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145One Northern France March 1975

Legs astride, long skirt tucked into her knickers, Aurélie Pêguissoux spat on her hands and swung an old Gilpin axe. It struck the waiting log dead centre. As the two halves fell aside, and the blade embedded itself in the supporting roundel, a satisfying clonk echoed across the woods and the quiet wintry meadows of the lower Seine valley. Minutes later, she emerged from a woodshed with her arms full of splits and walked towards the terrace of a riverside cottage where her parents sat playing Scrabble. “Hurry up. I’m getting cold,” said Maria. “Well, put some more clothes on then,” said Aurélie. “It’s all right for you, getting up a sweat chopping logs.” “She who makes her own fire is twice warmed.” “What?” “Old American Indian saying.” “I think in the original, it was he,” said Didier, laying down yaourt with a grin. Aurélie poked her tongue out at him. “I don’t care. That was then and this is now.” Maria took a sweater from the back of her chair and pulled it over her head. After a brief attempt at finger-styling her long curly hair, she looked down at the board and sidled up to Didier’s yaourt with a whiskey. “Whiskey?” said Didier. “That’s not French.” “Oh yes it is… Aurélie, isn’t whiskey a French word?” “It certainly is. I’ve had to look it up before. And it’s the highest-scoring

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seven.” “Mon Dieu,” said Didier. “A hundred and forty four points. I’ve had enough.” He left the table to continue with his cooking. Spring had come early this year. For the past week, it had blessed them with enough warmth and sunshine that they could eat outside again, with a little boost from Didier’s two hand-made braziers. A makeshift grill rested on one. He stirred the glowing embers below, then covered it with half a dozen marinated wild boar chops. As they sizzled and smoked, and the smell of seared meat and wild herbs drifted across the table, he stoked the other with Aurélie’s latest cargo of fuel. A pall of wood smoke settled over the airless terrace. Maria put the Scrabble game to one side and picked up a folded tablecloth, which she tucked under her chin. “Come on, you,” she said to Aurélie. “Give me a hand.” Aurélie walked up to her, until their noses almost collided, and took hold of two corners. With her eyes locked on to Maria’s, she backed away until the cloth was at full stretch. They opened it out, shook it up high, and exchanged smiles beneath a billowing parachute of white linen. It drifted down to cover the old wooden table, which they laid up to look summery: freshly-gathered pale-lemon primroses at the centre, a bowl of blue crocuspetals beside each setting. They dragged two tubs of pink camellias, both in full bloom, across the gravelled terrace to create punctuation marks at the heads of the table. This meal, Sunday lunch, was a celebration of nothing more or less than the end of winter. All morning, Didier had been preparing the last of the season’s fare. His Jerusalem artichoke soup was kicked into life by the gratings of an earthy black truffle sent up from Périgord. For his quenelles of pike, from a large one he and

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Aurélie had caught the day before, he made a vibrant sauce Bretonne: onions, garlic and tomatoes fried in butter, moistened with white wine and fish stock and garnished with handfuls of chopped parsley. Now, after a comforting potato gratin, they set about the chops, bedded on a sauté of wild spring mushrooms and sorrel. Maria poured more wine. She raised her glass and chinked it with theirs. “Here’s to spring and us,” she said. “And whiskey.” “This will last me all week,” said Aurélie. “Just as well,” said Maria. “You eat like a lark in Paris. All that junk too...” “Leave me alone.... I see you’re getting ready for a new painting, papa.” “How do you know?” “I took a quick look inside the studio. What’s the story?” “You remember that restaurant in Les Andalys I told you about? Well, the one time I ate there, this couple came in. I watched them for a while. They didn’t share a word all evening. I couldn’t get over the glazed look in their eyes.” “We don’t have that problem, do we, chéri?” Maria piped in. “What? Not talking? Oh, no. But do you know what? He still had to prove something, make a mark. He treated the waiters like shit, ate all the food and then complained loudly about it…” “That’s very sad,” said Aurélie. “So the picture is…?” “Two people across a table, eating and staring into space.” “That is so you.” “Hopper, more like,” said Maria, with a wink. Didier leant back on his chair, hands behind his neck. “I’ll ignore that.” By the time they stopped drinking the hearty red Cahors and picking at slices

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of cheese and pear, it was gone five o’clock. Didier made a pot of coffee, then slipped inside for his customary nap, leaving the two women to carry on with the Scrabble. Mid-evening, Maria and Aurélie threw their bags in the back of Maria’s old Renault 4 for the weekly journey back to the family apartment in Central Paris. Didier ambled outside to wave them off: “I’ll be back Wednesday night.” “Go and get some work done. I’ll call you when we get home. Love you.” “Me too,” said Aurélie. She turned her head and blew him a kiss over her shoulder. They were running late. Maria forsook her usual route - the winding back-road that followed the North Bank of the river - and headed for the main road into the city. “Why are we going this way?” asked Aurélie. “I’ve got an early morning assignment and I want to be fresh for it.” Inside the car, the air was loaded. They were both letting off continual explosions of artichoke gas and chuckling over it. Aurélie slid open a window. “How can anything act so quickly? We never learn, do we?” “Good job he’s not here. I’d have thrown him out of the car.” “We must get him back. Next time he’s in Paris, I’ll cook a tagine and empty a whole jar of harissa into his portion.” Maria laughed. “No. You can’t do that. His bum’ll be on fire for a week.” “What a meal though. Reminded me of grandmaman’s Christmas lunches… Can we go and see her soon? It’s been ages. I really miss London.” “You can always go on your own, you know. You’re a big girl now.” “I know. I just prefer it when we’re all together.” The road was filling up, weekenders returning to Paris, long-distance lorries

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setting off on their overnight journeys to the South and beyond. As the evening light faded, Maria upped her concentration and went quiet, leaving Aurélie to stare out of the window. She found herself drawn to all the shrines strung out along the unfamiliar road: on a bend, in a ditch, against a tree. Her gaze fell on each one. Most were simply piles of flowers, irises and tulips just about all of them dead, but some were graced with diminutive memorial headstones. Others featured intricate Jesus-and-Mary figurines tucked inside plasterof-paris archways. They reminded her of those barrows of ecclesiastical trinkets she’d seen outside the cathedrals on their trips through Northern Italy. Each one, its secrets hidden, exuded a poignancy which she preferred not to contemplate. She lowered her head, to stare at her knees and think about work tomorrow. “Jesus Christ! What’s he playing at?” Aurélie started and looked up into the headlights of an approaching car. She gripped the edges of her seat and slammed her right foot down on a non-existent brake pedal. A Peugeot estate screeched through the gap between the lorry it was overtaking and their car. It caught the rear-end with a glancing blow. The Renault careered down the roadside ditch, hit a protruding mound and flipped over, continuing on its roof with barely any loss of speed. The leading edge scooped up clods of earth and splattered them against the windscreen, ploughed into one of the shrines and sent a cascade of dead flowers skyward. Aurélie experienced her first stretch in time: around her, the movements of passing bushes and airborne flowers took on a fluid, dreamlike quality. At one point, she made fleeting contact with Maria’s wide eyes. They seemed to be saying goodbye.

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When the car came to a halt, at the foot of a tree, the engine was screaming at full revs, the horn was blaring and in those last chaotic seconds, something had flicked the windscreen wipers on. The driver of the first car to draw up behind raced over to the wreck and threw open the door. A road-map patterned with splashes of fresh blood fell at his feet. Trails of cadmium scarlet slid down the glossy cover, along the coastline of Northern France. He turned off the ignition, spun around to face away from the silent carnage and vomited over the strewn flowers. As the wipers froze, AurĂŠlie was presented with a single tulip, trapped by the blade and framed by the windscreen-trim. Still life in mud. The sounds of the fractured radiator and the dying revolutions of the upturned wheels drifted into her fading consciousness. Then the inside of the car went spinning and the world turned to black.

*****

Two

Early morning, Didier arrived at the hospital and was led into the subdued light of the

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intensive care unit to find Aurélie unconscious. He sat down at her bedside, took hold of her hand and stroked it, while he looked across at her puffy face, laced with wounds of bruise and cut. Through the faint beeping of the cardiac monitor and the hum and hiss of the ventilator, he could hear her light breathing. His own was less regular; his chest heaved as he fought for air. His head made its way through the tangle of tubes and wires to rest itself on her pillow. She smelt like a newly-washed baby, felt warm and alive. Over his shoulder, he heard the duty nurse walk over to stand right behind him, smelling of Fleur de Lys and a long hard shift. “She’s stable,” she whispered. “Would you like me to call for the doctor?” He nodded, without turning round. When the woman arrived, he stood up and the three of them gathered together at the nurse’s station. “Aurélie’s been unconscious since admission. We found no life-threatening injuries, or we would have operated, but…” “What do you mean?” “Like a broken rib that could puncture a lung, or internal bleeding, things like that.” “Oh, I see.” “But she still has one or two clean fractures and wounds that may need stitching. We’ll wait a while and see how she gets on.” “Will she live?” “We think so. But we can’t say if or when she’ll regain consciousness.” “Any… any brain injury?” “We don’t know yet.” Didier returned to the easy chair and curled up. After an hour’s restlessness, he

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dragged it back to the bedside. In the glow of the monitors and the machinery lights, he took her hand again and held on tight to the last of his bloodline. Aurélie was a surviving twin. Her sister died at birth, already named. Temporarily unhinged by the loss, Maria carried on referring to Anaëlle for many years after, with the result that Aurélie spent much of her early childhood in the shadow of her sister’s ghost. Didier looked down on her own ghostly form: “I’ve been lying here thinking, chérie. About all those years I never had time for you. When I was painting at home, alone with you while Maria was at work, I’d pop into your room to make sure you were all right and there you’d be, with your scruffy little friend from across the hall, reading out to him, spectacles on, tongue out, running your fingers across the page of some strange book that Maria had bought you…” He leant back and stared down a chasm of regret. “I can’t carry on like this… My head’s on fire... I’ll just have to imagine your half of the conversation…” He drew the chair over to the bed and sat down close beside her. “… Do you remember that time you took up football? You jumped on a bus to the suburbs and joined in with a team that was practicing in the park. They thought you were a boy. You flew down the left wing to set up one goal and later headed another in. They took you on. I didn’t know about it for weeks…Then that talent scout from a pro club came along and picked you out. Only by then you were growing and Maria had to bandage your little bumps. When you got tackled and the bindings came loose, they could all see you were a girl, and they sent you home. I really felt for you, angel…” His soliloquy was interrupted by a sudden shiver crossing his shoulder-blades.

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He turned his head to see the nurse looking straight at him, smiling. “It’s OK. Please don’t be shy about it. It’s good for them. You carry on. You keep letting her know there’s something out there and it’s what consciousness is for.” He smiled back. “Thank you.” Over the next few days, Didier reminded her, and himself, of some of the milestones in her eccentric childhood. The time she started coming home from school with books on astronomy, only it was astrology she was really interested in and they didn’t have any of those. Not scientific enough. So Maria went and bought her an old leather-bound copy of Principia Astrologia, a definitive nineteenth-century treatise on the subject. The time she decided, right in the middle of her Baccalauréat, that French History would get her nowhere. She wanted to be a map-maker. So they got hold of a print of the 1679 Cassini map of France and put it up in her bedroom. Then she went and found herself a London Underground map, and that was so big it had to go in the hallway. Breathtaking beauty and utility, she said, the pinnacle of her chosen trade. She walked straight out of art school into a job at a graphic design office. Her own desk was dedicated to the creation of maps and plans for tourist agencies and municipalities, her constant challenge, how to reduce the essence of a place down to a simple block drawing from which anyone could deduce their whereabouts.

On the tenth day, Didier was intercepted by the nurse on his way to the bed. “She came round last night,” she whispered. He threw a look over at Aurélie’s open eyes. They seemed empty, without focus. The nurse continued: “I’m afraid… Well, it would appear that she’s blind. The consultant came earlier. He’s booked her in for

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some tests.” “Oh no… Should I tell her… about her mother?” “It’s up to you. But I’d say it’s probably better to get it over with. There’s no apparent loss of memory. She’s going to start asking questions. It should be you.” He went over to Aurélie’s side and took her hand. She smiled. Their first few words together ripped into his heart like a blunt rusty knife: “Maria’s gone, chérie. It’s just you and me now.” He looked on helpless as she turned her face sideways to the pillow and wept. He wept too, for her simple youthful heart. “Papa, I can’t see.” “I know. They’re going to do some tests.” “Yes.” “Your eyes must be taking longer to come round than the rest of you.” With a cocktail of therapies to be endured, Aurélie’s physical recovery took another few weeks, though her eyesight never returned. Didier visited every day. The rest of the time, he wandered the backstreets of Montparnasse, stepping into no-hope cafés and drinking alone, or peering through grimy shop windows at Maria’s spectral visage, staring back at him from behind his own reflection. At the end of each day, as a sombre dusk fell on his soul, he’d pass through the gates of the Cimetière du Montparnasse and walk the tree-lined avenues. Once off the main track and down the side alleys, he found himself alone in an eerie, nightmare place, haunted by the ghosts of his darkest childhood nights, crushed by memories of his first encounters with Maria more than twenty-five years before. A couple of times, he didn’t even reach her grave. Turning back, his face covered in sweat and tears, he placed his bunch of flowers against Baudelaire’s headstone.

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The bleak sorrows of the cemetery only served to highlight the times, sunny as infant summers, when they used to stroll here together, to escape the chaos of nonstop late-night living. Now his dreams turned half-circle and he looked back on those days to the whisper of his favourite Baudelaire line:

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté Luxe, calme et volupté

Evenings, he walked back to the apartment and slipped into Maria’s room, to organise her possessions and look through her photographs. Sat on a rug in the middle of the spacious tall-ceilinged room, he surrounded himself with boxes, envelopes and piles of clothes. One photo, taken herself with a timer, captured her in front of the open French doors, backlit, with muslin drapes billowing behind. Her face was threequarters to the shot and she wasn’t smiling – she rarely did for the camera – but her eyes sparkled, even through the pale shadow, and appeared to look straight at him. Each night he stayed up late in that room, until sleep finally found him on the sofa, curled up with one of her worn T-shirts in his arms. Each morning he dragged himself back to the hospital, with only the actuality of Aurélie’s survival to keep him going. No preparations were made for her homecoming. He just stopped painting and kept a close eye on her. When notification of her test results arrived, Didier decided not to let her know. He walked alone to the hospital appointment. On arrival, he was led to the Department of Neuropsychiatry. The consultant, his desk strewn with papers, looked baffled. “There are three possible causes of Aurélie’s blindness. The most likely in this

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case would be physical damage, somewhere along the visual tract. A torn retina perhaps, a severed optic nerve, or brain injury, to the primary cortex. But we found no evidence of this…” “That’s good news then?” “Please. Let me continue… We had already excluded delusional blindness...” “What’s that?” “Feigning, basically. Where a patient believes she is blind and acts in accordance with that belief.” “How come you excluded it?” “Simple tests. Discreet observation. Instigating sudden movements to the face to see if they prompt a guarding reflex…” “I see.” “There’s one other possibility: visual conversion disorder. Used to be called hysterical blindness. This is where the brain, confronted by an overwhelming trauma, unconsciously disables optical functioning. If a victim witnesses events that she cannot process psychologically, the ensuing attacks of acute anxiety can trigger the brain into converting intolerable stress into a real physical state, effectively eliminating the stressor: sight.” “I think I understand that.” “It’s uncommon, but it did happen to a lot of tank crews in the war, if they were hit by a shell. A man might see his comrades wiped out before him, but go on to survive.”

Didier, flooded with memories of Maria and the accident, broke down and wept. When he looked up, he saw that the Consultant also had his head in his hands.

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“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” “It’s OK... I’m all right… It’s a bit like amnesia then? “Think of it this way. Her eyes are in a coma.” “So maybe…?” “She’s blind. It’s real. I think it’s best not to hold out hope.” He walked home under a thick grey sky, made a detour through the cemetery for a quick few words with Maria, then strode along Rue Guynemer, past his old boarding school, which as always smelt of… what was it? horsemeat? He gagged, quickened his step and turned to cut across Luxembourg Gardens. Bright new buds and shoots burst from the chestnut trees, a myriad cobalt-green dots on a sixty-acre canvas. The park, still soaked from the night rains, was near-empty. He passed a couple of armed police, toting assault rifles, showing off their virgin-white handgun holsters. Must be trouble on the Left Bank again. A long history of run-ins with the law turned his gaze from theirs. He’d be on a list somewhere, and was in no mood for a fight. But the scene got him thinking back. Aurélie had been with him and Maria behind the barricades in ’68. Only eighteen then, but she loved every minute, lobbing flowers at the riot shields. He wondered what she’d do with all that energy now. A barren nostalgia snapped at his heels. He upped his pace once again. Even the Octagonal Lake was bare. A single model-boat with tall masts and tight white sails drifted towards the Western shore, pushed off by a lone couple, a scruffy old man and his gleeful grandson. He waved at them. They waved back. By the time he reached the far side of the park, he was ready for a drink at his local on Boul’ Mich. Familiar smells of Gauloises and garlic, coffee and cognac greeted him. Paleyellow incandescent light drizzled down the stained walls. Two of his old paintings,

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wired up now so they wouldn’t get stolen, stared at him from each end of the counter. The barman poured a Calvados and enquired about Aurélie while he fired up the coffee machine. A group of friends called him over to the warmth of their stoveside table. Only when he’d crossed the apartment threshold, did he decide what to tell Aurélie. He would leave out the last part of the interview. She had tested negative for all the usual causes and they simply didn’t know why. He found her in the kitchen, slumped on the table, heaving deep sobs into her folded arms. Beneath one of her bare feet, a puddle of blood spread slowly across the white marble floor. He got down on one knee to remove a shard of glass from the weeping foot, and picked up the largest of the shattered pieces, the remnants of a wine glass he’d left on the edge of the table. “This is my fault. I’m sorry.” “I can’t go on, Papa. I want Maria back.” “I miss her too, baby. So much… Listen, you’re bleeding badly. Don’t move. There’s glass still around.” He got up and went to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Below it, a shelf stood vacant, its usual array of toiletries, beakers and toothbrushes strewn across the room. “What happened here?” “I couldn’t find the toothpaste… I did try.” Didier glanced down. He’d left it at the back of the basin by one of the taps. “So you swiped everything off the shelf?” “Yes.” She raised her head and smiled in his direction, her face like a fiveyear-old’s covered in snot and tears. He took off his jacket and rolled up his

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shirtsleeves. “Come on. Let me dress that wound. We’ve got work to do.”

Aurélie took to the job-in-hand instinctively. Like a new-born kitten, she explored her immediate landscape in a series of concentric rings. The first was the neighbourhood of her bed, her safe place. When she had teamed her mental map with spatial reality, she moved outward to the next ring. This process took weeks, as she extended the boundary of her safe place to include the whole apartment. After that, the stairway and then the street. Eventually, with the aid of her cane, she was able to use the buses and the Métro, and keep in touch with one or two of her old friends. They met for lunch, went to the shops on Boulevard St. Germain and spent evenings listening to music at each other’s apartments. Twice a week, a translator came with her braille-writer, to teach Aurélie to read and write, and to help her transpose some of her notes and cherished writings. Aurélie decided that the first to be tackled should be her list of twin-towns. Her fascination with all things twin had emerged with lubricant ease to heal the wound in her heart where Anaëlle had once lived. When, around the age of twelve, she discovered the existence of twinning, she took to it like a train-spotter, copying lists from the library and underlining the places she visited in red. With grandparents in England and annual holidays in Northern Italy or Central Spain, she had plenty of opportunity. This gave her an impressive score, but she could never find anyone with the same interest. It occurred to her more than once that she might be the only one. Fully aware that on the surface they were mere administrative niceties, nevertheless she was attracted to an undercurrent notion that somewhere beyond the

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mirror there existed genuine, more spiritual aspects of connectivity: fragments of landscape, memory, desire. Why else would Brittany and Cornwall be so drawn to each other? She also managed, with a little help, to re-kindle her love for the stars. Louise, the braille teacher, set about translating The Ephemeris. Didier took care of the accessories. He put together a book of blank charts and lined the segments with fuse wire. Some jewellery-maker friends fashioned a brooch for each of the star signs. He made a tactile protractor himself. A small toolbox housed more lengths of fuse wire, locating-pins and lumps of plasticine to help keep the delicate operations stable. Louise, who’d never had her stars read before, volunteered for Aurélie’s first tactile experiment. All three held their breath as Aurélie laid down her first connecting lines. She took her time. Once finished, she got Didier to do the same reading the sighted way, with a pencil, instructing him on procedure at every stage. The margin of fit between the two was little more than one degree at the outer limits of the chart. “Will that do?” asked Didier. “For now,” said the Blind Astrologer, with a smile.

*****

Three Paris April 1977

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A long queue snaked away from the newsagent’s till. Didier, who hated queuing for anything, picked up his daily paper and wandered aimlessly round the back of the shop. His eye was taken by a box of pins, the kind with multi-coloured plastic heads like little chess pieces, and he suddenly saw them, these commonplace trivia, in a different light. He bought a few boxes and, while Aurélie was out, dashed up to her old apartment for the London Undergound Map they’d left behind. He remounted it on corkboard, hung it in the hallway and stuck a pin in every station. On her return, he took her arm and led the middle finger of her left hand to the Western edge. “I’ve brought your map back. Here.” She boarded at Uxbridge on the Metropolitan Line, appearing perplexed at first. But she soon got the hang of it. She headed for Hillingdon. Bump… Ickenham. Ruislip. Bump… Bump… “Faster!” Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. By the time she hit the Circle Line, she was whizzing along. She went all the way round and then again. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack… Then she shot off up the Central Line... Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack… and alighted at Epping. He placed his hands on her shoulders, pressed himself against her back and kissed the top of her head. After a long silence, she swung around, wrapped her arms round his neck and kissed his face over and over. “I’ve been waiting for that. Without realising it.” “What, a kiss?” “No. Of course not. You’re always kissing me when I need it. No. The map!” “In that case, I’m sorry it took so long.” “That’s OK… But if you don’t mind, I’d like to be on my own for a while.”

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Over dinner that evening, Didier found himself in the company of an altogether more energised daughter. She brought a piece of card to the table. It was covered in glued-down cut-outs of braille-written paper shapes, some of them joined by bits of string. “You know I can’t read braille.” “Yes. And I’m glad. All I’m telling you is some of the squares are people’s names and some are ideas. And the cloudlike ones are dreams.” “There’s an awful lot of them. You’ve obviously been doing some thinking.” “I have… And I read my horoscope…” “Au-ré-lie… I bought you that book because it’s the only one I could find in braille, but it’s hardly… well, let’s put it this way: you could do a lot better yourself.” “I know, but sometimes it’s good to get someone else’s take on things.” “However banal?” “It says on the 27th I’ll enter one of the happiest periods of this year. I’m fed up with Paris, bored with lunches and shopping. I want to go away somewhere. On my own.” “Like where?” “I thought Brittany.” “Don’t you think it’s a bit soon for that.” “Papa, I’m twenty-eight. If I can navigate the streets and subways of Paris, I’m sure I’ll breeze through Brittany… Please…” “All right then. I’ll make the arrangements for you. I can drive you to Dinard.” “No. I want to take the train.”

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On the night before she was due to leave, he handed her two presents, neatly wrapped. She untied them slowly. An Oriental notebook, its cover finished in silk, had two pieces of silk ribbon where, in a Western version, there would be metal rings. Didier had taken most of her braille-written notes, hole-punched them and threaded the ribbons through them all. Inside the second, a hand-made wooden box with intricate carvings all over, he’d placed a few of her cherished things: a music-box with a gyrating dance band, though all the players were cats; some pressed flowers including a bunch of stillfragrant lavender; some pieces of plastic jewellery that Maria had given her when she was eight; and a little tin of her favourite childhood bonbons, blackcurrant-flavoured boiled sweets lightly dusted with fine sugar. Aurélie felt them one-by-one; the silk in particular seemed to move her. The little trinkets rattled inside the big box. He watched her hands slip inside to draw its interior boundaries and feel the vacancy for new treasures that he’d intended. She faced up and beamed a big smile his way. When she kissed his face, tears streamed down his cheeks and salted his lips. “I’ll bring back sea-shells for you, like I used to when I was a kid.”

The locomotive was already easing forward, taking up the slack on the traincouplings, when Didier jumped down on to the platform of the Gare Montparnasse and slammed the carriage door shut. Immediately, he began to run with the train. “À toute à l’heure!… Je t’aime!” Aurélie’s head turned to face him and she kissed the carriage window, leaving behind a steamy little mark. As it faded, he became breathless. He stopped, one hand on his chest, and waved in her direction.

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Back in the apartment, he made himself a bowl of strong coffee and poured a Calvados. Sat on the sofa by the balcony doors, calm though watery-eyed, he looked up at the seventy five year-old painting hung over the fireplace and raised his glass, as he often did, to The Old Man. Didier was old Breton money, and it was his grandfather Edouard that he had to thank for his share. During the 1880s, Edouard had taken over the helm of the complacent family shipping business in Nantes. Twenty years later, with canny timing, he sold out to a much larger passenger-liner operation for a staggering sum. Every few years, in an idle moment, Didier liked to update the original fortune with a quick inflationary calculation. Its current worth was something like a billion francs. With three generations of typically large families to accommodate, by the time it reached Didier it had been split twenty ways. At least no-one had blown it. But noone had grown it either. They had all invested prudently, lived modestly off the interest, and spent the proceeds on putting their children through good schools and universities and on grand houses with good cellars ordinarily beyond the reach of professional people. Which is what they had all become, with the exception of young Hervé, who had taken over the running of the ship-repair business that Edouard decided not to sell. And Didier of course, the artist, the Bohemian, the black sheep. Didier’s remaining relatives – two brothers, two sisters and their families – were dotted along the North of Brittany from Brest to Dinard on the Emerald Coast. And it was towards these that Aurélie was heading now, retracing the summers of her youth.

The combined effect of the early rising and the couple of glasses of Calva nudged him into a brief sleep, from which he awoke with a fierce hunger. A few

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handfuls of cold water thrown over his face shook him into some semblance of physical normality. He took a short walk to the market on Rue Mouffetard - where all the stallholders knew him – and after some welcome friendly exchanges, returned to the apartment with bread and cheese, charcuterie and salads. Some olives and pickles completed his lunch-plate. He opened a bottle of red and drank most of it with the meal. An hour later, and he felt ten times better, but sleepy again. He passed out, this time on his bed, re-awaking around five. It would soon be time for a call from Aurélie. He made coffee and waited. He was about to pick up the phone when Hervé called, to say that Aurélie had arrived safely and was now resting before they went out to dinner. No doubt she would call later or - if it was too late - in the morning. Didier walked over to the big doors and threw them open. The street roared in, carrying with it the comforting Parisian smells of bad drains and good food, the sounds of engines revving, cars and trucks honking their horns, people shouting and dashing about. The back-end of the rush-hour was colliding with the front-end of the cocktail hour. He stepped out on to the balcony and sipped from his bowl of coffee. Looking down on this familiar chaos, he decided tonight he’d pay a visit to La Note Bleue, his regular jazz club, and get drunk again. He took a shower, changed clothes and walked out into a warm evening to do just that. But first, there was some other business to take care of: the not-so-small matter of two years of celibacy to dispel. He headed for Montmartre to find himself a girl, one who wouldn’t say no, one who would let him know, even though she might not say so, that everything was all right.

***

21


Three South Wales Two Years Later

A navy and cream Citroën DS flashed down the outside lane of the M4, the outskirts of Cardiff through the rear windscreen, Portsmouth and the night-ferry to St Malo over the bonnet. Dafydd Williams had covered this stretch of road a thousand times before, growing up in Cardiff, studying in Newport, working in London. Now he had a month off and he was going to France for most of it. But that was about the only reference point he had for this journey, apart from a ten year-old postcard from Nantes and three recent ones from places he’d barely heard of. Two weekends ago, he’d been summoned from London by his father Emlyn to the parental home up on Caerphilly Mountain, just beyond the northern outskirts of Cardiff. Father wanted to ‘have a chat’. And he got straight down to it, standing in the kitchen over a whisky on the Friday night as soon as Mother had gone to bed. “I want you to go to France and find Sean.” “Dad. It’s been more than ten years. He could be anywhere.” “He sent us three more postcards. Last Summer.” “Why didn’t you tell me before?” “I’m telling you now. It’s not as if you come and see us much. Or call. You didn’t even come home for Christmas.” “It’s not home any more. Anyway, I’ve been busy… Why now?” “Your mother needs to know he’s all right.” “She’s not my mother.” “You know what I mean. And she’s certainly his mother. I’ll pay your expenses.”

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“I’m really not up for this. Can’t you hire someone?” “For goodness sake, he’s your brother.” “Half brother. And that’s the last time I let you know I’ve got a couple of months off. I’m thirty-six. Too old for emotional blackmail.” “

Well I’m disappointed in you, is all I can say.” Dafydd was in-between projects, the last one wrapped, the next one – a new

move into drama - tightly planned. A moderately successful film-maker, with a reputation for quirky TV documentaries on arcane connections between the Celtic lands of Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia, all he intended to do, during this his favourite time of the year, was read in the garden and maybe spend a few days on the coast. He pulled a chair from under the kitchen table. “OK. What have we got to go on? This is not a ‘yes,’ by the way.” Emlyn went over to a drawer where he kept his cheque-books and important papers and pulled out a clutch of postcards. He picked up a well-worn map of France from the worktop and sat down next to Dafydd. “Not much. This is that first postcard from Nantes. It’s quite chatty and has an address. These are the other three: no addresses and quite cryptic, the last one in French. You can just make out the dates and the post-towns. God only knows, I’ve studied them enough.” Emlyn unfolded the map. It was dotted with highlights in yellow marker over the three towns and the cities nearest them. He put on his reading glasses, bent over the map and traced the journey, slowly, with his forefinger. All of a sudden, he looked old and sad. For the first time in years, Dafydd felt a twinge of affection for him.

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He pored over the postcards: a city scene, a statue of Joan of Arc, an aerial view of a puy, an unremarkable cathedral against an impossibly blue sky. “That Nantes address looks like an apartment block or a rooming-house. It might not even have the same concierge now.” “I sent a reply there. It was returned unopened.” “As for these others, he could have been staying miles from where he posted them.” “I realise that.” “In fact he might just have been on a holiday trip. If I can’t get a lead in Nantes, these other towns are no use at all. They’re too big. If they were villages, it would be another matter altogether. What with his fondness for beer, someone in some bar would remember him.” “You’ll do it then?” Dafydd peered at the map again. East from Nantes up the Loire Valley to Orléans; a right-angle turn due South across the Sologne; through the Auvergne and South-West over the Cévennes to the Languedoc coast. He’d done plenty of less interesting things. “OK. But you must understand that if I hit a dead-end, I’ll be on the next ferry home.” “When will you go?” “In two weeks. All right?” Emlyn nodded. Dafydd managed to stay on for another day and left Sunday morning. Two weeks later, he returned on the day before his crossing. Emlyn’s twin brother Huw, who lived just down the road, was also there to send him off. Dafydd

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picked up a bundle of francs, a wallet of travellers’ cheques and Emlyn’s spare American Express card, feeling like an eighteen-year old off on his first trip abroad. “You could have just given me a cheque, you know. I do have money.” “Have you had the car serviced?” “Of course. And listen, don’t go expecting a phone-call every night. I’ll call in when I’ve picked up a concrete lead, OK?” Dafydd was late for the ferry. He cruised past the ticket kiosk to be waved on enthusiastically at every point. As he quit the ramp for the bowels of the ship, it started to lift. Inside his cabin, he took a shower and unpacked, then headed for the bar. He ordered a beer and picked up a menu. The cafeteria on this French boat was offering a truck-driver special of bavette d’aloyau, his favourite cut of beef. He grabbed a plate of tomato salad, glistening with olive oil and fresh parsley, and picked at it while he waited for his steak and chips. It came perfectly cooked and to celebrate a good start he downed a half-carafe of red. Back in the cabin, he poured himself a whisky and opened his map. He’d stayed in St Malo a few times before in the course of his work and he loved it: the narrow streets of the old walled town teeming with people; the lively bars; some great restaurants and - from the north western ramparts - some of the most beautiful sunsets he’d seen. But he fancied something different this time. Dinard was another twenty minutes away across the River Rance. His rough little travel-guide spoke only of its faded elegance. Imagining it to be a bit like Brighton, he decided to head there. He tightened his grip on the whisky-glass, stared out of the port-hole and tried to picture himself, out on this sea a decade earlier, inside his brother’s troubled soul. They’d both experienced difficult childhoods, the common thread a father who was distant, cold and sometimes stern. But Dafydd had always found it perplexing that

25


Sean was the disturbed one: at least he’d only had to deal with one mother. First off the boat, he drove straight into a blast of fierce heat and traversed a broad expanse of shimmering tarmac. At his first set of traffic lights, he wound back the sunroof and lowered the driver’s door window. Time for some road music. With his right arm, which was hanging out of the window, he patted the door rhythmically to the sound of Taj Mahal. The DS hissed herself up on her suspension and they pulled away, following the signs for Dinard. Beyond the outer suburbs of St Malo, the road passed briefly through a twilight swathe of marginal land, neither urban nor rural. Glasshouses, broken-down cabins and the occasional crumbling villa wrestled for space with scrap merchants, builders’ yards and agricultural machinery suppliers, all set in a sea of woods, clambering weeds and untended vegetable patches. A frontier, the kind of place a traveller would pass through without stopping. But Dafydd was lost already. He’d taken a wrong turn and now his was the only car in sight. He wanted to ask someone the way, but every house was guarded by a vicious old dog, which greeted him with dripping bared teeth. After the fourth, which had tried to bite him, he even got to thinking about the beautifully-honed cook’s knife in the boot. He fucking hated dogs. This kind, anyway. He’d been bitten twice as a child. He wasn’t about to make it to three; he’d have to re-trace his tracks and start again. When he stopped to turn the car, an old woman emerged from behind a hedge and limped towards him, her back bent, her hands holding up the corners of a muddy pinafore. As she came closer, he could see that it contained some vegetables, cuts of asparagus by the look of it. He approached her and went to speak, but she beat him to it:

26


“Are you lost?” “Yes I am. Can you show me the way to Dinard?” “Of course. Just let me get rid of these… Do you want to come inside?” Across the road, and only just set back from it, a modest two-up two-down stone cottage sat in a tiny overgrown garden. A dog waited, panting, in the gateway. “Er, is the dog all right?” “Oh that old thing. He’s harmless.” In the presence of its mistress, the thing transformed itself from a growling beast into a soppy pet, wagging its tail and nuzzling her legs. She led Dafydd down a pathway, dripping with overhanging shrubs and climbers that he had to duck under. An open door gave straight on to the living area. Dog was nuzzling him now. “Please come in… Would you like some coffee?” He replied with a nod and a ‘thank you’. She was obviously lonely; she could have despatched him in a few seconds. But he went along with it, his first real opportunity to wipe the dust off his once-fluent French. She sat him down at a two-person table, covered with a faded blue chequered cloth. He glanced around the humble space, now a combined kitchen-diner-living room, sparsely furnished with pieces that looked pre-war, a small transistor radio her only source of entertainment. Beyond the doorway that led to what must once have been the lounge, he could see a single bed, made-up tidy and clean. Over in the kitchen corner, she let the asparagus tips tumble from her pinnie into a wicker basket and put the kettle on. It was made of copper, with a laughably exaggerated kettle shape, and she placed it on an old cream and green gas cooker.

“My name’s Camille.”

27


“Dafydd. Pleased to meet you.” “I have no milk. Is black all right with you?” “Sure.” “My son will be here later. He brings milk, eggs and bread.” “Every day?” “But of course!” “That’s nice of him. You’re very lucky.” “I give him asparagus.” Dafydd laughed. Camille brought the coffee-pot and bowls over, on a plastic tray embossed with a romantic landscape painting. She poured the coffee and joined him. “You’re English, yes?” “Welsh.” “Your French is very good.” “Thank you.” “What are you doing over here on your own? Business?” “No. I’ve come to look for my brother. He disappeared here ten years ago.” “You mean he might be in prison or dead? Why have you waited so long?” “It’s a long story.” “It’s a long day.” Dafydd smiled and slowed right down. He pulled the postcards from inside his notebook and laid them on the table, face down. He watched her eyes go straight to the last card, the one written in French. Dog padded over from his fireside basket and slipped under the table to fall on Dafydd’s feet.

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“We didn’t know where he was until last year, when he sent these home.” “Not much love in this family then? If one of my sons did that to me, I’d cut him off.” She traced a line across her throat with her forefinger. “I suppose that’s what our parents did, only now they’re worried.” “So you’re here to do the dirty work?” “Not really. I want to know too. We used to be close.” “Is he a good man?” “Yes. Well, he was when I last saw him. Though he was still just a kid brother to me.” “When did he leave?” “After university. I was on a weekend visit to the family home. He dropped by to say that he’d been offered a grant to do a postgraduate course in Nantes and was leaving on the next boat train. He promised to stay in touch.” “Why do you think he didn’t?” “I don’t know. That’s what I want to find out. Ours was never a happy family, but things weren’t that bad.” “Maybe something else… A woman perhaps?” “His affairs were always rocky, but I don’t think he ever came out of them needing to escape to another country.” “It’s a mystery then. Did he drink?” “He did, as it happens. What made you ask?” “My late husband, rest his soul, he liked a drink. He was a postman, used to start with a cognac at six in the morning on his first coffee break. I think they have something burning them up inside. A fire they have to quench. Oblivion’s the only way out.”

29


“He didn’t run away though.” “That’s because he had me.” “Maybe my brother’s found someone like you. I just have to find him.” “I think you will. I think he’s waiting for you to find him.” Dafydd leant back on his chair. On the adjacent wall a miniature figurine, centrepiece of a shelf laden with trinkets, caught his eye. A skeleton posed between two pillars over a font. He reached out, stroked the bony body and read the handwritten inscription: ‘Reçois, mon pauvre corps, mon salut, mon adieu: je retourne la tête et de toi j’ai pitié.’ Dog sighed and twitched, like he was having a bad dream. “I see you recognise him.” “I made a programme about him.” “I don’t understand.” “I’m a film maker. I made a film about Ankou. For TV.” “It must have been very short. It’s hard to meet him these days. All the street lights and these atom bomb tests, there’s no such thing as darkness now.” “I’ll admit I never found him. Though I went to some of the churches for the sculptures and the drawings. They’re interesting.” “They’re no good. They’re more dead than the dead. You need stories, living stories.” “I did interview a few people. Do you have a story then?” “Yes of course. About my husband’s death. I was about to tell you... One night, when I was on my own here–we had land then and last thing at night he used to go and lock up the hens and feed the pigs–I heard this horse and cart with a load of shifting pebbles and a terrible squeaky axle come slowly round the bend in the road. It

30


stopped in front of the house, right where your car is, then moved off. When Raoul returned, I told him. I said: ‘Husband! We’ve been visited. The carriage of death came and stopped at our door.’ Now I’m from the Armorique and I take these things seriously, but he was born in these parts and never moved. He said I was crazy, superstitious; it must have been the gypsies, come for the season… He died the next morning. Fell off his bicycle into a roadside ditch.” “You must have felt awful.” “I felt sad, still do. But true Bretons don’t fear death, only the prospect of it coming before its time. It’s straightforward, natural, the beginning of a better life… When’s your birthday?” “August.” “The?” “15th. Why?” After clearing the table, she crossed over to a sideboard and picked up a book of horoscopes. She placed it down carefully and began flicking through it. “Leo eh, Mr. Welsh Man? Well you certainly look like a lion with that big red mane… I see nothing here to do with family, but it would appear that your finances are going to come good this weekend. Is that true?” He laughed. “I suppose you could say that.” “And you’ll be meeting someone special. On the 27th. Are you single?” “Yes, I am.” Dog perked up and started humping one of his legs. “Could be love-at-first-sight.” “That’s nice. I could do with some distraction.” “Do you want to hear more?” “Go on then. Though I have to say I’m not exactly what you’d call a believer.”

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“That’s OK. This is for me then. Not much of this month left now… Let’s take a look at May…” She read on. “Most stressful days will be the 3rd, 4th and 6th… Mon Dieu, the love interest soars after the 7th. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime encounter…” And more generalisations about health wealth and love that could ring true for anyone on the lookout for them. Though he didn’t like to tell her what he thought about the dubious science, her concern for his future did have a certain charm to it. When she’d finished, he stood up and followed her to the garden gate, where she gave directions so complex that he had to draw a map. Dog was sniffing his arse now. “Good luck.” “Thanks for the coffee.” He set off down the back roads, following her instructions. Distraction indeed. How long had it been now? Almost a year. A year without a loving embrace. Not a year’s celibacy, mind. A couple of lucky post-party trysts put paid to that, though he was never the initiator. Just a pushover, a willing victim. He recalled his last night with Samantha, watching her at the foot of his bed, naked. She threw one leg up on the blanket box and squished in her gooey diaphragm without taking her eyes off him. He’d smiled, as always. He loved her technique, detached, effortless. The pungent smell of the spermicidal gel wafted towards him and turned him on with its promise of readiness. Her gaze still fixed on him, she said: “What do you want from me, Dafydd Williams?” He raised the centre of the bedclothes with his waiting erection. “I’m serious,” she continued. As she slipped under the covers, he wrapped his strong arms around her tiny tomboy body. “I don’t know what to say.”

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“It’s been two years. I don’t give anyone more than two years.” “Ah. That… Well what do you want?” He knew what was coming when she drew away from him, looked across the pillow and reached out to touch his hair. “I want you. I want us to live in the same place. I want to have your children. I’m thirty four. My body-clock is ticking away. It’s all right for you… Listen, you aren’t perfect, mister, not by any means, but for the first time I’m prepared to stop looking.” “This is an ultimatum, isn’t it? I’ll have to think on it.” “Do that.” She came back close and kissed him. They made love. It was good, as usual. But this time, afterwards, when Sam lit up a cigarette and stared up at the ceiling, she seemed to drift away with the smoke. “What?” “I feel like a prostitute.” “How come? You won’t get a shilling from me.” “When are you going to get serious?” Morning, he was still half-asleep when she took herself to Euston for the Manchester train. A few days later, a letter arrived. The first page was the nearest thing he’d seen to a marriage proposal. It stabbed him, repeatedly, with a mass of conflicting feelings: a wince of embarrassment, a glow of pride, fear of being alone again. But by the second page, she’d taken a red-hot poker to his skull. Looked right through him and his wavering, non-committal ways. They knew each other’s stories, how many lovers, what they’d been like. She’d seen a pattern that he couldn’t. That was the last he heard from her. Couldn’t even bring himself to reply.

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Apparently, she got married, to another scenic artist. Older guy. Wanted to be a father, bring up children. Dafydd put on an Eagles’ tape, just to make himself feel bad, and sang along: “Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses ... You better let somebody love you … Before it's too late.” He always thought that would be his swansong. Soon he arrived at the ridge that marked the beginning of the descent into the Rance Valley. The road took a series of hairpin bends through tall Corsican pines before crossing the Barrage, the open sea to his right, a meandering tree-lined lake to his left. At the far end a barrier dropped, to let a sail-boat through the lock. A few people in the queue got out of their cars for a stretch or a smoke, or to show their kids the view across to St Malo. In the opposite direction, due south, a land of fifty million people and two hundred thousand square miles waited for him under an open sky. The sun beat down through the sunroof on to his forehead and forearms as he picked up the turn-off for Dinard and headed down a leafy boulevard towards the town centre.

*****

As the early morning Rennes Express gathered speed, Aurélie fumbled around inside her canvas bag for a book. Although the last few days had been rich in anticipation, right now she was trying not to cry. Finding the one she wanted, she opened it up and with her head tilted upward and slightly to one side, she ran her forefingers over the precious dots.

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During his brief stay in the compartment, Didier had chosen from among her fellow travellers a likely-looking one to keep an eye on her and help her off at Rennes. Mme. Ruisseaux - ‘Please call me Agnès’ - was middle-aged, well-mannered and perfect for the job. To Aurélie’s relief, she maintained a state of quiet selfsufficiency until two hours into the journey, when she stood up to leave the compartment. “I’m going to the buffet car. Would you like anything, Mademoiselle?” “I’m fine, thank you. I already have some water.” Aurélie groped around for the bottle of mineral water on the shelf in front of her and took a few glugs. Agnès returned several minutes later with her own water and proceeded to share her mental map of the train: “I thought you might like to know that the buffet car is to the front of the train, eight connecting doors down; and the toilet is to the rear, two doors down… Oh. That is to say, the buffet is to the left and the toilet is to the right.” Aurélie smiled. “Thank you. And yes, I can discern forward movement.” She returned to her book. For the changeover at Rennes, she took Agnès’s arm for the walk to her platform, and together they sat down on a bench for a ten-minute wait. Aurélie was about to take the slow southern route to Brest, via Quimper. Agnès asked her:

“Why are you going this way? The express train we’ve just left terminates in Brest.” “My father thinks I’m crazy,” Aurélie replied. “Especially since I won’t be able to enjoy the scenery. But I wanted this journey to run in a circle, not outward and back on the same line. After Brest, I’m going on to Dinard, stopping at Landivisiau

35


and Langueux on the way. I didn’t want to pass through the same towns twice.” “I think I understand that.” “He didn’t, but he had to accept it in the end.” “Who are you visiting in Brest?” “My uncle. His name is Hervé.” “Is he meeting you?” “Oh yes. I don’t think I could cope with a strange black city yet.” “Well I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time, dear, especially in this weather.” “I hope so. This is my first trip beyond Paris in two years. I used to travel a lot.” “Who knows, maybe you’ll meet a tall dark stranger along the way?” “They’re all dark now… Safe journey.” As Aurélie’s train pulled in, Agnès left for her own connection to Dol. Didier was right. After a few hours and numerous stops, Aurélie was starting to find the journey tedious. She relished the sounds of bustling activity that each stop brought with it: passengers leaving, new arrivals, difficult luggage and wayward children. She looked forward to the disembodied voices that announced each station despite the dreadful sound-quality - and used the information to create her own inner map of southern Brittany, aided by her memory.

She tried sleep and couldn’t get comfortable enough. She tried conversation with one or two of her neighbours, but each time it fizzled out in their embarrassment or her indifference. At Quimper, she was able to begin her countdown. “Aurélie!” She snapped into instant aural recognition. Memories followed, close behind.

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Hervé was mounting a solitary march through the river of people surging his way. He was taller than all of them and this, along with his confident military gait, ensured that he came across no objectors. “Aurélie.” He stopped a full two paces in front of her. Aurélie slowed down to a shuffle, until she bumped into him. “Hervé.” She embraced him affectionately. He smelt of lavender. His Jaguar and driver were waiting outside the main entrance and they conveyed the couple the short distance to his old townhouse in the inner suburbs. As they walked up the steps, Hervé’s housekeeper Colette threw open the massive front door and beamed. “Aurélie!” While they were embracing, she could smell the interior of the house over Colette’s shoulder: a heady blend of wood and polish, ageing drapes and curtains, fine alcohols and cigars. She walked across the spacious hallway to the staircase and stroked the carved-oak newel post before taking hold of the banister rail. The driver took her luggage and Colette led her up the stairs, while Hervé slipped into his study to pour himself a drink. “I’ll be up in a minute. Let Colette show you to your room; it’s your favourite.” Hervé had never seemed like an uncle. He was a good ten years younger than her father, a bachelor and - she recalled with ease - strikingly handsome in an oldfashioned way. The family had nicknamed him ‘Fringant’ (Dashing) the day he stepped into a pair of long trousers. He knew how to be with women and she’d always loved his company, even when he strayed up close to the avuncular edge. Which he often did. He’d probably indulge her in a fine meal tonight, flirt with her a little and try to make her feel good about life, as some kind of recompense for the monochrome

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pointilliste blur that was now her everyday vision. Up in one of the guest rooms, Colette began unpacking Aurélie’s hold-all. “But I’m only staying one night!” “These things need hanging, I tell you!” Just then, Hervé appeared in the doorway, a glass of whisky in his hand. “Where are you taking me tonight then, mon oncle?” “What makes you think we are going out? Colette is a perfectly good cook.” “I know that, and I also know that you can’t wait for an excuse to give her a night off.” He laughed. “You know me well. All right. We’re going to the Métropolitain.” “Mon Dieu! Should I wear something black?” “Comme tu veux.” That meant yes. Just then, Colette piped in: “You can leave us to it now, Monsieur. I’ll sort things out here.” And she began to assemble an outfit for Aurélie. “There’s plenty of time for you to take a nap, you know,” she whispered. “Go on. I’ll finish this, then I’ll come and run you a bath in an hour or so. I’ll leave tonight’s clothes on the ottoman.” Aurélie kissed Colette on the cheek, lay down on the big old bed and nodded off to the homely clunk-and-squeak of coat hanger on brass rail. Two hours later, Colette came up to run the bath, then returned to help her finish dressing: a gentle tug here; a bit of smoothing there. Aurélie ran her hands over the little black dress. “It’s the first time I’ve worn this in years. Should I take something else?” “You won’t need much in this weather. Here…” Colette took a lightweight shawl and wrapped it round Aurélie’s bare shoulders. Together they walked down the wide stairs to meet Hervé, waiting in the

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hallway. He told her she looked wonderful and they walked out to the purring Jaguar. In the back of the car, though it was a brief journey to the hotel, they rediscovered their old playful form. He told jokes and flirted with her; she giggled and pushed his shoulder and bumped his knee. From her one previous visit to the Metropolitain, Aurélie remembered the ravishing Art Deco interiors and the phoney deluxe clientèle. But the food was good: fresh oysters and palourdes to start, a terrine of whitefish and seafood with a herby tomato coulis to follow, then a dish of creamed Swiss chard and a suprême of guinea fowl in its leek and bacon sauce, all washed down with a Sancerre and a vintage Chinon. She wished she could see it. Hervé helped out with a running commentary on colour and form, but other than that he didn’t say much. He spoke of his latest companion, a delightful widowed aristocrat from Monaco. And he talked about the weather, but only because everybody was. Brittany was sweltering in an early heatwave, enjoying the cloudless skies and 30-plus temperatures, even the warm nights, that are usually to be found much further South at this time of the year. The rest of the time, Aurélie did all the talking. She filled him in, with an edited version of the last two years, on life in Paris when you’re blind. Back at the house, Hervé led her into the lounge and went over to a sideboard to pour a couple of Calvas while she flopped down on the sofa. “I’ve thought about you a lot these last two years. It sounds like it’s been tough.” “It’s been OK. The hardest part has been making new friends.” “I can imagine.” He sat down on his favourite high-back chair. She sat up properly and turned

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to face him, holding her brandy glass in both hands. “So how do you connect with people, if you haven’t known them before?” “With difficulty. I have to make up strategies and process the results as I go along.” “Isn’t that risky?” “Certainly can be. It depends on whether they’re about to be new acquaintances, or friends or lovers. There’s a difference.” “For sure… Did you make any mistakes?” “Yes. I had a few near misses. Clingy types and downright weirdos… Too many to recount… Look, you mustn’t tell Didier this, but about a year after the accident, and after I’d found my bearings again on the Left Bank, I went mad. Mostly I needed reaffirmation. Needed to know without a hint of doubt that I was loved and therefore loveable, because only then could I love in return… I don’t know about you, but if I’m not able to love, then I have nothing.” “But it clearly didn’t work?” “No. Because sex and love are no more the same thing when you’re blind than when you’re sighted.” Hervé laughed. “So you went through all that only to discover the obvious?” “I did. But I also had to.” “So what did you do about it?” “I had to rein in any remnants of my usual physicality. For safety’s sake.” “That’s sad. You seem pretty much the same to me.” “You’re different. I trust you.” “Thanks. What about now?” “Things are better, but I still struggle… I can hear and smell people. That’s a

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start. And if I reach a certain point in a relationship, I can feel them too. But these things are a fragment of the whole person. We’re programmed for visual primacy. Without the faculty of sight, you’re literally stumbling in the dark. Because what you don’t have is their eyes. And they don’t have much of yours either. You have to look for another entrance to the soul and this can be tiring and fruitless. What you can have is their aura. But that is elusive, both in substance and location…” Aurélie rambled on, swerving between fevered enthusiasm and sleepy confusion. During a brief quiet moment, she heard Hervé stand up and walk across the room to replenish his glass. Returning, he headed for the sofa and plopped down beside her without warning, causing her to spill some of her drink. She handed the glass to him and leant back. Fully expecting to find his shoulder, she let her head fall towards him, but it kept on going until it was nestled in his armpit. His arm must have been extended along the back of the sofa. She sat bolt upright again, impassive.

She was waiting for some conversation to return, when she felt him lean over and plant a kiss on her mouth. For a few seconds of frozen disbelief, she did nothing, while her blood ran cold and the skin on the back of her neck stretched tight. Then she found his shoulder blades and pushed him away, hard. “How could you do that!” “Aurélie, forgive me. I’ve had a little too much to drink. And you’ve been so lovely tonight. I suppose I wanted to let you know that you are beautiful.” “I don’t care. You must never do that again! Hear me?” “I do… But please. Don’t tell Didier… Anyone.” Aurélie had already decided not to. It wouldn’t be worth all the familial fuss.

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She grabbed her white stick and swish-tapped her way upstairs. Lying face-up on the bed, she found herself sleepless, despite the drink, her anger now dissipated into sadness. She’d had a few bad experiences in Paris: men, the controlling kind, trying to take advantage of her disability; some so turned on by it, they could hardly stop themselves; and one, a friend - holding out for drunken borderline consent – had tried to rape her. That’s why she rarely dressed up. Now tonight, her own uncle had made a pass at her. She fell asleep at dawn.

It was a short hop to Landivisiau, not much more than an hour, even on the slow train. Hervé had driven her himself and seen her to the carriage, the two of them wrapped in silence all the way. Just as they were about to board, she froze: “Merde alors! I didn’t phone Didier…” “It’s OK. I called him to say you were safe while you were sleeping yesterday evening. I forgot to tell you. I’m sorry… You must do it soon though.”

She thanked him, promised she would and waved a leaden arm in the approximate direction of his back, as he slowly walked the platform, weighed down by the burden of contrition. Inside the carriage, alone, Aurélie fought back the tears again. Maybe this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all. She just wanted to hear Didier’s voice now. As the train pulled away, she took her new silk notebook from her bag and turned to her list of twin-towns and cities. She looked up the places along her journey. Paris, Rennes, Brest. She knew the English twins of those. Easy: London, Exeter, Plymouth. But Landivisiau, Langueux, Dinard? She could never remember the little places… Bideford… Wadebridge… Newquay…

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She faced up from her notes, wondered what they were like, these English small towns, if they were like her family’s towns. Maybe they were whispering stories to each other right now? Maybe one day she would visit them and tick them off her list?

*****

Six London May 1977

A waitress crashed through the double swing doors arse-first and for a brief moment the discordant sounds of kitchen and dining room battled it out. Then she swung around, carrying a tray with a finished starter plate and a few bits of table litter on it. “Ready on nineteen.” “Ça marche! Un pintard. Une bouquetière!” The team swung into the unchoreographed dance that is good kitchen work: in fluent, economical movements, the guinea-fowl and the sauté potatoes were plucked from the oven; the cold cooked vegetables swiftly dipped in the steaming réchauffe; and the whole lot rushed down the stove to be sauced and garnished by Jean-Luc, the sous-chef. As a waiter sauntered over, he whizzed the dish across the hotplate with just enough force that it hung perilously over the edge. “Envoyer!” The waiter perked

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up a bit. “C’mon, man!” Jean-Luc yelled. “Table dix-neuf. On y va. Go! Go!” Richard Sanders, Head Chef at the French restaurant L’Infinité in Primrose Hill, ripped the last tab from its hook on the service-board and impaled it on the waiting spike. While the cooks banged their pans into tidy piles and rushed them over to the pot-washer’s station, he took his knives over to a separate bowl, washed and dried them, and placed them carefully in their canvas roll. He took off his white chef’s top, threw it in the laundry bin, and replaced it with a clean T-shirt. The lingering waitress watched him. “That’s Lucy outside,” she said. “I know. I’m just going to join her.” “Aren’t you away for a while?” “Yep. I’m finally taking a few days off.” Still wearing his blue-check cooks’ pants and white clogs, Richard strode out into the restaurant and headed for the French doors that gave on to the courtyard. Lucy was the only one dining outside. By the time he reached the doors, nodding at a few regulars on the way, he could guess why. A baby, her baby, was screaming nonstop. He turned down the side-alley and saw James on her lap, cradled in one arm, while she tried to eat one-handed, in her own version of the American way: cutting with the knife and then changing over to the fork. He sat down opposite her. “Wine?” She reached for the bottle, but he declined. “I’ve got some driving to do. How’s things?” “Oh the usual… Comfortable desolation… Richard, this is the first time I’ve been out to eat since James was born. Well, you know, apart from coffee-bars and that, when I’ve been doing the shopping. I’m going nuts.” “You having regrets?”

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“James? Christ no… Just the timing, I guess. My Dad’s offered to pay for a childminder when he’s eighteen months. I can’t wait to go back to work.” “Heard anything from Dario?” “Not a lire. The Social want to fry his arse. I reckon he’s gone back to Verona, or else he’s working a pizza joint for cash.” Up until a year ago, Lucy had also worked at L’Infinité. She arrived about the same time as Richard for a waitressing vacancy, intended to help her through a slack summer. Her real job was in theatre stage-management. But she stayed on: her wellmannered ways and overall competence secured her the job of Manageress within six months, and they became quite close. She was only twenty-four. Soon after her promotion, an itinerant Italian cook took a job there and within a couple of months they had fallen for each other. Lucy became pregnant. She decided to keep the baby. Dario decided to move on quickly. “Food all right?” “It’s great. I love the leek and bacon sauce. What’s the secret ingredient?” “Chicken stock.” “I must remember that.” James was still screaming at full ear-splitting pitch. “He’s not normally like this. I’ve changed him, fed him, winded him. I don’t know what else to do.” “Here. Let me. You finish your dinner…” Richard stood up and leant over, slipped his hands under the baby’s armpits, thumbs to the fore, and hoisted him up to his shoulder. Now the kid really screamed: his knees jerked up to his chin; his head rolled back and forth alarmingly; and he was kicking out full stretch, arms flailing too. Despite his thirty-five years, Richard hadn’t had much to do with babies. He had accidentally fathered a child in his teens, but

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under pressure from the girlfriend’s parents she’d been adopted. Maybe Baby James would be his redemption, maybe not, but he figured that getting him out of his mother’s sight would make a good start. With no resistance from Lucy, he walked up to the end of the side-alley and turned into the main courtyard. As his mother disappeared from view, James cranked it up one more notch, but the more he cried, the more he couldn’t stop crying. Now in full hysteria mode, Baby James was out in some place he couldn’t get back from on his own. Richard began to walk up and down in front of the French doors. He’d read somewhere that patting a baby’s back is comforting because it recreates its mother’s heartbeat, takes it back to pre-birth days. So he did just that, rhythmically, gently. And he talked, or rather whispered, words, nonsense, anything that came into his head. Gradually, the screaming turned into racking sobs, followed by deep sighs. He continued walking, patting, talking, until that moment of surrender, when all tension flowed from the boy’s limbs. He became twice as heavy, floppy and malleable. Baby James was asleep. Richard walked on some more, just to be sure, while some of the customers inside, who’d been watching all along, smiled and clapped silently. Returning to Lucy’s table, he put the boy down in the carry-cot behind her chair, covered him with a blanket and sat back down. “Thank you. I’m impressed. I guess he was over-tired.” Lucy looked down and smiled at the sleeping angel. She had managed to finish her food and was now sipping wine. “How’s life at the edge of Infinity then?” she asked. “Listen, Lucy, I could talk with you all night, but I have to leave soon. I’ve got some time off. I’m going to see Caroline in Bideford.” “You two back together then?”

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“Oh no. I get the impression she’s still on her quest for masculine perfection... I just preferred the idea of seeing a friend to jumping on a plane. I’ve only got a week. I haven’t seen her for a year, but we’ve been writing. She said to pop in for a couple of days. After that, I’ll follow the bonnet.” After a long pause, Lucy asked: “Can I come too?” “Er, yeah, why not? I’m sure she won’t mind. You and James can sleep in the spare bedroom and I’ll take the sofa. Hang on a minute while I have a quick word with John.” He returned in five, with a handful of holiday money. “I’ll drop you off at your place, nip home and change, then I’ll come back to pick you up. You’ll have an hour.”

Outside Lucy’s flat, Richard opened the rear doors of his much-loved old Renault 16, did something tricky with the rear seat squab so that it looped forward right up to the backs of the front seats and nestled the carrycot in the ‘V’. He surrounded it with cushions for added safety. Early hours of the morning and he made good time through the almostdeserted streets of West London. They crossed Chiswick Bridge and headed South West towards the M3. They’d been chatting non-stop since the start, but as they pulled on to the motorway a relaxed silence descended on the car. Lucy threw her legs up on the ledge, and wrapped her arms under her washed-out, three-quarter-length skirt just behind the knees. She rested her head on her thighs, angled it toward him and stared.

Richard was possessed of the hereditary curse of conventional appeal. Tall and darkskinned with long curly black hair, his sleepy grey-green eyes and well turned-out

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smile had always drawn the women in. Historically, this had made him cautious and excessively earnest, with a feminine fervour to be acknowledged and wanted for his mind more than his body. He dressed shabbily much of the time, and always said ‘I’m just a cook’ whenever anyone chatted him up with the inevitable ‘What do you do?’ “What?” he asked, though he was smiling and it was of course rhetorical. She said nothing, merely returned the smile. He cast a quick glance over to her. She looked terrific, and he told her. Those were the last words spoken for a couple of hours. Somewhere on the A303 between Ilminster and Yeovil, Richard started talking again. Lucy had dozed off and woken up. “Don’t you think it’s a sign of a good friendship when you can sustain long silences at times like this without feeling uneasy?” “Well since you’ve just broken it, don’t you think that’s a bit of an odd question?” “You know what I mean… Hey, I read somewhere that Sam Shepard used to…” “Who?” “Sam Shepard. The American writer. He was born during the war. His father was an Air Force pilot and while he was away in Europe, his mother had to drive across country at night with him for some reason. She’d wedge his crib between the parcel-shelf and the rear windscreen of their big old Plymouth. His first memory was the huge starry skies of the Dakota Badlands. His second was the ice on the inside of the window. So cold. He could touch it.” “You come out with the most obscure things sometimes.” “I just thought it was an interesting way to start life.”

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Richard snatched a quick look over his shoulder at Baby James and out through the rear window to a chill midwinter, Mid-Western night, nothing but stars and sky, thinking about a baby boy who would become famous, thinking about this boy on this warm summery night who might. Right on cue, he stirred. A big long sigh drifted up from the back seat, followed by a succession of satisfied grunts as he filled his nappy. Then he started to cry, softly at first, but they could tell he was on a crescendo. “I’d better see to him.” “I’ll pull over at the next lay-by.” As soon as they stopped, Lucy clambered over to the back with her carpet-bag of baby things. After she’d changed and fed him, James drifted off straight away. “Listen,” said Richard. “I told Caroline we’d be late but it’ll be smack in the middle of the night now. We should take a break.” He lay across the bench-seat with his head on Lucy’s lap, making a prayer shape with his hands on the way down. She leant over and put her head on his hip, doing the same with her hands.

Two hours later, they woke up in daylight. Richard went to start the car and it was dead. He’d noticed the firing getting lumpy as they came out of the last few roundabouts. He went to the boot and pulled two screwdrivers and a feeler-gauge from his leather tool satchel. The road was still deserted. “Are you a member?” asked Lucy. “Eh?” He looked up to see she was staring at an RAC box. “It’s only the points, I think. They’ve slipped.” Now he shouted from under the bonnet. “Jump in the driver’s seat and turn the key when I tell you. Just a quick stab.”

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He flicked off the distributor cap, and after a few attempts by Lucy, he got an approximation to top-dead-centre. No gap at all. He reset them, wiped the dirt and grease from his hands with a rag and got back into the car. It started with one turn of the key.

Lucy breathed out again. “I like a man who can fix things.” “No… It wouldn’t work out.” As they pulled away, the sun was a giant orange in the rear-view mirror, but that was the last they were to see of it. Somewhere outside Tiverton, cloud and rain rolled in across the plain between Exmoor and Dartmoor. Caroline had sent him a badly-drawn map. He knew Bideford well from his previous visits, but it was clear that since her last move she now lived in a very isolated place. “What is it with women and maps?” he posed, to no-one in particular. “Do you know, map-reading is one of the few things men can traditionally do unquestionably better than women.” This was for Lucy now. “What are the others?” she retorted. “Can’t remember… Ah, one of them is being able to work out the trajectory of an incoming flying object.” “Sounds real handy.” “Well it goes back to having to duck out of the way of spears and arrows and things. Must be genetic.” “You drive. I’ll navigate.” “OK. But I should ignore that last part if I were you. It’ll be much easier if we

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go through Barnstaple, then into Bideford and out again.” Lucy decided to follow Caroline’s directions and cut across country. She commanded a left turn down a minor road outside South Molton. This saved on distance, but stopping at nearly every junction to read both map and road-signs, it took more than an hour to cross three valleys and travel twenty miles. When they finally found the spot on Caroline’s map, having driven past it three or four times, it was far from the nearest habitation, a one-track road with grass growing down the middle, and the steepest thing that Richard had ever driven down. The trees and roadside bushes screeched the side of the car. From its roost high up in an elm tree, a dawn owl let out a piercing reminder as to whose valley it was. At the foot of the hill, there was room to turn a car and park four others. A stone footbridge hopped across a brimming stream. Beyond the far bank, raised on a ledge, a terrace of four stone cottages nestled up against a wooded cliff. Richard went up to Caroline’s and knocked on the door. After a minute or so, a young woman who was not Caroline opened it. She stood in her dressing gown, rubbing her face and scratching her hair. “I’ve come to see Caroline.” “She’s not here. Left yesterday evening. Here…”

She picked up a small envelope that was lying on the hall table and handed it to Richard, who read the contents before screwing the paper into a ball and thrusting it into his pocket. “You can stay if…” started the woman, but Richard was already halfway back to the car, looking for something to kick. “She’s gone away for the weekend, to Bristol. Some new man. She was going to send a telegram, but couldn’t get to a phone. That’s the trouble; they don’t have a

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phone down here. All our arrangements were made by post over the last couple of weeks.” “Now what?” “I need some rest and time to think.” They drove on into Bideford and headed for The Elizabethan, a sixteenthcentury coaching inn. While Lucy waited in the car and bounced James on her lap, Richard approached the reception desk. It was still early, about four hours from check-in time. “Do you have a twin room that wasn’t occupied last night.” “I think so. Why?” “So we can take it now.” “Oh, I see…” Richard awoke as Lucy and James came back into the room. She’d taken him for a quick stroll in town and stopped off at the bakery for a cake, which she’d eaten straight from the bag. Now she clattered in, her arms full of baby, folded pushchair and swollen bag, and sugar all round her mouth. “Did you manage to get some sleep?” he asked. She nodded. “He woke me up about an hour ago.” “I need to get outside.” “It’s not good.” “We’ve got waterproofs.” They took a body-warming lunch of vegetable soup, crusty bread and cheese in the hotel bar and drove out to Westward Ho, to get some air and listen to the Atlantic surf. After parking up on the edge of the dunes, they reconfigured James’s pushchair to face away from the wind. The south westerly roared longways down the

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beach, carrying with it torrents and swirls of dry grit just above the level of the striated sands. These eerie patterns were moving at the speed of a running man and Richard could feel the backs of his legs being sand-blasted, even through the heavy denim cloth. Hands in pockets and head bowed down, he studied the mayhem at his feet and tried to make some sense of the situation. On his own, he could have gone anywhere, but for the first time he felt like a parent, with all its attendant responsibilities. Still, flexibility was part of his stock-in-trade. New information? Abandon original plan. Change course of action. The horizontal rain drove into their backs as they walked a mile in good time. At the end of the beach, they turned around and staggered back, this time right into the wind, right on the shoreline, deafened by the angry waves. The return journey took twice as long, and for most of it they were bent double or walking backwards. Every now and then, litter and other people flew past in the opposite direction. “What now?” asked Lucy, as she threw her wet clothes into the back of the car. Inside, Richard had his map out. He was still pissed off with Caroline, and tried to imagine her, lost again in the coils of another hopeless relationship. ‘Fuck her,’ he thought. Maybe the weather would be better further west and south. “Well we’re not staying here.” Next morning, Richard pointed west, then south. A journey of sixty miles that should have taken one and a half hours ended up more than twice that. When it wasn’t raining, they could see it, out over the sea heading in, ominous, yellow-black. When it was, he had to slow right down. Even with windscreen wipers on full, he still couldn’t see much further than the end of the bonnet.

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Finally, they came down on to the estuarial flats of the River Camel and splashed into Wadebridge for a break. Out in the car park of a transport café, Richard got his map out again, while Lucy took care of James. “Any ideas?” “I’m easy.” “Back to London?” “No.” “Then I suggest we keep going. We’ll drive into Padstow and take the coast road down to Newquay. We’ll check into a hotel with an indoor pool and a good restaurant and make a few day-trips from there. That sound OK?” “Sure.” “I quite fancy going to St. Ives and checking out a few galleries.” “I don’t mind.” “C’mon, Lucy. This isn’t you. I need more than that.” “I’m sorry, Rich. It’s just this last year I’ve had a gutsful of making everyday decisions on my own. For once it’s nice to relax into your commanding cheffy ways.” “So we carry on?” At that point James farted, long and low, and smiled the smile of a contented baby. “James says yes.” Over from the back, Lucy blew Richard a kiss. “Lunch?” The drive through Padstow and down the coast road would have been an agreeable one, were it not for the storms. Richard decided that the raw beauty of Cornwall was best suited to sunshine. Grey granite cliffs with intermittent clumps of parched grass held on tight to the occasional lonely trees, their sinewy branches springing from deformed trunks, bent over at alarming angles, turning their backs on

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the wind and the sea. Over another cliff-top, down another hill, across yet another bleak deserted bay, a howling wind slammed into the car and the sombre clouds entered it, choking the three of them into a melancholic stupor. Compared with the previous few miles, Newquay seemed almost metropolitan. They negotiated a deal at an empty luxury hotel and made themselves comfortable.

Later that evening on their way to the dining-room, Richard picked up a clutch of tourist brochures and events leaflets from the foyer. He spread them out on the table. “What do you think of my idea about St. Ives then?” “I like it. If we’re inside staring at paintings, we won’t even notice the weather.” “Guess Barbara Hepworth’s garden is out… OK. How about this one?” He handed her a leaflet advertising a touring exhibition. “French painter. I love his work. Look at those two… You wouldn’t believe how many couples I’ve seen dining out like that.” “Never heard of him.” Lucy ran a finger over the sample photo. “Jeez. They look so alienated. The eyes…” “I know. It’s his trademark. His subjects always seem to be in a state of shock.”

*****

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Seven Landivisiau April 1977 The train pulled in to find Didier’s sister Geneviève and her thirty-year-old twin daughters, Martine and Chantal, waiting for Aurélie on the platform. After much embracing, they picked up her luggage and walked towards the exit. Passing through the ticket office, Aurélie remembered she had to call Didier. “You can do that in town, you know,” said Geneviève. “I’d like to do it now, please.” Geneviève led her to a wall-hung telephone, dialled the number and sat herself

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down with the twins. “Pa-pa! Je suis désolée…” After a brief exchange, she told him she would call again in the evening. “I forgot to call him last night, but he’s OK now… really chirpy in fact. He hasn’t sounded like that in ages. Perhaps I should go away more often? Though he did start up painting again, just before I left. Maybe that’s it.” “Maybe he got laid last night?” “Chantal!” “Sorry, Maman. But it has been two years. Isn’t that allowed?” All four of them tried and failed to stifle their giggling. As they headed for town in Geneviève’s car, the sisters outlined an itinerary. They’d all taken a couple of days off work for Aurélie’s stay. “We wondered if you needed any new clothes,” said Martine. “We thought we could go shopping in Morlaix while you’re here.” “Yes, as it happens. I need a new bikini… some more tops, another skirt… oh, and a new pair of jeans. These are ripped. Look.” She wiggled a finger inside the long tear across her knee to demonstrate. Aurélie’s early memories of the annual visits to this family were strongly linked to adventures with her cousins in their mother’s wardrobe. While she was at work, they would all sneak into her dressing room and try on her clothes, jewellery and make-up. The twins never dressed the same, never had done. But they always took the trouble to co-ordinate with each other every morning and invariably made a fetching sight together. Aurélie could picture them easily. She knew she could trust them. Unlike Didier, who’d been consigned to emergency purchases, like the odd pair of tights.

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She did wonder about distinguishing between them, though. Already she’d noticed that their vocals were delivered with the same pitch, tone and timbre. When they spoke together, each of their notes was an echo of the other’s. She’d have to locate the spirit behind the sound as quickly as possible. Another challenge she hadn’t expected. Geneviève parked on the main square and proposed a coffee in the bustling Café de la Place before taking lunch. There they caught up on each other’s lives. When they emerged from the relative gloom of the café into the full blast of the midday sun, Aurélie commented on how bright it was. “You can still see some things?” asked Martine. “No. But my eyes are light-sensitive. Darkness, overcast skies, full sun, they all register.” “That has to be better than nothing, yes?” “I suppose so. At least I have some idea of what’s going on around me.” They crossed the square and headed toward the Hotel de l’Univers for lunch. As they passed a side alley, Aurélie heard the sound of running water coming from La Fontaine de Saint Thivisiau, one of the few architectural gems in this otherwise unremarkable cattle-market town. “That must be the fountain. Can we stop by?” She was led the length of the washhouse towards the source of the water and its surrounding granite panels, decorated in low relief. Her fingers skipped over them. Then she lowered one hand into the cool bubbling water. “Have you become religious?” asked Geneviève. “No,” said Aurélie, splashing some water on her face. “Still a hopeless agnostic. I just like the feeling of peace that religious artefacts sometimes breathe. It

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comforts me.” Lunch was long and simple: grilled fillets of sole, dandelion salad with bacon and lentils, spicy sausages and slices of potato stewed in olive oil. All washed down with jugs of ice-cold ‘Gros Plant’ and followed by the tarte du jour, replete with the first of the new season’s rhubarb. On the way back to the car, Aurélie asked: “Is the newsagent’s still on the corner? I’d like to buy some postcards.” Chantal accompanied her into the shop; the other two returned to the car. “How…?” “What do I do with postcards?” “Well, yes.” “OK. I need you to help me choose them, that’s for sure. After that, I send them to my special friends. I always loved sending postcards.” “I remember. So?” “It’s easy. Didier has printed some rolls of sticky address labels in black and gold for each of about a dozen friends. They are numbered in Braille in the top left corner and I have a list of the numbers and the people in case I forget.” “What do you say?” “Aurélie, kiss kiss.” They both laughed. “Everybody knows I will be in touch some other way soon. Come on then. Describe some to me. I want none of the manypictured ones. I hate those.” Chantal turned the squeaky circular rack. “Sunset over the Pink Granite Coast?” Aurélie laughed again,. “Keep going…” They returned to the car with half a dozen, mainly old sepia-tinted street scenes. On the drive to Lampaul-Guilimiau, Aurélie registered the transition from

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tarmac to cobblestone, signalling their arrival in the village. The cobbles turned to gravel as they pulled up on the drive of the stuccoed eighteenth-century maison de maître that was the Descamps’ home. She tried to picture the imposing portico, jutting out from the rampant Virginia Creeper that covered the façade. Martine unloaded her bags. “Have you been all right?” she asked. “We thought about coming to Paris on more than one occasion, but the work here…” “It’s OK. I wasn’t ready for the company.” “But you are now?” “I am now.” “How do you spend your days?” “Well, evenings are about the same as they always were, sometimes in, sometimes out. Daytimes are more difficult. I don’t work, if that’s what you mean.” “I suppose so.” “About a year after the accident, Didier helped me to find different jobs: telephone work, making baskets in the blind workshops, even piano-tuning. I kept it up for a couple of months. It was good to be occupied, but I ended up choking on my inability to realise myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about my real work. So I packed it in.” Aurélie wasn’t looking forward to her encounter with père Pascal, who’d apparently left work early. She’d always found him tense, with an assumed joviality that grated, and a nervous need to talk non-stop that was exhausting. He didn’t let her down, hugged her with the excessive force of an automaton, his whole upper body stiff from the exercise of something self-imposed and not felt. He made breathtakingly inappropriate jokes about her ripped jeans and the rest of her

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appearance and enquired loudly about the bright lights of Paris. Throughout the evening, he drank two glasses of champagne to every one the women managed to down, becoming a little more verbose each time. Around eight o’clock, Geneviève dragged Aurélie away to the relative calm of the kitchen. “That’s better… Aurélie, I’m dying to know this, can you do kitchen work, you know, cook for yourself?” “Oh yes. But it took a lot of practice. And a lot of burns.” “So you could live on your own then?” “Definitely.” “But you prefer to stay with Didier?” “For now. He’s my rock.” “I was going to make a light supper. Just some chicken broth and an omelette. Do you want to have a go? I’d love to see how you do it. I’ll help of course.” Aurélie went quiet and lowered her head. “Oh I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…” “No, no. It’s OK. It’s just… omelette is one of the few things I haven’t tackled yet. I could give it a try.” “Good. I’ll get everything out for you.” Geneviève put pans, tools and ingredients on the kitchen table, alongside a wooden chopping board. Aurélie patted her way around them until they’d been logged. “Voilà! Now you’re en place!” “Show me the gas controls.” Aurélie tried the action on one, felt the rest for location. Geneviève’s plan for the soup was a cross between a classic consommée and an Indo-Chinese broth. To a

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pan of her stock, Aurélie piled in some leftover chicken, a handful of prawns and thin slices of spring onion, ginger and chilli. As it simmered away, a few torn spinach leaves and a glug of sesame oil were added. Lid on, it was left to get on with its chemistry. She lit the gas under an omelette pan and left it on low while she chopped parsley, tarragon and chervil fresh from the garden. Eggs beaten, she knocked up a quick salad of lettuce leaves and radish, dressed it with groundnut oil and raspberry vinegar. “That’s two out of three. I’m ready.” The flame was turned up and oil poured in. “I daren’t do this with butter. I won’t know if I’ve burnt it until after it happens.” “That’s OK.” “Let me know when there’s blue smoke coming off it.” “Now!” In went the mix. Straight away, the eggs roared and bubbled. She applied a fork and stirred like mad. “This is great. I can feel them stiffening through the fork. There…” Still stirring, she slid the pan sideways on to an unused ring and angled the pan. “Plate! I forgot the plate! Quick!” Geneviève stepped across with a warm plate, placed it beside the omelette pan. Aurélie felt it, slammed the pan down on the stove-top, folded the mix down with her fork and flopped an omelette on to the plate. She pressed it with her finger. It felt springy, like it should. The final touch was a knob of butter, smeared over the surface. “What’s the colour like? Any brown bits?” “Golden all over.”

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Aurélie grinned. Sitting down at table brought sanity to the evening. They dined mostly in silence, even Pascale, who slowed right down. Unlike the others, he’d not had time for a proper lunch, and he kept slipping into the kitchen to top up his supper with thick slices of home-cooked ham. After a couple of hours, Aurélie excused herself to go and call Didier. She sat herself down in the hallway, on the bottom stair. “Papa? I just made my first omelette.” “Well done. What was it like?” “Good. Everyone loved it. Baveuse to perfection.” “That’s one more thing I won’t have to do for you now. There’s not much left.” “I’m missing you.” “Stop it. This was your idea, remember? An odyssey. The pursuit of independence.” “I know. But my hair’s a mess.” “I miss you too.”

Most nights, Aurélie’s independence collapsed around the fifteenth hour of her waking day. The unremitting darkness finally took its toll, just as she was about to slide into another form of it, creating a vacuum that sucked in the terror of memory. From the first day on, Didier stepped in without being asked, initially with a cuddle on the sofa, after her bath. Later, he took to brushing her unruly locks, shinyblack and curly, a perfect replica of Maria’s. He followed that with a reading, a chapter of something light, usually escapist historical fiction with an upbeat ending. It worked. But she always knew she’d have to get away some day.

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“We’re going to have to fix you up with a good man when you get back home.” “Something like that…” “You know it’s high time. I’ll be your eyes.” “Not now, Papa. I’ll call you from Langueux. Love you.” “Bisous.” First thing next morning, the giggling sisters, still in their nightwear, burst into Aurélie’s sleep with a bowl of milky coffee and a piece of fresh bread. “Do you want some butter? Honey? Jam?” “I don’t know. I haven’t woken up yet.”

Aurélie groaned, pressed down on her palms and the soles of her feet and slid upwards against the headboard. She cuddled the coffee in both hands, while the other two sat at the end of the bed, her canvas hold-all between them. Martine began to take out a few garments. “We thought we’d take a look at what clothes you’ve brought. Is that OK?” “Go ahead.” “Is that it? T-shirts and jumpers? Hang on… what’s this? A black dress. Oh my…” “Leave me alone. I never could dress like you two.” Martine began flicking through the pages of a style magazine: “There’s a lot of burnt orange around this year. And some cerise.” “Sounds too grown-up for me,” said Aurélie, imagining Crimplene for some reason. “How about a mid-length cotton dress? A simple shift,” said Chantal.

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“There’s some nice dusky mauves around too.” “I shouldn’t wear anything above the knee. I can’t tell if I’m being taken apart by a predatory stare,” said Aurélie. “OK. How about this, then? It’s like a tunic, pull it over your head, tie the sides. You could wear it over jeans or cotton trousers. It would hide your big bum too.” Aurélie poked her tongue out. But it was true. They all laughed. “You mean like shop-girls wear?” “Yeah. Every man’s fantasy. Quick release, easy access.” “No, thank you. You don’t know how dangerous things can get for me sometimes.” “I never thought of that. Sorry… Hey, Papa’s in the Morlaix office this morning. He said he’d meet us for lunch. He’s going to take the afternoon off. That’s a first.” “Do you think you could hand me my bag?” She rummaged around for her new notebook, turned to her list of twin-towns and looked up Morlaix. “Have you got a map with Brittany and South West England on it?” Chantal went downstairs and returned with a Michelin map of Brittany. The cover had a small tail-piece of Devon and Cornwall tight in one corner. “Tell me about Truro.” “Well, it faces Morlaix across the Channel. They both stand at the head of an estuary, with a big port at the mouth.” “Called?” “Falmouth. And Roscoff, of course.”

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“That’s nice.” “What’s nice?” “That they face each other.”

Geneviève parked the car on the quayside. The four of them strolled into town to the sound of the cowbells clonking on the masts of the fishing boats and yachts lined up along the quay. As they passed through the shadow of the railway viaduct, soaring across the valley almost two hundred feet above them, Aurélie became withdrawn. Chantal noticed and took her arm: “You OK?” “It’s just those bells. And the smell of the water. They make me feel sad.” “I don’t know what to say.” “I’m fine. Really.” They found a hippy shop with lots of white things, safe and summery. She already had a white straw sun-hat and the pale cream shawl she’d worn in Brest. So a three-quarter gypsy skirt and an Indian cotton shirt completed that outfit. At the next place, they picked up an off-white linen jacket and a couple of silk cami-tops. Aurélie never wore a bra, because of her diminutive breasts, but the girls told her in no uncertain terms that they could be seen clearly through the flimsy shirt. Pascal met them in the lobby of the Hotel de la Paix, an eccentric out-of-time place in the centre of town with a highly regarded kitchen. They were joined by Chantal’s boyfriend Guy, a teacher from the local lycée. As they tucked into plates of duck rillettes on warm brioche, Aurélie listened to the conversations, and tried to distinguish one twin from the other. She noticed that Chantal’s voice, in the presence of Guy, took on a tenderness that hadn’t been present before, and she spoke with

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uncharacteristic clarity and perception. In contrast, Martine’s vocal mannerisms were starting to irritate, something she’d never experienced when she could see her. Back at the house, Aurélie went straight to her room and lay down on the bed. She stretched out, face to the ceiling. It occurred to her, not for the first time, that she’d forgotten what she looked like. Without the constant prompts of a mirror, she possessed only distant memories. Of photographs at that, certainly not of her reflected image. That had gone missing. She wiggled her toes, to help locate her furthest extremity. The arches of her achilles were resting on the edge of the mattress, her feet beyond it. She raised her hands to the top of her head, a clear six feet away. Her forefingers made circular motions inside and through her tight black curls, clumps of which she stretched out and upwards, to let them fall haphazardly on to her face. With her hands cupped under her chin, she stroked her cheeks with all eight fingertips, to describe the pronounced shape of her cheekbones. They leapt across her eyes, to feel the ridges of bone beneath her eyebrows. Retreating down her face, her forefingers crossed the ridge of her long slender nose to alight on a mouth so dry that her lips were glued together. Landing on her neck, she crossed her strong masculine arms over, to slide across her bony shoulders. She rolled her hands so that her thumbs nestled in her armpits and her breasts fitted perfectly inside her cupped palms. With her arms still crossed over, she slid her hands down the valleys of her flanks to land on her waist. Then she uncrossed them, and traced her waistline with her fingertips. They met at her belly-button. Pivoting on her shoulders, she pressed down on her heels and raised her broad hips. She slipped her hands underneath the cheeks of her bottom and let her weight fall back on them. Her skin felt oily and smooth. As her

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eyelids drifted together, she welcomed an old friend. She reflected on the trip, still only in its third day. It seemed like so much longer, and she put it down to the inescapable heat, which induced a state of stupor that trifled with time. She hadn’t felt this hot since the last time she was in Greece, a few years back. It occurred to her to do the same as she had done then. She jumped up, spread a big towel out on the bed and walked into a cold shower with her underwear on, returning dripping to lie down once more. Flat on her back again, she crossed her arms in the classic funereal position. After a short while, without any forethought, one hand broke away and moved slowly down towards her soft belly. She liked it there. She parted her fingers, and stretched them, like a pianist doing some exercises, and focused on the middle one. It moved. Like a separate living thing. It found her cold wet elastic. It lifted that up, to find her silky black hairs not far away. Restless, it continued, landed on the crest of her pubis and waited for instructions… But she passed out right then. The alcohol, the heat, fatigue… Maybe tomorrow… She embedded the delinquent finger inside her fou-fou, to keep them both quiet, and rolled over on to her side, where she slept like a kitten for a couple of hours.

The next few days flowed at the pace of the sleepy River Elorn, whose valley had been chosen for their picnic outings. On the last day, they drove to the village of La Roche-Maurice for lunch at the local inn. Aurélie asked to visit the church there. “I want to say hello to Ankou.” “You do?” said Geneviève. “OK. I suppose so…” Set in the parish close, facing the church, the ossuary at La Roche-Maurice had welcomed the living and watched over the dead for centuries. Geneviève refused

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to go in and waited outside under a passing cloud of gloom. Martine walked up to the big oak door and pushed it open. They stepped inside to a spine-tingling temperaturedrop. Aurélie could hear a priest whispering to some visitors, tourists by the sound of it. She tried to visualise the once-familiar interior. Back outside, they turned and headed for a granite relief of Ankou, the tall skeletal figure with scythe and shovel, the embodiment of Death in ancient Breton myth. Aurélie found his skull and slowly ran her fingers over his eye sockets, past the bridge of his nose and hollowed-out cheeks to land on the tip of his chin.

“Ugh. How could you?” said Martine. “It’s all I can do…” “Sorry. But what I mean is, he’s claimed half your family before their time. And now you’re stroking him as if he were a pussy cat.” Aurélie’s hand slipped down and touched the bony weapon he was holding to his chest. It felt like a giant stiff penis. She continued until she reached his groin and felt her way across the raised lettering, reading it out slowly. “JE. VOUS. TUE. TOUS… I kill you all... His rallying cry. Remember?” “No.” “Well it is. Embracing death while you’re still alive is healthy. And very Breton.” “I don’t know about that. We’re just a couple of lawyers with a passion for shopping.” That last evening, no-one could be bothered to cook. They ambled through back streets, past rows of honey-coloured stone cottages, their front yards awash with geraniums, towards the one restaurant in the village. There they ordered some

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steaming bowls of monkfish cooked in cider. Chantal handed Aurélie a present: “A good luck charm for the rest of your journey. I found this, but it’s from all of us. And the sun. Some call it the key of life.” Aurélie unwrapped a jewellery box, pulled out an old Egyptian cross, bent and pitted, and after drawing round it with a finger, held it up by its new gold chain. Chantal wrapped it round Aurélie’s neck, whispering in her ear as she snapped the lock: “On a more practical note, some say it’s also a symbol of conception. Do be careful.” She winked at Aurélie and when the others laughed at her, kissed her on the lips.

*****

Eight Newquay April 1977

The alarm went off at seven o’clock, just as it promised to the night before. Becci’s hand slammed down on the top button with enough skewed force that the thing flew out of her grasp and on to the floor, where it broke into several pieces. She went straight back to sleep. Two hours later, one eye opened, this time voluntarily. As she slithered

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towards some semblance of consciousness, bits of memory popped up, coloured flags waving in a shadowy haze: the late-night disco after the pub; the brandy-and-sodas; dancing, with that guy. A tentative arm reached out to the other side of the bed and swept over the sheet. To her relief, she was alone. Her head hadn’t moved yet; so she still wasn’t sure if she had a hangover or not. Her first complete thought was about the weather. She considered getting up and throwing open the curtains, her very first job for herself each morning, but she could hear it from the bed. Fucking unbelievable. Her eyelids closed again, like solid spring-doors. Maybe she could sleep on till lunch-time? It was tempting. This was her one day off a week and she could do what she liked with it. Then she remembered the reason for the alarm: she meant to go shopping in Truro for some new clothes with her first pay-cheque. Not much. Just some underwear and tights, maybe a top, another pair of sensible shoes for work. It was imperative she check the time now; that would make the decision for her. She leant over the side of the bed to look for the alarm-clock and went dizzy. The remains of the clock said seven o’clock. Where was her watch? There was no avoiding it now: she would have to get up properly. She raised herself up slowly and threw her legs over the side of the bed, to the accompaniment of a tinny screeching sound in her ears. With her elbows placed at the centre of her knees, her head fell safely on to the palms of her hands. Finally, she stood up and shuffled over to the dressing-table to rummage around her jewellery, keys and money and things until she found the watch. Nine o’clock. She could still make a morning of it. She grabbed a towel and a bottle of shampoo and dashed off down the corridor to try and make a few repairs to the state she was in.

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Back in her room, she applied too much make-up; climbed into a pair of jeans and pulled a pale blue V-neck cashmere over her head and her uncovered breasts. She stepped into her flat shoes and put on her raincoat. Her reflection in the mirror looked a bit French, she thought; all that was missing was the beret. She applied some sunglasses, picked up her bag and car-keys, and ran down the back staircase, hoping she wouldn’t bump into any of the other staff. She rushed across the car park, through the slashing rain with her raincoat over her head, and tumbled inside the old VW Beetle. It fired up first turn and chugged off towards the Downs, skirting Newquay on the way. There’d be aspirins at the garage and a cup of coffee at the adjoining motel.

Four weeks earlier, Becci had turned up for a pre-appointed job as a silverservice waitress at a once-elegant hotel on the outskirts of Newquay. She’d blagged her way into it through an advert in The Lady of all places. She’d done enough waitressing, but never silver-service; she figured she’d pick it up as she went along. One of the two parties had got the start-date wrong, and it turned out she’d arrived a day early. That would be all right, except they didn’t have a staff bedroom for her. But they did have a season-long reservation on a caravan in the adjoining campsite, for just this kind of situation. It was a rough old teardrop-shaped thing, damp and smelly inside, but the bedlinen was clean and there was gaslight and hot water, coffee and fresh milk. She dumped her luggage off and headed straight for the nearest pub. It was full of surfers, most of them between five and ten years younger than her. She barged her way through to the busy bar and ordered her drink, staying there with it when it arrived. The first barstool to become vacant, she leapt on it like a shot, and throughout the next half hour or so, eased it – pitch by pitch - towards the end of

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the bar. There in the corner, with a commanding view over the entire room, she felt compensated for her newness and her aloneness. Eventually, intrigued by both of these, one of the many people that came and went invited her to his table. He was down for the summer with his girlfriend and a group of surf-buddies. They talked surf and she talked sail and as random encounters go, it turned out to be an easy evening, laughter and banter lubricated by copious quantities of alcohol. She discovered that they all lived on the caravan site where she’d been temporarily housed. So when it was time to go, they walked her home. Next morning, she was woken up by a tap on the door. It was the surfer.

“Hi. Any chance of a coffee?” “Er, yeah, sure. Come on in.” She was wearing only a crumpled old T-shirt and knickers, and looked like shit, with her hair in a mess and her face all pale and puffy. While she pottered around with kettle and mugs, he sat himself down on the opposite bunk to the one she’d been sleeping in. As she made her way through the coffee-making routine, she caught the occasional glimpse of him staring at her, in that oh-so-familiar way. Surely not? It was then that she became aware of her scent, an ambrosial blend of sleep, washed-out talcums and creams, lost moments of arousal. When he grabbed her hand and pulled her down, all she could think of was his girlfriend. “She went to work hours ago.” “Ah, OK.” Within seconds, he was full-on. “You’ve got a hell of a sex-drive, you know. And some nerve.” “We’re… y’know… It’s nothing serious… Really.”

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He rolled on to her and she let him take her like a virgin schoolboy might, in thirty seconds flat. Then he made like he was going to doze off. “Hey! What about me?” She pointed downward with her forefinger. Then again. Finally he got it. He tried this and that from his repertoire of pornography, and after two tough minutes, they both gave up. As he came up for air, she broke the silence: “It’s OK. I’ll do it myself later. Still want that coffee?” “Yes please.” “You realise that’s the first and the last, don’t you?” “I do now.” Becci handed him his coffee, remaining propped against the sink with hers. Both silent, they cuddled their mugs and sipped, she looking straight at him, he looking away. His stuff was trickling down the inside of one of her thighs; her halfdiscarded knickers were wrapped around one ankle. Still holding her coffee-mug, she raised one knee and kicked out nonchalantly, volleying them across the caravan where they landed, a perfect figure-of-eight, on the floor at the far end. Two dark holes surrounded by white, they looked like the top half of a big skull. She was trying to work out where her towel was when he held out his mug, still half-full. “I’ll be off then.” “Yeah, see you around.” “Bye.” She found the towel, grabbed a bar of chocolate from her bag and sat down on the bunk with a couple of soft cushions behind her and her knees tucked under her chin. It wasn’t the first time she’d been dragged into something like this, and now

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she was reminded that she didn’t particularly enjoy the aftermath. But she had an ongoing problem and it was an accident of birth. With her naturally-wavy blonde hair, English Rose looks and a body that other women referred to as a figure, she’d always drawn to herself a queue of men that considered her the one. She tried to counter this by dressing in eccentric and unwomanly ways: deck shoes or Wellington boots, cutoff tights, washed out Oxfam skirts or else ripped jeans, men’s shirts and sweaters, some of them unlaundered for days. But still they kept coming.

Rain beat down on the caravan windows and the curved plywood roof. How could liquid make so much noise? Her body shook, registered cold and damp. She took a bite of chocolate and tightened her grip on the coffee mug and her knees. Her eyes darted round the space and landed on a dropdown table at the end of the bunk. Amongst a jumble of personal effects, a hand-cranked musical box shone out. She leant over and gave the tiny handle a few turns, to deliver a jaunty rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ and a brief smile of recognition. The place smelt of burnt gas mantles and stale bacon breakfasts. And sex. Hers, wafting up from below, warm and fresh. An olfactory cocktail shook her back to a family holiday in Bognor Regis. She was ten, maybe eleven, in between schools. Same kind of caravan, bacon every day it seemed, and her parents making love behind a flimsy bifold screen. First time she’d heard them up close. They seemed to enjoy it. She used to cherish her lone daily visits to the toilet block. Liked the smell there. Sweat, bleach, that rough Izal toilet paper, other women’s sex perhaps. Whatever it was, it turned her on. Behind the locked cubicle door, that year she discovered herself, tasted her first orgasm. The place became her daily date, a release from the tedium of looking after her stupid young brother.

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That reminded her. She’d made herself – and this latest paramour, this surfer a promise… Time to relax. She leant back and closed her eyes. One for the road. Her first day at the waitressing job, no sooner had she put on the ridiculous penguin uniform than Becci confided in her co-worker, a kindly local woman in her mid-forties, that she’d never done silver service before. “Could you explain it to me please? I’ve waited plenty of times before, just not this.” “It’s a bit more than a single sentence, my love. You’ll just have to follow me.” “Thanks. It can’t be that hard.” “It’s not. But they’re going to know.” The Head Waiter wanted to fire her on principle, for lying, but the Manageress, who was also one of the owners, said to give her a week. By the end of the day, she was getting the hang of laying up tables the traditional way; which side to stand for service; and how to use the spoons. By the end of the week, she’d pulled through. The hardest part was having to be some sweet dumbo and not just herself, something that previous, more casual employers had always been happy to sign up for. But it would do for now: she had a room to herself with a nice big bed and one full day off a week.

The motel breakfast-bar was empty. Becci sat herself at a window-seat and looked out on the rain. She downed three aspirins with her coffee and waited till she came round.

Half an hour later she hit the centre of Truro, following the signs for a car park,

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watching out for the Marks & Spencer. She whizzed through the store, picking up underwear and hosiery at a brisk walking pace on her way to the till. Outside, slowing right down now, she turned towards the winding back-streets of the old centre to look for some more original pieces. She found a few boutiques and at each one bought something and kept it on: new jeans, new shoes, a bright stripy top. Emerging from the last one, her gaze was arrested by the spires of the cathedral, thrusting skywards over the roofs of the shops on the opposite side of the road. Even at that distance, she could hear the sounds of the choristers from the local cathedral school, practicing their incantations. Becci no longer had a single religious blood-cell in her body, but was still drawn to climb the steps and slip through the doors. Non nobis Domine, Domine, Non nobis Domine, Sed nomini tuo da gloriam…

Echoes of distant memory prompted her with the alto part and she sang along as she tip-toed down the nave to lean against one of the four massive pillars situated at the crossing. This placed her just inside the quire, source of the music. The smells, of musty aged wood and of massed young people, took her back to her first year at the all-girls boarding school that she’d been pushed into by her aspirational parents. Life was simple then. No longer a child with permanently grazed knees, but still almost sexless, the religious precept of being ‘a good person’ in order to be rewarded by a higher authority held out many attractions, not the least of which was the glow of satisfaction she gained from its everyday execution. Her short-lived selfimage as an outsider, founded on her nouveau riche background, transformed itself, in

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less than a term, into that of the pious one. She joined the Christian Youth group, sang in the school choir and was cloyingly nice to everyone all the time. Those days didn’t last. The discovery of cigarettes rock ‘n’ roll and boys, all of them topping the banned list, cast her out on to the school’s rebellious fringe before she hit fourteen. And there she stayed. Not once had she allowed herself to indulge in nostalgia since then. But looking back now, she cherished that fleeting coalescence of cleanliness and self-consciousness. Most subsequent experiences had contrived to stain her in some way, except for the tingling sense of refreshment she gained from the sea. Only sailing, with its raw silent power, its fluttering white symbols of freedom and its relentless demand for a selfless mode of being, made her feel that wholesome again. Still singing, this time inside her head, she turned around and left. It was gone mid-day. By now, most of the bad news had fallen from her face and she could put away the sunglasses. Finding a small coffee bar with a Gaggia machine, she treated herself to a strong one and followed it straight away with another. So far, on every one of her days off, she’d gone to the same place in Newquay for a late breakfast. It was a bit of a waste of money: if she hung around the hotel kitchen for long enough, the breakfast chef would have given her one for free. But she always dined out, because more than anything else, she wanted to be served. Just for one day, she wanted what she gave out all week to be coming her way. It was too late for breakfast now and since she’d eaten nothing but aspirin all morning, she decided to stay for lunch. The specials at The Minstrels Tearooms always looked good. It was time to try one. She paid up at the coffee bar and left for the car-park, swinging her shopping bags through the pouring rain. It was just gone one o’clock when Becci walked into The Minstrels, to be

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greeted by Doris, the owner. “You’re late today.” “I’ve been shopping. Look.” She parted the sides of her raincoat to reveal the new top, in all its red, orange and yellow glory. “Nice choice. Looks like the summer we haven’t had.” “Thank you. I’d like to try one of your lunches today.” “Of course.”

Minutes later, Doris re-appeared with a bowl of beef casserole and dumplings, and side dishes of creamy mash and cabbage with bacon pieces. Becci’s eyes lit up. “I’m going to France next week,” she said, tucking straight in. “I hope the weather’s better than this… Hey, this is good. Could I have a glass of red wine, please?” “Rosa! Glass of red over here, please! Lucky you. How did you get the time off?” “They had to let me. I committed to it before I was interviewed.” “So when are you off?” “Straight after the weekend.” “How you getting there?” “Crewing a yacht out to Carantec…” “Where’s that?” “North coast of Brittany.” “And how are you getting back?” “I’ve got to pick up somebody’s car in Lannion and bring it back on the ferry.”

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“I’d love to do something like that. I’ve never had the nerve.” “D’you want to come? There’s room for another.” Doris laughed. “And do what with this place? Close it down?” “It’s only for a few days… Rosa?” “I don’t think she’s quite ready for that.” “You mean you’re not.” “You’re too shrewd for your own good. Send us a postcard. At least I can dream.”

*****

Nine Langueux April 1977

There was no-one to meet Aurélie at La Gare d’Yffiniac, the out-of-town station that served Yffiniac and Langueux. She tried to picture the scene, the perspectives: the overhead electric cables on their monotonous gantries crackling all the way to Paris; the pale grey platform of concrete and stone; the absurdly long shadow of her body behind her. The train pulled away, leaving none of the usual bustle and chatter of human encounter. The twin tracks that had carried her there surrendered their last whispers. She waited, alone, with her white stick in one hand and a bag either side of her, and wondered if dead-centre between life and death there might be a staging-post like this.

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The late-afternoon heat bore down on her shoulders; the sunlight burst through her reluctant retinae; and the tastes of dust and spent electricity burnt the back of her throat. She remembered the station with ease: mock manor house, white, with a single-storey building to one side of it. Regulation country railway architecture. But she didn’t know if she was to the left or the right of the main exit, and wasn’t in the mood for tapping around to find out. So she just stood where she found herself and shouted: “Hello…? He-llo!” Nothing stirred for a while. Then a man close to retirement age, and not so far from death, coughed his way through the double-doors of the main exit. “I’m sorry, Mademoiselle. My hearing is not so good.” “I’m supposed to be met here. They must be late.”

He picked up the larger of her two bags with some effort and let her take his free arm. He led her into the waiting area and left. The place was oppressive, hotter than outside and buzzing with flies. A particularly insistent one kept landing on her nose. She brushed it away with her sun-hat and listened to the ticking of the station clock. Minutes later, from outside the entrance, came the unmistakeable scrunch of car tyres on dry gravel. The railwayman re-appeared and ambled over to the doorway. “Maybe this is them,” he said. “What kind of car is it? “404 pick-up.” “What colour?”

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“Silver.” “It’s them.” The dust settled and silence took control again, until Antoinette got out of the truck and shuffled across the car park. Antoinette was baggy. Everything about her was baggy. She had baggy hair and a baggy blouse, she had baggy breasts, a baggy full-length skirt, baggy bottom, even her leather sandals were baggy. She also had a tendency to attract chaos: she’d already thrown her car keys into her voluminous shoulder bag and was poking around for them as she swished up to Aurélie. “I’m sorry I’m late, chérie. The traffic. I don’t know where it came from...” “It’s OK. Good to see you.” They exchanged kisses. Aurélie sank into her ample arms and breast for a soft hug. Antoinette took hold of Aurélie’s luggage and led her to the pick-up. She threw the bags over the back, next to a dead sheep, and helped her through the passenger door. Then she poured the contents of her own bag on to the driver’s seat to locate the keys as swiftly as possible. She started up the old Peugeot and roared off. Aurélie, reminded of her appalling driving, fished around for the seat-belt. They drove home along the coast road and up the hill to a stand of Corsican pines that marked the driveway to the farmhouse. Once outside the car, Aurélie felt a breeze on her face and recalled the view across the estuary. Antoinette served her a cup of coffee and a slice of home-made cake out on the terrace, before showing her up to her room and suggesting she take a rest for an hour or two. Around seven in the evening, she made her way down to the kitchen to find Antoinette at the stove and a group of the others drifting around, picking at bits of food, and chatting. She sat down and one-by-one they came over, put an arm round her shoulder, kissed her cheek and reintroduced themselves.

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Once everyone was sat down, Antoinette handed out plates of truit bleu, fresh trout from the farm tank cooked in a white wine bouillon over a bed of mixed vegetables. When that was gone, she brought three big oval platters to the table, heaped with slabs of slow-cooked, melt-in-the-mouth pork and white beans in a rich brown sauce, surrounded by florets of creamed potato. They followed that with fruit and cheese. Over the meal, Aurélie reacquainted herself with her straggling Langueux family. She was also introduced to a newcomer. Her eldest cousin André had a 20year old son, Olivier, and his girlfriend Anaïs was down for a few days from Rouen University where she studied English. Unlike most of the company, she seemed like a real go-getter and it occurred to Aurélie that she and Olivier would not be spending the rest of their lives mucking out pigs. Breakfast next morning was a leisurely affair. Ordinarily, they would all take it at their own places, but with Aurélie around and Antoinette having risen early to make some pastries, people floated in and out of the baking-smells across the best part of two hours. Anaïs was one of the last to come down and she sat herself next to Aurélie. “Do you fancy a walk down on the estuary?” Anaïs was the only one that didn’t have something to do, and Aurélie’s arrival signalled a break from helping out in the kitchen: peeling endless carrots, gutting smelly fish and cutting up lumps of raw meat. They wandered down the hill to the coast path and sat on a low stone wall to face a welcome breeze. At this point the river meandered through tidal mud-flats and marshes and although at low tide it was only a few metres wide, the opposite shore was several hundred metres away. The space in-between was impassable, but strewn

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with wading birds of all species. Anaïs, who clearly knew her birds, began describing them: names, colours, numbers. Mid-sentence, she shouted out: “Look! Oh sorry.” “It’s OK. Happens all the time. Tell me...” Over on the opposite shore, a heron stood sentry on a fence-post. Behind it, a few smart houses nestled in a clump of woodland. It took off and for a few seconds looked as if it wasn’t going to make it into flight. Anaïs described the moment by comparing the bird with seals and penguins and other living beings that have to spend much of their lives outside the habitat they were designed for. Awkward and vulnerable on land, they suddenly aspire to heights of elegance and grace as they reach their natural state. This heron soared above the estuary, curved left and headed upriver, its long slender legs slipstreaming behind a body now in its true element.

“Did Antoinette tell you about tonight?” “No. What?” “We’re all going over to the Glucksmanns. The daughter’s down from Paris. She’s giving a recital. Bach.” Aurélie groaned. This was what she’d been dreading. She hadn’t met them, but she’d heard all about them. The Glucksmanns were an extremely rich local Protestant family, or maybe they were Jewish, she couldn’t remember, but it didn’t matter: in the way that Old Money gravitates to itself, the Pêguissoux were obviously on their list of acceptable guests. The daughter was studying music in Paris, majoring in Baroque, her instrument the harpsichord. The two women got up and walked westwards along the shore, then cut up the hill to approach the farm from behind. On the way, Anaïs skipped around and picked

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a few wild flowers, gave them to Aurélie to smell. “Where are we?” asked Aurélie. “It’s gone cooler.” “In the shade of the Lebanese cedar.” “I remember it.” They lay down on some soft grass under the canopy of the mighty tree, and listened to a fanfare for an early summer from a crazy lone skylark out over the hill. Anaïs stepped in the moment their eyes started to close: “Time for lunch.” Aurélie wanted to make an effort for the evening. After lunch, she took Anaïs up to her room for some help with her wardrobe. Despite what she’d said previously to the twins, she did have one short skirt, and after trying on a few alternatives, she decided to wear it, in view of the weather and the undoubted propriety of her companions. Anaïs approved of it, and her new Indian shirt.

That evening, they all drove to St. Brieuc in a convoy and headed up the steep wooded hill to the Glucksmann mansion, Aurélie accompanying Antoinette and Guillaume in their other car, a beat-up old estate to rival the pick-up. She found Anaïs on arrival and stuck with her as they were shown into the palatial drawing -room by a servant. There must have been about thirty people there, in addition to the ten that were the Pêguissoux. There was a brief reception with a glass of Champagne and a lot of forgettable introductions. Finally, they all sat down and silence descended on the place. Little Miss Hélène walked on, to an accompaniment of polite clapping. She cleared her throat to make an announcement:

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome and thank you for coming. Tonight I

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am going to play for you Bach’s 3rd Partita in A minor, followed, after a short interval, by his English Suite No. 3 in G minor. You will then be able to enjoy a simple meal that we have prepared for you.” “What does she look like?” whispered Aurélie, in English. “An upside-down mop. With spectacles.” Aurélie failed to suppress a chuckle. “What’s she doing?” “She’s sitting down with her hands hovering over the keyboard and her eyes closed.” A few shhhs drifted over from the back, which the girls took as a cue to behave themselves. A couple of people coughed nervously and Hélène began to play. She had an undoubted technical proficiency, not one bum note dropped in fact, but she lacked any passion, and – more important than that – there was something terribly wrong with the beat. Maybe it was just the girl’s stiffness, but Aurélie drifted away, away with the heron that Anaïs had helped her to picture earlier in the day… In her mind she saw a movie. An old silent black-and-white thing she’d once watched in Paris, of clips documenting various attempts at man-powered flight, from the early days of both film and flight. There was the man with the beautifully made swan-like wings, looking like an angel as he jumped off a cliff; the one with the bicycle and the ingenious rods attached to the pedals, that converted circular motion into a reciprocating one, his three-metre wings flapping up-and-down as he careered down the runway of an aerodrome towards the wooden ramp that would propel him into flight; and finally the one who was so sure of his complex but compact construction that he threw himself off the Eiffel Tower with it strapped to his back. They all ended in wreckage, ignominy and injury, though in the name of discretion the final scene of the last one wasn’t shown.

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All this made a superb accompaniment to the music. And the time flew by. After more polite clapping, everyone got up and was ushered through the tall folded panel doors into the next room, where a few flunkies wearing white gloves were handing out more Champagne. Aurélie drank a little too much. But at least the second piece was executed with ease and confidence, and this time she was able to concentrate. Back in the adjoining room, a table had been laid out with the makings of a full meal. It was a cafeteria-style fork buffet and Aurélie joined the queue, only to be ushered straight to the front. She accepted, though she wanted to scream out that her legs were fine; she just couldn’t fucking see. The cooks stationed behind the table took her plate and passed it across the food-warmers, piling on stuffed breast of chicken with bonne femme sauce; sauté potatoes and fresh green beans. At the end of the line, knife-and-fork, napkin and a glass of wine awaited her. She leant her white stick against the table, placed the knife/fork/napkin combination on her plate, away from the sauce, picked up the wine-glass by its stem, pinched the hot plate between her forefinger and thumb with the wine glass locked in, picked up her stick again and hurried across the floor to the far corner of the room, where she found a wall to lean against, next to a potted palm that tickled her in several places, a good location that she wouldn’t forget. She put the plate down on the floor, folded her white stick and thrust it down the waistband of her skirt, picked up the plate, took the napkin and stuffed it partway down her shirt to balance it on her paltry cleavage. She was down from six items to four now. She held the plate, took a sip of wine, returned the glass to its original position. With her free hand she took the knife and began work on the chicken. Eventually she managed to cut a slice, though it took some doing, slipping and

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sliding around in the sauce without a fork to harness it. She transferred the knife to her full hand and prised the fork away. Now she could pierce the cut slice, stir it around in the sauce and apply it to her mouth. All the while, she was forsaking her usual practice of facing slightly upwards all the time. This was the old Aurélie, the well-mannered, well-brought up girl. She was facing her plate while she was working on it, and when she was able to eat, she faced the assembled throng and beamed a big smile, just in case someone was looking her way. Anaïs was still in the queue, three people away from service, looking across the room. When she finally located Aurélie, she couldn’t take her eyes off her. Anaïs’s hands cupped her nose and mouth, her eyebrows were raised up high. She was finding it hilarious, but she also felt humiliation in the air.

Aurélie dropped her knife, bent over to pick it up and got her angles all wrong. She showed her knickers to the couple behind her, sploshed half of her wine on the floor and dropped a dollop of sauce over her left shoe. She picked up the knife, gave it a wipe on the napkin at her breast and returned to eating, once again smiling out as the sauce trickled down her chin. Anaïs couldn’t take any more: she vacated her place in the queue and barged through the crowd to approach Aurélie. “I’ve got two spare hands. Here. I’ll be your waiter.” “Wait till you have to try this. It’s farcical.” said Aurélie. “It certainly is,” replied Anaïs, laughing. She gave Aurélie a kiss. She took the wine glass first, then the fork. Aurélie started cutting some more while Anaïs wiped her chin with the napkin and then held on to it. With the chicken cut into manageable pieces, Anaïs swapped the knife for the fork. Aurélie swapped

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the plate for the wine and took another gulp. Then she swapped back again, to pick up a little piece of chicken, a few sautées and some beans. With her mouth full, her cheeks blown up and active, she faced out once again. “Everyone’s looking at you,” whispered Anaïs. “Oh dear, have I made a fool of myself?” “No no, they’re all smiling.” She smiled back. Thursday was always shopping day at the house, to plug the inevitable gaps in larders, cellars and cupboards. Early morning, Antoinette would take the estate car and drive into St. Brieuc with anyone who wanted to come along. Invariably she had three or four companions. They hit the market first and then returned via a Mammout on the edge of town. This time, Anaïs and Aurélie joined her. The first stage completed, the three of them sat down outside a café, took coffee and watched the traffic. In the middle of all this, Antoinette slipped away for her regular fix at a chocolatier’s just down the street. She always bought enough to feed her prodigious habit for a week. On the way back home, Anaïs suggested lunch in Langueux town. Antoinette had too much to do, but she dropped them off in the centre and drove on, leaving them to choose between a long walk or a short phone-call in the afternoon. “I fancy something simple. Gallette?” suggested Aurélie. “Fine with me. There’s a crêperie just up the street, off the Place de l’Église.” Aurélie ordered an egg and bacon one, Anaïs a Provençale. They wolfed them down and because one is never enough ordered some more with a side-salad. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” said Anaïs, “but do you think differently?”

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“I’m not sure what you mean…” At that point a waiter brushed by. “Could we have two more ciders here, please?” “Compared with the time you had sight. It’s just that whenever I think about things, there is always a backdrop. And more often than not it’s made up of scenes from my recent experience. I just wondered if your thoughts are more abstract now, without the constant bombardment of visual stimuli, or whether you simply rely on memory.” “Mostly I need that backdrop too. So I suppose I rely on an increasingly hazy memory. I hadn’t thought about it, to be honest. But if I’m considering a particular person, whether it be to miss them or to try and resolve some conflict with them, whatever, their picture is behind my thoughts.” “What if you only met them since your blindness?” “If I have touched them, then I still have a picture, only it’s like one of those kiddie colouring-books. I only see the dots, before they have been joined up. It’s pretty weird, but I’m getting used to it. If I haven’t touched them, I have the memory of their voice as a soundtrack. I have a dialogue with that voice.” “What about your dreams?” “I still dream. And they seem about the same. It’s just a lot of them spring from an ageing memory bank.” “So there’s a rent in your dream world? It terminates with the accident?” “No. My dream-maker also joins up the dots sometimes. Other times, it plunders my other senses and converts them into pictures for me… But getting back to your first question… Yes, I do have an expanded abstract realm and, if I’m not careful, I end up living in it much of the time, unless I force myself into a lightweight book or out on the streets. It’s cool and clear, a bit like I imagine outer space to be.

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But I’m not on my own. I guess some heavy-duty philosophers live out there most of the time.” “Isn’t it depressing?” “Not at all. It just is. Others might find it anti-social though. I was depressed for some months after the accident, but that’s to be expected. I’m fine now… I’m fine…” Anaïs ordered more cider. They left the place around four o’clock, a little drunk, and ambled home along a single-track lane. As they crested the last hill, arm-in-arm and giggling, the sky became improbably big and Anaïs could see over to the other side of the estuary. They stood side-by-side, joined at the hip, and faced downhill. Without any need for discussion, from the first day the two of them had taken to standing close together with at least one point of physical contact: shoulder, foot, elbow, sometimes forehead, sometimes nearly all of them, but never hands: far too loaded. Low-key and casual, they both gained comfort from it. “Smell that honeysuckle,” said Aurélie. They were passing a grand house with a landscaped garden. Anaïs obviously couldn’t. She walked over to the garden-wall and tried to pick up a trace of the scent. Curious about the discrepancy, she asked: “Your other senses are heightened then?” “For sure. It’s one of the things I discovered straight away. Sight is so dominating. It can wreck the others.” “I’m envious. In a way.” “Why?” “Because your inner world must be so much less dull than mine. All those strong tastes and sounds and touch-sensations…”

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“I suppose so. It would be handy to have the choice sometimes.” “Let’s find some more smells.” Next morning found Antoinette in the kitchen with the other women helping her. This being Aurélie’s last day, she wanted to do something special again. Fish aside, it was all from the farm and the kitchen garden. She had a list of dishes pinned up on a board by the door. Excluding cheese and coffee, there were six: soft eggs baked in cream; smoked ham with radish and pickles; plain grilled fillet of sole with lemon and butter; peas and baby broad beans stewed in chicken stock with onions and mint; roast leg of lamb with new potatoes; and pears poached in white wine with chocolate sauce. Antoinette remarked that they had invited some neighbours over for dinner. This was the old, fast-fading France and for the past ten years Aurélie had been moving away from it, along with vast numbers of younger people from the North. Back in Paris, she’d been known to indulge in the odd American burger or an English sandwich. But on an occasional basis, she loved these long family suppers. The evening arrived with the neighbours, and everyone gathered together for drinks and small talk outside on the back terrace. Across the estuary, the houses dotted along the opposite headland began to twinkle in mad random sequence as people reached out to challenge the twilight with the sanity of electric light switches. Pools and sharp triangles of incandescent light ripped through glazed and just-open doors. Young children turned over in their beds and drew closer to ragdolls, bears and bits of blanket with sleepy satisfied grins. Grown-ups poured their first drinks, put on some easy music and flopped down on the sofa. The loneliest time of the day was receding. The stars were coming out. The terrace was strewn with flickering candles and home-made lanterns,

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which only teased the crepuscular gloom. Anaïs and Aurélie stood shoulder-toshoulder. Anaïs painted both scenes, ‘out there’ and ‘in here’, each with its own little nodes of brilliance. Aurélie had to imagine the longer distance, but close up she could just make out the candle-powered dots that danced on her retinae. Anaïs put her arm around Aurélie’s waist. “I don’t want you to go.” “Me neither. But I have to. I’m expected. They’ll be making a big dinner for me.” “Can I take you to the station tomorrow?” “Yes please. I’d like that.” “Talking of big dinners, here comes another.”

First thing next morning, Anaïs’s old Renault 5 drew up in front of the station entrance. It was the only car in a space that could take fifty. They chatted away enthusiastically. “You’d better go or you’ll miss your train,” said Anaïs. After a few minutes, the train pulled in. No-one got off and no-one got on. They carried on talking. A whistle blew; the train pulled out. The air in the car became solemn and still. “Now what?” said Aurélie. “I’d better go and call Antoinette. I don’t have Madeleine’s number.” She ran across to the station lobby. On her return, she asked. “Do you want to go the slow way?” “Along the coast?” “Yes. What do you reckon?” “Why not?”

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They both burst out laughing. Anaïs cranked back the canvas sunroof and headed through town to pick up the coast road. She turned the radio up loud, found an English station and they began to sing along, off-beat and out of tune, punching the sky through the hole in the roof, to the sound of Fleetwood Mac: “You can go your own way…” They took the empty road between St Brieuc Bay and St Michael’s Mount Bay along the Emerald Coast, a series of rugged capes interspersed with broad river estuaries. The flatter western end, marked by rolling hills of heather, broom and pine, reached out to the sea with golden sand dunes and beaches. After twenty-odd kilometres of running inland from the coast, the sea hove into view. Anaïs supplied a running commentary on the landscape and the light as they turned off for Sables d’Or-les-Pins. They cruised through the near-deserted holiday town and stopped off at the far end for a coffee. Aurélie wanted to walk on the beach. They wandered down to the shoreline, took off their sandals and tucked their skirts up. Splashing their way out until the surf was above their ankles, they walked the full length of the beach. For the return, they kicked their way through the warm dry sand higher up. Aurélie suddenly remembered her promise to Didier: “Can you look out for shells? I said I’d take some back.” “I’ll walk you to the high tide mark. That’s where the best ones are.” Anaïs took her by the hand and led her to a ridge of sand marked by stormtossed seaweed. Aurélie poked a foot underneath some and felt around. “Is this a good place?” “I can see plenty. I’ll pick them up for you and you can feel if they’re any good.”

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“OK, but you must tell me the colours. I want a nice mixture.” Back in the car, they headed up to Cap Fréhel. The road became more dramatic, with hairpin corners and rollercoaster hills. Anaïs winced as each time they emerged from the woods and on to the heath, a ravishing new view presented itself. But there was little she could do but talk Aurélie out to it.

They stopped dead at a wooded cliff-top. Two hundred feet below, puffins and guillemots fussed about on the rocks. Aurélie faced north west out over the sea, a welcome breeze in her hair, the burning sun on her shoulders. She dreamed herself out past the Channel Islands to south west England. A sudden memory of Maria, who’d spent her teenage years at boarding school in Devon, wrenched her away. “What’s the matter?” asked Anaïs, who’d spotted a tear. “I just remembered it’s Maria’s birthday soon.” She thought about calling Didier at the next phone-box. That’s what she wanted to do, but it would get him thinking about the accident. At least her recollection of it was a blackout. From headlights to hospital. She gave up trying to penetrate it a long time ago, but Didier had the police report and his imagination, and that was much worse. If only Maria had been a horrible person. On more than one occasion, Aurélie had tried to sabotage the angelic glow that illuminated her memories, but it never worked: the ache of missing her kept coming back. Why are we doomed to miss the departed? Why can’t we just get on with the improbably difficult job of celebrating life? A dark cloud passed in front of the sun. As she felt its shadow inch across her back, she turned to face Anaïs and groped around inside her head for a distraction.

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Finally, she smiled and took her arm. “Are you hungry? I am.” “Starving.” They sped back down the mountain, this time on its rocky eastern flank. After a couple of kilometres on the main road, Anaïs spotted a roadside restaurant with a good few cars and trucks parked outside. They ordered a small jug of wine and plates of tomato salad, omelette and steak-frites, which they devoured far too quickly. Anaïs, who’d never been to Dinard, was starting to worry about her route.

“Do you think you’ll be able to direct me once we get to the edge of town?” “I think so. It’s been more than three years, but I’m sure nothing’s changed.” “We’ll see what your memory’s like then.” On the outskirts of Dinard, Anaïs called out the choice of directions at the first junction. Aurélie’s memory kicked in. “Follow the signs for St Malo and the new barrage, until you come to a big roundabout. Take a left, then a right straightaway. The district is called La Vicomté. Look out for signs to a campsite. It’s near there, one of the avenues above the beach.” Despite a couple of panicky reversals, Anaïs found the street and the villa without having to consult anyone. She drove right up to the front door. “Right then.” Anaïs fiddled around with a few controls. “I don’t want to say good-bye… These last few days have been lovely.” “Why don’t you stay here a while?” “Would they mind?” “I’m sure it’ll be fine. They’ve loads of room. You might get the old coach house.”

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“I’ll have to talk to Olivier, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem. To be honest, we were starting to get on each other’s nerves.” The front door opened and Madeleine walked over to Aurélie’s side of the car. “Aurélie! It’s been so long!” They kissed each other through the open window. “This is Anaïs.” “I’ve heard all about you. You must come in for a coffee.” Aurélie was right. After coffee round the kitchen table, Madeleine led her to the guest room she always used to stay in, and Anaïs was installed in the coach house.

*****

Ten London May 1977

Six in the morning Monday the ninth and a tour-coach idled through the narrow side-streets of Pimlico and Kensington before picking up the Great West Road and heading South West for Cornwall. Hannah had been the first to arrive, with the sunrise, and had chosen the nearside front seat for its panoramic view.

This placed her almost next to the driver and she let him engage her in conversation about the weather. It was certainly a nice day: a crisp chill in the air; a clear blue sky to the east; and delicate, hair-like shapes of high white cloud over to the west, although there had been reports of force nine gales, thunderstorms and heavy rain down there. It was hard to imagine and Hannah refused to get gloomy about her own

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outlook. She opened her paperback travel-guide and read up on her destination.

Hannah had a few days off. It was her first proper holiday since she’d been accepted as a student nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital the previous September. As well as the coach, she had booked herself a room for four nights at a bed-and-breakfast in Newquay. This was not her first break, but it was the longest. Soon after enrolling and getting the hang of her shifts, she decided that whenever she had an early and a full day off, followed by a late, she would take a day-trip to a place she hadn’t seen before. In this way, she’d visited Bath, Winchester and Henley-on-Thames, always on her own. Each of these outings conformed to a rudimentary pattern. On her arrival, she would install herself in a coffee shop, with a brochure that she’d had posted to her beforehand, and remind herself of her chosen site of interest: a cathedral or historic monument, an architectural gem or a picturesque riverside location, and then she’d work out the best way to get there, from a town-map or by asking around. Lunch was a treat, usually taken in a wholefood café or a salad bar, sometimes accompanied by a glass of wine. The afternoons were for strolling and windowshopping, occasionally the purchase of a present for herself or her one friend back at the nurses’ residence. By tea-time, she was invariably tired and ready to go home; so she’d sit herself down in another coffee-house and write out her postcards before returning to the coach. These postcards played an important part in her routine. And they represented much more than mere sideline obligations which sometimes elicited responses. Collectively they were emblematic of a fundamental enquiry into her very existence.

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If, as often happened when she was going through a rough patch, she asked herself: ‘What’s it all about?’, then that photograph of a raging weir set against the backdrop of a steep wooded valley somehow rendered her commonplace life more concrete. For her right now, life was a simple case of: ‘I am because I have been there.’ She always sent four: one to an old schoolfriend; one to her penfriend in France; one to her current friend Gary, the only male nurse in her block; and one to herself. She knew this was the saddest thing on earth to do, but even though she usually took three or four nice blank ones back for her scrapbook, somehow she just liked the fullness of one that had been conveyed by post: the used stamp with its messy postmark, the spidery faked handwriting so no-one would know, the occasional raindrop smudges.

Hannah wore her loneliness like a hooded cloak. She could easily have invited one or two of her acquaintances on these trips - as they indeed constantly invited her to their wild, alcohol-fuelled Friday evenings up the West End –- and no doubt they would have come along. But she always declined both options. By the age of nineteen, she had come to prefer a self-sufficient solitude to a bogus sense of togetherness.

The coach, an old AEC with tartan velour upholstery, chunky chrome grab-rails and a lovely engine-note, had no toilet onboard. At the first stop, Hannah stepped down and looked up at the sky. Behind her and to the south, the high-flying feathery cirrus clouds tickled an otherwise clear blue, but ahead, the dirty grey underbelly of lowlying cumulonimbus looked threatening. Maybe the forecast was right after all. They set off again, after a short break. Hannah had brought plenty to eat and

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drink: sandwiches, fruit, snacks and bottled water. Others with nothing, imagining that they were going to stop off at cafés along the way, were becoming increasingly disgruntled. The driver promised to break his timetable at the next stop, a transport café, if they all promised to hurry. Across the aisle from Hannah’s seat, a young man was reading a small leatherbound book. She offered him some water and half a fruit bar. He accepted and invited her over to the vacant seat beside him. He seemed like a gentle man, certainly a safe one, and she agreed. He introduced himself as Timothy. Nodding over his shoulder, he said: “You’d need loaves and fishes to feed this lot. I’m honoured.” “I’m Jewish.” He smiled. “Sorry. That was a pretty bad joke. I’m training to be a priest. C of E.’ “Do you think that nice Jewish boy of yours really did do that particular trick?” He smiled again. “I find it best not to take all the miracles literally. But they do make wonderful folktales, which hopefully inspire people to greater goodness.” “That’s a lovely idea.” “And they also hold out the real possibility of hope, which we all need.” “Hmm… I’m not so sure about that one.” “I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t throw my legs over the side of the bed in the morning if I didn’t have hope.” “I know what you mean. It’s just that religions have always messed around with people’s hopes. They can’t resist trying to hi-jack them.” “You’re talking about false hopes, right?”

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“Yes, I suppose I am.”

Hannah had never felt herself to be particularly Jewish and throughout her life she showed little interest in the history of her family or of her people. Her father, Manny, was an ex-East End taxi driver, lapsed and thankfully never didactic in his stance on her religious upbringing. They drifted in and out of the synagogue on special occasions, and she’d had her bat mitzvah to keep everyone happy, but that was pretty much the limit of their observance. Although they never ate pork and Ruth, her mother, always made chicken broth when she was ill. Going back, the known history of the family stopped dead in 1912, with the revered story of Manny’s grandfather walking most of his way from Poland to Britain, settling in Spitalfields. Manny and Ruth were third generation East Enders then, but in 1956, swept along by the rush northwards and eastwards towards cleaner air, newer houses and modern life in general, they moved in a straight line up the A10 to Tottenham, where Hannah grew up, an only child. At secondary school, she had just one real friend, another wounded canary, daughter of a forcibly-retired policeman with a serious drink problem and a tendency to beat everyone in the household when things got tough. They connected in the first term and stayed together for the next seven years. It started out as a defensive measure, since they were both subjected to a regime of fierce and enervating bullying, just because they were abnormally small and refused to run with the pack. By way of compensation, the policeman encouraged his daughter to stick up for herself, if necessary through retaliation, and from his stock-in-trade instructed her in two useful methods, which she then shared with Hannah. Both required the same grip, using the arch between extended forefinger and thumb, the one applied to the

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throat with a lifting action, preferably against a hard surface like a tree or a wall, the other to the back of the neck, squeezing the muscles and nerves that can be found where the neck vertebrae meet the skull. If executed correctly, the latter produced a deeply humiliating effect on the victim, as they could be marched around like a puppet. Physically, they were late-developers and this made things harder, when all the girls around them started to bump their way through puberty. But at fourteen, they started to grow and Hannah kept on growing until she was six inches taller than her once-protective friend and well above the class average. By then, she had come to hate her body, with its broad hips, jodpur thighs, flat chest and muscular broad shoulders. She became tough and occasionally pugnacious. It was around this time that she adopted a new black leather jacket, found on the canal towpath by her friend, no doubt part of the spoils of some burglary. Dubious at first, she found that it fitted perfectly; even her mother said that she wore it well. It soon acquired iconic status in the neighbourhood and was to be the beginning of her love affair with black. It had taken almost three years to earn the respect of their peers. After one or two incidents of sweet revenge, the need for force was buried.

The coach was approaching the outskirts of Exeter. Horizontal rain, propelled by a fierce south-westerly, slammed straight on to the windscreen in sheets. The spindly old wipers performed so ineffectually that the driver had to slow right down.

“So what made you want to join the priesthood after years of social science? Did you have a Damascan moment?” Timothy laughed. “I did actually.”

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He recounted a story about his last year in university. Apart from being a rebellious and not particularly successful student, he’d acquired a sideline in dope-dealing. He’d taken to cannabis and used it moderately, but by his final year, he was dealing the stuff, cruising the streets of Birmingham in a beaten-up old Land Rover and relishing the self-image and lifestyle of an outlaw. He was also making good money, although he was sometimes less than happy about the company he had to keep, and very unhappy about the appearance of guns at his midnight multi-storey car-park deals.

“I must say, you seem like a most unlikely drug-dealer.” “Shhh.” It was Hannah’s turn to laugh. “Sorry,” she whispered. “What made you chuck it in?” “A friend of mine took his own life. He was an odd character: painfully sensitive and he dressed very eccentrically, with shiny military boots outside his trousers, long black cape and a black hat. He hung himself one morning from the portico of the Students’ Union building. It was me that found him. I’m convinced the dope was partly to blame. After that, I left town for good and enrolled at theological college.” Hannah became withdrawn at this point and ended the conversation. The image of the black cape had taken her to a space that she didn’t want to visit right now: a converted railway arch in a side street set back from the Thames Embankment. After enrolling at St. Mary’s, prompted by her schoolfriend, the one person that knew what had happened, Hannah went along to a meeting in that railway arch, a Survivors’ Group run by the participants, where she passed through a series of acutely

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harrowing but ultimately liberating gateway experiences. There, in the safety of an unknown group of people who shared this one experience, and led by an outside therapist, she consented to re-visiting and re-living moments from her earlier years. Each class, with its gently structured exercises, became a momentary catharsis.

Hannah’s father used to ‘touch her inappropriately’, a phrase she picked up at the first meeting. After the loss of his job, through a nasty car accident that wrecked his back, it was he and not her mother who spent all day around the house. Ruth was out cleaning houses and offices, day and night. It started at bath-times, when she was eight or nine. It was neither prolonged nor especially unpleasant and for a short while, in the absence of moral guidance from either parent or an elder sibling, she simply believed that was what fathers did. But by the time she moved up to secondary school, she soon found out on the playground what part of her body was intended for what purpose, and with whom. He had taken to coming into her room at night. When he sat down on the edge of the bed and leant over her, the feeble nightlight on the bedside table would cast a shadow, huge and distorted, up on to the ceiling. There filling most of it, a black giant with a hooded cloak looked down on her half-closed eyes. Compared with many of the others, she had got off lightly. Week after week, she listened to a catalogue of systematic rape and incest. She found their stories as unfathomable and heart-breaking as her own soul-consuming recollections. It stopped when she hit fourteen, around the time she was growing taller and already asserting her integrity with her peers at school. It wasn’t an easy unspoken withdrawal either. She had to mark her negotiating spot on the ground with a heavy foot and then meet threat with counter-threat but, in that sordid game of domestic

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bluff, she – unlike most of the other victims she was now meeting – knew that she possessed the winning card: she was finally prepared to walk up to the authorities and spill.

The coach pulled away from another stop on the outskirts of Plymouth. Dark clouds pressed hard against the windows. After a request from one of the passengers, the driver turned the interior lights on. Hannah broke her silence. “That’s better,” she said. “I can read my map now.” “Where are you heading for?” “Newquay.” “Me too. I’ve got a conference.” “I’m taking a holiday.” “I’ve just come back from one. I spent Easter in France.” “That’s nice. I’ve been to France at Easter.” “Where?” “Paris.” “I went down south. Cassis, near Marseilles.Youth-hostelling. Where’d you stay?” “With my pen friend. In the Luxembourg Quarter.” “Have you travelled much?” “That was my only time abroad. I want to go to Greece next year.” “The islands?” “No. Walking, on the mainland. In a group. I’ve been reading all about the interior.”

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They arrived in Newquay two hours late. Everyone on board looked as stiff and travel-weary as Hannah felt. Out on the road, trying to stretch themselves while they waited for their luggage, she and Timothy said good-bye in the drenching rain and discovered they were going to be travelling back on the same coach. He headed for his conference at one of the big hotels. She went to find her lodgings. After consulting her town map and memorising the address, she headed off towards the edge of town. She’d visualised a quaint period town house; what she got looked like a fifties council house, one of a small group clustered around a cul-de-sac. The landlady, a sullen heavy smoker, showed her around the place and up to her room. It was there she told Hannah she’d recently lost her husband to a workrelated lung condition. He’d been fired from his job and they’d moved from Scotland to set up the bed-and-breakfast. Their retirement lasted two years. Bitterness was evident in her every facial gesture. Hannah looked around the bedroom. It was clearly the largest of the three in the house and the bed was a double. She was expected to sleep in a dead man’s bed. As the woman left, closing the door behind her, Hannah sat down, her hands either side of her hips. Underneath one hand, the lemon nylon sheet crackled with static electricity. She fell back, rolled over on to her stomach and cried.

*****

Eleven Dinard April 1977

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Aurélie unpacked her bags and set up her cello, which had arrived that day by train from Paris. Back at the kitchen table, she immersed herself in mundane catch-up chatter and pretended to fend off inquisitive children. Madeleine’s son Laurent had a family and they were up for the weekend from their home in Rennes. The children, a boy and a girl aged five and six, were obviously rapturous at the prospect of spending time with an adult who couldn’t see. While no-one else was looking, or so they imagined, they had already poked their tongues out, executed a few silly walks with gruesome faces, and dropped their pants in front of her, giggling all the while.

After an hour or so, Madeleine’s husband Grégoire left for his daily hour in the greenhouse. This cued some of the others to go their separate ways: Laurent and family headed for their rooms; Anaïs took a trip to the nearest shops for some essentials. Madeleine stayed behind to chat with Aurélie over an aperitif.

“Do you remember the Blanchard House? It’s vacant. Looks like it anyway. There’s a for- sale sign up and it’s all shuttered. I was out that way the other day.” “Is that the place Isabelle used to take me? The rich girl she went to school with?” “That’s the one. Sophie.” “We climbed over the wall a few times when they were out. Explored the garden. It’s beautiful. Secret courtyards, fountains, weird exotic plants. And so many trees.” “Well it’s a mess now. Been neglected for years, ever since the father died. I’m not surprised they left.” Anaïs returned from the shops and joined them. After a few minutes,

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Madeleine broke away to make a start on the dinner. Aurélie carried on talking about the house. “There’s this place Isabelle and I used to break into, when we were about twelve. It’s massive and the grounds are magical. Madeleine says it’s empty. Want to go there?” “How do we get in?” “Over the wall.” “OK. Why not?” “You’re on… Tomorrow?” Madeleine came back in at this point: “It’s Sunday. I thought we’d take the children to the beach before lunch.” “Sorry. I’ve lost track of the days. Monday then.” Earlier in the day, Madeleine had driven to Cancale for fresh seafood. Laid out on a cork board dripping with seaweed, these made up the first part of the meal and everyone, including the children, had a few bits each. Then out of a pot came Poule Verte, a plump chicken the size of a small turkey, stuffed with spinach and ham, accompanied by little baby chicks of stuffed cabbage. To the side of the table, Madeleine sliced the bird and its stuffing and placed the pieces lovingly on big oval platters. She surrounded them with the cabbage bundles then covered them with baby vegetables and copious quantities of glistening broth. Out of the oven came a bubbling golden-brown gratin Dauphinois. They ate the monstrous messy dish indoors. The old oak dining -table had been covered in a rough patterned cloth in shades of rust and beige, while the rest of the linen, the mats and the napkins, were crisp white. Two vases of white tulips adorned the table, stationed either side of a basket of fresh eggs lying on a bed of straw. Madeleine lit candles. Aurélie commented on the fragrance and the flickering

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lights.

Around nine o’clock, they all went outside, to drink tisanes and eat fruit. An hour later, they drifted off to their respective rooms. Anaïs invited Aurélie over to the coach-house. Aurélie sat on the floor while Anaïs rifled through the music collection.

“Whose are these?” “My cousin Isabelle’s. She used to live here. Now she just calls in once a year. She’s got a job overseas.” “Nice place. What’s your mood? Jazz? Classical?” “Rock.”

Anaïs found a Steely Dan album. Aurélie jumped up and started dancing. They both sang out loud. A couple of tracks later, Aurélie collapsed in a heap on the floor, feigning exhaustion. “

Will you walk me back to my room?” “Sure.” “Will you wait for me?” “Of course.”

As Aurélie slipped into bed, she asked Anais if there was an old wooden trunk below the window-sill.

“Yes there is. Do you want something?” “My old owl may still be in there.”

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Anaïs lifted the sheets and nestled a beaten-up furry owl in Aurélie’s armpit. She turned her head and smelt the smell of a thousand cuddles. “Hibie!” Anaïs tucked her back in, leant over and kissed her eyelids. “Bonne nuit.”

Monday morning, they headed for the Pointe du Moulinet. First they followed the shoreline. Anaïs wanted to get a good look at the house. Like all the other villas in the neighbourhood, the garden beyond its frontage tumbled down a steep slope to the rocky shore, rendering it unapproachable to all but the residents. It could be seen from the public promenade though, menacing passers-by with its outrageous mock-Gothic features and an elevation distorted by the neck-snapping perspective. All the houses were serviced from the rear, through a maze of alleys that ran behind the walled rear gardens. Anaïs managed to identify the correct one and led Aurélie around its perimetre. It had two gates, both locked: a wide solid steel one, no doubt intended for tradesmen; the other, more decorative, for household use. “Do you reckon we can climb that wall?” asked Anaïs. “I don’t know, do I? I managed all right before.” “Sorry. I keep forgetting… OK. It’s about thirty centimetres above my arm’s reach. If you can hoist me up, I can pull you up to join me.” “The problem is the other side.” said Aurélie. “I just can’t jump on to the ground from any significant height. I can’t calculate when to flex. I might break something. I nearly did once before. It jarred my bones right to my jaw.” “Oh yes, of course. I’ll have to let you down then.” Aurélie fumbled inside her bag and pulled out Didier’s tin of blackcurrant

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bonbons. She opened it, popped one in her mouth and handed one to Anaïs. “What’s this?” “Magic.” Aurélie leant her back against the wall, hands cupped together. Anaïs scrambled up using Aurélie’s hands as the first step, her shoulders as the next. Scuffing Aurélie’s clothes, kneeing her breasts and pinching her skin, she pulled herself on to the top of the wall, where she stretched out horizontally, arms and legs either side of the capping-stones. “Hurry up! What if someone were to walk past and see us now?” “I’m all right. I’m invisible.” “What are you talking about?” “Just joking. It’s a funny affliction I’ve acquired over these last couple of years. I sometimes imagine if I can’t see other people, then they can’t see me.” “Like a kid with his head under a cushion? Oh to be invisible!. I suppose you go around picking your nose and scratching your fanny out on the streets.” “That sort of thing.” Aurélie grabbed her suspended hand and clambered her way to the top. Once she too was safely astride the wall, Anaïs rolled and dropped and looked up. “Come down backwards, hang there by your fingers and I’ll do the rest.” Anais raised her hands to Aurélie’s armpits and took her weight. As Aurélie let go, they both collapsed in a giggling heap on the ground. An eerie silence waited for them to get back on their feet, but it was soon overtaken by a buzz of flies, grasshoppers and wasps. It was more like the South in there: one match and the whole place would be up in flames. Their temples pounding, the inside of their mouths dusty and dry as a moth’s wing, they edged forward

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tentatively. “It wasn’t like this before,” said Aurélie. “How can you tell?” “The smell. It smells of death.” “There is a lot of rotting vegetation about… Are you scared?” “No… Well, a bit.”

A chill breeze stroked the back of Aurélie’s neck and travelled down her spine. She shivered, shook her head shoulders and hips to exorcise it, but it kept returning. For a moment, she stood completely still. A long way off, more than five years in fact, she heard a harpsichord, at once tinkling and melancholy, the intro to one of Maria’s favourite songs at the time. The words came flooding in:

‘I take you through my dreams Out into the darkest morning Past the blood-filled stream Into the garden of Jane Delawney. Though the rose is there Don’t pluck it as you pass Or a fire will consume your hair And your eyes will turn to glass.’ “What’s wrong?” Aurélie sang out: “The ground you walk upon might as well not be there...” “I don’t like it. Do you want to go back?” “Yes… Maybe not… Oh I don’t know… Describe the garden to me.”

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“Well I can only see the part that’s near the house. It’s dense and overgrown; most of it’s in shade. The lawn hasn’t been cut for years; it’s like a meadow. But there’s a well-used path across it. I can just see an ornamental fountain with a statue of a naked woman in the middle. That’s all overgrown too and the water is black. There’s climbers taking over the house and choking the trees. The flowers are scrawny and pale, uncared for… it’s neglected but kind of beautiful. Some of the shrubs are exquisite. Oleander, I think. I guess they can look after themselves. And on either side of the French doors there’s a couple of potted aspidistras waiting to die.” “The place is overgrown with ghosts as well.” “Ghosts? What kind of ghosts?” “Ghosts of bees, ghosts of butterflies, ghosts of children’s laughter…” “They sound OK. I thought you meant bad ghosts.” “Ghosts aren’t good or bad. They just are. What’s that sploshing sound?”

Anaïs took her by the hand and led her behind some shrubs along the ivycovered wall towards the source. A stone gargoyle, set in the wall, spewed water into a semi-circular trough. They both drank from it. “We’ll start with the bottom end first. I can hardly see that.” said Anaïs, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “It’s like a primeval forest.” “Stay close to the wall all the time.” said Aurélie. “I need to have some bearings.”

They walked the perimeter again, this time inside the walls, made a U-shape and returned the same way. Here in the shade of the untended trees, progress was made more difficult by the strangling brambles and weeds that had taken over. They

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were interrupted by the sound of children laughing not so far away.

Anaïs grabbed Aurélie’s hand and dashed towards one of a group of giant rhododendrons. She parted the branches to discover enough space under the canopy for several people. Once inside, she made a gap in the leaves and watched. “Mon Dieu!” “What is it?” “Two little girls.” “I thought this place was empty.” “They’re about seven years old, dressed in the same clothes.” The girls skipped past the rhododendrons, singing a nursery rhyme: Il était une fois une fleur Elle s’oeuvre un peu, beaucoup Un papillon arrive, il se pose sur la fleur Hmm! Que ça sent bon Le papillon s’envole et il disparait La fleur se referme, se fane et elle disparait.

“Come on you two. Time to come in.”

Anaïs looked across at the house. A flight of stone steps led up to a set of double doors above the semi-basement. Standing in the doorway, a tall muscular woman of indeterminate age, dressed in black, was looking out over the garden, her hands on her hips. Anaïs thought she looked a bit like Rosa Klebb, James Bond’s nemesis in ‘From Russia With Love’. She gave a brief description to Aurélie, who whispered back:

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“That’ll be the housekeeper. I met her. She’s a monster.” Something made Anaïs look up. On the first floor, the shutters to one of the windows were open. She could just make out the blurred form of another, much younger slighter woman, sitting back from the window, staring down. She told Aurélie. “That must be Sophie. This is getting creepy. Can we go now?” “OK. But let’s wait till they’re all inside.” The twins climbed the steps and passed by the stern housekeeper, who closed the doors behind them and disappeared into the gloom of the house. The figure in the upstairs window retreated too. “They’ve gone.” Anaïs took Aurélie’s hand and led her through the back of the rhododendron. They edged their way along the garden wall in the direction of the gate, where they exited in the same manner as they had entered, though driven this time by a racing fear. Dropping down on to the back alley, they both slapped their hands together to rid themselves of the dirt and dust. They ran as fast as they could down the lanes, only slowing down when they reached the cleansing normalcy of the crowded promenade. “Nissie?” “Yes?” “I need a beer.” “Me too.” They walked across to the string of friendly bars on Rue Yves Verney and stepped into the loudest one, where they drank two beers apiece, one almost straight down at the bar and the other outside, taken more slowly.

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That evening, Anaïs invited Aurélie back to the coach-house again, where they listened to some soothing West Coast jazz. Anaïs wanted to chat about men. Aurélie started by recounting some of the key moments from her first year after the accident. Apart from one or two heavily edited conversations with Didier, and that drunken evening with Hervé, it was the first time she’d done this. “Looking back, it’s obvious I put myself at risk, but I was so angry. Didier was in a state of dread much of the time. Then I considered the possibility that I should only go with the ones I’d known before the accident.” “Why?” “Because I didn’t know what I was hooking up with.” “And now?” “My special friend Pierre and I have an occasional understanding and it works quite well. But apart from that, nothing really. Somewhere between the comfort of women and the excitement of men there’s a relationship I’ve never had.” “Olivier’s my first proper boyfriend. We’ve been together almost two years now.” “Ollie’s sweet. A real softie. I’ll confess, more than once I thought about, y’know...” “Aurélie!” “Only joking. He’s a bit young for me. Did you try out any others, at university?” “One or two. Hopeless. What is it about French men? These guys were always trying to control me, down to the smallest of ways. Like that blood-stopping grip on your shoulder or neck when you’re arm-in-arm.” “I’ve had that. It’s like they want you for a trophy as you walk down the

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street.” “I had to keep freeing myself. Boring.” “They can’t handle women who will not be taken captive. What I hate most is when they always want to know where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re with. The ones from the south are the worst. As for guys from Morocco or Italy…” “Maybe it’s a southern thing. Maybe you should cast a wider net, head North?” “Like Lille?” “No-oo. Silly. Holland. Scandinavia. Britain even.” Around midnight, Anaïs glanced out of the window and across to the main house, now bathed in darkness. “It’s lights out over there.” “Can I stay with you tonight?” “Of course.”

Quite unnecessarily, in view of the heat, they donned their nightdresses, chaste as two schoolgirls on a sleepover. When Anaïs snuggled down under the covers and they lay there face-to-face, Aurélie reached out for a long good-night hug. Anaïs had set an alarm clock. Aurélie woke up first. She stretched across Anaïs’s sprawling body, stabbed the beeping button and flopped back into the hollow she’d left behind in the mattress. One hand went looking for Anaïs’s face, which she dotted with soft small kisses. She rolled on to her side and waited until Anaïs came around. “Bonjour,” said Anaïs, sleepily. “Bonjour.” Aurélie kissed her again.

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“Why the alarm?” “Habit… Listen. I’d better get ready to leave. They’ll be wondering what’s happened to me... What will you do today?” “I’ll see if Madeleine fancies a walk.” They dressed in silence and wandered across to the house. Neither could face breakfast or the company. Anaïs said her good-byes and left for Langueux the quick way, via the new expressway. She drove hard, turned the radio on, and smoked a cigarette or two, but nothing could expunge the unfamiliar tear in her soft young soul. She decided to stop off at Dinan and wandered the streets aimlessly for several hours. Finally, she stepped into a café and after pushing some pasta round her plate and drinking a couple of beers, she left, feeling no better. By now it was mid-evening. Outside Yffiniac, she pulled off the expressway, slowed right down and opened the sunroof. The overhead streetlights fired stroboscopic shafts of amber into the open car. As she turned down the last stretch of coast-road, the evening air drifted in and wrapped her in a warm blanket of honeysuckle.

Aurélie and Madeleine took a stroll down to the beach. They passed the restrained walled villas of La Vicomté, dripping with plants native to the sub-tropics, though equally happy here with their careful owners on the equable shores of the Brittany peninsula. Fragrances of eucalyptus, mimosa and bougainvillea; pictures of palm, feathery tamarisk and camellia played with Aurélie’s senses and memories. She thought back to the families that once lived over those walls, the children she used to play with. When the two of them turned and cut down from the avenue to the promenade, she snapped out of her reveries.

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“Madeleine, I really need to spend a day or two on my own, just wandering around town. Would you mind?” “But of course not! I understand.” She had her arm through Madeleine’s and briefly leant her head on her shoulder. She’d been missing Didier and her friends of course, but most of all she was starting to miss Paris, or her familiar corner. She wasn’t used to interminable company, however relaxed, and after two weeks of it she needed a break. Just to spend time chatting with shop-keepers and barmen, bumping into strangers, even having the odd adventure, but most of all being responsible to no-one else for what she did next. Halfway along the promenade, two young boys appeared, whizzing round on their bikes, fancy new BMXs imported from England. Stood up on the pedals, they were travelling as fast as their legs could take them. They drew big circles, then tight ones, practiced their rear-brake skids and turns, their wheelies and their jumps. They also buzzed in far too close to the two women. “What’s going on, Madeleine?” “Keep away! Can’t you see she’s blind?” The boys ignored her. In fact, her plea seemed to arouse them to new heights of mischief. They rode to opposite ends of the promenade, turned around and balanced menacingly on the spot a while, then headed full pelt towards the two women, narrowly avoiding them at the last second. This time they joined up close and parallel to do a neat figure of eight with the two women at its centre. As they were about to rush out of the first circle on the home straight towards their intended victims, one of the boys’ pedals poked through the spokes of the other’s front wheel. Both bikes stopped dead on the edge of the promenade wall. One collapsed in a tangle

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of bicycle bits and limbs and a scream of pain. The other flew over his handlebars and the metre-high wall on a headlong journey towards the beach. Aurélie and Madeleine ran hand-in-hand towards the edge of the wall. They arrived just after the one boy hit the beach and just before another onlooker leapt off the wall and landed beside him. The stranger looked up and shouted out: “Go and call an ambulance. It looks like he’s seriously injured.” Madeleine sat Aurélie down, with her hands on the wall and her legs dangling over the edge, and ran off to find a telephone. By the time she returned, still breathless, the ambulance was pulling away, sirens wailing. “What took you so long?” “I had to go miles. I don’t how many doors I knocked on. There was nobody in any of the houses until I got to the main road.” She took Aurélie’s hand and stared at the back of the retreating stranger. He threw his shirt over his shoulder and walked back to a bench where he’d left some books. “Nice man,” said Madeleine. “And quick-thinking. English, wasn’t he?” “Yes, I’m pretty certain. Good French though.” “Very handsome too… For an Englishman.”

Back at the villa, Aurélie took a bath and changed clothes. After giving Madeleine a parting hug, she headed for the bus-stop and the road into town. She stepped off the bus at the terminus and faced up towards the eye of the noonday sun with a tingling sense of anticipation. Her first day alone. Recalling the rough layout of the place, she dropped in on the Tourist Office next door, to buy a few postcards, and headed towards a bar on the corner of the boulevard.

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She’d always loved L’Infinité, with its younger crowd and an interior that hadn’t changed in fifty years. But she forgot the small brass-plated step. She could handle big steps, up or down, and she could handle no steps of course, but small ones – and this was only a centimetre or two – had seen her off more than once. She tripped through the open door and landed on her hands and knees, spilling the contents of her bag over a large area of the bar-room floor. The room went silent, until the patron and a couple of others rushed over to help. Aurélie refused the offer of an extended arm while she got accustomed to the momentary humiliation. She rearranged herself into a crouching position and began to reload the mass of her possessions at her feet, while accepting the more far-flung ones from others. After a quick inventory, she called out for some missing pieces - which were found - and stood up to find that people were at last chatting again. The patron led her to a free table by the window, apologising for his unfriendly step on the way. She ordered a Crème de Menthe and felt inside her bag for a pen and the postcards. The stamps and her black-and-gold sticky labels had already been applied by a helpful assistant at the Tourist Office. She carefully arranged them, ready to accept her signature. Then she dreamed herself out to each beneficiary. Halfway down her Crème de Menthe, Aurélie froze. She uncrossed her legs and adjusted her posture to try and reassure herself, but no, she felt cool and wet where she shouldn’t. She leant against the chair-back to calm herself and consider her next move. Inside her bag, she had a white cotton shawl, big and square with dangly gold orbs on it, that doubled up as a scarf. She took it out, folded it into a triangle and, as she stood up, wrapped it round her waist and tied it at the front. Then she walked

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over to the bar. “Can you show me where the toilets are, please? It’s been a while…” Still polishing a glass with a tea towel, the patron led her to an exit. “Down the corridor, second on the left, about ten paces. There’s only one.” Aurélie thanked him, but as the spring-door closed behind her, she hesitated. The ‘corridor’ was in fact an alleyway with a stone floor, cold dank and malodorous. She could hear a dying extractor fan and the sounds of people working in the outbuildings on either side. Finding the right door, she went inside, hoping that it wasn’t still a squat arrangement, with a pair of ceramic footprints. To her relief, it felt contemporary and smelt clean. She sat down, hurriedly put her hand to the one place that would supply an answer and raised a finger to her nose. The results of this simple test were definitive and perplexing.

Aurélie always ran with the moon and this meant that she was at least a week early. She rustled around inside her bag for the back-ups that she always carried and sorted herself out. Now she had only the question of visibility to worry about; she was wearing white and it was summery thin. On her way down the alley, she’d heard women’s voices coming from what she took to be a kitchen. She found the doorway, parted the jingly metallic strips that hung there to keep the flies out, and waited on the threshold. One of the women came over to ask what she could do for her. Aurélie gestured to her that she wanted to whisper in her ear and explained her predicament. The other woman shouted over to the young boy at the sink to disappear fast. Meanwhile, the first one got down on her knees, instructing Aurélie to turn around. She poked around in the folds and pleats of

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Aurélie’s long gypsy skirt, and then stood up. “Everything’s fine.” As she turned to walk away, the woman gently patted her bum. Aurélie smiled and gave silent thanks for ordinary people, people like these women who were willing to get down on their knees just to point a stranger in the right direction. She returned to her table and drank the remains of a Crème de Menthe without sitting down. Time to leave. With her inauspicious entry and a disconcerting middle, she felt ill-equipped to face down an unknown finale. She tapped the table to locate any stray pieces and left to find another café, leaving a solitary postcard on the floor.

*****

Twelve

Mid-morning, and it was an odd time of day to try and eat out. Dafydd parked the car and set off down the back streets behind the indoor market. Before long, he was sitting with a coffee at the counter of a workers’ café. Over his shoulder, a buzz of nervous energy signalled the countdown to lunchtime, less than an hour away. “Do you think you could you fix me something to eat right now?” “Eggs and bacon?” “No. Please, no.” “Then what would you like?” “Not breakfast. Not lunch. Can I leave it to you?”

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Minutes later, they brought him an enormous platter of charcuterie: chunks of homemade terrine, slices of cured ham, salami and sausage, all garnished with a quartered egg, knobs of butter, cornichons and radishes, and accompanied by a half-loaf of warm bread and a jug of red wine. He ate the lot and ordered another coffee. Over on the next table, a couple of old men, roadworkers by the look of it, were taking a break. He still needed to sort out some accommodation.

“Could you point me to a hotel, please, not too expensive?” “There’s a pension in the old quayside area up at the north end, right on the waterfront. One of the last in the town centre. The rest are holiday hotels.” “Sounds fine. Has it got a restaurant?” They nodded. “A good one, very good.” “Maybe see you again. I like it here.”

The place was built hard up against a vertical cliff-face, and he was given a straight choice between a cheap room on the back -side, with a window looking on to the cliff, or a room with doors and a balcony on the waterfront -side at twice the price.

He gave silent thanks to Emlyn and was led to his room, where he threw open the doors and sat down at the little steel table on the balcony to take it all in. Three floors up, he faced south, past the big hotels and the yacht club to the villas and the wooded rocky shoreline of the Pointe de la Vicomté.

Back inside, he poured himself a drink, lay down on the bed and looked

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around at another bad-taste hotel room. This one had alternating peach and apricot walls with a grey-mauve ceiling; sturdy fifties furniture; and gaudy sixties carpet and linens. Staring up at the ceiling, he got to thinking about the hopelessness of his assignment. Sent by a patrician father to find his long-lost brother, who obviously didn’t want to be found, he had four postcards, a native-friendly car and a pocketful of someone else’s money. Just before his eyes closed, he smiled up at the lacey white lampshade. Early next morning, he set off for a walk along the deserted promenade, heading for the Plage du Prieuré, about a mile away. It was time to get a feel for this part of the town, and maybe take in the reputedly-eccentric Musée du Site Balnéaire located down that end in the Villa Eugénie, once home to Napoleon III and his wife. He followed the seafront, lined with residential villas and hotels that clung to the pine-clad hills. Over on the far side of the cove, he took the path that ascended the cliff-face to a midway elevation above the shoreline. He found himself in the shade of some trees, where raised stone beds of shrubs and flowers huddled together in a joyous expression of municipal pleasantry. There were benches everywhere. He sat down on one and breathed in the heavily-scented air. The flower beds, with their random explosions of colour, looked more like cottage gardens, the kind that are worked on so well they seem like they’ve had nothing done to them. Dropping back down to sea level, he emerged into full sun and began to see the place in high-contrast black-and-white. When the occasional cloud passed over, the hard edges transmuted themselves into sepia tints, mimicking the Edwardian showcase photographs dotted along the length of the promenade. In front of him, a concrete walkway sprung from its rocky abutments and thrust its way out at waist-height across the promenade and the beach, and out to sea,

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without consideration for strollers, children or dogs. The new Embarcadère, the landing jetty for the vedettes that would tour the bay with their privileged sightseers onboard, was fed by the steps and the pathway from the Grand Hotel, the best in town. He looked up to see a party on its way down. Led by King Edward VII, it included all the other Dinard regulars: Picasso, Churchill, Debussy, Vivien Leigh. Behind the stars, a milky galaxy of sycophants: silly starched men with their long whiskers and stiff white collars; equally overdressed women and children, all hot and stuffy. Bringing up the rear of this danse macabre, a tall skeletal figure with hooded cloak, scythe and shovel, shuffling along with a cart full of grotesque cadavers, screamed out: “I kill you all!” Further along the promenade, Dafydd looked up again, this time to gaze on the elevations of the spacious mock-Gothic villas, with their turrets and spires, round rooms and ballrooms, chandeliers in every one. Coal-smoke poured from every chimney. He saw old ladies in ball gowns holding grand receptions, old ladies playing bridge in the window, old ladies gossiping in the hallway. And he saw young women servants stoking the fires, dusting and polishing endless rooms and corridors, cleaning silver cutlery and plate, cooking sumptuous feasts, doing mountains of laundry by hand. Young women servants being seduced by their masters’ fumbling sons. He was rescued from these hallucinations by the sound of a brass band, coming through the trees from the top of the cliff, playing a ridiculous oom-pah tune. At the far end of the promenade, he sat down on one of the benches that faced the beach. He tried to read, but gave up. Putting his book to one side, he leant back and closed his eyes to the glaring sun, immersed himself in the soundtrack to a slowmoving film. Muted sounds of childhood memory drifted in: the rhythmic chug-and-

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burble of a distant motor launch; squealing young children at play. Low tide wavelets lapped against the sand; dive-bombing seagulls shrieked overhead. Drifting back into vision, he caught sight of a lone child, maybe three or four years old, wearing just a vest, crouched down near the shoreline in the middle of a vast expanse of sand. She held a plastic bucket in one hand and a spade in the other and she was digging away furiously. With her bottom on her heels and her chin on her knees, she presented a model of balance and composure. Fifty yards away, her mother leant against a rock, smoking a cigarette, looking the other way. A hazy recollection of his real mother breached the wall he’d built up long ago to shelter himself from the pain of separation. Those war years in Cardiff, a rundown garden-flat in a once-grand Edwardian townhouse, he and Helydd shared a life of togetherness largely outside the influence of others. Mostly he just remembered them eating at the table three times a day, dreadful rationing food, but she always tried hard to make it savoury and appealing. He even recalled his all-time favourite: mince in gravy with mash and tinned peas. Once, for a treat, she took him to a Lyons Tea Shop.

In 1945, she left him with a neighbour in order to travel to London and visit her recently bereaved sister. A day later, the two of them were killed by one of the last V2s to hit the city. He spent the next few months in Carmarthen with his grandparents, who compensated for his near-orphan circumstance with boundless indulgence. His next memory was of a flurry of familial activity, when he was sent back home to a father he barely knew, a new mother and – within months – a new brother, Sean. Emlyn’s brother Huw had introduced him to a war widow and, after a very brief courtship, they married.

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By the time Sean reached the age of five, Dafydd’s status had been elevated to that of hero and protector –from the tyranny of a loveless family and from any parental enquiries that might lead to punishment. They stuck together right up to Dafydd’s departure from the household, to study film in Newport. Although just down the road, he only returned a couple of times a year and that was to catch up with Sean. Dafydd often wondered what if anything had happened to Sean in those years as an only child, though it couldn’t have been much in the way of abuse: by the time he was fourteen, Sean, like Dafydd, had grown into a powerful six-footer, stronger by far than either parent. But perhaps there were events of which he knew nothing? Or of which his parents knew nothing? They would hardly have sent him off to uncover a dark secret. At the far end of the beach, he could just make out the figures of two women strolling along the promenade. As they came closer, it was clear that one of them, her arm through the other’s, was blind or partially sighted. She carried a white stick in her free hand, though she wasn’t using it. Both women were tall, but the blind one was a defiant six foot or more.

He picked up his book again. Then he heard a crash. Two boys on bikes. He glanced over to see one boy’s body describe a perfect arc over the promenade wall. Milliseconds before impact, the boy slammed his arm across his chest all the way to his back. The underside of his little finger hit the beach first, followed by the underside of his upright hand. Then the underside of his forearm, his upper arm, his shoulder, forming a diagonal all the way to his right hip. His supple young vertebrae unfolded one-by-one, like a bulldozer’s tracks. He collapsed in a heap, his head

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untouched, having executed – unwittingly - a near-perfect Aikido roll. Dafydd sprinted towards the scene. Ignoring the screaming one on the promenade, he leapt blindly over the wall and landed at the unconscious child’s feet, got down on one knee and performed a quick visual check. No broken neck, no blood from mouth or nose. He leant over and felt his neck. Pulse regular. Odd shape to his T-shirt; maybe a broken shoulder. Dafydd didn’t want to move him in case he had broken a rib or two. He took off his shirt and laid it over him.

The two women arrived at the edge of the wall. When the older one left to look for a telephone, the blind one – now seated - called down:

“Is he all right?” “I think so. It looks like he’s concussed.” “Do you want something to put over him?” “ I’ve already done it.” “Ah. OK. Good. Just as well. I’m not sure what I would have given you.”

He glanced up at the skimpy top and white skirt that barely concealed her glistening olive skin. No bra covered her breasts and, as her knees moved casually from side-to-side, he caught the occasional glimpse of her thin white briefs.

“Looks like it would’ve been a tough decision,” he said, prompting a bashful smile.

The paramedics flew down the steps and took over, handing Dafydd his shirt before they eased the boy on to a stretcher and covered him with their own kit.

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Throwing the shirt over his shoulder, he walked up the steps and headed back to the bench, where he picked up his book and returned the way he had come. Then he took a path up the cliff to the avenue on its crest. He whiled away a couple of hours in the museum and left with a few art cards, then headed off down the main boulevard towards the town centre.As he passed the Tourist Office and the bus terminus, he noticed a lively bar on the corner of the next junction. He walked inside, took a table in the window and ordered a beer. As it arrived, the blind woman he’d encountered earlier emerged from a doorway and found her way over to a table in the opposite window. He was just thinking he’d go over and re-introduce himself, perhaps engage her on the morning’s events, when she downed the remains of the lurid green concoction she’d been drinking, threw all her things into her bag and left in a hurry. He stayed for one more beer. On his way out, he caught sight of a postcard underneath the table she’d been occupying. He bent over and picked it up, a nice old monochrome street scene, probably taken in the 30s. He wondered how a blind person went about sending postcards and couldn’t resist flipping it over. All that was written in the left-hand block was ‘Aurélie xx’, in a spidery scrawl. On the right-hand side was a pre-printed sticky label in black and gold, the kind ordinarily used to bear the sender’s address. This address was in Nantes and the addressee was Iain Fergusson. Sean’s best friend at Cambridge had been called Iain Fergusson - also with two Is and two Ss - a strapping great Scotsman and another hard drinker. Dafydd hadn’t met him but Sean had spoken about him many times. He also knew that Iain had travelled with Sean to Nantes when they came down together. Pinching the card

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between forefinger and thumb, Dafydd gesticulated wildly at the barman, signalling his intention to go and look for the girl. The barman nodded and told him to return it if he didn’t find her. Out on the street, he was confronted with a choice of five routes. By now, at least a quarter of an hour behind her, he sprinted off down a randomly-selected path that dipped under the promenade and led on to a crowded beach. She wouldn’t be hard to pick out. Dafydd scanned the length and breadth of the beach. He asked the two nearest families if they’d seen a tall blind woman. They hadn’t. He rushed back up the underpass to the intersection by the bar and took off down another route, running for at least five minutes, asking people along the way. This exercise he performed three more times and it turned up nothing. At an open-air brasserie, he took a light lunch, which he picked at unenthusiastically. The rest of the afternoon and early evening, he wandered the streets and the promenade, on the off-chance of bumping into her. This time he didn’t bother to engage any passers-by. It occurred to him more than once that he wasn’t sure why he was continuing with his search. To solve the mystery? Or because he wanted to see her again? Back at the hotel, by now even more disheartened, he lay down on the bed to look up at the ceiling once again. At least he had the address. He’d copy it into his note-book and return the card on his way out of town in the morning. He took a shower and changed his shirt for dinner. Downstairs in the bar, a sandwich-board placed across the entrance to the restaurant announced that the kitchen was closed for the evening. Over at the reception desk, a young woman explained that it was routine, their one night a week

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off. He asked if she could recommend a restaurant at this end of town. “You like fish?” “I love fish.” She led him over to the front doors and pointed across the quay. “That’s a restaurant?” “The food here is good but for fish, that is the best.” The hotels on the other side of the quay clung to the sloping cliffs, with maybe five storeys at the front on the road side, eight storeys at the back on the quayside. A long narrow structure projected out on to the walkway without any signs to indicate that it was a restaurant. He mounted the few steps that led up to the outside dining terrace, just one table wide, walked up to the bar and ordered a pastis. The PatronChef served him. Things were quiet and he stayed around to chat. Dafydd mentioned that he was from the hotel across the quay and that they’d recommended this place. Within minutes, a small dish of griddled brown shrimps was placed before him. The tiny crustaceans were lightly charred and sweet. He liked the place already. In fact, along with the heady pastis, it was doing a good job of cheering him up.

Across from the bar, and running parallel to it, another long worktop supported a massive fish-tank, replete with plump specimens that Dafydd could see were for eating, not decoration. He managed to identify baby ray, sea bass, codling. Intrigued, he asked the Patron about it. “That’s sea-water in there, maintained at the correct temperature. You can’t get fresher than that.” “For sure. But how do you get them out?” “You’ll see in a minute… Here. Come...”

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Dafydd followed him out to the back kitchen. Down one side, the usual restaurant equipment: stoves, fryers, fridges, stainless-steel tables. Down the other, open to an outside yard, the biggest barbeque he’d ever seen. An enormous handmade concrete-and-block structure was divided into five or six bays, three of them aglow, iron grills over each. The heat took his breath away. He wondered how anyone could work in it. Over in one corner, a stash of logs, again neatly divided. “This one is apple, this is pear, this is walnut. And there’s pine to get them started.” “The different woods give different flavours then?” “But of course. Some fish are more suited to certain woods. Here. Smell.” It was a cut of pearwood, which Dafydd sniffed and failed to identify. He returned to the bar and studied the menu, scribbled on a blackboard. “I’d like the salade Niçoise, please...followed by grilled skate. Over pear.” “You choose the fish. We choose the wood.” That stung. He couldn’t believe he’d said that. An instant flashback transported him to his youth, nervous drymouth moments talking to a girl he fancied and seeing some crass utterance galloping towards him in slow-motion, like a bad dream. Nothing he could do to avoid it; he’d just open his mouth and make a complete tit of himself. Still chatting away, the Patron ordered another pastis and more shrimps without being asked. A young lad came out from the back kitchen with a spike, a landing-net and some steps. He climbed up over the tank and speared a fish, depositing it flapping and wriggling in the net. When his salad arrived, Dafydd took a table outside, facing across the bay to the wooded coves and hillside villas of western St. Malo.

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He heard her before he saw her, over his shoulder, tap-tapping her way along the quayside. His heart raced. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, got up from the table and ran down the steps to wait for her on the quay.

*****

Thirteen

When she was almost within touching distance, Dafydd spoke: “Excuse me… We met earlier today. You know, when that boy had the accident...” “Oh hi! You’re the Englishman, yes?” “Yes… well no, Welsh actually. But I was also in the same bar as you today and after you’d gone I noticed you’d left a postcard behind on the floor; so I picked it up and ran off after you but you’d disappeared. I told the barman I’d bring it back if I didn’t find you but now I’ve gone and left it in my hotel room which is just across the way…” He threw an arm out and pointed out over the quay. “The thing is…” “This is the fish restaurant, yes? Are you eating here?” “Yes it is. Yes I am.” “That’s what I was planning to do.” “Great. Will you join me?” As soon as they sat down, a waiter came over with a glass of water and some

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more shrimps. She ordered a beer. Dafydd launched back into his story, once again breathless from the start: “The thing is, I couldn’t help noticing…” “My name’s Aurélie.” “I’m Dafydd. But you can call me Dai or Dave, if you like.” “I think I can manage Dah-veethe. It’s a very nice name.” She pronounced the last consonants soft, like an English ‘the’, and as she did so, her tongue slipped between her teeth for a fraction of a second. The combined sight and sound of nothing more than his own name made him shiver. “Dah-veethe it is then. How did you know you were outside the restaurant?” “Can’t you smell it?” He could smell lots of cooking smells now, but right on the leading-edge of his senses was a super-fresh skate grilling over walnutwood with olive oil, fresh thyme, garlic and lemon, about as aromatic as a piece of food could be. “Of course.” “Now… Please. Tell me about my postcard.”

This time Dafydd slowed right down. As the plates of food and the bottles of wine came and went, he let his story unfold across the entire meal. Aurélie listened carefully, displaying her interest with pronounced facial expressions: big smiles, a raising of the eyebrows, opening her mouth wide in shock. Every now and then, she fed him carefully-composed questions to animate the conversation. Eventually, Dafydd arrived back at the beginning, with the stray postcard. “How do you know Iain then? If it is the same Iain of course. I think it has to be. Was he tall and well-built, with a shock of ginger-blonde hair and fair skin?”

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“I was blind when I met him first time. I can only figure out so much.” “Ah yes. Of course. Forgive me. You’re the first person I’ve met who is blind. It takes a bit of getting used to. You don’t see many blind people on the streets of London.” It didn’t take long to work out that his Iain was her Iain. “So…?” “So I met him in Paris, about six months after my accident, when he was up for a long weekend. We have a friend in common. I saw him a few more times after that. We write, or rather I send him postcards and he sends me letters, which I then have translated. And we chat on the phone too. We’re quite good friends now.” “Then you have his phone number?” “Of course.” “Would you be willing to call him and ask about Sean. For me?” “Sure.” “Now?” “I don’t have my address-book with me, or I would. It’s back at the house. But I can do it when I get back.” “Can I walk you home?” “That would be nice. Thank you.”

By now, the promenade was illuminated, but it was an austere, almost barren townscape that Dafydd found himself walking through. On one side of his peripheral vision he could just make out the jet-black sea, on the other some cliffs, and ahead the way. He could feel the concrete beneath his feet. But the only palpable feature under that starry sky was the glow of her presence. Sometimes she was silent; sometimes

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she talked non-stop. When they arrived at the villa, she asked him:

“When are you off then?” Dafydd lied, without hesitation: “I was going to give it a couple more days here and then head for Nantes.” “Look then, why don’t I go and make this call? He may be out; if so I’ll try later, and then again in the morning. We could meet up for breakfast.” “That’s fine.” “Do you know the little café opposite the brasserie, the one with all the pretty flower tubs on the terrace?” “Yes, I do.” “Nine o’clock?” “I’ll be there.”

He’d already drunk his coffee and eaten some bread and jam by the time she arrived. He stood up to announce himself and talk her in. “My postcard! Thank you for bringing it back.” “That’s OK. Did you get through?” “I’d like a grand crème and a pain au chocolat, please.” “Of course.” With no sign of a waiter, Dafydd went over to the bar to place the order. “Yes I did,” she continued. “Late last night. He greets you. He said he doesn’t know where Sean is now. He hasn’t heard from him for years. But he knows where he went to after Nantes. Roughly.” “Roughly? I know roughly.”

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“Maybe his roughly is less roughly than your roughly?” “That’s a point.” “Relax. He said you’re welcome to call in on him when you’re in Nantes and he’ll tell you all he knows.” “That’s great. Thank you for doing that.” “Do you have any plans for the rest of the morning?” “None.” “Would you like to go for a walk?” “I’d love to.” “Good. I can impress you with my memory. You must tell me all the street names and I will describe the scenery for you.” “Sounds good… Shall we go?” “I haven’t had my coffee yet.” She was obviously hungry. He watched her, dunking pieces of torn pastry into her bowl of creamy coffee. Every now and then, a crumb would stick to her lower lip and she’d try and slip it back into her mouth with the tip of her tongue. If that was unsuccessful, she’d give it a gentle push with her forefinger. Some people even make a good job of messy eating. He promised himself he’d practice this way with crumbs.

“OK. This one is in full shade, the street is cobbled and there’s a chocolatier nearby.” “That’s cheating! You can feel or smell those things.” “I haven’t finished! The buildings are white, mainly restaurants and fancy clothes shops. There are loads of hanging flower-baskets and...” “That’s better.”

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Across the next two days, no other seemed to exist. They took breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Went for endless walks around town and up to the Plage St. Enogat, where they had the beach virtually to themselves. They spent hours in his hotel-room, he bent over maps and travel-books, outlining his plans, reading out the postcards. They shared childhoods, career stories, love stories and dreams. A couple of times they raided his stash of grass and built little one-skin joints that made them giggly as they sat on the bed, facing each other cross-legged, knee-toknee and forehead-to-forehead, until they crashed on their backs to face the swirling ceiling and feel the weight of a one-ton sand bag on the tops of their thighs. This part, the experience of such proximity to one of the opposite sex without romantic expectation, was new to both of them and they relished it. Even when they dozed off on his bed together after a particularly filling lunch, no tingling electric arcs crossed the miniscule gaps between shoulders, fingertips and feet. Late afternoon, on Dafydd’s last day, Aurélie rummaged around inside her bag for her purse and announced that she was popping out to the pharmacy. “I’ll go if you like.” “I’d rather do it myself. It’s not far.” As the spring door closed behind her, Dafydd headed for the balcony and noticed in passing that half the contents of her bag had tumbled across the writing desk. A multicoloured chemist’s envelope, the kind used for photographs, stared up at him. He stared back at it. A long time. Finally, he tiptoed up to the desk, glanced over his shoulder at the door and teased a finger under the flap. The top photo, of indeterminate age although almost certainly pre-war, portrayed a young man in uniform. In the background, some other people were lined up in front of an imposing

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country house. ‘Photos?’ He thought. ‘Why?’ Though eager to continue, his curiosity was overcome by distaste. He withdrew the inquisitive finger and stepped out on to the balcony. On Aurélie’s return, he brought up the subject. “Are those photos in that envelope?” “Yes. You want to know why, don’t you?” “I’m intrigued.” “I grew up with those photos. They are part of my memory bank. And memory can pale without triggers.” “I’m not sure what you mean.” “Do you remember much about your first school?” “Not a lot.” “Have you ever been back to an infants’ school and smelt the soap in the toilets, that red carbolic stuff?” “Yes! And then been propelled right back. But photos as triggers?” She picked up the envelope, took out the first photo and turned it over. “Braille. A label in the top left corner. Time, place, subject. Then I remember. This is Xavier, Maria’s twin brother, off to fight for the Socialists in 1937. He was shot in Gerona less than a year later.” She felt it, smelt it and handed it over. “Who are those other people?” “Servants. That’s Carlos and Mercedes – my grand-parents – at the foot of the steps.” “Hell of a car.” “It’s an old Hispano Suiza.” “Nice house too. Were they incredibly rich then?”

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“Not really. Threadbare aristocracy. On the wrong side. They sold up and went to London after Xavi died. I never knew him, obviously. Except through Maria’s stories” “What’s next?” “That’s Maria in the gardens of a finishing school in Sceaux, outside Paris. Just after the war, before she met Didier.” “She looks like that actress, what’s her name? The one in Last Tango…” “Maria Schneider.” “That’s the one.” “You’re not the first to say that.” “She looks like you too. Or rather you look like her.” “This is me. When I was ten. I took it.” “You took that?” A girl held a Leica, sideways on, against one of her cheeks. It obscured almost half the face, but left the eyes and a winning smile. It was obviously pointed at a mirror. “Maria set the exposure and the focus.” “You look cute.” “This one’s a statue of Ankou at Ploumilliau.” “He seems to have haunted your family.” “More than that. Sometimes I feel like he’s tracked us down.” “I’m motherless too. Maybe brotherless as well now.” “That’s one of the reasons I connect with you.” That last evening, they dined once more at the fish restaurant. Afterwards, as they strolled along the promenade on their way back to the villa, Aurélie asked:

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“Can we stop at the next bench?” “Sure. It can’t be far.” “Stop it! You’re making me laugh and I feel sad.” They sat down and she reached out to touch him, properly, for the first time. Her fingers slid gently over his cranial and facial features, in the way of a museumcurator handling a precious ancient skull. Dafydd was taken by this to the point of fighting back tears, though he presumed it to be a good-bye gesture. “I want to come with you.” “Yes.” Dafydd didn’t drop a beat. Between her full-stop and his capital ‘Y’, there was nothing. In that moment, neither of them had time for an in-breath, but when it arrived, it sealed them together for the coming weeks. They stood up and continued slowly on their walk back to the villa, his hands in his pockets, her arm through his. “I must tell Didier. I want to do that while you’re here. There’s a call-box up on Place de Gaulle.” Aurélie took some change out of her purse and squeezed into the box to tell Didier she was heading south for a couple of weeks with a complete stranger. Then she hung out of the door, her hand cupping the mouthpiece.

“He wants to speak with you. I think he just wants to hear your voice. It’s OK. His English is very good.” She was right. ‘Just to hear your voice…’ It’s a slender thread to someone’s heart, but on this occasion, it’s all that there was. Early next morning, while Dafydd loaded bags and cello into the car, Aurélie went inside the house to say her good-byes. Madeleine came to the doorway to wave her off. As Aurélie went to leave, she stopped and turned around. Though she spoke

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in a whisper, Dafydd could hear. “Tell me what he looks like.” “You asked me that last night. And I told you… He looks the same this morning.” “I want to hear it again.” “He’s tall and muscular, has long wavy hair…” “I know that. I’ve touched him… “Oh, really?” “Not like that. Tell me what I can’t see. Please.…” “It’s dark auburn and it glows in the sun. His skin is fair, but it’s starting to tan a little, and he has freckles on his cheeks and forearms.” “His eyes? What about his eyes?” “Hazel.” “I don’t mind so much about the colour. Do they let you in or keep you out?” “In. They’re warm and deep.” “And soft?” “Aurélie. He’s beautiful. He reminds me of Didier. They have the same soul.” “Thank you… I love you.” She almost ran back to the car, tapped her way down the driver’s side and threw open the door. Dafydd looked up from the boot: “I think it’s best if I drive.” Aurélie reached in and felt the steering wheel. “Merde! I used to make this mistake even when I could see. Why do you lot have to drive on the wrong side?” Dafydd didn’t answer. “Would you like me to navigate?” she asked. This time they both laughed.

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One last wave and Dafydd eased the Citroën through the deserted streets of Dinard, heading for the main road South. He knew his first direction was Dinan and that would be easy, but afterwards he’d have to go into the town and out again, to pick up a back road to Nantes that would allow him to avoid getting snagged up in Rennes. He’d visited Dinan before on one of his research trips. Compact and crowded, with an old quarter of narrow streets squeezed inside its original ramparts high up on a hill, it was also - like a lot of French small towns – erratically sign-posted. He had to stop and ask two or three times. After the village of Becherel, his road, the D2 suddenly became the D70 and then the D72, without any indication that they were different roads. Arriving at another village, he now had to find the D62, which would take him South of Rennes Airport for the N137 to Nantes. Throughout all this, he had to stop several more times to consult his map, unfolding it on the steering-wheel again and again. ‘This is like driving on your own,’ he thought. He squeezed the steering-wheel with both hands until his knuckles turned white, and pressed his forehead against the top. “I have an idea,” said Aurélie. “If we can find a piece of laminated card, something high-gloss on the surface and soft underneath, I think I will be able to read ordinary writing. I’ve tried it before. Can you stop, please?” Dafydd pulled over on the side of the road. Aurélie groped around inside her bag and came up with nothing. Dafydd remembered a glossy brochure that he’d picked up at the Tourist Office. He picked it up from the back seat and tore off the cover. “Will this do?” She felt it. “Yes. That’s good.”

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“So?” “So, we do a test. Write down a road number, French 1s and 7s please, and the name of a town in upper case. Use a biro and press down so hard it’s like you’re trying to write on steel.” Dafydd did as instructed and handed the cover over. Aurélie rubbed her forefingers vigorously on the legs of her jeans until she was generating heat. Then she touched the indent as if she were reading Braille. “That’s not fair!” she exclaimed. “We’re in France!” “Just read it.” “M4… BRIS-TOL.” “So how are we going to do this?” “You must write down the number of the road that we are on, to the left. And then the name of the town whose direction we are going in, to the right of that. Then down and back to the left, for the road that we are to pick up there; and over to the right again for the next town, making a Z shape. And so on. Lots of Zs, all the way to Nantes. It has to be very neat and straight though. Or I’ll get lost… And so will you.”

Dafydd unfolded his Michelin map yet again and plotted the route to Nantes Aurélie’s way. He handed her the card. An angry eight-wheel concrete-mixer rumbled past, so close that it shook the car violently. Dafydd turned his head sideways over his left shoulder to check the road behind. His gaze landed on her, a picture of childlike absorption, bent over her long legs supporting a book with her new map on it. Her forefingers studied it with such intensity that the tip of her tongue slipped out of one corner of her mouth.

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Something inside him stirred, an ache of affection which he hoped wasn’t tainted by pity. He watched the lorry disappear down a typically French perspective: arrowstraight road lined with evenly-spaced poplars, white-painted rings at headlamp height, until it reached vanishing point, where it became, briefly, a cloud of dust. The Reluctant Detective pulled away. He had an open road, a new lead and a Blind Mapmaker for a navigator. She called out to him: “Is this the D62?” “Yes, it is.” “Then we go to… Mordelles… where we pick up the… D34.” She turned to face him with a big grin. He smiled back. “On y va.”

*****

Fourteen

On the way up to her lodgings, Hannah had spotted a pub on the main road, only five minutes away. She needed to eat something, and was certain she’d seen a food sign outside the place. A bubble bath and a change of clothes helped lift her spirits. A dab of Fleur de Lys, then she hurried out, brushing off the inquisitive landlady at the door. A smokey local greeted her. Old men stood at the bar and stared up at nothing. The younger ones made a lot of noise and jousted with each other while they queued for the bar billiards. She picked up a black plastic menu and walked through to the saloon-dining room where - the only customer in the room - she helped herself to a

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table. Two redundant waitresses carried on chatting, oblivious to her plaintive gaze. Eventually she stood up and approached them with her order. While waiting, she looked around a cold inhospitable space. Amateur artists’ paintings of sailing ships adorned all four walls. Dusty dark-green velour curtains, their pelmets trimmed with gold braid. Square linen tablecloths over round chipboard tables. Tulip napkins stuffed in tall glasses. ? Her plaice and chips came with tinned peas, a sachet of tartare sauce and a tired bread roll. The House White turned out to be a medium-sweet ‘Hirondelle’. After breaking into the soggy batter of the fish, whose flesh managed to be both dry and oily at the same time, she pushed a few chips round her plate. She made a chip buttie with some tartare sauce and ordered another glass of wine. At least she might get some sleep. Back in her room, she sat down on the bed with her travel guide and flicked through a few pages without much enthusiasm. Soon she discarded it, fell back on the pillow and stared up at the swirly textured ceiling. Paris felt like a long way away tonight. She’d studied French to ‘A’ level at school. In the first year of the sixth form, all the French pupils were given the option of taking up a pen friend. A list went round the class. By the time it reached Hannah, all the boys and all the exotic places, like the Riviera and the Alps, had been taken, leaving just one girl in Paris. They corresponded over the next year, then an announcement was made in class that the school would assist pupils wishing to visit their penfriend’s family. Hannah had come to enjoy receiving and sending these letters. Though her parents were reluctant, they agreed to the trip, in the name of education. In the Easter holiday of ’75, Hannah took the boat-train to Paris. She was seventeen.

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As the school party was herded off the boat in Boulogne, along the quay and across the railway tracks to the waiting train, Hannah began her love affair with difference, geographic and cultural. Her first impression was the smell of the place. It was a bit rude, to be honest, but she loved it already. As for the look of things, it was the detail that caught her eye: the fading signs, the architecture of the toilet doors, the low platform that required a little stairway on the carriage to board the train. Her seat in the compartment was away from the window and she left her luggage on it to stand in the corridor, staring out all the way. As the train tore round its first long curve, she could make out at least ten carriages sweeping in an arc before her, led by the mighty electric locomotive with its angled bar crackling on the live wires above. As they raced past the fields and woods of the Pas de Calais, she recognised a familiar temperate landscape, until she realised that she’d never seen houses with shutters before. Again, it was the detail that took hold: the funny little cars on the wrong side of the road, the alien road signs and just the peeling crumbling roughness of it all. They hadn’t bothered exchanging photographs, nor had the matter arisen: perhaps their both being female had made the prospect a little weird. Besides, they didn’t need them. For this impending encounter, their latest exchange of letters had contained brief physical descriptions and the colour of the tops they would be wearing. As the train pulled into the Gare du Nord, Hannah experienced an unfamiliar heightened pitch of excitement: her mouth dry, her temples pounding, her legs a little wobbly. She stepped off the train and moved tentatively down the platform, to be met by a girl who was pretty, vivacious and chic, everything which Hannah supposed herself not to be. She was even wearing a white beret. For a brief moment, Hannah

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was overwhelmed by another difference, one connected to her scaling of other girls’ attractiveness, which she then aligned with her own self-image. This one was way out of her league. But they exchanged kisses on the cheeks and walked off chatting in French, as if they’d known each other for years.

The two girls went by Métro to the family apartment in the Luxembourg Quarter. As they re-emerged into daylight at Vavin, she took in her first sight of real Paris: the lines of tall trees and busy pavement cafés situated at the confluence of the Boulevards Raspail and du Montparnasse. Her only previous experiential referencepoint was the chess-café at South End Green in Hampstead, which she’d once spied from the corner of her eye on a Junior School outing to the Heath.

Compared with what was to come, her first whiff of the City had been nearanodyne: just the drains really. Now as she passed by each drinking establishment, a heady cocktail of strong coffee, ‘Gauloises’, garlic and liquor invaded her olfactory senses. With each man that brushed by her, she found herself drawn in by an alien aroma. For the first time, she felt, well, sexy. And she found it disconcerting.

For her benefit, they were going the long way round. She was whisked across the Boulevard du Montparnasse for a quick drink at the Brasserie La Coupoule, with its iconic columns, faded red velvet seating and jaw-droppingly chaotic service, to be reminded that if they sat around long enough they’d be surrounded by famous people. Then they strolled up Rue Brea, past beautifully-dressed shops and restaurants, whose windows Hannah could barely drag herself away from, to the Park entrance.

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The informally laid-out pathways, groves and lawns on the southern edge of the Jardin du Luxembourg exuded tranquillity and charm: old men played boules in the shade of the trees; dozens of students sat on benches or lay around on the grass reading books; nuns from the local convents and lycées were taking a stroll. The first place they came across that she had heard of, maybe in a popular song, was Boulevard St. Michel, with its lines of old chestnut trees and imposing facades. They crossed it and slipped down a side street into a quiet, leafy residential district, which oozed elegance and restrained wealth of a kind she had only seen in Kensington, on school trips to the West End, walking from the coach to the museums. Arriving at the apartment, she walked in on a family at peace and a long way from Tottenham. The five of them, parents and two brothers, padded around the place with next to no clothes on, dressed up nice to eat together and talked to each other like real human beings. The interior was a strange dreamscape: spacious and tasteful, the walls covered in books, exotic curtains, rugs and throws draped in every room. Paintings, prints and artefacts from Far Eastern countries highlighted the ancient fireplaces that she could almost have stood up in. For their first supper, she tackled all the food that was set before her. After the just-about-recognisable tarte à l’onion, that came as a starter with a salad of juicy dressed lettuce leaves, a dish of runny creamed potatoes all on its own. She simply followed the others, even to the extent of stirring in the meat juices that came with it. Then came a bowl of beef stew reminiscent of one of her mother’s earliest attempts at cooking. Except instead of lots of little chunks of meat, here there were two big lean slabs, melting and fibrous, set in an intensely flavoured red-brown gravy of indeterminate provenance. But they were good and she ploughed into them. The meat was the carnivore’s equivalent of a Bourneville bar. Which she was not averse to

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occasionally. Kind of dark and dirty. “This is good. What is it?” Hannah froze when they all looked up at her and said: “Cheval.” Like many of her age, she struggled to even consider eating anything with which she could make an emotional connection. Rabbits, whole fishes, handsome game birds and now horse, they all set off a mental chain reaction that ended in a no. She had several choices here, but with half of the bowl in her belly and a piece exposed mid-air on the end of her fork, she decided to opt for the honest one. “I’ve never had that before.” And carried on eating.

That first night, the girls chatted in Hannah’s room. It transpired that they had told each other little lies across that year of writing. Not malicious ones, just works of the imagination that embellished their confused and youthful lives. Neither had supposed they would meet up, but when they came to unravel these fictions, to their surprise the process was easy and liberating. Next morning, they returned to Luxembourg Gardens for a quick stroll, before slipping down a side road to her friend’s old convent school, which was closed for the holiday, though there were still nuns inside the building. Hannah could hear them through open doors and windows. They went round the back and started to climb the ivy-covered stone wall surrounding the substantial rear garden. “I just wanted to show you my old school.” “What’s wrong with the front door?” “Are you crazy? Come on. It’s OK. I’ve done this before, times when I was late.” Landing on her feet, Hannah experienced an immediate sensation of

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tranquillity and peace. The garden was planted with mature shrubs, some of them in flower, the walls of the old house covered in Virginia creepers. A marble fountain trickled water into a circular trough, centre of an immaculately tended lawn. To the rear of the building, a flight of steps led up to a set of French doors. Nothing like Hannah’s comprehensive in Tottenham. They followed the perimeter until they came to a tennis court and leapt back over the wall.

Over the next few days, they made a few statutory tourist excursions: climbing one stage of the Eiffel Tower on foot and then taking the lift to the top; gliding down the Seine on a bateau mouche; looking round the Louvre. They took a trip to the Champs Elysées and sat on a wall to watch the world go by, before strolling up to the Opéra Quarter and the Boulevard Haussmann, where they gazed up at the Belle Époque splendour of the Galéries Lafayette.

Inside, Hannah was so entranced by the view from the concourse to the Art Nouveau glass dome ten storeys up, that she had to buy something, anything. She managed to find a pair of reasonably -priced earrings for her schoolfriend which took up her entire allocation of present money. Then they went and found the perfume department and tried some of the fragrances. When she landed on one they both liked, the saleswoman took a calling card with a lily of the valley motif on it and sprayed it with some Fleur de Lys by Lancôme. Throughout this time, their perception of the differences in class and cultural background ebbed away. In particular, Hannah had obviously impressed her friend with her streetwise attitude, at once canny and bold, and the knowledge of this had a refreshing levelling effect. Punk had just burst on the scene, and Patti Smith, looking

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– in the words of her boyfriend Sam Shepard – ‘like a crow’, coincidentally supplied Hannah with a body image and an attitude she could relate to. That ‘scale of attractiveness’ that she had hitherto worried about seemed to mattered no more and she finally abandoned her sense of relativity. (open to suggestions, otherwise my best shot) They decided to give themselves a name. Broken Angels over Paris came out of nowhere and stayed till the end. From then on, they tried to make each day an adventure. Mostly they just hung out, walking the streets until they were exhausted. Night-times, after the family dinner, they would go into different bars in the immediate neighbourhood or across the tracks in Montparnasse. Neither of them had a taste for alcohol, but once a night they would try some wine and hit the dance-floor.

One time in Montparnasse, they emerged from a basement folk-club and took a short -cut through a back -street towards the safety of the Vavin crossroads, to be accosted by two rough-looking teenage boys, who emerged from the shadows of a doorway. From their speech and appearance, Hannah could tell they were whacked out on something nasty. Within seconds, they had cranked up the verbal energy from sly inquisitiveness to malignant jeering. She remembered the policeman’s diktat: ‘work out who the leader is, and then take him, whether or not he’s the biggest’. She watched carefully.

Both boys were focusing their attentions on the blonde with the big breasts. She held her corner well, screaming out for them to move on. This gave Hannah an advantage they could never have imagined: an improbable element of surprise. After more than three years, something kicked in: the safety of another, a threatened one.

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She picked the lead one out, a speedy verbose little firecracker, and moved herself sideways on to him, unwatched. She rose up on the balls of her feet and waited for the right moment. Just as he was starting to get physical, with mocking prods of his forefinger, her left arm flew across a 180-degree arc to land on his Adam’s apple, which she squeezed so hard that he lost his balance and tripped backwards to the place where she wanted him: hard against a wall. Up on tip-toe now, she towered over him, tightening her grip. She knew when to stop. Then she counted three more. His eyes popped, his tongue rested limp on his lower lip. The second she let go the boys ran off, shouting worthless obscenities. The two girls hugged each other in silence. On the last day, they wandered down to the market on Rue Mouffetard, the stalls as replete as a childhood Rosh Hashanah feast. They wanted to buy some food for Hannah’s journey home. One stall had ripe white-flesh peaches from the sunny south. The vendor held out a sample one for Hannah, who took a big bite. As her mouth filled up with the honeyed pulp and the luscious juices trickled down her chin and dropped on to her shirt, she found herself clocking up yet another first. Returning to London, Hannah discovered that she was in love for the first time. Back in Year 7, she’d had secret crushes on a couple of sixth-form girls, but this was different, this ache. They corresponded enthusiastically, but the crossover took ages. When it was her turn to wait, each morning she’d rush downstairs, as soon as she heard the postman, to see if there was a letter from France. When one did arrive, she’d snatch it and pull before the postman had let go, leaping up the stairs to her room to read it. And then she’d dream about her all day. When the third letter arrived, she opened it to find that tester card from the perfume counter at Galeries Lafayette. She’d left it behind at the apartment, and now

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it infused the whole letter with Fleur de Lys. She took a deep sniff and was overwhelmed with memories so strong she had to sit down on the staircase. She’d taken her cheap little Ilford camera on the trip and shot a roll of film. When the day arrived that she could pick up the printed snapshots, she raced to the chemist’s after school. Though they were burning a hole in her pocket, she walked to the canal towpath and headed North, past the rowing club through scenes of dereliction and industrial squalor; lucky council houses right on the waterfront; intermittent patches of grass and willow trees, until she found a bench. Paris. She really had been there. It was the pictures that others, strangers, had taken of them both that touched her. They looked so happy together. On her way home she popped into the newsagents and bought a postcard to send, of the nearby Lea Valley Regional Park, with its myriad tiny young trees and post-industrial good intentions.

***

Her first morning, after a poor night’s sleep, Hannah went downstairs to be greeted by an ill-cooked and greasy full breakfast. A vivid red slurry of tinned tomatoes, no doubt designed to take the edge off the low-grade ingredients swimming in it, couldn’t prevent pools of fat from gathering and congealing on the rim of her plate. The minor concession to Scottishness, home-made oatcakes as hard and dry as stale digestive biscuits, did nothing to counter the screaming resistance of her palate. She left more than half of it, claiming a small appetite, but still felt nauseous. She even left the weak Maxwell House coffee with its gagging homogenised milk.

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The landlady had already taken hers. She was sat at another table in a far corner of the room, smoking continuously, sometimes watching Hannah, sometimes flitting through a daily newspaper, making vacuous comments on this or that news item. Hannah excused herself, lifted her waterproof from a coat-hook and stood in the open front doorway, looking towards town and a change of accommodation. Out on the road, a fierce wind drove sharp metallic raindrops straight into her face. She hunched herself forward, but still she could barely see through her glasses. Back in town, she headed for the Tourist Office, this time telling them precisely what she wanted: an old house, close to the centre, a good reputation for food, a nice landlady. The attendant consulted a list and made a few phone-calls. They all had vacancies; she could have her pick of the best. After scanning a few photos and reading a few paragraphs, Hannah made her choice and went straight to it.

This one conformed to the traditional image of an English B & B that she’d long held on to. It was warm and cosy and the landlady was a real sweetie, taking to Hannah like she was her returning daughter. She decided to exchange places then and there. Back in her new lodgings, after an unpleasant session with the patently irate Scotswoman, who tried unsuccessfully to extract the other three nights’ money from her, she unpacked and spread a few of her things around the room: her furry owl on the pillow, a book on the bedside table, pen and paper on the antique writing desk. The beach and the town centre were both less than five minutes away, though what she would do in this weather, she couldn’t imagine. Her first thought was good coffee. She returned to the town centre. On a deserted street behind the seafront, she located a couple of cafés. In the shelter of a

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recessed shop doorway opposite them both, she looked across and tried to make up her mind. A few miles out to sea, cracks of thunder tore through the heavens. Above her, dense rolling clouds brought twilight dark, dark enough for street lights. A crumpled red paper napkin rolled along the crest of the tarmac and stopped in front of her. Through rain-splattered spectacles, she saw a bleeding heart. Time to get inside. One of the cafés had a real Italian coffee-machine and looked friendly. As she walked into The Minstrels Tearooms, a bell jingled above her head and her centre-vision was arrested by a flickering log fire.

*****

Fifteen

Once they hit the outskirts of Nantes, Dafydd followed the signs for the centre. The plan was to install themselves in a hotel; visit the address on the Nantes postcard; and meet up with Iain in the evening. Aurélie had already called to say they were coming. They took a hotel room on the main street in front of the railway station, adjacent to the Old City, picked up a street map from reception and headed for the Faydeau Island quarter. Once a true island on the Loire and home to wealthy merchants and sea captains, Faydeau’s waterways had been filled in after the Second World War, to be replaced by a howling dual-carriageway set in a sea of raw urban landscaping.

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The elegant eighteenth-century town -houses reminded Dafydd of parts of both London and Paris: five or six storeys high with slate mansard roofs, an iron balcony at every window and imposing porticos. Only unlike Mayfair or the Marais, this place was now a low-rent district of seedy bars and nightclubs, sex shops and cheap apartments. The side streets and back alleys were overwhelmed with stinking ratinfested rubbish and with feral cats and dogs which scurried away when approached. By now, it was fast approaching midday, a very bad time to try and consult anyone in France. The address was an apartment block in one of the mansions, easy enough to find, but at five to twelve, the concierge was not. He was no doubt getting ready for a two-hour lunch to be followed by a two-hour nap. Dafydd just kept ringing the bell labelled ‘concierge’ over and over until an old man finally emerged from his own quarters across the hallway and half-opened the door to them. “What do you want?” he shouted at them. Dafydd got out his postcard. “I wonder if you might know the whereabouts of someone who lived here up until about eight years ago. Maybe he left a forwarding address for his mail? Have you been here that long?” “Yes I have. But do you have any idea how many people pass through this place in any one year, let alone eight?” “He’s British. His name is Sean, Sean Williams.” “I don’t remember an Englishman or that name. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” “Tall and fair-skinned, with auburn hair.” “I said no. No, I don’t. OK!”

Dafydd was determined to outwit the old misanthrope. He reached into his back pocket and withdrew a couple of hundred-franc bills, which he folded. Looking him

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in the eye, he pressed them to the man’s palm and continued, with a change of tone: “He’s my brother. We haven’t heard from him since this postcard. Obviously we, his family that is, are very concerned for his wellbeing.” “You’ve left it a bit late for that.” “It’s a long story. And neither of us has the time. How’s your memory doing?” “Was he from Cardiff? A lot come to the University because of the twin city thing.” “Yes he was. And eight years isn’t such a long time.” “I still don’t recall the name, but looking at you now, I can see him.” “Go on.” “He stayed here twice, over a period of a couple of years. He liked the area. And the cheap rent. He was well-known around the local bars.” “When he left, where did he say he was going?” “Orléans. Apparently he’d got himself a job at the university there.” “So did he leave a forwarding address?” “No. He said he’d write to me with one after he’d settled in. But he never did.” “So what happened to his mail? Have you still got it?” “Of course not. If I held mail like that, I’d need a whole apartment to put it in. Besides, he never used to get much, if any. Obviously wasn’t a letter writer.” “Any particular bar I might try? Did he have a favourite?” “Yes, but it’s changed hands. You could try ‘La Boule’ though. He used to play American pool there. He was good.” “I know.” “It’s on the street running parallel to this one, halfway down.” “Thank you.”

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“You’re welcome.” “Now you can have your lunch.” They found the bar and had a beer there, striking up a conversation with the owner. He certainly remembered Sean and what’s more with some affection. But all he could add to the information they’d picked up so far was that Sean had been offered something that sounded like a fellowship at Orléans, just enough to live on, with a little part-time teaching and some research. He’d talked about wanting to live in the country though. It seemed like he’d had enough of city life. Back in the Old City, they wandered down the narrow cobbled side streets until they found a place that offered a good cheap lunch. It was sturdy, almost wintry fare – thick asparagus soup, lamb and potatoes, cheese – but it would suffice for the day. From Aurélie’s recollection, Iain was a man of not much eating and a lot of drinking. They walked the meal off in the grounds of the cathedral and rested back at the hotel.

Iain rented an apartment in a modern block located in the Petit Port district, not far from the main university complex. As arranged, they arrived around seven o’clock: by taxi. Aurélie had warned Dafydd that they would almost certainly end up drunk. They were welcomed into the flat where they all exchanged greetings. He sat them down just long enough for him to pick up a sweater and some money, then escorted them to his local bar, a lively student place on the main boulevard. He seemed to know everybody. They sat down outside and waited for the first of many beers.

After Aurélie had given Iain a rundown on how she came to meet Dafydd, he in turn recounted the background to his quest. He was keen to know what Iain might be

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aware of that supplemented the paltry fragments of knowledge he had acquired earlier that day. But the man took his time, relishing his first beer and catching up on recent lives with Aurélie. He switched focus, turned to address Dafydd: “You do realise I haven’t heard from him for five years, don’t you?” “Well I guessed that from what you told Aurélie. What’s the story, then?” “He actually lived in Faydeau on two separate occasions…” “That’s what the concierge said.” “We started out with different apartments in the same block, then after about six months, he found himself a woman and moved into her place on this side of town. A year or so later things fell apart and he moved back into mine.” “You kept up the friendship while he was living with her then?” “Not at all. Hardly saw him. He seems to have a really strong nesting instinct.” “How do you mean?” “Well, before he met Corinne, he’d be round my place every night. We’d go out to bars together, even or meet up for lunch some place just off-campus. B but as soon as he moved in with her, it’s like I never existed. We’d bump into each other in the corridor from time-to-time, but that was it.” “He cut everyone off to be with her?” “That’s right. But when he moved back down, it was just like old times from day one. It took me a while to cotton on and to be honest I felt a bit used.” “So you mean partnership is his preferred situation and friendship is just a fallback?” “That’s exactly what I feel. And there’s no in-between, you know, keeping separate places and a modicum of independence. He just needs to live with someone.” “That’s interesting. It’s a part of him I never knew...”

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“I reckon the same must have happened when he moved to Orléans. Early on, he sent me a friendly postcard saying how much he loved the place and how he was looking for somewhere to live and he’d send me his address when he had one. He never did, but after almost three years of silence, he sent me another one saying he was off on the road again. That was the last I heard from him.” “Can you remember where the last postcard came from? Or where it was posted?” “The photo was Bourges, the cathedral. I’ve no idea where it was posted. Not the sort of thing I generally notice.” “Do you have any idea where he was living those three years?” “You mean, an address? None at all. All I can say is, he shared some of his dreams with me and at times they seemed rather formulaic.” “Go on.…” “Well, he always wanted to live in the country, but not much more than, say, half an hour’s drive from his place of work. He also wanted to be quite close to a lively little town, like a sous-préfecture, with a market, some restaurants, a cinema, things like that, but he wanted to live in or near a small village, with just a bar and bakery.” “That kind of requirement is not so difficult to satisfy in France, mind.” “That’s true. Do you have a map on you?”

From his jacket pocket, Dafydd pulled out a local Michelin which covered the middle-Loire and unfolded it on the table. Iain proceeded to explain what he meant. “OK. Take this place. Salbris. Less than an hour from Orléans. Nice small town on the River Sauldre. Plenty of small villages surrounding it. I wouldn’t be

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surprised if he ended up outside somewhere like that.” “But there’s half a dozen towns in that region that fit the same criterion.” “I know. You need a lead.” “I’ve got these postcards.” He showed Iain the second one. “Typical Sean. Doesn’t mean a thing to me. I don’t have cryptic bone in my body.” “Nor me.” “You could call the university. They might still have an address.” “That’s an idea. Could you make a call for me in the morning, Aurélie? I don’t think my French is up to dealing with officials yet.” “Sure.” They had one more beer. On the way home, they stopped off at a Moroccan café to pick up some street food, rolled up flat-breads with salad and meat, which they ate as they walked. Back in Iain’s apartment, he pulled down a bottle of Scotch and half-filled three glasses. He raised his:

“Dulcius ex Asperis.” “What?” “That’s the Fergusson clan motto. ‘Sweeter After Difficulties’.” “I’ll drink to that.” “And me.”

Over the next couple of hours and more than half the bottle, Dafydd and Iain shared stories about Sean, most of them springing from times when he was blind drunk. Occasionally, Aurélie plugged in and asked a few questions of her own. The

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rest of the time she said very little, but was quietly building up her own profile of this runaway she’d never met. As the whisky kicked in, the stories became sillier: like the time he nearly died when he took all his clothes off one New Year’s Eve party for a swim in the ice-cold Loire; the time he climbed a tower-crane in Cambridge just to hang a huge pair of knickers on the end of the jib for a Rag Week stunt... When it was time to leave, Iain walked down with them on to the boulevard to shout for a taxi. A hot summer’s night on the noisy crowded streets of a university city, Aurélie felt at home, sipping in the energy, thinking of Paris. A latenight bar was pumping out an eclectic mix of bluesy sixties hits, West Coast Coke-Rock and East Coast Punk. More than anything, she felt like dancing, wanted to go inside, but she didn’t like to propose it. Not tonight. Not after all this. Maybe tomorrow. Inside her head, she sang along to the Shirelles. “When you find him, give him my regards, won’t you.” said Iain, as a taxi slowed down for them. “IfF we find him, yes of course.” “You’ll find him. You’ve just got to crack the codes on those postcards.” “Is that all?” Once in the taxi, Dafydd – emboldened by the whisky – turned to Aurélie. “Great guy… Were you two lovers then?” “Mind your business!” She took a friendly swipe at him and missed by miles. The hotel turned out to be a civilised one, with breakfast on offer from 6 till 12 noon, and a check-out time to match. With their acute hangovers, they took full advantage of the service, emerging from their beds just in time. While Dafydd was in the shower, Aurélie put a call through to Orléans University. After ten minutes of bouncing around the switchboard, she finally got through to a clerk in Personnel, who

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told her that all non-live records over three years old were kept in a basement storeroom, but if she called back next morning they might have something for her.

It was gone onel o’clock by the time they hit the road out of town. Dafydd had been planning to drive up the south bank, but Aurélie told him from memory that between Angers and Saumur, the north bank road ran right alongside the river and was a much nicer drive. He took her advice, though with one proviso:

“Do you mind if we make a brief detour though? It’ll only take half an hour or so.” “Not at all. Are you going to tell me what for?” “Oh, just a kind of pilgrimage. To St. Florent.” “And what is there?” “It’s a who. One of my favourite writers lives there.” Dafydd had a curious and slightly embarrassing hobby, which he preferred to keep to himself. For him, there existed a handful of artists, all of them relatively obscure, whose work he considered so fine that he felt drawn to visit their place of residence. If they were long dead and he was able to, he would enter their studio, music room, or writing room and simply meditate on their interior surroundings.

If not, he was content to wander around and breathe in the air they breathed, the daily pictures of everyday life they encountered. He found it inspirational, though he was aware that it propelled him into the company of people he wouldn’t usually seek out: cultural tourists, academics, critics and the like. “So. Who is it?” “Gracq. I love his blend of realism, memory and dream.”

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“Me too. Do you have any others lined up?” “I made a map, before I came away. In case I got fed up on the journey.” “I wish I could see it. Does it have a name?” “Maisons d’Artistes. I think you’d like it. There’s at least one in every département.” Halfway between Nantes and Angers, Dafydd turned off to cross the river. He parked up on the quayside in front of an auberge, and they strolled through some backstreets up to the main square. Inside the Tourist Office, he was told that the man did indeed still have a house there, though the precise location was not a matter of public record. Dafydd took the hint and decided not to ask around. They sat on a bench in the shade of a plane tree. He watched a man emerge from the boulangerie, place a stick of bread in the basket of his pushbike and ride off. Another disappeared into the pharmacy clutching a scrap of paper in one hand. On the adjoining bench, still on her lunch break, a well-dressed woman was reading the daily paper. At a pavement café, some old men enjoying a post-lunch drink were immersed in animated discussion. Cars trundled past; some stopped to say hello. He described the scene to Aurélie. “It’s rich and ordinary, all at the same time.” “What did you expect?” “I don’t know. I guess I imagined something more special” “Everyone has to live somewhere. And eat bread.” As he drove off, a group of schoolchildren in neat uniforms passed by, carrying satchels almost as big as themselves. They stared and waved. Dafydd beeped the horn.

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“What’s up?” asked Aurélie. “Bunch of schoolkids all waving at us.” She turned and waved back. Dafydd laughed. “What’s funny?” “Wrong way, sweetpea. They’re on my side.” “Fucking English cars.” Across the river and on to Angers. Dafydd caught occasional glimpses of the Corniche Angevine, spectacular rocky outcrops with tiny trees clinging to the cliffs, islands of marshes and mud-flats punctuating the river below. Then the valley became so flat that the only horizon was the tops of the trees hanging over the river. At other times, tree-covered hills rose above the plain several kilometres distant. Their little road nipped through sleepy villages glued to the bank, with only the constant low stonewall to acknowledge that one of Europe’s greatest waterways was surging by. Early evening, somewhere near Tours, he asked Aurélie if she wanted to spend the night outside. Before leaving, he had thrown some camping gear into the boot, in case he felt like a night under canvas. She did. He knew he was running parallel to the river now and he started looking out. After a short while, he saw a hand-written sign with an arrow: ‘Camping Sauvage. Chambres d’Hôtes. Table d’Hôtes. “Wild camping,” he thought. “Only the French…” He drew up in front of a well-kept farmhouse and wound down his window. A man in his late-thirties came to the door, introduced himself as Patrig. “Just keep driving until you can go no further. There’s no-one else here. Do you want to eat with us?” “Yes, please.” “We dine at 8-30.”

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“We’ll see you then.” “Are you walking?” “Probably.” “Bring a torch.” The tarmac stopped dead in front of the house. Beyond it, a single-track road with grass growing down the middle led across a field of vines to some woods. Dafydd hitched up the suspension a notch and did as instructed, driving through the wood until he arrived at a grassy glade, beyond which a barrier of ferns and thorns prevented any further passage. Aurélie didn’t even offer to help with the tent and stayed in the car with her knees up, reading a book. Wild camping? Dafydd would have preferred over-sixties naturist camping or Olympic synchronised camping so long as the tent had already been erected. For all his practical ways, he was about as good at putting a tent up as he was at changing a quilt cover. He spread it out on the grass and pinned down the sewn-in groundsheet. Then he plunged inside with the poles, relieved that she couldn’t see his ghostly form writhing under the canvas, arse in the air. After half an hour, he finally had the thing up. With some pride he went and led her to it like it was a bridal suite. “This is our home for the night, chérie.” They lay down together on the quilt facing up at the temporary ceiling. “I love the smell of canvas,” she said. “I can’t remember when I last camped out.” “Nor me.” “Do you think we should change for the evening?” “No. Let’s take a walk.”

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They must have driven about a kilometre from the house; so they took their time, ambling through the woods until they reached the vineyard. They found the track that led to the house and knocked on the door. Patrig welcomed them and introduced his wife Jeanne and their two young children. As soon as they sat down at table, a basket of uncut bread arrived, along with two unlabelled bottles of ice-cold dry white wine, made from his own grapes. His unclassified vineyards supplied the local co-operative, whose wines he claimed to be as good as the neighbouring commune’s Sauvignon Blanc Touraine. One sip of the crisp grassy wine and they agreed with him. The first course was a surprise: slices of cold chicken cooked with tarragon and set in its own jelly. It was bare, essential flavour, stripped naked for nothing but enjoyment. Dafydd grunted as he ate, as if he’d never eaten chicken before. The garniture was halved radishes, little slices of shallot and knobs of farmhouse butter, the accompanying relish a tangy home-made redcurrant compote. Patrig was the cook, and throughout the meal he and Jeanne told their story. For more than fifteen years, he had laboured in kitchens across the country, culminating in his acquiring a Michelin star for their Paris restaurant. Jeanne, an accountant by profession, took care of the business side and front-of-house. Then one day three years ago, one of the children took a glancing hit from a speeding car. The damage wasn’t serious and she recovered, but Paris had issued a warning. They took their savings and a small inheritance out of the city and bought the vineyard. “Any regrets?” asked Aurélie. “None at all,” Jeanne replied. “We have all this…” She described a semicircular arc with her arm. “… a living and our sanity. And the children are so much happier, so much better adjusted. It took a while for the locals to accept us though. In

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fact, we’re still working on that.” The entrée was a treat: grilled fillets of shad with a bright green sorrel sauce. A treat because they’d arrived in the middle of the annual run of the shad up the Loire. Each plate also had a few palourdes farcies encircling the fish. Previewing the main course, a simple dish of buttered local vegetables: tiny peas, baby turnips and some green beans, which kept them going until Patrig arrived with the local speciality: noisettes of pork with prunes in a cream sauce. This called out for a red and he brought over an under-rated Chinon from just down the road. Dessert was another local speciality: each of them had a little pot of crémet, fresh cream cheese to which a sprinkling of sugar and a drop of runny cream had been applied. On the plate, surrounding the bowl, fresh cherries, apricots and plums, still with their stalks on and dripping wet. This was undoubtedly the best meal that Dafydd had ever eaten in France, in fact anywhere, and he told them so. “Then you must come again!” “Maybe on the way back.” said Dafydd. “It’s not such a big detour.” “Did you bring a torch?” “Damn!” “You can borrow ours.” “No, it’s OK. We took a straight line into the woods.” A kind cloudless moon led Dafydd down the track through the vineyard, but once they slipped under the cover of the trees, it took its leave. He could barely see the ground at his feet, let alone the car. So this was Aurélie’s world. He shivered and took hold of her hand. “Thanks, but it makes no difference to me.” “I’m sure. This is for me… Aurélie, I think we’re lost.”

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“Does she have a name, your car, your goddess?” “Yes she does, but I’m not telling.” “But you must. How else will we find her? Aphrodite?” “No.” “Diana? Phoebe?” “No. No.” “Athena?” “All right then. It’s… Nemesis.” “Nemesis? Goddess of retribution? Were you having a bad day?” “Either that, or she was. I can’t remember.” Aurélie lunged off into the undergrowth, swinging her stick and shouting, . “Nemesis? Nemesis!” Dafydd creased up with laughter, but he managed to take hold of her arm and restrain her. “I’ll find her, OK.” And he did. Though he had to re-trace his steps to the edge of the wood and walk back in again. They scrambled inside the tent, threw off some clothes and lay down on the quilt. “Listen,” she said. “The river must be really close.” He felt her roll over on to her side and pat her way across his shoulder until she located his forehead, which she leant over and kissed. They fell asleep to the rhythmic breathing of the mighty Loire. Dafydd woke before daybreak, unable to sleep past the chill and the noise of the birds. He emerged from the tent on to the dewy grass, had a good stretch and walked the few paces through the trees to the riverbank. He could hear the river, but he couldn’t see its surface: it was covered in a blanket of low-lying mist.

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Over on the far bank, a good two hundred metres away, he could just make out the shadowy truncated figures of some intrepid anglers, sat between two stunted trees. Close in, everything looked like it was steaming. To his right, the sky was turning pale electric blue and as the sun came up, the hazy monochrome scene before him peeled back to reveal the vivid colours of a nascent spring morning. Somewhere downstream a rooster crowed. “I think it’s going to be a beautiful day,” said Aurélie, as she arched her feet and padded towards him, feeling her way forward with squeezed-up toes. Dafydd found a backwater in a glade close by, stripped off and threw himself in. Turning over on his back, he watched her get down on her knees, bend over and splash some water over her face and up her nightshirt. Her hair hung down and covered most of her face. She flicked it back and sat on some grass, with what looked like a fixed stare. He’d never seen her do this. “What can you see? You look like you’re watching TV.” “I can just make out the dapples of light on the water. And the sun coming through the gaps in the leaves on the trees.” “Real pictures. Of course. It never occurred to me. Things aren’t so bad then?”

Aurélie wasn’t sure. At times like this, she found herself engaged in some complex negotiations with an inscrutable inner voice. If she could have just five minutes a day to look on this glassy pool with its clear blue waters… or a smiling face… a stained-glass window… maybe she’d believe in something again, maybe even a god, the bearded one of her infancy. But then another voice from another place stepped in to challenge these musings with reason and logic. And she was back where

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she started. And the tears fell again. “What’s up?” “Nothing. I think I’ll stick to seeing with my memory.” They de-camped and paid their dues at the farmstead, then drove off to look for breakfast. Aurélie seemed pensive. After a long silence, she spoke: “I have to ask you this. Why don’t we just head straight down to Alès instead of following this trail? I mean, if he had only sent the one postcard, from Nantes, then I could understand. We would be making progress, having picked up the information from the concierge, the barman and Iain that is leading us to Orléans. And presumably, we’ll pick up more information there that takes us to Clermont-Ferrand. But we already know he has been there from the other postcard. Do you get me?” “Of course. I was wondering when you were going to ask. For a start, this journey south could have been a long holiday – it was the summer – or a trip to see some friends. So he might still be living in the centre. In any event I want to eliminate all possibilities systematically: find out where he once lived, acknowledge that he doesn’t live there any more and tick it off the list. But most of all, I want to make the same journey that he did, drive along his roads, walk in his shoes, along the same paths.” “A bit like your literary pilgrimages then?” “Exactly.” They found an open café at the next village and over a relaxed outdoor table breakfast of orange pressée, coffee and pastries, they plotted their next move.

*****

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Sixteen

Dafydd leant over the table and studied the second postcard, a photograph of Joan of Arc’s statue in the courtyard of the Hôtel Groslot in Orléans. The postmark came from Bourges, a hundred kilometres to the South. The line on this one read: ‘Late-night new moon, sat with Alan Baker looking up at Barnard’s Star.’ Both of them had heard of the star, but so far hadn’t come up with anything. But they agreed that the area of search had to lie between the two cities.

Aurélie was inside the café, calling the university’s personnel department. When she returned to the table, he looked up: “Any luck?” “The only address recorded against Sean is his original apartment in the town centre. Apparently, very few of those in temporary posts bother to tell them when they move. I wrote it down anyway. Oh, and they’ve no recollection of an Alan Baker.” “Well, after Nantes, I’m not sure it’s worth bothering with this address.” “I agree. Remember, Iain was convinced he wanted to live in the country.” Dafydd decided to keep his options open, staying on the south bank of the river and heading for Blois, on the off chance that something might occur to them on the way. With one straight road, he had no need of Aurélie’s navigation, but he called out the names of the villages they passed through, for the amusement of them both. Throughout this, Aurélie told how Didier used to hunt in this region and, from the age of twelve, would take her along on some of his Sunday trips. They would get up early in the morning and drive out of Paris to stay in the wilds all day, before returning home with a week’s food. Sometimes they camped overnight to get an early

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start.

“You went hunting with your father?” “Of course. It’s a French thing. Millions of men disappear on a Sunday and leave their wives behind. Sometimes they take their kids along too; it’s usually the sons though.” “What sort of game did you used to catch?” “Well it depended on the season of course, but boar, deer, game birds, rabbits. And we used to fish as well.” “So you can use a gun, a shotgun?” “Yes I can… but it’s OK. I don’t have one on me now.” A little later, Aurélie asked if they could camp out again. “It’s a beautiful place. I think you’ll love it.” “Why not. I think there’s a full moon tonight.” “Ach. That’s why my insides feel like a jumble sale.” Outside Blois, Dafydd was confronted with the choice of continuing on the road to Orléans, or taking one of two roads that streaked across the Sologne, one signposted La Ferté-St-Aubin, the other Lamotte-Beuvron. He pulled over to check his map. “There’s a lot of places with names like La Motte this or La Ferté that around here. Must be really confusing.” “Not if you live in one of them.” “I meant to outsiders. Do the words signify anything special?” “They do. And roughly the same thing. A motte is like a lump. We say a motte of butter or a motte of turf. But as a place-name, it means a mound, usually man-

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made. Some originate from Celtic times –- they were topped by wooden structures used as look-outs or safe places; then the Romans used them as forts; and in medieval times, some became chateaux forts, castles. There’s a lot round here because of the flatness.” “How do you know all this?” “I did French History for my Baccalaureat.” After a brief silence, Aurélie continued: “You know, this is classic Grand Meaulnes country. Did you read that at school?” “I did.” “And Sean?” “Oh yes. I turned him on to it, lent him my copy and never got it back.” “Dafydd…” She was laughing now. “… This Alain Bay-kerr…” “I told you. I’ve never heard of him. No school or university friend of his went by that name, as far as I’m aware.” “You realise your brother has dealt us a neat line in schoolboy Franglais?” “I don’t understand.” “The French for oven or stove is fourneau.” “You mean Alain-Fournier?” “That’s the one. I think we are looking for a place from the novel.” “Great. Somewhere in the Sologne, all one million acres of it.” “You must think positively: the only leads remaining are the moon and the star.” “I suppose so. I just hope the rest are this easy.” “They’re all easy once you’ve worked them out.”

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Dafydd drove through the southern outskirts of Blois where they bought some food for lunch and picked up the road to Lamotte-Beuvron, at Aurélie’s suggestion.

“We’re not going there. Beuvron means river of rats. You need to turn right at La Ferté-Beauharnais and follow the signs for St Viâtre. From there I’ll take you to a beautiful lagoon, where Didier and I used to catch fish.” It was a journey of fifty kilometres, with the road hugging the valley of the River Beuvron for much of the distance. After passing through the southern tip of the Boulogne Forest, the countryside opened out into typical Solognot scrub, with open patches of grass and bush, punctuated by the occasional lonely birch and clumps of leggy pine or dense oak, at their feet a lush undergrowth of ferns and rushes as tall as a man. It was a landscape not unfamiliar to Dafydd. In Britain, such places would be called commons or sandy heaths, though none would come close to this in sheer scale. Occasional outbreaks of cultivation – the odd field of wheat or corn, a patch of vegetables, a meadow feeding some scrawny cattle – brought relief from the monotony. Alongside the road, drainage ditches of brackish water separated the traveller from the wilderness beyond. Dotted everywhere, hundreds of bright blue lagoons - ranging in size from a village pond to a lake whose opposite shore could barely be seen - reflected the light of a big open sky. But the overriding sense was that it went on forever. Tiny hamlets and villages flashed by, none of them with shops or other facilities, except the largest which possessed a bar and a bakery, the bare essentials of French community living. Just about all of the buildings were dilapidated, many were derelict, the main visible distinction between the two being the choking climbers and weeds that overwhelmed the masonry of the unoccupied ones. These sad edifices,

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once testimony to centuries of human skill and effort, were now under sustained attack from nature and losing badly as they crumbled back into the earth. At times, the place had the impoverished aura of a Third World country. Dafydd saw few people: a farm-worker in a field, an old lady shuffling down a village street, a middle-aged couple taking a walk. As for cars, they were alone on the road. Midway, they drew up beside a well-tended pond on the edge of a small town. The surrounding grass had been cut back neatly and some specimen willows planted over the water’s edge. Adjacent to this, a patch of dusty gravel hosted a few old men playing a game of boules in the shade of some formally laid-out lime trees. Dafydd got a blanket out and the two of them sat down on the bank to eat their bread and sausage. The water here, clean and fresh, moved gently towards the ubiquitous Sologne T-sluice gurgling not far from them. Dafydd wanted nothing more than to take a swim, but Aurélie was keen to press on.

They stopped in St .Viâtre. Dafydd went off to buy some provisions, while Aurélie stayed behind and grappled with her memory. As he returned and shut the car door, she asked him: “Can you tell me where we are, please?” Dafydd took a slug from a plastic bottle of red wine. “Place de l’Église. I’m looking straight at the church.” “Good. I want you to carry on up the main street until you come to another square. There will be three roads leaving it. You must take the first one, to the right. The direction is a small town whose name I can’t remember; so you’ll have to shout out the names on the road signs until I do.

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He drove on as instructed and eventually turned off down a single-track road. After two more kilometres, it crossed a stream linking two lagoons and made an abrupt turn to follow alongside the larger of them. Halfway along, it stopped dead in the middle of nowhere. He got out of the car to look around. “Here?” “Is there a small lagoon to your right, a big one to your left, about a hundred metres away?” “Yes.” “Is there a forest track in front of you?” “Yes.” “Follow that until it stops. It’s another couple of kilometres.” It looked like Land-Rover country to him, but having been assured that they used to do it in their DS, he hitched up the suspension and ploughed on, leaving a wake of dust behind. The woods thinned out as the track turned into mud. With bushes dusting both sides of the car, they finally arrived on the grassy banks of another lagoon. He could barely see the far ends of it. It was a good couple of kilometres long and maybe four hundred metres across. He’d never seen a lonelier place. By now, it was early evening. The first thing they did was walk to the water’s edge and dip their toes in. To either side of them, a luxury of bankside bushes and weeds caressed the surface of the water. Invisible fishes stirred the depths; bright blue kingfishers emerged from their caves and swooped on the lazy ones; technicolor dragonflies, on the look-out for insects, hovered and darted above. “Does this place have a name?” “Étang des Pierres. Though we never found any stones. The locals say there

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are ancient Gallic markers in the surrounding woods.” “It’s so calm and peaceful.” “Wait till nightfall.” “What happens then?” “Nightlife.” “What, like a disco?” Aurélie laughed. “You’ll see.” Dafydd erected the tent, this time with a bit more finesse and in a little less time. They stripped down to their underwear and walked to the lakeside holding hands. The cool fresh water had an earthy smell and a satiny feel to it. Back at the tent, he fished out two towels and they chatted away as they dried themselves. All around, wondrous butterflies, species no longer seen back in Britain, flitted about. “I could live somewhere like this.” “It can be bleak and desolate in winter. The damp eats away at your soul. Its nickname is ‘Sad Sologne’. Best to just enjoy a summer holiday here, I think.” “Ah, OK. Thanks for the tip. . . .That last stretch coming in, there were loads of rabbits hopping about.” “There’s game and fish in abundance here. It used to be the Royal hunting grounds (I think it’s best if they’re all lower case, inc the royal) and for centuries it was the larder of Paris. Actually, to be more precise, it was the rich people’s larder. The locals didn’t benefit much. For them it was a malarial hell, until the swamps were drained.” “And now?” “Now it lurches along, still a backwater, still with a lot of hunting, though of a slightly more populist kind.”

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“I’m getting hungry.” “Me too. Eat out tonight?” “Any ideas?” “Well, Lamotte-Beuvron is less than half an hour away. We could go to the Hôtel Tatin and you could try some of their famous tarte. Have you ever eaten that?” “The upside-down apple tart? Once. At a French restaurant in Primrose Hill. It was good, but not that good.” “Is that a yes or a no?” “That’s a yes.” The cuisine at the restaurant was studiedly French classical, and they ate their way through the lavish meal, right down to the eponymous tarte. But they were talking business non-stop throughout. Dafydd had a pencil and pad to the side of his plate. “Right. We’re agreed that one or both of the two remaining word-images, the star and the moon, must lead us to an actual place in the Sologne which is also mentioned in the book. And preferably a small one, otherwise we’ll still never find him. Yes?” “I think so.” “Do you want to go first? You know far more about the stars than I do.” “OK. Barnard’s Star is in the constellation of Ophiuchus, which means serpent-holder. It’s the only one of the thirteen zodiacal constellations that isn’t also an astrological sign. Part of it lies between Scorpius and Sagittarius…” “Hold on…” Dafydd scribbled all possible references down, transcribing them into French with a little help from Aurélie.

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“So if Ophiuchus lies between two other constellations, we might be looking for some town otherwise untraceable lying between two towns that are?” “Good point.” “Do you know what or whom this snake-holder represents?” “The origins are vague: one suggestion is that it represents the Trojan priest Laocoön, who was slain by a pair of sea serpents sent by the gods after he warned the Trojans not to accept the horse.” “Horse. Cheval… Troy… Troyes?” “There’s only one place with that name, as far as I know, and it’s a couple of hundred kilometres away on the Upper Seine.” “Let’s try Barnard. Do you know the origin of the name?” “American astronomer who discovered it in the early part of the century. The problem is, it’s by no means a common name in France.” “What’s his first name?” “Edward. Edward Emerson.” “Anything else?” “There’s also a lunar crater and a Martian crater named after him.” “That’s another moon reference. Isn’t there a town called Lunas?” “It’s down South. Now if he meant Bernard, there’s a bit more scope.” “I don’t see it somehow. But we can try.” “Well there was Saint Bernard de Clairvaux. He was the power behind the foundation of the Knights Templar.” “Oh please! No conspiracies!” Coffee arrived. By now, Dafydd couldn’t disguise his frustration. He was flicking his pencil over and over, bouncing the ends on his pad, with an occasional

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stab of the pointed end. Aurélie leant over and squeezed his forearm. “Listen, you don’t have to cover the whole region. You remember the story? Although it’s ultimately a work of the imagination, it appears to be set in two concrete and contradictory locations: the Sologne, where Alain-Fournier was born; and the Berry, a hundred kilometres to the South, which his family moved to later. But most of the place names in the book are barely-concealed variants of actual towns and villages between the town of Vierzon and the village where he was born, La Chapelle d’Anguillon. That’s a very small piece of territory. We’ll get there.” “Thank you.” He returned her squeeze. Away from the town, Dafydd cut the headlights and drove by the light of the moon. He opened the roof and windows to let in the expansive sky and the warm air. Back at the lagoon, he noticed even more rabbits in his headlights. Some froze in his path until he stopped and waited for them to bounce away. When he told Aurélie, she said: “If we end up having to spend another night here, we’ll make a rabbit supper.” “How?” “Easy. I’ll show you.” He cut the engine to discover that the nightlife Aurélie had referred to was in full swing. Everything alive seemed to be doing something noisy. Sometimes it was scary, especially when something large, a fox or a badger or an inquisitive deer, came in close. Aurélie, accustomed to all of this, fell asleep long before he did. Morning found him with his map stretched out on the grass and his pencil and pad by his side. He was writing down all the local place-names and then crossreferencing them with his notes from the previous evening. Aurélie ambled over to join him. “Dafydd, isn’t there some crazy English project investigating the possibility of

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sending a spaceship to Barnard’s Star?” “Daedalus!” “You know something about it?” “Yes! It’s in the news occasionally. You can’t miss it. It’s real ‘Boy’s Own’ stuff.” “Boy’s Own?” “Oh, it’s a schoolboy magazine. Never mind. The idea of the project is to design a starship using existing or near-future technology – I think they have chosen nuclear power – that will make it to Barnard’s within a human life-time. They selected Barnard’s because of its proximity, and also because it was believed to have two planets. I reckon there’s mileage in this; it’s typical Sean.” “Who’s doing the research?” “They’re called the ‘British Interplanetary Society’ and the man heading up the team is a Dr. Alan Bond. Maybe we can find some connections.” He abandoned his map and began to make notes. “Daedalus first.” “Well… A Greek mythological figure, skilled architect-craftsman who started out in Crete. He built the famous Labyrinth for King Minos, generally acknowledged to have been at Knossos. Also the father of Icarus and designer-maker of his wings.” “Wings. Ailes. Wax?” “Cire.” “I know the Icarus story. But what’s this Labyrinth?” “Minos wanted the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur, the monstrous offspring of his wife Pasiphaë’s coupling with a beautiful white bull that had been sent to him by Poseidon, God of the Sea, in return for its sacrifice to him. Which Minos didn’t do, because he thought it was cute. So Poseidon made Pasiphaë fall in love with the

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creature. Daedalus helped with that too. She had him build a wooden cow that she could slip inside whenever the bull mounted it.” “Oh really? Ingenious.” Dafydd felt himself on the cusp of an uncomfortable blush and for once was thankful she couldn’t see him. “OK. Bull. Cow. Taureau. Vache…” “The Minotaur was eventually slain by Theseus, son of Poseidon, later to become King of Athens, with the help of Ariadne, daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë. She spun him a ball of string so he could get back out of the Labyrinth.” “Clever stuff… String. Ficelle…. Did they fall in love?” “Who? Theseus and Ariadne? They did actually. Ran away together.” “That’s sweet.” “But she already had a thing going for Dionysus. She ended up going back to him.” “Some things don’t change, huh?” Aurélie laughed. “What do you mean?” “Difficult choices. Earthly riches versus Heavenly ecstasies, for example… Come on, let’s try more Daedalus.” “It’s another moon crater.” “That’s three moons now… Right, that’s it. I’m taking this lot to the map.” “I’ll do some practice on my cello then.” He watched on looked on while she installed herself on a fold-up chair and tuned the instrument. It had a bright white lacquered finish, with occasional flashes of glittery coloured decoration reminiscent of the random urge to individuality of a schoolkid’s pencil case. After an hour of playing her scales and some Bach, she came over to see how he was getting on. He was still scouring the map for a link.

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“Any luck?… Hey, maybe he has done the same thing with that name?” “What, schoolboy Franglais? Alan Bond?” “Yes. Let’s see now… French for bond is lien… Alain Lien… Ooh, that’s a mouthful… A. Lien?… Alien!” “Alien? Stop it!” They were both laughing now. “Come on,” said Dafydd. “Lunchtime.” “OK. But first I must show you how to make a snare.” She took a spare string from her cello case and sat down on the grass. “I need some pliers and a piece of wood for a stake.” Once he’d obliged, she cut and twisted the wire into a lasso, fixed it to the stake and showed him what to do with it. “You have to find some runs. Look out for droppings.” she shouted, as he disappeared into the bushes. She lay down on the grass and let her eyelids close. This was the first time she’d been truly alone since she met him. A little shiver coursed down her back. They were probably several kilometres from the next human, but the knowledge that she’d sat on this very spot many times with Didier somehow reassured her. She wished she could phone him, let him know where she was. He’d love the symmetry. Big birds squawked and flapped around in the trees; small mammals and birds stirred the undergrowth and fishes plopped the surface of the water, all against an orchestral backdrop of clicking insects. She wondered what it would be like to be on a mountain top. Would she hear the snow melt, the ice crack, the glaciers slide, the wind caress her face? Is wind noisy or does it make other things noisy? Is there a place on earth that’s truly silent? Not unless you’re dead. All that breathing and pumping and cellular movement, even when you think you’re still. Out on the lagoon, a flock of ducks performed a noisy splash-landing. Dafydd rustled through the grass towards her.

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“What are you thinking about?” “Nothing. I’m listening to all the sounds.” In St Viâtre they bought soup-vegetables; bacon, cream and mustard; a jam kettle and a length of piano wire from the hardware shop; and some bread. They took a workers’ lunch at one of the hotels, ending up there most of the afternoon and a little drunk. Back at the camp, Dafydd checked the snare to find nothing. Aurélie made two more with the piano wire, before they both fell asleep. They woke themselves up with another swim, ending up way out in the middle floating on their backs and chatting. On their return, Dafydd went to check the snares again. This time, one was occupied and thankfully the thing was dead. It was a big old bunny. He disentangled it and carried it back to Aurélie, stretched across his upturned forearms, a sacrificial offering. “Are you sure you can do the next bit? Because I certainly can’t.” “No problem. You said you had a sharp knife and a wooden board, yes? “Yes. In my picnic basket.” “Picnic basket? You don’t seem like a picnic basket man.” “It was a present from my Auntie.” “Does it have a gingham lining?” “Yes.” “Blue?” “Yes.... Enough, OK.” “I’ll also need a plastic bag.” Aurélie knelt down and sat on her heels, arranging carcass, board, and knife tidily in front of her knees. Dafydd watched from a distance, intrigued. It looked like an ancient ritual. She opened the Opinel and stroked it crossways.

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“This knife is lovely and sharp, but the blade is all the wrong shape. Do you have one of those household things in your tool kit, like a Stanley knife? Or a razor blade?” “I think I do. Hang on.” He found the tool and exchanged the blade for a new one. As she made the first incision, in the middle of the gut, the carcass let off a brief hiss and an appallingly strong smell which made his eyes water. He started to gag. “This is nothing. You should try doing a hare.” “No thanks. I don’t do butchery.” “You eat meat though.” Dafydd had one hand over his mouth and one eye on the lakeside, but the feeling subsided and he managed to keep his own guts down. She proceeded by cutting the skin in a perfect line from sternum to groin, before severing and disentangling the organs with the other knife and scooping them into the plastic bag. Then she began to separate the furry skin from the flesh. To Dafydd’s surprise, it came off easily, like a Babygro being tenderly peeled from a small child. Within minutes, the job was complete but for the head and the feet. “Can you do these, please? It’s hard work without a chopping knife.” “I’m not sure I can.” “It’s easy. You just have to find the joints by feel. You can’t cut through bone with that. Close your eyes and pretend it’s a Sunday chicken. Then you can portion it.” Dafydd did just that, closed his eyes, and found that it helped. By the time he’d finished, he had a satisfied smile on his face. What remained finally looked like

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meat, of the kind you see in a butcher’s shop window. He put the pieces in the pot and went over to the water’s edge to wash them off. Then he set to work collecting firewood. Aurélie cleaned and sliced leeks, carrots and celery, while he took care of the fire. Once it was going well, he asked: “I fancy some greens. It’s May. Do you think they have wild garlic in these parts?” “Sure. You’ll need to be near running water though.” “I know that. There must be streams around the lagoons.” “Of course. There’s one at each end here. They’re called Feed and Drain.” One end of the lagoon was closer than the other by half, only a twenty- minute round-trip. Dafydd wandered off towards it with another plastic bag. His harvest was plentiful and he returned just in time to save the fire. Once that had perked up, he started to cook, wrapping the rabbit portions in bacon, sizzling them in the pot and adding the sliced vegetables. He stirred away until everything became powerfully aromatic, added cream and mustard and then poured from a bottle of mineral water until everything was covered. “A big thing like that might be a bit tough; we should give it a couple of hours.” “What are we to do?” asked Aurélie, with a hint of playful ambiguity in her voice and her body-language. “Do you play Scrabble?” “I do. And I’m pretty damn good.” She reached inside her big bag to withdraw a Scrabble kit, with tactile gameboard and braille tiles, and began to set it up. “I’ve been playing it since I was a child. My grand-mother Mercedes taught me. They’re mad about it in England, aren’t they?”

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“Some are.” “Didier bought me this set after the accident. In the early days, we used to play for hours… It has French letter-values and numbers of course, but they’re not so different from the English ones. You’ll be fine with it.” While the rabbit bubbled away, they made themselves comfortable and began to play. Dafydd, as an old-fashioned gentleman at heart and in deference to her handicap, let her kick off. As soon as she opened with DESTINE across the middle line for sixty-eight points, he realised that this would be no whitewash. He could only follow with a miserable DIRECT, for twelve. He was able to breathe again when she came up with TEAR for eight and he picked up an easy forty for TEARFULLY. She was taking her time now. He looked on, mesmerised. Her fingers skipped lightly over the board, processing tactile information while her mind reached out to another tongue. “It’s a bit like map-reading,” she said. “Graphic representation. It’s more than a quarter of a million years old. We’re hard-wired for it, for analogue information. With one of my hands on the hands of a clock, I can tell the time quicker than you can read one of those silly new digital things. And beat you at Scrabble while I’m doing it.” “You’re obviously not embracing the new digital age then?” “Not one bit.” Her next move was that good old crossword-saver, ADZ, but when she followed it with ZOOLITIC and QUIXOTRY for scores of more than a hundred apiece, he found himself staring at a trounce. “How the hell do you know words like that in English?” “Because they’re roughly the same in French.”

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The final score was: Aurélie 519, Dafydd 186. Coming in at one and a half hours, the game took twice as long as it might have done with two sighted contenders, but for Dafydd, it had been an elegant display of acumen. But he had drawn awful letters and they both acknowledged it. He promised himself this would not be their last game. “I think I need a drink,” Over at the car, he picked up a bottle of wine and his picnic set. The rabbit was ready. He added his wild garlic leaves for a two-minute simmer. After a hefty swig of the wine, he laid up a table on his blanket, cut some bread and served up. The meat was falling off the bone, the vegetables sweet and toothsome, and the gravy thickened into a golden-brown cream, deeply savoury with a mustardy edge, which they mopped up at the end with their bread. The sun had gone down, leaving a Western sky the colour of the lagoon in the daytime. Dafydd cleared the blanket and went over to stoke the faltering fire. Aurélie lay on her side with her back to it. Dafydd picked up a cushion, sat down beside her, . fluffed it up and placed it on his lap. She eased up on to it. He extended an arm across her shoulder and waited for the moon to rise and the stars to come out.

“I just remembered,” said Aurélie. “We haven’t disposed of the guts… have you?” “I’ll do it in the morning.” “No. You must do it now, and not in the woods.” “Why?” “Because the scent will attract great big birds and animals and they will come and eat them and then they will eat us all up too.” She tickled him under his armpits.

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“The lake then.” “Yes, but you’ll need some stones for the bag.” Dafydd stuffed the hide in the bag of guts and walked to the water’s edge to find a few pebbles. He knotted the bag and threw it out as far as he could. “Did you squeeze the air out of the bag?” Dafydd remained silent while he watched … For a few agonising seconds it floated there, as the mass of the stones, set in their slurry of rabbit guts, wrestled for supremacy over the buoyancy of the air-filled bag. Then it slipped beneath the surface, sending tiny moon-kissed ripples all the way to the shoreline. “Yes, of course.” On his return, she asked: “Would you like me to play again?” “I’d love that.” He collected her cello and seat, this time returning for a portable amp and some pedals. Kneeling on the grass, she set up her kit, plugged in all the leads, and touched the instrument with the bow a couple of times while she adjusted sound and tone levels, echo and reverb settings. Then she sat up on the chair displaying her knees, with the ends of her wrap-around skirt fallen either side of her thighs. Despite the inherent limitations of the battery amp, the opening notes soared across the lagoon and into the trees on the opposite shore, to silence the chattering birds. Dafydd lay on his back and looked up at the sky, now bright and busy. The music was a contemporary piece, which he didn’t recognise, nor did he care. Sometimes she just stroked a string, squeezed a foot-pedal and let the note echo round the lagoon, bringing in a harmonic just before the first one decayed. Changing the tempo brought in more complex melodies, until after almost a quarter an hour of delivering moody sounds at a contemplative pace, she stood up and jabbed the bow

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frenetically across the strings for a virtuoso finale. The last sombre note, on full echo, faded slowly. The chorus of birds struck up again, this time with a requiem for a dying day. And a collective cheer perhaps. Aurélie bowed towards the far side of the lake and sat back down. Dafydd clapped enthusiastically. They decided to take one last swim, this time recklessly naked. The voluptuous water, now warmer than the air, enveloped them. Not a word was spoken, nor needed to be. For a few minutes, they floated, twisted and dived around the same spot, equally in their element as any aquatic mammal. Returning to dry themselves, Dafydd looked on her lean brown body for the first time, with the innocent curiosity of a child and an unexpected tinge of yearning. The fire was fading fast as they finished off the wine and fell straight on to the bed. Aurélie woke up first. “Dah-veethe? Dah-veethe! I’ve been thinking...” Dafydd woke up too. “What?” “I don’t think it has anything to do with Barnard or Troy or Daedalus. Or the moon.” She was shaking him now. “Go on,” he groaned, levering himself up from his sleep. “I’ve just remembered something. Even though the constellation of Ophiuchus is visible to the naked eye, Barnard’s Star isn’t. It’s a red dwarf.” “Meaning?” “I don’t know. It’s just he says on the postcard he’s looking up at it. He can’t be.” “Are you certain?” “Absolutely.” “Unless he had a telescope?”

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“That’s right… That’s it! All this time we’ve been talking our way round the stars, only to come up with precisely nothing because we’ve been focusing on the object being observed rather than how it’s observed. There’s a giant radio telescope at a place called Nançay. I’ve driven past it with Didier. And of course Nançay is mentioned in the opening pages of the book; it’s the nearest habitation to where the hero gets lost. I remember that much.” At the outskirts of the town, they headed straight for the observatory. The entrance road passed briefly through dense woodland, which opened out to display the neck-snapping radio telescope, with its main bank of mirrors 400 metres long and 80 metres high. Opposing it, another moveable one almost as long stood astride a sixmetre wide railway track. Dafydd drove past it slowly, transfixed. So this was Nançay now. No longer a ‘Lost Domain’, that’s for sure. The contrast between this totem of twentieth- century engineering and the enduring romance of Alain-Fournier’s novel couldn’t have been more pronounced. He’d read it a couple of times since his schooldays, and still enjoyed it. In fact, much of his subsequent journeying across the country had been an attempt to discover the hidden landscape of its memories. But he’d realised then that the neolithic intimacy of its miniscule world, focused on the fireplace and radiating out to embrace the village and a neighbouring field or two, hadn’t existed even in 1913. Not with the railways, the roads and the canals. This France of his childhood longing existed only in the narrator’s imagination, situated at the confluence of nostalgia and desire. They carried on towards the complex of laboratories, workshops and offices that housed the administration. A young man opened the locked door. Dafydd asked him how long he’d been working there, and then explained the purpose of his visit, illustrating it with the postcard. The man disappeared and returned with an older one.

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“You’re looking for Sean?” “Is he here?” “No. He left the area about five years ago.” “You knew him well?” “Not that well. But sometimes he and his girlfriend would go out for dinner with me and my wife. That sort of well. And of course he came up here more than once. Used to love it. Not that he was a star freak like we all are. He just had this brilliant free-ranging mind. I think it operated on the borders of the universe sometimes.” “Do you know where he lived and where he went on to?” “I’m afraid not. They’ll know in the bar though. We haven’t heard from him since, except for a postcard soon after he left.” “Where was it from?” “Puys de Dôme.” “I’ve got one of those. But it’s less than a year old. Is there more than one bar?” “Yes. His was Les Barbares.” “Barbarians, huh? That fits. Thanks.” “You’re welcome. Give him my regards, won’t you.” Dafydd drove into the town and they walked straight into the Bar les Barbares. It was gone noon and they took a coffee and a sandwich. The owner came and joined them. He remembered Sean, but started out talking more about the girlfriend.

“She was crazy. A real fighter. Whenever she’d had a few drinks, they’d end up

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arguing. She used to throw things at him, plant pots, ornaments, plates, and he’d come in here the next day covered in bruises and cuts. Once she went at him with a cook’s knife and when he raised his forearm to protect himself, he picked up a tencentimetre gash that he had to have stitched. Completely mad. He left her in the end. To be honest, I don’t know how he stuck with her for so long.” “Where did he go?” “Down south somewhere. He sent me a postcard from Cap d’Agde soon after he left. I don’t know what he was doing there.” “Maybe he’d embraced the joys of naturism?” said Aurélie. “I don’t understand,” said Dafydd. “It’s famous for nudist beaches and a hedonistic nightlife and, um, sexual freedom.” “Doesn’t sound like his kind of place.” “Don’t count on it. You don’t know what he’s grown into.” “I suppose so… Do you know where they lived?” “St. Martin du Pré. It’s not far away, but off the beaten track..” He picked up a napkin and drew a map. “Did you know him well?” “He was in here enough. Most nights, if only for one beer.” “How did he get on with everyone?” “He was much loved. I liked him. Mean pool player. A real charmer with the women too, despite his attachment. I don’t think he took it anywhere, but he was one of these guys that just knows how to make a woman feel good about herself, y’know, sexy.” “He wasn’t drinking too much then?”

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“Mostly no, but a couple of times a week, he’d let go. That’s when he got a bit frightening. It was like something was burning up inside him. You could see it in his eyes. He’d suddenly look like he wanted to pick a fight. He never did though.” “Did he ever retaliate, when she attacked him?” “No. That’s the thing. I’d have hung her up on the nearest coat-hook and left her to choke.” “And he never started it?” “He never hit her, if that’s what you mean. She told us more than once.” St. Martin was a dozen tumbledown houses with nothing to share. A dead-end track that ran between two of them led through some woods for about 500 metres and then opened out into typical Solognot scrub. Another 100 metres took them to the house. It was a modest stone-built cottage with a slate roof, two up two down, of indeterminate age, set in a generous square plot of walled garden. At the far end, tight in one corner, another stone structure, single storey and not much bigger than a garden shed, gave no hint as to its origins, except that it sported a chimney- stack. Through the open door, Dafydd could see that it was now a woodstore. The symmetry was perfect. The garden itself was neat and well tended, the tiny front piece devoted to cottage flowers, most of the rear to cultivation, numerous varieties of vegetables in tidy rows. Dead centre, a well cropped lawn ran from the shady gravelled dining terrace up to the end wall and the madness beyond. The extended border of scrub, squeezed between the garden wall and the forest, consisted of a few thorny trees, intermittent bushes and a dense cover of weeds and grasses taller than a human. Leaving their conquered trees behind, waves of choking ivy crashed over the stone wall, parts of which had spritely saplings growing

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from the mortar joints. The weeds had outgrown the wall and were now poking their tongues out at the house. In the face of this natural onslaught, the house and garden held their heads high, but you wouldn’t want to turn your back on it for too long. Absorbing this scene had taken Dafydd mere seconds. Describing them to Aurélie took longer. He wanted to know about the contrast between the humble scale of the dwelling and the existence of the stone-wall, historically an implication of means. And he was intrigued by the garden shed with its incongruous chimney- stack. “Well, I can think of two possible explanations.” she said. “One is that he was a poor stonemason whose earthly riches derived from his spare-time labours; the other that it was a hunting lodge which belonged to a nearby chateau. The shed could have been a pig sty, the fire for cold pig-winters. Or a smokery.” Dafydd wanted some photos. He went over to the car for his camera and started to walk –- insofar as it was possible –- around the perimetrer of the property, taking a few shots as he went. At this point, a young woman emerged from the house. “What do you think you’re doing?” Dafydd explained. “I understand. But in a place as wild as this, it would have been courtesy to knock on the door.” “I’m sorry. I didn’t think…” “It’s OK.” “Did you know Sean?” “We never met him, but we took over the tenancy from him.” “We’re intrigued by the outhouse, and the stone wall. Is it an old hunting lodge?” “Good guess. Yes. And it was also like this when we came. Sean’s bequest to

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us. Apparently it was a derelict wilderness outpost before he and his girlfriend took it over. They transformed it. We just have to maintain it.”

Dafydd said thanks and good-bye, took a few more photos and walked over to the trackside verge. He sat down on the grass and looked across at an early summer’s evening. At two people coming home from work, overseen by a huge sky, trailed by their long shadows. To pat the dog, pour their first beer and stroll out into the garden. To dead -head a flower or two, pull a few weeds, pick some courgettes for supper… Aurélie shuffled over and sat down next to him, found his arm and let her head fall on his shoulder. “Your first tick.”

*****

Seventeen

Like most of Becci’s previous travels, this trip to France had come about less through careful planning and more through the collision of a few random opportunities. An old sailing friend called to say his brother had asked him to pick up a car in Lannion and bring it back to Plymouth on the ferry. He couldn’t spare the time. Would she like to do it, for expenses? He also had a lead to another sailing acquaintance, who was delivering a new Nicholson over from the Solent to Carantec, a sailing centre not so far from Lannion. He was looking for crew.

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Once she got on the phone, it all fell into place. The yacht-owner sounded relieved, like he’d been waiting for her to call. She came away with a free holiday. She found out why they’d been desperate the minute they sailed out between the harbour walls. Appalling weather, and she discovered that this was their third attempt. On the last one, the main hatch had crashed in a few miles out to sea. Previous crew, old hands, had refused to continue. At least she had a good skipper, a transatlantic veteran, laid-back and competent. The other crew member turned out to a liability: he got seasick just outside the harbour and stayed that way for the rest of the trip.

With 100% cloud cover and driving rain most of the way, she was on her own for eight -hours at a time. Their course took them almost at right-angles to the Atlantic swell and after staring down a grey foaming tunnel for the length of her watch, the peak of a wave either side of her, she had to fight off a debilitating depression. In her view, the skipper had put up too much sail, but he was in a hurry to get to his wife and kids who were waiting for him. A lot of the time they were heading into the eye of the wind and it was all she could do to maintain course, her feet pressed hard against the opposite bench-seat, her forearms wrapped round the tiller. Zipping along at six knots in this weather, the fore-deck of the boat smashed back down in the aftermath of each wave, making it impossible for anyone to rest. Sometimes rogue waves crashed over the aft-deck with such power that Becci was thrown around within the full confines of her harness and often returned to her station with small fish and baby squids down her neck and in the pockets of her oilskin. When the wind hit gale force, the skipper relented and put up the storm jib. After only four hours at a speed of no more than one knot, he hove to for another six

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hours. For the sake of their sanity, he changed the watches over to four-hourly, and with double the crossover times, they saw more of each other and cheered up. Pretty soon, Becci was dreaming of nothing but food and drink. Her diet consisted of muesli and water – she couldn’t imagine holding anything else down. Other Crew was eating nothing at all and spewing up his own bile. Skipper was the only one eating, cheerily emptying tins of tuna and peas into a saucepan and wolfing down the lot. The gale passed and somewhere within site of the French coast, the sun burst through the sky. With the sail in and the diesel chugging, they manoeuvred their way round an island, crossed the bay and headed for Carantec.

As soon as they’d moored up, they walked along the wobbly pontoons, half-land, half-sea, towards the yacht club where the skipper was a member. They ordered a few beers and some food at the bar. Becci had never eaten so much in one sitting, but an hour later, Skipper disappeared and returned immediately with a couple of club dignitaries to say that a table would shortly be ready for their lunch. And it started all over again, through five courses and a whole afternoon. Next day, Becci jumped on a bus to St. Pol-de-Leon and picked up the train for Lannion, where she found herself a room in the medieval quarter and a map at the Tourist Office. The car was garaged on the North side of town and she had the address of a taxi company to find. She started out walking, but after getting lost in the heat of the midday sun, she installed herself in a café, phoned the taxi number, and asked them to come and get her.

Inside the office, the patron handed over his desk to an eager young assistante and led

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Becci down some back-streets until they arrived at an alleyway that led to a stone shed. The man swung back a metal door and flicked on a light switch that decided not to work. He cursed and led her into the darkness. Slender shafts of sunlight picked out patches of oil-stain and dust. Once her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, Becci saw that the place was full of old tractors, vans and cars, some under cover. One was perched on a ramp; another waited inside a makeshift spray-booth. “I collect these things,” he said. “I can’t stop myself. Some farmer calls to get a piece of junk out of his barn and as soon as he tells me what it is, I’m out there with my truck. I’ve got another shed like this in my garden. Full.” “It’s a beautiful hobby. Everyone should have one. Me, I like old boats.” “Pah! My wife asks me for a divorce every week.” The first car Becci recognised was a black Citroën 15CV Traction Avant, the Maigret one, complete with running-boards and enough legroom in the back for another row of seats. The roofline was about the same height as her chin. “Needs new suspension, that one,” he said, with a note of resignation. “This one’s nice.” She ran a finger down the bonnetline of a pale blue convertible. “That’s nearly new. Crash job. Peugeot 505 Coupé. Designed by Pininfarina. Not a curve out of place.” “It’ll do fine.” “Sorry. It’s mine… But yours is rather more interesting...” Becci was stroking the Peugeot’s buff leather seating now. “Oh really?” He led her over into a corner, past a 50s Renault tractor to a covered car, long low-slung and – she could tell straight away –another convertible. He pulled back the tarp to reveal a pristine ’55 Lancia Aurelia GT in pillarbox red.

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“Wow. I’ll need sunglasses and a silk headscarf to go with that.” He laughed. “D’accord. You have just the right hair for it too…” He patted the windscreen affectionately. “It’s got the world’s first production V6. Years ahead of its time. Radial tyres. And a rear transaxle housing gearbox, clutch and inboard discs…” “Which means?” “Better weight distribution for controlled cornering.” “I’m not sure about the colour. Do you have another one?” He laughed again. “Women!” She laughed back. “Joke!” After signing some documents in the office, Becci took the keys, strolled back to the garage and fired her up. ‘Needs a name,’ she thought. ‘But I’ll let her grow on me...’ Naturally tentative at first, the two of them soon got the hang of each other. By the time they hit the centre of town, they’d seen off every young farmer, teenage kid and middle-age crisis at every set of lights. When she pulled into the hotel courtyard, a small group of people – staff and residents – gathered round straight away. “World’s first production V6,” she told them. “Rear-end gearbox and clutch. Inboard discs, radials… Way way ahead of its time, you know…”

Early evening, she ambled across the main square and bounced down an interminable flight of steps to the quayside, where she looked around for a lively bar. Coming from one, the distinctive chugging rhythms of a two-step dance band. She pushed on the door and walked straight into another adventure. The place had a distinctly un-French feel. All the tables were occupied, and the rest of the floor space was covered by people who were standing around drinking, mostly cider or beer. The band was playing traditional Breton dance music with a

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contemporary folk-rock line-up: fiddle, accordion, electric guitar and bass, drums and assorted esoteric percussion instruments. Out on a small dance floor, a few couples were whirling around in each other’s arms. Becci headed for the bar and ordered a cider in her broken French. Looking around, she caught sight of a man staring over his shoulder at her. He was about the same age as her, tall and distinctively-dressed in a crumpled linen jacket with a white silk scarf. Their eyes made contact. His were ice-blue stilettos, glinting alone in the middle of the crowd. He swung around to face her and smiled. Disarmed, she smiled back and that was obviously enough of a cue for him to walk over: “You look like a sunset,” he said, in perfect English. Becci laughed and spluttered some of her cider back into the glass. “You like my new top then?” “I do.” “Is that why you came over?” “No. I figured you must be the only other Brit in here.” “How did you know ?” “I heard you ordering your cider.” “Was it that bad?” “I’m afraid so.” They spent the rest of the evening together, even made an attempt at dancing. Midway through, they slipped away to a Crêperie down the street for a few galettes, returning to carry on drinking. Their stories and jokes acquired first a hint of ambiguity and then a lot of innuendo. Becci, the inveterate pick-up artist, made the first move. “Are you trying to get into my jeans?” It was now his turn to splutter into his

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drink. “Well ?” When her smile went from wry to beaming, he answered, “Yes. But obviously not that well.” “I thought so. Drink up. I’m taking you home.” Back at her room, very drunk, they collapsed on the bed and disrobed shambolically before sliding under the covers, where they just about managed a long soft kiss that held out the promise of a very nice morning. Becci’s last sensation before falling asleep was relief that he hadn’t attempted to fuck her for the sake of his ego. They woke at mid-day and Becci was the first to shuffle down the corridor for the bathroom. When his turn came, she collapsed back on the bed. She lay on her stomach, her head on her arms, half asleep again already. Her long T-shirt had risen up to the borders of modesty. “If you’re still like that when I get back, you’re in trouble,” he said as he left. She raised one knee and grinned. He returned to find that she hadn’t moved. He leant over to kiss her closed eyelids before tracing a path around her ear to the nape of her neck. He flicked her hair up and began to kiss her there, softly and slowly. She wriggled a little, opened her legs wider and pressed her hips hard down on the mattress with a thrust of her pubic bone. He climbed up on to the bed, to take hold of her neck in a kiss so strong it was almost a bite. He raised her T-shirt over the cheeks of her bum. A little circular massage of each in opposing directions soon revealed his glistening target. Up on the palms of his outstretched arms, he entered her gently and took her hard. At the peak of

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his desire, the muscles of his inner thighs trembled against her warm compliant skin. With a slow movement of his arms, he gently lowered his body-weight down on to her back. His hands crept under the T-shirt and cupped her breasts. “Piglet!” “I had to have you...” “It’s OK… Sometimes.” In an act of blatant revenge, she rolled over and threw him on to his back. Sitting upright, her knees either side of his chest, her hands on her heels, she eased herself forward and back. When the feeling got strong, she leant forward, pinned his shoulders to the bed and – with her golden hair dancing on his face - she took him, just like he had taken her: hungry, ardent, selfish. “Quits.” She flopped down on to him and they rolled over again, to lie sideby-side in the sticky aftermath of their exertions. They spent the rest of the weekend in that hotel room. He checked out of his, and they lived on convenience food, French style, for two whole days: more galettes, slices from the Pizzeria and cooked chicken from the charcuterie, all washed down with cheap wine in square plastic bottles from the little épicerie on the corner of the street. They laughed a lot and made love even more, though it was nothing like that first glorious expression of lust. From gentle beginnings, they soon arrived in that languorous, stratospheric space that envelops you when you do it five or six times a day. They hardly talked. Just day-to-day things. No histories. Their unspoken collusion in this silence about the past was a perfect fit for the circumstance: temporarily suspended in a hermetic capsule, time and the rest of the world didn’t exist for now.

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Monday morning, over breakfast outside on the quay, it was time to exchange notes. Becci was improvising. Unusually for her, she didn’t know what she wanted by way of an outcome. He just looked pained, his eyes become deep wells of confusion. Next thing, they found themselves drifting inexorably towards a parting. He could have joined her on tour for a while; he seemed to have time on his hands. But they ended up deciding to call it a holiday romance. They swapped phone numbers all the same. One last kiss, warm and lingering. Becci ran and climbed into the Aurelia, turned the key and pointed North, towards the Pink Granite coast. She turned and waved, after putting on her sunglasses so he couldn’t see her eyes. But they wept all the way to Perros-Guirec, another sailing centre, where she’d hang out for a couple of days, lazing on the beach and listening to tall stories in the yacht club.

***

By the end of her first day back at work, Becci found that she was having second thoughts. The owners, a husband-and-wife team, were forever screaming and fighting, and the air of mutual antagonism had filtered down to the staff: the kitchen and restaurant sides were in a permanent state of undeclared hostility. This manifested itself most energetically during the weekly banquets laid on for visiting clubs and societies. With all of the staff under the pressure of having to serve up to two hundred covers nigh-on simultaneously, the cooks’ idea of fun was to put too much of the thin broth they called soup into the three burning hot bowls each waiter had to carry. Then they would laugh at them as they crossed the floor with a

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wince as the heat made its way through their white cloths, until they were screaming inside with the pain. Invariably, some sloshed over the edge as they served and they’d then have to clear up. Becci decided there must be something better out there. The staff local was the pub where she’d started out. As well as the young crowd in the bar, it had a restaurant that was altogether more relaxed, with friendly management and an interesting clientele. Once asked, they gave her a job with an immediate start and an extra shift off. She decided to keep up her weekly visits to The Minstrels, though from now on she’d go at lunchtimes. First visit, Doris walked straight over and chastised her. “What happened to my postcard?” “Sorry. I didn’t send any. Never seemed to find the time.” “How come you’re so tanned?” “You won’t believe this, but the weather over there was fantastic.” “Now I am envious. Good time?” “OK. I could have done with a companion though.” “Stop it… Didn’t you meet anyone?” “One guy.” “Go on…” “Mind your business!” Doris laughed. “Like that, was it?” “Like that. Just a weekend of passion.” “I could do with some of that.” “I told you…” “Enough! Where do you want to sit?” Becci looked around. Over in one corner, her surfer friends, the ones from the

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pub, had pulled together two tables. There must have been about eight of them and they’d made a real mess. In the opposite corner, a tall young girl, dressed in black and bespectacled, was reading a book over her coffee. When she looked up, Becci smiled at her and it was returned, though sheepishly. Becci nodded in that direction. Doris disappeared into the kitchen. Becci wandered over to the noisy surfers’ table to say hello. She ignored Mr Quickly and left in haste for the other corner. As soon as she’d sat down, Becci picked up the menu, put it straight back down again and glanced over at the specials blackboard. Rosa came over with her pad. “Sorry Rosa. I haven’t decided yet, but could I have a beer, please?” She rocked back on her chair, locked her fingers together at the back of her neck and stared up at the ceiling. Another time, another place, who knows, she might have stuck around with that guy. It was his eyes though. Something about the eyes. The beer arrived. She poured it slowly and took her first sip with the relish that accompanies the heady sinfulness of drinking alcohol during the day.

*****

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Eighteen

South out of Nançay, the road to Bourges climbed away from the Sologne and passed through rolling hills and dense deciduous forests. Dafydd settled into an easy drive. “Something doesn’t stack up,” said Aurélie. “I know what you’re going to say. Why the five-year gap?” “So he did two years at Nantes, moved to Orléans and stayed in Nançay for three more years. After that, he headed south as far as the Mediterranean. It could have been a holiday and he could be living anywhere between here and the coast. Or even somewhere else. Then five years later, he retraces that journey, only this time he sends a series of postcards highlighting the way. Why?” “I think it means he does live down South. Two cards from Cap d’Agde five years apart? For some reason, he had to make a journey north…” “Well, it couldn’t have been back here, or surely he would have contacted Iain. And the guys in Nançay.” “OK then. Paris. A summer holiday. And on the way home, he has a sudden flash that it’s high time he lets us know he’s still alive.” “Could be.” “Any other theory?”

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“Not right now.” A journey of 200 kilometres separated them from Clermont-Ferrand, their next destination. They were guided by the third postcard, an aerial photograph of the Puy de Dôme, tallest of a cluster of extinct volcanoes located to the south west of the city. It had been posted in Le Puy-en-Velay, capital of another region 150 kilometres away. Dafydd made another route-map for Aurélie and between the exchanges of place names and road numbers in return for directions, they attempted to make sense of the phrases in on the next lead postcard. By now, he knew it by heart:

‘Visited the Perrin boy’s library here, to try and find out where the arse went. Probably somewhere with less catholic tastes, but the surroundings are quite cathartic.’

“I reckon he is sending us to a library for help on this first section,” said Aurélie. “That’s kind of him. How come?” “Perrin is not a common name. I can’t think of a single famous one.… Tell me the date again, and the one from down South.” “May the twentieth and June the fifteenth.” “OK. That’s less than a month. Obviously he didn’t settle in these parts. He’s just taking you along his way.” “So we’re looking for a route, not a destination?” “That’s what I think.” Early evening on the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand, they located a modern

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hotel at the entrance to an industrial estate and took a room. In spite of the outdoor bathing and a peremptory shower in Nantes, three days on the road had taken their toll. Aurélie wanted nothing more than to take a bath and change her clothes. Dafydd wanted to see the Puy immediately. Unloading their luggage from the car, he speculated: “There’ll be two libraries here then? The city and the university?” “I don’t know. I do know the ‘here’ on the card is ambiguous, but I think he means the other Puy.” “How come?” “Because he’s already standing on one Puy and pointing in the direction of the other. Why would he double up?” Despite the commonsense thrust of her statement, he chose to ignore it. The air in the car, already hot and clammy, bristled with tension as they negotiated the rush- hour city’s western suburbs, before picking up the track that encircled the wooded slopes of the Puy. Silent and introspective, Aurélie remained in the car while Dafydd walked up the last stretch of grass to the rim. Up there on his own, almost 1500 metres above sea level, a clear view took him out of his cloudy mood and over the Auvergne to the hills of Cantal. He leapt back downhill to the car. “Look, you’re probably right, but think of it this way: if you’re not, and we go straight to Puy-en-Velay to find nothing, we may have to come back here again.” “I understand that. But I’ve just got a feeling about this.” Early next morning, Dafydd opted for the university library, a hunch based on nothing more than Sean’s academic background. Just one young Assistante guarded the precious stock of manuscripts. When Aurélie enquired about a Perrin with a literary or artistic bent, the girl took a relaxed stroll over to the banks of steel drawers that housed the card-index system. Finding the Ps, she returned with a couple of

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cards.

“We have an Abbé Pierre Perrin, seventeenth-century poet, and an Émile Perrin, nineteenth-century painter and art critic. The rest are scientists, politicians, military men . . . ” “That’s it?” said Aurélie. “What about Perrin as a christian name?” “We don’t classify by Christian names.” “Isn’t there a publishing house with that name, specialises in the work of historians?” “Éditions Perrin.” “Do you classify by publisher?” “Yes, but the information we hold is not very comprehensive.” “Can we see those, and the other Perrins please?” Reluctantly, the girl complied. Dafydd jotted down a few references and, after seating Aurélie at the central table, went off to collect an armful of obscure books and the P section of an encyclopaedia. He was looking no further than the biographical details, to see if there were any connections with places in the region or just beyond. Half an hour later, and he had little to share. “Well, from ‘Éditions Perrin’ and the seventeenth century, we have the illustrious letters of Madame la Marquise de Sévigny, who spent a couple of seasons in Vichy, taking the waters for an unnamed malady… That’s just up the road, isn’t it?” “Yes.” “Then there’s Claude Victor Perrin, Marshal of France, senior commander in both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Though originally from the Vosges, in

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his later years he settled in Valence, capital of the Drôme Département. And that’s it… No wait… Madame de Sévigny’s daughter, the principle beneficiary of her letters, married a certain Comte de Grignan, and in fact the mother died at his chateau in Grignan, which is also in Drôme. There may be something there.” “I call that nothing.” “It’s a straight line from here through Le Puy to Valence, then due south to Grignan, with Alès not far beyond. We can have a think on the way.” “This doesn’t add up. We’re looking for a male connection, possibly young, and what’s more in Le Puy. ‘Boy’ and ‘here’ are what it said on the card.” Back in the car, the atmosphere became tense again. They’d wasted the best part of half a day and Dafydd could sense that Aurélie was bored. He tried to defuse the smouldering firecracker by his side. “This is our first argument, chérie.” “You’ll get over it.” “So…” Dafydd was hanging on to the word while he tried to think of something else to say. “…. And so… Off to Nutwood we must go….” “What?” “Rupert Bear Annual, 1958.” “What on earth were you doing growing up on Rupert Bear?” “Maria bought me the Annual one Christmas in London. I wasn’t much taken by the illustrations, but she used to read it to me at bedtime. I thought the verses were magical. Those rhyming couplets…

… his name was Roderigo and

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Sam met him in a far-off land.” “I must have missed that one.” “Probably because you were eighteen at the time.” Beyond Clermont Ferrand, the air temperature climbed into the lower 30s. The roof-tiles turned from grey to red, the sky turned even bluer and Aurélie lightened up. A stretch of easygoing dual carriageway took them halfway. They turned off for Le Puy-en-Velay and gradually climbed up on to a broad treeless plateau. As the road approached the city in sweeping curves, Dafydd caught momentary glimpses of it, nestled inside the rim of a volcanic bowl with its three giant basalt plugs, a church or statue on top of each one. Wandering through the sixteenth-century streets of the lower town, they picked up a map and headed for the library. This time, a more helpful woman on the desk scrutinised the postcard and listened carefully to Dafydd’s enquiry about Claude Perrin and any possible connections with Le Puy. With no -one else to attend to, she took the card and disappeared into a back office, returning instantly with an invitation to wait.

Seconds later, a comfortably scruffy-looking man in his early sixties, with a twinkle in his eye and a wry smile on his face, emerged from the office. He was carrying a book in one hand. As he approached them, the Assistante announced in a whisper: “This is Monsieur Guillemot, Head Librarian.” “And your lucky day, young man…” They all exchanged greetings. He stood next to them on the public side of the counter, put on his reading-glasses and opened the book.

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“Local Medieval History happens to be one of my special interests; I sometimes give talks to our historical society… The man who wrote this card?” “My brother.” “He’s clever. I like him. Right. Perrin Boias was a medieval mercenary. And a smart one. In 1362, he seized this town and held it to ransom. Over the next year he pillaged the countryside around, conducting raids as far south as the Languedoc. He was only removed the following year after a seven-week siege which ended with all his forces being slaughtered. He alone escaped, through a secret passage.” “He was based here then?” “No. Le Monastier. It’s about twenty five kilometres south.” “Anything else?” “Perrin Boias was English.” “Now that is funny!” “These mercenaries, and there were many, came from all over Europe and were brought in by warring lords to settle their silly feuds. Once installed, and as a sideline, they established what we would now term ‘protection rackets’. That is to say, extracting payments from dukedoms and the like in return for doing nothing except desisting from further destructive activity in their cities. It was institutionalised extortion. They made fortunes.” “It goes back that far then?” “What? Extortion? It goes back more than 5,000 years, to the birth of the city. Beyond money, when stored grain was the only currency of value to an outsider.” “The Perrin boy’s library indeed.” “Well, he sent you straight to me.”“Not quite. He pointed in the vague direction of you. But I’m glad we found you all the same. Thank you.”

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“It’s been a pleasure, sir.” Early evening, they arrived in Le Monastier, a small isolated town clinging to a hilltop overlooking the valley of the River Gazeille. After checking in to the one hotel, they took dinner there and wandered through the narrow winding streets, some of which were closed off to cars for a fête. It seemed like the whole town was out. An outdoor bar had been set up in the main square, a band was playing and people of all ages were dancing. The atmosphere was drunken and cheerful, and the two visitors made to feel welcome, bought numerous drinks and addressed in an incomprehensible tongue, part French, part local Auvergnat patois. Their spirits lubricated by the easy-flowing beer, Dafydd and Aurélie warmed to the festivities, whose purpose – even after several attempts at questioning – was still a mystery to them. Only four days had passed since they set off from Dinard, but it seemed more like weeks. Throughout this time, despite the attractions of the scenery, the local people and the food, they’d been driven by a sense of urgency to complete the job in hand. Now in the mood for partying, they talked nonsense with strangers; danced a few reels with six-year old kids; bumped into other people and drank more beer, before retiring drunk and exhausted to their waiting beds. Dafydd came round to find Aurélie in his bed, spooned up behind him. His free arm reached behind his back to find one of her hands, which he placed over his chest. “What are you doing here?” “Just wanted to make sure we’re still friends… I had that dream again last night.” “The javelin one?” “I was in a chateau this time, out on this huge lawn. All my old schoolfriends

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were there, drinking aperitifs and eating snacks off little china plates. I could see them all, but I knew I was blind. I was trying to find Maria, and they kept getting in my way, coming right up to my face, taunting me because I couldn’t see where I was going. I was looking everywhere, round corners of the building, behind trees and bushes, and always these faces waiting for me, mimicking my terror. I picked up the javelin…” “It was just there?” “Yes. I didn’t even run. I just threw the thing with all my might, making it spin like a bullet. The crowd of faces before me parted like the Red Sea and everybody looked up to watch it arc skywards, only it flew straight and true just a couple of metres off the ground. Then when it got to the end of the lawn, it carried on, whooshing through the tall meadow-grass until it hit the archers’ target waiting on the horizon…” “Bull’s-eye?” (ignore all this. the correct form is bullseye) “Of course. I turned around and everybody was gone. Except Maria. She was sitting on these stone steps, smiling and clapping.” “I wish I had one of those.” “What, a magic javelin? You can always borrow mine. We just have to dream together.” Over late breakfast and aspirin on the terrace, they pondered their next move. Dafydd proposed a walk round the town. After two hours without inspiration, he installed Aurélie at a pavement table outside a café in the main square, then strolled through the empty bar and up to the counter. “Beer and a crème de menthe, please.” “Tap or bottle?” The patronne spoke in English with an east coast Scottish

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burr. “Tap. You from Inverness?” “Good guess.” “Nice. I spent a summer there once. What you doing here?” “Long story. How about you?” “Looking for someone. He’s been missing a few years.” “Is this where you get the photograph out?” She said this in a pretty good take-off of a Bogart accent. Dafydd laughed and decided he would. While he fumbled around in his pockets, she continued: “Who’s that outside? Your girlfriend?” “No. Someone I picked up along the way.” “She’s blind?” “Yeah.” “Lotta help she’ll be.” She raised a hand and cupped her mouth. “I’m so sorry.” “It’s OK. What do you think then?” “How old is this?” “Twelve years or so.” “I’d stick wid da blind dame.” That accent again. This time she winked. “We’re certain he passed through here. It would have been about a year ago.” “Before my time. Here.” She wrote an address on a waiter’s’ pad. “Try Mimou at the bar of the same name. Town gossip. If he stayed more than a few days, she’d know.” “Thanks. If we stick around, you can tell me that story.” Across the square and down a side alley, Mimou’s was starting to get into full

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lunchtime swing. Mimou took the photo, covered Sean’s upper body with her hand and stared at the face. “Nice eyes. Relation?” “Brother.” “Doesn’t ring a bell. Let me show the boys in the kitchen.” She returned with nothing. They went back to the café for another drink. Dafydd read the card out again. Aurélie pondered a while, then asked: “What’s this arse word? How do you spell it? … Ah, arrse.” The way she pronounced it, with a throaty ‘r’, it sounded terrific. “You’ve not heard it before? Bum. Cul. Applied to a person, it just means fool.” “Oh, like ass?” “That’s the American way. We call it an arse. In English, an ass is a donkey.” “Thanks.” “Hang on a minute… I’ve seen an old poster with a picture of a man and a donkey on it, in a shop window we passed last night. Wait here.” He dashed off and returned within minutes, breathless. “Listen to this: ‘Le Monastier celebrates the famous Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his ‘Travels with a Donkey across The Cévennes.’ “Hey, you guessed one.” She blew him a kiss. “Found one, more like. I’ve read it, but I’d forgotten where he started out from.” “And Sean too presumably?” “Yep. Another one I never got back.” “Maybe he’s trying to redeem himself with these cards.”

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“What do you mean?” “Find me, find your book.” “Hardly.” “What now?” “We make the journey of course. Remember? Find out where the arse went?” “Where did Stevenson end up then?” “St. Jean du Gard. I remember that now.” “This will be interesting. St. Jean was a Protestant stronghold in the eighteenth-century Camisard Wars.” “You’re showing off again.” “I can’t help my schooling… What about the rest?” “We’ll talk about it on the way.” Dafydd popped into a bookshop for a French copy of ‘Travels with a Donkey’ and bought it, for the frontispiece map which he compared with his Michelin. “Most of these routes were cart-tracks, and by the look of it only some were turned into metalled roads. We’ll just have to weave in-and-out of his journey. We haven’t got time for great long walks across the mountains.” “I’m relieved.” Destination St. Jean du Gard, via the occasional donkey-track, the DS slipped down the side of the valley, crossed the river and climbed the wooded slopes on the other side. High up on another open plateau, Dafydd was reminded of Alpine summer pastures. He could never figure out how you just knew when you were high up on the flat, but you always did. Maybe it was the size and shape of the sky. He locked on to peripheral vision mode and stared out through the windscreen till his eyes hurt, trying to fathom this little enigma, but gave up when he realised it really didn’t matter.

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A roadside elevation sign reminded him that they were now higher up than the summit of Ben Nevis. Lazy cattle munched on ready-cut grass out in the open fields, leaving clumps of bright blue cornflowers in the hedgerows. High above them, buzzards drifted in the thermals; kestrels hovered and swooped on unsuspecting titbits. He commented on the scene to Aurélie: “I do like your creamy-white cows. They’ve even got little bells round their necks.” “Well they certainly know how to accessorise. Your English brown and white things look like a hooker’s handbag.” “Ah, you mean our Guernseys…” “Yes! I remember when we used to take the boat-train through Kent to London. I used to shout through the window at them: ‘Blend, fucking thing! Can’t you coordinate with Nature! What awful match with field…!” Dafydd grinned. (this is Aurelie slipping into bad, ie. Frenchist English. Which she does occasionally. It’s intended. The road swerved and dipped through cool shady pinewoods back down to another river. Crossing a bridge, Dafydd looked over the parapets to the tumbling water twenty metres below, where he could see young children splashing around naked in pools and waterfalls. A sign on the bridge told him it was the Loire. “I’m impressed. Five days on the road and still we can’t get rid of it.” “It’s the country’s longest river, a thousand kilometres end-to-end.” “I can’t think why Stevenson chose to make this trek in winter. I remember he had an awful time with the weather. Now look at it.” “It’ll be even warmer down south… Can you draw a picture of St. Jean for me?”

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“West of Alès about twenty kilometres, deep in the hills, on the banks of the Gard.” “Isn’t the next postcard Alès?” “That’s right.” “Remind me where it is.” “Makes a wide triangle with Montpellier and Avignon at the base, Nimes midway between them.” “That’s what he’s talking about. Montpellier has a longstanding tradition of religious tolerance. Less catholic tastes? Jews, Muslims… Protestant? Quite cathartic?” “The Cathar Heretics. Of course. But I thought they were concentrated much further West, around Carcassonne and Albi?” “Those are just where the most famous incidents took place. The Cathars were strung out along the Mediterranean all the way from Spain to the Ligurian coast of Italy. And in the Wars of Religion, Montpellier and Nîmes were both Protestant strongholds.” Down in the valley of the Allier, they followed the winding riverbank until Dafydd decided to make a minor detour: he’d seen a point on both maps where Stevenson’s trail coincided with their road-bound journey. He pulled over on a lay-by and walked across to a track which led into the wild hills and forests of the Goulet Mountain, source of both the Rivers Allier and Lot. After checking it out, he drove along it several hundred metres for a better view. Looking south towards the mountain peaks, all of them around 1500 metres above sea level, he wondered if Sean had made this part of the journey on foot; he’d certainly had enough time between those two postcard dates. Maybe they should walk a stretch after all? “No! Anyway, how would you get the car moved on?”

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“Hadn’t thought of that.” The road left the river and climbed the mountain, dropping back down for the last stretch to St. Jean. By now it was even hotter, into the mid-30s. The ubiquitous Cévenol chestnut tree, its fruit for centuries the staple diet of the locals, made an appearance and stayed. Occasional outcrops of bright white limestone rock and screed whispered news of the approaching south, the beguiling south. Dafydd had dispensed with his hangover and was feeling on form. “You know, we could find him before the day is out.” “I doubt it. There’s still a lot of work to be done on that last card.” On arriving in St. Jean, they picked up some food and climbed down to a quiet spot by the river, where they sat on some rocks in the shade of a pine tree. Dafydd squelched his way through a white-flesh peach while he looked down on his map. “We may as well skip the turn-off to Alès and head straight for Nîmes.” “Shouldn’t we try and work out the last postcard before we do that?” “We have to go somewhere in that direction.” “To Alès first then. For some shopping... Dafydd, will you make me a map, please? I feel lost without a proper one. Nothing too big, folder size will do, just the South from Perpignan and Toulouse to Marseilles. I need one of my own.” She hated it whenever she heard him unfold a Michelin, felt left out. These Z things were OK. Did the job. Bare navigation. But they were a bit like naïve maps, the kind that people draw when they give you directions. All distorted. Nothing but a line, stretching out from the reader’s point-of-view, like a river with its tributaries calling in along the way, and nothing marked beyond human sight. Those early explorers, their maps made it clear that they understood more about what lay beneath their ships than what spread out beyond the line of trees on the shore.

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But she needed the whole picture, and preferably one with a frame. She needed relief and spatial accuracy, signs and symbols that spoke to her of landscapes natural and man-made, rivers hills and towns, the odd church and burial mound, the relationship of one place to another, accurate to the kilometre… well maybe ten, at this scale… “You understand, don’t you?” “Of course.” “You’ll need another Michelin, a piece of board, some fuse-wires, drawing pins…” “I’ll make you a map, OK.” Coming down from the hills at Anduze, proud ‘Gateway to the Cévennes’, they stopped for a coffee in the tree-lined main square, busy with cafés and restaurants. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Dafydd asked. “From what I hear, Alès is a crappy mining town.” “It was also a Huguenot centre and it’s what the postcard depicted.” “We can get all your map bits in Nîmes.” “But we’re not sure that’s the right place to start. You shouldn’t be in such a hurry.” They finished their drinks and drove off towards Alès. By now, the greengrass farms of temperate north west Europe, familiar and comforting to an English eye, had slipped away, to be replaced by dry scrub bare rock and grey-green candle pines silhouetted against the deep blue sky. Occasional lonely cicadas shrilled from the trees, compensating for their lack of numbers with sheer sonic power. Heady scents of wild thyme, lavender and pine penetrated the open car. Under the full

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influence of a relentless sun, the bleached roof-tiles became paler and dirtier. Olive groves and vineyards dominated the plains south of the town. And still it got hotter and drier.

Returning from a hardware store in the southern suburbs with his cartographic accoutrements, Dafydd set about cutting and glueing. “Can I have a little border please, a centimetre in, otherwise I’ll keep falling off the edge. You can use the thin wire for that. The coastline medium, the main rivers thin, then the main roads thick, minor roads medium. Oh, and the southern boundaries of some mountains, thin. OK? Do the big cities first.” “How big?” “All the pPréfectures. Then show them me to me them.” (you’ve missed the point here. He can’t do this your way. she’s blind. She’s asking him to take her hand to the map). He led both her forefingers to his work and a big smile slipped across her face. He’d also bought some different-sized plastic nozzles from those piping bags used for cakedecoration, and now these formed the central peaks of the mountain ranges.

“It’s beautiful. Thank you. Now can you work in the next-tier towns, the souspréfectures, with smaller pins. But don’t tell me… Arles?” “Yes.” Lodève. Béziers. Castres. Millau. Le Vigan. She named them all. “I think I can handle a few small towns as well. Go on…” See note He handed her the completed map and watched. As she faced up, radiant, at the roof-lining of the car, her fingers tripped lightly over the topography of southern France.

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“Thanks. I know where I am now.”

Nineteen

Au-delà des Alexandrines, des Marguerites et des Molières, on voit clairement que la ville neuve est vieille et les salles qui attendent hantées par les fantômes de celles qui n’y habitent plus.

(Beyond the Alexandrians, beyond the Marguerites and the Molières, it can clearly be seen that the new town is old and the expectant rooms haunted by the ghosts of those that live there no more.)

The picture of the Cathedral of Saint-Jean-Baptiste cathedral in Alès, an eighteenthcentury monolithic slab, its view mercifully broken up by rows of mature plane trees, had been posted in Cap d’Agde, France’s biggest seaside resort, modern brash and sprawling. Aurélie had no idea why this last card was in French and registered her bafflement at the use of the feminine person for ‘the alexandrians’ and ‘those’. As with all the Romance languages, mixed groups acquire the masculine person in French; female-only collectives are quite rare. Dafydd was choosing to ignore this, even though he knew full well that Sean would not have made a grammatical error. Before driving off, he took one last look at his map. “There’s a town called Villeneuve just across the Rhône from Avignon. Have you been there? Is it old?”

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“Parts of it are, certainly. We passed through it one summer holiday, travelling south down the west bank of the river. That’s where we crossed over.” At this point he became more excited. His itchy forefinger raced across the map. “I think I may have this in one…” “Go on…” “The ‘Alexandrians’ is obviously a reference to Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’, another book I never got back. Durrell lives outside Nîmes now…” “You and your writers’ houses. Shall we call in for tea?” “It’s a bit early. Let me finish… There’s a district just outside Nîmes called Marguerittes and it’s on the road to Villeneuve.” “Can you spell that? Marguerittes? …OK… What about Molière?” “That’s the difficult part. There is a place called Molières not far from here. Just outside Le Vigan, but that’s in the wrong direction.” “It’s where Molière got his name from apparently. His real name was Poquelin. He changed it to protect his father. Just dropped the ‘s’.” “Maybe Molière’s troupe did a season in Nîmes or Avignon then?” “Could be.” “I’ve also got a theory about the ‘celles’. What if he bought a disused convent or a girls’ school in that area – that would make the ghosts female –and then did it up as a place to live? Plenty of people do that kind of thing.” “I like that bit.” They headed south for Nîmes, less than an hour away. Beyond Alès, the Mediterranean landscape returned, though the rocks here took on an eerie vermilion

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hue, exaggerated by the late-afternoon sun. Dafydd was enjoying the ride and feeling quietly pleased with himself. Aurélie concentrated on her map. Just outside the city, she spoke up, though hesitantly. “I think we should go the other way.” “What?” “West out of Nîmes.” “Look. I know it seems too easy, but maybe that’s his reward for getting this far.” “What about the postmark? It’s miles away from Villeneuve. In the other direction.” “Maybe he took a holiday in Cap d’Agde?” “Just to confuse you. Would he be that wilful?” “Perhaps not.” “You’re letting him send you on a red herring.” “Wild goose chase…” “Ach. Your English metaphors. All right. A wild geese chase. There are too many holes in this: Molière, Marguerittes, and most of all the Alexandrines.” “Do you have something better?” “Only this. An alexandrine, as well as being a female Alexandrian person, is also a line of poetic metre. Most famously, it was used in La Jeune Parque.” “Never heard of it.” “It’s possibly the greatest French-language poem of the twentieth century, the equivalent in esteem I suppose of Eliot’s Wasteland. Paul Valéry…” “Never heard of him. And I’ll bet Sean hasn’t either. Look, this is far too highbrow. Why would he send me leads I wouldn’t recognise? There’d be no point in

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the exercise then. He wasn’t to know I’d have a literature freak onboard. This is boring.” “No, it’s not. It’s exciting. I just think he wanted to make you work harder. You’d get there sooner or later without me. You must trust me, even if you don’t get it.” “Go on then...” “Valéry grew up, and was buried, in Sète. He also lived and worked in Montpellier for a while.” “And the rest?” “That’s all. For now.” “That’s it?” “You owe me one.” “I do?” “For the wrong Puy.” Dafydd turned west at Nîmes. He picked up a short stretch of autoroute, to give Montpellier a miss, and flew across the flat plains, salt-marshes and lagoons of the Languedoc coast. Coming into Valéry’s Sète, he caught sight of the sea for the first time. Beyond Sète, they tore along the slender isthmus that separated the sea from the Bassin de Thau, a ten-kilometre drive with water on both sides. “What’s the next place?” “Agde, then Béziers.” “I haven’t got Agde.” “It was getting crowded down there.” “Have you been there?” “No.”

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“Well, all the old buildings are black, built from volcanic ash, basalt. It’s called the ‘Black Pearl of the Languedoc’. And I think the local women are known as ‘Black Pearls’ too.” “So?” “You may know a marguerite as a daisy, but the Greek origin of the word is pearl.” Dafydd smiled. He had to. Once in Agde, they stopped for a coffee and checked out the dinky local museum. Aurélie wanted to confirm her black pearl thesis and sound them out for inspiration on Molière. The girl at the desk, knowledgeable and helpful, nevertheless displayed a hint of snooty competitiveness when questioned: “Pézenas is mad about Molière. He only spent four or five seasons there. But the townspeople consider it to have been his second home. They’ve got a museum, statues, hotels, street-names, everything…” The afternoon was fading fast as they drove into Pézenas. The girl was right. The place was full of Molière. After a short walk through the crumbly old Jewish Quarter they ended up in the main square and sat down at a table outside the Café Molière. Feeling as if they’d earned it, they treated themselves to a glass of Kir Royale. Dafydd read out the postcard one more time. “At least there are some rooms waiting for us. That’s good to know.” Aurélie was map-reading again, and thinking out loud: “OK. Beyond Sète, beyond Agde, and now, beyond Pézenas…” Her fingers described a couple of radials away from the town… Béziers… Bédarieux… Clermont l’Hérault. “…on voit clairement…You can see… Clermont! That’s cheeky.” They both laughed, drank up and set off for Clermont l’Hérault. Along the way, Dafydd stopped and consulted his guide-book to try and locate a hotel. Thinking

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they might be there for a few days, he was looking for a decent one: “This one’s on the outskirts of Clermont. It’s got an outdoor pool, lovely gardens with lawns and palm trees and a highly-regarded restaurant.”

On the Southern edge of the town, they picked up the winding road that follows the foot of the scarp of the Haut Languedoc all the way to Carcassonne. After only a couple of kilometres, a tight bend bridged a wooded brook and suddenly the entrance to La Cigale was upon them. An unmade-up road took them between tall stone gateposts and along by a hissing stream to the car park. The eponymous lone cicada was generating more sound than any living thing was entitled to. After they’d checked in, the owner picked up his ring of keys and led them through a gated arch set in a stone wall, where Dafydd experienced his first shock. A cobbled street, narrow and steep, led down between two rows of artisan cottages. It was the closest thing he’d seen to a seventeenth-century motel. The doors gave directly on to the street, and beside each one grew an oleander, in one of several different but equally nauseous shades of pink. Inside the tiny one-up one-down houses, the first floor had been cut back to create a mezzanine, with bed, dressingarea and writing desk above, bathroom and sitting area below. Once they’d installed themselves, Dafydd picked up his camera and went off for a stroll while Aurélie rested. On the way in, he’d noticed the featureless side wall of a tall church-like building to the rear of the gardens. Traversing the lawn past the deserted swimming pool, the smells coming from the kitchen reminded him he was hungry. Out on the canvas-covered dining terrace, busy waiters were laying up in preparation for evening service. The garden was better-looking than its photograph. Thickets of bamboo, more

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than six metres high, separated different areas. Palm trees and specimen shrubs, among them more oleander, dotted the neat and very green lawn, which was edged in places with small informal flower-beds. Everything that possibly could be was in bloom. Beyond the pool, a bank of climbers and dwarf pines nestled against the footings of the building he’d seen before.

The only way to the other sides of the building led back out of the hotel and, briefly, on to the road. Immediately adjacent to the hotel entrance, an avenue of mature chestnuts led to a crossroads, where –turning to his left –he found himself before a monumental stone arch which held up a pair of massive iron gates, now open. Over the arch was the inscription: ‘Honneur au Travail’ (Honour to Labour). The whole scene was reminiscent of a Neoclassical Auschwitz. As he passed through the gateway, he shivered and wondered what he was walking into. That first building to his left was indeed a chapel and it fronted on to the main square of a walled town. More tall trees created dense pockets of shade, with the occasional burst of sunlight highlighting the cobbled road-surface. Public buildings and elegant three-storey residences made up the other three sides. For street-lighting, they had converted coach lamps attached to the walls. Ahead, leading away from the square, a grand avenue of more trees and similar houses led to a large factory-like structure. A street sign informed him that he was standing on the Place Louis XIV. Pale blue shutters edged every window, most of which were open, lace curtains fluttering in the breeze. The town was clearly inhabited and in full use, though there was no-one around and not a single car in sight. This stark fact added to the sense of time-distortion, of a kind he’d only experienced once before, in Venice.

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He took a side-street that led from the square. The architecture here was more modest, the buildings down to two storeys, but all of the doorways, most of them surrounded by climbers, displayed a proud individuality which seemed at odds with the workaday aura of the place. There were no front gardens or pavements, but each house had tubs of flowers and an iron table-and-chair set outside on the narrow street. At last he caught sight of human life: ahead of him, an unshaven fat man wearing a grey-white singlet and dirty blue work trousers was sat barefoot at a table outside one of the houses; an equally malattired woman was serving him an early evening dinner. Dafydd greeted them and asked for the name of the place. Villeneuvette. Little New Town. It echoed round his head as he continued on his perambulations. He discovered more side streets and squares; more houses, more factories, a school, a warehouse; spacious public gardens and a 50-metre long body of water far wider than a canal, which he took to be a reservoir of some kind. It felt like a privileged magical history tour. Back where he started in the main square, a steep alleyway took him down under a bridged building to the hotel rooms. Aurélie was still asleep. While he fumbled through his travel guides, he tried to wake her up. “It’s almost time for dinner. Guess where we are.” She came around to hear him reading out loud: “… social experiment… model workers’ town… built in 1670 by private initiative… taken over in 1677 by Colbert, Louis XIV’s ambitious Finance Minister… a manufactory for high-quality textiles to compete with England’s… destined for the Orient… once employed 800, housed 300… finally shut down in 1954… less than 100 live there now…”

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“Aurélie, this hotel is on the edge of a late seventeenth-century new town.” “Villeneuvette? Of course. I’m so sorry. I overlooked it.” “We’ve still got time for a swim before dinner.” “Saves me having to take a shower. I smell like a sheep.” She pronounced it ‘ship’. “I know.” Outside the reception-office, in the shade of a fig tree, the owner was sat at a table with his wife, sipping an apéritif. Dafydd approached them to ask if they had heard of any young people acquiring a redundant convent or girls’ school in the area. “I don’t think so. Why?” Dafydd handed him the postcard. “How else could it be ‘celles’?” The man smiled. “I don’t know about a convent, but there is a ghost-town not far from here. And it is called Celles. Take a seat.” He poured them each a glass of rosé from his bottle. “About ten years ago, the authorities decided to dam the local river and create a lake, for irrigation, sailing, fishing and so on. Obviously they evacuated all the villages that lay in the path of the rising waters, but when the waterlevel finally settled, they found they were a couple of metres out in their calculations. Celles alone stood proud and dry several metres from the shoreline.” “Wonderful! That is so French!” Aurélie elbowed him in the ribs. “Sorry.” “That’s OK. You’re probably right. But listen to this. Confronted with two obvious options, that is to say, re-housing the evacuated residents or demolishing the place, they chose a third: leaving the villagers in their smart new homes and the place as it stood.” “And now?” “It’s becoming very dilapidated. Occasionally you get day-trippers or nude

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bathers visiting. And the ‘soixante-huitards’, hippies, camp out there in the Summer.” “How far away is it?” “Four or five kilometres?” “What time’s last orders in the restaurant here?” “Varies. As long as we know you’re definitely coming, say 10-30?” “We’ll be back by then.” The road to the Lac du Salagou took them through a bizarre landscape of wild bamboo forest and plantations of yet more oleander, which suddenly opened out into stark hills of bare red rock and soil, as fiercely eroded as any in the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl, and which tumbled treeless into the shallow lake. The whole place had a barren, almost Martian feel to it. Up on the north shore, Dafydd pulled over to look across one finger of the lake to the ‘waiting rooms’ of Celles. From there, the ghostly village looked like the set of an Italian Western. Despite the lack of vegetation, the cicadas were still singing in his ears, adding to the other-worldy atmosphere. Coming round the last bend in the little road which served the village, he pulled over on some gravel beside an old concrete road-sign, looked ahead and laughed. “What is it?” “This road we’re on, which skirts the village, it obviously used to be a through-road. Now it just disappears straight into the lake. Whoooo-ooosh……….!” “Describe it to me, please.” Dafydd didn’t know where to begin. “I’ll give you a guided tour. There’s not a soul in sight.” Most of the houses had been stripped of their roofs and pretty much anything else of value: wiring, copper tube, sound wood, all had gone. Exposed thus to the

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elements, the timbers that remained had rotted down to the point of danger. The 60s street-lamps had been stripped too, leaving bare ends of cable and rusty electrical components hanging from their fixtures. They wandered off down a side street and cut through an alley to the village square, two sides of which looked over the lake. Here the cobbles, low stone walls and plane trees had been impeccably maintained. As was the little one-room church with its baby bell tower, and the one-room Mairie next door. Some brand-new wooden benches had been placed under the trees and against the walls, obviously for the enjoyment of visitors. Already, they’d been carved with love-hearts and names. Dafydd and Aurélie continued on their circuit until they arrived at a superior dwelling of three-storeys, with its roof and windows still intact. It alone had a walled front garden, which although tiny was approached through imposing stone gate-posts topped off with fancy finials. The once fine wrought-iron gate now hung askew from its hinges. This house must have belonged to the main man of the village. The big oak front door was ajar and from inside came the sounds of people laughing and chatting over the driving riffs of The Doors’ ‘Roadhouse Blues’. At Dafydd’s insistence, they walked inside, down the still elegantly-corniced hallway to the rear reception room, from whence the music was belting out. The incumbents, a group of soixante-huitards all in their late 20s, were sitting cross-legged on the floor. As they looked up, Dafydd went straight to it: “I don’t suppose any of you knows a Welshman from around here, name of Sean?” “Who wants to know?” “I’m his brother.” At this point they all stood up to welcome the strangers with a sincere

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politeness, shaking hands and introducing themselves. They were a raggedy bunch, but cheerful and friendly. Yes, they knew Sean, had done for about five years. Some were good friends. They used to do the local markets together, he with his woodturnings and sculptures, they with their other crafts: leatherwork, embroidery, pottery, macramé. “Does he live down here?” “He still calls it home, but about a couple of years ago, he moved up to Paris, to take a job with EdF. He comes down for long weekends, to work on the house and take a break.” “And you know where it is?” “Sure.” “Do you know when he’s coming down next?” “Now that’s difficult. I’d say he comes down once or twice a month, but we never know when. He just turns up and checks in.” “I think I’d like to see the place. Is it close? Can you give me directions?” “It’s on the other side of the mountain. About half an hour?” Dafydd just wanted to sit down for a second. He hadn’t imagined this last stretch being so easy. But the others were all standing up now, gathered in the centre of the room, exchanging stories about Sean and insisting on making tea for their guests. “Does he have a girlfriend?” “He did for some years, girl called Adèle, But they split up. Since then, noone.” “Not again…” “Now he just lives for his work and the house.”

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“I know the feeling.” They explained that Sean had bought a share in a once-prosperous but now decaying farmstead. It consisted of the main house, a substantial résidence de maître; some stone barns; and an attached outbuilding, once used as stables and servants’ quarters. Thankfully, he had decided to take that, because the others still hadn’t done a thing to the house, while his part was almost completed. They were told it was called La Plaine, a bit out of the way but signposted, and that they would first pass through a tiny hamlet where they should ask for RoseMarie. They left after another half an hour of chat, though it had been worth it. Sean no longer felt quite such a stranger. For ten years, their relationship had been in a coma. Now random fragments of his recent experience were falling into Dafydd’s consciousness, shiny trinkets into a jackdaw’s nest. “Nice ghosts,” said Aurélie, as they walked back to the car. It was a slow and difficult journey, made up of narrow lanes and hairpin bends. Driving over the pass which cut between two peaks, the landscape changed dramatically as they dropped back down into the cooler, wetter climate of the north face. The maquis just died out. T: the dry bare rock, scrub and pine-trees gave way to deciduous bushes and trees with ferns at their feet. Water trickled down gullies by the side of the road. Silence took over inside the car, until Aurélie asked: “What are you thinking?” “How did you know I was thinking about anything?” “You just do, don’t you?” “I guess so. I was pondering on the notion of chance. Wondering where I’d be if I hadn’t bumped into you. I got as far as some dirty old basement flat in Orléans. I’d

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probably be a whacked-out junkie by now, trying to work out what I was doing here.” Aurélie laughed. “It’s too late for all that. You just have to deal with me.” They arrived at a village and, following their guides’ instruction, took the one route north for a kilometre or so. At the side of the road, a hand-made sign - looking like it had been written by a child - was staked at ankle-height and pointed down a gravel track. Dafydd swung left and pulled into another century. The hamlet, four dwellings in a square formation and half a dozen facing each other down a side track, was in an advanced state of dereliction and appeared uninhabited. One of the houses had been built into the hillside; its ground floor – once reserved for livestock – now housed an antique tractor, some rusty agricultural implements and a broken car. Two sides of crumbling stone steps, without any guardrails, led up to the front door, its paint surface long peeled away. At the base of the steps, basking in the last of the evening sun, an old ginger cat opened one eye to take a look at the new arrivals, and then closed it again. Up on the hill, a clump of mature trees gave shade to the rooftops. At the foot of the buildings, wild shrubs and saplings had taken hold of the masonry, which at ground level had fallen away in great chunks. In the shade of the one stunted oak tree in the little square, a dog lay on its side, deciding whether to get up and make a fuss. Eventually, it raised itself on to its legs, walked halfway to the car and turned back. Dafydd got out and shouted, hoping for signs of life. After a few seconds, the door opened and an old woman appeared on the threshold, dressed in black from shawl to shoes. A few hens bounced out from the gloom behind her, past her legs and on to the steps where they squawked and flapped. First he waved, but this elicited no reaction. Then he spoke again. “Are you Rose-Marie?”

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“Who’s there?” she asked. Dafydd crossed the stretch of caked mud to the foot of the steps and climbed them, despatching the hens on the way. He introduced himself as Sean’s brother. “You must forgive me. My eyesight is not so good.” “My friend in the car is blind.” “Ask her over.” Aurélie found her stick and headed for Dafydd’s voice, planting herself at the foot of the steps. He was right in the middle of a lie, explaining how they were in the area and had decided to drop in. “He’s not here.” “I know. His friends told me. Do you know when he’s coming down next?” “I never know. He just arrives.” “I don’t suppose you have his phone number?” “Pouff…what would I do with that? I have the electric light, but no phone.” Over her shoulder, he could see that she’d been doing some ironing. A brown cloth-covered flex curled its way from the iron to the light socket above. Right beside the doorframe, the cover of the ancient power-supply box was hanging loose. The whole room crackled with electrical danger. She invited them inside. Dafydd walked back down the steps and took Aurélie’s forearm, to prevent her from falling over the edge. Inside, the unlit kitchen was dark and cold, even though some logs were burning in an old iron range. A few more hens bounced around on the table and the two wooden benches set beside it. Every surface was covered in layers of chicken-shit and feathers. She shooed the hens away and slid a kettle across the stove. “Would you like some coffee?”

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“No thanks. We’ve just had one,” he lied again. Dafydd was trying to formulate a plan on his feet. There were two more days to go before the weekend and - it would seem - a 50% chance of Sean turning up. “I was wondering, do you think he would mind if we waited for him, in case he comes down this weekend?” “How do I know you’re his brother?” “You don’t. I suppose I could tell you things that only the two of us would know.” “He never talks to me about his past life. Only the things of today… But you know, I haven’t always been near-blind. Do you have the same long curly eyelashes?” “Yes. Yes I do.” “And the slender fingernails of a woman?” “Yes.” She stretched her arms out to feel him, running her forefingers over his eyes and then transferring them to his hands. She gave him the spare key. “Just take the track opposite for about a kilometre. It’s a dead-end and there are no turn-offs. My son brings milk, eggs and bread in the mornings. Do you want some?” “Yes please.” Back in the car, they were both full of questions. Aurélie started: “How can a place be so cold, in the middle of all this?” “It must be a combination of things: the north-facing aspect, the fact that it’s dug into the hillside, all that shade… Do you think she really recognised me? I don’t.” “It was a game. She must have had a good feeling about you. But she couldn’t

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express it. So she went through with that little ruse. I can understand it.” “I’ve never seen such raw poverty in my life. I can’t begin to describe it to you.” “It’s OK. I smelt it and I’ve seen it before. Many parts of France are still like this.” It was a bumpy track, sometimes crossing dried-up gulches strewn with rocks. Most of the time, Dafydd drove at walking pace. Coming round a bend, he saw the house for the first time, situated at the foot of a steep scarp that climbed a few hundred metres behind it. Facing north east, it too was in the shade and had an equally chilly appearance. A motionless mist clung to the top of the hill. In front of it, the broad square plain, which obviously gave the place its name, stretched for a couple of hundred metres until it became dense forest on three sides,. Emerging from the car, they both shuddered. The coolness and shade were unexpected and initially unpleasant, but the last of the sun shone down on the eastern flank of the woods and the hills beyond, warming up the scene. The main house was without glazing and had sprouted saplings and weeds from the drainpipes and guttering. Round the back, across a small cobbled courtyard and set at right-angles to it, Sean’s place looked at once fresh and ageless. The red-tiled roof was brand new, the walls recently rendered, the new blue shutters sturdy and bright. At ground level, next to the entrance, two sets of French doors had been built into the spaces that once let in the horses, carts and carriages. Dafydd put the key in the lock and turned it. Through a small functional lobby, they walked into a spacious interior typically southern cool: whitewashed walls carried a few prints, mostly black-andwhite photographs; the whole of one wall was devoted to books and magazines; the porcelain-tiled floor had a rug in the middle; and muslin cloth floated in front of the

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dark hardwood door and window frames. All the textiles - the rugs, curtains and throws - sported vivid primary colours. At the far end of the ten-metre room, a whitehole fireplace spanned by an old oak lintel and with an iron grate inside it, provided the centrepiece. On the wall adjacent to him, an incongruous though working Victorian barometer hung between two oil paintings. The furnishings, again mostly dark hardwood, were simple and functional in design. A rough-hewn slate worktop rested on the hand-made wooden kitchen cabinets. Chairs, tables and occasional side-pieces hinted at a modern Spanish look. The one long sofa seemed Scandinavian. To Dafydd’s surprise, recalling Sean’s chaotic nature, the whole effect was tidy and clean, the only clutter on the writing desk. Halfway along one side, an open staircase led up to the first floor. Dafydd took it, to find the upstairs unfinished. The stud walls to two large bedrooms were waiting to be clad and the bathroom plumbing waiting for its fixtures. Now he could see why Marie had told him about the shower at the end of the house and a toilet on the other side of some bushes. He went back down to draw a picture for Aurélie. She already liked the feel of the place, although she was a bit annoyed about the lack of a bathroom. She figured she’d cope. Dafydd took her hand and they went back outside to look for it. The far gable-end of the house had a chrome pipe running up the wall to a shower-rose. It drained into a pool of smooth pebbles retained by a low stone wall. Dafydd left her sitting on it while he went in search of the toilet. Just beyond the shower, a prominent mound, covered in a dense thicket of bushes, concealed a canvas-covered earth closet with a clear view over to the mountains beyond the woods.

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He sat down to discover that the scenery was marred by a more sinister aspect: a convey of military vehicles, one with a giant missile on its back, was snaking up the hairpins towards a massive steel door. As they arrived, it slid aside to let the mountain consume them and then closed again. Back at the car, he took one last look at the house and another out over the plain. Halfway across, it was severed by a ridge with an invisible hollow behind it, the kind of feature that messed up all the perspectives and could be spectacularly dangerous for a driver on a country road. From out of the hollow, a line of wild boar, slim, brown-haired and good looking, appeared on this midway horizon. Two adults and half a dozen little ones, their noses twitching. He squeezed Aurélie’s forearm and whispered: “Shhhh… there’s a family of pigs just in front of us.” “Are they sniffing the air?” “Yes.” “They’ve come to say hello. It’s their place too.” He was thinking back to that rabbit. “Do you reckon you could catch one?” “No! There’s a season for that and it’s not now. Besides, I’m not the chasseuse I used to be….” He tried to imagine her as an Amazon huntress. “Salade de tomates, du pain, du vin tomorrow night then.” “It’s OK… I like it here.”

*****

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Twenty

For the trip to St. Ives and their first gallery, James put on his best behaviour. Once astride Richard’s hip, he treated each painting like a mirror, reached out a fascinated hand to try and touch it. Lucy took her wellies off and tip-toed around in her socks. “These are really haunting. And look at the prices! Why haven’t I heard of this guy?” “I don’t know. For decades, he was very underground. Then out of the blue, his work took off. Apparently, he’s hanging about in government corridors and Loire chateaux now… Even the Palace has a not-so-complimentary portrait hidden away.” “

What are all these photos here for?” “Those were taken by his wife. She’s dead now. Died in a car crash” “That’s sad… Nice that he carries her work around with him though… I love

the old Paris nightlife scenes.” “I prefer the portraits… So restrained, wistful almost. She only ever used available light; so they’ve got this grainy, soft-edge quality that seems complimentary on the surface, but they also have a lot of depth, an insight into the subject’s inner life. I can’t think of any other photographer who gets that look out of their subjects.” “Listen to you. How come you know so much about art? “I went to Art School, didn’t I? I like to keep some interest going.” “You keep it quiet.” “I’m just a cook now.” Like many chefs before him, in a line that ran all the way back to Escoffier,

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Richard had benefitted from a general education well beyond the ostensible needs of kitchen work. He’d been to boarding school and college; he spoke good French and not bad Latin. He knew his culinary history and he’d cooked his way around the world, from Nice to Melbourne to the Caribbean. These things didn’t secure him the job when he went for an interview at L’Infinité, but once the essentials were out of the way, John the owner – who came from a similar background – thought they’d provide a lively add-on and the occasional poetry. Together, over the years, they instigated the quirky use of French as the main language in the kitchen and bounced the odd timely aphorism off each other – in Latin. Much to everyone else’s annoyance. Lucy used to feel slightly under-schooled. “Is that where you met Caroline? Art College?” “No. Foundation year at Bideford. Then we went down to Falmouth together.” “Where you became lovers?” “Yep… Hey, what’s all this about?” “Just interested. Why did it end?” “Another long-distance casualty. When I jumped ship to go to catering college in London, she stayed on throwing pots. Her loose eyes got the better of her.” “But you stayed good friends?” “Sure. Why not? Ex’s sometimes make the best of friends… All the heartache. All that intimate knowledge. It doesn’t have to go to waste.” Just then, James started to wriggle and moan and screw up his face. “Bugger. I think he needs changing already.” “Want me to do it?” “Go on then.” She passed him her bag of baby things.

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They emerged from the toilet wearing satisfied grins. Lucy took hold of James for a kiss and a cuddle. Straight away, he turned and stretched an arm towards Richard. She handed him back with a smile. “You seem to have made an impact. Most of my friends with kids whose fathers are still around get no help at all.” “Kids don’t need fathers; they need fathering.” He rubbed James’s nose with his own and made him chuckle. “That doesn’t mean it has to come from their natural fathers.” “That’s an odd way of looking at it.” “What about all the separated families? Couples who can’t conceive? Working women who can’t afford childminders? Surely, you have to have a belief-system that takes those people into account.” “Like the early days of the Russian revolution or Kibbutz-type communal rearing?” “That kind of thing. Children are children of the earth, not just of their parents.” “I suppose so. But haven’t you ever thought about having a go yourself?” “I never met anyone I felt like tackling the job with. Besides, I’m too selfish.” Next morning, Richard woke up before the other two. As he emerged from the bathroom, with a white towel wrapped around his lower body, Lucy was just coming round. He walked over to the dresser to splash some man-ish things over his body and returned to slip down the aisle between the two beds and pick up his watch. After casting a quick sideways glance in the direction of James’s cot, Lucy threw open a triangle of bedclothes and extended her arm to him. As he took her hand, she pulled him towards the bed. She unravelled the towel knot and pulled the two sides apart.

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“I thought so!” And with that, she pressed the soles of her feet down on the bed, lifted her hips and yanked her nightdress up to her waist; pulled him on top of her and wrapped her arms around his back, before kissing him greedily. She too was ready and he fell inside her effortlessly. Their coupling was urgent, ecstatic and over very quickly. Afterwards, they rolled over and lay on their stomachs with their chins propped up on their hands. “Why me? I’m just a cook.” “Oh shut up. You can’t keep pulling that bunny out of the hat.” “I’m serious. You could have anyone. Your dad’s a knight, one of the top six architects in the world…” “I don’t fuck my father, Rich. What are you going on about?” “I dunno.” “Maybe that’s why, then. Maybe it’s because you’re just a cook.” “Well then. I’m… touched.” “Actually…I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.” she said. “Actually… I could tell. First time since…?” “Yes, as it happens. But I meant with you, not with anyone.” “Oh. Sure. Hey, me too.” “Charmeur…” “Give me ten minutes and let’s see if we can’t go a bit more slowly next time – James permitting, of course. Would you be up for that, miss? ” Lucy licked her forefinger, ran it over his eyebrow, down his nose and across his lips, which she kissed softly. But on this occasion, James did not permit. All that noise had penetrated his sleep and touched his hunger centre. Lucy lifted him from the cot and took him back to her bed. Sitting up, leaning against the headboard, she

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slipped a strap down off one shoulder and took him to her willing breast. Richard was enjoying watching, though he tried not to stare. He reflected on the design of the near-perfect system that is the human body. Oh what a brilliant touch those pleasure buttons, uniting mother and child in the furtherance of the species. Without them, an Earth littered with dead babies, thrown screaming and starving from trees, caves, apartment balconies… James swapped breasts. Richard was finding this whole moment almost erotic, but out on the leading edge of his thoughts he detected a dark place that he didn’t want to explore. Though he did allow himself the flippancy of vowing to ask Lucy if he could taste some of that milk next time they were horizontal. He’d never done that. After James finished his breakfast, they went downstairs and took theirs. Richard was furious with the weather, not least because it placed upon him this constant and tiresome requirement to make simple decisions about what to do next. The prospect of locking themselves away in their room all day struck him as deeply depressing. They decided to check out the town, browse a few shops and look for a place to take lunch. Battling their way down a deserted side street, Lucy grabbed hold of his arm and yanked him into a shop doorway for a prolonged, rain-soaked kiss. Across the pavement, the gutter had become a boiling rivulet, transporting its bobbing cargo of lightweight trash towards the nearest drain. A sudden blast of wind propelled a scattering of noisy litter down the middle of the street: plastic bags and bottles, tin cans, packaging and paper. Once their lips parted, they moved on. Further down the street, they found a quaint and very English place that looked inviting. It even had a fire going. As they walked into The Minstrels Tearooms, a bell jingled above the door. Over on the left, a

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group of surfers had pulled together two tables and were engaged in boisterous refreshment. On the right, two lone diners were sat at separate tables: one, a girl of student age, was sipping coffee and reading a book; the other, a young woman about thirty years old, had just started on a beer. The waitress who was clearing away came over and indicated a table by the window. Richard looked across at the two women, smiled and nodded. They both returned his low-key greeting in similar fashion. The waitress returned from her station with some menus. Richard ordered coffee and scanned the menu while they drip-dried. Hehe! Drip-dry is a verb here.

*****

Twenty One

By the time they made it back to the hotel, it was dark, true countryside black, untainted by ambient urban glow. Out on the brightly lit terrace, a few of the tables were still occupied by the last of the diners. They treated themselves to four courses of typical Languedocien fare: foie gras on tiny toasts; an entrĂŠe of sliced squid, stuffed with a mix of sausage meat and chopped tentacles and served with a creamy saffron sauce; duck breast cooked pink accompanied by some potatoes and a few roast vegetables. Dafydd made a note of the strange squid dish on his pad. After coffee arrived, the owners wandered over to enquire about the trip. Dafydd invited them to sit down. The patron called for a bottle of Armagnac and four glasses. For such a short absence, the story was long and the couple were genuinely

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intrigued by it and the history of Dafydd and Aurélie’s journey. After two hours’ drinking, and with most of the bottle gone, they had to leave, drunk again. They made their way up the stairs on all-fours, Aurélie to collapse on her bed, fully clothed, Dafydd to sit on the edge of his. First instinct was to take a sheet and cover her. Then he realised how hot it was up in the roof. Opening the little port-hole of a window made no difference. Aurélie wriggled and managed a few slurred words. “I’m hot. Undress me please.” He eased off her shoes, tried unsuccessfully to arrange them in a tidy shape on the floor and gave up. Moving up the bed towards the centre of her body, he started on the waistband of her skirt, which he unbuttoned and unzipped. He returned to her feet to slide it off. Despite being almost unconscious, she was helping all the while, raising her hips and rolling over when necessary. He only managed to get her shirt off with the same degree of co-operation: lifting her head, arching her back, extending her arms beyond her shoulders. These clothes he discarded messily, flinging them one-by-one across the room. His disrobing stopped at her cami-top and knickers, though he could still see her tiny nipples and the dark shadow of her pubic hair showing behind the thin white cotton. For the first time, she seemed unbearably precious. He’d never felt this much for anyone before, except Helydd and Sean, and they were both gone. He leant over and kissed her forehead, while he stroked the top of her hair. She gave him a sleepy smile. Back on his own bed, he managed to undress himself and lie down. Seconds away from oblivion, he looked up and saw images of Sean, with him on Caerphilly Mountain when they were kids. High up a hundred-foot tree, nestled in its highest V

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with a commanding view of nothing but leaves. Or curled up safe inside a giant rhododendron bush. Lying down in tall meadow grass, witnessed only by butterflies helicopters and helicopters butterflies.

Dafydd stopped the car in front of Rose-Marie’s house. She came to the door with a battered tin jug full of milk, a paper bag full of eggs, butter and a loaf of bread. Inside Sean’s kitchen, he set about making scrambled eggs. It was midmorning. Back at the hotel, they’d skipped breakfast and just drunk coffee in their room. After the meal, Dafydd made a quick inventory of the cooking equipment and dry foodstuffs in the place, before sitting down at the table to make a shopping list. Aurélie was quietly feeling her way around the space. He stopped what he was doing and watched her carefully. Instinctively, she gravitated towards the writing desk, a safe place, located in a crucial position furthest from the door, which controlled the entire room. Of course. They were going to be holed up here for a few days and he hadn’t even begun to think about any of the arrangements. He got up and moved Sean’s papers into a cardboard box, so that she could spread out her books, notes and personal effects, all within easy reach. Upstairs, the two incomplete bedrooms housed a large mattress apiece. Dafydd dragged one down, asking her where she wanted it placed. It went in a corner near to the desk, with a space in-between for her clothes. While Dafydd made up the bed, she unpacked her things. Then she started jumping up and down on it. “What shall we do today?” “Well, Marie said it’s market day in Lodève. I thought we could buy some food. She also said the best place for wine is the local Co-operative. We can pick up one of her plastic containers on the way out. I’ll ask her if she wants anything.”

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Aurélie was still trampolening, and a little breathless. “We’d better get a move on then. Most markets start winding down at noon.” Some of the stalls were already being taken down when they arrived, but there remained enough of them, still colourful and busy, to fill a larder. Lying on a culinary boundary between the shores of the Mediterranean and the interior of the South West, the region had plenty of local food to offer. Dafydd was looking forward to a few evenings’ cooking and he shopped enthusiastically: fish and seafood, beefsteak from the cattle of the Camargue, portions of duck, charcuterie, cheeses, salads and vegetables, enough for four. They bought a pastry at one of the open-air cafés on the square and looked out on the friendly chaos before heading towards the wine co-op. On the industrial outskirts of the next town, a corrugated iron canopy sheltered the dusty old chemistry-set from the sun. They backed up under it and handed over the container. At the foot of a giant stainless steel vat, the wine man pulled on a hose and took hold of the petrol pump gun to fill up Dafydd’s first gallon of wine. Returning to the car, he unscrewed the cap to check for quality. Unlike the increasingly complex and self-confident wines that were emerging from the hills further south west, from Fitou and the Minervois, this Pays de l’Hérault stuff was light, soft and simple – perfect for quaffing. He took a big gulp. It was fine, but some of it went down the wrong way. In a fit of coughing, he spluttered a mouthful down his clean white T-shirt. Aurélie got out of the car to find out what all the fuss was about, and laughed when he told her. She got a cloth out of the boot and mopped him down, while the bemused wine man looked on. Finally raising his T-shirt to dab his chest, she located his cheek with her nose and brushed his lips with a kiss. It was a glancing touch, achingly light and brief, a first kiss right on the edge of the kind you’d receive from a

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sister or a daughter. Or maybe the hesitant one you’d give to someone who might become your lover. Dafydd registered a quiver of mild shock. Back at La Plaine, they stopped off at Rose-Marie’s to hand over her shopping. Out of politeness, they felt inclined to stay for a brief chat, but it soon became clear that she was ticking over on country time, on a longer wavelength than these two hurried Northerners. They slowed right down to meet her and ended up standing outside her front door for another hour. They wanted to hear more about Sean of course, but she resisted all hints in that direction, and instead supplied them with random moments from her past, which–until she became too blind and infirm to make the walk–seemed to revolve around the village church. Her faith shone through the outward desolation of her everyday life with a clarity and constancy that mocked their undeclared agnosticism. She was still in full flow when Dafydd had to bring the conversation round to more practical matters and ask for the rest of the keys. One of the stone barns had been fitted with a new wooden door. Dafydd felt it safe to assume that this one belonged to Sean. He unlocked it and stepped inside. It contained an array of building materials: plaster, sand and timber kept off the floor by old wooden pallets; a stack of logs; and rows of shelves holding various domestic essentials: light bulbs, candles, tools, rope and string, chemical products. Again, it was all very tidy and it put him in a doing frame of mind. At Aurélie’s request, he installed a makeshift washing line from the end wall of the house by the shower to a stunted oak tree a few metres away. Without prompt, he also knocked in some stakes and ran a line of tight rope from the corner by the door all the way to the canvas closet, so that she could feel her way there in a hurry if necessary. For dinner that night, Dafydd cooked simple and fresh: he sautéed some wild

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mushrooms in olive oil and garlic for a starter, and followed that with an approximation to a bourride, a local coastal speciality which the fish seller had recommended, handing him a recipe card and selling him a jar of rouille, the fiercely hot mayonnaise meant to accompany the poached whitefish, shellfish, bits of ham and diced vegetables. They had just enough room to tackle a small goats’s cheese. After clearing up, they both flopped down with their books, Aurélie on her bed, Dafydd on the sofa. She asked what he was reading. “Gracq.” “Of course. Can you read some out to me please?” He was thrown at first, but all of a sudden it seemed like a nice idea. He wondered why it hadn’t surfaced before. “I like. How far….?” “

Not far. I’ll go back to the beginning for you.” She fluffed up a pillow for him and he sat down beside her with his story. Next morning, he came downstairs to find Aurélie’s mattress unoccupied and

her white stick gone from its resting place. Shards of early sunshine probed the partly open doors. Presuming she was outside under the shower or over beyond the bushes, he made a big pot of coffee. Taking his over to the table, he sat down and relaxed with a book, notepad and pencil. There he doodled away with some idea bubbles, lines and arrows, trying to make something filmic out of these languid days. Gradually, he found himself feeling sweaty and distinctly unwell, to the extent that he wondered if he might be coming down with a fever. This was compounded by a thickening of the air, which constricted his chest and made his breathing more pronounced. Over on the wall, Sean’s barometre collapsed, to record the lowest air pressure he’d ever seen. The lengths of muslin in front of the open doors shivered. He

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walked outside and looked around. A morbid stillness had descended on the place. The hot humid plain stirred. All around it, the bright green leaves shuddered. A reconnaissance squadron of rooks flapped out of the trees and flew upwards to draw a huge warning circle in the sky, before returning to the place they’d started from. The new washing-line, hung with Aurélie’s Indian shirt and half a dozen pairs of white knickers either side of it, swayed gently in the breeze, like a child’s skipping rope gradually being prepared for a swift loop. As he looked on, the sleeves and body of the shirt filled with air and the swinging motion upped its tempo. Over in the next valley, dogs began to bark and whine. That’s when he heard it. He dashed across the field to the top of the ridge for a better view over the mountain. Coming towards him, a monstrous spaceship filled the southern sky. Its obscene extremities groped the surrounding hillsides. Billowing vapours in murky hues of grey and yellow blocked off the entire firmament. Explosive sheets of light ripped through its belching guts. Bringing up the rear, blankets of liquid, moving faster than a running man, flooded the ground below. In advance of it, a roaring wind descended from the mountain-top and engulfed him. Suddenly he thought of Aurélie and called out for her. With no response, he turned in every direction and shouted, until he heard the sound of his name, faint, from within the woods. He sprinted through the wind and rain towards the source. It was overhead now. The bloated folds of its grotesque underbelly fired missiles of forked light, attacking the hills all around him, picking them off one by one.

“Don’t move! Stay where you are! And keep shouting!”

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Just then, she appeared on the edge of the woods. Standing there out in the open, with her hair in rats’ tails, her clothes glued to her body and her eyelids closed against the slashing rain, she called out his name again. She’d wandered off to pick flowers for the house, navigating only by touch and smell. The endeavour had become so absorbing that she’d missed all signs of the impending tempest until it was too late. She was still clutching them, storm-drenched, expectant. As she felt his presence in front of her, she tossed them over her shoulder and her feet left the ground. Her arms wrapped themselves around his neck, her legs around his waist. The flowers described a perfect arc and plummeted head first to the ground. “You missed me then?” he joked. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to feel someone.” She squeezed him tight. Dafydd recognised an opportunity to be silent and he took it, holding her dripping-wet body close to his, until she hurt no more. Then he let her down gently and brushed past her to gather the scattered blooms.

“They’re lovely.” “I want you to dance me.” (another Frenchism) “OK.” “I mean, old-style, Viennese. Like Strauss.” “We call that ballroom.” “You would, wouldn’t you? Well ? Can you?” “My Dad was a great dancer. Women half his age would swoon at his feet.” “He taught you?” “No. I was too proud. I guess he moderated me. But I went to classes in my teenage.”

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“So is that a yes?” “That’s a yes.” “Can you do the polka ?” “Sure.” “OK. You dance together in a circle. You make a small circle with it and then you take that small circle and roll it round a much bigger circle. Three dizzy circles. It’s exhilarating when there are lots of you.” “You’ll do for now.” Aurélie waited, her right arm extended, her left hand on her hip. Dafydd took her right hand in his left, held her waist with his right, flowers still attached, and waited for her left to land on his shoulder. “We do: ‘Unter Donner und Blitz’.” “Of course.” “1-2-3-4… 1-2-3-4…” “You’re crazy.” The rain fell down in torrents as they danced off into a blustery wind, slowly at first but quickening as they gained dance-confidence and tuned into the rhythms of each other’s bodies. The diameter of the largest of the circles was a good thirty paces. After just one of those they were near-exhausted, but they went round one more time. Their separate gods, whoever they were, rose above them and smiled down on that field of green corn, on those two neutrons whirling around inside a field of atomic energy. In this place, at this moment at least, all was well. Back inside the house, while Dafydd dug out the biggest towel he could find, Aurélie went straight to her corner to discard her wet clothes and put on a pair of knickers and a long T-shirt of Didier’s that she occasionally used as a nightdress.

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“Turn away please.” “I already am.” “How do I know ?” “Well I suppose you could come and poke me in the back. Anyway, it’s too late.” “What do you mean?” “Nothing…” He went over and did the best he could with her unmanageable hair before setting her down on the sofa. Starting at her feet, he rubbed them vigorously to warm them as well. Then he parted her toes one-by-one and gently pushed up-and-down between them with a towelled finger. The last one done, he slowly eased his way under the soles of her feet and moved up to massage the back of her aAchilles , making her shiver momentarily. As he dragged the towel upward over her calf muscles, he slowed right down, and by the time he arrived at her knees, he was stroking the line at the back of the joint with a caressive touch. At that point, he raised himself on his knees and told her to slide forward. When her knees collided with the top of his legs, she parted them and continued, until her hips were balanced on the edge of the sofa. The T-shirt had stayed behind, and was now resting, crumpled up, somewhere in the region of her lower back. Dafydd found himself staring at the pearly-white V of her impeccably -tailored French underwear. He was stationed between her open legs now. He dropped back down on to his heels and gently brushed the towel over the tops of her thighs. When he graduated down to her inner thighs, her legs parted even further, her muscles twitched involuntarily. Now with a clump of towel in each hand and a long stretch between

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them, he moved up, almost against the elastic, to begin a circular motion with each in opposing directions, eventually prompting little slishing and clicking sounds to drift from just behind that V. Accompanying them, the sweet smell of warm woman. Dafydd knew exactly what was happening, but it had never been quite like this. He raised his head. At this point he would normally have looked into her eyes and leant over to kiss her, softly at first, becoming increasingly passionate. But her head was slumped to one side, her eyes closed. She was in another world, undoubtedly a pleasurable one, but it wasn’t the same as his. All desire drained from him. He stood up, dropped the towel on her lap and stormed out of the door, picking up some Gauloises on the way. Dafydd didn’t normally smoke, but he always bought a packet of the strongest local blend whenever he went abroad, just for the aroma and the sense of place. He leant against the high stone wall beyond the shower, raised one leg to press the sole of his foot against it, and lit one. Looking down at the ground, he prayed for it to open up, deeper than a diamond mine, just so that he could fall away from this pain. Aurélie appeared at the doorway and shouted after him. He spoke, softly, to let her know where he was. Without her stick, she stumbled past the rope fence and the shower bed to confront him. “What happened there?” “I don’t know. When I looked at you, I just lost it. It’s my problem, not yours.” “I know it is… It’s OK. We have plenty of time.”

The rest of the day, they languished in the oppressive aftermath of the storm.

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The cloudiness persisted until late afternoon. Silent and spiritless, they pottered around in the one room, having little to do with each other. Early evening, it cooled right down again. Dafydd lit a fire and prepared for dinner. Some of Sean’s haricot beans were bubbling away in a pot and he was chopping garlic for a cassoulet. Aurélie was playing her cello, a tune he didn’t recognise. “What’s that piece ?” “Variations on a Theme.” “On a theme of what ?” “You must guess.” There was a neat key change in there, which had a familiar resonance, but the rest escaped him. It echoed around inside his head, until he arrived at that point of infuriating mental torment when you can’t dredge up from memory the essence, and certainly the name, of a tune. He shouted out: “Enough !” Aurélie laughed, but she did stop playing, and went over to lie down on the rug with her back to the fire. Dafydd added onions and tomatoes, then two confit duck-legs and a Toulouse sausage, to his garlicky beans. Once it was all simmering, he put a lid on the pot and slid it in the oven. Aurélie stood up as he walked over in the direction of the fire and held her arms out for a hug. Wrapped around each other, the day’s tensions slowly dissolved. Dafydd didn’t know where the impulse came from, but right then from the centre of that chaste hug, he traced a stuttering line across her cheek and kissed her. Soft and lingering, it stirred them both to a ridge of unexpected pleasure. He reached out to touch one side of her forehead with his fingertips. “Follow me.” When her hand did the same, he ran his fingers across her hair, back towards

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one ear, whose question-mark outline he described. Now with one finger only, he traced a line down her neck and across to the centre of the nape, where he brushed the soft down below her hairline. They shivered, shoulders and spines in quick plastic movement. Hands passed over shoulders and upper arms; muscle and bone surrendered. His finger fell down her back over knobbly vertebrae until it reached her waistline. After hovering there a while, he gradually rucked up her T-shirt to place his hands inside and touch skin, travel across the valley of her waist, many times. Still inside the T-shirt, his hands slowly moved up her flanks to tufted armpits before cupping her breasts. He withdrew one hand and sucked on finger and thumb to moisten them before returning to draw round nipples, sending shock-waves to distant body-places. Everything he did, she followed, a fraction of a second behind. His hands travelled down her chest as far as the navel, parting there to take gentle hold of hips. He leant forward and kissed her again. It lasted until they could barely breathe. They separated and kissed again, hungrily. Hands back on hips, fingers hooked inside elastic to make a full circle, over belly and cheeks. Returning to meet up, one hand took one path across belly to silky hair, the other down the rift between cheeks. At this point different biologies forced a departure of actions, but the result was the same: both hands met up dead-centre underneath in a discovery of intense longing. They stood there a while, holding on to handfuls of each other’s desire, until he walked her over to the mattress and kissed her again. Coming to the end, he slipped one leg behind hers, gently nudged her upper body with his shoulder and knocked her clean off balance. AurÊlie giggled in mock outrage as they tumbled on to the bed, this

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time ready for each other.

*****

Twenty Two

Merde! That was stupid. Aurélie woke up early and Dafydd didn’t. She reached across his body for her toilet bag. One hand inside it, she stroked the dust off a packet of contraceptive pills with an inquisitive thumb. She pulled out the blister strip and made her way round the rectangular month. 1,2,3… Merde encore. She hadn’t bothered with them for days. Is ovulation linked to when you did come on or when you should have? She ejected a week’s worth and swallowed away. Water. Need water now… Her hand reached out to Dafydd’s head, found his hair via his nose, and ran her fingers through the curly bit above his forehead. He felt a bit like Byron might. This reassured her though she couldn’t think why. “OK mister,” she whispered, “I need to get up. I’m going to roll over you now.” She was wedged in the corner with nowhere else to go. She got no further than dead centre horizontal. He wrapped his arms around her and slipped inside her in two places. But then he didn’t move, appeared to go back to sleep. Aurélie let go of the long deep kiss. “You awake?” “Mmm... Just zeroing myself. Sometimes it’s nice to start from a point of stillness.”

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“Ah. OK.” His body tensed and sent a signal out along hers. It rippled and sent one back, triggering more liquid ripples. Aurélie grinned. “You seem to know what you’re doing.” “I like it when you arrive at a plateau and just stay there.” “Me too. Am I too heavy for you?” “Not at all. You’re weightless.” They lingered on that plateau for an age, until they could restrain themselves no more. The morning sun stole through the muslin drapes and gently highlighted their glistening bodies, one golden one white, curled around each other in sleep. Rose-Marie had mentioned that Sean would sometimes arrive Saturday evening after staying out late the night before, and then take a couple of days off the following week. Dafydd decided to wait until the Sunday morning. Within a few hours, the needle on the barometer rainbow-arched from quarterto stormy through 12 o’clock change to quarter-past dry. The next two days were spent mainly in the vicinity of Aurélie’s mattress, getting up only to shower, eat and drink. Mornings were best: they took breakfast and lunch outside, sometimes without any clothes on. The friendly boar family returned to the ridge a couple of times, making Dafydd feel a bit bad about wanting to eat them. Otherwise, not once did a visitor call. For their final night, Dafydd planned an easy steak-and-chips supper. After preparing the potatoes, he suggested an evening walk. Rose-Marie had mentioned a canyon a few kilometres away, beyond the woods, which was apparently worth a visit. ‘Apparently’, because she was informed only by reputation, having never seen it herself. She’d been living on the other side of the village until she met her late

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husband; after that, she confined herself to the home and its immediate environs. She’d never been to Paris or indeed Nîmes, Carcassonne or Marseilles. Only once in her 75 years had she stayed in a city. That was Montpellier, where she worked in service after the First World War. Aside from this exceptional foray, and her shopping trips into Lodève, Rose-Marie’s lifelong habitat had been the size of a parish. Dafydd found the canyon easily. Between the wooded plateau and the distant hills that looked over at the toilet, a tiny stream had patiently scored its way through the defiant rock. It had taken several million years to get this far, but the results were impressive, and the job was by no means done. The valley was dominated by familiar limestone formations, although occasional outcrops of the red material Dafydd had seen south of Alès and around the lake at Celles glowed in the early evening sun. Jagged cliffs fell almost vertically to the stream that trickled along, fifty metres below. Scrub and sturdy pines, silhouetted against the sky, capped the highest of the cliffs. Dafydd couldn’t stop thinking of Rose-Marie: all this on her doorstep and now it was too late. They walked the length of the cliffs before finding a safe pathway to the valley floor, where they sat down on a rock beside the stream. Aurélie broke the silence: “He’s not coming, is he?” “There’s still a couple of daylight hours to go.” “What will you do if he doesn’t turn up?” “Leave him a postcard.” “I mean, about your father….” “I don’t know. I’ve got an address, but right now I feel like telling him nothing. I might just pay him back. I couldn’t bear the thought of his bringing money into it.”

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He stood up and took one last look around. “I’ll leave Sean my telephone number. Who knows? He’ll certainly like it that we got this far… Hell of a back garden… I could get used to it.” Sunday morning brought the dull thud of anticlimax. Even after he’d packed and cleaned up, Dafydd hesitated. Maybe they should stay another week? Idly, he tried to work out the mathematical probability of Sean’s arriving the next weekend. Did it go up from evens to 2:3? Or was it unconnected probability, which stayed the same with every throw? In the end it didn’t matter. It was the prospect of the waiting, maybe for nothing, which deterred him. Only the out-and-out certainty of his coming would have kept him there. He went back inside one last time to say good-bye to the house and sit down at the kitchen table with a postcard of Dinard. On the back, he wrote out his best shot at a cryptic message, then leant it against the carafe containing Aurélie’s wild flowers. He got as far as the doorway before going back to tear it in pieces. ‘Fuck him,’ he thought. He called out to Aurélie asking if she had any more blank postcards. This time he wrote: ‘Came to see you. D.’ and didn’t leave his telephone number.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, as he got back in the car. “I don’t feel like making it easy for him. If he wants to contact me, he’s got to try a bit harder than he has done for the last ten years.” “You really want him to love you again, don’t you?” He drove off with more urgency than prudence, leaving a cloud of dust to settle over the front yard. Before departing from the hamlet, they stopped to say goodbye to Rose-Marie. He ran up the steps to return her jug and give her a present from Lodève.

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“He’s going to finish the bathroom and tackle the garden this year. He’s a hard worker.” “I can see.” “I don’t know what that other lot are going to do with the house. It can’t be nice living next to a ruin… I’ll tell him you called.” Like many a journey before this one, going home was carried out in a different manner and in a different mood from starting out. With none of the open joy that attaches to beginnings, Dafydd just wanted to get it over with. His route made use of the autoroutes this time, although he did plan to make time for a sentimental detour. Aurélie was clutching another of his hand-made maps, long and narrow, stretching all the way to Paris. She asked him to open the sunroof and put on some music. He rustled around in his pile of cassettes, until he found a Dr. Hook tape, which he whizzed forward until he came to ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’. He turned the sound up. Aurélie bopped up-and-down on her seat and sang along. Outside Montpellier, they dropped on to the Autoroute Languedocienne and flew along until they reached the turn-off for Avignon. There, instead of carrying on to Orange and the ‘Autoroute du Sud’ for Paris, they took the N road north which runs along the west bank of the Rhône to Valence and beyond. Aurélie was inquisitive: “Why are we doing this?” “I love this part of the South, all those road signs pointing to villages whose names you only see on wine bottles. Also, I once made a journey to Provence with a girlfriend, and on the way we joined up several of the places in Elizabeth David’s cookbooks, which are brilliant travelogues of culinary discovery. They’d all been named. We’ve just been through one, Remoulins, by Pont du Gard.” “That’s a nice thing to do.”

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“Yes, but you have to be British to understand just what impact she had on the eating habits of a nation. We are in debt, and I was in awe.” “Were your meals memorable?” “Every one.” “Is it that why we’re spending the night in Lamastre?” “For sure.” “Good. I’ve heard of this hotel.”

Around mid-day, Aurélie awoke from a brief doze and searched for her map. “Where are we?” “There’s a sign coming up. I’ll tell you… ‘Pont St. Esprit, Jumelée avec…’ What’s jumelée? Twinned?” “That’s right.” “…jumelée avec Haverhill…..That’s strange. Sean lived just outside Haverhill when he was up at Cambridge. I’ve been there. I can tell you, Haverhill got the better deal.” Aurélie wanted to know what time he expected them to arrive at the hotel. He reckoned early to mid evening. She also wanted to know what time Sean had been born. As it happened, he knew, only because his father constantly reminded him that it was within seconds of the shipping forecast coming over on the Home Service. Across the river from Valence, they turned off for Lamastre. This meant taking the winding road along the wooded valley of the River Doux up into the hills of the Ardèche. Along the way, she asked him to stop for a break. He pulled over on a patch of gravel beside the river. Outside the car, the air was as thick as a biblical locust-storm. The horizontal

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rays of a dying sun highlighted the trembling diaphanous wings of a myriad mosquitoes, moths and fleas. Always there, usually unseen, each now assumed an ethereal ochreous glow as it danced to the rhythm of a distant cosmic drum. Finehaired parachutes of dandelion, spotlit too, drifted carefree amongst these crazed other life-forms. A pool of sunlight rested on Aurélie’s lap. She felt inside her bag for a leatherbound book and lifted the cover to reveal the first of many astrological charts, bedecked with tactile paraphernalia. Filaments of fuse-wire separated the zodiacal segments. Delicate silver brooches headed up the constellations: lion, crab, scorpion, fish, each of the twelve a work of craftsmanship. These were set in minuscule coloured tiles, cut-glass jewels of amber, jade, ruby and sapphire, to represent the separate souls of the planets. Dafydd stared down at the page, at a host of exquisite icons reflecting the incoming light. As his strained eyes watered over, the forms and colours began to pulsate and meld into an iridescent whole.

“That’s beautiful. Where did you get it?” “Didier made it for me.” “Why the colours?” “I don’t know. It’s meant to be practical… This one is today’s.” “When did you put it together?” “Last night, while you were outside… I have some work to do before we eat.” Up in the hotel room, Aurélie sat herself down at the desk and spread the contents of her bag around the book of charts: a braille Ephemeris, a tactile protractor, a ruler, some more fuse-wire and a lump of plasticene. Though fascinated, Dafydd

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had to rest. He lay down on the bed and didn’t wake for an hour. Emerging from the shower, he sidestepped his clothes to take a look at her progress. She was engrossed and unwilling to talk. He dressed himself and headed for the door. “Where are you going?” “I don’t know. I thought I’d take a walk by the river and climb a tree or something.” “Please stay. I may need to ask you some questions.” “I’ll wash my socks then.” He picked up a book and stretched out on the bed with it. After another hour, she turned to him: “I have a horoscope for Sean. This is just background. Tell me if it rings true… He is an enigmatic character. He has a powerful rational mind, which probes deep for metaphysical meaning. He has wounds that make it difficult to get close to people, yet he is naturally outgoing and has the ability to engage, although people would say he was intense. Venus and Mars conjunct (correct astrological term; in any event the adj is necessary for the sent const’n) in Taurus means that he enjoys the fine things in life and appreciates art, architecture and crafts...” “I knew all that.” “But I didn’t.” “I suppose so.” “Do you know anything about the North and South Nodes in astrology?” “No. I don’t.” “Well, the North Node symbolises our journey in this life, the path we must tread to attain the highest learning. The South Node represents that which we have previously learnt, a place where we feel comfortable. As you can imagine, they are often in conflict. Sean’s North is in the 7th House and his South in the 1st. He needs to

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learn how to connect with people, and to spend less time in a conceptual bubble.” “I can’t argue with any of that, but it’s all very generalised.” “I agree. But there’s more detail. Espcially about his Moon, and Saturn…” “Aurélie, there’s only so much of this stuff I can take in one sitting.” “I’ve just spent two hours on this. In one sitting…” Visibly dejected, her body-posture slumped. “I know. But I don’t have your background knowledge. And I just don’t BELIEVE like you do. We can come back to it. Really. I’d like to… What’s that book?” On the floor at her feet, a sheaf of braille-written pages bound together by string, was topped by a front-cover in regular type. ‘The Sabian Symbols in Astrology’ by Dr. Marc Edmund Jones. His shameful diversion worked. She picked it up and stroked it. “This was one of my first books Didier had translated for me. I couldn’t be without it. Are you familiar with the Sabians?” “Weren’t they a Mesopotamian cult?” “I don’t know about cult. They were a civilisation of gnostic alchemists and moon-worshippers, based in the city of Harran on the River Euphrates for about 4000 years. Harran is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of astrology.” “And was Dr. Marc Edmund Jones their leader?” “Stop it! He drew on the Sabians as inspiration for his work in the thirties.” “Now I am interested. The history of Mesopotamia has always fascinated me.” “Can I ask you something? Do you have any strong childhood memories of times with Sean that are connected in some way to trees?” “Well, we were always climbing trees together in the woods behind our

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house.” “Anything more specific? Just one tree maybe?” “There was one time. I was eleven, maybe twelve. He must have been five or six. We were on holiday in Cornwall, staying with some friends of my uncle Huw’s. They had this big house on a hill overlooking the estuary. At the end of the garden was an oak tree, with a swing they’d put up for their kids. It had a long rope and because the tree was on a steep incline, when you got to the end of the arc, you were really high up in the air. I loved it; it was like being up in an aeroplane. But Sean wasn’t allowed to go on it, because it would have been too dangerous. On the last day, I took pity on him and sat him down on my lap. One of my arms stretched across his chest; the other held the rope. As we reached the highest point, my arm wasn’t strong enough to take our combined weight and I was forced to let go of the burning rope…” “Mais c’est affreux ça! You poor thing! What happened?” “We should have fractured every bone in our bodies, but the slope broke our fall. We just rolled and tumbled down the hill… I had terrible nightmares for weeks after though, flashbacks and ‘what if’ scenarios.” “Do you remember anything else about that time?” “Well, that evening, they threw a garden party to send us off. Loads of neighbours came along. As it got dark, Sean and I were sent upstairs to our bedroom. We knelt at the window looking down. Everyone was going around lighting candles in these paper lanterns that us kids had been making all week. It was magical.” “We should go and eat now, or we’ll be too late… what was the name of that place?” “Newquay.”

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Aurélie bounced down the stairs towards the dining-room. “I’ll give you the rest of Sean’s reading on the boat.” “What?” She was laughing now. “Later. I take it I’m still the navigator?” Over a warm salad of foie gras and wild mushrooms, she lobbed him the last of her hot potatoes. “We must go to England tomorrow, not Paris. I think we’ll find Sean in Newquay.” He stopped chewing. His fork was suspended midway between the plate and his mouth. When he eventually stopped coughing and gained some equilibrium, he asked: “Do you want to tell me why?” She reached down for the book he’d seen previously. “These Sabian Symbols are the poetry of Astrology. They’re beautiful. There is one for each of the 360 degrees of the Zodiac. Sean’s a Gemini, The Twins. And under his Moon sign, he has Mercury in Gemini. The symbol for the fourteenth degree of.Gemini is: ‘Two People Living Far Apart In Telepathic Communication’. You and I met in Dinard. And Dinard’s twin-town is Newquay. I’m convinced he’ll be there.” “That’s just daft. Look, Aurélie, I’ll admit that I find astrology faintly amusing and sometimes even interesting. And whenever I read up on it, the star signs do seem to have a good fit with the characters of my friends. I’ve also been told enough times I’m a typical Leo and I can’t disagree. But the slightest whiff of any predictive powers, and I’m out the door. It doesn’t hold up.” “You don’t think our innermost selves are influenced by the planets then?” “Of course not. How could they be?”

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“How could our little moon shift the world’s oceans twice a day?” “That’s just magnetism. Simple physics.” “And billions of women flowing out to meet the moon every month?” “Same.” “Magnetism, huh. That’s why we have iron in our blood is it?” “You’re being flippant now.” “And you’re being linear. You’re trying to apply male logic to something which won’t always accept it.” “Logic isn’t a male preserve. Besides, what else is there?” “Some truths present themselves to us in more random ways. The I Ching, for example.” “And the stars? For example…” “Yes. Listen to this. Sean will have an exact conjunction of Saturn and Pluto within a few days, and the Oracle tells me that the conjunction is at 10- – 11 degrees Leo…” “So?” “So the Sabian Symbol from tenth degree Leo is: ‘Children Play On A Swing Hanging From The Branches Of A Huge Oak Tree.’... Are you all right?… Eleventh degree Leo says: ‘An Evening Party Of Adults On A Lawn Illumined By Fancy Lanterns’.” “Pure chance.” “Maybe. But we should still go to Newquay for the conjunction of Saturn and Pluto.” Dafydd had always considered himself a rationalist, if only part-time, and it occurred to him then-and-there that if this woman sitting opposite him hadn’t been

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possessed of such a beautiful soul, he would have volleyed her through the nearest open window for issuing such hokum. Instead, he caved in to his crazy blind astrologer, summoning up the last vestiges of a fading grace to bestow on her an ironic smile. “OK then. But only because I’ve got the time. And if you’re wrong…” “There’s a chance of that. But what if I’m right? “I may have to change my world view.” Early morning after breakfast, Aurélie called Didier to tell him about the change of plan and Dafydd called the ferry company to change his ticket from Portsmouth to Plymouth. They only had space on the Roscoff day-run, but that was OK. It meant he had gained a night, and with 900 kilometres to go, he needed it.

On the last leg of the journey, between Rennes and the ferry terminal, Aurélie asked if they could spend the night in Lannion, rather than Roscoff. “There’s a great bar on the quayside where they host live music every night. I used to play there sometimes on my visits to Landivisiau.” “How far is it?” “About three-quarters of an hour from the ferry. We’ll just have to get up early. I might get to play for you.” “Why not. I could do with some nightlife.” With not much to choose from by way of hotels, they checked into an expensive one on the outskirts before driving into town. Dafydd parked under some trees on a patch of gravel right near the waterfront and they headed off for something quick and easy to eat. After a couple of gallettes, they headed for the bar. The doors were wide open and a thumping jug-rock band was just getting fired

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up. It was still early evening, but the place was packed. Dafydd went over to the bar and ordered a couple of ciders. At the end of the first set, Aurélie got him to take her over to the band-leader. He remembered her, and once he started talking, she remembered him. Of course she could join in. She asked to be put next to the bass-player, where she began to set herself up, fixing the pick-up and holding the end of the lead high in the air for an amp. One arrived immediately, a nice new transistor H & H, along with a stool for her to sit on. Then she got down on her knees to arrange her leads and her foot-peddles. She took a bright red orange and yellow canvas strap from her case and and clipped it to the base and neck of the instrument. She sat down on the stool in the classic cello-playing position and put on some dark glasses, ready. There was no spike on the base of the cello: it was balanced on her lap like an acoustic guitar and the bow was poised vertically. She’d already tucked up her skirt. As they slid into the first number, Dafydd didn’t know what to expect. And nor did the man on the sound-and-lighting desk. He’d neither seen nor heard her before and was scared shitless: there was hardly any sound up or light on her. This rock ‘n’ roll line-up, despite its rawness, had little space for any other instrument, but Aurélie found some, weaving her silky arpeggios around the riffs of the pianist and the rhythm-guitarist. As they echoed across the room, and the sound and lights went up, the audience was transfixed. When it came to the last number, as they careered towards the instrumental middle-eight, Aurélie sensed a key-change approaching. As if to verify it, and in a moment of typical musician-generosity, the double-bass man yanked the neck of his instrument in the air and hopped it forward a pace, without dropping a beat, to move closer and press his foot down gently on hers. Then he began to count her in…1, 2…

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Aurélie stood up and stepped forward, discarding the bow, which she thrust down her waistband, and the dark glasses, which she stuffed down her white Indian shirt inside her bra. Her legs slightly apart, her knees slightly bent, a towering sixfooter on the edge of the stage in a flowing white gypsy skirt, plucking a four-foot bright white cello strapped round her neck like a guitar, she led the band into a spinetingling intermediate cadence, minor to major. The audience roared. Those still seated stood up, some of them on the tables. Dafydd couldn’t see a thing. He rushed over to the side wall and climbed up on to a window-sill for a good view. Face up, she was wearing her small smile and the benign expression she often carried. “You go girl!” he shouted. “This is for my Celtic man,” she whispered. The all-Breton audience roared again. She moved her left foot forward to tease up the pedals and slowed her playing right down, this time bending the notes like a jazz sax-player. Long and high, they soared across the room above the audience’s heads, echoed round ceiling corners and wall joints, returning to pierce the backs of their necks and shiver their spines. Then she made a quarter-turn in the direction of the bass-player, with a silent invitation to fill some empty spaces. The only time Dafydd had heard a lead bass was on a couple of Keith Jarrett albums, but that was jazz and this was rock. The bass player took off and took everyone’s breath away. When he backed down, the violinist, not to be outdone, pressed his instrument to his waist at right-angles to his body and he too began to pluck. Another fiddler, on the sidelines, jumped up on stage, plugged in and joined him in unison. A girl with a breathy accordion jumped up too, huff-puffing her way into the ensemble, which was now assuming almost orchestral power. A North African wearing a brown and beige jelabi and a huge smile went down a side alley between the stage and the bar, called

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out to the drummer and received permission to hoist up his hand drums. The drummer picked up the downbeat, leaving the upbeat for the bongo man. Also down the side-alley, a petite Vietnamese girl had been trying to sell flowers. You couldn’t see her for them, but now she gave up, throwing them in handfuls on to the stage. In an inspired moment of impromptu theatre, the temporarily redundant singer and lead guitarist began to pick up the white and pink blooms oneby-one, bending over in unison with rounded backs like Millet’s Gleaners, returning upright to stuff them in their mouths, down their shirts and in their pockets. The middle eight lasted five, maybe six minutes. For the last verse, Aurélie retrieved her bow, sat back down and returned to playing in a more restrained style.

While she stayed behind to chat to the band, Dafydd took the cello and the rest of her kit and packed it into the car. This done, he decided to wait rather than go back in. He threw open one of the car-doors, put on a Billie Holliday tape and sat down on the granite chippings, leaning against the door, looking out on a hot summer’s night. It was dark now. Over in the south-eastern sky, a rising half-moon sent a silver trail from the dark blue sky across the black river flowing at his feet. The stars came out over Newquay. All except Polaris of course, the earliest, the brightest of them all, which hung about over the Channel, waiting patiently for the ferry-boat captain. Up on Caerphilly Mountain, the ghosts of two childhoods played around in the trees on the common with their visiting twins from Lannion. “Dafydd?” She was standing at the edge of the road, a musician on each arm. “I’m here.” He stood up and talked her in while her companions said their good-byes. Just as she collided with him, he whispered: “Let’s dance.” “I’m tired.”

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“I know. Just once…” He put his arms around her waist and pressed his cheek against hers. She wrapped her hands around the back of his neck. Her long slender fingers brushed his hairline, ignoring the occasional curious car that honked and cheered its way past them. There on the barren car-park they danced alone, a slow late-night last-dance shuffle, until Billie taped out and the refreshing luxuries of the waiting hotel beckoned.

Halfway across the channel, the ship crashed into a weather-front. They ended up in their cabin, facing each other cross-legged on the bunk and trying not to catch sight of the demented horizon lurching beyond the porthole. “I want to tell you some more things about Sean now.” “I’m ready this time.” “OK. This is his moon… He has difficulty expressing his feelings in relationships. He cannot relax and be himself when with his loved ones… He can be quick-tempered and intolerant. His impatience and irritability can lead to moments of darkness, where he is best left alone…. And although others may not realise it, he can be shy and lacking in self-confidence, this often connected with a deficit of love and affection from one or both parents… More?” “Yes. This is more like news.” “Uranus in Gemini now… He has an electric mind and the ability to create ground-breaking ideas. Saturn in the eighth house… He feels overwhelmed by intimacy and this can make him restricted in sexual expression; he also takes very seriously the need to delve into his subconscious. Pluto in the eighth house… He may experience powerful and yet unrecognised drives and passions, but it can also indicate

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a need to get away from powerful emotions through drink and drugs… It’s sexy but dangerous…..” “I like that. I want to be sexy and dangerous.” “Hmmm… I think you already are, mister, but this isn’t about your chart… Having Saturn and Pluto both in the eighth house suggests that he is deeply intuitive and would come across as a brooding character and a bit of a mystery.” “I like that too. I must say, a lot of this is borne out by what some of the people have said about his women and his drinking.” “Oh yes. Man with a dark soul, your brother.” “I’m looking forward to meeting him.” “I’m sure he’ll be a stranger in many ways… Tell me something. What made you go along with this?” “Well, I say no-one could have remained unmoved by your little poems, about the oak trees and the lanterns….” “But that was your story.” “I know. That’s what I mean. My reaction may have been cool, but I wasn’t inside.” “You picked up on the logic of it then?” “Logic? Of course not. It’s absurd. It just has a kind of wholesome rounded appeal.” After docking at Plymouth, they drove into a battleground. Landslides and fallen trees on the narrow road to Liskeard had created miles of tailbacks. In order to amuse them both, Aurélie began a series of speculations. “What did you say that mountain was called, where you used to play?” “Caerphilly.”

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“And it’s near the town?” “Near enough. Why?” “Caerphilly’s twin-town is Lannion.” Dafydd laughed. “Enough! Can we talk about the weather now?” “Now I know I’m in England.” After a brief silence, he continued: “I’m still wondering, why he would be in Newquay? Apart from all the star-signs of course. I’m thinking about psychology here. Motivation…” “To unsettle you, maybe? He’s been one step in front of you all the way.” “How could he know after ten years that I’d be looking for him now?” “I’d have to read your father’s stars to answer that.” “Now you’re being really evasive.” They reached Newquay late in the evening and found a hotel. Aurélie suggested that Dafydd should go next day to find the house with the old oak tree, but they were suffering from climate-shock and couldn’t force themselves outside for another twenty- four hours. Instead, they languished in the bar or their room, where they listened to the nagging rains. From time-to-time, Dafydd pressed his nose against the cool damp window-pane and looked out on his childhood, housebound days when you knew no friend would call and a long lonely sentence lay ahead. On the second day, Sean’s birthday, they wrapped up as best they could and took a walk along the beach before slipping into town. Around one o’clock, the weather worsened. Cold and hungry, they stood in a shop doorway out of the rain. Aurélie broke the silence: “What’s up?” “I’m starting to wonder what we’re doing here.” “Faith!”

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“I’m fresh out of it. This whole thing seems laughable now.” “Let’s eat.” Dafydd looked around for a place. One stood out. He peered inside through the steamy window-pane and read the menu on the door. “I’ve found somewhere.” “Has it got nice food? Cool people?” “In this town, in this country, I suspect it’s as good as it gets. It has got a fire going.” They dashed back across the street and walked into The Minstrels Tearooms.

*****

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Twenty Three

Outside The Minstrels Tearooms, the street was deserted, until a young couple appeared from out of the rain and swept through the door, letting the wind in with them. The bell jingled. Tablecloths raised their skirts for a second; napkins and sundry papers prepared for take-off; everyone in the room looked up. The woman - who was obviously blind - shook herself like a pissed-off dog returning from a pointless swim for a lousy no-good stick. After a moment’s stillness, her cheeks locked on to the radiant heat of the crackling log-fire. “Fucking English weather,” she muttered. Doris the owner smiled graciously and walked over to relieve them of their jackets and show them to a table. Then she returned to the doorway between restaurant and kitchen and called out: “Table eleven please, Rosa.” On her way out front, Rosa whispered a few words in her boss’s ear, marched up to a blackboard and ran a moistened finger over the last of the remaining daily specials. They hadn’t expected much in the way of trade throughout this weather, but at twelve noon, a large party of middle-aged ladies had turned up unbooked, and ordered nearly all of them. The last two had just been delivered to another table. She handed some menus over to the new arrivals and explained. The Blind One, who had been reliant on her companion for assistance, spoke first: “Merde! I really fancied the chicken and leek pie. What have we got then?”

The à la carte menu consisted of typical seaside-café fare: gammon steak and pineapple, plaice and tartare sauce, both with crinkle-cut chips, roast lamb dinner with

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all the trimmings. “I need to think about this. Can we have a bottle of wine while we decide?” “Just as long as you are eating. It’s the licensing laws, you understand.” Over in the opposite corner, some surfers, who’d spent little money and made a lot of noise, finally got up and paid, having spent most of the morning there. As they left, a heavy squall shook the ill-fitting entrance door and slammed a sheet of rain against the windows. The room looked up again, took a deep breath and returned to what it was doing, although it was now steeped in silence. Rosa was standing in the open doorway. Looking around at the assembled diners, the steamy windows and the unseasonal fire, she was struck by an old-movie-like sense of expectancy, of a monochrome frontier hotel lobby bracing itself for a siege. It was Baby James who broke the ice. His mother had placed his pushchair up against the wall where he could see everyone. He had just woken up, replete and contented. On a wave of benign energy, exactly midway between post-feed windbound and near-feed screaming hungry, he practiced his rapidfire arm-and-leg exercises, whilst alternately burbling and yelping. Occasionally he just lay there in a trusting X shape and smiled. Within his field of vision, two lone diners looked on and melted. One of them got up and walked over, asked if she could take a look. That really meant could she touch him, but it was still all right. She extended a tentative hand towards his head and brushed his chin with her forefinger. When he giggled and kicked, she tickled some more. As they both became more absorbed in this little greeting ritual, Lucy introduced herself. The stranger responded with a casual wave and a ‘hi’, but she was still facing the child. Now crouched down on her haunches, she had her head in the cot and was talking away and rubbing noses with him.

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Eventually she stood up and turned around. “I’m Becci. He’s gorgeous.” “Thank you. This is Richard.” Richard looked on as Becci returned to her table. In complete contrast to the gloom outside, her outlook was altogether more summery: her tanned skin glowed, her sun-bleached blond hair fell down to her shoulders in big unruly ringlets, and she was dressed in faded blue jeans and a bright stripey top. Only the wet raincoat over the back of her chair gave any indication that she was aware of the weather. The other single was pale and tall, with short dark hair that looked like it had never been styled. Dressed in black, her thick-lens spectacles fitted neither her ears nor her nose. She had a shy, diffident look and Richard surmised that she would consider herself to be a bit of a plain jane. She was probably a librarian. Hannah put her book down and edged her way hesitantly towards the pushchair. “Do you mind if I take a look too?” she asked. “Please. Go ahead. Catch him while you can; he’s not always like this.” Hannah introduced herself before staring in and smiling at the quiet recumbent James. Only two other tables were occupied now. At one, two local women, of the twin-set-and-pearls variety, were ploughing into their meals and talking feverishly about the appalling weather: for days the county had been assailed by front after front, bringing the worst gales and rainfall in recent memory. The number of day-trippers had fallen to zero. Only the pre-booked were turning up and many of those were going straight back home. All the tourist businesses were feeling the pinch. These two had a flower shop and it hadn’t been worth opening.

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On the other, three happy alcoholics were tucking into Cornish Pasties and a bottle of Rioja. They came in most days and Doris indulged them just as long as they behaved. Today they were early. Old friends and professional colleagues recently retired, they had a daily round whose primary aim was to side-step the licensing laws. Mornings, around 9-30, they’d get on the bus with their recently acquired pensioners’ passes and head into town and one of the seedier hotels, for a cooked breakfast and a bottle of Champagne. Between 11 and 3 they had the pick of the pubs, two or three of which they’d play in, like naughty young boys out on the town. Filling the hours between 3-30 and 5-30 had been tough at first, but they soon found The Minstrels and Doris’s unique afternoon restaurant licence. Their late lunch sometimes consisted of a full meal, but more often than not it was a pasty, as apparently this licensing authority’s definition of a meal was a knife-and-fork with a plate and something to eat on it. Around five o’clock they would wander off to find the next pub, before being shoe-horned into a taxi back to their waiting wives. Becci sipped her beer and looked over her shoulder at the vacant blackboard, recoiling with feigned horror and genuine disappointment. Doris had forgotten to tell her when they got down to the last two specials. She picked up the dismal blackplastic menu on her table and scanned it without much enthusiasm. Maybe she’d just have a salad. Rosa sidled over to Richard and Lucy’s table to see if they were ready to order. They’d been procrastinating, and now their choices were down. They too needed a bit more time. She transferred her attention to Hannah, whose stomach was still reeling from the nauseating cooked breakfast. She ordered another coffee. One of the alkies, red-faced and dribbling from a potent brew of permanent intoxication and all-round ill-health, wandered away from his pasty for a quick look at

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James and a sniff of the action. Richard, who was all too familiar with the adhesive power of drunks, allowed him a brief glimpse and then repelled him politely. With some contact now established, everyone on that side of the room swung their chairs round to face each other and chat through the longueurs of having to decide which out of several unwanted things to order. Aurélie and Dafydd, the last to introduce themselves, had maintained a separateness up until that point, but allowed themselves to get drawn in when the conversation moved away from the weather. Rosa - who was only nineteen, over to brush up her English – was quick to pick up on this little outburst of interpersonal energy. After almost a year of working as a waitress in the The Minstrels, she thought it was high time she declared herself to be a competent cook. She slipped out back to consult with Doris. “These new tables, they obviously want to stay, but none of them seems to fancy anything from the à la carte.” “Rosa, I can’t help it if all the specials have sold out.” “I could make something.” Doris was undoubtedly a good cook. Her specials were legendary in Newquay and beyond, but she was painfully aware that her regular meals, a concession to the tourist trade, were not very appealing to a discerning palate. “Go on…” “If you let me use those two birds you cooked off for tomorrow’s roast, I could make a quick Spanish chicken stew, and a couple of other dishes from what’s around.” “How long?” “Half an hour, forty minutes maybe. But I could get a starter out before then.” “Obviously they’d all have to accept the same food. I’ll go and ask.”

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She returned with a resounding affirmative. Rosa drew up a shopping list. There were a few gaps in the kitchen, mainly on the spice shelf, which could be made up with some condiments from the little delicatessen on the next street and the neighbouring greengrocer. Doris offered to do the shopping while Rosa made a start. On the list, bay-leaves, pine-nuts, saffron, smoked paprika, chillies, red peppers and spinach. Doris donned her hooded overcoat and set off in the rain. Out in the diningroom, the six – at Rosa’s suggestion – pulled their tables together and cracked open two bottles of wine, while Baby James looked on and smiled. Within minutes, Rosa had two pans going. One contained roundels of alreadycooked potato stolen from the next day’s roast, which were stewing slowly in olive oil. The other was sizzling sliced onions, on a much higher heat. She beat half a dozen eggs and slid the bowl to one side. She’d have tortilla in fifteen minutes. More onions, finely chopped this time, went into a big pan and as soon as they were soft she covered them with ladlefuls of Doris’s chicken stock. As she started to portion the chickens, she paused. Something else was needed here. She pictured her grandmother Mercedes in their kitchen back home and spoke out loud: ‘Abuelita. I’m stuck in this terrible English kitchen with no chorizo, no tocino, no judias blancas, no garbanzos, no… garbanzos… garbanzos…’ She’d seen a few tins of chick-peas somewhere that Gladys occasionally used to make her own hummus.. ‘OK, that’s one. I need more ideas. Come on Abuelita. Help me!’ ‘Stop thinking about what you want, girl. See what you’ve got. And then use that.’ Rosa rushed into the walk-in fridge and lunged around, looking for ingredients and inspiration at the same time. Nothing resonated with her culinary experience, until she landed on the trays of tourist fare. Of course. She grabbed some plaice fillets and

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two slices of the gammon bacon. Back at the chopping board, she skinned the fishes, trimmed and diced the bacon. She’d make them as sweet as merluza and chorizo. She even remembered to throw the pieces of bacon-rind into her stew. By the time Doris returned, Rosa was flying, although she was still talking to herself intermittently. Doris found this disconcerting, until it was explained to her, whereupon she offered to stand in for Mercedes, for the sake of both their sanities. She put her pinnie on and offered to help. Rosa piled garlic into the simmering stew-pot and thrust a couple of red peppers on to an open flame to burn off the skins. In went the saffron, bay leaves and paprika, and finally the chicken portions. Lid on, she left it to simmer away gently. The stewed potatoes and brown onions were amalgamated in one pan and on went the eggs, to bubble and colour. As soon as the egg mixture pulled away from the sides of the pan, she rammed it under the grill to brown the top, and then turned it over on to a plate. Doris sliced it up and out went the first dish with a basket of crusty bread. Rosa flash-fried the pieces of plaice and bacon with fresh red chilli and garlic. Placing them on some lettuce leaves, she dressed them with olive oil and lemon and a sprinkling of parsley, while Doris set about heating up the chick-peas. “What are we doing with these?” “Warm salad. Erm… fresh tomatoes, chopped, garlic, parsley and spring onion, French-style dressing with mustard… There’s still something missing… I know…” She opened a jar of German Bockwurst, split the chubby sausages in two lengthways, and made a few slashes across the tops. Into one of the vacant frying pans and they were done in a few minutes. Village sausage, she called it, topping off the chick-pea salad. Out went the next two dishes. Rosa cleaned up her peppers and put

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them in the stew with the spinach and pine-nuts. Doris took the whole pot out and placed it centre-table with a ladle, before they’d even started on the middle course. The Alkies had finished their pasties and their wine. They stood up and wandered over, pleading looks in their eyes. Doris used the opportunity to usher them over to the door, which she locked behind them. She put up the ‘closed’ sign and turned off a few of the brighter lights before throwing a couple of more logs on the fire. “Rosa and I normally eat around this time. Can we join you?” Another table was lined up while Doris brought more bottles of wine over. The two of them sat down, raised their glasses and helped themselves to a slice of warm tortilla cooked to medium-rare perfection. Directly overhead, several earsplitting cracks of thunder announced a renewed assault on the windows by the hammering rains. Hannah’s initial surprise at her inclusion in the group slipped away, along with her intrinsic reserve, as she connected with Richard and Lucy on life in Central London. Not wanting to come over as too lonely, she focused instead on her social life, which she allowed herself to exaggerate a little. She also found out, to her delight, that Aurélie was a resident of Paris. She even lived in the district where Hannah had stayed. As they exchanged pleasantries about ordinary places, Luxembourg Gardens, the market on Rue Mouffetard, the cafés on Place St. Sulpice, Hannah experienced a rush of fond memories.

At the same time as engaging with Rosa about Galicia, Richard much to Lucy’s consternation - was making the occasional loaded eye contact with Becci. She was saving up to go to the States next year. This was her one day off a week.

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After polishing off the Spanish omelette, they were all still ravenous and now set about tackling the two warm salad dishes, complimenting Rosa on her ingenuity. She blushed and deflected the attention by putting it all down to Mercedes’ tutelage. Aurélie entered into a brief exchange with her, remarking that they both had grandmothers called Mercedes who were great cooks, Aurélie’s - now retired - in Paddington London. She asked Rosa for the name of her hometown. “You won’t have heard of it. It’s a village on the outskirts of a small industrial town called As Pontes de Garcia Rodriguez.” Aurélie went quiet, and drew herself away from the conversation to pull from her bag a sheaf of well-worn braille-written pages, which she began to flick through. She could just be heard conferring with Dafydd in a whisper:

“Remind me where your grand-parents come from…” “Which ones? “The ones who looked after you when your mother died.” “That was the paternal side, from Carmarthen.” She checked her notes again. “That’s the twin-town of As Pontes de Garcia Roderiguez. The only one.” “So?” “So. They mean a lot to each other.” Now Aurélie turned to engage Lucy and ask her how they all got there. “After London? We spent the first night in Bideford, then stopped off at Wadebridge for lunch before arriving here yesterday.” At this point Aurélie became excited, and consulted Dafydd once again, but they reached no conclusion, other than an exasperated look on his face and disappointment on hers. She returned to her conversation with Lucy.

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By now, everyone was tearing off great lumps of crusty bread to mop up the pungent juices left on their plates after devouring the last two dishes. With this little ritual over, Rosa cleared away and Doris stood up to share out the chicken stew. She lifted the lid off the pot and hovered there with it for a few seconds, while they all savoured the vivid colours and the release of aromatic vapours. “I think we need more wine here. These next two bottles are on the house.” Only Becci, who had to drive back to her hotel, was moderate in her consumption. Even Doris, whom Rosa had only ever seen take the odd sip, helped them consume half a dozen bottles. As the wine went down, the exchanges became louder and more animated, although each of the actors sat round the table only bounced on to the stage for a fleeting moment and released only selected fragments of their historic selves. A hiatus in the conversation occurred when they all arrived at the partiallystripped chicken bones: the wings, the thighs, the drumsticks. Taking their cue from Doris, they discarded their knives and forks, picked up the pieces with their fingers and began to tear away the remaining morsels of flesh with their teeth. Doris watched on, until the bright saffron sauce had reached everyone’s chin. She wondered about her own and took a napkin to her mouth, prompting the others to do the same. Encouraged by the temporary silence, she reminded herself of her student days, when such impromptu feasts were commonplace. And she got to speculating on the lives of her dining companions. What had they come from? Why were they here, today? The snippets of information that she’d so far gleaned added up to little. They were clearly not her usual kind of tourist. Even Becci, her one regular, was a mystery. She rarely spoke about the past. It was late-afternoon by the time they finished off a home-made French apple

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tart with some coffee. It turned out they were all, except Becci, leaving on the same day, the coming Friday the thirteenth, birthday of Hannah and Aurélie’s late mother, Maria. They parted in a relaxed shambles. One or two exchanged telephone numbers, though Hannah was far too shy, and besides she thought it reasonable to assume that the others, all much older, would have no reason to contact her. Doris let them out and locked the door. Rosa began to tidy up. “That meal was splendid, Rosa. We must have a chat tomorrow. Just lately I’ve been thinking of getting out front more. And changing the menu. Perhaps you would like to swap? I’ll help of course.” “Yes I would ma’am. Thank you.” “Now. I think I’d better go upstairs and fill in the V.A.T. returns.” Rosa smiled and disappeared into the back kitchen, knowing that once in the office Doris would find the settee far more appealing than the accounts.

*****

By the end of the week, the storms had eased off. The sun spent a couple of days punching holes through the swollen sky, creating intermittent gashes of paleblue. In between shifts, Becci drove into town to bank her wages. Returning, she stopped off by the side of the road, on one of the cliffs that gave the bay its bookends. Outside the car, she gazed across the Atlantic, past the crashing surf to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New York. She’d pick up a train there, take it down

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the Eastern Seaboard through schoolday-atlas civil war cities whose names echoed through her memory – Philadelphia Paa., Baltimore MDd., Richmond Vaa., Charlotte N.C. to Atlanta GAa. There she’d hire a car and cross the Sunshine Belt all the way to Southern California. Just as long as it pointed west, to another ocean like this and the promise of another chance.

Hannah was pleased to find Tim in the queue for the bus. She had plenty to talk about, what with the fabulous Spanish meal, the change in the weather and the walking trips along the coastal path. His conference had been boring apparently, but Hannah had enough in her to keep the conversation going all the way to London. They parted with an arrangement to meet up at the Tate on her next day off, for a stroll around an exhibition and some lunch. It was to be her first real date. Back at the nurses’ rooms, she picked up her mail, a postcard from herself and a letter from her mother, which she recognised instantly by the Basildon Bond envelope and the curious hand-writing, squared off at the bottom as if it had been written against a ruler. She’d save that for the morning. Right now, she was in the mood for company and just wanted to catch up with Gary down the hall, maybe go out dancing.

Richard and Lucy nursed a wounded relationship with long interludes of silence all the way to London. Their days in Newquay had been pleasurable and mostly light-hearted. They had certainly made love a lot, and once the rain held off and the sun burst through the sky, Richard had been surprised by the enjoyment he gained from his temporary stint at fatherhood, doing mad things with James. But a droplet of gangrenous poison had insinuated itself into the space

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between them and begun to spread. Lucy was convinced he had been flirting with Becci throughout that meal. He on the other hand, though happy to admit that he found her attractive, did not regard occasional eye contact and the odd smile as flirting. The spectre of jealousy, so early on in their togetherness, made him feel uncomfortable. By the time they reached the south western suburbs of London, Richard was bracing himself for the delivery of a familiar line: “I think we should put this down to a holiday romance. I don’t think it would work out. Your friendship is really important to me, Lucy, and I don’t want to lose it.” “If you say so.” He dropped the two of them off at her flat in Primrose Hill and gave the sleeping James a kiss, before kissing Lucy to tears. On the way back home, he called in on his restaurant for a quick update and a free meal. Back at his flat, he fired back a couple of brandies to burn away the road and went to bed early, looking forward to his one more day off, just doing nothing.

Dafydd drove Aurélie straight to Heathrow for the Paris shuttle. Despite the improvement in the weather, they had spent far too much of the intervening time in near-deserted pubs drinking too much beer with unfriendly locals and waiting for Sean to turn up. Aurélie’s unswerving conviction that he would arrive in Newquay around the time of his birthday had been systematically shredded by each day of his non-appearance. They too were silent throughout most of their journey, as they struggled to come to terms with the impact of the last few weeks. Whenever they went up to the edge of their present lives and looked over, bewildering contradictions stared back at

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them. Paris? London? Blind? Sighted? Neither of them could articulate their struggle with it. Dafydd waited with her in the departure lounge until her plane was called. As they gave each other one last hug, she blurted out: “I want you to meet Didier. Will you come to Paris?” “I’d really like that. But I don’t know when. I’ll be going down to Cardiff this week and it won’t be a lot of fun. I’ll call you when I get back.” He stayed long enough to watch her back disappear into the departure tunnel.

*****

Twenty Four London Monday June 6th 1977

Phwoooomphhhhh……. The first of the beacons of light that would soon traverse the country took its cue from the bonfire at Windsor Castle and burst into flame. Hannah had neither time nor regard for the celebrations. Her heart was elsewhere, on a mission to find a street in Camden Town, near Prince of Wales Crescent.

Hopping off the bus with her A – Z, she found herself in a development site, surrounded by ridged galvanised-iron fencing, beautifully graffitied. When she finally located the house she was looking for, she was pleased to discover that it was a fine late-Georgian terrace, four storeys high, with steps leading up to the imposing front

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door and down to the basement. It was also, clearly, a squat. Across the street from it, she leant against the fencing and watched. She had no idea why her mother had waited until her nineteenth birthday to send that letter. There was something so wrong with the number, the choice of anniversary. Eighteen was the age of majority, and she could possibly have understood a nostalgic fondness for twenty-one. But nineteen? Perhaps it was the simple fact of her new independence. But the contents possessed far more significance than the timing. The letter waiting for Hannah on her return from Cornwall had told her in the most neutral of terms that she’d been adopted. After the initial shock, which lasted only a few seconds, she was suffused with a sense of relief so cleansing that she emerged from it with an epiphanic clarity. Her complex-ridden outcast life, with its layers of awkwardness and confusion, its feelings of aloneness and homelessness, finally made some sense. Here, now, this day fell into place. Inside her room she spun around, a consummate ballet-dancer executing a perfect pirouette, and faced her mirrored image with an unfamiliar sense of equanimity. A second sheet of the blue writing paper revealed two names and addresses, one with a telephone number. Her real mother and father, both in North London. Now she felt even less inclination to have anything to do with her adoptive parents, but she did write back to Ruth, in equally neutral terms, thanking her for the information and the obvious effort she had put into acquiring it. She decided to let her new status settle upon her quietly. She would wait a while before she did anything with this knowledge and that included telling anybody else. Almost a month passed before she felt ready to go and look for her mother. As soon as she finished her shift, she rushed up to her room, changed into some easy

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clothes and whizzed off to her appointment at a hairdressers’ training salon on Queensway. She carried a style magazine with some clues, but all she could say was: “I think I’d like to keep the bob, but give it some attitude. Is that possible?” With the handle of her steel comb gripped between her teeth, the girl was scrunching, flicking and shaping Hannah’s hair. She seemed to know what she was doing. “How about some razored angular strands over the forehead and down the cheekline? Kind of, part bob, part pageboy, part pixie.” “Sounds great. Go to it.” Back in her room, she sat and looked in the mirror. She liked her hair. That was a good start. Hannah wasn’t much into make-up, but this felt like an occasion worthy of a little extra effort. Her problem, or maybe it was an asset, was her hirsuteness. Bushy eyebrows, sideboards down to her earlobes, long jet-black eyelashes. She put on some mascara to curl them up a little, a bit of blush on her cheeks to liven up her wan skin tone, some discreet pale pink lipstick and that was it. She dressed all in black as usual, her best velvet jacket over a plain shirt, tight cord trousers and sensible flat shoes. She looked about thirty- four. Idly polishing her nails to kill some time, she experienced a sense of drymouth anticipation that she hadn’t felt since getting ready for her first ever date, when she was eleven, off to go swimming and then to the pictures with Godfrey Stebbings. He dumped her straight after, saying she was too complicated. (yes) Now she was excited and frightened in equal measure. She felt like crying, but managed to hold back the tears for the sake of the mascara. She looked back over her childhood memories, starting from when she was about three. She began to delete the terrifying or uncomfortable ones, simply leaving

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blanks. Those times - and they were nearly all associated with her parents - when she had been confused, when she’d been rejected or betrayed, when she’d made a fool of herself, when she’d been too shy to do what she knew was the right thing, they became empty spaces, white light. Futile though the exercise might be, she wanted desperately to re-arrange her history for the impending encounter. She’d had her fantasies since acquiring the address. She imagined her mother as a writer, part of an arty set. Or maybe a Polytechnic lecturer, as radical and feminist as North London can be. A learned Art Deco antiques dealer perhaps, with money. Now she looked up into the downstairs front room and waited for someone to enlighten her. It appeared empty until a man raised himself above her sightline, then leant over to fumble around on what was obviously a table below it. Prompted by this perhaps, a woman emerged from the shadows at the back of the room and shuffled over to the bay window with a worried look on her face. She stood dead centre and took a curtain in each hand, ready to pull them together. She hesitated, glanced out vacantly, but their eyes met and stayed fixed for a while. She was tall and pear-shaped, had thick dark hair in a grown-out bubble perm, dark eyes, pale skin and cheekbone structure to die for. In fact she looked like Hannah, only older. She was also in a bit of a state, and Hannah could see that she was partly relying on the curtains for support. But it was her mother, her real mother. At that point, the front door opened and a young man stumbled out. He left it ajar and crossed the pathway, leaving cloying draughts of patchouli oil and cannabis in his wake. He turned without bothering to look up from the pavement. About the same age as Hannah, he had long blond dreadlocks and was still wearing his workclothes.

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She could see inside the hallway, the ceiling painted matt black, the walls deep purple. The source of its faint illumination was a blue cardboard lampshade, handmade in the style of a geodesic dome. Small holes cut into its hexagons cast numerous dots of projected light on to the ceiling walls and floor. Somewhere to the back of the house, a hi-fi was pumping out a Velvet Underground track. “Run, Run, Run…” The place was locked in a ten-year time-warp. A moment later, the woman came to close the door. She looked across the street towards Hannah, who was about to quit the scene. She shouted: “Are you waiting for someone? From here?” “I’m looking for someone.” Hannah walked up to her, took a torn piece of blue paper from her pocket and handed it over, head tilted down. All it said was Lily Langfeld and the address. “What do you want?” “She’s my mother… It’s you, isn’t it?”

Hannah didn’t know where the boldness came from but suddenly she was looking straight into Lily’s eyes, which darted between the scrap of paper and Hannah’s face, though now she avoided any eye -contact herself. It was a while before she spoke. Hannah had stopped breathing and was almost on tiptoe. Lily seemed to sober up at this point. “Shit! Why didn’t you warn me?” “I didn’t have your phone number.” “We don’t have a phone, that’s why. You could have written.” “I was scared you wouldn’t reply.” “You’d better come in.”

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Hannah followed her to the kitchen. “Tea?” Hannah nodded. Another young man staggered into the room. “Toast. I need toast. Anybody want any toast?” “This is Tom. No thanks, Tom.” “Hi Tom. No thanks.” He fired up the grill, which began to emit coils of smoke and acrid smells from the burnt remains of its last use. The two women leant their hips against opposing worktops and looked down at each other’s shoes. Tom burnt his toast, but proceeded nonetheless to slather it with slabs of cheap margarine. Hannah felt slightly nauseous, until he turned off the grill and disappeared once more into the other room. “Look, this really isn’t …” / (agree. Will have to be short though – no long ones here) “What do you do …?” They spoke simultaneously. Hannah laughed nervously and it provoked Lily’s first and last smile. They tried again, but it wasn’t long before Hannah detected a yawn of indifference creeping towards her across the room. “I’d better go. I shouldn’t have sprung this on you… Perhaps we could meet up another time? After we’ve taken all this in?” “I don’t think so. Look around you, hun. I haven’t exactly come far in twenty years, have I? It’s best if you forget me. Go back to your other mother. She’s the one who cared for you all this while.” “How can you say that! I’m your daughter.” “You were a teenage mistake, dearie. From the days before the pill and abortion. And you weren’t the only one. Adoption was the only way out then. Forget blood. Your real mother is the one who has provided you with love and mothering all

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this time.” Hannah put her mug down and ran through the hallway. Out on the street, she sprinted past the flickering graffiti, now become a moving cartoon, as she extended the conversation in her head. “You cow! A mistake! A fucking teenage mistake! I’m a human being!” “Honey, I’m not responsible for what happened after I gave you up. I can’t be…” “It’s all right you saying that. I’ve been bullied, abused and ignored. I’ve never been loved, not once. And I’m still a virgin.” Travelling home on the bus, an orphan, caught in the icy void between two rejected mothers, Hannah questioned every move she’d made over the last few weeks. Back in her room, she took a pair of blunt paper-scissors to her new hair-do and gave herself an incongruous combination of classic pudding-basin bob and scaggy fringe.

****

Early evening and the television news was on in Dafydd’s maisonette, the bottom half of a four-storey house in a side road at the south end of Hampstead Heath. It was cool and dark all year round, but at least the garden was his. One day, he was going to knock a big hole in the pine-end wall and bring the outside in. Meantime, he rattled in the place. One man, eight rooms, and tonight he was at a loose-end, shuffling from study to sitting-room and back, wondering what to do with the evening. As a lifelong Welsh Nationalist, he could find no sympathy with a celebration of monarchy, but he felt like doing something all the same.

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He’d thought about phoning a nearby friend, just to pop out for drink. He had stared at the full bottle of duty-free on the sideboard. Eventually he called his favourite Greek restaurant in Camden Town and booked a late table for one. There should be at least one group of people there that he knew. If not, the head waiter would break his neck with his welcome and chat away throughout the meal, as if they were dining together. Just then, the phone rang. It was Aurélie. “I’ve come to see you.” “What do you mean, you’ve come to see me? Where are you?” “The airport.” “What, Heathrow?” “Yes.” “Wait in Arrivals. I’ll be an hour or so.” They’d spoken on the phone at the weekend, and this certainly hadn’t been discussed. By the time he was cruising over Westway, he was smiling to himself and admiring her spontaneity. He located her easily in the arrivals lounge. As he got closer, Dafydd could see that she was barefoot. When he called out her name, she thrust an arm into her shoulder bag and fumbled around inside it. “I like the barefoot look.” “I took my boots off on the plane and couldn’t get them back on again.” “It’s good to hear your voice.” “You too… Look. I’ve brought you a present.”

She pulled a bunch of woody twigs from the bag and extended her arm, muttering something in Spanish.

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“Thank you. I’m afraid my Spanish isn’t that good.” “Pablo Neruda. Do I get a kiss?” He took her in his arms and obliged with a long one. Passing people stopped and stared. After disengaging himself, he looked down at his handful of twigs, which sprouted small bright-green leaves and a few pink blossoms. Most of the petals had fallen off. Back at the flat, while Aurélie took a bath, he pulled down a compendium of Neruda poems, all mercifully bi-lingual. “What was that line again?” He’d had to do this more than once before, and it didn’t take long. Ten minutes later and a quarter of the way in, he found it. After gathering up the twigs, he ran to the bathroom and burst through the doorway without waiting for an invitation. He pinched off the last of the petals and dropped them on to her head, shoulders and breasts. Those that didn’t cling to her soapy wet body floated on the water around her hips. Then he jumped in at the other end without bothering to get undressed. He closed his eyes, placed his hands around her neck and leant forward until their foreheads and noses touched. “We’re eating out tonight.” “Great… Sorry about the Spanish. What is it in English?” “I want to do to you what spring has done to the cherry trees.”

The waiter still broke Dafydd’s neck, but managed to find a place for another and laid it up almost before they’d sat down. Dafydd picked up the menu, though he knew it by heart. “There’s a choice of lamb casserole or lamb casserole here.”

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“No kebabs?” “You can get them anywhere.” The menu did indeed include very little over and above the signature dish, ‘Lamb Casserole with….’ repeated a couple of dozen times. Aubergines, courgettes, okra, spinach, an abundance of choice. While they studied it, a bottle of Demestica and a basket of charred flatbreads arrived, followed by a few bowls of dips. As they tucked into the melt-in-the-mouth chunks of lamb and mopped up the savoury red-brown gravy with the last of the bread, Dafydd asked: “Fancy a swim later?” “Sure. You have somewhere to go?” “Hampstead Heath. The ladies’ pond.” “I may have to ask you to keep some clothing on, to preserve the modesty of the Hampstead ladies’ ghosts.” “I may ignore that, seeing as you won’t know.” “Oh yes I will. I’ll grab your thing.” Dafydd laughed. “I refuse to live in a town that hasn’t got an outdoor swimming-hole you can break into at night.” “I like a city you can get out of in a hurry if you have to.” “Oh, you mean, come the Apocalypse? I agree. London’s good. I know about flowing freshwater canals and Underground lines devoted solely to mail trucks. I could be in the Chiltern Hills while everyone else is still trapped in traffic jams.” “Then what?” “Run!” She laughed. “I missed you.” “Missed you too.”

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Walking from the car, he described the open heath and the approaching clumps of trees. He’d chosen the ladies’ pond because out of the three it was the most secluded. But there was a wall to climb and he was a bit worried about her ability.

“It’s OK. This has turned into The Year of Climbing Walls. Just make sure you catch me on the other side. That’s the only dangerous part.” They threw their clothes off and he led her to the edge. The water was cold enough to sting at first, but warmed up once they got moving. Dafydd was in the mood for a few lengths. When he stopped and shouted out, he found her holding on to the other side. He swam over and slid underwater as he approached her. Taking hold of her ankles first, he rose up her body slowly, just in time to hear her: “A woman rises out of the water. A seal rises and embraces her.” “That’s nice.” “It’s another Sabian poem.” “Of course.” “Actually, tonight I want to be a big whale and you’ll need a six-foot thing.” “I may have some difficulty rising that far….” “No you won’t… Enter me… Please.” She helped make it possible. He did as instructed. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pushed off from the side with a “Take me down.” They took a deep breath and with a lot of flippering they submerged themselves, oscillating in slow-motion. At the bottom, she pushed hard and they drifted back up. Coming out of the water, they both expelled a huge blast of air and she evicted him, involuntarily. As they arrived at the side and hauled themselves out of the water, he looked down on

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himself: “Now what am I going to do with this?” “You’ll think of something.” And he did. He wrapped her in a towel, led her to the changing area and leant her back against the wall. “Standing up? Frontways? You sure you can do that?” “Just try and stop me.” “No.” Back at the flat, Dafydd’s answering-machine was registering four missed calls. He pressed some buttons and the machine clunked and whirred into action. Aurélie felt her way around the spacious uncluttered room and ended up where she started out, on the rug in front of the fireplace. As he edged towards her, the first message started to play and stopped him dead. “God I hate these things… Hi. It’s Becci. Remember me? The Minstrels in Newquay? I’d rather have spoken to you live, but I’ve got to go on in a minute. Listen, it’s about your brother… I know him. I finally got through to him over the weekend and gave him your number. He may call. If you want to talk some more, ring me after eleven. I’ll be having a drink.” The other three callers hadn’t left messages. It was just gone eleven. Dafydd called back straight away and landed in the middle of a noisy bar. Becci was still in the restaurant with some of the other staff. The barman transferred him. “Becci. It’s Dafydd. What was all that about?” “It was when you told that story about looking for your brother in France. I had a vague sense of somebody familiar, and there was a certain physical similarity as well, but you never mentioned his name and moved the conversation on pretty

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quickly. I didn’t feel certain enough to say anything. I met Sean recently, travelling through Brittany. We hooked up in Lannion, only for a weekend though.” “Lannion?” “Yes. Why?” “Nothing… And you called him, to check?” “Sure. And it was him of course. But he already knew you’d been looking for him. Didn’t you find his house and leave a postcard?” “I did.” “You should have said more in Newquay. I would have picked up on it.” “It’s done now.” “Listen, if he doesn’t call in the next couple of days, get back to me. I’ve got his number somewhere. He said I can give it to you… Hey, that was a great meal, wasn’t it? Richard’s been back down a couple of times. We’re, y’know…” “Not going to the States then?” “Who knows? Hey, you and Aurélie must come and visit if you’re down this way.” “Thanks.” Dafydd hung up and repeated Becci’s end of the conversation to Aurélie. “I told you we’d find your brother in Newquay… Are you going to light a fire?” “Afterwards.” “After what?” He lay down on the rug beside her. “You have missed me.”

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*****

Twenty Five

Three days later, final night of the celebrations, and Hannah had been walking the streets of Primrose Hill for almost two hours. One hand held the other scrap of blue paper. Pinched between forefinger and thumb, whose joints had turned nearwhite, it bore a name address and telephone number. She walked past the house several times, looked up at all the windows in the hope that he might appear. Sat on a park bench, she realised her heart was racing, probably had been all evening. She started to bite her fingernails, but gave up in self-disgust. She tried to calm herself down and gather her thoughts. Earlier in the day, she’d agonised over whether to phone him or just turn up. In the end, she’d chosen the confrontational way and now she was discovering that her courage didn’t square up to her intent. Her nervous eyes darted around the periphery of her vision. Just up the road, within sight of the house, a phone box glimmered in the twilight. She would call, and if he was in, tell him who she was and where she was, and take it from there. She stood up and strode towards it with a quickening step. A cold sweat broke out over her whole body. She dialled the number and counted up to ten double rings before replacing the receiver. Maybe he’d been in the bath and made it to the phone on the eleventh ring? Maybe. She redialled and gave it twenty doubles this time. Still no reply. One more try, she thought. Lucky three. This time, he made it to the phone in one.

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“Yes! Sorry about that. I was just getting out of the bath. Hello?” “Hello. Is this Mr. Sanders?” “Yes it is. Who’s that?” “My name is… Hannah… I’m… I’ve come to see you… I’m your daughter.” “What do you mean, you’ve come to see me? Where are you?” “I’m in the phone booth across the street.” Hannah looked up at the bay window. He pulled back one of the curtains, phone in hand, bathed like her in a pale yellow drizzle of incandescent light. They gazed at each other dreamily, hand-sets pressed tight against ears and mouths. Newquay... The Minstrels… In that moment of recognition, her fears transformed into elation by the alchemy of chance, Hannah felt her knees bend and her legs start to give way. She took a deep breath and threw her weight against the heavy door, squeezed through the gap and charged across the street, leaving the phone swinging on its lead and her handbag inside. She arrived in the porch and stood there, her eyes half-closed, her arms stretched out palms down like a cartoon sleepwalker’s. Richard had sped down the stairs and a second later he opened the door. He reached out and took hold of her hands. Hannah opened her eyes wide and smiled. She squeezed his hands gently, and finally felt the burning electric glow of blood. He invited her upstairs, took her jacket and hung it on a coat hook. By the time they sat down on the floor by the fireplace, all Hannah’s nervousness had slipped away. “I wondered if you’d ever turn up. Where did you get my address?” “My mum. It was my nineteenth birthday present. I don’t know how she found it… I went to Sadie’s first, this Monday. She didn’t want to know me.” “I’m sorry to hear that. But I’m not surprised.”

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“Do you two ever see each other?” “Only by accident.” “How’s Lucy?” “She’s fine. We’re just good friends now. Though I’ve been round a few times, to babysit for her. And she brings James round every other Sunday so she can have a day off. I don’t know why I didn’t do it before. I love him to bits... I’ve been back to Newquay. Becci and I…” Hannah laughed. “It didn’t go unnoticed.” “What didn’t?” “You two getting along in Newquay.” “Oh really. And I gave Lucy a hard time for being jealous.” “I’m seeing someone too. I met him on the coach, on the way down. He’s my first… y’know, my first proper boyfriend. He’s really nice. We’ve been to The Tate.” “Go on then… What’s he like? What does he do?” “He’s a trainee priest, but he’s thinking of giving it up and going into social work. His name is Timothy. He’s quite shy.” “Nothing wrong with that. Aren’t they meant to inherit the earth?” “I wouldn’t know. I’ve been brought up Jewish.” Richard smiled. “You’ll get over it.”

She stared across at him, this man her father, aglow with pride. One of the best French chefs in North London on a day off, barefoot, his jeans washed-out, his black T-shirt all crumpled… And so good-looking. “What?” “Nothing. My friends have got dads. But they’re all, like, nearly dead.”

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Next thing, it was gone midnight. Richard offered her his spare room, but she’d had plenty for one day. He called for a taxi and they arranged to meet up the following Sunday for a walk on the Hill. In the doorway, their good-bye hug, surrendering and tearful, lasted until the impatient taxi tore them apart. Suddenly, Hannah remembered her handbag. She dashed over to the phone-box. It was still there. Back in her room, she found herself wide awake and restless, despite the lateness of the hour. A ferocious combustion took hold in her head, her heart and her guts. She was bursting to share with someone what had happened this night, the way she felt inside. But the list of candidates was tragically short: her adoptive mother was out of the question; Timothy was too fresh and still cloaked in uncertainty; Gary was just down the corridor, though she didn’t know what shift he was on and besides, it didn’t feel right. Tonight, she needed a female listener. She stood in the window and gazed out on the grimy courtyard they’d given her for a view. Past the black iron drainpipes, the rusty fire-escape, the clouds of steam billowing from the laundry-room stack, she soared across to France and landed in Paris, the only place where she could say to herself without equivocation that she’d once before been happy. Luminous memories of another land surged in. She pictured her old pen-friend, now studying in Rouen, and made a vow that she would start saving up to visit her again and revive their friendship on her next few days off, maybe in the Autumn. But for now she sat down at her writing desk, reached out for a pad of flimsy blue air-mail paper and began to tell her story to the one she’d finally elected to hear it. “Dear Anaïs…”

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***

Earlier in the day, Dafydd had checked the newspapers. The Queen’s entourage would be making a boat trip from Greenwich to Lambeth, replicating the ceremonial barge-trips of Elizabeth I. On the way, she’d be opening the Silver Jubilee Walkway and the South Bank Jubilee Gardens. In the evening, Her Majesty would preside over a fireworks display at Lambeth before proceeding to the Palace by lighted carriage. “I’m taking you into the eye of the storm tonight.” “Tell me.” “There’s a firework display across town.” “I love fireworks.” “This one should be good.” “Then the designer must be French.” “Why’s that?” “Fireworks are like food. No nation comes close to the French and the Chinese.” “Well, you may be lucky.”

Dafydd would let others look down on or over at these fireworks, but he intended to find the point of detonation and locate himself and Aurélie as near as possible to it. He’d never been a cool spectator. Tonight, he wanted to exist at the core of things. It was the same reason he always sat in the front row at the cinema. On such occasions he wanted the objectivity punched right out of him, to have his breath taken

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away by the power of visceral engagement. Mid-evening, he found the crowds gathered along the Embankment and over the opposite bridge. He parked Aurélie on a bench and went off to look for the source of the impending display. It was blocked off by barriers and heavy security, but its insalubrious surroundings had deterred all but a straggle of curious onlookers. He returned for Aurélie and led her to the spot. The ground-based exhibition kicked off: standard arrays of silver curtains, Catherine wheels and set-piece picture designs, interspersed with trailing sky rockets and accompanied by much noise and smoke. Occasional phutting sounds of debris extinguishing itself in the river added to the sense of controlled chaos. After these came the waterfalls and roman candles. But it was the aerial displays that he was waiting for, the mortar-shells in shapes of peony, dahlia, horsetail and spider. The grand finale, a series of candle barrages, created giant umbrellas of baby umbrellas that filled the sky above and around them. And it was these that impacted the most on Aurélie’s retinae. Caught in the nucleus of a benign explosion, she grabbed hold of his arm and squealed with delight. Back home, Dafydd picked up logs and kindling from the wood-shed on the way in. While he built a fire, Aurélie flopped down on the sofa. The phone rang at eleven. “It’s Sean. I’ve been trying to call you.” “The other night? I guessed. Three times. I was out. What about the other ten years?” “All right. All right…” “Sorry. That wasn’t a good start, was it? Let’s try again…” “OK. Why? Why did you come looking for me?”

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“I had a month off. Emlyn asked me. He said it was for Catrin.” “And you?” “I fancied the challenge.” “Why not before?” “I thought about it more than once when I was over there, but I never had the time.” “You did well with those postcards. I didn’t think you had it in you.” “I had some help…” “I won’t ask who from. What did you think of the house?” “I loved it. You’ve done a great job… Sean, let’s get down to it. Why no contact?” “With you? I kept meaning to. But trivial as it may sound, I left my addressbook in a phone-booth a few years back. After that, I couldn’t phone or write and I wasn’t going to go through them. I never thought it would go on this long though. I just let it drift. Haven’t you ever done that? You turn around and ten years have flown.” “OK. I suppose I can understand that. And I can understand why you might need to get away. But to not let them know you’re alive even, for ten whole years. For Chrissakes, they’re your parents.” “They’re not and that’s why they’ll never hear from me.” “What do you mean?” “Not now. I’ll write, or tell you when we see each other.” “You want that?” “I do now. I missed you. Really.” “Then we must meet up. I’ve got a new girlfriend. She’s from Paris.”

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“The blind one? The one that Rose-Marie told me about?” “Here right now.” “Well good on you. Aren’t they beautiful? French women, I mean.” “This one is.” “You two must come and visit me.” “You sure?” “Of course.” “Then we will. Next time I’m in Paris.” Dafydd’s fire had taken nicely: the paper transmuted into weightless black flakes which drifted aimlessly up the chimney. The pine kindling was roaring, crackling and spitting, the ash logs coming through with an occasional tongue of flame and a blue-tinged glow. Aurélie knelt down, groped her way over to her favourite spot and stretched out on the rug with her back to the fire. Her eyelids drifted together and a faint smile spread across her face. She curled up tight and then stretched out again, her Capricorn Anglepoise limbs looking for a place to stay. Dafydd leant an elbow on the table and stared down at her. She looked like a new-born foal. He went over and knelt down beside her. Reaching out an arm, he began to rub her shoulder and upper back, softly and slowly. Her smile got bigger and she gave out an affirmative throaty sound. After a few moments, his rubbing motion transformed itself, without intention and almost imperceptibly, into a gentle patting one, in time with the beat of her heart. At that moment, deep inside her, a zygote split itself clean in two.

*****

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Twenty Six Three Months Later September 1977

Mid-September, and aAfter a dull wet summer, an Azores High crept up and settled over the southern counties of England. Chilly dawns gave birth to lazy days of stillness and blue. High-flying feathery cirrus looked down their noses on steamy jettrails that criss-crossed the lower London sky. Out on the streets, layers of clothes came tumbling off, faces opened up, spirits drifted higher.

Early Sunday morning, Dafydd and Aurélie wrapped themselves in thick robes and took barefoot breakfast in his sunlit garden. Surrounded by high walls of mellow London brick, mostly obscured by untended vegetation, it felt more like a glade in some woods. “I think we should make a fire,” said Aurélie. “Good idea.” She stood up. “Where’s the axe?” “You’ve got no chance.” “The exercise will be good for them.” “I don’t even want to discuss it.” He went and collected his swing-axe and a few logs from the shed. Aurélie listened carefully. His first strike gave off a dull thunk and jammed halfway down.

“You were concentrating on the top of the log, right?” “Of course.” “That’s why you screwed up.”

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“You’re an expert then?” “I know about Zen and the Art of Chopping Logs, sure.” “Do tell.” “You need to aim at the bottom of the log. That’s where you want to arrive, isn’t it? So focus your mind-body energy on that.” “What if I miss the top?” “You won’t. Get the bottom right and the top takes care of itself. Trust me.” He picked up another, breathed out a facetious ‘Om’ and swung with all his might. The blade cleaved through the log and embedded itself in the supporting roundel. A satisfying clonk echoed across the quiet Sunday morning gardens of Hampstead. “Well?” “You’ve obviously done this before.” “Once upon a time.” Halfway down their second coffee, the doorbell rang. Dafydd leapt up. “Shit. That’ll be Richard already.” Richard stood in the porch, his arms full of James. Behind him, Becci and Hannah had their arms full of sundry items of catering equipment and foodstuffs. They all followed Dafydd through the kitchen and out into the garden. “I must be mad,” said Richard. “Last time I did this, I vowed never again.” “Did what?” “Cooked for people on my day off.” “Hey, this is special. Anyway, it was your idea.” “You may recall, I said, let’s all have a meal together... I like the secret garden. Are we eating outside?”

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“Oh yes. I’ll light a fire in a minute.” “Hi Aurélie. Stand up then. Let’s see your bump.” She raised herself, hands folded across her swollen stomach. “I’m only four months.” “That’s two great big ones then. Are they identical?” “Of course.” “So who’s here, who’s coming? Lucy sends her love, but she already has a date.” “Rosa’s still in bed. Didn’t arrive till late last night. Doris sends her apologies; says it’s still quite busy down there. Sean might come. And Didier’s still in bed too. He’s come with his new girlfriend, Délia.” Dafydd whispered in Richard’s ear: “She’s a hooker.” “Ex-hooker,” said Aurélie, loud as she could. “And at least she’s a bit older than me… Actually she’s gorgeous. Mature student, reading philosophy at the Sorbonne.” “So where you having the baby?” “St. Mary’s,” said Dafydd. “Aurélie’s moved in here.” “That’s nice… Right. I’d better get started… Do you two want to take James for a walk on the Heath? You’ll only get in my way.” Becci and Hannah headed back to the car to pick up James’s pushchair. Outside, Hannah asked: “Are you OK about seeing Sean again?” “Yeah. I think so. It’ll be a bit odd for a while, but it was just a fling really.” “I’ve yet to make it to two, but if I do, I’m not sure I could handle being in the same room with them.” “It gets easier with practice.”

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“Thanks, Mum.” “Don’t ever say that again.” Dafydd took Richard and showed him around the kitchen cupboards. While they unpacked his containers and bags, Aurélie stood in the doorway finishing her coffee. “What are we having then?” “It’s all fresh and seasonal. I love this time of year. September is such a generous month… The boss let me have the lunchtime shift off yesterday; so I had everything delivered by our suppliers. No shopping. That was a top break…” He announced each one as he pulled it out: “Kentish cobnuts to roast and pick at… whole sewin…” “What’s that?” “Wild sea trout from West Wales. If you ask me, it’s superior to salmon. I baked that off yesterday. We’ll have it cold with some warm samphire and sesame oil…” “Samphire?” “Marsh sea-grass, also from West Wales. Never had it? Oyster for vegetarians...” “Looks beautiful,” said Dafydd. “It’s bright emerald green, Aurélie. Smells fantastic. Here...” He put a piece in her mouth. “It tastes like the sea.” Just then, Rosa wandered down in her nightdress. “I thought I heard voices… Richard!” She ran across the kitchen to embrace him. “Rosa! Princess of the impromptu meal. I’m just going through the menu. I’ve

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had a lot more time to think about it than you did. Where was I? Ah yes, a few early mallard which I pot-roasted yesterday. Took off enough fat for the roast potatoes. Field mushrooms, a few ceps and some curly kale. Got smoked bacon to go with that.” “Dios mio.” “It’s a heart-stopping hit, I’m afraid. And there’s more to come. Becci and Hannah made a damson charlotte last night; so I had to buy Jersey cream.” Richard made it all look easy. He fired up the oven, put on a pan of boiling water and worked out his cooking times. The others disappeared to get showered and changed. By the time they came back down, he was sitting in the garden, sipping beer and picking at his cobnuts with Didier and Délia, who’d emerged from their bedroom. When Becci and Hannah returned from walking James to sleep, Dafydd introduced them. By the time the first course arrived, everyone was talking connections. Aurélie had made a three-dimensional diagram, and now they all leant over the table to study it, while she let her fingers trace out the cartography of chance. “These are all the people and these are all the places and these are the lines between them. It might be a bit of a mess…” “That’s because it’s so complicated,” said Rosa. “Who’s Anaïs?” “My cousin’s girlfriend. I met her on my trip through Brittany. And it turns out Hannah spent Easter with her family in Paris a couple of years ago.” “I’ve only got Newquay.” “No. You’ve got Dafydd and Sean too. Look. Caerphilly and As Pontes de Garcia.” “I’ve got my Dad.” Hannah let her head fall on Richard’s shoulder.

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Halfway down the trout and samphire, Sean arrived. Dafydd left a silent table to meet him in the doorway. The two of them faced each other, speechless. Eventually, they both burst out laughing. Dafydd reached out and wrapped his arms round Sean’s back. “You’d better come in.” Becci was the first to welcome him. She stood up and walked straight over to him with a kiss for his cheek. He sat himself down at the place reserved for him. Dafydd thought he looked tense and travel-weary. Richard went to pour him some wine, but he covered the glass with his hand. “No thanks. I’m off it. For now.” “How long?” asked Dafydd. “A couple of months… Une petite crise de foie…” “Has it been tough?” “Getting to sleep’s a bummer. But I think if I go back, I’ll be a bit more restrained.” “Sean?” said Aurélie. “What were you doing in Lannion, the time you met Becci?” “Job interview. They’ve a lot of hi-tech factories there. A small communications company wanted a systems analyst. I’ve had enough of EdF’s grinding bureaucracy.” “Did you get it?” “Start next month when this contract finishes.” “That’s great! And did you know we were there the next day? Same bar even.” “Neh-vah!” “God, you’re so Welsh sometimes, Sean,” said Dafydd.

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“Leave him alone,” said Aurélie. “And did you know it’s Caerphilly’s twin town?” “I didn’t then. I do now.” Richard left to take care of the next course. Round the table, the talk moved back to The Minstrels. Sean knew only of Becci’s encounter with Dafydd, and he listened carefully while they all took turns to fill him in on the rest. When they’d finished coffee, Dafydd leant over and whispered to him, then addressed the whole table. “We’re just going to take a stroll on the heath if you guys don’t mind.” Aurélie stood up and headed for a side table: “Scrabble, anyone?” Outside on the street, Dafydd put his arm round Sean’s shoulder as they walked. “You all right?” “Yeah. I just need to unwind.” “So are you going to tell me the story?” “You’re not going to believe this… You know Catrin never felt like much of a mother to me. I always wanted her to be like your stories of Helydd, rather than who she was. That summer, as I was leaving for Nantes, she only told me Emlyn wasn’t my father. I felt totally betrayed. You and I aren’t related, Dai.” Dafydd was besieged by recent images: of the Concierge in Nantes; RoseMarie, with all that business about long eyelashes and slender fingernails; even Becci that time on the phone. And then of course, years of comments from neighbours when they were kids, comparing the two of them. “That’s absurd. I just don’t believe it. And you shouldn’t have either.” “It was Huw. When he handed her over to Emlyn, she was already pregnant

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with me.” “Christ… I wonder why she chose to tell you at that moment.” “She said she had a premonition that I wouldn’t be coming back from France. She was dead right.” “So that’s why you never got in touch. Nothing to do with your lost address book.” “That came into it, obviously. But the main reason I never bothered was you let me go when you hit the BBC media crowd and I went up to Cambridge.” “I visited.” “Once. In three years.” “Touché. London can be a bit distracting… Does Emlyn know?” “No! That’s the thing. She made me promise never to tell. Said it would destroy him.” “What about Huw?” “Yes. I went and tackled him. She tried to stop me, but I told her it was no use. I waited until he was on his own and fired into him. How could he live down the road from his own son without acknowledging it? He went mad. I’ve never seen anyone so angry. Listen, I can look after myself, but he was possessed. He grabbed me by the windpipe, levered me down on to the sofa and screamed at me if Emlyn ever found out he’d kill me. That’s why I left. That’s one fucked up happy family, I tell you.” “But we are still related.” “How come?” “Same paternal grandparents. That makes us cousins.” “I hadn’t thought of that. But it’s not much and it’s still not the point. Don’t you see, I grew up with a lie. I’ll never forgive them for that.”

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“It was the times, Sean. Loads of kids were born outside marriage without learning about it till later. After six years of not knowing if they or their loved ones were going to die that day, people started to free themselves, bury the Edwardians once and for all. You remember the stories, the tragic love affairs, the movies and the photos, the desperate partings on railway station platforms. In some ways they were beautiful times, and you came out of them. But it took longer for the taboos to slip away, for everyone to realise there’s no need for secrets.” “I never looked at it that way.” “So they screwed up. Did you ever screw up? I have. Everybody does.” “Maybe I’ll learn to forgive them one day, but I’ve no wish to see them.” “Why not? They’re old now.” “They’re just getting older. We’re all doing that.” “OK… You can leave them to me. I’ll cover for you, tell them you’re alive and well and that you’ll check in with me from time-to-time.” “If you really want to. Funny, you always did that, covered for me.” “Want to stick around for a couple of days? You can stay in the study.” “I’d love to.” As they arrived back at the house, Richard was getting ready to leave with his funny little family. Dafydd helped him load his catering stuff. Sean strolled over to Becci, wrapped his arms round her and kissed the top of her head. She smiled up at him: “We’ll always have Lannion.” “Say it again.” “We’ll always…” “Come and see me, next time you’re sailing past.”

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“Maybe… Richard wants me to teach him the ways of the sea.”

With the others settled in the car, Richard went to shake Dafydd’s hand, then turned it into a bear hug. “Ha. Life. Four months ago, I was carefree and single. Now look at me.” “Tell me about it. I’ll be catching up with you soon.” “If I don’t see you before, hope everything goes well with the birth.” “Aurélie’s scared, because of what happened to her sister, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.” “Course it will. Medicine’s moved on. Twin births aren’t nearly so hazardous now.” Dafydd and Sean returned to the garden and teamed up with the others, still playing Scrabble. Didier produced a bottle of Calvados from his hold-all. He poured a few and raised his glass. “Here’s to us. And beautiful children waiting to be born.”

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Twenty Six Paddington London February 1978

Aurélie lay on her bed in the delivery room at St. Mary’s, drenched in pain, exhausted. Aided by the midwife’s assistant, she raised herself up on her pillows and centred herself for the penultimate push. After screaming out once more, she found that she could just make out what was going on beyond her diminishing bump. Out past a semi-circle of student observers to the half-tiled, half-painted walls, the room became a dizzying fairground carousel with nothing to hold on to. Colours of clothes, faces and hair blended into the background and one another. Back in close, she touched down on the blur of a calm attentive midwife busying herself beside a trolley in her green gown and silvery latex gloves. In front of her, a nervous young obstetrician stared at the first baby’s head. When he glanced up, Aurélie strained her wide-open eyes and made fleeting contact with his. With vision in the ascendant, her other senses began their diminuendo: the voices in the room merged into one incomprehensible chatter. The place no longer smelt of antiseptics and bleaches and her own exertions. She felt nothing. Her pethidine gaze drifted up to a bank of chilly fluorescent lights and rested on a hazy white form. She looked upon a likeness of herself, the twin sister she’d only met once before. One blink and the figure had flown. Someone took hold of her hand. She rolled her head sideways and looked at Dafydd for the first time. As his face came into focus, she reached out and touched his cheek. He smiled. She disappeared at last into the depths of his welcoming eyes and together they wept two more children into the world.

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The babies were whisked away from Aurélie’s belly into a hum of post-natal activity, to be returned minutes later checked, dried and wrapped. Dafydd was presented with the first. Once they were all moved up to the waiting ward, Aurélie told him to go home and get some rest. She gave him a list of things to bring back – including her book of astrological charts - and reminded him to call Didier. Next morning, Dafydd arrived to hand over his consignment. The twins were asleep in a cot. The first thing Aurélie did was open her big book, to take a look at her last effort and at Didier’s work. “These luminous motifs. They’re like jewels. I wonder why he bothered.” “You’ll have to ask him. He’s on his way. First plane… I called Sean too. He sends his congratulations.” “That’s nice. Have you had breakfast?” “No, of course not. I came straight here.” “I think you should. Go on. I need some time.” On his way to the cafeteria, Dafydd bumped into Didier, who joined him for a coffee. “I’ve already been up. They’re all doing well. She wants to be on her own for a bit.” “Two girls, eh. Do you have names for them?” “Only one. It begins with an A, and it’s not Aurélie.” “I might have known… And her eyes are still working?” “Getting better all the time.” “Did she ever talk to you about the cause of her blindness?” “Just once and it wasn’t much. Only that the damage wasn’t physical… And that you went and saw the consultant without her.”

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“I felt terrible about that. I made up some excuse. I couldn’t bear the thought of her being there with me if the news was bad. He said her eyes were in a coma. And when I asked if it was possible to recover from that, he thought it best not to hold out hope.” “You withheld that bit then?” Didier nodded. “Apparently some people with this condition have had their sight restored arbitrarily or by a repeat trauma. I couldn’t tell her that either. Knowing her, she’d have gone around hunting for traumas.” Dafydd laughed. “She’s dying to see you.”

He returned to the ward with Didier trailing behind. They found her struggling to feed the twins, one at each breast.

“Christ, they’re huge.” “What do you mean? I’m not sure I have enough for one here.” “I meant the children.” “Well what did you expect?” Dafydd glanced from her to Didier and then down at his own size fourteen feet: “You’ve got a point.” Didier disengaged himself from an armful of flowers and fruit before sitting on the edge of the bed and kissing first his daughter and then the twins. Aurélie’s book lay open on her lap. She traced one of the star signs with a forefinger. “All this time and I didn’t know what was behind them. Why the colours, papa?” “In case your eyes came back.”

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“Then if you two will take care of these two until they’re asleep, I will give you my first non-tactile reading for a few years.” She surrounded herself with her sidereal kit and within an hour had produced her interim horoscope for the newborns. She closed the book and lowered it to the floor. “All done?” “For now.” “What do you reckon then?” She looked up and smiled. “They’ll be fine… They’ll be fine…”

*** THE END ***

Special Thanks To Dr Simon Fleminger, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist, Maudsley Hospital, London For advice on dissociative blindness.

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Alchemy of Change