by Michael E. Lloyd
Book II: Reparations
Chapter 5: Discontent? What Discontent?
part 3 of 3
During the final days of February, Narone made a series of further half-hearted attempts to pick up something, anything, about Luc from the lowest-paid workers of the city. He had read Animal Farm, of course, and he had already formulated his own simple theory of society. “Opportunities are limited only by money. Money makes the world go around. Money is power. Money is pleasure. Money is health. Money is freedom. All Frenchmen have equal liberty, equality and fraternity, but a wealthy few have them rather more equally than others.” So he had been hoping the country’s latest industrial action — inaction! — that month at the Saint-Nazaire shipyard might have stimulated a little more anger among the more vociferous workers of Nice, and maybe some slightly looser talk. But nothing more was forthcoming.
He concluded that the few outspoken people he had met possessed a strong political drive, and were still inspired by the beginnings of the French Revolution nearly two centuries before. And maybe one day they would turn again to civil disobedience, or worse, in the name of their cause. But they were largely “honest” men and women, with few links to the criminal underworld, and enfin they were proving of no value to his search for Luc, let alone for Xérus. And he was occasionally finding some of them to be positively unhappy to have him around ...
So he now decided to give up his undercover quest, and take Pureza’s hint, and go back to stay with her. A quick telephone call would seal it, in lieu of a kiss. And living there would save him a lot of money each month, so he would not have to be “exchanging” his stolen bills quite as frequently in the various shops of Nice. And perhaps, in fact, in only one of them ...
* * *
It was the last day of the month, and Narone was packed and ready to move out that afternoon. But first he had to take Xérus’ latest call.
‘So what’s new?’
‘Well, I’ve been across to Marseilles as you suggested.’
‘Nothing. I spent three whole days asking around after Paul Ruford. Nobody recognised his name, not even in the Island Bar.’
‘I knew it probably wouldn’t do us any good. Might even have done some harm!’
‘Never you mind. What else have you managed to get nowhere with?’
‘Well, as it happens, I think my attempts at buying Old Franc notes in bulk have got me noticed by the wrong sorts of people. I don’t like that at all, and I may well have to come in from the cold very soon.’
‘I told you it was risky! So what the hell are you going to do next?’
‘I’m going to keep working on our little challenge, X. And any further useful clues from you will be mighty welcome.’
‘Just get on with it, Narone. I’m really losing patience now. Next call on the thirty-first of March, at the phone box you used in January. And I want some results!’
At four that afternoon, Roland Manouet vacated his rooms on Ruelle Michel-Ange. Beneath his usual scruffy winter coat he was wearing the few relatively smart clothes he had retained during his time undercover. And once he was well away from that area, in a quiet backstreet between the two railway stations, he took off his old coat, stored it in his new large suitcase, and walked up towards Avenue Malausséna and the nearest barber’s shop. After a substantial shave and trim that removed most of his shaggy sideburns and left his hair and moustache still fashionably long but a great deal neater, he emerged looking much as he had when he’d left Pureza’s place for Toulon exactly four months earlier.
He found a nearby bar that he had never frequented, sat inside with a very welcome beer until well after dark, and then hailed a taxi to take him discreetly “home” again at last.
Pureza had prepared a very special dinner, of course, and Narone consumed it with gusto. He then scratched around in his head for a gesture he might make in return.
‘I can repay that three hundred francs loan now, if you’d like me to ...’
‘I still don’t understand where all your money has been coming from, Arthur.’
‘Oh, I’ve been doing all right. This and that, here and there, you know ...’
‘Hmmm. I suggest you hang onto it until you’re certain you don’t need it.’
* * *
At noon the following day, Narone took Luc’s next call. He was determined to try a little more bear-baiting.
‘False alarm in Avignon, I’m afraid. The big outfit I’d heard about is only servicing German and Scandinavian cars now. So I’ll be checking out Nîmes and Montpellier next. I would have gone across there directly if I hadn’t had to come back here for this damned phone call!’
‘You do what you’re told!’
‘Yes, I do. But I may need more than a few weeks this time. Can we leave the next call to the fifteenth of April?’
‘No! You can make sure it takes you a month and no more! I’ll call you on the first. Same time and place as today.’
‘What’s the matter, Luc? You sound a bit frustrated ...’
‘What do you expect? Those banknotes only have another thirteen months’ validity left.’
‘I’m feeling pretty frustrated too. And my legs are working harder than yours.’
‘Maybe they’d like to work a lot harder, eh! Listen — you get the money to me by the end of June, and I’ll give you five extra wads instead of two.’
‘I’ll drink to that.’
* * *
Two days later Narone made a special effort of diplomacy — he wasn’t at all sure why — and remained in the bookshop after breakfast rather than hurrying straight out as he usually did. Pureza did not conceal her pleasure, of course, but she also took advantage of the first short lapse in business to suggest that maybe he really should now try to find himself a nice little job.
He did his best to stall on this, and had still made no commitment whatsoever on the subject when two customers entered the shop in rapid succession, and Pureza’s attention was immediately diverted away from him once again. And while she was busy researching something for the first of them, the second one approached him with two brand-new, expensive histories of eighteenth century France in his hands and asked for a personal recommendation as to which one to select. Narone, who had read neither of them in any depth but had skimmed through them both in one of his long browsing sessions there the previous summer, instinctively pointed out several great merits of each of the works, declaring that he had found neither to be badly executed in any respect, and that taken together they formed a fine, comprehensive and complementary study of their subject. The customer pursed his lips, then nodded sagely, bit the bullet and purchased both volumes for cash.
Pureza was delighted.
‘I always hoped something like this would happen, Arthur! So, why don’t you start working here with me for a few hours each day, in exchange for your room and breakfast, and dinner whenever you want it, plus a bit of pocket money and a small commission on all your sales?’
‘Ah. I don’t know about that, Pureza ... I don’t really want to feel obliged to ...’
‘And if you decide to move away again later, I’ll also pay you enough to cover your rent and an evening meal!’
He could sense another of those patterns looming. No, already loomed. No, already almost in place. But he could also already see some benefits, and not just the obvious ones.
‘OK, I’m willing to try it, Pureza, but only when I choose to, on a day-by-day basis — to give myself the time and the flexibility I need for ... well, for all my unfinished business. And I’ll accept the commission, thank you, but I can manage without the pocket money.’
‘You strike a hard bargain, my fellow merchant. But it’s a deal. And since you started work at nine o’clock this morning, you’ve earned your first commission already!’
When Pureza closed the shop that evening she proposed another special dinner to celebrate their new business partnership, and Narone was delighted to accept. But, he said, he really fancied a short walk around the Old City on his own first, after spending the whole day inside and hard at work.
She chuckled at his little joke, and told him to be back by eight and not a minute later.
But when he returned, and ahead of time too, she was surprised to see a real change in his mood. She waited for him to say something, but to no avail. So halfway through the meal she simply had to ask if there was some new problem.
‘Oh, no, chica. I’m just feeling a bit ... oh, I don’t know, emotional, I suppose ...’
‘Purely after taking a nice little stroll back in the comfort of your real world?’
He was even more sombre now.
‘Want to talk about it?’
He sighed deeply and put down his fork.
‘I told you I was brought up at the orphanage in the old Senate House, didn’t I?’
‘Well, there were several families living in very poor apartments in the surrounding buildings on Rue du Saint-Suaire and Rue Barillerie. And I often used to look out of a window and watch the boys playing in the square right in front of me. There were rarely any girls with them — I don’t know why.
‘But when I was nine I did start to notice one. She was about fourteen, and she was out there occasionally in the early evening. But she wasn’t playing with sticks and stones in the gutters with the other urchins. She was leaning on the lamp-post and smoking and chatting and laughing with the bigger boys. I was fascinated by everything about her — girls simply did not form part of my world. And I was stuck inside, so all I could ever do was watch them all enjoying themselves. Well, I assumed that’s what they were doing.
‘And I guess I must have become very jealous of those older boys. Because a few months later, I did something to get my own back. I never planned it, Pureza, but ...’
Narone broke off with a lump in his throat and his eyes suddenly very moist.
‘My goodness, Arthur! Whatever did you do?’
He shook his head and could not, would not continue.
‘Oh, I’ve never seen you like this before! Come here, you poor thing ...’
She leaned over and embraced him. It was the biggest and most loving hug he had ever experienced. But it did nothing to relieve his pain.
‘What did you do to those boys, Arthur?’
He shook his head again. ‘I never went near any of the boys.’
‘Oh! The girl, then ...’
He nodded, brushing at his eyes with the back of his hand, his face red with the embarrassment of his tears.
‘Won’t you tell me a little more? For your sake, my friend?’
‘I’m sorry, Pureza. I can’t. I’m sorry.’
‘At least tell me her name, Arthur.’
‘I didn’t actually learn it till a lot later.’
‘It was Thérèse. Thérèse Vonier.’
‘No, Pureza. I can’t. I just can’t.’
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd