Mo pulls the folders towards her. ‘Go outside,’ she says. ‘Go out on to the deck and stare at the sky for ten minutes and remind yourself that ultimately ours is a meaningless and futile existence and that our little planet will probably be swallowed by a black hole so that none of this will have any point anyway. And I’ll see if I can help.’

Liv sniffs. ‘But you must be exhausted.’

‘Nah. I need to wind down after a shift. This’ll put me to sleep nicely. Go on.’ She begins to flick through the folders on the table.

Liv wipes her eyes, pulls on a sweater and steps outside on to the deck. Out here she feels curiously weightless, in the endless black of night. She gazes down at the vast city spread beneath her, and breathes in the cold air. She stretches, feeling the tightness in her shoulders, the tension in her neck. And always, somewhere underneath, the sense that she is missing something; secrets that float just out of sight.

When she walks into the kitchen ten minutes later, Mo is scribbling notes on her legal pad. ‘Do you remember Mr Chambers?’

‘Chambers?’

‘Medieval painting. I’m sure you did that course. I keep thinking about something he said that stuck with me – it’s about the only thing that did. He said that sometimes the history of a painting is not just about a painting. It’s also the history of a family, with all its secrets and transgressions.’ Mo taps her pen on the table. ‘Well, I’m totally out of my depth here, but I’m curious, given that she was living with them when the painting disappeared, when she disappeared, and they all seemed pretty close, why there is no evidence anywhere of Sophie’s family.’

Liv sits up into the night, going through the thick files of papers, checking and double-checking. She scans the Internet, her glasses perched on her nose. When she finally finds what she is looking for, shortly after five o’clock, she thanks God for the meticulousness of French civic record-keeping. Then she sits back and waits for Mo to wake up.

‘Is there any way I can tear you away from Ranic this weekend?’ she says, as Mo appears in the doorway, bleary-eyed, her hair a black crow settling on her shoulders. Without the thick black eyeliner, her face seems curiously pink and vulnerable.

‘I don’t want to go running, thank you. No. Or anything sweaty.’

‘You used to speak fluent French, right? Do you want to come to Paris with me?’

Mo makes for the kettle. ‘Is this your way of telling me you’ve swung to the other side? Because while I love Paris, I’m so not up for lady bits.’

‘No. It’s my way of telling you that I need your superior abilities as a French speaker to chat up an eighty-year-old man.’

‘My favourite kind of weekend.’

‘And I can throw in a crap one-star hotel. And maybe a day’s shopping at Galeries Lafayette. Window-shopping.’

Mo turns and squints at her. ‘How can I refuse? What time are we leaving?’

22

She meets Mo at St Pancras at five thirty p.m., and at the sight of her, waving laconically, cigarette in hand outside a café, she realizes she’s almost shamefully relieved at the prospect of two days away. Two days away from the deathly hush of the Glass House. Two days away from the telephone, which she has come to view as virtually radioactive: fourteen different journalists have left messages of varying friendliness on her answer-phone. Two days away from Paul, whose very existence reminds her of everything she has got wrong.

The previous night she had told Sven her plan, and he had said immediately, ‘Can you afford it?’

‘I can’t afford anything. I’ve remortgaged the house.’

Sven’s silence was poignant.

‘I had to. The law firm wanted guarantees.’

The legal costs are eating everything. The barrister alone costs five hundred pounds an hour and he hasn’t yet stood up in court. ‘It’ll be fine once the painting is mine again,’ she says briskly.

Outside, London is bathed in an evening mist; the sunset shoots orange flares across the dirty-violet sky. ‘I hope I didn’t tear you away from anything,’ she says, as they settle into their seats.

‘Only the Comfort Lodge Monthly Sing-a-long.’ Mo places a pile of glossy magazines and some chocolate in front of them. ‘And the chord changes of “We’re Going To Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line” hold no surprises for me. So who’s this man we’re going to meet, and how does he relate to your case?’

Philippe Bessette is the son of Aurélien Bessette, younger brother of Sophie Lefèvre. It was Aurélien, Liv explains, who lived in Le Coq Rouge during the years of the occupation. He had been there when Sophie was taken away, and had stayed in the town for several years afterwards. ‘He of all people might know how the painting disappeared. I spoke to the matron of the care home where he lives, and she said he should be up to a conversation as he’s still quite sharp, but that I had to come in person as he’s pretty deaf and can’t do it by phone.’

‘Well, glad to help.’

‘Thank you.’

‘But you do know I don’t really speak French.’

Liv’s head whips round. Mo is pouring a small bottle of red wine into two plastic glasses. ‘What?’

‘I don’t speak French. I’m good at understanding general old person’s babble, though. I might be able to get something.’

Liv slumps in her seat.

‘I’m joking. Jesus, you’re gullible.’ Mo hands her the wine, and takes a long sip. ‘I worry about you sometimes. I really do.’

Afterwards she remembers little of the actual train journey. They drink the wine, and two more little bottles, and they talk. It’s the closest thing she’s had to a night out for weeks. Mo talks about her alienation from her parents, who cannot understand her lack of ambition or the care home, which she loves. ‘Oh, I know we’re the lowest of the low, care assistants, but the olds are good. Some of them are really smart, and others are funny. I like them more than most people our age.’ Liv waits for ‘present company excepted’ and tries not to take offence when it doesn’t come.

She tells Mo, finally, about Paul. And Mo is temporarily silenced. ‘You slept with him without Googling him?’ she says, when she recovers the power of speech. ‘Oh, my God, when you said you were out of the dating loop I never thought for a minute … You don’t sleep with someone without doing background. Jesus.’

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