by Michael E. Lloyd
Book III: Lost in Action
Chapter 1: Unfinished Business
part 1 of 2
During the long winter months of 1967-68, while my heroic boyfriend Arthur Narone was being held on remand in Nice Prison, his old friend Pureza Seles and I met up regularly for a drink and a chat, and we soon became quite good pals.
But I did steadily come to sense that her interest in Arthur had always been far greater than the merely charitable. So although he had never indicated to me that he considered her anything other than a very faithful friend, I became ever more determined to do all I could to hold onto him when he finally came back fully into my life.
And I hinted as much to him whenever I visited him in prison and we talked about our future plans! Maybe Pureza did so too, on her own occasional visits. I’ll certainly never ask either of them about that!
But it came quite naturally to the two of us to agree, on Christmas Eve, to wait happily together outside the front gate of the jail on the day our dear friend was eventually delivered back into our world, whenever that turned out to be.
Several months later, soon after the “Orceau & Carne” trial was finally over, Chief Inspector Simon Hardy contacted us individually to inform us of the actual date of Arthur’s planned release. Hardy was proposing to meet him personally outside the prison and drive him safely to wherever he was intending to live. And to remove any understandable suspicions on our part, and prevent any exposure to Hardy himself, he asked if we would both care to accompany him on the day.
Pureza and I met up not long after that, to consider his suggestion and adjust our rendezvous plans as necessary. And of course we were then obliged to discuss a previously unmentioned subject. To my great relief, she made no complaint when I told her firmly that Arthur would be moving into the apartment I had selected and had now rented in his name for the foreseeable future. But she was a little inquisitive.
‘How did you manage to pull together the advance payment, my dear? I thought you were still back in school ...’
‘I didn’t, Pureza. Two of the three rewards that Arthur was looking forward to have already been paid. He now has a bank account for the first time in his life, and he signed the cheque and the rental agreement yesterday. And you’ll never guess which bank he’s using ...’
‘No. It was their only condition for paying him their reward! And before the Old Franc notes finally went out of circulation this month, they even let me cash in the small number he was still holding when he went back to jail. I’ll swear Madame Padroux winked at me when she said they had no way of telling if they had been stolen!’
I called Simon Hardy to confirm we agreed with his plan, and he then offered to pick each of us up on his way to the prison. So when the glorious Monday the twenty-second of April 1968 finally arrived, Arthur received a tripartite welcome and an incident-free lift home!
And when the two of us were finally alone together, I opened a surprise bottle of Champagne and we celebrated in style! All of the day and all of the night!
* * *
‘Wasn’t it kind of the Chief Inspector to ferry us all around yesterday, Arthur!’
‘Yes. He mentioned it when he contacted me to arrange it. And he said that taking us to meet you like that was a kind of thank-you present.’
‘He could have told me that to my face!’
‘Maybe he’s waiting for a moment when you’re not surrounded by all your other devotees. Or maybe he wasn’t sure quite how delighted you would be ...’
‘You’ll be telling me his new gardien has been promoted next!’
‘So, did you finish the novel?’
‘Your turn to guess now.’
‘Well, I’ve always assumed that having little personal deadlines such as getting out of jail were probably good for concentrating a writer’s mind ...’
‘Quite right. Yes, it’s all done.’
‘Bravo! So can I read it, please?’
‘Well, maybe we should have some breakfast first ...’
* * *
‘I’ve finished it, Arthur!’
‘Yes. I’m a very fast reader!’
‘But are you a careful one?’
‘I like to think so. Anyway, I reckon you’re very brave to put it all down in black and white like that. Are you actually planning to try and get it published? Because ...’
‘I’m not sure, Julia. But I probably won’t. For the very reasons you’re hinting at. I’d rather go back to a simple life with no more complications and pressures.’
‘I’d say that’s a very good idea. So why did you write it, enfin?’
‘Because it needed to be written.’
‘Yeah. That makes sense. And I haven’t given up on my ambition either, you know. Despite what you said about my first effort! But I shall definitely wait until there’s something that really does need to be written.’
* * *
After three days of blissful relaxation with Arthur, I was confident that all was still well between us. So I then pointed out that he had made absolutely no effort to contact his dear old friend Pureza since the police had dropped the two of us off at his apartment on Monday morning and taken her back, uncomplaining, to the solitude of her bookshop.
He agreed at once, and he was chivalrous enough to say that he had not wanted to do anything to upset me. So I threw him back onto the bed and told him what an idiot he was, and thirty minutes later I sent him straight out to the nearest phone box.
He was home again before I’d even finished my shower. Pureza had invited us to dinner the following Sunday. And she apparently had some very special news to share.
* * *
The meal Pureza cooked for us was wonderful, and Arthur’s compliments were even more exuberant than mine! So I knew within minutes that I must still maintain my guard! I would never be able to compete with her in the kitchen, so I would need to make sure I kept Arthur happy in the only other important department!
And then he mentioned his novel.
‘I finished it ten days ago, Pureza!’
Her face was a picture of admiration.
‘And Julia has read it already. So would you like to look at it now?’
I was still watching her carefully, and I saw exactly the change I was expecting.
‘But is it really intended for public consumption, Arthur? I had the firm impression it was going to be an extremely personal, not to say privileged account of things. You certainly promised me you would fully respect my own family’s privacy in it ...’
‘Yes, I promised you that, Pureza, and of course I kept my promise! And no, I don’t have any plans to try and publish it. So, do you want to read it, or not?’
‘I think not, Arthur. Let’s just say I was probably too close to it all to be able to appreciate or judge it properly, OK?’
I admired the woman absolutely. And I feared her. Absolutely.
As Pureza was pouring the coffee, I prompted her to tell us her very special news. She gave me a mildly disdainful look, and I realized my timing had been atrocious. And then she once again took centre-stage, and looked me straight in the eyes.
‘Tell me, Julia: as a young woman of roughly Emilie’s age when she disappeared, where might you have considered going, if you had been in her shoes in those awful days immediately after the bank robbery?’
I was stunned. She had never raised this subject in all the time we had been meeting up in Arthur’s absence!
‘Well,’ I mumbled, ‘I suppose I would have thought about a naturally safe place to escape to. And quickly — so by train, of course. And I’d probably have wanted to maintain my anonymity.’
‘And ... well, maybe I’d have been thinking about a complete change.’
‘Yes, that’s something Arthur contemplated briefly himself last year, wasn’t it, mon ami ...?’
Arthur nodded silently, and I could tell he too was not at all comfortable with what was going on.
‘And what else might you have considered, Julia?’
‘Well ... good opportunities for work, I guess. Low-paid jobs and my ... I mean Emilie’s own speciality.’
‘Exactly. So where would you naturally go for both of those?’
‘The big city, of course. Certainly not the country.’
‘In France, or abroad?’
‘Oh, in France, I think. Surely you can only go so far in such a perilous frame of mind?’
‘Indeed. So, would Marseilles have fitted the bill, in the circumstances?’
‘Oh no. Too close to home.’
‘Bien. So ... Toulouse, maybe? Or perhaps Lyons? Or even Paris?’
‘If it had been me, Pureza, I would have gone to Paris. But only because I’ve never been there before!’
‘Precisely, my dear. And please do not think I am being unkind. I have only been trying to make you think hard about this for just a few moments, in the way I myself have been doing, on our mutual friend’s behalf, for the past two years!’
I looked across at Arthur. His face clearly said he was still intending to keep well out of this, at least for now.
‘Very well, Pureza,’ I countered politely, feeling nonetheless that this continued pressure on me was both undeserved and quite unreasonable, ‘I will accept all of that, if you will please, enfin, tell us your very special news.’
And then she turned her inscrutable gaze upon Arthur, and revealed her latest hand.
‘As you are well aware, mon bon ami, I began to study the notes in Emilie’s family bible a full year ago. And I recently made the decision to try and contact her grandparents. Their address was written, you see, in one of the entries on the inside cover — as I attempted to tell you last summer, but your interest lay elsewhere at that time, did it not? — and although the ink was badly faded, I managed eventually to decipher it. The telephone company was then happy to give me their number ...
‘And when I called the elderly couple — yes, they are both alive and well — and told them simply that I was an old friend of the family, they at once gave me the address and the telephone number of their daughter and son-in-law — Emilie’s delightful, self-righteous parents.
‘Even better ... when I rang that number, those awful parents were not at home, and the phone was answered by her little sister, whose name turned out to be Béatrice. How very saintly! And she is not so little any more, of course.
‘I told her I was an old school-friend of Emilie’s and was keen to try and make contact with her again. And she told me, without further prompting, that she had only spoken to her “pathetic drop-out sister” twice in the past ten years ... first, when Emilie had “deigned” to call her from Nice to wish her a happy sixteenth birthday, and then exactly two years later, when Emilie had phoned on her eighteenth. I asked her the date of that second call, and she told me. It was the twelfth of October 1960.’
‘Long after she probably left Nice!!’ Arthur exclaimed.
‘Exactly! So of course I then asked Béatrice if she knew where Emilie had telephoned from. And she told me her sister had confided in her that she was living in Paris — yes, Paris, Julia! — and was now playing the guitar rather than the clarinet. And that she had changed her name ...’
‘That’s exactly what I asked her, of course. But Béatrice said Emilie had refused to tell her.’
‘I think I understand why, Arthur. It was clear to me from the way Béatrice was speaking that they were both still extremely unsympathetic to each other’s way of life. Béatrice was obviously following in the footsteps of her devout Catholic parents rather than rebelling in the way her big sister had chosen to do. So Emilie was obviously keeping her new door pretty firmly barred.’
‘This is amazing, Pureza,’ said Arthur, looking at her altogether too admiringly. ‘But I suppose that’s all you were able to discover ...’
‘From that short phone call, yes. But it was the spark that lit the fire. Since then I’ve done a lot more work on it ...’
‘Well, I’ve been talking to people in the music business, both here and in Paris, and I’ve consulted a lot of reference sources, and I’ve come up with two long lists of female singers who have been active there over the past eight years.’
‘That’s even more amazing!’
I did not want to admit it, but of course I secretly agreed. And then this remarkable woman pulled four closely-typed, double-column sheets of paper out of her metaphorical hat.
‘I believe the first list can effectively be discounted. Everybody on it is either very well known, or completely the wrong age, or their photograph does not match what you have told me about Emilie’s looks. But please take a quick peek at all the photos anyway, just in case I’m wrong ...’
She discarded two of the sheets of paper and handed Arthur a folder containing a sheaf of newspaper clippings and photocopied pictures. He leafed through them rapidly and agreed at once with her conclusions.
‘So these two other sheets are what you will need to work with. It is a list of Parisian singers who are apparently not at all well known outside their immediate sphere of work. I have been unable to obtain a photograph of any of them. And it goes without saying that the name “Emilie Courbier” does not figure on it.’
Arthur was scanning the long list of names and suddenly looking puzzled.
‘Why are you doing this for me, Pureza?’
She smiled benevolently. ‘I told you from the start, my friend, that I would do everything I could to help you with your attempts at “reparations” ... and it seems to me that this particular labour is still outstanding.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And if you were to read my novel, you’d see that I have often felt rather guilty about not trying harder to find Emilie.’
He turned to me. ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Julia?’
I was obviously going to have to get involved again.
‘I suppose so. You clearly went up and down in your apparent ardour for her. It seemed to have become almost nonexistent after ... after we met. But I don’t really know how you’re feeling about her right now, after all that time back in prison.’
‘Well, frankly, neither do I. So I’d like to sleep on all of this for a while. And even if I decide not to pursue it, Pureza, I’m extremely grateful for everything you’ve done.’
‘It was my pleasure, as always, Arthur. And my own view, for what it’s worth, is that you need to decide who, if anybody, would benefit from any follow-up work. Emilie’s family is clearly still not at all interested in her. And it will not be too difficult for you to make a judgement as far as the three of us are individually concerned. The only person you cannot consult on it, of course, is Emilie herself.’
I took that as the conclusion of Pureza’s clever little cabaret act, and moved the conversation on to something far less emotive.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd