General Fiction posted January 16, 2019 Chapters:  ...33 34 -35- 36... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
Charles learns a few home truths

A chapter in the book The French Letter

Revelations in Montmartre

by tfawcus

Charles and Helen, who teamed up to solve the mystery of the French letter, now reach a turning point in their relationship...
The final paragraphs of Chapter 34:

"Come on, Helen. We have a train to catch."

"No, Charles. You have a train to catch. I'm staying here with Jeanne. She needs me. And you are right, I do want to spend more time with Kayla."

"I see," I said, and I really did see, perhaps more clearly than I had done for quite some time.

Chapter 35

"You're making a big mistake, Helen. I have no idea what kind of a hold Jeanne has over you, but this is your chance to break free. For your own sake, come with me."

She looked from one of us to the other. "You don't understand, Charles. I have to stay. There is no other choice." Jeanne put her arm around Helen's shoulder and cast a defiant look in my direction. It was as if she were claiming ownership. For one moment, I thought that Helen might pull away, but she didn't.

There was something here beyond my understanding. I felt a surge of anger, but there was nothing I could do. How easy, I thought, to become angry about things one doesn't understand. I knew, deep within, that it would only be through understanding that I could save Helen. Save her from what, I wondered? From herself? From Jeanne? I didn't know. I wasn't even entirely sure she needed saving. Perhaps I was just a victim of my own vanity.

"All right," I said. "If that is what you feel you must do, I have to accept it. Nonetheless, I hope this will be au revoir and not adieu." Before turning to leave, I added, "You know how to contact me, if you need me."

Helen seemed to be holding back a tide of emotion as she nodded. What was it, I wondered, that made such a strong and self-confident woman so apparently cowed and subservient? I imagined it might be a while before I found the answer.

I felt like a man who had just delivered a child into the hands of a monster. Was this how the Athenians felt in ancient times, when offering up their sacrifice of youths and maidens to assuage the Minotaur?

I needed to get out of Paris for a while to think things over. I had also accumulated a backlog of work while I'd been traipsing around with Helen like a lovesick orange. I needed somewhere quiet to get on top of it. An English cottage buried deep in the countryside would be perfect.

First, however, I needed to return to Rue Gabrielle to pick up a few things for the journey, and to let my landlord know I was going to be away for a while. The trip by taxi didn't take long at that time of the morning but was long enough to feed my growing sense of regret. When I walked into my apartment, I found myself inhaling the lingering scent of Helen's perfume. Or was it, perhaps, Kayla's? The two had become intermingled.

On an impulse, I ducked down the stairs, crossed the street, and strode off towards the Louise Michel gardens for a last ride up the funicular rail to Sacré Coeur. It was a glorious day, and it felt good to be alive. England could wait. I looked forward to the prospect of a light lunch in Montmartre, and a final, lingering view of Paris spread out below, looking like a scale model of itself made for the amusement of the gods.

I spotted a table beneath the dappled shade of a honey locust tree and made myself comfortable. The waiter brought a menu and I scanned it for an aperitif. It didn't take me long to decide. "Je prendrai un Suze, s'il vous plaît, et un plat d'olives."

Infused with gentian root, the Suze has an earthy, bitter and refreshing taste - perfect for a summer's day. The bitterness would suit my mood nicely, I thought.

While I waited for it to arrive, my attention was drawn to a skeletal old man sitting on some stone steps nearby. Not quite down-and-out, but he had obviously seen better days. There was a box of pastels beside him and he had a pad of sketching paper on his knee. He was importuning passing tourists to pause for a lightning souvenir of their visit, but meeting with little success.

After a while, I beckoned him over. "You can draw me if you like. Take your time. I'm in no hurry."

He needed no persuasion, and sat opposite me to study my face before embarking on his work with single-minded intensity. A small group of people gathered behind to watch. One or two gasped in admiration. A covey of young girls giggled shyly. "You're next," I told them. The artist smiled with delight, exposing nicotine stained teeth.

Before long, a familiar figure joined the group; a tall and distinguished looking man who stood curling his waxed moustache appreciatively. He paused for a moment before stepping forward.

"André, how g-good to see you again," I said, the words being a poor match for my thoughts.

He drew up a chair. "It was churlish of me to take offence at your rudeness last night, Charles. Please forgive me."

The non sequitur of this strange apology amused me and, not knowing quite what else to do, I forgave him. His insouciance disarmed me completely. "Where is Kayla?" I asked.

"Oh, she'll be here shortly. We have a rendezvous at the Musée de Montmartre for lunch. Perhaps you would like to join us? She was embarrassed about not being able to say goodbye to you this morning."

André glanced across at his friend, Marcel. "I see you've finished already. Let me see this masterpiece of yours." He glanced at the sketch before addressing me, "What possessed you to allow this rogue to steal your soul for his portrait? It is, veritably, a Faustian work of art."

"I felt sorry for him." I said as I assessed the caricature of my likeness. "Now I have a priceless portrait and I don't know what to do with it."

Marcel obviously did not agree that his portrait was priceless. On the contrary, he pitched its value at twenty-five euros, a price he calculated, shrewdly, I might be willing to pay.

"You could give it to Helen," Andre said. "By the way, where is she?"

"That's a long story. Perhaps we should wait until Kayla arrives. I think it's important that she knows what has happened. I doubt I'll be seeing Helen again for a while."

"Ah, a mystery! I love mysteries. They lift us out of the humdrum and add spice to our lives." André picked up the portrait and showed it off to the assembled crowd. "It's very good, don't you think?" He passed it across to me. "Perhaps you should leave it with Kayla. She could give it to Helen when she next sees her -- a memento of lost love. You are a lost love, aren't you, Charles dear?" he added mischievously.

Before I had time to answer, Kayla came flouncing down the street towards us. She looked ravishing in a tight-fitting white frock festooned with scarlet poppies the size of dinner plates.

"Hello, Charles. What a pleasant surprise! I thought you'd be in England by now."

André leaped up from his chair and threw his arms out. They embraced extravagantly with air kisses on either cheek. "Mwah! Mwah!"

"Darling, you look divine!" He flashed her a radiant smile and clicked his fingers to summon the waiter. "We must have champagne! Look, darling, Charles has had a portrait done. Isn't it just marvellous?"

Kayla glanced at the likeness, then studied my face with close attention to detail. "Almost as good as the real thing," she murmured appreciatively. I blushed to the roots of my hair.

"My word!" she teased. "I think you've caught a touch of the sun. Whatever have you done with Helen?" She arched her eyebrows in a way that reminded me of her sister. "How foolish of her to let you out alone."

"Come now," said Scaramouche, "stop flirting with our dear friend. You're making me jealous! Besides, the champagne has arrived."

He passed us each a glass. Raising the narrow flutes so that the bubbles sparkled in the sun, we clinked them against one another. "To absent friends," he said. "Lest we forget," he added with a knowing wink.

"Don't take any notice of him," Kayla said, "nor me, for that matter. We are entertainers, a little larger than life, and we don't mean half of what we say. You shouldn't get me wrong. I'm not trying to steal you away from Helen. Just having a bit of fun. That's all. I love her too much to play a dirty trick like that."

In a way, although she excited me, I was relieved to think that Kayla and I could just be friends, with no romantic baggage. My heartstrings were still slightly stretched and out of tune.

"I'm surprised she's not with you. Is there some problem at the hospital with Jeanne?"

"Well, yes, actually, there is. Helen's decided to ditch me in favour of Jeanne. Says that Jeanne needs her. There is something between them that I don't understand, and I'm worried for her."

"You're a bit naïve, aren't you, dear? Anyone can see from a mile away that Jeanne is a lesbian. Helen, poor thing, is bisexual. She has fought against it and denied it for years, compensating by being over-flirtatious with the opposite sex, perhaps hoping to smother what she still sees as being an unnatural urge."

Kayla stopped there to see how I was taking the news. Not very well, as it happened, although I did my best to conceal it. "I'm afraid that, in that sense, she may have been using you."

As this revelation drove a fresh wound into my already battered ego, Kayla continued, "Don't take it too badly. She really does love you, but she has a few issues to resolve. It's not easy for her."

"I'll say she has a few issues," I almost hissed. I picked up my glass of champagne and took a large gulp. The bubbles went straight up the back of my nose, making my eyes water so badly that I could hardly recognise the blurred images of Kayla and André in front of me. The sight of me coughing and spluttering had them both doubled up. Their hilarity was infectious and I, too, was soon overtaken by convulsive paroxysms of laughter. What a catharsis it was. I laughed until I cried. My sides ached. I was weak at the knees. And still the laughter came.

Andre looked at me, tears running down his cheeks, and said, "I'm glad you can see the funny side, old chap." As he wiped his eyes, he knocked his waxed moustache skew-whiff and his mascara started to run, setting Kayla and me off into another round of insane guffaws. Eventually, we were so completely drained that we could laugh no more.

Kayla then took me by the hand and said, "I'm so sorry, so very sorry, but you'll get over it. Sexuality is a strange thing. We all have our own definitions of what is normal. Perhaps in time you will come to accept Helen for what she is."

Suddenly, I no longer felt like joining them for lunch at the Musée de Montmartre. I needed to be alone. I made my apologies and, after exchanging telephone numbers and email addresses with Kayla, I bid them farewell.

Kayla got up and gave me a light kiss on the cheek. "Keep in touch," she said.

"I will. I promise."

Three hours later I was roaring through the Picardy countryside on the Eurostar express, my face pressed to the window, and my thoughts, like the wheels of the train, turning along the preordained lines of my prejudices. We were due to arrive at St. Pancras station around 4 p.m., just in time for the London rush hour.



I am almost, but not quite, embarrassed to explain the origin of 'lovesick orange': Knock, knock. Who's there? Orange. Orange who? Orange juice sorry you made me cry.
However, a more plausible explanation, offered by one reviewer, is that, when lip reading, 'orange juice' is almost identical to 'I love you'.

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who develops a liaison with Charles.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok, but has now turned up in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - one of Kayla's friends in Montmartre.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman, now deceased.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney and part-time stagehand at the Moulin Rouge.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.

Image is of the stamps on the envelope from the Paris Stamp Market that started us out on this wild goose chase. (See Chapter 1)
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