1-23: Storm clouds

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I

It wasn’t as bad as he’d feared.

Anaïs was happy about some things but not about others and did not know if she had the language to explain to him. Someone had once told her she was brusque and judgmental, that she could have been more subtle, but she simply didn’t know which words to use. And that was in French – who knew what it sounded like in English?

She felt that put her at a disadvantage and she’d had to prepare her little speech today.

‘The girls and you,’ she opened, in English, ‘have put me in a very difficult position. I only met you through these mad ideas and part of those was all this sex and I don’t like this. You see, Hugh, this is not normal behaviour, not for someone brought up as I was. You are talking about me being your partner but you are not in a position to be this person at this moment.

You have a decision to make – I’m going to put some things to you. If you accept them and decide that I am your woman, then we move onto the next stage. If you don’t, then I stay this afternoon with you in this room, talking pleasantly, then we say goodbye and next time we meet, we meet as friends. I am giving you an easy way out, I’m not punishing you for Francine today.’

She looked hard at him and said there was more. Ball was in her court, he settled back to listen.

‘Your work. It does not depend on the Section and you are able to get jobs coming from your previous jobs – I believe you can keep us both and I can work too part time. I’m not unreliable and can keep my mouth closed when I have to.’ He smiled at that.

‘Your circle. The girls have said they remain our friends no matter what. If I leave the Section, which I must if I become your woman, we can stay first at the Lodge – Francine has said so – but if our work is in Paris, we must think about living here -’

‘I still have this flat no matter what, Anaïs. Genie helped me get it, yes, but it is my money which is paying for it, not the Section’s, it is our flat if you want it to be.’

‘That’s a great relief. Now, Mademoiselle. I don’t want to see her hurt, I would hate that but if we marry, you and I, it’s because we are ready to, not for anyone else’s reasons, nothing to do with Mademoiselle. Agreed?’ He agreed.

‘Us. This is the big issue – do we like each other enough? I don’t mean love, clearly there is love. I mean do you like me as a person, could you be my very real friend, my soul mate? And do you believe I could be yours? This I’m not 100% sure about because though I love and like you, we are different in some ways – I’m far less exciting, I don’t have many friends, I don’t go on missions.

You see, Hugh, we cannot know these things until we spend much more time together, as you said. But it would also be silly for us not to make love now, because we have done this already. Also, I heard of Ksenia and I saw it with Mademoiselle – and I like that, I want that side of you.

But there are things I don’t like. To you, it was perfectly logical for Francine and you to be in bed together, I knew about it before it happened, I knew there’d be some sort of sex anyway, even lying naked in bed is sex … and I don’t accept it. I’m more like Nicolette in this.’

‘Ah, the mysterious Nicolette.’

‘There’s no mystery to Nicolette – what you see is what you get with her and she speaks of a partner being 100% for the other one … I’m that way too. But you’re like public property and I don’t mean that completely negatively – many people depend on you doing things, just as Franka does, just to keep the Section running, to keep people happy and to complete missions, you do good work in a strange way. Everything is always a mission to Franka, to you, to Emma, to Nikki.

I’m not against your missions, Hugh, I see how important they are, but I need a quiet man who comes home to me and we don’t ask for much. Millions of people, billions, are like me – it’s just you who stay with what Franka calls ‘damaged goods’ and you do very great good for these people until things go wrong.

I need something different, I need you to be privately for me. I do not mean not to go out and do your work, I do not mean not to form friendships with women but I don’t like what I’ve seen with you and women and I certainly will not take this freshness with them. May I go on or will you tell me to leave?’

‘Go on of course.’

‘I’m disappointed that Mademoiselle and you have not married after so long – something is very, very wrong with you two, terribly wrong. Now, you personally – you make love well enough, more than enough for me, you’re housetrained too – you couldn’t be around so many women and not be housetrained, so it’s not that. So what is it then? Are you essentially faithless? This I’m about to find out.’

‘Oh?’

‘Why is this a mystery to you? I’m serious about you, this is our whole life we’re talking about now. Mademoiselle let you do as you wish and did not care. I care. It’s a different thing I need – I must train you to just be normal again after your life so far … but can you stand that? We shall see. I don’t mean we won’t have fun, lots of laughter but some of your wildness – you must tame yourself.’

‘I understand.’

‘You like to be led by the woman, you sit back and let her do what she wants but when there is a mission, you suddenly take over and lead. I like that part, I think the man should lead, I’m old-fashioned that way. But he should listen and care too and I think you would – that’s the good part about you.’

‘Anaïs, you’ve just said all that in English and your English is as good as I’ve heard a French lady speak.’

‘I learnt it for eight years but I don’t use it most days. I was nervous with you at the beginning. All right, so, do you relinquish all other women for me or am I not worth that? Do you fear some nasty demands from me later, some nasty habits? Ask the other girls about me.

If you agree to be with me, then you must make the break from Mademoiselle now, this minute, after all those years … can you do that?’

‘You mean that I must phone Genie now and tell her we are over?’

‘No. Because then there is scandal this afternoon and this afternoon is for you and me only, no one else. Plus the Section must not be threatened by her breaking down. You only have to say, ‘Yes, Anaïs, I am yours,’ and then, when you speak with her, as I know you will, you will speak of a separation for some time. This is better because it means that you and I can review how it is with us in a few months. If you are then happy, and I am then happy, then we marry. If not, then we part as good friends, that same day we decide.’

‘You frighten me, Anaïs.’

She looked down and waited. She would wait all day if necessary. ‘Would you like me to go out, to the shop perhaps, so you can think more clearly?’

‘Yes, Anaïs, I am yours.’

‘Repeat it.’

‘Yes, Anaïs, I am yours.’

‘Then you have crossed the Rubicon. Why have you done that?’

‘Genie and I were going nowhere as we were and everyone knew that, not in the form we were in. This is not to shake her up, this is not a strategy, we will both lose from this … and yet we gain each other. Do you want me to end my friendships with the Section girls?’

‘Not at all – you are still working for the Section, they are your friends – you just won’t sleep with them or do anything else like that.’

‘Agreed. It starts afresh now.’

‘Then may I phone Nikki so that she will keep everyone away from this apartement until 17:00?’

‘Yes.’

She put in the phone call, it sounded animated at the other end. She closed the phone and turned to him.

‘I have two things to say.’ This was now in French. ‘This afternoon, you will find out what I can give, in a much more relaxed way than it has been. The second is that you cannot phone Mademoiselle ce soir after I’m gone because she and Philippe are going to Prague two hours from now, for two nights. She will tell you she was ‘away’ for that time and you would not normally question it. Now let’s eat please, I’m hungry with all this talk.’

.o0o.

He was thinking, just before 17:00, that he was going to feel so empty after what they’d just filled the afternoon with. He wasn’t greedy but he was hungry for her and it was going to really hurt not being with her. She was really so soft to the touch – a different type.

‘You never asked once what I was going to be doing tonight, not once and yet you’re not a trusting person, I think you can be jealous. And yet you trust me. Do you want to know?’

‘OK.’

‘I’ll be with Francine – we’re going back down to the Lodge, it’s full circle, Hugh darling.’

II

After Easter, 2006

The four girls, the Terrible Trio plus Anaïs were on Avenue Jean-Jaures and this meeting had long been scheduled.

Anaïs had not been part of the Section after that auspicious afternoon – that was one humiliation too far for Geneviève. When she’d eventually returned from Prague, it had taken her a further three days to come out of it and turn up at his apartement, only to find him not there – he was out with Anaïs and she’d seemingly forgotten he had to work as well.

When he did return in the evening, he immediately asked how the two days away with Philippe had gone and she knew she’d lost the moral high ground. Yet he’d not used it to work up into some high dudgeon, he’d told her all that had occurred.

He mentioned the need for a trial separation and whether it was that she was still high on Philippe or whatever, she was not terribly cut up about it. Perhaps she just didn’t believe him, as she hadn’t so many times before, perhaps she had no respect for Anaïs as a genuine rival and she had actually said that he’d not be capable of sustaining anything ‘normal’ with Anaïs. Her ‘normal’ and his ‘normal’ were two different things.

So the women were discussing now just how well Mademoiselle had taken it and how smoothly it had all gone. Anaïs herself wasn’t so sure now about Hugh but Nikki asked just what she wanted – perfection? Nikki had been attending every word to this point and was starting to think that la première rencontre with Hugh might not be all that far away. In fact she was becoming increasingly annoyed by the whole show.

She couldn’t help feeling that Anaïs was not being entirely fair and the more Anaïs spoke, the less she praised what Franka, Nikki and Emma saw as his main strengths and concentrated on how she had tamed him in significant ways.

Nikki said nothing directly to Anaïs but quietly, aside to Emma, she confided that she could not see it lasting with the two of them all that far into the autumn, it seemed it was too much Anaïs’s way or no way. He didn’t seem the type to take that for long.

Anaïs herself then had to leave as she was meeting the very person on Voltaire to do a bit of shopping. ‘Now you can all talk about me,’ she smiled, ‘now that I am gone.’

‘How to endear yourself to your peer group,’ thought Nikki.

.o0o.

They were actually silent for a minute once Anaïs had departed, a record for them.

Then Nicolette spoke. ‘Franka calls us damaged goods, maybe so. And Hugh’s had such an unusual life himself – for decades he hasn’t really had to answer to anyone, there were girls everywhere in Russia, he came to us and what happened? Is that normal?’

‘And now’ added Francine, ‘he is having to become an ordinary, decent person like any other citoyen.’

‘Only we’re not those things,’ added Emma. ‘And I’m not sure he can actually cope with the life she wants with him. She has every right to expect it … but I’m not sure he knows how to do that anymore.’

‘Seems that way to me too,’ said Francine. ‘He suits the Section more.’

Nicolette now asked, ‘If Anaïs and Hugh do call an end to it, what’s he going to do – go back to Mademoiselle? Try for one of us? That is also going to devastate him – to have had this intensity with Anaïs and then for it to end like that. He knows fifty or so women – but I believe he could not go with any one of them.’

‘I agree,’ said Emma, ‘he could only go with one of us now.’

‘Damaged goods,’ said Francine. ‘As Ksenia was.’

III

Midsummer, 2006

One day, in the apartment at the height of summer, all windows open yet blinds drawn, Hugh came out of the blue to Anaïs with, ‘You’ve found someone?’

‘Pardon?’ Anaïs was shocked. ‘Well there are always many people -’

‘You’ve found someone?’

She sighed. ‘Not as such but I have met someone who does not have that panache, that cavalier manner, that unpredictability, that high energy … that infidelity.’

‘Then I need to release you from your promise today. I gave Anya her freedom that way, with no anger, no argument. She was most surprised because I’d been anything but calm and accepting with her until then. I love you, Anaïs, you know I do, but I see that there are things you find very difficult to take in me and I feel frustrated at times. Not enough for us to end it and if you were 80% happy with me, then it would still be possible.’

‘Oh Hugh, we did give it a very good chance, I still think it might have worked, might still work but I can see your frustration and that frustrates me. And it’s not just you – I’m not really one of those girls, you are almost one of them yourself – you’re certainly part of them. They’re not cut out for a solid life, one where they’ll make a man happy, they’re cut out for doing things, for missions and projects, we’re just different. Different drums.’

There were tears in his eyes – she went on.

‘I would not leave you if you desperately wanted me to stay as your woman, I can take a lot but you wouldn’t like yourself for doing that. It’s too hot to make love in this room – can we run a cool bath, get in and make love there? Then we will make our final decision after that.’

.o0o.

Tender described it, almost mystical, neither dry-eyed and there was a lot of ritual washing and caressing going on, possibly better this day than in the past few weeks … but that’s the way it often goes. However, they were going to have their own ‘trial separation’ for some time and then review it in some months.

Anaïs took her leave around 16:00 and he called Franka who was shocked at the suddenness … but not surprised.

.o0o.

She got there forty minutes later and parked downstairs.

.o0o.

When she got upstairs, her first question was about sheets – she’d brought two pairs he could use for a few days – he said that there were seven clean sets now, the washing machine had done a grand job, two of those sets were ‘theirs’ from last time.

They made the bed, gathered some nibbles and liquid from the other room and got in, or rather on top of the sheets in the still warm room.

‘I was only hoping we could talk on the phone for ten minutes and I am given this joy?’

‘You’re Section, Hugh, you get the full service.’

‘I feel I’ve failed to be ‘normal’, Anaïs thinks I’m just too wild -’

‘You’re not that wild, not really – that was Anaïs’s perception. To us you’re solid, often predictable, sometimes not – we believe you can be happy with just us for now. With Anaïs though, I’m not so sure you were or you ever could have been. Mademoiselle frustrates you, Anaïs frustrates you and has dulled you these few months, we know there’s someone else she likes, Emma saw them together – not doing anything wrong as we do though – and she said they looked good together. That’s why we told you. I’d say just let it go for now.’

.o0o.

She kissed him lightly for ten minutes, then said, ‘I should not have done that, I can feel your pain – you did love her, didn’t you?’ He nodded. ‘I’m not always as sensitive as I should be, Bebe – do you want me to go home?’

‘Please stay with me – is it possible? Can it be done? What about Jean?’

‘I’m afraid he’s with that someone I spoke of ce soir, someone very young. You see, Hugh, he’ll come back from her in the middle of the night, as if he’s been with his mates drinking … and I can’t stand that, I don’t want to fight in the middle of the night.’

‘He needs to wake up to himself. You wouldn’t leave him for me though, would you?’

‘Why not? Why do you say that? Were you thinking that, as I was, when I left your flat that last time?’

‘Yes, Franka, you’ve been on my mind many times.’

‘And you’ve been on mine. I do love you, Hugh but could we work out a formula? It’s interesting that he is younger than me and she is younger than him and I am younger than you – but you can be irresponsible like a teenager.

And then there is the issue that I do still love him. It’s not a question with an answer, it really depends on our circumstances, I think you and I should meet more often now and see if we can get along, whether you could stand me – it’s a different issue if we are together than how we’ve been.’

‘Yes it is different and it’s also if you could stand my habits.’

‘Yes but I know all of those, even the snoring – we’ve been quite intimate for a long time, Bebe, I see you in operation, even your manner around the house. I would not be in bed with you now, staying overnight,’ he gasped, ‘unless that part of it was all right. No, the issue is if you could stand my ways – I like company as you know, I’m loud, I love the forest. But the biggest issue in my mind is that I don’t want you in another Mademoiselle situation, where I can’t leave Jean to come to you fully – that would be inhuman for me to do. I know I’m rambling on but I’ll say this – yes, I could become your woman very easily. Is that enough for now?’

‘Beyond words.’

‘You see, I meant that about spending time together, to see if our easy way with each other continues or whether jealousy and other things come in. And then … eventually … I would have to say goodbye to Jean. He would cry.’

It was still quite warm in the flat although the evening had certainly cooled it down, but it meant they could not keep their bodies together for long or they’d burn up, so they lay a slight distance apart and pushed lips forward now and then, then talked.

That became frustrating though and he mentioned it. ‘Are you getting annoyed about not being able to touch?’

‘Very much.’

‘Let’s shower, you set the temperature.’

.o0o.

The extractor fan soon removed the excess heat, she set the jet onto wide and the temperature right for her, hoping it was right for him, and in they stepped. It meant they could embrace and the sensuality of the water had an immediate effect. She lifted a foot to the bath rim and in he went – she gasped that it had happened like that, with no preliminaries, she was shocked but there he was, thrusting up into her and she was starting to lose a little control.

She felt it happen below, looked down and saw it drain away down her leg with the water, she dropped to her knees and started a real working over, which produced the same result.

It went on.

.o0o.

‘Franka, put the plug in, fill the bath and we’ll lie here, let me get us wine.’

.o0o.

Water halfway up the bath, they looked at one another and smiled.

‘Mon dieu,’ she said. ‘How on earth did this happen?’ He just smiled and touched her fingers, took them in his. She was wondering, ‘Um, how many times -’

‘Not a lot more left.’ He coughed. ‘There were a couple of times earlier today, sorry to mention it.’

‘Ah, yes.’ And then: ‘How could you?’

‘Morally or physically?’

‘Both.’

‘Physically, it depends on what’s happened the last month, the last week, the state of mind – it’s just physics, biology, mathematics – there are a certain amount of times and that’s that. Morally? I can’t face that question until tomorrow – I don’t come out of this looking very good.’

‘Coming out of?’

‘I meant it as an English expression, meaning reputation, but I can see how you would take that. No, I do not mean coming out of it that way.’

‘Good.’

Suddenly the phone went in the living room, his landline, the answer machine was on and they heard the unmistakable tone of Jean, quite beside himself with worry.

Francine was horrified. ‘Merde! Merde! Merde! I have to think.’

‘May I add some thoughts?’

‘Please.’

‘Where would he have got the landline number from?’

‘Mademoiselle, Emma perhaps – there’s nothing written down and my phone is here, I know your numbers off by heart. He’d phone Nikki first. Let me think, I have to be sure in my head.’ She thought for a minute and said, ‘It could only be Nikki, I know Mademoiselle is away. He doesn’t know Emma as well.’

‘Can you phone Nikki at this hour?’

‘Yes, I can phone her at any hour, she’s on call.’

‘Use my landline, it’s cheaper.’

‘That gives her your landline and I don’t want to do that, not yet Hugh, I’m still your woman at this time. I’ll phone her on my mobile.’

She did, it was eventually answered by what seemed a sleepyhead at that end who then sprang to attention – he could not make out the voice very well. Francine explained everything, including Anaïs and Hugh parting, how she, Francine, had come to Hugh’s, about the sex – all of it, sparing no details, Nicolette at the other end in total shock – and then about Jean, about Charlotte, about his call. What was Nikki’s advice?’

Nikki now spoke for some time, Francine noting it all and saying, ‘Comprends,’ from time to time. Then ‘Merci, Nikki, merci.’ Then, ‘No, do not think that about him, that would be very wrong, do you not trust me on this? Jean-Jaures? What time?’ She closed the phone and was far calmer.

‘Let’s just sit in chairs for now, Bebe, let us get our breath back. May we have coffee?’

.o0o.

‘You heard most of it, Bebe. The biggest thing is not to tell a lie – you showed me that and it’s also good strategy because the story does not then fall apart. Your Anaïs left you and Nikki and I are comforting you here – well she is in a way. Jean phoned Nikki all right but she did not give him your number, it never came up in the conversation, he just wanted to know where I was, Nikki said she’d find out for him.’

She suddenly tumbled to it. ‘O merde, I’ve just realized and it’s all my fault.’ She buried her face in her hands. ‘I redirected to your number, Hugh, I’m really sorry – you see, you phoned me and I just did it. Does the number it’s redirected to show up on his phone?’

‘It shouldn’t but he’ll know it’s a private house because of the message, and that will confuse him more because it’s Genie’s voice, not mine.’

‘I always wondered why you do that. So he gets Mademoiselle’s voice saying they couldn’t come to the phone right now but he’ll know it’s not Mademoiselle’s home. So it’s her other home and he’ll put two and two together. You heard his message – he really doesn’t know where I am. But I’m certainly going to have to call him and I don’t want.’

‘All right, question – my call went to your mobile only, right? You answered and that’s registered on your mobile but nothing redirected to your home?’

‘Correct.’

‘Good, then how’s this? You’re sorry you didn’t call but you were caught up in an issue which exploded between Anaïs and me which the Section heads are still trying to sort out although everyone’s gone to bed now. Time just got away. You realized now he’d be frantic and Nikki just told you he was, which she actually did. But you can’t face Jean until tomorrow morning because of this young girl, so Nikki will phone him now and tell him all that, Jean can call Nikki’s place in the morning, about 08:00 and talk to Franka then. No, not now, he calls Nikki’s after 08:00 if he’s still worried.’

‘Yes, that will do for now but he will not trust that I am at Nikki’s. I have to call Nikki’

She did that and they spoke for some time, she put to Nikki what he’d suggested, it seemed OK. No, she wouldn’t drive there now, she was staying with Hugh until 07:30 and then she’d drive there for breakfast, she’d bring bread. ‘No, Jean doesn’t know your place, Nikki, he’s never been there and it’s far enough away from Mademoiselle’s or the office. No, I don’t think he knows Hugh’s either. All right, see you a bit later this morning.’

He looked at her and she wasn’t happy. ‘It should be all right but I’ve been very foolish. Thing is, I know Jean – he’s quite likely to be roaming the streets in his car, hoping he’ll see me. And he just might too. My car is in your garage, I won’t take it tomorrow morning, I’ll take a taxi and go to the street behind Nikki’s, I know the way through – we have that as security.’

‘You’ll need to take one of those large cabs where you can lie on the floor – tell the driver the tale and pay him more, bring him into the story, I’ll give you money.’

‘Yes, that’s how I’ll do it.’ She hugged and kissed him quickly. ‘Let’s go to bed because I’m really exhausted now, truly. Too hot to touch, Bebe and I feel uneasy about it all, will you accept that? You’re a darling.’

‘I’ll set the alarm.’

.o0o.

They woke around 06:00, normal for both anyway, did their things and eventually sat over breakfast.

He spoke.

‘Jean first. If it all goes wrong, you come straight back here, don’t fight him, just go all hysterical and shut off the mobile.’

‘You could be a woman.’

‘Nikki – she’ll keep your secret I suppose.’ She nodded. ‘Which leaves just you and me, Franka.’

‘Yes it does. What a mess – whyever did we get into that?’

‘Because there is a very long history, starting with Ksenia and these things become cumulative, that’s why. In the cold light of day, could you want me?’

‘Silly question – naturally. I have the same question and I assume the same answer from you.’ he nodded.

‘That means a lot. I have to meet Nikki in Jean-Jaures later to discuss you and me. She was not impressed by any of this but that doesn’t matter, all that matters is how you feel, how I feel. Yes, I want you for mine but we said last night we need to meet a lot more and find out. Do you agree?’

‘Of course I do. And I want no regrets – anything we do, we do out of love.’

‘Yes.’

‘Please call through the day if you can stand to call me, Franka, I’ll be quite worried about you – you know how it gets once you start caring for someone.’

‘What about that moral thinking you were going to do?’

‘Not today, not until I’m sure you’re safe and things are all right down at the Lodge – then I can relax and think more clearly, not about parting at all but about how we can make it work.’

She smiled and kissed him, they cleared up and she called the taxi from his line.

.o0o.

She called him about 13:20, he said to hang up and he’d call her from the landline – it was a long conversation.

Jean had not been roaming Paris, in fact he’d gone back to Charlotte’s place and that was worse. Franka knew he’d not have slept with her as her mother was home – Hugh was not at all sure this followed but said nothing – but she could not vouch for other times during the day. This was Franka’s major worry just now. By going to Charlotte’s, Jean had saved her, Franka, from discovery but at what cost?

The downside was that Nikki was not happy with her for ‘seducing’ Hugh the moment he had broken up with Anaïs.

‘Put that right out of your head and tell Nikki that’s absolute rubbish – both of us are adults, both are ‘guilty’ ’ He wished he could speak with Nikki directly but of course, they had to maintain this fiction. ‘Where is Nikki?’

‘Right beside me here.’

What a strange state of affairs. ‘Tell Nikki thanks from me for everything last night. Tell her that one day we’ll meet but now is not the right time. Will you tell her these things, Franka?’

‘Hugh, Bebe, I have a confession. I had the speaker phone on.’

‘I know you did. Nikki, please help me with Franka.’

‘Yes, Hugh.’

‘She doesn’t want to say any more,’ cut in Francine. ‘She’s actually shy.’

But shy was not what Nikki was and they both knew it – Nikki and him.

‘I love you, Francine.’

‘And I love you.’

Click.

.o0o.

He’d gone to work, he’d come home, there was nothing back at the apartement, no further messages from anyone. He went to put an early supper together.

.o0o.

Just before midnight, he was reflecting that this was what the single life was all about when the landline went and the message was Francine’s.

‘I’m at your outer gate.’

He leapt up, went for the door and buzzed, she pushed the gate and came to the second door. Buzz.

Now the lift.

He unlocked both doors and was ready for her, in she came with carry-all, he locked the doors.

They looked at each other, laughed and came into each other’s arms. ‘I shall explain, let’s eat first.’

She’d actually brought some goodies herself and now laid them out, he poured the cognacs.

.o0o.

‘Nikki dropped me here now, she can’t let you see her or meet her because of this promise, this commitment to Mademoiselle. She couldn’t speak properly earlier and put on a Melanie voice. I couldn’t phone earlier because we were with Jean at the Lodge, having a blazing row over Charlotte and he also thinks I’m seeing someone – he didn’t buy the answer machine story, I suspected not. The thing is, he doesn’t know anyone I’ve ever mentioned that I had my eye on, there’s been no one on the horizon at all. But he vaguely feels something’s not right all the same. Officially I’m at Nikki’s now, you understand.’

‘Bathroom and bed, Franka.’

.o0o.

‘Your work times tomorrow?’ he asked, lying on a much cooler bed tonight, temperature-wise.

‘Doesn’t work like that – it’s as they come in but nothing before 10:00.’

‘I have three hours – two pairs – from 10:00 so that gives us time tonight. All right, shall you start or shall I? I’m assuming we’ll just talk tonight.’

‘Yes. You start.’

‘I’m in two minds about you, there are things I don’t like about the situation. Firstly, whatever Jean has done, we must not go behind the back of an official boyfriend. So you need to sort this out, Franka. Don’t worry yourself about me, I am your lover for months … but not forever. I’m not putting a one year limit on it or anything like that, I don’t need to and you don’t need the pressure.

I don’t need to put a limit on it because you and I are the same in so many ways – you already know what you must do, you might even have to say sorry to me but it can’t be.

‘Yes.’

‘If I’m asked right now who I want as my woman, if I had a completely free choice, if there were no complications, then I would choose you, naturally – the way we can communicate is like gold. It’s just the question of whether our way of life is similar enough, our ways. As you say, we’ll find that out. There’s really not a lot more I can say about things. I need you very much.’

‘Speak to me about Nikki.’

‘You see how similar we are? We both know I’ve kept her to one side and she is doing that too. Look, Franka, I suspect that Nikki and I are going to be an instant match and I suspect that if she feels something is not right, that I am mistreating you or you are, she would make a move -’

‘She would.’

‘But I know she would not if she thought you and I had found peace together, she’d stay right away.’

‘Right again.’

‘It’s you I love, Franka. My need for her, Emma, anyone, dies if I know you’re mine.’

She thought what to say, took a sip, thought some more. ‘I love you Bebe and that was what Nikki did not, could not understand – she thought it was just sex for the sake of sex last night, it certainly sounded that way on the phone. Now she knows it’s quite serious and she also told me the same thing you did. But I have to tell you this – I can’t see her as yours, even if you met – you think I don’t know my own partner? She’s much harder than any of us, she’s tougher than you and she doesn’t like men – if I thought you should be with her, I would step aside but I don’t think it’s worth it and I know she thinks that too. She has mixed feelings about you but on the whole – positive.’

‘Then let’s leave her out of it and concentrate on us.’

‘Quietly tonight Bebe, just hold me, keep me close.’

Suddenly she said, ‘It’s so complicated, this morality.’ She looked across at him. ‘You do lead women astray, Hugh, just not in the typical way, we don’t see it coming. You’ve led me astray by making me lead you astray, it’s strange, and then you speak of morality.’

‘Franka, if I get the idea that all this is killing you, that it’s too much, then it stops immediately and I go back to how we were.’

She snuggled up and asked him not to let go.

IV

Early autumn, 2006

There were only so many visits to the Lodge, only so many times Francine could appear around midnight at his apartement, only so long she could maintain the fiction with Jean, only so long she could remain indecisive, before Nikki took her aside and told her she had to decide, it was wrong towards both men and if she chose Jean, she must let Hugh have Mademoiselle back, just for now.

A practical person, Francine knew it was the only real option but she also knew that if he went back with Mademoiselle, then that was the portal for Nikki to enter the arena – she was a deep one, Nikki and she, Franka, did not feel she, Nikki, was right for Hugh.

Frankly, she could not ditch Jean, she could not decide and it was mentally wrecking her, which Hugh had feared.

One day he called it off with her, at least as an item, they would go on as closely as they had before her. She cried for two days.

V

It was Franka herself who organized the reunion with Geneviève who’d been infinitely patient over the months, busy at work but watching the various dramas run their course, always confident he would one day return.

The best way, Franka thought, was to invite them both down – him as usual, Mademoiselle without knowing he was there and with Jean staying overnight with Antoine. She’d suggested that Hugh did not mention either Anaïs or her, it had been intricately planned, late in the evening, at retiring time, Hugh was to be already in place in the Gardener’s Cottage, in Geneviève’s bed and she, Franka, would come in on them as had happened at the start – a sense of drama had Franka.

.o0o.

Geneviève pulled up in the carport around 23:20, took her bag inside and only Francine was there in the semi-darkness in her side of the house. Geneviève had washed and supped earlier, it was to be straight to bed for her, Francine watched her go through the connecting doors.

She waited to hear a firestorm.

Geneviève saw it instantly, all of it – the whole thing had been contrived, pure Franka, she’d even half-hoped to find what she now found, what she’d waited so long for and far from being angry, she just nodded, giggled and said loudly, ‘Mon dieu, mon dieu,’ slapping her thighs quite deliberately, knowing Francine was listening in. ‘Same bed too,’ she also said out loud.

Francine breathed a sigh of relief at her door, which Geneviève heard and smiled to herself, then she heard Franka close her door, Geneviève turned and closed theirs.

She never said a word to Hugh, just threw her clothes onto the chair and climbed in. The moon was kind enough to give them enough light to see each other.

‘Franka did it well don’t you think?’ she smiled.

He smiled back. ‘How else could we have managed this, Genie? Where else could we have done this?’

‘No deep questions about the future tonight?’ she asked.

‘Of course not, we both know the score. We’re both highly relieved, yes?’

‘Oh Hugh, Bebe, I did miss you, truly I did.’ He took her in his arms and the rest followed within a minute.

.o0o.

During a break, she said, ‘Franka is going to come in tomorrow morning without knocking – did you plan this with her?’

‘No, but I agree she will – her sense of the dramatic, of closure really.’

.o0o.

They could hear breakfast being made, Francine now came through with the towels, found the two in bed again, sat down on the footstool and did the mon dieu, mon dieu bit again, with the slapped thighs, even looking up at the ceiling.

‘Usual thing, you two – Hugh has this bathroom, you have mine, breakfast in twenty minutes.’

Geneviève climbed out and hugged her. ‘You’ll want to speak for a few minutes.’ She took her things and went to the other house.

Francine sat on the bed, then lay down on top. ‘Well, Bebe, this is my last gift. It kills me as you can imagine.’

He rested his hand on her arm. ‘You know very well this is not dead with us, you know that.’ She nodded and her eyes were moist. ‘You are a magnificent woman.’ He leant forward and kissed her. ‘I suppose I’d best get ready now because Franka is making breakfast.’

‘Oh my goodness.’ She leapt up and went through to the other house.

.o0o.

Geneviève took him back up to Paris – they both had to work – and on the way, she it was who brought up the one year business.

‘I could ask for an extension on that for the months out with Anaïs and Franka but I won’t ask that. It’s going to be the date we agreed and I hope I’ll have good news for you that evening. You’ve missed me I think – you haven’t once mentioned Philippe.’

‘Nor shall I.’

VII

Hugh quite liked this new cafe in the area, Cafe Noir in the new shopping mall and as far as he could gather, the owner, Jules Colbert, had another somewhere in the north of the city, much swankier but this was his local cuisine so to speak – it could never have been called ‘peasant fare’ but really earthy, regional dishes and he loved them, the bank balance now ran to such things as well.

Plus there was this waitress, Jeanette – young, a bit gauche, it would never go the way of Anaïs, but for the purpose of this meal twice a week, it was perfect and she knew his tastes to a tee.

He reflected more at this cafe than he did at home and one of the things he reflected on was that he’d given up his last chance of any sort of ‘normal’ life that day Anaïs had gone, he’d thrown it away and what was there now? An Ultimatum Day coming up late October.

He glanced at le Figaro while he sipped – they were still pushing this International Year of Deserts and Desertification and this International Asperger’s Year, North Korea had claimed its first ever nuclear test. Pluto had recently been demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ – he wondered if Pluto would be altogether happy with a group of people deciding he was a ‘dwarf’. He wondered if Pluto was even aware of what people on another planet were wondering.

.o0o.

Geneviève was also taking a coffee break, also going through le Figaro but her mind was on other things. She wasn’t terribly good at decisions for someone in charge of a security section, the decision over Hugh was beginning to crowd in on her and she knew she must decide.

She’d also found lipstick on Philippe’s handkerchief … again.

Chapter 1-22 hereChapter 2-1 here

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