“I don’t think he’ll like the way it ends.” Assuming, I thought, he had even learned how it had started. I wasn’t convinced that my cousin had actually told him Mary hadn’t gone to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Jacqui never lied to me but neither did she always tell me everything, especially when she thought it was better for me not to know, and having thought back over our discussion on the phone when she had promised she would tell him and I’d said I’d wait for her to ring me back and she’d replied by text to tell me to keep going, I had realized there’d been wiggle room in that exchange for her to not tell Alistair and still not tell a lie. And when she’d been here last, her talk had been all about her own excitement and plans for the book, with no mention of his. “There are things unexplained and unfinished.”
“As with real life,” Claudine pointed out.
Thinking of Alistair’s unfinished trilogy, that for the moment would have to remain so, I looked from the mutely accusing eyes of his framed portraits to those hung beside it, my gaze unexpectedly finding another familiar face.
“Wait,” I said. “Is this…?”
“Madeleine Hedrick,” she named the famous actress. “Yes, she was one of my first assignments when I went to London. Such a wonderful woman.”
“You worked in London?” Which explained, I thought, how she had learned to speak such perfect English.
Claudine said, “When I was starting out, yes. By the end I worked all over—New York, London, Rome—although I think I spent more time in airports in those days than anywhere.”
Surprised by all of this, I turned and asked, “What did you photograph?”
Claudine, fitting another of the wedding prints into the album, shrugged. “My specialty was high-end advertising and fashion, but for a few magazines I also did some celebrity portraits. That one of Alistair, second one down on the right, I took that for a magazine.”
I looked. It wasn’t the portrait of him I liked best—the quiet one where he was sitting by the window, reading. Here he was more energetic, standing midway up a hill in what appeared to be a Scottish glen, the sky behind him streaked with clouds that cast long shadows on the curving land below. “And was that how you met?”
“No. Alistair wasn’t a celebrity, when we first met. We had mutual friends,” Claudine told me, “in London, and sometimes when I’d go to parties he’d be there, and one day he said he was writing a book about the Scottish exiles in the Netherlands, and asked me would I like to take the pictures for him? All our friends were teasing him because they knew my fees were too expensive for him, and he looked so embarrassed that I told him yes. I had the time. I took the photographs. I didn’t charge him much. And when he came to write the second book, the one at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, I took the photographs for that as well. That,” Claudine told me, “was an even better job, because my aunt was living here, you see. This was her house. I played here as a child, I always loved it. So we stayed here, Alistair and I, and did the research for his book. It was…”
She paused, and I turned round again and saw she’d stopped her work and wore a faint frown like the one my cousin sometimes wore when trying to decide what words to use, describing something.
Claudine said, “For years I’d been so busy. Always traveling. But here… It was like coming from a crowded place to somewhere I could breathe. Does that make sense?”
I nodded. I felt that way here, myself.
She said, “I found I liked to breathe. I liked the person I became when I was here. I think we all wear masks we show the world, and here I didn’t have to wear it. It was very…”
“Liberating,” I supplied, when once again she seemed in search of the right word. I wasn’t thinking of Claudine, though, when I said it. I was thinking back to yesterday, and how I’d woken in Luc’s sitting room in early evening to find Noah sitting at the far end of the sofa, being careful not to lean against my feet which were still covered in the blanket.
He’d been playing Robo Patrol, without the sound on. When I’d stirred, he’d turned and told me, “Papa says I need to let you sleep.”
I’d blinked, and focused. “That’s all right. I’ve slept enough.”
“He says you had a meltdown.”
Children were direct. I liked that. I had given Noah a plain answer. “Yes.”
He’d set his game down, seeming to find me of greater interest. “Did he give you ice cream? Uncle Fabien feels better if you give him ice cream.”
“No,” I’d said. “He didn’t.”
“Uncle Fabien punched a hole right in the wall once, when he had a meltdown. Do you punch through walls?”
I’d thought he’d looked a little hopeful I would say I did, as though I had a kind of superpower.
“No. I just cry, mostly. And I’m very loud.”
“Oh. Well, next time you have one, be sure that you have it when I’m here,” had been his advice, “because I’ll give you ice cream.” And having said all he had wanted to say about that, he had held out the Robo Patrol game. “Want to try the next level?”
I’d felt something new in my chest, like a fullness around my heart. “Yes,” I had said, “I would like that.”
I felt that same fullness now, holding it close as Claudine gave a nod at the word I’d suggested.