Ed. Note: Since I do not believe that all good things must come to an end. . .
Today is the final episode of Elizabeth L. Smith’s summer fiction, written just for us, but I see it as a beginning. If you have a few seconds today, would you be so kind as to say to the brilliantly creative Elizabeth: “Elizabeth, please continue to write publicly [operative word, ‘publicly’] for us either here [we know Tish would be thrilled] or better yet consider rejoining us in the blogging world where you wrote one of the best blogs that has ever existed, the late, great Mon Avis, Mes Amis.”
Please feel free to phrase this more delicately, instead of my direct command approach. And, merci par avance. Merci to you dearest Elizabeth and once, and always, merci to all of you who visit and read. You make my world a happier place.
If you’ve missed the first five installments, please click here, here, here, here and here.
THE END OF THE RETURN. . .
At first, Caroline wasn’t sure she’d heard him properly. Killed a woman? Urbane, charming, sweet Alexis? The man she’d remembered with such tenderness after their only night together? Then she looked at him, and his ashen face and the tic in his tight jawline told her that he really wasn’t joking.
“I don’t know what to say, Alexis. This is the last thing I expected.”
“I know. And I’m sorry that it’s what has brought us back together after all these years. I imagine you have many questions. If you will permit me, I would like to tell you about what happened that night.”
Caroline nodded. Alexis waved over the waiter who poured them both large crisp glasses of white wine, discretely removed the untouched bread and tenderly nestled the bottle in a heavy silver bucket beside Alexis.
He took a sip of wine, passed his hand briefly over his eyes and began to speak. Caroline listened intently as he explained how anxious he had become that night once he realised that Annouk had left the party to meet her new boyfriend. Alexis had gone after her on his scooter. He was jealous, he admitted and also worried that Annouk had fallen in with a very rough lot; she had been skipping class, smoking a lot of hashish, shoplifting. A few streets from the metro, he had spotted her, the lone girl in a crowd of young men, looking pale and arguing passionately with the boy she now professed to love. He had called out to her and she, seeing his face, had taken flight down a dark alleyway. Her new boyfriend and his friends had started jeering; Alexis heard their catcalls disappear into the night, and he turned the scooter down the alley to look for Annouk. He never saw the old woman step out in front of him; was just suddenly aware of a dark form cannoning backwards from his handlebars, striking the edge of the pavement and falling still. He had jumped off his scooter and run across the dark alley to where she lay. When he pulled back the woman’s black headscarf, he saw her skull was bleeding and her eyes were dull and wide open.
Caroline’s eyes never left his face; she was aware that she was holding her breath. This was so far removed from her own memories of that summer night that she felt as though she had fallen into a parallel universe.
Alexis looked up. “I panicked. I left her there, I thought, I hoped, maybe she was just stunned, I don’t know what I was doing.” His eyes were pleading.
Caroline realised she had both hands clasped over her mouth and lowered them slowly to her lap. “Poor Alexis, what a horrible thing, you must have been so scared. Go on, what happened next?”
“Well, after I got back on my scooter, I came back to the party. As you know.” His look was uncertain, almost shy. “I wanted to see you, I needed your sense and, what is the word, solidity?” Caroline winced. “That I would feel better once I was with you. And I did. I didn’t plan to seduce you, it just felt like logic, like comfort.”
“Not much comfort for that poor dead woman,” Caroline was starting to feel less bewilderment and more shock. Alexis wasn’t showing a huge amount of remorse, and really, Caroline objected very much to discovering she had been made love to for the first time for logic and comfort. “How does this involve Annouk? Or me for that matter?”
“Annouk has money problems. She is living in Morocco; her parents are both dead now and she has spent her inheritance. She contacted me a few months ago when she learned that I was being considered for a judge. She knows of course I must have an impeccable reputation and she wanted to sell her silence. She heard that a hit-and-run driver on a scooter had left a woman to die that night in the alleyway. When she confronted me a few days after the party, I could not deny it. She swore she would never tell a soul – she felt responsible for what had happened. I believed it was all in the past and would stay there. An old Algerian lady, no witnesses, eh bien. In those days, the police did not look too hard for the driver of the scooter. It barely made the Paris news.”
He shrugged. “And me, I was a boy. My whole life was beginning. I saw things only from my perspective, you understand? So now, Annouk has approached me and is becoming insistent. She says she wants money or she will contact the police, the interviewing panel and my wife. Pouf. My life will be over. So you see, I had no choice but to contact you. I hope that you will be able to corroborate my story and confirm that we spent the entire night together.”
He took Caroline’s hand in both of his and held it fast. “And I am delighted to see you, you look so fresh and English. I remember that night with great fondness. In fact, I did wonder whether perhaps, before your plane leaves?” He left the question dangling and Caroline had suddenly had enough.
“Let me just understand you. Thirty years ago, you accidentally killed a woman and then seduced me as though nothing had happened, not mentioning a thing? You make all kinds of promises about remembering me every year on Bastille Day, yet not a word from you in all that time. Not even a bloody Christmas card.” She took a breath and kept her voice low. “And now Annouk is blackmailing you and you have invited me to lunch to ask me to provide an alibi so that you can dismiss her and lie to your employers and the police and your wife?” She was becoming more outraged and angry by the second. “And on top of that, the cherry on the icing on the bloody cake, you actually thought that you could seduce me again, this very afternoon? As what? A thank you for my silence? Or my perjury? You’ve got a nerve my friend.”
She got suddenly to her feet, not wanting anyone to witness how upset she was, and her large crystal glass toppled slowly, with a musical ring, and emptied the untouched wine into Alexis’ lap. The Maitre d’appeared and she grabbed her coat and bag in an unladylike snatch, vaguely aware of him hailing her a taxi, stowing her away in the back seat and placing the burnt orange box with the chocolate ribbon carefully on her lap.
Several hours and a couple of large brandies later, the flight to Newcastle left the ground with Caroline aboard. She looked at the lights of Paris sparkling below and then down at the box on her lap. She pulled the silk ribbon open, took off the lid and slithered the square of heavy cool silk onto her lap. The design was printed in olive green and terracotta, which, she saw instantly, would look exquisite with her colouring. She held it to her face and turned to examine her refection in the dark window, realising as she did so that the design was made up of tiny images of broken pillars, tumbled temples, smashed and overgrown stone scrolls.