, but at the moment they were merely comical.

Her eyes, though. Ah, her eyes. Well, suffice it to say that no disorder elsewhere could take away from their limpid beauty. The blue of calm, deep water, they were frank and uncomplicated. The wide and friendly eyes were a window to an uncomplicated and relatively happy human being, of that I had no doubt, but they showed also in their depth the substance of her, the unarguable reality of her soul.

The rest, as they don't say, was mystery. A broad, expressive, naturally red mouth, which I guessed, could pout as well as smile when it needed to. A small, upturned nose. A pink, scrubbed, country complexion. A face halfway between the round and the oval, with sculptured curves and high cheekbones. Not a trace of lipstick or make-up.

I guessed her age at nineteen, although she might have been as young as seventeen. Her figure was full; a fact emphasised because her dress was perhaps half a size too small. The plainly functional garment delivered the girl an almost certainly unsought sexiness by virtue of the fact that it had not been discarded two years previously, when it first no doubt started to tug. Unusually lewdly for me, and dishonourably in light of her apparent poverty, I remember thinking how fortunate I was that her funds hadn't run to a replacement before I met her. But I'm not too ashamed, even looking back now. If you'd seen such a lovely body thus restrained, I think you'd have understood.

Let me be clear, though. Despite the strain, she wasn't plump. Far from it, in fact. Her bare arms were slim, and although it was difficult to estimate, her waist seemed relatively slight too. And her breasts and rear were merely ample. Her ankles, which I had seen when she fell, were skinny. She was just a girl.

Well, yes, okay.

And Greenland was just a little cool.

Enough, I told myself. Enough.

It was a wrench to break off my scrutiny, but I could sense that I was approaching the line. So to give myself something better to do, I bent to pick up the three bottles at her feet, including the leaking one. On this, I secured the loosened stopper. About a third of the contents had gone. I put the bottles into her basket, which she had left on the grass, and then I walked down the hill to collect the others, which I also put into the basket.

"Perhaps I should carry it for you", I teased. "You seem a little unsafe today". My voice sounded odd, a little strained.

She nodded gravely, sharing the joke. "You're gallant", she observed.

"Sometimes", I agreed. "Although I suppose how gallant I am depends upon how far you're walking".

"Ah, conditionally gallant", she noted. "Just my luck".

I smiled. "A long way, then?", I interpreted.

I didn't expect her to agree to company. Naturally, it hadn't been a serious suggestion. She didn't know me, and maximum caution was only to be expected.

And at first, she didn't agree. "So you think I'm incapable, then, of carrying my own packages?", she ragged.

Her voice was light, girlish. I enjoyed the tones of it, the rise and fall of it. "So far", I replied easily, "there was not much evidence that you can".

She smiled. A wide smile. As open as her eyes. "Wrong tense", she said. "Is not. Is not much evidence. You speak my language very well. But you weren't born here, were you?"

"No, I wasn't", I confirmed. "But thanks for the compliment. I try my best".

"You succeed", she stated. "And yes, kind sir, you can carry my bottles, while I concentrate on my misbehaving feet. I'm visiting a farm in the valley. It's less than two kilometres away. So you offer me perhaps half an hour of your time".

"Fine", I said, a little surprised. Then an odd thought occurred to me, which I wanted to express. "You remind me of Little Red Riding Hood", I told her.

She cocked her head to one side like a bird. Her expression was playful as she pointed out, "I'm not wearing a hood".

"Or anything red", I agreed. "But nevertheless, you do. It's the basket, I suppose".

"And would you, by any chance", she wondered disrespectfully, "happen to be the Big Bad Wolf?"

The flirtation shocked me. "No", I assured her quickly. "I'm a harmless beast".

"No man is harmless", she disagreed. "Or so my mother tells me".

"In your company", I supposed, "I would imagine most men are safe. Careful".

She raised a querulous eyebrow. "Of my fist?", she construed, and clearly didn't like the construction.

"No", I explained. "Of your disapproval".

She nodded, satisfied. "Charmer", she accused.

I bent to pick up the basket, which turned out to be heavier than it appeared. Disconcertingly, she immediately linked my unburdened arm. We started off back down the hill, in the direction from which I had come.

The walking was pleasant. Company, I think, always improves exercise, but welcome company puts the notion that exercise is hard work in the back of the mind.

As we walked, Louise told me a little about herself, including the fact that she was engaged to a young man in the next village to her own, the wedding being six months away. She was looking forward to the day, she said, and she loved the lucky stiff. He worked in his father's café, but one day, Louise assured me, the café would be his. Life would be a struggle at first, they both acknowledged that, but the newlyweds would happily ride over that patch. It soon became clear to me that the future for Louise was a broad river, sparkling in the sun, stretching away further than she could see.

"Does he love you?", I asked her at one point.

"Of course", she replied with a pout. "Aren't I loveable?"

"Yes", I confirmed. "But that's not always enough. If he loves you, and you love him, then you're very fortunate".

I regretted the words immediately, knowing that they'd carried an inference of sourness, and guessing that she'd notice. She did, and her disposition darkened a little. Indeed, for a few moments she didn't speak, although she stole occasional disturbed glances in my direction.

I expected the question before it came. "You lost someone?"

"Lost, left, whatever", I answered vaguely. "Look, sorry. I shouldn't have darkened the mood. Let's talk about your lad. What's his name?"

"Armand", she advised. "And no, I don't want to talk about him. Let's talk about you. In particular, about why you're so damaged".

Her concern embarrassed me, but her perception was scary. "I'm not damaged any more", I replied after a pause, wanting to choose my words carefully, wanting to rescue her earlier mood. "I was two years ago. But not now. Two years is a long time".

"Long, and short too", she said, chiming the words as though they were the title of a song. "Were you in love, then? Once?"

"Yes". The question had been too blunt to permit a lie.

"As I love Armand?", she persisted. "As much as that?"

"It's not a good subject", I told her firmly. "Not for a sunny day. And not for someone as young as you, thinking about the beginnings of things not the ends of them".

"Just as much, then", she concluded. "I see. And do you love her still?"

I didn't answer. She didn't press. We walked on quietly.

The ground had levelled out by now, and was dappled by shadow from nearby trees. It was the best time of the day, and I felt content, in this place, in the company of this girl. It was difficult to decide which was the more delightful.

From time to time I looked at her. I noticed the profusion of freckles on her cheeks for the first time, her skin having cooled in the shade, and became fascinated by them.

Finally, she caught me in my furtive observation. Her unexpected reaction was a broad smile. Her teeth were small and white.

"Not far now", she promised.

"I'm in no rush", I assured her. "I'm enjoying the day. And the company. Particularly the company".

"As am I", she agreed, and it seemed that she meant it.

Just as Louise had claimed, we were almost at our destination. At the end of a stand of trees, there was a slight dip, and at the bottom of that dip stood a white stone building. It reminded me of a farmhouse, but there were no farm animals to be seen in the immediate vicinity. There was no fence, and no gate.

Louise stopped about fifty yards short of the house, in view of the side wall but not the front door. Presumably she didn't want the occupants to see her with me, and I understood that. Why should she have to satisfy the curiosity of others? The fact that she had taken a stroll with a stranger was no-one's business but hers.

"Will you wait?", she asked. "I'll only be five minutes".

It seemed important to her that I did. So I nodded. "Yes. Sure. I'll see you on your way back, then I'll head for home. It's getting late, I suppose".

"Rubbish", she disagreed. "It's only early".

I didn't know quite what she meant by that remark, whether actually she meant anything by it. So I disengaged from her arm, missing the slight pressure almost before it had gone, and handed her the basket. She did her odd curtsey thing again, and set off to make her delivery. I watched her until she disappeared behind the stonework, and I'm ashamed to say that the swaying of her hips, so tightly trapped in that wonderful old dress, was my primary focus.

She was longer than five minutes. She took almost twenty. By the time she returned, basketless, I was considering leaving. There was, after all, no apparent reason to stay other than my promise, and I suspected that she might have got into some interesting conversation or other and had forgotten all about me. Whether that was so or not, it was highly unlikely that she'd be overly distressed if she emerged to find me gone.

I'd wandered back a little way to the slope, where I could sit cross-legged, and my thoughts, for some unaccountable reason, had started to drift back to Yvette. What was she doing now, I wondered? Did she remember any moment from our time together fondly? Should I call her, meet with her perhaps? Had I moved on enough to make a better stab at things? It would be settling for a life less glittering than some I had once been able to imagine, but it might be the most settled and rewarding existence I could reasonably aim for. Was that the way to go? To settle? To take the best that might be available, and be thankful for it?

So lost was I in this reverie that I didn't see Louise until she was a few feet away. I stood to welcome her, and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that she was pleased to see me. She was animated, gesturing for me to be on my feet. Places to go, she seemed to be telling me. Time's a wasting. It was all very confusing.

"Finished at long last", she announced. "I didn't know whether you'd still be here".

"A lady asked me to wait", I responded chivalrously, "so I waited".

She seemed to feel a need to explain, and I let her, although for me, there wasn't an issue. "I was helping Mr. Bresson with his bed", she said. "When summer's here, he likes to move it close to the window, but he's on his own now, and he doesn't get many visitors. He can't lift the thing himself, or even push it. So he asked if I'd help".

"You should have called me", I told her. "It sounds like a heavy job".

"I'm big and strong", she assured me, playful and haughty at the same time.

"You may well be", I allowed, "but from the sound of it Mr. Bresson isn't".

"Oh, I only let him think he was helping", she enlightened me. "Just for his peace of mind".

"You should have called me", I repeated, "nonetheless".

She shrugged. "Mr. Bresson wouldn't have understood", she stated simply.

I chuckled. I couldn't help it. "Louise, I'm probably ten years older than you", I advised her. "Mr. Bresson would probably have thought I was your long lost uncle".

"You're an attractive man", she disputed. "Mr. Bresson may be old, but he isn't senile".

I tried to ignore the flattering remark, but felt an unaccustomed flush as I pointed out, "I'm not senile either. But I think that anyone with a reasonable view on these things would find it obvious that I'm far too old for you".

She placed her hands on her hips. A mock challenging posture. "If that's what you think", she said, "then why did you offer to walk with me?"

I didn't know quite how to answer that. Attractive as she was, my motives had been innocent. On the selfish side, I'd found a companion for a lovely afternoon. On the unselfish side, she clearly had been struggling with her basket. But would I, have wondered, have given such assistance to a curmudgeonly old man? Well, probably not. But what did that imply?

Certainly not that I was lecherous, and that seemed to be Louise's interpretation. I felt justified in sulking for a moment. Which I did. Then I went for self-pity, just to make her feel bad. "Perhaps I should be getting back", I suggested. "This is getting a little uncomfortable, and I've had a good day. I don't want us to fall out".

She watched me. Read me. Completely. And played the same game, much more skilfully than I had. "You were just being a gentleman", she said in an "I've just realised" tone. "Look, I'm sorry, Martin. I was just being playful. I didn't mean to challenge your honour. And I was being silly, too. I thought you found me attractive".

I had to admire the switch. And acknowledge it. "Of course I find you attractive", I said. "What man wouldn't? But you do understand what I was saying. I'm sure you do".

She nodded gravely, but the gravity was defeated by the twinkle of triumph in her eyes. "Shall we walk?", she suggested.

I surrendered. The dispute was over without a victor, and extending it would have been churlish. "Walk where?", I asked. "Towards home? For you, I mean".

"Anywhere", she said with careful imprecision. "Wherever the fancy takes us, I suppose. I don't have to be home for a couple of hours. How about you?"

Well, I thought, why not? It was a more attractive prospect than anything else I might have spent the rest of the day on. "I don't have to be home for anyone or anything", I answered. "My time's my own".

"That's settled, then", she judged, and we strolled off in the general direction of the woods. If truth be told, it was Louise's chosen general direction, but it doubtless met the definition of "anywhere".

Relieved of her burden, Louise seemed relieved in spirit too. Job done, and young at heart. I remembered that as a powerful combination. I noticed that she'd left the basket as well as the bottles, and pointed this out in case the abandonment was an accident. It wasn't.

"I'll pick it up when I'm here next week", she said. "I have to bring the empty bottles back anyway, after Mr. Bresson's emptied them into a cask. He does that every year, you know. I never understand why".

I shrugged. "People have ways", I explained wisely, then added the afterthought, "Anyway, as long as you got a fair price, what does it matter?"

Her brow furrowed. "A fair price? I don't understand."

"For the wine", I explained.

Understanding dawned visibly in the set of Louise's face. Understanding with a trace of surprise. "I wasn't selling the wine", she said. "It was a favour".

"A favour". I struggled with the concept. "You mean a gift. Now I see. It's Mr. Bresson's birthday".

Louise shook her head vigorously. "A favour", she stressed. "For Favour Day. Not a gift. And as for selling, well, no money changes hands on Favour Day. All shops close". She gave me an odd look "Do things work differently in your country? Surely not?"

"I suppose they must", I allowed, suspecting a local custom or festival. "I've never heard of Favour Day".

Louise stopped walking. Her brow furrowed, a pretty gesture because it made her nose wrinkle at the same time. "How sad", she judged. "No, really. I mean it. How sad. Oh, you miss so much".

"Maybe", I granted, mindful that many annual celebrations in this part of the world were well worth getting involved in.

"Maybe?", Louise scoffed. "Try definitely. Favour Day's the highlight of the year. I just can't believe this"

"I only live here, remember", I reminded her. "I wasn't born here".

She was exasperated. "I can't believe", she insisted, "there's even the smallest village, anywhere in the world, that doesn't celebrate Favour Day".

"Try whole countries", I suggested.

She scowled petulantly. "Whatever you say".

I tried to be diplomatic. "Look, I'm just an ignorant foreigner. Humour me. Tell me about it".

"About Favour Day?", she presumed.

I nodded. "What happens exactly? Everyone gives their friends and family presents? Is that it?""

"Not so much presents", she qualified, "as gifts".

The distinction seemed rather elegant to me then. It isn't now. But then, I left my confusion unspoken, wary of irritating her further. Instead, I said, "I'm not a man for gifts. I don't need gifts. I have everything I need".

"There's always something", she disagreed. "I haven't known you long, Martin, but with you there are many things. I wouldn't know where to start".

It was an odd response. I didn't read it as sympathy, and was grateful for that, but there was no doubt that she was expressing concern. "I've already told you", I said, taking a guess, "that Lisa's a long way in the past. And even if she wasn't, a few bottles of wine wouldn't help me. Well, I suppose they might for a day or two, if I just carried on drinking them".

The last was intended as a joke, but Louise didn't smile. "You still haven't got it", she lectured mildly. "Today is about favours, not presents. Yes, the favour might be a present, like the bottles of wine for Mr. Bresson. But it could be anything. A new story learned for a little boy. Time in the fresh air for someone bedridden. The resolution of an old argument. A kind word to an unpleasant acquaintance. So yes, I agree with you, Martin. A present is not the favour you most need. It's something else entirely".

"I don't think I know anyone who'd feel inclined to do me any favours", I said. "Or who knows me well enough. I'd have thought that you had to know someone very well to decide what they need".

"There's a lot of thought before the day", Louise conceded. "But you'd be surprised how easy it is most of the time".

By now we were under the cover of the trees. The dappling effect on the grass beneath our feet was quite spectacular, and the cooler air was welcome. There was a path, of sorts, down which, despite the fact that we were side by side, Louise was effectively leading me.

She linked my arm again. It was the first time that she had done so since she delivered her package, and I took it as a sign of forgiveness for my earlier awkwardness.

"How do you decide who you do favours for?", I wondered idly. "I mean, you can't be extra specially nice to everyone in your village, can you? Not on the same day. Do you decide in advance? Make up a list? This year it'll be these five people. That sort of thing".

"In a way, yes", she confirmed. "I decided on the wine weeks ago, for example. But that's not all there is to it. You do try to be especially nice through the day. If you can think of a favour, something to make someone else happy, then you do it".

"And if it costs you something", I guessed, "then so much the better".

She sighed. "I can see how Favour Day might be hard to grasp if you're new to it", she said exasperatedly, "but I think you're being deliberately dumb. It's not about martyrdom either. Some favours have a cost, I admit. Money. Pride. But never more than you're prepared to lose".

She strengthened her grip on my arm, steered me onto a smaller path which forked off the main route to the left. The trees were closer to us now, and there was moisture in the air. I began to grow a little concerned about getting lost, but decided to trust that Louise had a good enough familiarity with the area in which she lived.

"Give me a real example", I requested. "Other than the wine. If I wanted to perform a favour for you on Favour Day, what would it be?"

Louise flushed slightly, a perfect and pure pinkness that stole into her neck and cheeks. "The favour I seek", she replied after a long pause, "wouldn't be yours to give".

I chuckled. "But Armand", I teased. "He might be able to help".

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Romantic / Oral Sex /