Authors: Michael Bond
‘Statistically,’ said Madame Pamplemousse, ‘there can’t be many people who travel all the way from Paris to the Côte d’Azur, only to end up being forced to watch a class of mixed infants give a performance of West Side Story.’
Monsieur Pamplemousse looked gloomily around the school hall. Statistically, as far as he could judge, they were the only ones; certainly there was no one he recognised from the train journey down.
‘These things happen, Couscous,’ he said.
‘They do to you,’ said Madame Pamplemousse, with a sigh. ‘They don’t to other people. Other people would be having their dinner by now.’
Doucette was quite right, of course, and there was no point in arguing. He only had himself to blame for waxing lyrical about the Hôtel au Soleil d’Or, and how lucky they were to be staying there on the Antibes
peninsula at someone else’s expense. In particular, he had lavished so much praise on the joy of sitting on the hotel’s world famous terrace of an evening, sipping an apéritif while studying the menu as the sun slowly disappeared over the western horizon, anything less had to be an anti-climax.
And less was what they had ended up with. His employer, Monsieur Henri Leclercq, Director of
France’s oldest gastronomic bible, had seen to that. For the time being at least, it was a case of grin and bear it.
Glancing down at the mimeographed sheet of paper they had been given before the start of the show, Monsieur Pamplemousse’s heart sank still further. According to a note at the bottom it wasn’t due to end for another two hours. Admittedly that included a fifteen-minute interval, but from the way things were going they would be lucky if they saw the sun rise again the following morning. He decided not to mention it. At least the music was upbeat.
The twenty strong orchestra, made up mostly of girls from the senior school, was specially augmented in the percussion section by pupils from the junior forms manning triangles and tambourines.
‘It’s nice that everyone has a chance to take part,’ said Doucette reluctantly.
Monsieur Pamplemousse gazed at his wife.
Speaking for himself, he had a sneaking suspicion that some of the smaller ones had only got the job because they had failed their auditions for any other kind of work, including that of scene shifting.
Who would be a teacher?
To be fair, the fact that so far the singing had failed to match up to his LP of the original cast recording was hardly surprising. Ill-equipped as they were for ‘finger snapping’, the Jets’ arrival on the scene during the opening routine set the tone for much that was to follow. The number describing the delights awaiting newly arrived immigrants to America only came near to meriting the phrase ‘show-stopping’ when one of the more enthusiastic of the minuscule dancers overshot his mark and narrowly missed colliding with a Shark who was waiting in the wings to make an entrance.
Given the speed at which he was travelling, the fact that he failed to pass straight through the bass drum as he took a header into the orchestra was little short of a miracle.
Buddy Rich in his heyday would have been hard put to equal the cacophony of sound which rose, first from the percussion section, then from the main body of the orchestra.
For a moment or two chaos reigned. Tears cascaded down the cheeks of the infant in charge of the triangle as it was wrested from her tiny grasp. The harpist, her eyes closed in musical ecstasy, spent several seconds plucking the empty air before realising that her instrument was lying on its side, while the shrieks and squeals which rose from the string section rivalled that of the Sabine women as they met their fate.
At least there were no broken bones, but what
Leonard Bernstein would have said about it all was best left to the imagination.
‘Do we have to stay, Aristide?’ whispered Doucette.
‘Only until the interval,’ hissed Monsieur Pamplemousse.
‘Pommes Frites will be wondering what has happened to us.’
‘I am sure he has better things to do,’ replied Monsieur Pamplemousse. ‘Besides, we can hardly invite him in. He would find it very hard not to take sides. I hate to think what might happen to some of the Sharks.’
‘All the same,’ Madame Pamplemousse wasn’t going down without a fight, ‘I really don’t see why we have to meet this man – this so called “art dealer” – here of all places instead of in his gallery.
he has a gallery.’
Monsieur Pamplemousse allowed himself a sigh. ‘My dear Couscous, we mustn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. You should know by now that if there are two solutions to a problem, one of which is simple and the other complicated, Monsieur Leclercq always goes for the second. It is as inevitable as the fact that night follows day. That is the way his mind works and there is no changing it.’
‘Even when it is totally unnecessary, since we plan to visit Nice while we are here anyway?’ persisted Doucette.
‘Especially when it is totally unnecessary. He would not be happy otherwise.’
Having delivered himself of the homily, Monsieur Pamplemousse rearranged himself as best he could on a seat which would have been barely adequate for one of the cast, let alone anyone of above average bulk.
Despite his words, he couldn’t help feeling uneasy. Had he been asked to write about the many missions he had carried out on the Director’s behalf since he first began working for
, it would have run to several volumes. Indexing them, trying to find explanations as to when and how various events seemingly unrelated to each other became inextricably entwined, would be something else again. Footnotes would abound. Cross-references would have demanded yet another volume to themselves.
Their present situation was a case in point.
It had all begun with an evening spent with Monsieur and Madame Leclercq at their home near Versailles.
From time to time the Director and his wife took it into their heads to invite those who worked in the field, the Inspectors – who were, after all, the backbone of
’s whole operation – to dine with them. It was a form of bonding: almost the direct opposite of the American habit of allowing junior staff the privilege of wearing casual clothes to the office on a Friday, since it was a case of dressing up rather than dressing down.
That apart, given the surroundings – the beautifully tonsured lawns, the immaculate gardens, not to mention the food and the wine – few would have wished to forgo the pleasure. Only the wives had reservations,
for in their case it inevitably meant an extra visit to the hairdresser on the day and as the moment drew near long heart-searching over what to wear.
It was after dinner, when Madame Leclercq and Doucette had retired to another part of the house to talk about whatever it was ladies talked about on such occasions, that Monsieur Leclercq first broached the subject of a holiday in the South of France.
As soon as Monsieur Pamplemousse saw the bottle of Roullet
Très Rare Hors d’Age
cognac appear he knew something special was afoot. However, by then he was overflowing with the good things of life and in a benevolent mood; his critical faculties on hold for the time being, his guard lowered.
The Director chose the moment of pouring, when he had his back to Monsieur Pamplemousse, to strike.
‘Is everything well with you, Aristide?’ he asked casually. ‘It may be my imagination or perhaps even a trick of the light, but it struck me earlier on this evening that you were not your usual self.’
Monsieur Pamplemousse, who until that moment had been feeling particularly at peace with the world, suffered a temporary relapse. He took a grip of himself. Two could play at that game.
‘It has been a busy twelve months,
, what with one thing and another.
‘There was the time I spent on the Canal de Bourgogne and the unfortunate business with your wife’s aunt. Admittedly her brother was in a sense once removed, having lived for most of his life in
America … Well, given the fact that he was shot, I suppose you could say that in the end he was twice removed … but as things turned out it was scarcely a holiday …’
‘Ah, yes.’ The Director made haste to pass one of the large Riedel balloon-shaped glasses; filled, Monsieur Pamplemousse noticed, with rather more of the amber liquid than he would have wished given all that had gone before. The Director wasn’t one to stint his guests. Meursault with the
of sole, Château Cos d’Estournel with the pigeon and cheese, Barsac with the peaches and cream. He would have to watch his driving on the way home.
‘Then,’ he continued remorselessly, ‘there was the time earlier in the year when you had me pick up a car in Paris – the Renault Twingo you were giving to the illegitimate granddaughter of our late lamented Founder – and drive it down to the Auvergne. Again, if you remember, a home-made bomb planted in the boot wrecked my hotel room and very nearly took me with it … Hardly what one might call all in a day’s work.’
The Director seized on the mention of Monsieur Hippolyte Duval, founder of
, to raise his glass in silent homage and effectively cut short Monsieur Pamplemousse’s soliloquy.
Cupping it in his hands to warm the contents, he inhaled the vapour it gave off, then gave a deep sigh. ‘Aaah! It is no wonder they call it “The angel’s share”.
‘I know I have yet to thank you properly for all you did in both instances,’ he continued, ‘and on previous
occasions too; but mention of them gives me the opportunity to make amends. All work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy and I think the moment has come when you should both indulge yourselves by investing in some quality time.’
The use of the Americanism confirmed Monsieur Pamplemousse’s suspicions that the Director had being paying yet another visit to the New World; he usually returned armed with a supply of the latest expressions. He also noted the sudden use of the plural tense.
‘My car is overdue for its first 300,000 km service,’ he said dubiously. ‘Since Citroën stopped making the
, parts are often hard to come by. Doucette and I have been thinking of taking the train to Le Touquet and spending a few days with a distant cousin of hers.’
Monsieur Leclercq emitted a series of clucking noises, as though experiencing a momentary seizure. ‘I was picturing somewhere rather more exotic, Pamplemousse. Somewhere further south; on the shores of the Mediterranean,
. A spell in the sun will do you both the world of good.’
‘Le Touquet can be very invigorating in June,’ said Monsieur Pamplemousse, ‘particularly when the wind is from the north-east, but if you get down to the beach early in the morning and find a suitable sand dune to shelter behind, there are the sand yachts to watch … provided
haven’t got there first … just lately Doucette has been suffering with her back …’
‘In that case,’ said the Director, ‘a week sitting on the beach in Le Touquet will probably do her more harm than good.’
‘I have been studying Shiatsu recently,’ persisted Monsieur Pamplemousse. ‘It is an ancient Japanese art where you apply pressure with your thumbs to various parts of the body …’
‘If you do that kind of thing behind the dunes, Pamplemousse,’ said Monsieur Leclercq severely, ‘you may find yourself in trouble with the beach patrols.’
Draining his glass with a flourish to show that to all intents and purposes the matter was no longer up for discussion, his voice softened. ‘Neither Chantal nor I will take “no” for an answer, Aristide. I will have my secretary book three seats to Nice on the TGV –
– no doubt Pommes Frites will wish to accompany you both.
‘It is our way of saying “
”. Please do not deprive us of the pleasure.’ Normally Monsieur Pamplemousse would have bided his time, waiting for some kind of catch to emerge. It always made him feel uneasy when the Director addressed him by his first name. But despite everything, the words had been spoken with such simplicity, such innocence, humility even – a quality he rarely associated with the Director – he found himself wavering.
‘If that is what you really wish,
‘It is, Aristide. It is. And I know Chantal will be especially pleased.’
And on that note the evening had come to an end.
They were barely out of the front drive and heading for home when Doucette broke the news. ‘Isn’t it wonderful, Aristide? Madame Leclercq has been telling me all about it. And really, all they want in return is that we should pick up a piece of artwork for them. Apparently it is too precious to be entrusted to a carrier. All the same, it seems so little in return for so much. Mind you, knowing the Director I’m sure it won’t all come out of his own pocket.’
Monsieur Pamplemousse resisted the temptation to say he would be surprised if any of it did, but Doucette had been so excited at the thought of an unexpected holiday he hadn’t the heart to throw cold water on it. Anyway the die had been cast and the whole thing sounded innocent enough.
So what was new? Wasn’t that the way most of his adventures on the Director’s behalf had started?
For the same reason it came as no great surprise when at the last minute the arrangements had been changed; picking up the painting or whatever it was at the concert rather than from the gallery itself.
As order was at last restored and the orchestra took their places and began tuning up again he glanced around the hall. Apart from the seating, it really was the most luxuriously equipped school he had ever come across.
‘Not like it was in our day, Aristide,’ whispered Doucette, reading his thoughts.
Monsieur Pamplemousse couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t like it had been in anyone’s day.
As for the technical equipment … On the way in they had passed a state-of-the-art sound mixing console, the sole purpose of which seemed to be that of achieving a balance between the orchestra and the individual soloists, all of whom were equipped with concealed radio microphones. Video cameras were dotted around, set to record every moment of the production. According to the programme, edited tapes of the complete show would be available at a future date. As for the lighting rig: apart from the footlights, there were spots and fillers galore over the stage area. Suspended from bars which could be raised and lowered by remote control from somewhere behind the scenes, they wouldn’t have looked out of place in a television studio. He wondered where all the money had come from.