Francine looked at him and got down to it in a low voice.
‘I can modify some of how I act, I can adjust, I’d miss Jean’s jokes and all his friends around, you have only us and our company, maybe you could start to invite people from your work but it’s not essential. I suppose you’d expect me to keep the Lodge running, we’d use this flat as our Paris HQ, yes?’
‘That’s how I see it.’
‘One day you’ll meet Nikki but I tell you now, it can’t be with you and her, plus Mademoiselle in the same section, it simply would not work and you can either believe me or not on that.’
‘I’ve not met her, I’ve heard some things. I’m happy not to meet her until you’re ready.’
‘Can you take this demotion from King to Prince? With me the Mad Princess?’
‘Damaged goods I think you said you were. Listen, Franka, we all are, you know that. What’s in it for you though?’
‘I don’t think you need ask that, we’ve been through our history, I know who and what I want … you give me a feeling of security and madness but mayhem at the same time – that last bit’s important. You were spinning wheels with her, you’d been dulled and we didn’t like it.’
‘What of Jean though? He and you have a long history.’
‘There are key moments, Hugh, a word here, an expression there, when you find out the truth. It’s not him with Charlotte, it’s her age, plus the excuses he makes for her – I’m not N1, he chafes at my age – we might be similar ages but I’m far more mature. I’d never be lying in bed here with you just for ‘an arrangement’, not in the least, there must be something there, I think we’re natural for each other.’
‘Agreed. I’m wondering though how much you’ll start missing Jean.’
‘And you Mademoiselle.’
‘How is Nicolette on you and me?’
‘She doesn’t like it. Don’t ask me to go into it any further.’
What had got through to both of them was how quickly they’d moved into certain positions on the sheet for comfort – they were very comfortable, the whole body language was good – during those last few exchanges, she’d had his member in her hand and was already ‘accessible’ you might say, he now climbed between and that’s how quickly it all began.
After Easter, 2006
The most dismayed, reportedly, was Nicolette, though she’d had to own that they’d finally separated Mademoiselle and him, plus he’d grown in acceptance within the Section, he’d grown into various inside roles as well, he kept the Paris end going, Francine kept the Lodge end running, it was working out, a calmer time than they remembered.
The second most dismayed was Geneviève who’d clearly thought that the style differences of the two would end their tryst early, she also sent them in incongruent directions on different missions which did not dovetail, everyone knew what she was up to but no one could nail any one particular issue – it was having some effect.
They were in the bath at his place, quite an undertaking with two people their size washing each other, when his landline went. The answer machine was on and they heard the unmistakable tone of Jean, quite beside himself with worry.
Suddenly, the whole lie they were living hit them between the ears. Thing was, Jean had not gone from the Lodge. Yes, she’d made it clear that Charlotte was allowed and thus he was banned from her bed, he was living in the Gardener’s, but had that fazed him, had it made him question why he could no longer make love to Francine?
Not a bit of it. Hugh stayed out of it for now – he’d judge from her moves over time her attempts to resolve Jean, it wasn’t Hugh’s place, he felt, at this stage, to demand that Jean depart.
And so, just as with Mademoiselle and Philippe, Hugh was allowing a similar thing to exist here. Truth was – Jean was comfortable with the arrangement and Francine still got to see him, plus he was still good company on the occasions they spent time together.
The one most diametrically opposed, again, was Nicolette, plus Nadine and Melanie concurred, Geneviève observed and waited, keeping her own counsel.
And now here was Jean phoning Hugh’s home, Francine was horrified. ‘Merde! Merde! Merde! I have to think.’
‘May I add some thoughts?’
‘Where would he have got the landline number from?’
‘Mademoiselle, Emma perhaps – there’s nothing written down in the Lodge and my phone is with me, I know everyone’s number. He’d phone Nikki first. Let me think, I have to be sure in my head.’
She thought for a minute and concluded, ‘It could only be Nikki, I know Mademoiselle is away and he doesn’t know Emma well enough.’
‘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 make out the voice.
Nicolette spoke for some time, Francine muttering, ‘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?’
‘You heard most of it, Bebe. The biggest thing is not to tell a lie – you showed me it was a good strategy because the story does not then fall apart. Jean phoned Nikki all right but she says 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. ‘I have to believe it was Mademoiselle and yet the answer machine message will confuse him because it’s her voice – I’ve always wondered why you’ve kept that.’
So he gets Mademoiselle’s voice saying ‘they’ can’t come to the phone right now but he’ll know it’s not Mademoiselle’s home, therefore it must be yours. And you heard his message – he really doesn’t know where I am. I certainly have to call him sometime and I don’t want because we’ll have to have the big parting, he will have to leave the Lodge.’
‘Which leaves you with no option but me and how far have I burnt into your soul … or not?’
‘Don’t speak like that, it’s one of the things I don’t like in you.’ She quickly added, ‘I like 90% though, you know that.’
‘OK, Franka, where then are we? What’s it matter if Jean called? I could have taken the phone and it would not have mattered at all, it’s Genie’s and my flat in his eyes. That’s not really what this is about … is it?’
She sighed. ‘Correct. I have to call Nikki.’
She did, they spoke for some time, she put it all to Nikki in rapid French, she became agitated, while Nikki, he could hear, was calm yet persistent.
Francine had been tossing and turning most of the night, she got up and made ready for work, he put out the breakfast, she did what she had to in the bathroom, came back and kissed him to little bits, grabbed her bag and off she went.
She called him about 13:20, he said to hang up and he’d call her back – it was a long conversation.
Jean had not been roaming Paris, he’d in fact gone back to Charlotte’s place and that did not make things any better. Nikki had been at her to make a decision one way or the other, to not stay in this Mademoiselle-like halfway house.
‘Tell Nikki it’s the fault of both of us.’
‘You tell her, she’s right here beside me and I think you know I’m on speaker phone.’
‘Yep, but I wasn’t sure it was Nikki until you said. Nikki, please help Franka and me, put some sense into both of us.’
‘She doesn’t want to say any more,’ cut in Francine. ‘She’s actually shy.’
Shy was not what Nikki was and all three knew it.
‘I love you, Francine.’
‘And I love you.’
A sort of night had fallen at last, they were in bed at the flat, she’d been with Nikki all day on various missions.
‘Nikki couldn’t speak properly earlier, so she put on a Melanie voice but as I told her, that would mean nothing to you, maybe she was checking if you knew Melanie.’
‘I couldn’t phone either because we’d both been with Jean at the Lodge since 14:00, having a blazing row over Charlotte – he’s sure I’m seeing someone, it’s taken him that long for it to dawn, and he thinks it’s you.’
‘Tell me how you see it all.’
‘I’m in two minds as you know but you’ll recall how you all did that number on Genie in this flat. No one is forcing Jean to see facts in this case, not your Nicolette, not anyone.’
‘I know, no one wants you and I to stay together.’
‘Yes, of course I do and I know you believe that, you want it too. It’s not affecting our work, Mademoiselle is away again as you know, it’s just this matter of Jean – I do miss him and I know I must let him go, his presence, plus in my head too. I don’t know where you are with Mademoiselle, you don’t give much away. And you don’t need to tell me it can’t go on like this – I think it would be bad you getting back together with her and Nikki agrees.’
‘I miss her, yes, but remember you were talking about the little things counting and two or three times she’s crossed a red line without realising it. If I were with her, those wouldn’t make me leave but it would make me open to good offers.’
Early autumn, 2006
There were two things which now altered the landscape.
Firstly with Francine. There were only so many visits to the Lodge, only so many times she could appear around midnight at his apartement, only so long she could maintain the fiction with Jean in the other house, only so long she could remain indecisive, before Nikki took her aside yet again and told her that this was no different to Mademoiselle and him – well actually, Francine was gone on Hugh, that was a difference but she still would not make that final break with Jean.
A practical person, Francine knew it was stressing her out something awful, relations in bed were good on one level, no issue there, in fact more intense than they’d ever been, but she was sad the whole time now the closer she got to what she knew she must do.
Secondly, Geneviève had re-entered the arena via a call to him, asking to meet at a cafe of his choice. She’d told no one about it.
‘I’m a patient person, Hugh, you know that,’ she said over her profiteroles, ‘and I was all for letting it take its own course but the sadness in Franka must stop, the pressure must come off her. I don’t mean you should return to me but I think you know you must release her … don’t you?’
He sighed, she continued. ‘I’m not neutral in this, neither personally nor for the Section, I have a stake in it … and yet it cannot go on like this.’
Francine and he were in bed, both facing the ceiling, her head resting against his shoulder.
‘Could you take Jean back?’ he asked out of the blue.
That sent her into near-hysterics but this time he waited.
Didn’t help so he spoke softly. ‘It needn’t be me you know, it needn’t be Jean, you could strike out and make a new life with someone else but one thing it cannot be, after tonight, Franka, is both of us.’
‘I know. Will you let me do it?’
‘Would you be devastated, as he would be if I decided the other way?’ He did not reply. ‘Yes, of course you would, me too. In your case, I don’t want you going back to playing second string to Philippe -’
‘I wouldn’t do that – there’s still that one year ultimatum, it’s two months away. I’d wait till then, to that day. I’m not even saying I’d be with Genie either, you may decide for me.’
‘I may well do, Bebe, I may well do.’
It was Franka herself who told him and asked him to be party to her ruse. That took a night of love and much unhappiness on both sides.
The best way, Franka thought, was to invite them both down but Mademoiselle without knowing he was there and with Jean on one of his nights with Charlotte. Hugh was to be already in place in the Gardener’s, in Geneviève’s bed in fact and she, Franka, would come in on them as had happened at the start.
Of course he could do it in his own gung-ho way if he wished, make contact in his own time, meet and whatever happened after that but she begged him to let her do it her way – hand him over so to speak – that was important for both women.
Geneviève pulled up in the carport around 23:20, took her bag inside and only Francine was there in the semi-darkness on 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 – 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 the door of the main house close, she went and closed theirs.
She 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. ‘We need to talk first, get it all clear. I did miss you, truly I did.’
‘I did too.’ But he still knew the terms and conditions were going to be everything, she was also well aware of that.
About 02:00, all talked out, they made love and fell asleep within minutes of one another.
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, 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 went through, Francine sat on the bed, then lay down. ‘Well, Bebe, it’s done, it kills me as you can imagine.’
She leapt up and went through to the other house.
Geneviève took him back up to Paris – they both had to work – and on the way, she it was who came back to the one year business.
‘I could ask for an extension for the months out with Anaïs and Franka but I won’t ask for that. It’s going to be the date we agreed on and I hope I’ll have good news for you that evening. You haven’t once mentioned Philippe.’
‘Nor shall I.’
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 walked away from it and what was there now?
Ultimatum Day 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 a ‘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.
Geneviève was 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, she was sort of sure it was right with Hugh again.
That’s when she found lipstick on Philippe’s handkerchief … yet again.