General Fiction posted March 15, 2019 Chapters:  ...42 43 -44- 45... 

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Chapter 44: Catching up with an old friend

A chapter in the book The French Letter

The Old Bell

by tfawcus

Charles has been spending a few days in England before returning to Paris. He has been offered a well-paid but suspicious assignment by a man calling himself Sir David Brockenhurst.
Last paragraphs of Chapter 43...
Cruising down the M4 with the wind in my hair, I wondered if it was possible for life to get any better. I fell to thinking about Flying Officer Ian "Bisto" Kidson as I headed for Henley-on-Thames. We'd served together in East Anglia and formed an indestructible friendship. Now he was what most people would call a gentleman of leisure. The Willows was a grand old Victorian property on the banks of the river and built on very much the same scale as Toad Hall.

"Poop! Poop!" I muttered dreamily, as the needle hovered around 70 m.p.h. Not that the police would have had the slightest interest in me for that was my top speed or, more accurately, it was as fast as I dared push the old girl.

Chapter 44
Just before one o'clock, I swung through the heavy wrought iron gates. There was a satisfying crunch of gravel as I drove along the avenue of linden trees. Their dappled shade splashed across the manicured lawns flanking the long driveway.

As I drew up by the front door, the sweet, honeyed fragrance of phlox filled my nostrils. Several peacock butterflies flitted amongst the pink blossoms, their lovely eyespots a radiant blue against rust-coloured wings.

Bisto was similarly resplendent as he stood beaming on the doorstep, the gold buttons of his blazer glinting in the sun. A raw silk shirt and somewhat startling yellow cravat completed the picture of flamboyant opulence as he came down the steps, his spaniel at heel.

"You don't know how good it is to see you, Charles."

Biggles wagged his tail in enthusiastic agreement, and I bent to stroke his head before unwinding myself from the car and stretching stiffly.

"You, too, old chap." I flashed him a broad grin. "It's been far too long."

He took my hand and pumped vigorously. "There was a time when you'd have leaped out of that seat and been vaulting over the bonnet to open the door for some pretty young damsel. Getting a bit creaky in the joints these days, are we?"

We both laughed, but I sensed something unfamiliar behind Bisto's bonhomie.

"Is everything all right?" I held his gaze for a second or two. "You don't look your usual, cheerful self."

His face clouded momentarily before he replied. "Come on, let's get this heap of junk put away in the garage. If we don't get a move on, the pub will have stopped serving lunch before we get there. We can talk about things over a beer."

He gave me a friendly slap on the back, rather harder than I expected. Bisto had never been known for his moderation. "We'll take the Mini," he said. "It'll be easier to park."

Twenty minutes later we were in the front bar of The Old Bell, pints of Brakspear in hand, and the pleasant prospect of cottage pie in the offing. Biggles lay comfortably at my feet, his chin resting on my shoe, gazing up at me with sad eyes. He clearly thought that I was going to be a soft touch.
It wasn't long before I turned the conversation to Brockenhurst.

"I looked him up, as you asked," Bisto said. "No mention, I'm afraid. Whatever else he might be, he's certainly not a Knight of the Realm."

I had suspected as much. The façade was crumbling, and I had no doubt that his Old Etonian tie was also being worn under false pretences. I looked forward to finding out who he really was and what kind of a scam was being planned.

It wasn't until halfway through our second pint that I again asked Bisto what was ailing him. Uncharacteristically, he was pushing peas around his plate with a fork and had scarcely touched his pie. He certainly wasn't the doughty trencherman I remembered.

When he looked up, my heart sank. His eyes had the same sad look that Biggles had been giving me all through the meal.

"It's Jenny," he said. "She's been diagnosed with cancer." There was a lengthy pause before he continued. "It's at an advanced stage. The doctors say there isn't any hope. A matter of months."

I didn't know what to say. I mean, what can one say under such circumstances? I reached across towards his hand. He withdrew it sharply.

"I don't want your bloody sympathy, Charles. I don't want anyone's bloody sympathy. I just want Jenny back."

His eyes were glistening as he turned away from me and reached for a pocket handkerchief. He blew his nose loudly and attempted a weak smile of apology. "I shall be lost without her - absolutely lost."

With that uncanny sense that dogs have, Biggles jumped up and put his paws on his master's knee. Bisto absent-mindedly stroked the top of the spaniel's head and fondled his silky ears. Biggles responded with an adoring look and a slow wag of his tail. I could see that, in comparison, any sympathy I might offer would be totally redundant.

"You'll let me know if there's anything I can do, won't you? I mean, when the time comes. There'll be a hundred and one things to attend to."

"Yes, Charles. Of course. I daresay I may need a bit of help then, and someone to drown my sorrows with. You're a good bloke. Thank you."

He pushed Biggles down gently and slid his chair back. "Come on, then. You've a train to catch, and I must be getting back home. I've got some ghastly chap coming around later this afternoon to talk about arrangements for hospice care and that sort of thing."

We both avoided the subject as we drove across to Reading, confining ourselves to inconsequential chatter about his garden. I blundered into a reminiscence about the little boat he kept moored behind The Willows, a 27ft Cruiser he and Jenny kept for pottering about on the river, but the subject clearly pained him. How much better women are when it comes to this kind of thing, I thought.

I was lucky enough to catch the fast train up to town, a little under half an hour, so had time to spare. For most of the journey, I thought of Ian; he was not quite the Bisto Kid that his nickname suggested. I envied him his love for Jenny. It was something much finer than I was capable of, and I was deeply saddened by his plight.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Helen. She was the only woman who had ever sparked that kind of feeling in me. Of course, I also found Kayla attractive, but not in the same way. Not in the same way at all.

Why did life always have to be so darned complicated?



List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
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
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.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.
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