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Authors: Salley Vickers

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16

Chartres

Professor Jones was utterly absorbed in reacquainting himself with his childhood. More than his childhood – his whole past life.

Agnès had filled several pages of the sticky paper with photographs from the collection: his grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, and then later his first schooldays. Various photos of animals had also been found and stuck on a sheet of their own: Phoebe, Nana and Grandpa’s black-and-white cat, his twin cousins’ dogs, Pitch and Pine, his own pair of budgerigars, Salt and Pepper, a rabbit belonging to his other cousin Jane, called Muffet – or maybe it was Moppet? – and a mysterious parrot whose place in his former life remained an obstinate blank.

He was as sure as he could be that he had never owned a parrot but neither could he connect it with any other member of his family.

The scenes stirred his memory as profoundly as a madeleine dipped in linden tea, as he put it to Agnès one afternoon. ‘I don’t know if you’ve read any Proust, Agnès?’

Agnès said that she had not.

‘I’ve never cared for him much but you know this memory business he went on about has something in it. He dipped a cake, a madeleine actually, you know those little’ – Agnès nodded to indicate that she did – ‘well, he dipped one into his tea one day, with his mother I think it was, which maybe accounts for it, because suddenly all his childhood came flooding back. Well, not all, or not at once – bits of it. Waiting for his mother to come and kiss him at night, as far as I remember. It’s a long time since I read it, if I did read it at all. I couldn’t have read it all, I think – maybe the first two volumes. But the thing is it was all there, all his past, just waiting for the right prompt. I suppose pictures are even more of a prompt than cake.’

Agnès said she supposed they might be. She agreed that certain tastes did bring back memories and went on defrosting the professor’s fridge, which on investigation had proved to be a micro-Antarctic. An open bag of frozen peas and diced carrots had spilled into the icebox, giving an impression of a tutti-frutti ice cream run amok in the massive icy overspill that had formed.

Her afternoons at the professor’s had convinced her that he was badly in need of help. His apartment, chosen by his absconding wife, and fundamentally a pleasant one, was suffering from years of neglect. Very little that was meant to function functioned. The fridge, the iron, the cistern, the washing machine, even the telephone receiver were all in a state of disrepair. The iron, covered in what looked like caramel, she had been obliged to throw out. It was clear to her that the professor would hardly notice if between her sessions of archiving work, as he was now referring to it, she put a few things right in the apartment.

She had started on the fridge, if only because she had to sample the results of its deficiencies in the tumblers of warm white wine which the professor, anxious to express his gratitude, thrust upon her. She would really rather not drink it at all, but she knew that to refuse gratitude can be taken as a kind of insult. As she wielded a warm knife, slicing off chunks of tutti-frutti ice, the professor launched into the details of a holiday at Laugharne, in Wales.

‘It is what Dylan Thomas based his
Under Milk Wood
on. You know Dylan Thomas?’

Agnès shook her head.

‘Great English poet. Welsh, I should say. The Welsh would shoot me hearing me say that. I was nine, no, hang on, ten it must have been and my cousins Gwen and Gareth were with us there. The twins. They were my Aunty Mary’s – my father’s sister, she was a great knitter, Mary – G and G we called them, sometimes Gee Gee, which frankly they didn’t like. I don’t blame them, do you?’

Agnès said that she didn’t.

‘You know, I’m sure it didn’t but in my memory it rained every day and we didn’t mind because the rock pools were full of finds – winkles, anemones, goby fish. Shrimps of course. Plenty of those. Gwen was a demon shrimper. We boiled them up in a billycan on a primus stove. D’you like shrimps, Agnès?’

Agnès said that she did.

‘Gareth, now, he wasn’t such a keen shrimper. He wasn’t as patient as his sister. Boys aren’t, you know. He and I got into trouble because we went into a cave and nearly got cut off by the tide. Our parents smacked us both. I remember it because we knew we had it coming and we vowed not to cry. I think I did. You could do things like that to children then.’

The professor’s eyes indicated that he might be missing those far-off libertarian days.

‘Where are they now?’ Agnès asked.

‘Who?’

‘Your cousins.’

‘Oh,’ said the professor vaguely. ‘I’m not sure. Gwen became a nurse, no, a physiotherapist. She worked with strokes, I seem to think. She must be retired now. I can’t remember what happened to Gareth. An accountant maybe?’ He frowned, unwilling to be hauled away from his lost idyll by the problematic present.

‘Maybe you should find them,’ Agnès suggested. ‘If you liked them it seems a shame . . .’

But the professor’s expression suggested that he found this idea bizarre so she returned to hacking at the ice.

When she had finished, she said, ‘I could ask Victor to take a look at the cistern if you like?’

The professor, however, was too preoccupied examining a black-and-white Brownie photo of himself on a sturdy pony to respond. ‘Now that was in Suffolk. We stayed in some coastguards’ cottages. There was a local artist, I remember. Paxton Chadwick. Odd name, Paxton, but you don’t think of that as a child. I don’t know how my parents knew him. Maybe through their Labour Party connections – in those days they were still socialists. He was certainly left-wing. Maybe a communist. They were pretty ardent socialists once, my parents – my father’s father was a miner, and his father too, so they would be. The Welsh are, of course. I remember Paxton Chadwick had a shock of white hair and these blue, blue eyes. In fact, now I think of it, it was through him I got interested in art . . .’

•   •   •

Madame Beck had arranged for a man to come and give her a quote for an air-conditioning system, with which she hoped to combat the problem caused by the restaurant’s extractor fan. As a result, that Tuesday Madame Picot went to hers for tea.

‘I’m afraid I had to bring Piaf, I hope you don’t mind, my dear. Terry was supposed to collect her at lunchtime for her second walk, but she’s running late. I told her to pick her up from here.’

‘If you wouldn’t mind keeping her on her lead, dear. I’ve just had the carpets cleaned.’

‘Of course, my dear. I’ve brought us some
pâtisseries
.’ Madame Picot passed a crisp white bag of peace offerings to Madame Beck, who took it purposefully into the kitchen.

‘I’ll just put the kettle on, dear.’

Madame Picot made her usual appraising survey of her friend’s salon. The arrangement of small china dolls on the little scallop-edged table caught her eye. A new one? A little brown china doll with a lace bonnet and bootees. How odd that Louise had this passion for china babies when she so disliked real-life children. And dogs too. The mantelpiece was crammed with them.

As if in response to her mistress’s thoughts, Piaf strained at her lead and yapped so that Madame Beck’s vigilant ear was alerted.

‘Please make sure she doesn’t scratch at the rugs, dear.’

‘Of course, my dear. Sit, Piaf! Good girl.’

But Piaf, who, like many intelligent dogs, had a mind which could intuit the true state of her owner’s, started rebelliously forward. Madame Picot lunged heavily after her, knocking the table on to the carpet so that the little brown doll fell on to the tiled surround of the fireplace.

A loud ringing of the doorbell obscured the sound of breaking china. Hearing Terry’s voice at the door, Piaf yapped again.

For all her girth, Madame Picot could move swiftly. She bent to pick up the fallen dolls from the carpet, replaced them quickly on the table, scooped up the head now neatly severed from the body of the brown doll and stowed both body and head in her handbag. ‘Here’s Terry for you, Piaf. We’re coming, Terry. Good girl.’

Madame Picot talked more animatedly than usual over tea and left rather early.

‘Your consultant will be arriving. I’ll get off, my dear, I have a bit of shopping. I hope you enjoy the
éclairs
.’

‘Oh my dear, I quite forgot them. Never mind, they’ll keep until next time.’

•   •   •

Madame Beck had bought the brown china doll only the week before, on a visit to her trichologist in Paris (certainly, she did not want it known locally that she had a problem with thinning hair). She had observed the doll in a regular haunt of hers, a shop which specialized in antique toys.

In her youth, Madame Beck had been a handsome woman with a fine head of thick hair. It was her splendid mane, caught in the light of a September sun, which had first drawn the eye of Claude Beck, when she had walked into the Parisian café where he was working as a waiter. She had ordered a coffee and a
croque-monsieur
and by the end of her snack he had proposed a future meeting.

It is true that from that moment the liaison had been steered predominantly by the future Madame Beck, Louise Cartel as she then was. But Claude Beck had been proud enough of her when she pushed him at last into a firm engagement to purchase a small but costly hoop of diamonds. She was a shrewd businesswoman and the head with the magnificent hair was, he had discovered, well screwed on. When he finally got his own restaurant going, she would be an asset, he believed.

And indeed she had proved an industrious partner, supportive of him when the bank foreclosed and they had to shut down their first restaurant; working with him, day and night, to set up a successful business in Evreux. Claude Beck had a marked flair for figures. In a later age he would surely have gone to study mathematics at university and made, perhaps, a very different career. And Louise Beck, besides being a workhorse, knew how to drive a hard bargain. Together they formed one of those business partnerships that are born to flourish.

It was the very success of this that had tarnished the relationship. An incipient vanity in Claude Beck bloomed alongside his enterprise. His eye, never too faithful in the first place, began to rove more widely and conspicuously. Coterminously, his wife began to lose her looks.

The thick black glossy hair, of which Louise Beck had been so proud, began to shed, first in combfuls, then distressing handfuls. When she first nailed her suspicion that her husband had a mistress (in fact, had she known it, at the time there was more than one), she developed serious alopecia.

Claude Beck was too lazy – or too mean – to divorce his wife. And she was too frightened, and too concupiscent, to cut her losses and make a stab at going it alone. Gradually, over the years, she accommodated her husband’s infidelities by denying them to herself. The new restaurant they set up in Chartres, after selling the one in Evreux for a tidy profit, became an instant money-spinner. Situated where it was, visitors attracted to the cathedral could sit outside, or under the striped awning if the weather dictated, and feed their physical tissues while they continued to feast their eyes on the great Gothic masterpiece.

A fiction of a contented uxorious partnership developed to suit both parties. When Claude Beck died, at the house of his latest mistress (a house he had given her the money to buy), the affair was hushed up so successfully by Madame Beck that in her own mind her husband had gone to his eternal rest in the vast conjugal bed in which, in the latter years of their marriage, he had rarely passed a complete week.

Quite how she had come to be a collector of china dolls was a question Louise Beck could not herself have answered, any more than she could have owned to the state of her marriage or the accumulated resentment which was its poisonous legacy. Perhaps by now she was simply in the grip of the mania which besets collectors who care more for the number of their acquisitions than for the inherent value of each. For whatever reason, at times of stress Madame Beck would commonly reward herself with another doll purchase.

The trichologist’s report had been discouraging. Despite his expensive treatments, and her diligent nightly applications of a lotion for which he had promised much, the bald patch at her parting had grown noticeably larger since her last visit. The brown doll with its lace bonnet and jabot had caught her eye on her way back to the rail station, after the trichologist had admitted that the fabled new treatment had not worked as well as he had hoped it might.

Two days after Madame Picot’s hasty departure, Madame Beck noticed that her new doll was missing. Her thinning hair was the outward index of a festering misery in Louise Beck. The inexplicable disappearance of her latest means to counter this sad state thus touched a particularly sensitive nerve.

17

Le Mans

Dr Deman had not been able to bring himself to visit Agnès in the secure psychiatric hospital in Le Mans. He was one of those souls who, lacking the necessary ruthless touch of self-preservation, should perhaps never have become a doctor at all. His guilt over Agnès grew rather than diminished. When, while searching through his desk for a mislaid letter, he came upon a small matchbox, which had got pushed to the back of the overcrowded drawer, he opened it with feelings akin to those of a more prescient Pandora.

The earring entrusted to him by Jean Dupère lay there reproaching him, with its single turquoise eye. He’d forgotten it. Or, rather, he had not forgotten it. He had kept it to give Agnès when she was well on the way to recovery, a recovery that, thanks to his negligence, she might now never achieve. The discovery of this further mark of his dereliction persuaded him it was time to take some days of long overdue leave. He wrote to the psychiatrist at the hospital to whom he had sent Agnès’ case notes, announcing his intention to visit.

The reply was a little encouraging. Dr Nezat reported that Agnès had settled in quite well at the hospital and she, Dr Nezat, would be happy for him to come to see his former patient.

Dr Deman made the two-hour journey to Le Mans in his old Renault. He was not a bad driver but when preoccupied he was inclined to be careless. Distracting thoughts of what he would find when he reached the hospital caused him to veer across a lane, narrowly escaping collision with a petrol lorry.

He arrived at the hospital already in a distraught state and had trouble finding a parking space in the car park. Finally, he squeezed the car into a space that he hoped was not illegal. For all the world he felt like driving straight back to Rouen.

Dr Nezat turned out to be a short, stocky woman with shapely calves and a well-lipsticked smile. She was the sort of woman whom Dr Deman generally found reassuring, since experience suggested she was unlikely to try to mother him (an approach to which he was allergic). He relaxed a little on meeting her and she asked him if he would care for a coffee.

‘Thank you. How is she?’

Dr Nezat, with her back to him, took time to fill an electric kettle from the small tap.

‘A little more adjusted to reality.’

‘Has she said anything about the child?’

‘I have Nescafé myself. But I can fetch you coffee from the canteen if you prefer.’

Dr Deman said he was happy with instant.

When Dr Nezat had made the coffee, she said, ‘A great deal about her own baby. Nothing about the one involved in the assault.’

‘And she knows . . . what, exactly?’

‘She knows that she no longer has the child. Understandably, that makes her very sad. But sadness is not a psychiatric condition.’ Dr Nezat stirred her cup as if to emphasize the wisdom of this point.

‘Indeed not.’ Dr Deman felt mildly affronted. It was a wisdom he himself was in the habit of imparting to others.

‘I took the precaution of bringing along her file with the notes you kindly sent on to us.’ Dr Nezat opened a file on her desk. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’

Dr Deman said that he didn’t mind. Although he had given up smoking as a student, he felt he could do with a cigarette himself.

‘I see,’ said Dr Nezat, lighting up a Gitanes and failing to offer her guest one, ‘that the last time you saw her was before the incident.’ She bent to peer more closely at the writing. “Still very obsessed with Gabriel. Seems to be sleeping better and gaining weight.” That was the last time you saw her?’

Dr Deman felt himself flush. ‘No. Naturally I saw her after the episode. When she seemed to want to confess to the crime.’

‘You didn’t write it up?’

‘I dare say I did.’ Dr Deman began to feel that his sense of reassurance in this woman had been misplaced. ‘Sometimes I write notes on a pad and transcribe them later. Probably in view of the general consternation . . .’

The truth was that a disturbing episode in Dr Deman’s fevered memory and a factor in his guilt was that he had removed the final page of Agnès’ notes – on which he had transcribed the address which he believed had led to the near-fatality. He had set fire to the page with a shaky hand in his own fireplace. The act weighed on his soul as if he had been responsible for the attack himself. More so perhaps. For he had become increasingly convinced that he had been the unwitting agent of the crime; that, somehow, Agnès had got hold of this information and deciphered it, though by no means could he guess how she might have contrived this. He could not have said whether it was Agnès or himself whom he was protecting.

‘What, in your view’ – Dr Nezat blew a contemplative cloud of smoke into the fuggy air of her small office – ‘I would be interested to hear, is the likelihood that she did commit the crime?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Dr Deman hopelessly. ‘I don’t feel I know much any more.’

Dr Nezat shot him a withering glance, conveying that this was no way for a trained medic to speak, and said that if he was ready they could see the girl now. She guided him through a long corridor, smelling of cooking vegetables, into a room which was painted a shade of eau de Nil. A colour that induces melancholy, Dr Deman reflected.

He had braced himself for a surprise but was nevertheless shocked to the teeth at the sight of his former patient sitting at a table with some other young people.

The pale gold, oval face, which had sometimes called to his mind the features of a young Renaissance Madonna, was now huge, moonlike and disfigured with acne. The leonine eyes seemed almost to have disappeared in folds of flesh. My God, he thought, she must have gained about two stone.

‘Agnès?’ Impossible to avoid altogether a note of question, for in a matter of months she seemed to have been transformed into a quite other being.

Agnès stared at him and then gave a slow shy smile. Only then did he get a glimpse of the young girl he had known. ‘Doctor?’

‘How are you, Agnès?’

‘Fine, thank you.’ So nothing had changed there.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Making a wallet.’ She held out to him a rectangular piece of maroon synthetic leather punched along two sides with holes. Dr Deman took it gingerly.

‘It’s her occupational therapy,’ said Dr Nezat loudly behind him. ‘We’re very good at it, aren’t we, Agnès? Last week she made us a lovely shoulder bag.’

Dr Deman stayed less than fifteen minutes with Agnès, during which time conversation was sporadic and stilted. She answered his cautious questions with polite platitudes. She had always done so, but previously – although maybe this was his own delusion, for Dr Deman was aware that delusions were by no means the prerogative of patients – he had always had the feeling that something of his concern for her was communicated.

After five barren minutes of question and answer, during which he felt like a particularly brutal interrogation officer, there seemed to be nothing more to say. After another ten minutes of further profound discomfort, he bade his former patient goodbye.

Dr Nezat invited him back to her office, where she smoked another cigarette and did not offer him coffee.

‘What treatments is she on exactly?’ Dr Deman asked feebly. Whatever it was he was likely to be against it.

‘The usual anti-psychotics. She still believes she found the baby in a basket. And there remains the question mark over the assault, as you know.’

‘The basket is simply a projection of her own history –’ Dr Deman began to explain but his words were brushed aside.

‘Yes, I read the file, naturally. Very sad. Poor child. We’ll see how things go and then consider
ECT
. It can brighten them up considerably, as you know.’

Dr Deman’s pet hate was
ECT
, which, since no one had ever produced any real account of what it does to the brain, he regarded as a most pernicious form of witchcraft. He left Dr Nezat’s office and the building in a state to find a parking notice on his car.

That night he did something he had done only once before. He got blind drunk in a bar and called up a prostitute to visit his hotel. The following morning found him full of self-loathing. He couldn’t think what had led him to do this. Neither experience was satisfactory.

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