by Michael E. Lloyd
On their way back to the apartment, Julia casually mentioned that she had told Muriel she might well be staying at Arthur’s place overnight. And if it was all right with him, she would really like to cook something for them that evening, rather than go out for a meal. So they stopped off to buy a few simple provisions, and the paella she placed on the table two hours later was beautifully presented and very tasty indeed.
After dinner they relaxed together on the sofa, and Arthur was almost ready for a little nap. But that was not what Julia had in mind.
‘So, you know nearly all there is to know about me already, chéri,’ she murmured. ‘And I did tell you last weekend I wanted to know everything about you. Well, here’s your opportunity to enlighten me. Why not start at the very beginning ...?’
This was an uncomfortably familiar situation, but Julia really was asking so nicely, and after consuming the lovely dinner she had made, Arthur was clearly at a disadvantage. So he shook himself from his post-prandial languor, and related once again the sorry story of his childhood that he had told Pureza almost a whole year earlier.
But when he reached the episode he had started to describe to her in March, he stopped short, as before, very uncertain whether to continue.
‘Do go on, Arthur,’ said Julia, tenderly stroking his hair. ‘It’s been really absorbing so far, and I’ve been feeling so sorry for you, but I didn’t want to interrupt. Carry on, please ...’
Arthur sighed deeply. He had been dreading this moment for over a week.
‘All right, then. One summer — I was only nine at the time — well, there was this girl. She must have been at least four years older than me. I used to watch her through the window when she was hanging around in the street with the older boys. And I became really jealous of them. And maybe I decided, without realising it, to get my own back one day ...’
‘But what had any of those boys ever done to you, Arthur?’
‘Not a thing. And she had done nothing worse than ignore me. Well, she did once make a horrible face across at me for my impertinent interest in her! But that was all. I suppose I just felt ... well, frustrated. Maybe I was a very early developer, or whatever!’
‘And then, on Bastille Day in 1948 ...’
‘Yes ... well, that evening they let all the kids out of the orphanage to enjoy the celebrations, with the strict instructions that we must not move beyond the little square outside. And it was amazing! So different from usual! I was so happy to be out there among all the other ordinary people, running around and laughing at the drunks and watching all the comings and goings ...
‘And then, suddenly, there she was again! Flirting with the older boys on the corner — again. And something inside me cracked ...’
Julia sat bolt upright.
‘Were there fireworks in the street that night, Arthur?’
‘Yes, there were. And I think you’ve worked it out now, haven’t you? Someone must have tossed a large banger out of the crowd, and it landed at my feet. Don’t ask me why, but I picked it up and walked towards the girl, and waved, and shouted ‘Catch!!’ Of course, it could have gone off in my own hand at any moment. But I tossed it gently over, as if it were a harmless tennis ball or a precious jewel, and she instinctively stuck out both hands and caught it. And then it went off!’
Julia was already shaking her head and weeping. ‘That’s exactly how my mother said it had happened, Arthur ...’
‘Yes. It was Thérèse, of course. I didn’t even learn her name until much later. But I’ll never forget her screams at that moment, or the sight of her left hand with two fingers completely blown away ...’
He suddenly drew in a huge gulp of air and then burst into violent sobs which went on unabated for two long minutes. All Julia could do was to take his quavering head in her hands, hold it to her breast and stare into space as she tried to glimpse, through the mist of her own tears, just what her true reaction to this stunning news would turn out to be.
Eventually Arthur began to calm down, and he was soon breathing almost normally. She wiped the tears from his eyes and let him be, and finally he was ready to talk again.
‘What happened to Thérèse after that, Julia? I never saw her again, and no-one ever told me ...’
Julia sighed, brushing away her own sad tears.
‘Well, she said they took her off to hospital, of course, and although she’d lost those fingers there were no further complications, thank God. But what about you?’
‘Only a couple of the lads had actually seen what had happened. But I took a good beating from all of them before the police rescued me. And because there was no real evidence against me, and I was only nine, they just dumped me back in the orphanage. The people there gave me a really hard time for months on end, of course. And years later, when they finally started allowing me out on my own once I was in my teens, I took another good backstreet beating from Jean-David himself.’
‘You poor thing!’
‘Me? Me?? I deserved everything I got! But poor Thérèse! To think I could ever have done something like that to someone so beautiful! To your own mother, Julia! Can you ever forgive me?’
‘There is nothing to forgive, chéri. It was the stupid, reckless act of a little boy who had received very little love or moral guidance in his life. And you have paid for what you did many times over, in different ways, especially with the guilt that has been haunting you ever since ...’
‘How did you know?’
‘It’s obvious, Arthur. Do you want to tell me more about it?’
‘Well, ever since that day I’ve regularly seen “visions” of Thérèse’s hand and fingers — in cloud formations and palm trees, and on door-knockers and ... oh, everywhere. It’s been awful. But that’s nothing compared to what she must have gone through ...’
‘You poor boy! Listen, I really respect you for being brave enough to tell me all about it today. Me, of all people! That must have been very hard for you ...’
‘Oh, you are so understanding, Julia ...’
‘Maybe. Or maybe I just want to give you all the love you’ve been missing for so long.’
She gave him a huge and tender hug.
‘And now it’s my turn to tell you something very special. Because it’s actually not a question of forgiving you, chéri. Almost the opposite, in fact ...’
‘My mother told me that “accident” got her a lot of sympathy but a lot less amorous interest from the boys. In fact, over the following year only one lad — it was Denis Rochemont — seemed able to completely ignore her disfigured hand, and she fell in love with him for that reason above all. They dated for a few months and married in January 1950, a few weeks after her sixteenth birthday. And I was born in December of the same year. So you see, Arthur, I reckon I owe my very existence to you and that awful childish prank.’
It was Arthur Narone’s turn to weep now, in bitter-sweet joy at Julia’s exquisite humanity.
They held each other tight and slept fully clothed on the sofa that night.
After waking stiff and unrefreshed on a dull Sunday morning, they decided to stay inside and take things very easy for the rest of the day. And there was still a lot more that Julia wanted to know.
‘You said you were a car mechanic for a while, Arthur. Did you come to work at Pureza’s shop straight after that?’
So over the next couple of hours, with Julia’s continued gentle persuasion, Arthur steadily told her about the rest of his life. About Emilie, and the robbery, and the money, and his capture. A little about his life in prison. And almost everything that had happened since his release, including the secret of the stolen cash he had finally recovered and stored in a safe new hiding place.
The only thing of significance that he failed to mention was that the cash was now languishing at the bottom of his bedroom wardrobe.
‘So I guess that’s that, as far as you and I are concerned, Julia ...’
‘Were you going to tell me eventually?’
‘I expect so. It has only been ten days, hasn’t it? And it’s not exactly something you blurt out on your first date, is it?’
‘No, it isn’t. And you must have been agonising over it since the day we met ...’
‘On and off. Mostly on.’
‘So, I accept it. It’s you, isn’t it? ... and I love you, Arthur. I just hope it will all be sorted out very soon.’
‘That’s amazing, Julia. Thank you. It will be good to have someone to share things with at last. But you’ll need to let me play it my way ... and I really can’t say how quickly it will be over. OK?’
‘OK. And maybe I’ll start looking for ways to spend even more time with you. ’Cos this weekend didn’t go quite the way I had hoped ...’
* * *
Nine o’clock on the fifth of June had come along very fast.
‘Hello, Arthur. So, has your little “something” turned up yet?’
‘No, Simon. But it still might. On the other hand, of course, we may just have to wait for Luc and your mastermind to reveal themselves — either intentionally or through sheer carelessness. Time is running out, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind you.’
‘Have you been reading books on military strategy now?’
‘No. Just more good works of fiction. Life’s a pack of lies, after all.’
‘Who said that?’
‘I did. Surely you recognise my voice after all this time? And anyway this phone box isn’t big enough for ...’
‘What’s making you so bloody cheerful today?’
‘I think I’m in love, Simon! So, I’ll call you again on the twenty-sixth. Unless, of course, something ...’
‘Don’t say it, Arthur. Just don’t say it.’
A different something was bugging Arthur as he wandered back to his latest new home. But he could not put a finger on it for several minutes. And then it came to him. It was what he had jokingly just said to Hardy: ‘Surely you recognise my voice after all this time?’ But why was that particular question nagging at him? Why??
He had not come up with an answer by the time he unlocked his front door and went back to bed.
* * *
For the next two weeks, Arthur continued to work part-time in the shop, and meet Julia outside school for lunch, and disappear off with her in the late afternoon, and spend long happy evenings with her in his new apartment. He had quickly spotted the existence of this newly established pattern, of course, but this time he was delighted about it. And the young lady was still doing no revision for her imminent exams, but he had long ago stopped thinking about that.
On the evening of Friday the sixteenth of June, Julia told him she had something very important to do the following morning — and that it was a secret for now. But when they met up in an Old City bar for lunch the next day, she spilled the beans.
‘I’ve made a big decision, Arthur.’
‘You’re going to buy green socks rather than blue ones next?’
‘No, stupid. I’m leaving home. And I told Muriel I would be meeting a man from the motor trade. But she didn’t get it at first!’
‘Neither do I.’
‘Then you need to listen to The Beatles’ latest album. It was only released this month, but it’s all over Radio Luxembourg already, and it’s the greatest pop music there ever has been! We’ve just bought our own copy. I’ll bring it with me when I move in tomorrow.’
‘You’ll need to bring your record player too.’
‘Yes. Muriel’s not very happy about that. But I’ll buy us one of our own soon.’
‘Using what for money, exactly?’
‘That’s what I’ve been busy sorting out this morning! I’ve just got myself a little daytime job as a waitress ...’
‘Starting once the school year has finished?’
‘No. I’m dropping out right now, and I start work on Monday.’
‘You know, I’m really not sure if that will the best thing for you in the long term, Julia ...’
‘I don’t care about the long term, Arthur. Life’s too short, and this is the Summer of Love, in case you hadn’t noticed. I only want to be with you.’
‘But I’ll be busy at the bookshop a lot of the time. And waitresses’ hours are often quite long, aren’t they?’
‘Well, yes. And it’s actually a six-day-week job. But I don’t care about that either. Each afternoon once my shift is over, and every Sunday, we’ll both be completely free to do as we please. To catch up on what we missed in May!!’
‘OK, I give in! And I truly am delighted you want to come and live with me! But there is just one other little thing ...’
‘The stolen money is actually in my new apartment now.’
‘What? You told me it was hidden somewhere really safe!’
‘And so it is! Nobody knows I’m living there.’
‘Until someone discovers you are ...’
‘True. But no-one ever raided Pureza’s shop, and everybody knew I was living there for months on end. So why should they suddenly decide to look for the money in my new place? No, I reckon it’s just as safe as it could be right now. Nobody would ever believe I could be so stupid as to keep it there!’
‘You sound like some of the poker-playing kids at school ...’
‘Precisely, Julia. But now you’re going to have to decide whether you can handle this particular ménage-à-trois ...’
‘Oh, I can handle it, Clyde.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You need to do some other sorts of reading, chéri. Particularly on twentieth century American criminal history, and on Hollywood movies planned for release in the coming weeks. But just don’t start calling me “Bonnie” in public, right?’
‘I’ll get back to you when I’ve worked all that out, Julia.’
‘OK. You go straight off to the reference library, and I’ll go home and start packing. My taxi will arrive at ten in the morning, and I shall expect the answer at once! Well, maybe not quite at once ...’
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd