by Michael E. Lloyd
On their fourth full evening together he finally felt he should ask Pureza, out of simple politesse, if she would care to tell him a little more about her family. And after promising once again that he would never write a single word about what she said, he quickly learnt a great deal more than he was expecting about her childhood and her teenage years in the north of Spain.
When she had finished speaking, they were both very quiet for a minute or two. And then, of course, it was her turn to enquire.
‘But what about your parents, Arthur?’
‘Ah. Well, my situation was a little similar to yours. But also very different, I think.
‘I was born in Contes, up in the hills above Nice. Hah! ... I must have been destined to be a writer!
‘I only have vague memories of my father. He disappeared when I was three or four years old. Who knows why? It was war-time ...
‘Anyway, my mother presumably couldn’t cope after that, for whatever reasons, because one day when I was nearly five — it was at the height of the German-Italian occupation of the Midi — she dressed me up in my warmest clothes and packed a small bag with a few other bits and pieces, and we got on the rickety old bus and it took us all the way down to Nice. Then she led me through the grubby streets of the Old City and into the lobby of the Palais du Sénat, and kissed me on the cheek and told me to wait there. And then she went back out onto the little square and never returned.
‘When someone finally took pity on me and looked in my little bag, he found my birth certificate and a note asking them to take me in.
‘I came to understand much later that a part of the old Senate building was now being used as a makeshift boys’ orphanage. And I lived there for the next nine years. Well, nearly twelve, actually. I moved into the adult wing when I was fourteen, and I had to go out and get a job to pay for my room. I found one as a street cleaner.’
‘Oh, you poor boy. Did you have any brothers or sisters?’
‘None that I was aware of.’
‘What was your mother’s name?’
‘I must have read it a thousand times, Pureza. “Marie-Louise Narone, née Evraux.” That’s exactly what it said.’
‘And your father’s?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘So you don’t still have the certificate?’
‘Oh yes, I do.’
‘Ah. And have you ever tried to find them again?’
‘No. I was working for seven years — I was lucky enough to pick up a job as an apprentice car mechanic when I was sixteen — and then I went to jail, and then I came here. And now I think it’s my turn to stop talking. Let’s do the washing-up, eh?’
* * *
On Monday the twenty-fifth of July, Narone phoned Simon Hardy straight after breakfast as usual.
‘I still haven’t got anywhere with my general enquiries, Inspector. So I’ll probably be taking the plunge and visiting Emilie’s old apartment fairly soon. Happy with that?’
‘Sounds like a good move. But remember — don’t force it, OK? Anything else to report?’
* * *
Throughout that week, Pureza’s fine dinners were always on offer and Narone’s appetite for them was not yet wilting. And late on the Thursday evening, as they sat drinking coffee on the sofa in his room, Pureza steered the subject round to his latest situation.
‘I’m delighted to see you’re still busy doing next to nothing, Arthur. You deserve it, after all those years in jail. But are you getting anywhere with your searches?’
‘For Emilie, you mean?’
‘Well, yes ...’
‘Afraid not. I’ve picked up a tiny clue or two, but nothing I can really follow up yet. It’s possible she stayed on Rue de la Croix for a while before moving on. But I can’t be sure. And I haven’t said anything more to you about it because I felt ... well, you may not really want to discuss her.’
‘But of course I do, Arthur. She means a great deal to you, so I care about her too. Were you able to talk about her with anyone in prison?’
‘Hah! As if anybody there was interested in her! No, most of them only wanted to find out what I might know about the stolen money or the guy who got away. And a few of them were just interested in me, if you know what I mean. Good job I was in the low-security wing with the other petty criminals rather than the really nasty pieces of work! I managed to keep my ... well, to look after myself on that front. But only just.’
‘Poor Arthur! Look, would you like to talk about Emilie with me? It might help, in more ways than one.’
‘Oh, I’m not sure. It hurts even just to think about her ...’
‘Why don’t you try? Shall I make us another pot of coffee first? Or would you prefer something a little stronger? I have a bottle of Cointreau which I keep for special occasions ...’
Narone sighed, as much with relief as with resignation.
‘All right, Pureza. I’ll help you out with the Cointreau, and I’ll tell you a little about her.’
‘Good! But you must stop if it gets too painful ...’
‘Emilie actually told me a lot about herself during our year together.
‘She was born in December 1939, in an expensive corner of Nice up at the top of the Boulevard de Cimiez, or whatever it was called in those days. Her parents were devout Catholics — unlike mine, or the people running my orphanage! — and she was educated in a private convent day-school. The war ended only a few months after she started there. And she made plenty of good friends in her early years. All girls, of course.
‘For a long time she was completely accepting of everything she was taught at that school. But then the discipline began to harden, and the punishments and humiliations and threats of eternal damnation steadily increased.
‘Have you read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?’
‘Oh yes, Arthur.’
‘So you’ll understand. And Emilie came to realise that she could not reconcile any of this with the concept of “charity” which was — shamelessly, she felt — being recommended in parallel to her and her innocent and — she also felt — rather naive young schoolmates.
‘From the age of thirteen she became ever more disillusioned with this hypocrisy, and she later toyed with the idea of “active” rebellion. But she quickly reasoned that she had no power base at that time, and taking any “action” would only bring about a focused persecution and a huge increase in her unhappiness. So she just grinned and bore it — for many years. And she slowly recognised that she was not alone in her combined despair and cowardice. But still none of her schoolmates would dare to let their voices be heard.’
Narone paused and smiled wryly to Pureza as he proffered his glass for another large measure of the heart-warming liqueur. And then he sat back and frowned more deeply than she had ever seen him frown.
‘Emilie’s home environment was also a very enclosed one. She had one younger sister and no brothers, and her convent-dominated world meant she had hardly any contact with the opposite sex throughout her childhood. Just the occasional visit to or from a couple of childish boy cousins, who often taunted her cruelly for reasons she just did not understand.
‘And her parents did nothing to encourage any involvement with boys as she got older and entered her teenage years. But she found herself becoming prettier and prettier — everyone at school kept telling her so, and several of the older and more assertive girls made repeated advances to her and sometimes went a good deal further.
‘And so her disillusion and revulsion with her world continued to increase. And she was experiencing no positive “real” experiences to offset all of this — apart from her enjoyment of music and her love of playing the recorder, which was the only instrument she was allowed. But her school only tolerated very limited, facile group performances of sacred pieces, and even those were considered a sop to the “rather too modern” music teacher — Pureza, have you read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? — and largely a waste of precious, real learning opportunities. Even brief and informal break-time ensemble experiments were heavily discouraged.
‘By the time she was sixteen Emilie had had enough, and in March 1956 she walked out of that school — the first of her class to conceive the idea, and the first to actually see it through. You can imagine her parents’ reaction. But she had spent years preparing for this moment, and she was not going to cave in now. Even when they took her key and ordered her out of the house.’
‘The poor girl! And having to leave her little sister! How did she cope with that?’
‘I don’t know, Pureza. I never asked.’
‘Anyway, the peaceful revolutionary in her now emerged unfettered. She packed a suitcase and came straight downtown. She was at once attracted to the developing “beat” scene, and in the poorest part of the Old City she found a large communal house in which fine principles appeared to reign over the desire for power or money. She was warmly welcomed there and given a small corner of the floor in one of the overcrowded rooms, with mat and sleeping bag to be supplied at the guest’s discretion and no attempt at segregation of the sexes.
‘But she coped. Anything was better than that school or her heartless home. And of course she really wanted to make more music, and also learn to sing. But the only instrument she could play — and she knew she played it very well — was her little descant recorder, and that would not do at all! So she resolved to get her hands on a cheap clarinet. She knew that the fingering and the blowing and all that stuff was rather different, but she’d loved its sound on the few occasions she’d heard it on her parents’ radio, and she felt it was the right step to take. And she also quickly learnt she would soon have to start making a financial contribution to the operating costs of her lodgings, or the guys running it would be inviting her to make payments in other ways. So for both of those reasons she needed to find herself a well-paid job.
‘She started off by waitressing in a New Town café, which was certainly not well paid in itself, but she somehow managed to do very nicely in tips. Beauty always wins over brains in this world, doesn’t it, Pureza? Later on she moved to a more up-market restaurant, where the tips were better still, and then she got a serving job in an Old City music club and was soon promoted to head barmaid. And now she was finally able to afford her second-hand clarinet.
‘A year after that, in September 1957 — she was almost eighteen now — she’d cultivated her playing and her singing to the point where the management was willing to let her do a “spot” and see how it went. And it went very well. So she was given a regular weekly slot, and two per week soon afterwards. Six months later, following a huge increase in custom during the Carnival Weeks, they reshaped the whole place around Emilie and her performances, which were quite unique ...’
‘In what way, Arthur?’
‘She had taken old Thirties and Forties jazz standards from all over Europe and the States, and formal nineteenth century songs, especially German ones, and the latest Fifties folk songs from America, and traditional French folk songs too, and more, and given them all a completely new feel ... sometimes in unaccompanied song, sometimes just on the clarinet, and often in a fascinating combination involving the sudden, unexpected “insertion” of one of those modes into the thread of the other! It was absolutely captivating!
‘And her entrée was always equally remarkable. There would be a sudden trill on her clarinet from the darkest corner of the room, to grab everyone’s attention. A bit like the start of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue! Then she would emerge from the shadows and walk ever so slowly into centre stage dragging a small round table behind her, as a pale spotlight picked her up and steadily increased in intensity. Then she would breathe a husky “Bonsoir!” into the hanging microphone, hop up onto the table as light as a feather — dramatically crossing her lovely legs to send her soft, black knee-length skirts flowing loosely all over its surface — then look charmingly but pointedly at any customers who needed shutting up completely, and begin to sing.
‘And the magic never failed, Pureza. It never failed.
‘The management of the Casa della Musica knew a good thing when they saw one, and they made handsome increases to her performance payments with every month that passed. So by early summer she was able to afford some nice new clothes, and she later moved into a private apartment down by the port, although that apparently ate up every bit of her new earnings straight away. And at last — she even told me this, Pureza — she was able to entertain her occasional boyfriends in the privacy of her own home.
‘The management had often offered her even more lucrative long-term deals, of course. But she was a canny young woman, and she always insisted on a simple week-by-week unwritten promise on both sides. Which is probably why she felt able to walk out on everybody the day after the robbery .......’
‘Arthur? Are you OK?’
‘Yes, I am. Sorry — just feeling a bit sad again, right now. May I have one more little top-up, please?’
‘Certainly — if you really want it.’
‘So was it around that time that you met her?’
‘Yes, it was. But perhaps we could stop there for now, Pureza. I’ll tell you more another evening, OK?’
‘Of course, mi amigo. Of course.’
Narone woke up several times during the night, as those three large glasses of rich sweet liqueur repeatedly made their presence uncomfortably felt. So he was in no mood to drag himself out of bed when the noise of the Friday morning traffic finally roused him from sleep again. Instead, he just lay there feeling nauseous and only achieving the occasional burst of lucid thinking.
He was probably beginning to enjoy — no, that was too strong a word for it — to appreciate the time he was spending with Pureza. And she was very pretty, and that made it all the more pleasant ...
But he was sure his initial thoughts about her on the day of his release, as he’d sat by her side and admired her full profile in the back of that taxi, were simply those of a young man who had been nowhere near a woman for almost seven years, and certainly not those of someone about to fall in love.
No, he definitely saw her more as a kindly big sister. Or even as an always-there-for-you mother ...
But if Pureza held little romantic attraction for him, he couldn’t escape the nagging realisation that for the past two weeks he had done absolutely nothing more in the search for his long-lost Emilie. And he probably should be trying harder. So he would need to buy himself a lot more time from his cash-hungry taskmaster.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd