‘How about that?’ Henry claps a hand on her shoulder, his face wreathed in smiles. ‘How about that? No one’s even listening to poor old Berger’s verdict.’
‘C’mon,’ says Paul, placing a protective arm around her shoulders. ‘Let’s get you out of here.’
The clerk appears, pushing his way through the sea of people. He stands in front of her, blocking her path, slightly breathless with the effort of his short journey. ‘Here, madam,’ he says, and hands her the painting. ‘I believe this is yours.’
Liv’s fingers close around the gilded frame. She glances down at Sophie, her hair vibrant in the dull light of the court, her smile as inscrutable as ever. ‘I think it would be best if we took you out the back way,’ the clerk adds, and a security guard appears beside him, propelling them towards the door, already speaking into his walkie-talkie.
Paul makes as if to step forward, but she puts a hand on his arm, stopping him. ‘No,’ says Liv. She takes a breath and straightens her shoulders, so that she seems just a little bit taller. ‘Not this time. We’re going out through the front.’
Between 1917 and 1922 Anton and Marie Leville lived in a small house close to the edge of a lake in the Swiss town of Montreux. They were a quiet couple, not fond of entertaining, but apparently most content in each other’s company. Madame Leville worked as a waitress in a local restaurant. She is remembered as efficient and friendly but as someone who did not volunteer conversation (‘A rare quality in a woman,’ the proprietor would remark, with a sideways look at his wife).
Every evening at a quarter past nine, Anton Leville, a tall, dark-haired man with an oddly shambolic gait, could be seen walking the fifteen minutes to the restaurant, where he would tip his hat through the open door to the manager, then wait outside until his wife emerged. He would hold out his arm, she would take it, and they would walk back together, slowing occasionally to admire the sunset on the lake or a particularly decorative shop window. This, according to their neighbours, was the routine for their every working day and they rarely deviated from it. Occasionally Madame Leville would post parcels, little gifts, to an address in northern France, but apart from that they seemed to have little interest in the wider world.
At weekends the couple tended to remain at home, emerging occasionally to go to a local café where, if it were sunny enough, they would spend several hours playing cards or sitting beside each other in companionable silence, his large hand over her smaller one.
‘My father would joke to Monsieur Leville that Madame would not blow away on the breeze if he were to release her just for a minute,’ said Anna Baertschi, who had grown up next door. ‘My father used to tell my mother that he thought it was a little improper, to be hanging on to your wife in public so.’
Little was known of Monsieur Leville’s own affairs, other than that he appeared to suffer from poor health. He was assumed to have some kind of private income. He once offered to paint portraits of two of the neighbours’ children, but given his strange choice of colours and unconventional brushwork, they were not terribly well received.
Most townspeople agreed privately that they preferred the neater brushwork and more lifelike images of Monsieur Blum down by the watchmaker’s.
The email arrives on Christmas Eve.
Okay. So I officially suck at predictions. And possibly friendship. But I would really like to see you, if you haven’t been using my handed-down skills to build voodoo dolls of me (this is entirely possible, I have had some serious headaches lately. If it was you, I offer my grudging admiration).
The thing with Ranic isn’t really working out. Turns out sharing a two-bedroom flat with fifteen male Eastern European hotel workers isn’t such a blast. Who knew? I got a new place through Gumtree with an accountant who has a vampire thing going on and seems to think that living with someone like me will give him street cred. I think he’s a little disappointed that I haven’t filled his fridge with roadkill and offered him a home-grown tattoo. But it’s okay. He has satellite telly and it’s two minutes’ walk from the care home so I no longer have an excuse to miss Mrs Vincent’s bag change (don’t ask).
Anyway. I’m really glad you got to keep your picture. Truly. And I’m sorry I don’t have a diplomacy button. I miss you.
‘Invite her,’ says Paul, peering over her shoulder. ‘Life’s too short, right?’
She dials the number before she even thinks about it.
‘So, what are you doing tomorrow?’ she says, before Mo can speak.
‘Is this a trick question?’
‘Do you want to come over?’
‘And miss the annual bitchfest that is my parents, a faulty remote control and the Christmas edition of the Radio Times? Are you kidding me?’
‘You’re expected at ten. I’m cooking for five thousand, apparently. I need potato-based help.’
‘I’ll be there.’ Mo can’t hide her delight. ‘I may even have got you a present. One that I actually bought. Oh. But I have to slope off around six-ish just to do some singing stuff for the olds.’
‘You do have a heart.’
‘Yeah. Your last skewer must have missed.’
Baby Jean Montpellier died from influenza in the last months of the war. Hélène Montpellier went into shock, crying neither when the undertaker came to take his little body nor when it was laid in the earth. She continued to behave with a semblance of normality, opening the bar of Le Coq Rouge at the allotted hours and dismissing all offers of help, but she was, the mayor recalled, in his journals of the time, ‘a woman frozen’.
Édith Béthune, who had silently taken over many of Hélène’s responsibilities, describes an afternoon several months later when a lean, tired-looking man in uniform arrived at the door, his left arm in a sling. Édith was drying glasses, and waited for him to enter, but he just stood on the step, gazing in with a strange expression. She offered him a glass of water, and then, when he still did not step inside, she had asked, ‘Should I fetch Madame Montpellier?’
‘Yes, child,’ he had replied, bowing his head. His voice had broken slightly as he spoke. ‘Yes. Please.’
She tells of Hélène’s faltering steps into the bar, her disbelieving face, and how she had dropped her broom, gathered her skirts and hurled herself at him, like a missile, her cries loud enough to echo through the open door and down the streets of St Péronne, causing even those neighbours hardened by their own losses to look up from whatever they were doing and dab their eyes.
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