This is from Chapter Eight.
Her movements were unmistakeably familiar. It was Minnie. Bart took off at a trot from where he watched her, across the now silent street. All day, it had bustled with all sorts of activity and movement. At sunset, it was almost deserted, and even the kiosk attendant, whose face he now knew well, was packing for the evening.
The way she leapt, when he drew up by her side so abruptly, made him seem apologetic rather than overjoyed. ‘I’m sorry! Minnie! It’s you – I’ve startled you.’
She exhaled forcibly, then gathered her wits quickly and smiled. ‘Bart! Yes.’ She leaned forward in the French way, expecting to be kissed on the cheek.
Bart kissed her, then kissed her again as she turned her head. Like a French couple meeting on the street, to look like they did so every evening of their life, she took his arm and steered him away quickly.
‘You said Le Havre … I came.’
‘We can’t hang about here.’ She was breathless.
Without another word, as he had done before, Bart allowed himself to be taken forward. They turned a corner, where he could see the glimmer of water he knew was the Bassin du Commerce. He knew the area well now, having tramped it on foot for two whole days. It was large, one end of it bustling, a tourist centre as unlike the atmospheric painting by Monet he had once seen in a book as it could be. There were none of the tall ships Monet had painted, no romantic grey waters. The modern bridge that spanned the harbour to his left was bathed in bright light, and drew the eye from every perspective. White yacht masts tilted and crossed each other; strings of lights from shops and cafés made it seem commercial and alive.
When they reached a third corner, she stopped. ‘I knew I would find you.’
‘I found you!’ Bart exclaimed. But he paused. A vague gut feeling of manipulation flitted in and out of his mind. It was replaced by a confirmation of everything about her he found captivating.
They faced each other, eyes locked, standing on a darkening street, in complete silence. Minnie stood on her toes and kissed him full on the lips, open-eyed, bold and uncertain at the same time. It was not a fleeting peck, not a salutation in the French way: this time Bart felt he was kissed for himself, not for any other reason. Taking her by the forearms, he stopped her retreat and kissed her again, taking the lead. She did not resist.
If anyone passed on the deserted street, it would not have seemed strange to see a couple engaged in a warm embrace. France was like that, Bart knew. But he had never thought he would find himself on a street in Le Havre, of all places, with the same unfortunate woman whose form he knew so well, whose body he had seen outlined in a hospital gown, half a world away.
He held her closely and she deepened their kiss, moaning softly. In her left hand, she held her computer. Her right came up and clasped him firmly by the arm.
When they stood back, she looked him in the eye again. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are that type, Bart. You go at something until you do find it.’ Her eyes held a tiny hint of sadness, which was quickly dispelled. ‘This way now.’ She led him onward along the embankment until he could see darkening shadows of tall cranes in the distance.
They made their way in silence, hurrying past Le Volcan, where wet puddles studded grey concrete paving and the lone sculpture of an upturned hand extended, plaintive, from the wall over the flat fountain-bed.
Across the way, Bart could see where he had run for his life, two nights before, panting and sweaty, fleeing from the thug with the shaven head. He shook his head, but the memory was vivid.
She led him up lanes and down alleys. Finally they turned up a street not far from where he glimpsed the trees of the park at Hotel de Ville.
She spoke again. ‘It’s what I saw in you right away. You like following threads, solving um … puzzles.’
Bart knew she came close to saying mysteries, but said nothing.
‘I wish I had your brains.’
He laughed. ‘You know nothing about me. I don’t even want my brains!’
The peal of her laughter trailed behind them. There seemed to be no concern now about being followed, about anything at all untoward about their meeting, except the haste to get wherever she led him.
‘See what I mean? You make me laugh.’
Again, Bart sensed a kind of sadness in her voice. It attracted him, making her seem less convinced of her actions and decisions than she outwardly seemed.
At a corner, where lights from a crowded restaurant lay slanting on the pavement, she turned into a doorway and tip-tapped swiftly up a flight of dingy stairs that rose to a glass doorway. Bart ascended behind her, entered after she quickly unlocked it with a key that was ready, at the tips of her fingers. More stairs led them spiralling upward, past many closed apartment doors, until they reached a green one with a brass number seven screwed slightly lopsidedly onto the architrave. She unlocked that one too, turned a switch, and bathed them in amber-coloured light from a swinging lantern in a tiny hallway.
‘You have a place here – in Le Havre.’ He mumbled in surprise, out of breath from the quick ascent.
‘Just two rooms – not exactly the Ritz.’
‘And you’ve got a new laptop.’
‘Yes.’ She put it down without looking at it.
‘Now, you must tell me exactly …’
She turned on more lights: a large lamp in a corner, a desk lamp, and one balanced on a pile of magazines, then stood still, striking a match and trying to light a candle. ‘First, I must put the kettle on – I’m dying for a cup of tea.’
‘There’s lots you have to tell me.’
Minnie nodded. ‘Yes.’ Getting busy with cups and things, shrugging her coat from her shoulders, pointing to a green divan where he should sit, pulling off her hat and teasing out her hair were all done in quick economical movements. She did not talk.
There was a lot he had to tell her, as well. How he had waited in Paris. That he was followed for days on end. When the thug had almost got him. He thought the man would give up, but he was there, as recently as yesterday, confronting him at Le Volcan, as threatening as before. It reeled through his head.
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