s

Chapter

ONE
Rue des Griffons is a single crooked block of stone facades protected from the wind and always in the shade. A street built with mules and monks in mind, the narrow end meets an alley no wider than a footpath. The other leads into rue de la Bonneterie and on to the Papal Palace, a medieval fortress in the heart of Avignon.

For a few years at the end of the century, Piers Le Gris lived at number 9. His room was on the second floor. A large cracked cube with high ceilings and water-stained walls, it was lit by a chandelier and French windows that opened onto a walled garden. A threadbare rug covered terracotta tiles. Stacks of newspapers and piles of stray books leaned against a massive armoire, spilled out of crowded bookcases. In one corner was a sink. A door beside the bed led into a smaller room, empty except for suitcases and a clock radio whose plug fit none of the wobbly outlets.

Sometimes he felt belittled by the room’s steadfast grandeur in the midst of decay; more often he was grateful for the refuge. Inside these walls Piers lived a solitary rule of his own invention. His correspondence with the outside world was sporadic, his life on rue des Griffons one of solace, simplicity and almost complete deception.

On the night it all began to crumble like so much weary plaster, midnight found him slumped in a horsehair recliner, drifting between muddled dreams and routine anxieties. The alarm clock rang as usual. He set the espresso machine to gurgle and began the ritual assembly of his tools: notebooks filled with scrawls, research clippings, files, a bag of hard candy in the pocket of his bathrobe.

A sudden gust of wind rattled the windows. A mistral had risen in midmorning and bore down hard by sunset, relentless blasts of cold from the north followed by gulps of silence. He drew back the curtains and stood looking out on the garden, a dense tangle of late-summer growth, watching the drama of shadows tossed by clouds, gathering strength. Relentless, exhausting, at least two more days to go: the mistral blows in three, or so the ancients claimed. A malevolent spirit, it was known to bring on madness. Reaching out the window he swung the shutters closed and secured them with a stiff metal arm. Thus battened down, the house resembled a ship.

The first taste of coffee made him wince. He studied a swathe of brown paper taped above the sink, the outline of his work-in-progress, The Lethal Guitar, vintage Piers Le Gris. Lean page-turners full of victims maimed or killed, criminals jailed or shot point blank, feverish descriptions of women putting out and men taken in, they sold like stout at closing time. Fifteen hundred words a night, six nights a week (allowing for the occasional diversion and a fortnight for revision), in three months he could post a manuscript to London and begin again. A good living, but an old life laid claim, reduced his existence to a monkish grind.

This one was set in Marseille amid the drug trade. The structure was tight, the opening chapters flew. So far he’d killed off a voluptuous blonde and mailed her to New York, though how she made it through customs remained a problem to be solved. He yawned. The bed was tempting. Once his fingers touched the keyboard the flow would take over and he would lose himself in a blaze of typing. The hardest part was sitting down.

He got as far as placing a hand on the swivel chair when a sound stopped him. A dull thump, followed by a groan. Then another thump, another groan, sounds coming from behind the wall that separated his room from another room he’d thought was empty. He stood up, went over to the wall, leaned into the sounds.

Clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk — something or someone pushing hard against a heavy object or being pushed, a muscular rhythm punctuated by moans rising into short, high-pitched yelps, cries and thuds merging into a steadfast stream. A halo of perspiration formed on his brow. He wondered if the ancient floorboards could tolerate such an assault. Finally, the crescendo — a female roar beyond gratitude and necessity, a delirious unembarrassed theatrical Ohhhhhhuuuuu!

He set his coffee cup on the side of the table. It missed the edge and fell. While a tepid stain soaked through his slippers, the meaning of this interruption drenched his neck with sweat: a woman had moved into the room next door, broken the house rule and brought a man upstairs to be duped by cries of ecstasy. False, he was certain. A phoney blast of opera staged for the benefit of—?

Piers loathed exaggeration. His work was a testament to the efficacy of verbs and nouns. The work of words (his only defence against the abiding temptations of sloth and drink)  lit the empty hours between midnight and dawn. He could no more type by day than a painter could paint by candlelight though he knew of some who claimed they did. Stepping out of damp slippers, he dropped a newspaper onto the spill and padded across the room to make another cup of coffee, wondering as he did whether Madame Reboul in her near-sighted innocence might not have taken in a whore.

He pressed an ear against the partition. Nothing.

He knew the inside of that room, watery mirror in a garish frame hung low to hide cracks in the plaster, spindly desk, stiff-backed chair, sagging double bed and pink walls, the colour of overripe plums. He had chosen instead the avocado room with a narrow cot and massive oak table on which his life of papers lay spread out and waiting.

He sat down, placed his fingers on the keyboard, tried to summon concentration but it was no use, the night was ruined. Sure that every new word he typed would contaminate the older words, he stretched out on the bed, prepared to wait for dawn. Sometime on the edge of light, he fell into a fitful sleep and woke to the clap of dreams that fled like thieves, leaving no stories to decipher.

A habit of frugality dating from the war had led Nelly Reboul to leave the house largely untouched after mourning her husband’s death. She had no need of an income. She let out rooms for the company to a string of temporary boarders, each leaving something to talk about with the next. But after Piers arrived, she had turned down further requests until finally the agency stopped calling. A writer, she explained, her telephone voice dropping to a whisper, must have quiet.

She lit a flame under the kettle and set the breakfast tray with two cups, fresh croissants and marmalade. Tea is how an English author’s day begins, Nelly was sure, just as she was sure that Piers Le Gris was English. He said something once about Montreal, but his books were published in London. (Nine leather-bound volumes personally inscribed occupied a prominent place on her mantle, waiting to be read.) She had taken to drinking tea herself and mastered the method from a book on English cookery: splash boiling water in the pot, swirl it around to heat the sides, empty, add a metal ball packed with leaves and fill the vessel to the brim.

The clack of footsteps in the hallway, Piers at the bottom of the stairs, dressed for the street in a dark suit. Tall and slim with fine, sharp features, he carried his forty-four years gracefully, as though he’d seen the world and been unimpressed.

It was a ritual of long-standing, three kisses on the cheeks. She closed her eyes, inhaled the mixture of freshly shaven skin and olive soap.

Madame!

Bonjour Monsieur. Avez-vous bien travaillé?

Mais oui, merci. Et vous ? J’espère que vous avez dormi?

His crisp bookish French delivered in a mesmerizing baritone sometimes made her forget to follow the words. Passing by his door one night she had heard him on the phone, the flat contrition of English, and thought it was a stranger. The whistling kettle called from the kitchen. She excused herself to make the tea.

He saw her in profile first, bathed in morning sunlight dark hair falling over bare arms tanned rose like the stones of Avignon. She was sitting in his place at the table, bent over his newspaper. He slid into the chair reserved for guests and said, bonjour. She shot him a cursory nod and returned the word, simultaneously dipping a croissant into hot chocolate, drops and flakes landing on the newsprint as she leaned forward to take a bite. A gesture in slow time, it drew him in and pushed him away to the furthest corners of the room.

Remembering the moment later, he would think of swans.

An ancient black Labrador named for the hero of his century, The General followed Nelly down the hall. Age had rendered him suspicious of change. A steady stream of drool from the corner of his mouth left glistening drops on the tiles. Paws clicking, nose to the floor, he sniffed his way through the gloom. Strange body odours made him nervous. Unfamiliar voices set his teeth on edge. He could hardly see but his instincts remained sharp.

Holding the tray against her chest, Nelly swung the dining-room door open and stepped over the threshold. A sudden flood of sunlight, for a moment she could not comprehend what was wrong. Everything was wrong. Piers was sitting in the place reserved for guests. He looked up at her and quickly looked away.

Guilty. But of what? Of sitting in the wrong place?

“Magali!” A shriek, as if someone other than herself had shouted. She reeled, stepped back, her heel landing on the dog’s paw.

Certain now the bad smells were out for him, The General yelped and sank his teeth into her ankle couldn’t help it, an impulse, only a nick, hardly any blood but she howled and the breakfast tray slipped, teapot landing first, a cacophony of broken china and scalding liquid. A burst of barking to cover his tracks, The General tried to get away but Nelly pulled him back. Piers leapt up to clear away the shards and fetch a mop.

A mumbled goodbye, Magali gathered up her bookbag and slipped out the front door. Two mornings in a row, she had overslept and just missed catching sight of the man Nelly described as a famous Author. Later, when Nelly wasn’t looking, she’d taken down one of his leather-bound books, read a few pages and decided he was not at all the great literary genius her aunt had claimed. She’d imagined a small, greasy man, unkempt, pale and out of shape, the sort who leers and keeps sexy magazines under his bed. Twice she’d been woken at midnight by the sound of his alarm going off, the clatter and hiss of strange rituals, coughs and humming. Last night she had tucked into her nightly exercise routine with gusto, and knowing he could hear, had let herself go like the women in his books. A steamy fake orgasm for the benefit of a stranger she’d decided must be weird.

But the man who came down to breakfast was someone else. Tall and straight-shouldered, dressed in a suit. A voice as thick as wood smoke. He didn’t leer, he glanced her way once, maybe twice, seeming to look straight through her as though everything hidden was easily on display and not very interesting. He made her blush and blushing made her angry. She was glad to escape.