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Authors: Caroline Vermalle

George's Grand Tour

BOOK: George's Grand Tour
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George's Grand Tour

Caroline Vermalle

Translated from the French by Anna Aitken

To Christiane and André,
in memory of Ninette and Marcel, my grandparents.

Adèle was jolted from extreme boredom by the gentle buzzing of her phone. Mobile phones were to be kept switched off at all times, she had been told often enough. But she had been careful to put it on vibrate and anyway, today was her twenty-third birthday and she was waiting to see how many of her friends were going to remember. The numbers had been disappointing so far. Every now and again she would check to see if anyone was watching before quickly glancing at the screen, which was just poking out of the top of her jeans. She would have to wait for the right moment to read this new message and that moment was not now, seeing as the inspector in the room next door was calling it murder.

She was perched awkwardly on a crate in the long dark corridor that led to the bedroom. The only sounds were from the street below – a scooter, a lorry, a dog, the distant wail of a siren. She
glanced into the bedroom where dust swirled under a spotlight. There was a beautifully carved, dark wooden four-poster bed, a quilt falling in mounds of pink satin, and the deceased, who was wearing a pair of forties-style pyjamas. His face was grey, and he had the tragic air of a murder victim about him. For this was a case of murder, the inspector was sure of it, so sure in fact that he had repeated it three times over. The man's daily injection of insulin had been swapped for eye drops; the little bottles were there to prove it. The eighty-three-year-old victim had left his family a colossal fortune, along with the London mansion they all called home. Every time the inspector said the word ‘crime', the granddaughter would break down in tears and her fiancé would try to console her. But it was no use. The young woman was kneeling by the bed with her face buried in the quilt, clasping the hands of the corpse and muttering words that could barely be made out through her almost absurdly loud sobs. She poured out her grief, childhood memories and most of all regrets, of which there appeared to be many; no wonder, since she was now listing them for the fourth time. A very dignified elderly lady was standing upright next to the bed, nodding her head in time to the regrets that the young girl was counting off like rosary beads. This woman was the great-aunt, the sister-in-law of the deceased. There were others waiting behind the door who remained silent. The inspector said it again: the killer was one of the family members. It was no time to be checking one's text messages.

This was not Adèle's first murder scene. They bored her immensely, and she had fallen into a daydream as she waited for this one to finish. Just before her phone had vibrated, it had
occurred to her that she and the young woman crying in the bedroom looked alike. Same age, same long, thick brown hair, same slim figure. But, without necessarily being prettier, the girl in the bedroom was better dressed, more polished; her hands were soft and she was obviously used to drawing gazes. Adèle, by contrast, was more of a tomboy, in spite of her delicate features. What was more, she was not rich, and nobody ever paid any attention to her. Even on her birthday. On the other hand, she thought that the dead man wasn't half as stylish as Irving Ferns. Irving Ferns. She felt a pang in her chest at the thought of him.

The suspense was unbearable – who had sent her the text? The young lawyer she had met at a party a month ago? But how could he have known it was her birthday today? She looked around her. The corridor was crowded, there were about thirty people crammed into the narrow space, all standing still, trying hard not to make the floor creak. Some were scratching their noses, some biting their nails. People mimed at each other because even whispering was frowned upon. But no one seemed to take any notice of Adèle. She checked one last time that the silence police weren't in the corridor – no, they were busy with the corpse – got out her mobile and opened the text message she had just received.

She had to peer closely at the screen to be sure that she had read it right, and couldn't stop herself from letting out a muffled cry of surprise, dropping the phone as she did. It crashed onto the parquet floor of the old house with a deafening clatter. Everyone jumped and turned to look at Adèle. A second later, an angry voice shouted from the bedroom.

‘CUT! CUT! What's going on out there, for God's sake?' And the first assistant director burst into the corridor.

Adèle mumbled, ‘I'm so sorry, John, I … '

The entire crew was now staring at Adèle, actors included. Then, in a matter of seconds, their attention turned to something else. This kind of thing happened a lot, and it gave everyone the chance of a breather.

John shouted to the group, ‘Come on, let's concentrate. We're almost done. There's champagne waiting for us, guys! So come on, one last push, chaps.' The director took the opportunity to give the actors some more instructions, the dead man was able to rub his eyes and share a joke with the elderly aunt, the director of photography adjusted the lighting and the fifth take was ready to begin.

This was the last day of shooting. They were filming an adaptation of Agatha Christie's
Crooked House
for British television. The first chapter, in which the corpse was discovered, had already been filmed on the first day of shooting a month earlier, but they had had to reshoot it. It was the last scene to film and, everyone hoped, the last take. Afterwards there would be a big party to celebrate.

‘Silence, silence please … Camera. Action.'

Adèle had not moved from her crate. Her mobile phone was still clenched in her hand. For once, she was grateful for the silence. On top of the commotion caused by her dropping her phone, she was still in shock from the text itself. Finally, she worked up the courage to loosen her fingers and look down at the screen.

Hpy Bday Adl, luv frm ur granpa.

(Happy Birthday Adèle, love from your grandpa.)

She managed to keep herself from crying, but couldn't hold back the smile that suddenly lit up her face and spread a warm glow through her chest. Because this silly, slightly awkward text that was trying to sound young was something truly special. Poetic even, and so touching. As well as totally impossible, of course.

There are things in life that are meant to be kept private. And others that are to be shared with all and sundry. This text belonged to the latter category. This was a story that had to be told, and Adèle felt restless and full of emotion.

It was decided that the scene would be shot a sixth time. But Adèle was no longer paying attention to the filming. She was thinking about her story. It was not a particularly long story but it had to be told in full in order to convey what was so extraordinary about this text message. Yes, she had to start from the beginning, one month earlier, 18 September. A month was not a long time, yet in that time hearts had opened, suitcases had shut, and tears had fallen where they were no longer expected. And as a drama played out for the sixth time in the other room, Adèle used these last moments of silence as a chance to remember.

In the dimly lit corridor, she replayed the events of the last month in her head, events that had changed her life in a small way, but which had changed the lives of others beyond measure.

Thursday 18 September

Chanteloup (Deux-Sèvres)

After about ten rings there was finally an answer.

‘Hello?' said a slightly shaky voice.

‘Hi Grandpa, it's Adèle.'

‘Hello?' repeated the old man.

‘Grandpa?'

‘Yes?'

‘It's Adèle!'

‘Oh, hello, sweetheart. How are you?'

‘Oh, fine, and you?'

‘Oh, you know, I'm …' he replied with unmistakable weariness. ‘Why are you calling?'

‘Well … Mum explained that she's going travelling, didn't she?'

‘Yes, in Peru, she told me.'

‘OK, good, well I just wanted you to know that you can call me if there are any problems. I can come and see you.'

‘Oh right.'

‘While she's away, I mean, you can call me,' Adèle kept on, a little disappointed by her grandfather's lack of enthusiasm.

‘Okey doke, that's good,' he replied politely.

‘And you've got my number, Grandpa?'

‘Yes, your mother gave it to me. But Adèle, are you still living in London, dear?'

‘Yes, but don't worry, it's not that far. I can get the train to you, it wouldn't take long,' Adèle lied.

‘Oh yes, you just get the train to Poitiers and then the bus, don't you?'

‘Exactly,' said Adèle, who had no idea how to get there, having not visited him for almost ten years.

‘And how long would the journey be overall?'

‘Oh, I don't know, half a day, maybe a little more,' guessed Adèle. But she suspected it would take a lot longer than that. Her grandfather lived in a hamlet near Chanteloup, a minuscule village tucked away in the forest in Deux-Sèvres.

‘Jolly good. But there's no need anyway. Right, lots of love, bye.'

‘Wait, Grandpa, do you still have the phone that Mum gave you?'

‘Oh, you know, mobile phones …' said her grandfather, who considered cutting-edge technology to be a lot of old nonsense. But luckily for Adèle, he would tolerate phone conversations on the condition that they were kept very short and were limited to the bare essentials. And a rant about progress did not, for today at least, count as essential.

‘But you still have it, right?' Adèle persisted.

‘Yes, yes.'

‘Good, well, keep it with you and call if you need anything.'

‘Oh, I don't need anything. Right, goodbye, sweetheart.' And with that he hung up.

No, of course he didn't need anything. His heart hadn't been right since a heart attack in 1995, he had a pacemaker in his chest, a knee that threatened to go at any moment, and a pair of lungs that had been thoroughly blackened by forty years of Gitanes … But he went about his life as he always had, ate like a horse, tended his garden, whistled as he did the dishes. And he still had enough fight in him to fire swear words at his doctors, who regularly predicted he had only a few months left in him. They had said the same for almost fifteen years. Well, that was the story according to Françoise, Adèle's mother; Adèle herself had very little contact with him. And this was no cause for guilt, since he repeated incessantly, with the delicacy and restraint he was known for, that he just wanted to be ‘left the hell alone'.

Adèle put her mobile phone into the pocket of her combat trousers. 7.23 p.m. She had been standing there waiting in the middle of the street for at least a quarter of an hour. The September evening air was still warm, and Brick Lane was filled with the sound of drunken laughter coming from the overcrowded Swan pub. Adèle had never liked this part of town, even if her friends assured her that it was the coolest place in London. On rare sunny days, she appreciated its vibrant colours and found the odd gem in its unusual shops. But on grey days, her senses were overloaded with the smells of curry spices, the rubbish everywhere, the waiters hawking outside the Indian restaurants and the dark, dirty buildings. And yet over the next month,
she was going to have to spend many long days and even some nights in this area. For here, on a road with a bilingual English and Bengali street sign, was the one and only filming location: a three-storey house built of stone as grey as the English sky. The house was barely noticeable amongst the old warehouses lining the gloomy little street whose most regular visitors were junkies and groups of drunken girls. Adèle was standing by the front door. Inside, things were already getting started. 7.27 p.m. Her working day was just beginning, and it had not got off to a good start.

She pulled the staff memo from her pocket and read it over for the third time. The leading actor was expected in make-up at 7.30. Her name – Adèle Montsouris – was written next to his. It was funny to see their two names side by side, as they were at opposite ends of the television-industry food chain. He was a star of BBC period dramas with a salary of several hundred thousand pounds, and she was right at the bottom, twenty-two years old and a runner, unpaid of course; she was doing it ‘for the experience'. She fetched teas and coffees, booked taxis and babysat actors of all ages. She was the first to arrive on set and the last to leave. This was all the ‘experience' Adèle had managed to accumulate over the course of three films, and without being paid a penny for her trouble. The fact that her name was next to his meant that if he was late, the first, second, second-second and third assistant directors were entitled to hold her responsible – and people loved to shout at each other on film sets. So she in turn would have to shout at the taxi driver, find a plan B, warn the make-up artist and all the rest of it. The third day of shooting had barely begun and Adèle could already feel her muscles
tensing in anticipation of this new disaster. Since the trials of the preceding days were also weighing on her mind, Adèle soon forgot the distant grandfather she had just spoken to.

But he had not forgotten her. Her phone call had turned everything,
everything
upside down.

 

George Nicoleau stayed by the phone in the corridor for some time, utterly perplexed.

‘Dammit,' he said to himself aloud. ‘Dammit, dammit, and dammit again. Damn!'

Not that he didn't appreciate that Adèle had got in touch – no indeed, her call had boosted him in some way, and he had been feeling a little deflated that evening. His granddaughter had not come to visit him since her parents' divorce, which must have been, what, almost ten years ago. She had sent him a card every year wishing him a happy new year, and there had been a few postcards when she first moved to London. There they all were, in fact, tacked to the faded wallpaper, next to the 2008 Postal Services calendar, above the telephone table. He had been delighted to receive them, and they had made Arlette happy as well. Arlette … She had particularly liked that one there, the one with Big Ben in black and white. She had thought it artistic. Well, the novelty value of London must have worn off quickly because the postcards had stopped coming, and phone calls were few and far between. This evening's call might have made him happy in one respect, but it had still saddled him with one heck of a problem.

All the plans he and Charles had made together might come to diddly-squat. He had to fill in his accomplice, tonight if possible.
Luckily it was not Wednesday or Saturday, so Charles was probably going to come round for tea in time for the weather report.

George went back into the living room, choosing his path carefully as he had always done. His tall, now slightly stooped frame just about fit under the beams of the cottage. These beams had been getting in his way since he was a teenager, but one advantage of getting older was that he no longer banged his head against the ceiling. Old age had arrived rather unexpectedly, because in his head he felt as young as ever and for an old fogey of eighty-three, he didn't think he was in too bad a shape, should the question cross his mind. For starters, he still had a thick mop of hair poking out from under his baseball cap. Not quite the mane he had once boasted, but all things considered, he thought his hair had held out very well. Then there were his jeans and Reeboks – worn for comfort, of course, rather than out of a desire to be fashionable, something he regarded with great disdain. And most importantly, when it came to his memory not only was he second to none at the old folks' club, he could also give any youngster in the village a run for their money. Admittedly his heart had been a little fragile since the operation. But as with his knee, his bladder and his back, he just had to follow the instruction manual, take the right medication and the rest would take care of itself.

George lowered himself into his chair, an old plastic sun lounger piled with various cushions. It was not that he couldn't afford a proper armchair. Monsieur Nicoleau was not short of cash – in fact he had more of it than he knew what to do with. It wasn't the butchery he had run for forty years that had made
his fortune, though it had been quite a successful little business. George Nicoleau had always invested in land and property, bought and sold at as good a time as any, and above all, lived frugally and saved regularly. He was positively rolling in it. But he had never found an armchair as comfortable as this one.

He started to consider the problem and, in order to gather his thoughts, reached for the remote control lying on top of the latest edition of
TéléStar
and switched on the TV. He had missed the serious news at eight o'clock; now, half an hour later, they had moved on to the lighter stuff. He tended to prefer these items to the headlines, which came from a world he no longer recognised. His thoughts turned to Adèle again. He looked over at the suitcase that stood by the living-room door. They were due to set off exactly a week from now. His modest suitcase had been packed for two days. He had bought it – he now remembered – in Biarritz in 1985. The year Adèle was born, in fact. He had briefly considered investing in a new one for the occasion, a modern one with wheels. It would certainly have been more practical, but he was not planning on walking very far with it. It would have been a bit of a waste anyway; this one had barely been used. And as he was not taking any souvenirs from home with him, perhaps the suitcase itself would serve as a kind of memento.

He was distracted from these thoughts by the jingle that announced the weather report. At precisely the same moment, he heard the familiar sound of Charles's footsteps coming from the garage. George's house had a lovely front door bordered by flowers and a rock garden, and even a little garden gnome. But ever since they had first become neighbours thirty years ago, Charles had
always
come in through the cluttered garage, picking
his way, despite his bad hip, through the cardboard boxes, rakes, buckets and other assorted odds and ends that lined the walls, and in some places were piled up to the ceiling. That was just the way it was.

Charles walked in, his eyes fixed on the television, and in a gesture that had been repeated every time he had walked in here for the last thirty years, he held his hand out to George. George shook it without taking his eyes off the screen. The weather forecaster was waving her arms in front of a sun-studded map of France.

‘Oh, would you look at that! No rain tomorrow either!' cried Charles, who had not worked as a farmer for several years now (unless a handful of chickens in the garden and his great-granddaughter's pony in the old stables counted as farming) but had retained a healthy suspicion of dry weather.

‘It looks like beautiful weather all the way, and not too hot either, would you believe.'

‘You're right. Except for Pau, it's not looking so good down there. Still, plenty of time for that to change. We're not there yet, are we?'

Charles went to fetch two mugs from the old dresser.

‘Stupid damned thing,' he said, massaging his hip. That hip was giving him a lot of bother these days, and yet, George thought to himself, Charles was still young, barely seventy-six. He was short and stocky with a round, bald head, rosy farmer's cheeks and large hands that had seen much hard labour. He wore sixties-style glasses and had the air of an honest man you could count on. And it was true: you could always count on Charles Lepensier.

George was reluctant to bring up Adèle. But he eventually took the plunge.

‘That's just it, Charles. We're not there yet. I don't even know if we'll ever get there. We've got a problem. You remember Adèle, my granddaughter who lives over in London? She called this evening.'

Of course Charles remembered Adèle. George only had one granddaughter and no grandson so there was no risk of confusing her with anyone else. When it came to his own extended tribe, on the other hand, he was always getting names mixed up. Thanks to the family tendency not to hang about with producing offspring, he could now count eighteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and, God willing, there would be more to come.

‘Oh, really? Is everything alright in London?' Charles asked anxiously.

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