She sits back and refills her glass. Just briefly, she looks oddly cheerful. ‘Whoa. I just realized something: you, Liv Halston, may actually turn out to have had the Most Expensive Shag In History.’
They spend the night in a budget hotel in a Paris suburb, where the bathroom is moulded from one piece of yellow plastic and the shampoo is the exact colour and scent of washing-up liquid. After a stiff, greasy croissant and a cup of coffee, they call the residential home. Liv packs their stuff, her stomach already a knot of nervous anticipation.
‘Well, that’s torn it,’ says Mo, when she puts down the phone.
‘He’s not well. He’s not seeing visitors today.’
Liv, putting on her makeup, stares at her in shock. ‘Did you tell them we’d come all the way from London?’
‘I told her we’d come from Sydney. But the woman said he was weak and he’d only be asleep if we came. I’ve given her my mobile number and she’s promised to ring if he picks up.’
‘What if he dies?’
‘It’s a cold, Liv.’
‘But he’s old.’
‘Come on. Let’s go drink in bars and stare at clothes we can’t afford. If she rings we can be in a taxi before you can say Gérard Depardieu.’
They spend the morning wandering around the endless departments at Galeries Lafayette, which are festooned with baubles and packed with Christmas shoppers. Liv tries to distract herself, to enjoy the change, but she is acutely conscious of the price of everything. Since when had two hundred pounds become an acceptable price for a pair of jeans? Did a hundred-pound moisturizer really eradicate wrinkles? She finds herself dropping hangers as quickly as she picks them up.
‘Are things really that bad?’
‘The barrister is five hundred quid an hour.’
Mo waits a minute for a punchline that doesn’t come. ‘Ouch. I hope this painting’s worth it.’
‘Henry seems to think we’ve got a good defence. He says they talk the talk.’
‘Then stop worrying, Liv, for God’s sake. Enjoy yourself a little. Come on – this is the weekend you’re going to turn it all around.’
But she can’t enjoy herself. She’s here to pick the brains of an eighty-year-old man, who may or may not be up to speaking to her. The court case is due to start on Monday and she needs greater firepower to go in with than she already has.
‘Mm?’ Mo is holding up a black silk dress. She keeps looking up at the security cameras in a faintly unnerving manner.
‘Can I suggest somewhere else?’
‘Sure. Where do you want to go? Palais Royale? Le Marais? We could probably find a bar for you to dance on, if you’re doing the whole finding-yourself-again thing.’
She pulls the road map from her handbag and begins to unfold it. ‘No. I want to go to St Péronne.’
They hire a car and drive north from Paris. Mo does not drive, so Liv takes the wheel, forcing herself to remember to stay on the right-hand side of the road. It is years since she drove. She feels the approach of St Péronne like the beat of a distant drum. The suburbs give way to farmland, huge industrial estates, and then, finally, almost two hours later, the flatlands of the north-east. They follow signs, get briefly lost, double back on themselves and then, shortly before four o’clock, they are driving slowly down the town’s high street. It is quiet, the few market stalls already packing up and only a few people in the grey stone square.
‘I’m gasping. Do you know where the nearest bar is?’
They pull over, glancing up at the hotel on the square. Liv lowers the window and stares up at the brick frontage. ‘That’s it.’
‘Le Coq Rouge. That’s the hotel where they all lived.’
She climbs out of the car slowly, squinting up at the sign. It looks as it might have done back in the early part of the last century. The windows are brightly painted, the flower boxes full of Christmas cyclamen. A sign swings from a wrought-iron bracket. Through an archway into a gravelled courtyard, she sees several expensive cars. Something inside her tightens with nerves or anticipation, she is not sure which.
‘It’s Michelin-starred. Excellent.’
Liv stares at her.
‘Duh. Everyone knows Michelin-starred restaurants have the best-looking staff.’
‘And … Ranic?’
‘Foreign rules. Everyone knows it doesn’t count if you’re in another country.’
Mo is through the door and standing at the bar. A young, impossibly handsome man in a starched apron greets her. Liv stands to the side as Mo chats away to him in French.
Liv breathes in the scents of food cooking, beeswax, perfumed roses in vases, and gazes at the walls. Her painting lived here. Almost a hundred years ago The Girl You Left Behind lived here, along with its subject. Some strange part of her half expects the painting to appear on a wall as if it belongs here.
She turns to Mo. ‘Ask him if the Bessettes still own this place.’
‘No. It belongs to a Latvian, apparently. He has a chain of hotels.’
She’s disappointed. She pictures this bar, full of Germans, the red-haired girl busying herself behind the bar, her eyes flashing resentment.
‘Does he know about the bar’s history?’ She pulls the photocopied picture from her bag, unrolls it. Mo repeats this, in rapid French. The barman leans over, shrugs. ‘He’s only worked here since August. He says he knows nothing about it.’
The barman speaks again, and Mo adds: ‘He says she’s a pretty girl.’ She raises her eyes to heaven.
‘And he says you’re the second person to ask these questions.’
‘That’s what he said.’
‘Ask him what the man looked like?’
He barely needed to say. Late thirties or so, about six foot tall, sprinkling of early grey in his short hair. ‘Comme un gendarme. He leave his card,’ the waiter says, and hands it to Liv.
It is as if she has combusted internally. Again? You even got here before me? She feels as if he is taunting her. ‘Can I keep this?’ she says.
‘Mais bien sûr.’ The waiter shrugs. ‘Shall I find you a table, Mesdames?’
Liv flushes. We can’t afford it.
But Mo nods, studying the menu. ‘Yeah. It’s Christmas. Let’s have one amazing meal.’
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