She always did this with shopping lists. Writing them and losing them. She scrabbled around the apartment in a disorientated search. It was just shopping lists. The rest of her life submitted obediently to the muster of her tight rein. Nicole Legrand, forty-three, a blonde-haired woman with a face that her husband had taken to calling striking. Her nose had that small degree of prominence which, whilst not unattractive, served to pull her face forwards – the whole effect intensifying her gaze if she chose to let it. At least she had the tennis racquet. There was an hour to go. The rest of the shopping would have to wait. It was hot.
She closed the door of the apartment having set the alarm. It would be a brisk walk to the Gare Montparnasse. Not pleasant in this heat. Perhaps a taxi, she thought, but then remembered the Metro strike. There would be little chance of finding a cab.
She walked faster than felt comfortable, her low heels clicking on the paving slabs. She tried to keep out of the sun but crossing to the shady side of the boulevards was impossible. The stampede of screaming traffic imprisoned her on the over-baked pavements more often than she would have chosen. She had to hurry. In her left hand she held the tennis racquet, newly acquired and pristine. In the palm of her other hand, by now soggy with sweat, was a small post-it. Scribbled hurriedly just a few days previously.
She was surprised to find herself doing this. She, for whom planning away the unexpected was a lifelong task. This was unusual. It had started with a phone call from Louise a week ago. Nicole and Louise had not seen each other for five years but their friendship had a depth that allowed it to free wheel through dormant periods as long as this. A friendship that was deeply ingrained enough for them to pick up where they had left off.
“Nicole, I need your help.” It came straight out without any of the usual preliminaries.
“Help, Louise? What do you mean?” annoyed with her reluctance to commit herself unconditionally.
“I need someone – I mean I need you – to run an errand for me. To……..” the pause was barely perceptible “… to collect something.”
Nicole was mystified into pointless repetition.
“To collect something?”.
Not irritation in Louise’s voice, only urgency.
“Yes, Nicole. Please don’t ask me any questions. Please do what I ask.” Nicole recognised her friend’s desperation.
She listened as Louise instructed her. Meet a man at the Gare Montparnasse, platform eleven at 3.45 p.m. the following Tuesday. Take a tennis racquet. If he didn’t come wait for thirty minutes after the allotted time and then, if not approached, leave and return home. On no account was she to tell any one of this assignment. Not even Daniel, her husband. Nicole identified an uneasy foreboding but still she agreed.
She had scribbled the platform number and the time on her post-it pad, having first removed the shopping list that she had started on the top sheet. She added ‘tennis racquet’ to the list. Neither she nor Daniel were tennis players. She had seen some cheap ones in the supermarket; one of those would do.
To some people a request of the kind that Louise demanded of Nicole would seem melodramatic. It did not appear so to Nicole. Louise lived her life in a colourful and dramatic way. What she did, since divorcing that bully, Christophe, was unknown to her friend but she accepted and trusted her. She knew that Louise existed in an alternative world, one that Nicole, in her bourgeois conformity, would never understand.
The station concourse was crowded. The entrance to the Metro was sealed off. The strike, thought Nicole. Temperamentally she was a socialist but, really, these strikes were becoming more and more irksome. This one was over pension rights. Not the stuff to ignite a proletarian revolution, she thought, as she pushed through the crowds to find the allotted platform. The station clock read 3.43.
Threateningly she found herself trapped in the crowd. Her movements became more violent. She felt the beginnings of a tightness in her throat. She was not a tall woman but she knew how to use a strategic dig of the elbow or bump up the backside. She began to sweat, feeling the droplets slipping down the skin of her armpits. Other trickles leaked from her forehead down her hastily made-up face. Bit by bit she increased the pace of her progress through the crowd. A large woman, inappropriately wearing pink lycra shorts, blocked her progress,. With a smart bit of footwork and a discrete shove Nicole passed her without exciting protest. She had to get on.
She noticed the station clock hand jerk to 3.45 at the same time as she spotted the sign for platform 14. The relief that flooded through her was a physical experience. She found herself in a small area by a tobacconist’s kiosk. Here was a little sea of space in an ocean of turbulent crowds. She gripped the tennis racquet at the end of its handle and wondered whether she should hold it aloft. No, that would seem too obvious, too attention-attracting. She kept it by her side.
Nothing happened. That is if you can say that the seething to-and-fro of thousands of human beings, frustrated and near the end of their collective tether, was nothing. In her small sea of tranquillity, nothing happened.
Not for the first time she wondered what this was all about. What was she to collect? Was it criminal? Unlikely in the case of Louise who had been married to an advocate in the Palais de Justice and, in the past at least, had seemed like a professional keeper of the law. Perhaps it was political? Way back Louise had been loosely associated with Danny the Red. Perhaps it was a hangover from those heady days of demonstrations and sit-ins. But since then she had never shown much taste for such anarchy. Nicole knew that Louise had had a series of affairs, almost always with married men, but they never seemed to amount to anything and soon burnt out their allotted span. It seemed unlikely that the explanation could be found there.
She looked up at the clock again. Its minute hand moved to 4.00 with an unheard clunk. Such was the cathedral-like ambience created by the station roof she half expected a sonorous bell to chime. That would be unusual for a railway station. In the vastness of the concourse the ants of people, scurrying and bumping, sweating and frustrated, viewed from the clock face could have taken on the collective appearance of a Bosch inferno. Holiness above and the damned below in close juxtaposition. Nicole was glad of her sea of refuge. Unconsciously she intensified her gaze on the people near her. Was anyone looking back? The people that she saw had their heads down, avoiding eye contact. Not one of them took the slightest notice of Nicole.
The clock moved to 4.10. Nicole opened her palm and looked at the macerated piece of paper in her hand. The stickiness of the adhesive strip had been neutralised by her sweat. The writing was blurred but still clear enough for her to see. She was looking at her shopping list. Tea, water, orange juice and, added in different coloured ink, tennis racquet.
Panic gripped her. Had she got the time wrong? Where was the note that she had written. She tore her pockets inside out and there, in the bottom of her slacks pocket was the small piece of paper. 3.45 p.m. Platform 11. She hurled herself into the infernal mass of the crowd. How could she get it wrong? How could she let Louise down? How could she be so stupid?
It took her a while to torpedo her way through to platform 11. By now discretion and self-consciousness were abandoned. Ashen-raced she looked up at the clock. 4.17. She lifted the tennis racquet high, turning around and around, fixing her intense gaze on person after person, willing them to be the one. There was no response.
Her attention turned to the platform itself. A few passengers were running to join the train. She noticed one couple, a man and a woman, moving more slowly than the rest, moving away from her. It was only a view from behind but Nicole was certain that she recognised Louise. The gait, the bearing were unmistakable, she thought. Was her mind playing tricks? She did not recognise the man. Short, solidly-built, wearing a business suit, the suspicion of a balding patch in his shiny dark hair. He carried a slim-line black briefcase. It may have been her imagination but Nicole thought that he was guiding Louise, if it was Louise, to the head of the train.
“Louise!” screamed Nicole, but the sound of her voice was absorbed into the undifferentiated noise of the crowds on the concourse. She ran for the barrier but it closed just before she reached it. Frantically she pleaded with the attendant to let her through. It was futile to try. He had had more than enough of the travelling public that day. He was deaf to her entreaties. The train moved off.
She walked home the slow way. Avoiding the large boulevards, using the side streets where most of Parisian life seemed to happen. Not that she noticed the tea shops, the friendly ease of conversations, the shoppers for mundane items of food, the tangling of lively small dogs on extending leads. She was absorbed in her own thinking.
What was Louise playing at? She had sounded so desperate when she spoke to Nicole, as if her life had depended on what she was asking. Nicole felt angry and exploited.
Two hours later she let herself into the apartment. Daniel was home. He met her in the hall.
“Hello darling. Been out? Do you know where I put my black briefcase? Can’t find it anywhere.” Annoyingly he always seemed like a little boy when he lost his things.
“Oh, did you hear the news.” He brightened up. “Woman found dead at the Montparnasse. Thought it was a suicide at first -you know, the usual body under the train thing -only she had a bullet through the brain.” He looked more closely at his wife, noticing her for the first time.
“You taking up tennis?”