Excerpt for First Spring in Paris (The Blind Sleuth Mysteries Book 5) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Nick Aaron

First Spring



A Blind Sleuth Mystery

Another Imprint Publishers

In 1946 Daisy and her friend Beatrice decided to move to Paris, because they were fed up with limping London, still crippled and depressed in the aftermath of the war. And indeed, in the spring of that year, Paris was the place to be—isn’t it always? In particular, some very interesting things were going on in Saint-Germain-des-Prés: existentialism, free love, and American jazz throbbing through the night in the cellar clubs.

Then one day, just as the two were settling into a new life, a little boy stepped forward in the street and said, “Can you come with me? My mummy is all funny.” And he led them to a garret where they found his mother’s dead body.

A very disturbing murder case was thrown in their path, and one thing leading to another, Daisy Hayes, blind sleuth extraordinaire, had to rise to the challenge as never before.

As a great admirer of Simenon and his Maigret mysteries, Nick Aaron now introduces the ‘Commissaire Divisionnaire’ Simonetti from the Parisian ‘Brigade Criminelle’. A gentle spoof and a grudging recognition of debt.”

The Weekly Banner

This 63k novel is a stand-alone in the Blind Sleuth series:

I D for Daisy

II Blind Angel of Wrath

III Daisy and Bernard

IV Honeymoon in Rio

V First Spring in Paris

VI The Nightlife of the Blind

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Revelation 3:16


Do you remember how it was to be a child? You knew almost nothing but you weren’t aware of it, because the little you knew appeared to be all there was.

Well, Oscar could tell you his name, and he was kind of proud of it because he vaguely remembered the time, not so long ago, when he couldn’t. If you asked him how old he was he would hold up three fingers, because he couldn’t count yet, he was aware of that, but he could raise three fingers of his right hand without a problem. In fact he was already three and a half, but too young to grasp the importance of that distinction.

Oscar lived in a small world where interesting new things were unfolding all the time. It was only a small flat, two rooms and a kitchen, where he lived with his mother, but there was never a dull moment, although life could be baffling sometimes. Still, as long as Mummy was there, everything turned out all right in the end. Mummy could always make sense of what was happening and she told you what to do.

Now that was precisely what was worrying little Oscar at the moment. He’d been awake for a long time, but Mummy hadn’t shown up to take him out of his cot. At length he decided to call out for her: “Mummiiieee”, even though he knew that his mother didn’t want him to wake her in the morning. But it had already been daylight when he’d opened his eyes, and it seemed to him that that was a very long time ago. Lapino, his fluffy rabbit, was not there with him, which was highly irregular as well.

He called for Mummy repeatedly but she didn’t come. Of course he could also just climb out of his cot by himself; he was a big boy now, he could manage that without too much difficulties, but he knew that Mummy had forbidden it. He was to stay in his cot until she came to fetch him. So he waited some more.

And then he thought back to what had happened the night before. Just when Mummy was helping him to put on his pyjamas the doorbell rang, and when Mummy opened the door there was a man. That was nothing new. Mummy had a lot of friends who came to see her at all hours. But this man had never been here before, and he seemed to be angry. He pushed Mummy around and she whimpered. He took her into her room and pushed her down on the bed. Then he put a pillow on her face. There were often very disturbing things going on in the small bedroom, involving the bed, but this time it was not just disturbing, not just something grown-ups do: this time it was terrifying. Mummy’s arms and legs were flailing, and Oscar, looking at this nightmarish scene through the bedroom door, started to scream. After a while the man came out and closed the door. Then he lifted Oscar off the ground and put him in his cot in the tiny kitchen. “Be quiet, stay there, go to sleep now.” It was not the first time that a man from outside said that to him.

Oscar was fed up with waiting. Besides, he needed to go to the toilet; he’d needed to go since he’d woken up, and that was really a long time ago. So he gripped the side barrier of his cot with both hands, raised one leg real high and worked himself up. Then he tumbled over the top railing and fell down on the floor. That hurt. That was why Mummy didn’t want him to do it, he now remembered. But he didn’t cry: it was his own fault. He made use of the chamber pot that stood under his cot, and he picked up Lapino, who was lying on the floor.

Then he went over and cautiously opened the door to Mummy’s bedroom. She was lying on the bed, on her back, with her eyes closed, deeply asleep. Incredible. Oscar decided it was time to wake her. He stepped over and shook her shoulder, “Mummy-Mummy! Wake up!”, but she didn’t stir. She looked very pale; her body had felt a bit cold under his fingers, her shoulder a bit stiff… as if she were resisting his attempt to shake her. But Oscar was pretty sure by now that this wasn’t one of Mummy’s friendly little pranks. There was something terribly wrong.

He resisted the urge to cry. This was not the moment to be a baby: he was a big boy now. So he went back to his room, took off his pyjamas, and got dressed. It was the first time he did this alone, but then of course Mummy would never let him do it on his own even if he was perfectly capable of it… He felt hungry but he didn’t think he would be able to fix himself something to eat. All the food was kept in the cupboards above the kitchen sink, out of reach… So Oscar stepped over to the front door of the flat, which to his tremendous relief still stood ajar; he stepped outside and started laboriously going down the stairs, one step at a time. His short legs hardly allowed him to step down without leaning against the wall at arms’ length. When he finally got to the front door downstairs he found that it was too heavy, the handle out of reach. So he waited a long time, until some neighbour arrived with her groceries and opened it. He was hiding in a dark corner of the entrance hall, and just before the door slammed shut again, he slipped through quickly. The neighbour, her arms loaded with carrier bags, didn’t notice a thing.

As Oscar went out into the street he started to look around, to look for someone who could make things right again. He didn’t know much, he was vaguely aware of that, but he was sure that he would recognize such a person when the moment came.

I Exile in Egypt

Waging a war had made the whole nation poor, and waiting in line at the local grocer’s with her ration book in her hand, Daisy decided that she was fed up with her life. To start with, on this cold day in early March, the Nissen hut with its barrel-vaulted roof of corrugated steel was freezing cold; the draughts seeped in right through all the gaps in the dingy structure, blowing past your legs and up your skirt.

Tufnell Park, where Daisy lived, had not been much affected by the war at the outset. In 1940-41 the Blitz had passed them by, the neighbourhood being too far from the city centre and of no military interest whatsoever. But exactly a year ago, in March ’45, it had been hit by just one vicious V2. In the very last months of the war the “flying bombs” and the “stratospheric rockets”, the V1s and V2s, had turned their lives into a terrifying lottery. Welcome to the modern world… The Nazis launched these super-weapons from the safety of a foothold in the Netherlands, which they still held on to nine months after D-Day, and there was no telling where these death contraptions would hit the ground. As it happened, one of them had fallen on the block of houses where Daisy’s habitual grocery store had had its premises, destroying the buildings in one big flash and killing twenty-seven inhabitants, including Mr Boddingkote and his wife. Fortunately Daisy had been at work in town when it had happened, but for almost a year now she’d had to do her shopping in the Nissen hut erected on top of the crater—filled up with rubble—at the exact same location as old Boddingkote’s shop. Last summer the place had become an oven; right now it was an icebox. And none of the housewives standing in the queue could be bothered to remember the name of the shopkeeper currently serving them, for they always just called him “the new man”. Because of the rationing system, you were not allowed to go to another shop, so there was no love lost between customers and traders.

The woman standing behind nudged her back discretely. As Daisy was blind, she was not always aware of the fact that the queue was moving on, especially when she was lost in thought like now. She moved forward a few steps, holding her hand out, until she touched the back of the woman in front of her. Both women, the one behind and the one in front, didn’t mind; they knew her by sight and she knew them by voice and smell. Greeting acquaintances. They wouldn’t dream of jostling or jumping the queue around her, you had to give them that. Everyone was feeling miserable, but people didn’t take it out on one another.

The Londoners had had enough, and so did Daisy. The rationing still went on; the official announcements on the radio continuously admonished the public to do without this or that, because it was in short supply. So even the state-sanctioned rationing system, with its tickets allowing for a limited amount of goods per individual, was not always adequate. And now that the war was over—“and our side has won”, Daisy reminded herself—these continuing hardships had become more difficult to stomach. London was no longer a brave, beleaguered city fighting for its very survival; nobody understood why they had to go on enduring such hardships still. The ladies around her were grumbling, their conversations a continuous rumble of cantankerous mumblings in the background.

Daisy thought back to VE-Day, in May of last year. The ecstatic joy all around; the high hopes for the future of the free world! It seemed so long ago and so unreal now. Then, in July, there had been general elections for the first time in ten years. Daisy had been allowed to vote for the first time in her life! As her dad was a Tory and the Prendergasts were Labour, she’d felt a bit torn and really had to choose between her own family and her in-laws. But Churchill’s speeches on the radio had been very dull and confused, as if the great man had nothing more to say to the nation now that the war was over. Clement Attlee, on the other hand, was quite good, articulate, and was telling them to vote Labour for the sake of the soldiers: so that their sacrifices should not have been in vain. There was a lot of talk about a “Brave New World” to come: public housing, social insurances, and a National Health Service for all. Daisy had voted Labour, if only in fond memory of her darling Ralph; because of his family background. Then she’d been as shocked as anyone else when Churchill had lost. How could the country be so ungrateful? And of course, in hindsight nothing had come of the ambitious social plans of the new government, or so it seemed for the moment. Then, hardly a month after the election, they’d heard of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the “atom bomb”. Our own super-weapons turned out to be far worse than those of the Nazis! Welcome to the modern world…

Daisy received another nudge from the woman behind her, a rather impatient one now. Suddenly she came to the realisation that it was her turn. Time to concentrate on the matter at hand. She laid her ration book in front of her on the counter and told the new man what she required. “Tea, sugar, rice, my weekly rations please…” The shopkeeper took the goods down from the shelves behind him and lined up the little packets in front of her. Then he stamped the corresponding coupons in her booklet and totted up the prices out loud. He knew all too well that the blind lady kept track of her rations allowances in her head very accurately: it wouldn’t do to try and cheat her out of a coupon or give a wrong total; she was a clever one, a very clever one.

“I’ve saved up points and I’d like to spend them on canned peaches, sir. My favourite desert at the moment. I believe I have enough points for that?”

“Yes, Mrs Prendergast, you have, but unfortunately we’re out of stock on that article…” The shopkeeper also knew that Daisy had money, her purse always stuffed with cash, and that she didn’t mind spending it. “Maybe I can spare a tin from my own allowance; I’m sure the wife won’t mind, seeing as it’s for you, a blind lady.”

While he muttered this under his breath, Daisy could hear that the man was crouching and reaching down under the counter. Then the points were rubber-stamped and an amount was hissed through clenched teeth, that was more than twice the going price. Daisy nodded silently. The shopkeeper wasn’t supposed to do this: to sell foodstuffs that weren’t available to other customers at a higher price, but this clever chap always pretended that the only reason he did it was to help out a blind war-widow. And Daisy took advantage of this and just paid up, which made her, she knew, just as guilty as him. But those canned peaches were too delicious to pass up on.

It was a relief to get out of that awful Nissen hut. Because of the vaulted roof the acoustics in there were such, Daisy feared, that no detail of that sordid little transaction just now could have escaped the women waiting in line behind her. She fingered the tin of canned peaches inside her shoulder bag and felt a bit embarrassed, even guilty, as if she’d stolen them. The white cane in her other hand was tapping the ground and sweeping the space in front of her, along the very familiar path between the neighbourhood grocery shop and her block of flats. Soon Daisy was lost in her thoughts again, in a roundabout way that was influenced by her sombre mood. How complicated this rationing system was for a blind person. You had to keep track of the numbers in your head at all times. Thank God dear Beatrice always helped her to sort out these things. Good old Bee was not only Daisy’s eyes when she needed them, but she was a genius with figures and finances and all the legal and administrative stuff that would otherwise have stumped her completely. Listening to the sounds from the streets around her, Daisy thought, “Sometimes you can get so fed up with being blind, or more accurately, with living in the world of the sighted, where people drive by in cars or run to catch the bus while you’re always so cautious and so slow; and they make you sign papers you can’t read and stamp your ration book for you unchecked…”

Finally arriving home, Daisy felt her mood clear up a bit while she started making some tea for herself. Here at least she felt at ease. A modest, sparsely furnished three-room flat—well, two-and-a-half, really—where she’d lived for five years now. Here she could move around freely, unthinkingly, her surroundings utterly familiar. Putting the canned peaches away in a cupboard while the kettle boiled, se reflected, “At least I’m lucky to have more than enough money.” She was that rare person who earned more than she cared to spend, living rather simply in a small flat. Ralph and she had bought it together when they got married, that is: their families, the Prendergasts and the Hayeses, had bought it for the young couple. They’d both been all of eighteen years old at the time! She earned half a salary now from her part-time job as a physiotherapist, had a modest war-widow’s pension, and a comfortable annuity from the properties she’d inherited at Ralph’s death.

It was Beatrice, again, who had explained to her how it was possible that such a young chap as Ralph had had properties of his own when he’d died at the age of twenty-one. That was because immediately after he’d reached his majority, he’d come into some inheritances from old bachelors, vaguely related to the Prendergasts, who had died without male heirs. That was how it worked in the gentry, the whole system being based on the idea that women don’t count. But then Ralph had had a will drawn up to make sure that his assets, in case he died, wouldn’t automatically devolve to some other vague male cousin, but go to Daisy instead… Beatrice herself was also a member of the old landed gentry, she was very familiar with its workings, and professed to be rather disgusted by it, being a woman.

“As a matter of fact,” Daisy reminded herself while she took her first sip of tea, “I’m invited to a ball next Saturday. A ball among the nobs, at Bee’s place… well, her parents’ place… very pleased, I’m sure!”

The London “season” was drawing to an end. The first one that was not constrained by the hardships of the war, that is to say: the hardships were still there, obviously, but the members of “society” were no longer required to take them into account for the sake of propriety. At any rate the debutantes were no longer presented at court either, not since 1936, when the King did away with the whole thing because it bored him. Good riddance, Beatrice said. But still, there was a lot riding on this season for darling Bee. At almost twenty-four she was quite old for a debutante and it was rather late in the day for coming out.

Having finished her first cup of tea, Daisy got up and walked over to her bedroom, where she opened her wardrobe. After probing around a bit she found her ball gown. It was white, she knew, already five years old, so: hopelessly out of fashion, but still light, smooth and frilly. Fascinating. It had been her wedding dress, designed especially to be usable as a ball gown with minimal changes. Mummy was so clever that way!

“It seems that on Saturday I shall be shining once more in my faithful ball gown,” Daisy muttered, and then suddenly a sob came up from deep down in her chest and almost choked her, constricting her throat.

“Oh no, no, I must not cry!” She let go of the dress and turned away, fled the room and hurried back to the kitchen, where she poured herself another cup of tea. She was trying very hard not to think of the happy day in the spring of 1941, when she and Ralph were married. She switched on the radio to listen to the Beeb, and while the tubes were warming up, she could hear in her mind how he’d told her that she looked “resplendent” in that white gown…

Then the news was on. When you listened to the radio, there were a lot of bad tidings and dire warnings; the latest bulletins on shortages and restrictions, of course; but if you took the trouble of going into the despatches coming out of Downing Street 10 or the Commons, you realised that Attlee and his people were working very hard. There were complicated laws and frameworks being hammered out to implement new policies; brand-new social administrations had to be put in place. So there was some progress being made after all. And what Daisy liked best, what always made her prick up her ears, were the announcements of the “firsts” of the post-war era. For instance, they would report that the first bananas since the end of the war had arrived in Britain. They were rationed, as usual, and would be distributed only to families with young children, one banana per family overall… “This way the young ones will get their first taste of a banana since they were born!” And in about a month, on the fifteenth of April, the Golden Arrow train service between London and Paris would be resumed. And the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, founder of the London Philharmonic Orchestra before the war, had just announced the creation of the new Royal Philharmonic, which would perform for the first time in the fall…

“I wish I could get a ticket,” Daisy sighed.

“This dress still looks lovely on you,” Beatrice said while she was tweaking Daisy’s ball outfit, tugging and smoothing and fidgeting fondly with the fabric.

“Not too old-fashioned, then?”

“Oh, hopelessly out of date! But with a figure like yours, darling, you’re always going to look like you’re wearing the latest cry.”

They were in Bee’s room at her parents’ house, a Georgian mansion on a garden square in Kensington. This was the family’s “ancestral home”, as they called it, but they also possessed several estates outside of London. That was why they’d never suffered much from the restrictions of the war, their lands being an inexhaustible source of supplies. Belmont House was to be the venue for a ball, that evening, one of the last of the current season. And now Beatrice was grooming her blind friend and enjoying herself very much in the process, in a vicarious way, as Daisy was a pretty young woman, and she herself was rather plain. The ball gown still fitted to perfection, and Bee had put up her friend’s unruly blond curls with bobby pins and a tortoiseshell comb, and she’d lent her a couple of cultured-pearl earrings.

“There, you look gorgeous now; you can be such a grey mouse, sometimes!”

Daisy giggled. “Thanks, Bee, you’re a real friend. What would I do without you?”

“Oh hush, darling… Right now I’m feeling terribly jealous… Even with the dark glasses, you look so beautiful!”

“Oh, that again! Sighted people can be so tiresome! I don’t even understand the meaning of the word, if you see what I’m saying.”

“I know! And I always feel awful when I have such thoughts…”

“Well don’t. That only makes it worse; I don’t want you to spare my feelings because I’m pitiable…”

“It’s not that I find you pitiable, you know that. It’s just so mean of me to envy a blind friend; it’s so unfair!”

“All the same, please feel free to be jealous… and give me a hug to make up.”

Awkwardly, not wanting to mess up their outfits and their hairdos, the two friends put their arms around each other and pressed their cheeks together. Beatrice talked softly into Daisy’s ear. “Your own beauty is completely lost to you, isn’t it, poor thing? I guess that makes you the most guileless soul I have ever known…”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“But what I really miss is that my best friend will never be able to tell me that I’m looking all right, especially today, when I much need some reassurance.”

“So Felix will be here tonight?”

“Yes, of course! That’s what all this is about!”

“Darling, don’t you worry; you’ll be all right, I’m sure you will…”

Then Daisy held her friend at arm’s length and started to probe her face with her fingertips. Beatrice shivered, “This always gives me gooseflesh, Daise…”

“Let me feel you up a bit… I like your face, Bee, no matter what other people say. At least you have clear edges here… here, and here.”

“Yes, but that’s hardly the point.”

“No, but Felix likes you just the way you are… You two always get on like a house on fire, don’t you?”

Beatrice sighed, “I wish it were that simple.”

“Oh, come on! You two are always reading the same books, discussing literature; you both read French; French poetry even.”

“Yes, I’ve learned a lot from Felix.”

“Well then, that should count for something. Men adore teaching things to their girlfriend; Ralph also did, with me.”

They were ready to go down to the ballroom, and were able to make a conspicuous and noted entrance—their privilege for being the young ladies of the house—, slowly coming down the stately staircase, their gowns swinging around their legs like big church bells.

Daisy liked to attend a ball. Though she couldn’t see the glittering decor of Belmont House, the guests attired in their best finery, the pomp and circumstance, still a ball was a riot of sounds and smells, a feast of sensations to be enjoyed. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste and perfumes all around; you could hear the rustling of the sheer silk gowns the young ladies were wearing and had to haul around with them at each step. Her own dress sounded no different in spite of being out of fashion. She delighted in all these sensations, and listened eagerly to snatches of conversation.

“London is so boring now the Yankees have left.”

“Well, they haven’t all gone yet…”

“Granted, but you know what I mean!”

“I wonder if Giles will ask me for a waltz?”

“What if he does; what if he doesn’t?”

“Well, can’t you see? In both cases: I loathe the man!”

“I know: it just makes your skin crawl when you remember these chaps from your nursery days…”

The self-importance felt and expressed so candidly by all these privileged young people was quite refreshing in the context of ruin and decay that surrounded one in London right now.

But Daisy herself was not in the market for a husband, certainly not at a do like this. For one thing she was not gentry. Her father was a bank manager: an employee, mind you, not an owner. But also, the word was out that she was still mourning her dead husband, that she was inconsolable and not even contemplating the possibility of a new relationship for the time being. All those who had known Ralph Prendergast understood. And of course she was blind, poor thing. But precisely for that reason you had to make allowances. So Daisy was dutifully asked for a waltz by each cavalier in turn.

And she loved to dance. Hadn’t done it much since leaving school, but recently Beatrice had often chartered her friend to keep her company at these balls. And so Daisy had rediscovered the pleasures of whirling around on a dance floor unhindered, in a free flow of movement, forgetting the usual plodding of the blind for a moment. Even a passable partner could give her that pleasure, but a more experienced dancer would sense straight away that this pretty blind girl wanted to fly like a bird, float like a balloon, shoot all around the room like an arrow. Some of them obliged, with spectacular results. And Daisy could completely lose herself in such cavorting.

So, as usual, she didn’t become aware of Beatrice’s humiliations until after the fact, when still panting from the previous fling, she would be sought out by her friend and listen to her complaints.

“Just once he asks me; just once!”

“Felix, you mean? Any luck with the others?”

“Well, as I’m the host’s daughter, they have to ask me too, but you see, now that they all think that Felix has a claim on me, they’re certainly not going to show an interest…”

“Well, and how about that claim, then?”

“Forget it. He’s been dancing with Priscilla all evening!”

“You mean her, as in: ‘pretty silly’ Priscilla?”

“Exactly. Felix is always mocking her because she’s no intellectual, but in a ball gown she’s damn attractive. And you should see how she looks at him, so adoringly, fawning all over him… and he just basks in the attention.”

“It really has me stumped, how people can put so much meaning into other people’s eyeballs. Sometimes I take out the eyes of an anatomical model, at work, and I hold those two big marbles in my hand and I think: so these two are supposed to brood, roam, catch, feast, or shoot daggers?”

“Daisy, you are not being helpful at all.”

Poor Bee, caught up in a very cruel game. She wanted so badly to find a husband, but you were supposed to wait until a suitor came along and asked for your hand. This was known in the jargon as “being swept off your feet by Mister Right”, which sounded very exciting, but was essentially a waiting game. Of course, as a girl you were allowed to give some hints to desirable prospects; to show some interest or feign indifference; put up one suitor against another or play hard to get. If you were as pretty as you were wealthy, all this could be quite gratifying. But poor Bee was only wealthy, and for her the game was only mortifying.

However, Daisy had problems of her own, as she was reminded only a week later when she paid one of her too scarce visits to her in-laws.

It started well enough. The taxi from the train station would deposit her at the door of old Bottomleigh House, and the smell of the hedges around the front drive, the twinkle of the old-fashioned doorbell would bring back fond memories of bygone days. When Cox, the butler, opened the door and greeted her, he called her “Your Ladyship” with a smile in his voice. Daisy was the widow of the heir to the earldom, but at Bottomleigh House “the staff” were not supposed to use titles; old Cox knew that Daisy would indulge him on this and he was grateful for it. He took her hand gently and led her to the “living room”.

During the war the male staff had been called under arms, some of the women had volunteered as auxiliaries or found other, more essential jobs; the service had been reduced to a minimum core. Cox was too old to fight, and only Cook and a kitchen maid had stayed on. Then, after the war, the others had not returned to their domestic jobs; Cook and her maid had moved out and only came to the big house during working hours, as did a number of cleaning ladies. Even Cox, the only remaining live-in servant, was thinking of a nice little place by the sea to retire… but he soldiered on “for the time being, for the Master’s sake.”

Ralph’s father was feeling very poorly, to say the least. He had never recovered from his son’s death and his health had declined dramatically. He had now become the shadow of his former self, still impeccably well-mannered, but in a perfunctory, lifeless way. His voice had lost its warmth and charm. He was feeling unwell more often than not and would decline to join his wife and daughter-in-law at the dinner table. Sitting alone with Stella—whom she called “mother”—Daisy didn’t know what to talk about. Her in-laws knew that she still believed that Ralph had been murdered, and they hated the idea. The conclusion of the inquest had been “accidental poisoning”, so it had really been a silly and tragic mishap that had cost the poor boy his life. That was hard to take for all, obviously, so why couldn’t his young widow just accept it, as they all must? Instead of grieving together, they felt awkward in each other’s company, and in fact they disliked being together at all.

So it came as a relief for both parties when Daisy would take off for half a day, insisting that she wanted to visit the grave on her own. She walked all the way to the village, using her cane to follow the side of the road, then on to the church and the graveyard surrounding it. The Prendergast graves occupied the place of honour at the front, near the church portal, and counting the gravestones, it was not difficult to find Ralph’s last resting place. His name and dates, embossed in bronze letters on a plaque, were easily readable under her probing fingers. And then Daisy would feel incredibly sad, and she always talked to Ralph on these occasions, even though she didn’t think he was really there, in this tomb containing only his remains.

“Oh darling I miss you so, but you know that, don’t you?”

She felt the dry hiccups of a sobbing fit coming up inside, and she stopped talking to fight back the tears. Not only were her eyes atrophied since birth, but also her tear ducts, so that if she wept, she only produced a sparse mucous trickle and risked a painful inflammation as a result. At length she murmured, “Why did he do this? Why did he have to murder you?”

Daisy thought she had found out the identity of her husband’s killer, but there was nothing she could do to bring him to justice. Her evidence was rather circumstantial, she had to admit as much, and no one would listen to a blind woman anyway. The authorities believed she was deluding herself, blinded by grief too, and the conclusions of the inquest were final and irrevocable. And in the meantime the bastard who had poisoned Ralph just carried on with his life, without a worry in the world.

“You know, darling, as strange as it may sound, I kind of loathe being in England right now… I no longer want to live in the same country as the murderer.”

II The Crossing of the Red Sea

Ten days later, when Daisy came home from work, the telephone rang and it was Bee, whom she hadn’t met for a while. Her best friend was sobbing and couldn’t articulate a word at first.

“Oh Beatrice, darling, please don’t cry! Has this got something to do with Felix?”

She stuttered that yes, it had, and only after a moment could she explain, “I’ve just heard that he’s engaged to be married to Priscilla!”

“Oh no, the bastard! What did he say to you?”

“Nothing! I haven’t seen him since the ball a couple of weeks ago; now I get word that it’s official: he’s given the nod to ‘pretty silly’ Priscilla…”

“What a coward! He doesn’t even like her. He’s always made fun of her.”

“He even called her ‘superficial’, but what do you want, she’s damn attractive!”

“Well, that makes him the superficial one, don’t you agree? What Felix has gone for now is something he will always want more of, and he’ll keep looking for it in other women too.”

“So you think their marriage won’t last?”

“I don’t think he’ll be faithful or that she’ll be very happy, that’s all. Listen, do you want me to come over tonight? I realise that I’ve been neglecting you terribly, poor thing.”

“No… no, don’t bother. I don’t want to see anyone. I’m just fed up with everything. And I’m sorry to say this, but that includes you. I’m going to bed right now and I think I’ll stay in bed all day tomorrow and just wallow in my misery.”

“Sounds very enticing, but I’m afraid that won’t do at all. Listen, I’ve heard something interesting on the radio the other day. On the fifteenth of April the Golden Arrow will resume its service between London and Paris.”

“That’s over a little more than a week… are you proposing that we go to Paris?”

“Yes, doctor’s orders; it’s exactly what you need.”

“Paris! Ah, but I don’t know, though… I wonder if I could really enjoy that right now.”

“Well, listen, Bee, listen. Here’s the thing: what I have in mind is not just a visit. I’m proposing that we both move to Paris for good. I’ve already bought a set of tactile maps, with captions in Braille, how about that? You know, we could stay there for the rest of our lives… who can tell?”

“Are you serious? Move there for good? What a strange idea! Why on earth would you want to do that?”

“Because I’m fed up with my life here as well, at the moment, just like you. I’ve been thinking: why did we spend all those years studying French at school? Your French is even better than mine, so that’s ideal. And surely, if you ask sweetly, your ‘pater’ won’t mind sending your monthly allowance over there. And to start with, your cousin Gontran could put us up… Are you still on good terms with Gontran?”

“Yes, yes, we’ve been exchanging one letter after another since the regular postal services have resumed. Mind you, he writes about nothing else than being fed up with his life too, and looking forward to come and visit me here in London…”

“That’s good; then he surely won’t refuse to put us up, hoping for the same favour the other way round… Now, that would take care of things nicely in the short term. Later we could find a sweet little garret of our own…”

“A garret? Daisy, this is crazy! What on earth is eating you?”

“But I can hear that you’re getting excited already!”

“And how about your work?”

“Well, surely in Paris they could employ a physical therapist too? Or I could take on patients privately.”

“So you would resign from your job at St Mary’s?”

“Yes, yes, I’ve had a very bad time on the job lately. You see, I work only half-time, and I’ve been practising for only two years since I got my qualifications, but all the patients are clamouring for the blind girl, they want me to treat them, and then my colleagues give me a hard time because they are jealous.”

“Oh, I know the feeling and I can sympathise with them…”

“Am I sensing some hostility here, darling Bee?”

“Let’s call it a slight exasperation and leave it at that.”

“But why? Why exactly? Explain…”

“Well… you can be a tiny bit self-centred sometimes, Daise. A bit full of yourself and blind to the feelings of others.”

“Maybe that’s because I actually am blind?”

“Yes, well, sorry about that, but sometimes I just have to wonder if being ugly like me isn’t just as bad as being blind, you know? I hope you don’t mind my saying so.”

“I’ve already told you: please don’t spare my feelings. But seriously now, I’m fully aware of your problems, even if I can’t fully grasp them. I sympathise with your predicament, believe me, and that’s precisely why I’m proposing this little adventure. Or rather, this great adventure.”

“And do you really think that moving to Paris for good is going to solve my problems?”

“Well, trying to figure out the answer to that would certainly take both our minds off our troubles. I say let’s just give it a go, and see what happens.”

“And when do you intend to carry out this hare-brained scheme of yours?”

“Well, that’s easy. I want us to be on that very first train out of London, on the fifteenth of April. Can you please organize it for us?”

They were early at Victoria Station, the train was not yet there, but could appear at any moment now, although it was not due to leave for another hour. So the porters had deposited their luggage somewhere in the middle of the platform, and Daisy and Beatrice were standing guard next to an impressive pile of suitcases and cabin trunks. Fleet Street photographers were taking pictures of them, as for the moment they were the most interesting feature at the station. A pair of posh young women in rather conservative travel suits.

Two days before, on Saturday, there had been a press run of the Golden Arrow. The powerful locomotive, newly refurbished, had steamed in and out of the station for a couple of runs, carrying streamlined side-casings with big yellow arrows fixed to them, the Union Jack and the French tricolore mounted at the front flapping in the slipstream. Countless pictures had been taken from every angle. Now was the moment to obtain some good pictures of the news event proper: members of the British public boarding the first train to Paris. But Beatrice was bothered, and turned away from the cameras as much as she could. “Daisy,” she muttered under her breath, “I don’t understand you, sometimes… You’re the one who persuaded me that we should move to Paris for good, and then you show up with just one suitcase.”

“That’s right.” Daisy probed the little suitcase standing by her side with the tip of her shoe. “I couldn’t possibly take more than the one, as I need my other hand for my cane… but that doesn’t mean that I don’t intend to stay; it’s just that I expect we will be leading a very simple and sober life from now on.”

“Oh really? Darling, you can be a bit aggravating sometimes: you’re not aware of the situation at all, are you?”

“What situation would that be?”

“Come here, give me your hand!”

Beatrice pushed her friend forward, up against the pile of baggage, and guided her hand to make her feel how many pieces of luggage were crowding the platform.

“Can you understand why I’m feeling a bit ridiculous right now?”

“Oh no! Darling Bee, please don’t feel bad. It’s wonderful that you got into the spirit of the thing so!”

And as they were already standing close to one another, Daisy put her arms around her friend’s neck and nuzzled her, stroking her shoulders at the same time. The cameras started clicking and flashing in earnest: here was a nice little farewell scene of two young women right in front of a pile of luggage, the motif only enhanced by the fact that one of them was blind, the other ugly.

“What I don’t understand, though, is how you managed to get all that stuff here in the first place.”

Beatrice chortled, mollified. “I didn’t carry it myself, you know…”

“And how are we going to manage all this during the journey?”

No problem there, Bee explained. The porters would put everything in a baggage van; the rail company would take care of things at Dover and Calais, and in Paris, Gontran would be waiting for them.

Suddenly they heard the chugging of an approaching steam engine, the people around them turned their attention to that, all aflutter, and the train entered the station. As the huge machine passed by them, puffing and hissing, reeking of burning coal, Daisy felt overwhelmed. She could sense the ground shaking under the soles of her feet, then inside her chest, and Beatrice muttered, “Those wheels! The wheels are huge!” The impression of a train entering a station was nothing new, really, but on that day, right there, Daisy had the feeling that the pillars of the temple of Dagon had come crashing down and that a new life was about to begin.

But it was only a fleeting sensation; now Bee had to supervise the handling of their baggage, and then they boarded their car and settled in their seats without further ado.

They had booked a passage on one of the pre-war Pullman cars. Beatrice, as manager of Daisy’s finances, had decided she could easily afford such a luxury, even if her friend had simply taken the Tube to Victoria Station that morning. They settled down in their comfortable padded armchairs, facing one another across a small table that was already set with a linen tablecloth and decorated with fresh flowers; they had a table for two, and on the other side of the aisle there was a table for four, but for the moment they were the only passengers present in the vast open saloon. At the far end of the car there was a little kitchen, where the waiters were busying themselves with the lunch; but they were not due to leave for another half-hour.

Beatrice retrieved a small book from her handbag and handed it over to Daisy. “What do you think this is?”

“Erm… wait… wait. A soft paper cover… a body made up of uncut signatures… This must be a French novel, brand new.”

“Bravo! You’ve got it in one. Gontran sent it over; it is called L’étranger, ‘The Outsider’, by an unknown young writer named Albert Camus. It has only just been published and it’s all the rage in Paris right now.”

As they had nothing to do but to wait for the train’s departure, Beatrice proposed to read the novella out loud to her friend. And in a soft, peaceful voice she launched herself into the first chapter, where a protagonist only identified indirectly as Meursault gave a very thorough first-person account of his mother’s funeral…

At first they had the whole saloon to themselves, but at length other passengers boarded the Pullman car and took up their seats around them. Beatrice kept reading in a steady voice, not looking up from her book. She didn’t expect anyone from her “set” to be on the train that day, but she wanted to avoid any interference from vague, superficial acquaintances that you would be duty-bound to entertain for the rest of the journey if you gave them half a chance to latch on to you. So she kept her head down and read on.

Even when the train finally departed she kept reading. The people around them were very excited, they pressed themselves at the windows and waved to the photographers taking their last pictures from the platform, but Beatrice doggedly kept reading her book in a soft and steady voice to her companion. Only when the sure-footed waiters started to weave among the tables with the trays and plates for lunch, did she put down the book and ask Daisy how she liked it so far.

“I don’t know if I understand the story; it’s too early to tell, but I certainly like you reading to me: your French is beautiful.”

“Do you think so?”

“Well, I’m no judge, but it seems to me that you pronounce the words impeccably. My teacher at school would have approved of you entirely, I’m sure.”

“Well thank you, darling. But what do you make of the work itself so far?”

“Well, it is rather baffling. There isn’t much happening for the moment; but the language used to convey so little in such excruciating detail is quite beautiful, of course!”

Bee chuckled, “You must mark that down in your mind, Daise, —what you just said—and put it to Gontran when we get to Paris. I’d like to hear what he has to say about it…”

A waiter brought them the lunch they had ordered when they’d bought their tickets. As they had been the first ones to board they were the first ones served. And as the train had left at eleven sharp and would arrive at Dover at 12:35, they’d planned to have an early lunch, or a late breakfast, depending on your point of view. Daisy had shepherd’s pie, Beatrice ham and eggs.

“Again, darling Bee,” Daisy said as they tucked in, “I’m so glad you’re really getting into the spirit of the thing like this. When you’re reading this Camus to me, I’m already transported ahead into our new life. I find it quite thrilling, don’t you?”

“Yes, and I’m glad you are finally getting into the spirit of your own hare-brained scheme as well!”

In the last ten days, after that momentous phone conversation, and while they were preparing for the trip, Beatrice had attempted to fill her friend in on the latest developments of the intellectual rivalry across the Channel. She’d read out—in French—a recent issue of “Les Temps Modernes”, where new thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—as well as young writers like Albert Camus himself—published their opinion pieces. And there was the London literary magazine “Horizon”, where Cyril Connolly proclaimed that “Paris has taken over the torch; London is washed out.” Daisy had then pooh-poohed such notions: “Come on, Bee, we will only be tourists—or settlers, at best—and none of this will be of any concern to us, surely?” But her friend had assured her that according to Gontran, if you were going to live in Paris, it would be almost impossible to keep aloof from the latest developments of the intellectual life…

Presently Daisy asked, “And this Gontran of yours: is he a possible love interest, like Felix, or is he an out-of-bounds cousin, like Ralph used to be?”

“Well, he’s just a second or third cousin, I don’t know exactly, but the thing is: he’s only interested in other men; so certainly not a possible love interest for poor me…”

“What do you mean: only interested in other men? I’m not sure I understand.”

“Well, do keep your voice down, darling,” Beatrice muttered, leaning over. “This is not the kind of topic one would like to be overheard by fellow-travellers at adjoining tables.”

“All right,” Daisy whispered back, “but: do you mean it’s like it used to be at school? When we had a pash for one head girl or another? But surely that didn’t keep us from being fascinated by boys as well, so how am I to understand this thing?”

“Darling,” Beatrice hissed, “you can be so guileless: don’t tell me you’ve never heard about homosexuality?”

“Well, I don’t know… Good Lord! Is that what we’re talking about? I’ve heard the word, but I’m sure I have no idea what it really means! Are you saying that Gontran would be sexually attracted by other men?”

“Yes, yes… Don’t you know about these things? Such men as Gontran have very effeminate manners. You’ll find out when you meet him. But surely you’ve already heard men with an effeminate turn of speech, sometimes?”

“Well no, I can’t say I have. But what I’d like to know is this: what exactly do homosexuals do in bed, then? I mean, if they are sexually attracted to the same sex, what can they possibly do? It doesn’t seem to add up… it doesn’t make any sense to me at all!”

Now Beatrice leaned forward even further over the table, and cupping her hand around Daisy’s ear, she whispered, “I only know another word for what they’re supposed to be doing in bed… ‘buggery’.”

“Oh, That! I’ve heard that word too, but I have no idea what it could mean… exactly.”

“Well, don’t ask me, darling. I hardly understand what it is exactly that man and wife are supposed to do in bed on their wedding night, so…”

“Oh Bee, are you serious? Now that at least is something I’m familiar with in every detail; as you know Ralph and I had our wedding night in ’41, when we were only eighteen. I can tell you everything you want to know.”

“Fine, darling, fine. I’ll take you up on that at the first suitable occasion, but not now, not here.”

When they had finished their meal, Beatrice went on with her reading, relieved that this conversation was over, and bent on avoiding any further awkward discussions with her friend. How difficult darling Daise could be sometimes…

She only stopped reading once, when they sped over the high viaduct at Folkestone and the passengers got their first glimpse of the sea. At Dover, in the Marine Station, after getting out of the train, they just walked up one of the gangways of the Channel steamer, right across the platform. They chose a pair of seats in a quiet corner of the ladies’ saloon, and Bee went on reading, letting the bustle of the embarking passengers pass them by. As the ship sailed, she looked up from her book from time to time to cast a glance at the receding white cliffs of Dover.

The crossing took an hour and a half; then at Calais, at the Gare Maritime, you had the same set-up: just walk down the gangway and climb aboard the French train on the other side of the platform. The second leg of the journey took a bit more than three hours. This was still one of the fastest trains in the world.

And by the time they were approaching their destination, they had arrived at the end of the novella. The two friends felt exhilarated that they had managed to read through the whole work, and they were quite impressed by the story after all. It turned out that all the tedious details in the first part of the novella played an essential part later on. During the mother’s funeral it was very hot; the story was set in Algiers, in the heat of the summer.

“It must be so strange for the French living in a place like that, in Africa, with all those Arabs everywhere,” Daisy remarked.

“Well, just you wait and see, darling, how strange it will be for us in a moment, with all those Parisians everywhere.”

Anyway, a few weeks after his mother’s funeral Meursault shoots an Arab, for no good reason other than that this man has a knife and that the sun and the sweat streaming into Meursault’s eyes are blinding him. Then there is a trial, and suddenly various details of his life are being scrutinized and used against him by the prosecution, starting with the fact that he hasn’t even wept at his own mother’s funeral, and that on the very next day he started an affair with Marie, a work acquaintance…

“Did you notice how once he’s on trial, the tedious details of the man’s miserable little life take on a new meaning?”

“Yes, that’s incredibly clever of the author…”

So in the end Meursault is sentenced to the guillotine. He awaits the execution in a prison cell, knowing that “they” will come for him at dawn. And each time that dawn passes without them showing up, Meursault feels a deep satisfaction at the fact that he has gained another twenty-four hours.

“The feelings of that man awaiting execution,” Daisy said, “that is exactly how Ralph also felt every time he came back alive from a bombing mission…”

“Yes. As Meursault remarks: ‘Mummy often said that one is never entirely unhappy’.”

“But I wonder if one can ever be entirely happy either?”

III The Promised Land

Of course Gontran de la Roche-Domergue was a strange young man, of a kind Daisy had never met before. He was very sweet. He was waiting for them at the Gare du Nord when the Golden Arrow arrived, and then he let poor Beatrice take care of all the arrangements for the luggage. That was not so easy: you thought your French was adequate but it turned out that the local porters spoke another language altogether and didn’t understand a word of what you were saying. Beatrice was quite put out and Gontran went into a giggling fit. But still, he had a big Bentley, which he chauffeured himself, and fitting all the baggage into the motorcar was not a problem.

Then he drove them to his family’s residence in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, not far from the Élysée palace where the President lived. In a side street—a cul-de-sac or impasse—shaded by plane trees, there was a big house with a carriage doorway, which they entered with the car, before stopping by the front door in a private courtyard. This was what the French call un hôtel particulier. Just as in Bee’s family house in London, there was a monumental staircase leading up from the stately drawing rooms on the ground floor to the family residence above, but all three of them kept climbing beyond that and the stairs became narrower. Gontran explained, “Maman assigned a couple of attic rooms to you two, as you intend to stay a bit longer than a normal family visit…”

“Good thinking,” Daisy panted, carrying her suitcase up, “that way we won’t need to go looking for a garret of our own.”

It took some time, with a little help from an old servant, to haul all of Bee’s baggage to her “darling little room” under the roof, with its picturesque exposed beams. The same setup, a low, slanting ceiling with beams jutting out, caused Daisy to bump her head, and she had to explore her new abode carefully with her cane and map it in her mind in great detail. And when Beatrice had finally finished unpacking and had managed to fit everything into the only available closet, she came over to Daisy’s place and asked, “Darling, do you need anything? Do you have enough toiletries?”

“I’m all right, really. I have all the necessities; I prepared my suitcase exactly like I used to do when I went off to school, you know?”

“Yes, well, so did I, but obviously we did not go to the same kind of school…”

They spent their first days in Paris doing all the touristy things, with Gontran as a guide. They went to the Eiffel Tower, which Bee could see through the skylight of her room. “I want to go to the top platform; that way, each time I look at it I can tell myself: ‘I was there’.”

Unfortunately the elevators were out of order, a frequent occurrence at the time, but Gontran said, “Never mind that, my dears, we can take the stairs; it’s even free!”

The girls protested: “You want us to climb all the way to the top? That would be madness!”

“Not at all! We de la Roche-Domergues often go hiking in the Swiss Alps in the summer, and in my experience climbing 300 meters up is perfectly feasible for any able-bodied young person. From Zermatt I’ve even hiked up a thousand meters to the Gornergrat!”

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