The Program Director. By Martin Green.
When my wife Sally died I was devastated. I went into virtual seclusion for the next year. Finally, my kids (a son and daughter) insisted that I go on a European river cruise, like the ones Sally and I had taken in the past few years. I gave in and went. The cruise started in Nice and would end in Paris. The other people on the tour were pleasant, especially a recent widow named Martha, but I still kept mostly to myself. I was known as the loner.
Id always been interested in the backgrounds of our tour guides, or Program Directors as they were now called. One had been a history teacher at Oxford. Another had written screenplays in Hollywood before leaving for unknown reasons. My program director on this trip was a short middle-aged man named Paul Rousseau. He was ordinary looking except for a deep tan, seemed to brim with self-confidence (he was obviously good at what he did) and of course spoke fluent French.
One night when I had trouble sleeping I got up, dressed and went to the ships bar. I found Paul Rousseau there, drinking by himself. We talked about the trip and I let it slip out that I was a recent widower. He said he was sorry to hear it. Despite his name and fluent French I somehow felt he was an American. I asked him and he said he was. I asked him what had led him to becoming a Program Director. He looked around, saw no one else and said hed never told anyone the true story before but hed tell me.
It was ten years ago, he said. He worked for a large insurance company in a large city. He was unmarried and lived by himself with a cat named Antoinette. He went to the office every day, did his work, went back to a small apartment, fed Antoinette, had his own dinner, watched television and went to bed. His real name was Moule, pronounced Mo-lay, but everyone called him Mr. Mole. That is, when anyone noticed him. He often felt that to other people he was invisible.
He saw an ad in the travel section of his newspaper and, on an impulse, signed up for a European cruise. He had accrued plenty of vacation time as he almost never took time off. He arranged with a neighbor to look after Antoinette and went. The tour coincidentally was the same one we were now on, from Nice to Paris. On the trip, it seemed that nobody noticed him, just as in his office. People he met at dinner one night walked past him the next day. His Program Director, when he addressed him at all, inevitably called him Mr. Mole.
It occurred to him that on one of their stops he could easily slip away and nobody would miss him. Once this thought entered his head he couldnt get rid of it. Just going off like that would be contrary to everything hed done in his whole life. But why not? Who would care? On the last stop before Paris, a fair-sized town, the tour group visited a cathedral and a museum, then they were given time on their own. They were to meet at a certain time in the town square and the Program Director would lead them back to their ship.
When the time came he sat in the rear of one of the cafes around the square. The other members of his tour group were all dutifully gathered at the designated statue. The Program Director arrived and they all trooped back in the direction of the ship. As hed anticipated, no one had noticed his absence. He finished his drink, then found a small hotel on a side street and registered for the night. Hed taken some extra clothes and toiletries, which were in his backpack. When night came, he returned to the square. Hed been mistaken. His absence had been noticed. The Program Director and two other men from the cruise ship were going around the cafes talking to people. He assumed they were asking if anyone had seen a lost American tourist. He stood behind a tree and watched for a while, then he went back to his hotel. He had no idea of what he was going to do.
What did you do? I asked.
The next day I made some phone calls. My first call was of course to my neighbor, who assured me shed be happy to keep Antoinette. That taken care of, I called the tour company to assure them I was all right but wouldnt be continuing on their trip. Then I called my bank to transfer my funds. Then I went to Paris. I wont bore you with the adventures, or misadventures, I had there. Suffice to say, I was trying to make up for my previous dull life. Id studied some French before going on the trip and after six months or so in Paris I could speak it fluently. Id also run through my funds. I went to the Paris office of the tour company. I was in luck. One of their Program Directors had just left without notice. They hired me at once. Since then Ive been all over Europe and most of the rest of the world as well.
People took notice of you. You were no longer the anonymous Mr. Mole.
No, I was a different man. I was Paul Rousseau, the super-competent Program Director. I shepherded my tourists around strange places, made sure they were properly looked after, took care of all their problems.
But you never got married or had a family?
No, not that I didnt have many opportunities. There were always single ladies who wanted to get closer to their Program Director. Id decided to remain a bachelor. The single life suited me. But thats not true for everyone, yourself, for example. I noticed that a certain attractive widow has shown interest in you.
Im afraid Im not ready for that.
Possibly not, but you cannot remain a loner forever. I changed. You must change.
It was well after 2 AM. We said our goodnights. The next day our tour reached Paris. As we walked around the city, looking at its many attractions, the thought came to me more than once that I could easily slip away and do what the former Mr. Mole had done. But I didnt want that life. Besides, I had my son and my daughter. Id return to the States, but I would change my life. Im not sure if it was the Program Directors story or getting away on this trip or just the passage of time, but I was ready to move on. This was my resolve and I had taken the widow Marthas address and phone number with me.
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