by Michael E. Lloyd
Early on the evening of the twenty-fifth of May, after four weeks of deliberation and vacillation, Narone finally decided he must take the plunge and visit the home of Jean-David Vonier and his wife. But if someone had grabbed his arm at that moment and asked him to state clearly the reasons for his decision, he would not have known what to say.
He found their unassuming apartment block at the eastern end of Rue Barberis, not very far from where he had been living and working at the time of the bank robbery. And the door was answered at once by a rather tired-looking woman of about his own age.
‘You are Madame Muriel Vonier?’
‘Mais oui, monsieur.’
‘Bonsoir, madame. My name is Arthur Narone ...’
He paused, looking closely for any change in the woman’s countenance and noticing none. Maybe she had never known his name, or had long forgotten it. So far, so good.
‘Oui, monsieur ...?’
‘Well, when I was a young boy I lived quite near to Jean-David and his sister Thérèse, and I recently decided it might be nice to make contact again. And I have managed to discover your present address after talking to the people still living on Rue du Saint-Suaire ...’
‘Oh! Well, how very nice to meet you, Arthur! Have you travelled far?’
Before Narone could reply, another door opened and a pretty, dark-haired teenager wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and bright red socks appeared behind Muriel. His jaw dropped in shock.
‘Thérèse!! But — no, it can’t be ...’
Muriel touched his arm sympathetically.
‘No, not Thérèse, of course. This is her daughter, Julia Rochemont. But please do not worry. Many people have reacted as you have, over the years!’
‘I am not surprised, madame. The resemblance is remarkable! Bonsoir, Mademoiselle Rochemont.’
‘Enchantée, monsieur ...’ the young woman replied in a velvet-smooth voice, clearly at a disadvantage but looking rather intrigued by their visitor.
Her aunt had spotted this too. ‘Julia, this is Arthur. He is an old friend of Jean-David ...’
‘Ah, I see.’ She was smiling warmly now, and Narone sensed it was in more than just understanding.
‘But I am forgetting all my manners!’ exclaimed Muriel. ‘Please come in, Monsieur Narone ... Arthur.’
He followed her into the living room and she sat down on the sofa, encouraging him to join her. Julia said nothing more, but padded slowly across the room and leant up against a bookcase with the two of them directly in front of her.
Narone decided to bite the bullet without further ado.
‘Is Jean-David here, madame?’
‘Hah! No, he’s been in the Navy ever since we met, and he’s away on yet another long tour of duty.’
Narone’s nervous tension evaporated at a stroke. ‘Ah. So when are you expecting him to return?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine, Arthur. We don’t have any children of our own, and I think he’s always resented Julia living here with us ...’
Narone glanced across at the girl, and she lowered her eyes. He could not tell if the gesture was some sort of apology or a simple confirmation of what Muriel was saying.
‘... and his service commitment will be ending soon, but I won’t be at all surprised if he chooses to extend it forever, or just jumps ship in some faraway port once he gets his discharge, and never comes back.’
‘Oh, I am sorry, madame. I don’t know what to say ...’
‘Do not worry, Arthur. C’est la vie. And you are so polite, but please do call me Muriel.’
‘Very well,’ he smiled. He was relaxing properly at last, and there was still a lot more he wanted to ask this kindly woman, especially about Thérèse. But his eyes were being drawn across to Julia’s, and he now realised she was looking straight into his. And despite the heat of that intense spotlight, conversation came surprisingly easily and naturally.
‘You have some fine books there, mademoiselle.’
‘Oh, you must call me Julia, please! And yes, I am very fortunate. I adore reading. And writing ...’
‘Both. I’ve read a lot of wonderful books over the years, and I’ve had a couple of little stories published in magazines ...’
‘You’re an author? A real author?’
‘Oh, I think that’s a gross exaggeration! But I’m trying to become one.’
‘Wow! What are you working on at the moment?’
‘Ah. Well, let’s just say I’m in the middle of a big research project. For a novel, or something of the sort ...’
‘So is your visit here a part of that?’
‘In a way. But then everything we do, or experience, or feel gives us material for our work, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes, of course. That’s just what I have always felt myself. Oh, this is so exciting! We have a real writer in our home, tantine! Arthur the Author!’
Narone laughed out loud. ‘And you’re already a poetess! Julia the Eulogist!’
It was Muriel’s turn to chuckle now, and Narone sensed she was very pleased at how well he and her niece already seemed to be getting on. But it was surely time to move back to his reason for being there in the first place.
‘And where is Thérèse?’
It was Muriel’s turn to be surprised. ‘But you do not know?’
‘No. The man in their old apartment block just told me she had come to live here with you when she and her mother became unwell ...’
‘Ah. Well, Arthur, I’m afraid to say Thérèse died quite soon after that ...’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry! But when was this?’
‘In September 1962. Poor Julia was only eleven at the time ...’
Narone looked across at his new friend and saw long-established resignation in her sad little nod and her puckered-up lips.
‘How awful for you, Julia. What happened?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘It was cancer, Arthur. Nothing they could do. And she was only twenty-eight! But I’ve come to terms with it now, I think. It’s been nearly five years, and I have a life to live ...’
‘You sound very brave. And your father ...?’
Julia fell silent again, and Muriel came to her rescue.
‘Denis and Thérèse were married in January 1950, and he came to live at her place. Julia was born that December. Denis put up with being a husband and a father for another twelve months, and then he just walked out. Thérèse and baby Julia stayed there with her mother and brother, of course. And I met Jean-David a few years later. We got married in ’57 and came to live here. It took him a little longer to get bored with the idea of family life ...’
Narone the writer was fast running out of words to express his increasing sympathy towards them both. So he looked sadly back at Julia and steered a little to one side.
‘And you’ve lived with Muriel ever since you first came here?’
‘Of course. My grandmother had to abandon the apartment when she went into hospital. And anyway she died only a few months after I lost my mother.’
So he had in fact steered directly into another family tragedy. He gave up trying to outwit himself.
‘I just don’t know what to say.’
‘Well, Arthur, we’re both feeling very sorry for you too,’ said Muriel. ‘You’ve come all this way to find your long-lost friends, and all we’ve given you is lots of bad news.’
On hearing Thérèse and Jean-David described in those terms, Narone bit his tongue and reddened and broke into a sweat. But he said nothing.
Julia noticed his discomfort and added her own thoughts. ‘And we all have lives to be getting on with, don’t we, Arthur? So let us move forward now!’
He smiled wryly. ‘You are a very positive thinker, Julia. And I shall happily take your advice.’
Muriel spotted her moment and stood up. ‘I think it’s time to make us all some coffee.’
Narone jumped to his own feet at once. ‘Thank you, Muriel. That would be really nice. But please let me come and help ...’
‘No, no, no,’ she insisted. ‘You must stay here and keep Julia company. I shan’t be long ...’
He walked over to stand beside the still-smiling girl, and for the next ten minutes they looked together at many of the books on the shelves, sharing their thoughts on those they had both read, and giving their personal recommendations — and often otherwise — on several of the others.
Then Julia told him she had actually devoured every book in the place, good and bad, and many of them twice or more. And she was still at school, of course, so she couldn’t buy any for herself. She went to the libraries whenever she had time, but right now she was far too busy revising for her major summer examinations to do that ...
Even before Muriel had come back in with the coffee, Narone had suggested to her niece that they should meet up at his friend Pureza’s bookshop after school the following afternoon, and he would do his best to arrange the loan, over the days and weeks to come, of many other great works of literature.
Her eyes gleamed with joy. And when she told Muriel about Arthur’s kind offer, her devoted aunt was clearly delighted too.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd