"Hello. My name is Alain. I use whores and I need help."
Alain Renaud keeps his eyes fixed above the rest of the Agnes of Rome sexual addiction support group as they burst into applause. He pauses before returning to his seat.
"Why do you use whores, Alain?" The counsellor doesn't look at him, chews a pencil, circles something on a clipboard.
For some reason, Alain looks down and around the arc of feet present. Crossed-over suburban slip-ons, badly tied trainers, a crutch.
The counsellor nods but corrects him. "Penetration to orgasm. True sexuality is a far broader, richer and more complex emotional landscape. And you're married, aren't you?"
"Divorcing." That was why he was here. And the counsellor knew all this already.
"Commitment through marriage. But it wasn't enough for Alain. No sir." The counsellor looks around at the group. The crutch holder - a one-legged man - stares back worriedly.
"Lifelong dedication. The holiest of bonds. Alain had a soulmate - every day they wrote the book of life together. And - stormy as those seas might often become - Alain had the kind of sympathetic, balance-providing co-author most of us can only dream of."
The one-legged man stares along the centre of the floor - suddenly sorrowful, serious, lost-looking.
"They read one another's lives. Understood. Supported. And loved." The counsellor sighs. "But Alain .. Alain was happier rocking to and fro on some toot's face."
Alain Renaud wants a smoke, wants to look at his watch but feels this might be construed as callous, distracted or a misrepresentation of the remorse he wished to be seen to be feeling. He looks around the odd mix of offenders in the room. Then quickly checks his watch anyway.
The counsellor catches this. "Bash his posh end up some street walker's hooter. She could've been my daught-"
Alain looks at the counsellor. This was unduly harsh, compared to his comments about the other offenders. "Class has nothing to do with it, sir."
The counsellor leans forward. "Was it worth it, Alain?"
Alain doesn't reply. The marriage vows, he always thought, belonged to another century. The ownership and control of another human being's sexual organs - analysed as a straight contract in the light of modern consciousness - it was blatantly unreasonable. These vows dated from the era of romanticism and slavery, of porcelain and volcano. An anxiety out of proportion to these times - these times of understanding and equality. If you actually took them seriously no-one would ever do it, for Christ's sake.
"Maybe we should ask Alain's balls." The counsellor snaps, wobbling the end of his pencil into his left ear.
"No." Alain eventually replies.
The Quai des Orfevres.
Amber gently tips a blob or two of water onto the base of her Washingtonia cutting. The soil seemed a little compacted and the plant would soon need repotting.
"Just to let you know - Iíll be wanting the Marianne Castro file .. presently."
Amberís eyes flicker slowly around the office space, then out to the furthest points of bleached grey skies threatening the Parisian rooftops with a sudden shower. Her finger and thumb hover unsteadily from the miniature watering can and up to the pierced lobe of her right ear.
".. of cour.. Sure."
Poppy Franco is tidying the mezzanine area in the garage - fixing down the lid on a crate of guns - when she hears the brakes of the 2CV outside. She looks through the window. Talent - Rocco called them. Poppy shakes her head.
Daniel Dutronc throws back a painkiller and adjusts his surgical corset. "Nothing's actually going to happen, Brigitte." She looks over - he is biting his lip and breathing quickly and has been whispering this sentence like the repeating of a catechism - for his own sense of security.
Brigitte looks down at her clothes, then out through passenger's window and across the Orly ranch. There is an open upper window - where half a curtain has blown through and hangs out over the stonework, one corner lifting lazily in the breeze. At the end of a white gravel drive, a garage door. To the west side of this, stone steps up to a well-kept entrance.
"Are you religious, Daniel?" She asks - for no particular reason - folding Christophe Corbeau's notebook into the door side-pocket. She has read his story - what he has written of it - and wonders why Christophe Corbeau never married. And wonders why life's subtitles - if we could read them - would make us cry forever.
Dutronc glances up, confusion taking hold of his face. He opens his mouth to reply but instead, he looks out into the clouds hanging in the middle distance above Runway 4. He sings something gently.
"Who's that by?"
"No-one you've heard of."
He checks his gun.
Anne Renaud hasn't stopped writing all day. She looks away from the laptop briefly, to rub her eyes.
Uh uh uh uh. A song - of sorts - upstairs. Uh uh uh uh.
She checks today's entry on her daughter's weblog.
Anyway I can't get Winkworth's version of 'Oh Superman' out of my head. uh uh uh here come the planes uh uh uh uh so hold me mom in your long arms uh uh uh uh your automatic arms uh uh and when hope is gone there's always mom. Hi mom.
Hi mom. Anne sits back and sighs. Ghost-writer my ass.
More a nutcase, whoever he was . He'd sent Alain a garbled manuscript which was, pointlessly, in English and more importantly, quite unusable. And the young man had been told where to put it. He alone insisted that he follow up the manuscript with a floppy disk and offer - no, demand - Do whatever you want to it. It's yours. 1968! Give him something, Alain.
And she'd done a lot to it. And now it was hers.
The first couple of letters to Alain were businesslike enough and the situation had been explained to him firmly. Alain said the young man seemed to accept it with some degree of dignity. But the morning after Alain had moved out of the house whoever-he-was had started contacting Anne by telephone. Drunk. Three times the first night. Twice a night or so later.
Alain had always taken care of this sort of business - he had the business brain and could wear a business face - with its flashy shields and waiting games and codes of demand and submission - so easily. Anne felt naked in the business world, like the bluff of her class - an undistinguished rural inheritor, a forester - would somehow, somewhere be called. However, her advocat had instructed her not to make contact with Alain under any circumstance. And her publisher musn't be told about all this.
Both of them had been drunk when she threatened him. She considered getting a private detective to track him down. That's all she had meant when she said she was about to silence him. But the first firm she approached told her there was no mileage in it. Even if they traced him, they could only ask him to stop the harrassment - and unless she was prepared to go to court no further action could be taken. It must happen every day in the book biz - they had said, boots against the table's edge. Can't choose your readers and that. So the phone lines had been changed and Anne had gone ex-directory. Was thinking of it anyway.
Anne was clean and had to stay clean. She wanted her daughter and the house. And was going to get them.
Suddenly she hears the movement of feet across the ceiling. They reach the bedroom door and step onto the stairs and Anne cuts quickly into the kitchen. What, exactly, had Anne done? The variant answers to that question had, at times, been - "Why do you stick your nose in." "You're a bad taste I can't get rid of." "I can just.. feel you there." "You're just waiting to see me become something you want me to be."
Anne had an inkling it was a matter of trust. But any encouragement seemed taken as subterfuge, betrayal. And any direction she tried to steer her daughter in was the direction she did not wish to go. That certainly sounded as if trust were the issue. However, on a recent occasion Anne when had a male friend visiting for dinner, her daughter had passed through the dining room and ended their brief exchange with something that lingered in Anne's mind. She had told them both to grow up.
Paused by the kitchen sink, her daughter doesn't turn around, doesn't speak, begins to fill a plastic bottle with tap water. Yo, what's happening?
"Afternoon." Anne says instead, watching her daughter stiffen and close her eyes. "Are you -?" But the girl has raised a hand as she finally shuts off the tap.
Grow up. Anne had a house and money and respect and a family - how much more grown up does someone need to be? "Any further maturity would entail a certain degree of senility, darling. Whatever you have in mind, I'll pass." - she had shouted across the dining room on that occasion. Perhaps the girl was asking for leadership.
"Don't. Please. Every word you say to me makes me want to live less. Understand that, mother. Every glimpse of you, every thought that you exist - sucks away the inspiration I have to keep breathing. You're like a black hole. Robbing goodness away from everything in its presence. Please understand that I have to ignore you. Otherwise I'll fight you. And I'll fight you till one of us is defeated. As you'll be aware by now - I don't mind fighting, I can handle myself. But I've decided that I should warn you first from now on. You make everything feel wrong. Even the thought that you are in this house make my nerves burn. As adolescent as it might sound, mother, I despise you. Don't lose sleep, Anne - someday you will look into my room and I will be gone."
And she leaves. Hi mom.
"God bless the right to buy." Mandy Me hands the keys to the house over to a Mr Ching as his tenants file up the path.
Mr Ching smiles and places his hand on his heart. "My grandfather dreamt of a land we can truly all be masters without slaves. This is such a place."
"Nice." Mandy folds onto the back seat of the 'A1 Stretch' limosine, looking briefly up at the bedroom windows. Twenty six years in this street. Twenty six years. Couldn't be sniffed at. Mr Ching leans through the open door to double-check her Spanish bank account details.
"Are you sure it isn't overcrowding? There must be two dozen of them, Mr Ching."
"They be happy as craphouse rats. Just you go put these up, okay?" He slaps her ankles, she promises him that she will and the vehicle pulls slowly away.
"Mum!" Paul Me u-turns so sharply I am almost thrown from the motorcycle. As we wobble and approach, I can see his mother staring worriedly at us through the rear window, then turn to ask the driver to pause.
"Hello all." She takes away her sunglasses. A large set of matching luggage is propped on the back seat. "This is a shocker. I thought you'd be in Bahrain by now, Paul."
The Shadow Bank stopped pursuing us at a crossroads of country lanes. I looked back to see them pause, consider, then choose to go no further. We had made our way home under dark clouds moving in from the east.
"Where are you going?" Paul looks aggressively through the window and at the driver. I hand her the Valentines card, which she receives with a knowing suspicion.
"Here we go." She says quietly, reading. She sets it aside quickly and sighs. ".. thought I deserved a holiday, boys. It's time you were on your own two feet, Paul."
"The house.." Paul looks around in horror at the Chinese contingent carting their belongings up the path and through the front door. "It's not ours any more. "
He jumps off the bike and rushes to the house. "Get the fu -." As he swings one of Mr Ching's tenants to the ground and begins to push another back towards the Bedford van, I notice Mandy Me unwrap a packet of cigarettes and gesture to the 'A1 Stretch' driver to continue. Paul takes into the street to look with a plead at his departing mother - "This was our home."
Anne Renaud returns to the study. Rain. Rain and the volume of the music upstairs has been raised. She sighs and tries to work, toggles again to the weblog.
Sometimes I wish I wasn't here at all. No body, just floating, just aware but only just. No feelings. No pain. Been reading about suicide. Wouldn't do it but there's two splits to disappearance. The internal and the social. Suicide is your personal death giving your impersonal death a bitch-slap. Suicide you're in control - infinity and beyond.
The doorbell sounds.
"Julianne, you lifesaver." Anne ushers the young lady in. "You've no idea how much better I feel when you're around."
She clears the rain off her shoes and smiles. "Your sort of decency - indeed sanity - is rare these days. You were obviously raised in the English countryside."
"Close. And, oh, I just do unto others. All that jazz." Julianne Glover shrugs and passes Anne her coat, then looks around the hall and up along curve of the oak and solid brass bannisters to the bedrooms. "You have a lovely house, Anne."
"Pff.. the whole place could do with renovation. Clear out the memories."
"That's not how it looks." Julianne Glover bites her lower lip gently, the soles of her feet testing the feel of the carpet, her eye moving from the professionally lacquered doors to the import serrissa tree. "You live in a beautiful world, Anne."
Anne prepares some coffee and biscuits and they return to the study to work on the English translation of Les Amants.
"You make an exceptional translator." Anne says to Julianne Glover at one point. "Your take on these characters is.. uncanny."
Julianne snaps the biscuit between her teeth, then tucks a few crumbs back with her little finger. "I've been researching, Anne."
"Research is gold." Anne felt so much better when Julianne was here. Such talent and the poor girl seemed so plain. Humdrum even. Nothing much to her. Move in! She felt like asking sometimes. For a while?
At one point, Julianne Glover has to excuse herself to visit the bathroom. There - she opens a cabinet, reads an ointment tube, smells a towel, checks the laundry basket, picks out a t-shirt, turns to the mirror and holds the t-shirt against herself and smiles.
"Everything is so lovely here." She returns, raises her arms to fill the frame of the doorway to Anne's study.
Anne chuckles, amicably pulling the younger lady down onto the wicker two-seater. "Translate, silly."
On the patio behind the Orly ranch, Tanith Cash is almost in tears. Rocco Schopenauer is using a beach towel to wipe the variant bodily fluids from her neck and chest. "It was a humiliation scene, T. You've done enough of those."
"You went too far, Rocco." She uncoils loo roll from her neck and uses it to wipe her eyes and hair. "It's like they all wanted to see me destroyed."
"Oh, where's the love?" Poppy Franco is dragging an empty crate onto the grass, mocking Tanith through some nails held between her lips.
"You're not destroyed." Rocco sighs. "Just Adam isn't happy till you're unhappy. It's like he says. He hates a little faker."
Tanith presses the score above her cheekbone. "Look. I'm bruising, you idiot. And you worried me. You almost enjoyed it. Some of the things you said.. it was scaring me."
Rocco puts his arm on her shoulder. "That's the thing. I'm playing a part. It's just The Cherry Orchard, babe." He hugs her but Tanith still seems to be shaking.
"Girl's had her fingers burnt. Suddenly the world is not so peachy." Poppy removes the nails to mock again. Tanith stands up in silence and moves to check in on her child.
Rocco rises and grasps Poppy's arm as she turns. "Look. If yo-"
Poppy jumps. "Get your disgusting hands off me, friend, I'll wax your crack with this." She draws a revolver out of her shirt.
"Hola, boss." They both turn and watch Dutronc drop onto a quickly-bent knee, then cast an index and little finger up at Rocco. Brigitte follows closely behind across the retro crazy-paving footpath that borders the ranch. Her heart was beating quicker and an ill feeling isn't helped by the sight of Poppy Franco's gun.
"Hello.. um.. Kyrie. Long time. Is it?"
"Had to do the Houdini, boss. After my bank manager's funeral. Yeah." Dutronc moves his fists like he is banging someone off a wall.
"So.. Ms.. Really." As Rocco smiles, his eyes fix on Brigitte and he raises her hand to kiss it.
You don't look like a bad man, thought Brigitte, her eyes flitting everywhere but Rocco's partially engorged cock. Gazing eventually at the slipstream haze of a Concorde overhead, she wonders what this man had done bad. She nods at Poppy, kicking down on the top of the empty gun crate. Dutronc takes her other hand and gives it a squeeze. One of them was sweating hard and he wasn't sure who. "The new superqueen of small screen net sex, boss."
"Biggest stage in the world." Rocco corrects him.
"I need a pee." Brigitte chirps out immediately, smiling briefly after a cough. "Is it in the house? Two shakes of lamb's tufty then we'll get.." She raises her shoulders, wiggles her fingers, throws out her lower lip. "Guess we'll get.." Closing her eyes, she genuflects towards Rocco's cock - the shadow of which, in this midday sun, easily sits at the top of his knees. She opens both eyes and suddenly feels the need to wave at it. ".. going."
"Ahhh." She stands to clap her hands once and stretch out a sigh, then dips her look at Dutronc, whose smile has remained broad but false and inflexible. As she fixes his feather boa she widens her eyes. Dutronc wasn't sure if that meant 'Relax!' or 'Run!' or 'What was our plan again?'
Poppy Franco surveys the new arrivals from the grass. Was everyone mad here? Where was that rabbit? She was making a hutch for the damn thing. She assizes the crate, her mobile phone bleeps. This might be information. "Hello?"
On the steps into the house Rocco catches Brigitte's arm, feeling for needle marks. He moves in to whisper close against her ear. "There's no firing up out here, missy."
She shrieks and twists her knees. "Right you are. A quick tickle it is.. I mean tinkle."
"You smell clean for a junk whore, the scabs often scar."
"Swoon!" Brigitte rubs her ear. "Pour it on, Mr Applesauce." She calls across the garden to Dutronc. "Call the charmschool ambulance. Girl smoothied."
Rocco moves closer. He places a large, warm hand on the curve of her belly and presses it gently as his penis tucks against the fore of her hip bone. "Hmm. I kind of believe you. Really." He lays his other hand along her back, then her shoulder. "I really must make sure you don't go astray, Tinkle. You seem.. precious. Rare."
Her eyes flash into his, then away. He is smelling along her neck. "And you.. oh.. you remind me too much.. of a .. a girl I loved. Loved too much. That's dangerous. Really."
"Fuck yes." Poppy shouts at the mobile phone as her foot cracks through the crate top. "Good work."
Brigitte looks at Rocco, wondering how serious he is. He was a good-looking man. In fact, if anyone looked unworthy of trust it was her and Dutronc. She is slowly aware of a cooling down as her nerves return to normal.
"Mmm. Let's keep things commercial, Rocco." She says, looking down again at his penis. They made her smile. Brutish, odd, functional. Hardly objects of lust. "Really."
On the patio, Daniel Dutronc folds down into a deckchair, jumps up from a strap-on, waves it at Poppy Franco. "I'm cool." He gestures toward Ferdinand the cameraman. "Hey, boss. You got a passport? Only I need one too."
"Hey lady?" He calls to Poppy Franco as she drives a nail home with the butt of her revolver. "Is that a Barbie house? Never work with children or animals, I told Rocco. And most Indonesians. Yeah." Poppy bangs her thumb and screams up into the slipstream.
In the side office of the ranch, Tanith's baby has finally fallen asleep. As she enters, Marianne Castro gestures to her to be quiet and then returns to the telescope. The rabbit had edged into the road, flipperty flopped across to a perforated mesh fence encompassing the airport - where he had sat to observe the Concorde struggle to grip the air and peel gently off the tarmac. The rabbit had sat beneath its rise till the sonic boom in its wake gradually started shaking the fence, causing him to tumble back down the grass, over the roadside and against the wheels of the parked 2CV.
Tanith looks into her son's bed. "Shhh."
Anne and Julianne listen to the beat of the music above.
"Oh Julianne." Anne looks suddenly distraught, and pours another glass of wine with her eyes closed.
"What's wrong, Anne?" Julianne Glover touches her shoulder.
"It's my daughter. We've been at odds. Nothing I do is any good. She takes me so far, then she pushes me even further. I feel so helpless."
Julianne raises the translation. "No Goncourt winner.."
As Anne raises a hand her left eye begins to waver over her inbox. Ma chatte.
"Winner." Julianne goes on to stress. "..is helpless."
Anne chuckles and sits forward, brightening up. "Oh, what shall I wear? Could you help me decide?"
As they mount the stairs to Anne's bedroom, Anne suddenly realises the intimacy of the forthcoming moment. Who exactly was Julianne?
~ It's an interesting job, difficult to define. My doctorate was in behavioral psychology. But I negotiate. Crisis management. A pursuader. I was there to negotiate when Christophe's colleague was shot. I can't really go into details, you understand. It gets political. Military. And at the highest level. I sometimes have to explain to entire squadrons of young men why they may have to die. Or destroy a squadron of ordinary young men in a different army. Civilians even, as well as terrorists. It's all actually done with a high degree of sensitivity these days. The bottom line is - it's not just a roaring sergeant major like the movies. It's much more.. understanding. But Christophe is how I ended up meeting your father. And I ended up meeting you, Anne. It's a gift. I can talk to anyone at their own level. I can very, very quickly find their level. But I can't say any more than that, Anne ~
Anne understood perfectly.
She looks back down the stairs into Julianne's eyes.
She was a lifesaver.
Marianne Castro picks the rabbit from the bonnet of the 2CV. "I think you secretly want to be roadkill."
As Poppy Franco crosses the garden towards them the rabbit begins struggling. He squirms from Marianne's arms, flipperty flops behind the wheel of the 2CV. Marianne scoops him up again as Poppy leans closer, mirroring his struggle.
"Don't sniff at me, mister." She squeezes the rabbit's paw and, almost immediately, a stream of urine lashes her arm. "Little sh-"
Marianne laughs. She hadn't laughed for a long time but Poppy wished it wasn't at moments like that. Why did she laugh at things like that?
"Information. At last. What do you know about a woman called Anne Renaud? If you want to destroy him slowly - and I think we both do - we three should call on her. Tonight?" They walk towards the house. Poppy Franco sniffs her fingers. "He absolutely worships her." The rabbit was struggling again, but this time towards the car.
Under the crook of Marianne Castro's arm, the rabbit watches Poppy stop, finger poised under her nose, suddenly returning his gaze with a seriousness. She begins walking back towards the 2CV, looks through the window and runs her urine-covered finger along the doorhandle. His whiskers begin to twitch.
Poppy checks the dashboard. An outdated Paris Metro map. Boiled sweets.
Marianne pauses at the front entrance to the Orly ranch, watching the rabbit watching Poppy Franco search the car, his nose and whiskers moving increasingly fast.
As Marianne carries him through the door and closes it behind her - Poppy Franco rises up, reading a notebook. She turns to him and feels compelled to mouth the words 'I love you'.
Then, through the puckered, frosted glass of the entrance - as he is carried down the hall - he watches shifting blobs of her form skip soundlessly among the globes of sunlight - from the roadside, to the garden, to the garage door.
Paul Me and I move through the house. The furnishings have all been removed and simplified, each room now contains at least five bunks. Mr Ching says he will call the police. I ask him to do so and try to prevent Paul from a further attack on the new Oriental tenants on the stairs. "Where's Leo?"
Mr Ching seems eager to show us up to Leo's attic room. "He very good. Chinese now."
Leo Me has just finished dressing the attic room in an Oriental style. He emerges from behind an ornate red and gold boudoir screen, in embroidered silk mandarin pyjamas, some I Ching coins placed between his fingers. "Paulie? What's he doing here? Hey, I finally flew the nest and didn't even have to go anywhere."
"Never mind that - it's dad. Leo, he's brown bread."
Just then a low, dark cloud blocks the skylight, throwing the attic into deep shade.
But it isn't the weather at all. A revving. Heavy. The three of us look up through the glass and onto the passing skin of something polymorphous, gas-tight, undulating.
The airship pauses above the house, a warning bomb is dropped into the garden, ropes are lowered. Through the skylight I can see the gondola suspended underneath and through the side window of the gondola - a figure prepares to disembark.
The Shadow Bank drop quickly down the ropes, onto the roof and into the garden. The figure in the gondola then turns to look directly at me. I think I see Cerys but am looking, once again, at a tall figure in a dark green leather flying jacket and helmet. A boot breaks through the skylight and we cower from the crash of glass. And when we look back the tall figure has swung into the attic and is removing his gloves.
"Da -?" Paul asks but the masked figure places a finger to his lips, then makes a scattering motion with his fingertips.
"Brown bread. Stool pigeon. Ha cha cha cha." An unclassifiable foreign accent. Cerys spirals gracefully down a rope and waits behind him.
"Good afternoon at last, gentlemen. My name may as well be Adam Shadow."