Settling into the vacation flat in Nice; Ramona reflects on the unanticipated and salutary effects of co-conspiring to cover up a murder and the experience of holding secrets; Ramona savors the luxuries of Nice and gets a new hairdo; Millicent meets a new man and Ramona stands on the precipice of love
The last tenant of the flat at L’Hotel de St. Juste, a Count Sletzin Kaslovsky, had been dead for nearly a year. He’d holidayed through the winters in Nice since boyhood, the hotel manager told us, moved there after his exile, and only left to be buried in the family plot in Paris. I gathered he died in the flat, something that I wondered would have upset me before the events in November; it didn’t, in any case, particularly, now.
Communications arrived from the Kaslovsky family in Paris for the flat to be sublet indefinitely; they were a sumptuously rich, elderly and apparently unsentimental bunch, disinclined to make any decision on what to do with the Count’s things.
The manager had praised the furniture, but welcomed us to furnish the place ourselves. I had demurred, which suited the hotel, hard-pressed to get the flat ready in time for our arrival as it was. We would be just as glad we’d agreed, particularly Millicent, who had a discerning eye for such things, the only trait she would claim glad to have received from her mother. I’d somehow never realized the extent of her knowledge of furniture and the like, as I listened, a little surprised, as she came close to enthusiasm as she was capable. “First rate,” she had said admiringly without a touch of sarcasm.
We found it an odd mix, the light airy rooms, the white vole curtains, the Louis 16th furniture with its sharp angles and dark woods, next to rows of heavy leather books stamped with Russian titles, as well as a good number of Orthodox bibles, some the size of an overnight cases, resting on small tables of their own. Paintings of the Russian countryside and Tsar Nicholai completed the décor, but what caught my attention were the icons: grave hollow-eyed saints, fingers raised in sober benediction, the gold leaf gleaming from the light on the terrace. We were assured they would be removed; I asked for St. Aloysius to be moved to my room; I rather liked his cadaverous face in lines of implacably gloomy reproach.
The rooms ran along the back of the building, facing the Cote D’Azur. Our bedrooms included a lavatory and balcony each, Millicent’s a morning and sitting room. A kitchen, a living room, a dining room, a breakfast nook with doors that opened up to the patio, completed the flat. Helvstead had lifted me a good number of rungs up from my life in London, but our cursory walk through the flat reminded me of just how many steps there are.
Neither Millicent nor I said much, but attended to the business of settling into our digs as those pleased to do so. A young man in uniform busily removed the Count’s old-fashioned suits from the armoire in Millicent’s room, overlooked in the haste of the arrangements, leaving the air redolent with mothballs. The hotel manager hovered nearby, like Janus with his two faces, scowling as he bore down on his underling, muttering imprecations under his breath, bowing and beaming when turning to Millicent. I motioned for my trunks to be put in the smaller bedroom, and told the chambermaid hovering in the doorway to see if Lady Von Favre needed further assistance. I still rather liked to do my own unpacking; that much, at least, I’d discovered over the last weeks of travel.
The pink on my bedroom walls shone so faint in the daylight it was almost white, but the bedding and side tables wore ruffled covers of a more sentimental colour, rosebuds or ribbons on a Victorian postcard. Anything that could possibly hold a ruff about it its circumference, chairs, bureau and so forth, did so. My own drawers and closets were empty except for a blue heart-shaped satchel dangling by a thin, taut ribbon in the closet. I found myself thinking of Miss Caruthers tucked away in her own pink bedroom, decaying inexorably. This room had been constructed for some frequent visitor, a virginal sister or aunt, a spinsterish niece, I suspected.
I stepped into the lavatory admiring aqua tiles, burnished copper fixtures, and immense claw-foot tub. I washed my face with the lavender soap, daubing face and hands on a linen towel—that too, lavender-scented—smoothed a few stray hairs, and freshened my lipstick, a color Millicent had discarded and I’d fished out of a enamel-plated rubbish bin in Paris, and even I could see the color was becoming. I looked younger, my face no longer so pale and thin with worry. It seemed a decade since my days at the Optomeyer, years since my tremulous first months at Helvstead.
I crossed the bedroom to open the balcony with a rush of brisk saline air and watched a small gray boat make tortoise-like progress across the horizon till it disappeared, only for another to replace it, heading in the opposite direction.
There were only two ways the world could be now, I recognized: one
where all was known, one where it wasn’t. This fact in and of itself unsettled me less than one might imagine and seemed to be a part of the same easy acceptance of the whole event, perhaps. But, at odd moments, I would be moved by something, a feeling, something I’d dreamt of as a child, of floating in a gray sky, remembering as I dreamed, other such volant dreams: soaring over soft rolling banks of clouds, fog billowing about me, and how it felt to be flying, dreaming and remembering all at once. Now, during the waking hours I found myself turning sometimes, as if someone had just spoken my name and seeing the soft rolling clouds out of the corner of my eye.
“Ramona,” Millicent said, a sharp note of inquiry in her voice.
“Yes?” I turned round.
“Have you just been sitting there, like a bowl of treacle? I called for you at least twice. I thought we’d cured you of this bizarre ability of yours to stare out windows for hours in Paris.”
I smiled. “I believe it was only made worse.”
“Who knew you were such an idler? Well, come on then,” she said. “Let’s have dinner. I’m starving. I haven’t had paella in ages.”
Of course it couldn’t be so simple as leaving one place and arriving at another. But it was. For a time, it was.
I don’t know when it was I realized that indeed it was very likely Millicent and I were going to get away with Eddie Depilliar’s murder; not too long after it happened, I don’t think.
Outwardly everything remained almost incongruously the same at
Helvstead: I drank tea, smoked, read newspapers; I asked Millicent’s opinion on the bacon we’d purchased the last month, relayed her complaints the hall curtains hadn’t been properly washed or her shoes needed polishing, Lucy and I discussed menus, schedules for ironing the tablecloths, vagaries of the vegetable deliveries. After the unseasonable warmth that first week of November, winter began closing its inexorable way in and there were some matters of storage and readying the house for colder temperatures. Afternoons, I moved from the morning room to the upstairs library to catch the last of the day’s light, watching the thin trail of smoke from the rubbish fires find its way up through the trees as the sun was pulled down by the hills. Sometimes I took a long idle drive, arriving at a nearby abandoned quarry. It was filled with brackish water, and hard to tell if it fathomlessly deep or a shallow pool. I’d stare watching the sway of leaves and the blip of a fish or turtle on the surface, then, I would be finished, turn around and head for Helvstead.
Eventually Millicent took to riding again, heading away from the fields, towards the creek and the village. She would disappear for hours and return, calling for tea and collapsing into the sofa with a contended sigh.
This murder had changed Millicent. Although as captious as ever, there was a new, as grandiose as it may sound, ataraxia about her. She spoke more mildly to Lucy and myself. When she spoke of others, there was some genuine mirth there, not just misanthropy. And to believe this kindler and gentler Millicent came about after murdering goes against everything I learned in my life, from my father, from the Bible and the church, from my own ideas of honor and duty and goodness. Sometimes I thought she caught me watching her, and she eyes would meet mine, guiless and deliberately blank, and, perhaps, amused, as if she knew what I was thinking.
At the same time I was struck afresh, many times, at how very odd it was no one perceived or knew what we did simply because we hadn’t revealed it. How strange, what a miracle, this secrecy, this complicity, this act of conspiracy was. I felt I had a secret turned upside down like a bat in the heart. A man is dead, I would say to myself, a repetition less borne out of guilt than incredulity, I think.
Sometimes, a new and unsettling feeling came over me, that I was in the midst of some great joke, one made all the more hilarious as I had no one with which to share it. The simplest things seemed amusing; eating breakfast, for instance, struck me as quite funny one morning—the toast in its simple, square haplessness, the porridge looking lumpish and improbable, the sensation of eating so ludicrous—and the fact that I sat there moving spoon to mouth, while a man I had helped buried, lay in the far field, murdered, alone in that tide of dirt and grass.
This feeling of unreality and hilarity lasted, mercifully, only a few weeks. It did strike me as proof, if my relatively easy acceptance of the events of that fateful night hadn’t, that I wasn’t the sort of person I had been imagining whilst doing all those good works in London. Or perhaps I’d suspected it all along and was making efforts to forestall evidence, the possibly inevitable fall into perdition. But my appetite proved regular, I slept well, I didn’t brood too unduly much, nor grow jumpy or strange. I did occasionally have the sensation that I was observing myself as if from a distance or viewing my thoughts with a new clinical interest, as if they were dispatches, reading them like telegrams. I was waiting to see if and when I might find one of self-reproach.
This isn’t to suggest I didn’t have moments of genuine consternation, but the worry of discovery seemed separate from the vigil of waiting for the appearance of remorse. One day, as I stirred the sugar in my tea, I felt my hand come to a still. Those badgers and foxes and voles Tony was always doing battle with: how animals do like to dig, I thought. I’d seen one of the Quigson’s renegade Afghans, paws working feverishly, in the old flowerbeds. And the redoubtable Lilliput; what about her? Surely she might smell something, paw at the ground, whining. She might fetch Tony, who would notice the rupture in the field, and with the grim embittered line his mouth narrowed into whenever the subject of voles came up, begin shoveling.
At other times, I thought of Millicent’s friends, and in my mind their love of scandal took on a preternatural acumen to ferret it out. I imagined, in the space of a few questions, they would know all. The idea of having to face them caused an unpleasant sensation, as if my sternum were held together by piano wire and someone had gone in and begun twisting. I had wondered many times, how Millicent managed at her parties and dinners. Then, perhaps delinquently, it occurred to me though there wasn’t much Millicent couldn’t or wouldn’t do if she wanted to, including facing that rapacious set with a lie on her lips.
It would happen many times over; finding myself growing alarmed, some angle of the story or possibly overlooked object, and just as my worries would deepen, I only needed to say her name to myself and all would be well. Millicent, I would think, Millicent.
There are few people who disappear without some fuss, particularly important ones. I knew our dead man was most likely such a person, as evidenced by his acquaintance with Millicent, or the exquisitely made riding boots at the end of his lifeless legs.
I nudged the folded front page of the business section beside her breakfast one morning.
“Take a look at the frock, will you Millicent,” I prompted.
“If you have to ask it’s hideous.”
“No, no. It’s the one you were talking about earlier.”
“What do you—”
Millicent didn’t pale or start as she glanced at the picture that headed the article Where is Edward Depillar? appearing more annoyed than disconcerted. It was the third such article that appeared in the last ten days, and I finally felt sure I must show it to her. I felt her eyes flicker over my face, as if checking for signs of imminent hysteria. She must have seen none. Certainly, I felt composed enough. She gave an imperceptible nod, and I removed the paper, saying:
“Thank you. I just wanted—” I said.
“Yes, yes. All right. It is not really a very interesting subject, Ramona,” she sighed irritably.
“I won’t bother you with such things again,” I said levelly. “Just this once.”
I had expected her to meet my eyes in a significant way, but she popped in a last triangle of toast, shrugged and told me she was off the Gunderson’s for the day.
After she left, I took the paper and headed to the morning room, settling into the window seat. A Labour party furor was taking up a good portion of the front pages, and if I hadn’t been such an assiduous newspaper reader I might have missed the headline. The picture wasn’t revealing; wearing hat and horn-rim glasses, it was difficult to get much sense of what he looked like besides being somewhere in his mid-forties, with no remarkable features. But then, the last I’d had a good look at him he’d been missing the top quarter of his skull and lying in an inky drench of blood that soaked grass around him, the blades stiffening to sharp points as the night lengthened.
Edward “Eddie” Ravert Depillar was his name, a man with the
usual if a little vague moniker of a “prominent industrialist.” Missing: Edward “Eddie” Depillar, Police Baffled it read in the Times, and something nearly identical the Beacon. An article underneath contained the following information: born in Sussex to good family; Rugby then Oxford; time in America; married to Pippa Lotsum of the Brasso-Off fortune and distinguished himself in the war in the RAF. He had businesses in France, Germany and Italy, was much missed, by wife and sons.
If Millicent was responsible for his death, I felt, in a sense, by my silence, responsible for his annihilation. I put the paper down, staring out the window. The far line of trees had a strangely flattened appearance, as if they were a prop on a set, an effect only increased by the layer of clouds, so uniform in their grey colour, they seemed like a screen. I rolled the name Edward Depilliar over in my mind a few times. Odd: it seemed like the only name he could have, as if I had guessed it, although of course I did no such thing.
Looking at the picture I had a sudden conviction, with little to substantiate it: this had been the man Millicent had been seeing, the man her friends had hinted at that had so annoyed her, the man I had heard on the phone. Perhaps even the man that had been at the Quai Inn
I’d seen lunching the very first day I arrived at Helvstead. He’d had tortoiseshell glasses as well.
I could have looked at Dubret’s or Who’s Who, I suppose, or gone to the library to plunder the archives of newspapers and society magazines; any number of things awaited to further my knowledge. But I had a perfect balance at present, my curiosity weighed against my need for him to stay sepulchered in my mind as he did in the earth. Over the next months I would be struck from time to time by ravening curiosity but I resisted, until it passed like the brief spell of madness it was. Millicent was right, I thought: the less I knew the better.
After breakfast, a few weeks later, Millicent out riding, Lucy preoccupied in the kitchen, I stole a bottle of pills from Millicent’s lavatory. I entered her room on the pretext of looking for an aspirin, but really, I think because I felt adrift, and in lieu of her presence, even Millicent’s things could have a bracing effect. I drifted into the lavatory, opening and closing the mirrored cabinet, noting with a certain proprietariness the talc I had special-ordered, the perfume I’d tracked down in Mayfair, the comb I’d found from a French catalogue, as tangible proof of how our lives intersected. I pulled out the drawer on the vanity and found several bottles of pills lay on their sides, tossed in at random. None being aspirin, I moved to shut the drawer then paused. I let my hand slide over the lids and picked one up, feeling the weight of it in my palm: quite full. Muscle relaxants I saw by the label prescribed last year. Millicent had a nasty fall I remember, wrenching her back.
I intended to put them back but I couldn’t quite manage it. For some time, I’d waited, puzzled, for my conscience to awaken. I could see myself in London, writing cheque after cheque to charity, hithering and thithering between church charity work and my soup kitchens. That woman would surely find this culpability unbearable.
But apparently not or: not so far, at least. However, I didn’t like being ill-prepared. If devouring self-reproach ever arrived I wanted the security of an exit and I wasn’t too naïve as to recognize this sort of security when it appeared before me. It would be almost a cozy feeling, having those pills. And in a perverse way, possessing them seemed to ward off such a crisis. I put the pills in my pocket and caught a glance of myself in the mirror. I regarded my face, every feature and ridge and line and angle; after a moment I put on a large artificial smile. A poppy seed was caught in my incisor. It took a moment to loosen it with my fingernail, then, again, I smiled.
The bottle made a faint anodyne shushing with each step as I left.
“Lucy,” I called as I came into the hall one day after I returned from a drive, feeling pleasantly tired. “Tea if you could, in the library.” I took off my coat. “And NO fish sandwiches, please—just bread and butter.”
“Ramona,” said Millicent, as she emerged out of the dining room. “Come here for a moment.”
“Millicent!” I said, startled. “I thought you were at the Dantwerps.”
She waved this away. “Oh, I left. Ghastly scene.”
“Ah. Really?” This had become my manner of angling for information, the conversational equivalent of clearing off the table, so if she cared to, she might rest any cares down on it.
“Trust Ronnie to be the biggest moron imaginable under any circumstances. One business trip to India—they’ve got simply loads over there—and he’s wearing bed sheets, ululating about the Great Within and Without, whatever that is. Doesn’t seem to have stopped his wandering hands, but such things never really do, do they? Usually make it worse. But never mind that. Let me show you something.”
Bemused, I tucked my gloves into my handbag and followed her to the dining room where she pointed to an opened box on the table.
“Do you have any bloody idea what this is?” she asked.
I peered inside; under a swathe of tissue paper sat the wooden brogues from the antique store in Oxford, behind them, the little painting, uglier even than I remembered.
“You do? Good gracious then—what is it Ramona.”
“I’d—completely, I’d completely forgotten. Antique store in Oxford. I forgot to pick them after I had that spill—”
“Good Lord. You bought these things? ” She picked up the painting, assessing it shrewdly. “Still. Just the sort of thing they charge quite a little packet.”
“No, no,” I demurred, feeling her skeptical gaze.
“Mmm,” Millicent raised her eyebrows, looked more assessingly at the box.
I hurried on. “I must have mentioned I lived here and he sent them on. Kind of him, really.”
“Not that kind,” she said putting the painting down with obvious distaste.
“I’ll keep it in my room.”
“Well, I’m certainly not going to look at it.”
She took a drag on our cigarette. “Gave me an odd moment,” she said and somehow I understood what she meant. Since Edward Depillars demise we had antenna out for anything unusual, however remotely connected. She pulled out the shoes and we looked at them sitting on the table. I had forgotten the care with which they’d been carved and how very large they were. Nothing could have looked more preposterous under Millicent gaze.
“What monstrosities. You are the most unaccountable creature, Ramona. But it is no business of mine.” She pushed them away, adding: “Just as long as you promise not to wear them, Ramona.”
So things continued, really quite harmoniously to December. I had begun to notice the hours after luncheon, having exhausted the papers, and tea still a good time away, had begun to lengthen, which lead to my prowling round Helvstead a bit more than I had before. Several of the rooms on the first floor had been closed, and a certain delicacy, and a desire to distance myself from than the loneliness and boredom that had propelled me as a child through Helvstead, had kept me from exploring further.
I wandered into the parlor study, navigating my way about the sheet-swaddled furniture, noticing a telephone resting atop what was probably a table; I’d thought I heard a distant ringing and had chalked it up to Helvstead’s eccentric acoustical eddies. My hand slid to my pocket and I felt the list of things to do that day, and had a start of worry. I’d forgotten to ring the chemist for Millicent’s tablets. I picked up the phone, and was reassured to hear the dial tone.
I bellowed off a short list of necessities to the rather deaf woman at the chemists, rung off and pulled back the curtain and stared out the window—nothing and no one was about—and sighed. I let the curtain drop and noticed a pad of paper was next to phone: Dorrie Sandbourne-Jones, Foster 8-6753 it read in Millicent’s deep slanted handwriting. Puzzled, I picked it up. The name Sandbourne was somehow tantalizingly familiar and I strained to recall where I knew it from when I felt the paper tugged out of my hand.
“Still can’t resist getting into my business, can you Ramona?” Millicent said.
Stung, I stood staring at her.
“I-I beg your pardon?” I said.
“Why are you in here, Ramona?” Her voice was sharp.
I looked at her, dumbfounded.
“I asked you a question, didn’t I? Well?” She said, coldly.
My surprise hardened into anger. “I got rather bored, as sometimes happens with nothing to do and no one to talk to,” I said. “I have been thinking, obviously wrongly, I was welcome to any part of the house. I certainly didn’t mean to intrude.”
Millicent paused, I think, surprised as I by my tone.
“Well, Ramona, you do have a habit of nosing about like a little rodent, you know,” she said, a Millicent-sort of olive branch I would have eagerly accepted another time. But that day, filled with a new feeling I couldn’t quite name, I walked out without saying a word. We said no more about it, although I didn’t forget the incident, as I sensed she wanted me too.
A few days later she had suggested we take a holiday, and that is when I mentioned the Rivera.
Very early on our stay in Nice I decided, with uncharacteristic and implacable certainty, to have my hair cropped. For once my thistly head seemed willing to do what it was asked, and lay obediently in the short neat curls the hairdresser had placed them, with the assistance of some heavenly-smelling pomade which I purchased in abundance.
“Formidable!” exclaimed the shampoo girl in what might almost be considered insulting surprise when I left and received several extra francs on the strength of it. I could afford to tip well; Millicent had been wordlessly supplying me piles of fifty-franc notes since Paris. She had an uncanny knack for knowing when I ran low, a neat white envelope of bills left propped up against the bureau mirror.
The salon was only a few blocks away; I would go there often as our stay at L’Hotel de St. Juste extended into another week and then a few more still, until nearly two months passed. Millicent, despite her best efforts, had encountered several acquaintances in Nice, mostly American. I sensed she found them refreshing, different enough from her own set to amuse (“Some of them actually do something—surgeons, financiers and the like, rather than wait for the family pile—can you imagine?”) and spent a good deal of time out.
As for myself, idleness, I came to learn, came in many different forms and flavors. The respite from London had been much needed, the unfilled hours at Helvstead pleasant but containing a particular sort of weightiness, difficult to squirm out from underneath, requiring deliberate efforts at self-improvement or entertainment.
Aimlessness in Nice, on the other hand, was everlastingly easy, a delight. I had both nothing and everything to do: walking the promenades, exploring the shops, dining, lunching, visiting museums, experimenting with various beauty treatments at the salon, reading both French and English papers. I observed the winter inhabitants, elderly nobles in furs with their mistresses or kept boys, all almost invariably blonde; merry widowers, drinking crème de cassis at midday; monocled English gentleman trailing after their wives whose eyes glinted with predatory fervor for the biloux joux, the Italian aristocrats leaning with deliberate casualness against the flank of a bright blue Isotta-Fraschini, smoking; Russian aristocrats speaking of the old days in St. Petersburg. These more conspicuous visitors initially caught my attention, but soon I found myself just as interested in Nice’s inhabitants: the schoolgirls in uniforms, shopkeepers, fishermen, mothers with prams, waiters, taxi drivers, busy with their business of the day. And, all the while, in the background, I was ever conscious of the gentle waving curtain of sea, thinking I had never known such a generous thing as its color.
I played tourist, as best as one could during the off-season, wandering through museums, parks, gardens. Often no one else would be about, and after dropping a few obligatory francs that rang emptily in the box of private garden, I ambled about winter-dulled hedges and cropped rows of flowering bushes, thinking it must be almost intolerably beautiful in flower. With the exception of St. Tropez, which I decided to save for warmer days, I began to probe the surrounding cities and villages, Cannes, Cap D’Ail, Toulon, Grasse and Juan les Pins, but was just as glad to idle about Nice.
There was always something of interest to see on my peregrinations: the table outside the poissonnier holding the day’s catch collapsing in a flurry of ice, curses and purplish tentacles; dangling sausages swinging in unison like the corps de ballet with the efforts of the butcher’s sawing a particularly thick marrow below; a tiara in window display receiving a polish from a disembodied and brightly manicured hand, a tailor with measuring tape pursuing a lady with a handkerchief to her nose, dashing out of his shop.
I had none of the wariness and suspicion of French cuisine of my compatriots. I was well-aware of the irony of discovering myself, such a notoriously poor eater, willingly plunging into les fruits de la mer, paella, ratatouille, pastis, soupe de pistou, aubergines au Provencal, the leeks, snails, ox-tail soup, the wine. I believe I lunched at nearly every three-and-four-star hotel along the main boulevard. Often, in the late afternoon, I would stop at a patisserie, a revelation in the sheer number of confections offered: meringues the size of steaks, exquisite marzipan fruits, pastries cunningly engineered to look like cathedrals, cigars, pigs, steeples, statues, even the hand of a saint, along with less fanciful manifestations, squares and triangles and towers with layers and fillings of every color, flavor and description.
My schoolgirl French sprang to life and expanded rapidly. I’d always been lucky with languages. Even so, my nationality was immediately (and rather depressingly) obvious, shopkeepers and waiters switching to English before I even spoke, although later I took comfort in being praised on my accent. I found one advantage to this conspicuous Englishness; people spoke with rather more candor than they might have otherwise. Most of the exchanges were quite ordinary: debates of poulet or poisson for dinner, complaints over a bunion, the perfidies of a neighbor’s cat, analysis of local government peppered with the what struck me as traditionally cynical Gallic observations of human nature. But I also heard mistresses talking petulantly to their lovers, husbands accusing wives of poisoning them, men speaking in low voices their desire for each other, sisters making plans to steal a hated stepmother’s broach, accusations between relatives about a missing urn of ashes. I sat and listened, content in my idleness and anonymity, a spy with no purpose.
Not too long after that first month, Millicent met a man. At first, I only I caught tantalizing glimpses of their courtship: a ticket stub on the counter, the arrival of a foamy blue evening frock that rustled, stiff with crinolines; Millicent’s muffled laughter on the phone; the sight of her retreating spectator pumps next to a pair of white bucks heading up the stairs to a restaurant. Then, returning from Juan Les Pins one afternoon I saw her with a tall, fair man in a lemony yellow suit at L’Osieu eating oysters; then later that week, dressed for dancing, entering the Hotel Negresco. Then a glimpse of his holding the door as she emerged from his car. How well, I thought with a wistfulness I hadn’t felt in some time, her mocking arch manner and her wide carmine smile were suited to dazzle.
When she did finally spoke of him, she did as if he’s been part of our conversation all along, circumventing any need for explanation. We still occasionally had breakfast together and sat with café au lait, croissant, and innumerable jars of jam, the sight of which never failed to make my heart give a little leap of pleasure, reading our papers, mine in French, which often provoked Millicent to call me a show-off.
“Oh, before I forget,” I said. “The concierge has informed me our maids will be coming by between ten and eleven today, rather than ten-thirty and eleven-thirty and promises it shall never, ever happen again.”
Millicent and I had a running joke about the concierge’s apparently unassailable uxoriousness. Millicent smiled and picked up her cup, added more milk and coffee and brought it to her lips.
“No matter. Henry’s picking me up for a jaunt to Cannes to meet some friends, I shall be out all day” she said.
His name, dangled before me, a test, I think, seeing how much I would probe or express offense at its delinquent arrival.
“Ah,” I said. “Well, have a lovely time.”
She had, no doubt, been as aware of my knowledge as I had been feigning ignorance. I could sense her gaze while we breakfasted or worked out some practical detail of the flat, trying to determine how I was taking this latest turn of events. I pretended to be unaware, and asked nothing, simply going along with the pretense of fait accompli. An odd coded inversion of a conversation, one of many, I imagine, that exist between friends and relatives.
Anyway, by then I had met a man of my own.
I first saw Martin D’Avignon in the Parc de Neptune. Most afternoons I took a walk down the Quai Etas-Unis, to arrive in the park, nestled in the heart of the bushes and palm trees that encircled it. There I would sit and have a cigarette while regarding the statue of Neptune, a hypnotic mass of writhing muscle, beard and seaweed. Men played Tabac under the dappled sunlight of the trees, the click of the silver balls and cries of pleasure or dismay carrying across the dry winter grass. French matrons in furs, often with a improbably small dog under their arm crossed through the park, their pumps clipping a smart peccadillo on the sidewalk. Occasionally a courtly older gentleman would be waiting and I imagined love affairs nurtured over time and distance.
I had been sitting for a only a few minutes, when a man’s voice, followed by a clamor of younger ones, rung out, startling in their Englishness. A gaggle of adolescent boys wearing navy blue uniforms and ties burst in to the park, sketchpads and pencil boxes rattling. They circled the statue, flinging open pads, pulling out pencils and charcoal with a great deal of jostling and noise. In ten minutes, it became quiet: brows furrowed, tongues poked out of the sides of mouths as they set to capturing their subject.
The teacher stood by the bushes, smoking. He was tall, his hair very dark, clipped short and slicked down with brilliantine. He wore a neat dark suit, and after my weeks in Nice I could see it was of a very dull correct English cut. Once the boys were occupied, his attention seemed to wander to the sea. It is difficult to defend my immediate impression; perhaps it was that he didn’t wear a hat or the way his hair resisted the brilliantine, or the impatience of his hands jangling change in his pockets. It was an unaccountable thing, something I felt that from the first, before I even spoke to him, that something about him was an untruth.
He went round the circle taking a cursory glance at the boy’s work and then wandered over to speak to the men playing petanque, saying something to make them laugh. With a lift of his hand in farewell, he returned to the boys. He turned to stare out towards where the sea would be if not for the line of bushes. He was still standing there when I left.
I had little desire to encounter those schoolboys again, so the following day I went for my walk on the promenade before luncheon, thinking it would enhance my appetite. I had put on weight since I’d arrived, in addition to what I’d gained at Helvstead. It suited me, I could tell, looking in the mirror. The gauntness of my face had left, my legs no longer resembled sticks, my hands had lost their frail, papery look and I had to buy a brassiere in the next size, and in doing so, discovered a nascent ardor for lingerie.
The Quai Des Etas Unis, with the tourists gone, was quite uncrowded. It amused me how parting from a view of the sea, even knowing I would see as much as I wanted as soon as I wanted, still sometimes required a tiny thrust of effort. I found my usual bench at the Parc de Neptune. Not long after I’d lit a cigarette I heard the tangle of young English voices streaming down the path. The teacher was a much older man than yesterday, blowing his reddened nose into a handkerchief, and looking aggrieved. Between coughing fits, he castigated them to concentrate on how the light fell at this hour in contrast to yesterday. Finally, it grew quiet and I imagined the sketches laboriously blooming in front of the boys. My mother had liked to draw, if somewhat furtively; I would find tiny sketches of dogs or children or whorls of flowers on butcher paper, on a crisps packet, the newspaper, an envelope. She was quite good, actually.
“Pardon me,” someone said.
The dark-haired man I’d seen the day before stood in front of me, as did one of the schoolboys. I followed their gaze to a half-finished sketch blown against my calf. I leaned down and handed it to the boy, and managed not to smile at the boy’s plump, handsome face, who looked at me anxiously, as if he feared he’d done something improper.
“Here you are then,” I said.
“Thank you, miss,” he said and hastened back to his seat.
“Sorry to have bothered you,” said the man. His eyes were green surrounded by thick black lashes. Venetian eyes, as mother used to say.
“Pas de problem, monsieur.”
I don’t know why I spoke French. It was silly. He gave me a polite nod. I watched his retreating back carefully and when I saw his attention was elsewhere, I left.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com