When Paris came into a view again it was late spring. The famous landmarks were broken up by the pink and white blossoms and high mackerel clouds parted like a fan above the Eiffel Tower. I dismounted from the Eurostar with the intention of meandering around this city for a few days before taking the train east into the heart of Europe.
Setting up my easel in Paris felt different from in London where I was a curiosity. Here I was one of the many artists and was happy to blend into the crowd and be unknown. If I was praised by passers-by, it was for my talent rather than my name of what someone had read about me in the Evening Standard. I took the Metro up to Montmartre where the artists of yesteryear had given way to mawkish Disney cartoonists planted like insects around the lumpen white edifice of the Sacre Couer. I walked down the hill again and lost myself in a maze of alleys.
Away from the garish tourist memorabilia and the church like a great sickly wedding cake, there was filth in the gutters, a faint odor of sewers and run down basement apartments. Here and there were studios inhabited by real artists, punctuated by the screams of babies and the rattle of industrial air conditioners. An old man lifted his brush and shot me a crooked grin. Suddenly I had an image of Jacques and that far off look of triumph in his eyes when he surveyed his completed work.
Jacques had learned his trade in this magnificent city but it had chewed him up like so many before him. I vowed to get back on the train before the city stripped me of my sureness in my own ability and destiny and reawakened the ghosts of yesteryear. By the time I reached the Gare de L’Est I was missing my mentor and wishing to hasten my meeting with his lawyer, even though I had put it off for more than a year. I boarded an express train that headed east. I watched France become more rustic and Medieval and then I was in Germany and flitting through warm evening fields and distant blue hills that made it hard to square this place with the grim tales of marching men and conflicts that I had read about in dusty books back in my bedroom in Britain.
When I emerged into the sunshine again I was in another great European capital and surrounded my high church towers and magnificence. Bells were ringing across the piazzas and small boats were fluttering on the Danube. This time I ignored the magnificence and jumped in a taxi . I gave the driver an address in a low key part of Pest. We clattered through a working class suburb where washing hung over alley and he dropped my outside a small courtyard with a tiny door.
The plaque had the name of Pierre Blanc, a Frenchman who had somehow ended up in this obscure part of Budapest. I went through a dark passage and ended up in a tiny room like a cell with a sour faced receptionist behind a desk who communicated in a series of grunts. After half an hour of guttural noises and paper clips being pushed across a desk for no apparent purpose, a louder grunt than the rest led me to believe I was being ushered in to see Monsieur Blanc.
I was confronted by a short, balding man with a flat face. He took my hand unenthusiastically,
shuffled through some papers, raised his thick specs and finally said: “Why are you here?”
“I thought you would know that. Jacques the painter said I should come here.”
The lawyer wiped some sweat off his head and cleared his throat.
“I’m afraid I know nobody by that name.”
“On come on. The artist. Jacques.”
“Do we have a last name?”
The question troubled me. I had known it once in another world. As the panic rose within the memory of the name was slipping out of my consciousness. A large bird of prey had settled on the window ledge and it was starting intently at me. I felt it suited the lawyer’s office. Pierre Blanc seemed to have discounted me already. He was tapping his pencil and about to pick up the phone.
“Vielneuf,” I said finally and desperately.
“I will check my files monsieur.”
He rose to his feet and I noticed his saggy trousers as he pulled open the drawers of his filing cabinet. He was humming impatiently and there was more sweat on his forehead. He closed a couple of drawers and shook his head. Finally he pulled out a large brown folder.
“We do have a Jacques Vielneuf,” he said with some disbelief. He pulled out some papers and uttered a small exclamation. “Ah. Artist Jacques.”
“And I take it you are Campbell Lawrence. Identification please.”
I pulled out my passport. This was the easy bit.
“I hope you are not expecting millions.”
“I don’t know what I’m expecting.”
“So look here,” said the lawyer. “He has left you ownership of his property in Umbria, as well as this.”
I looked it over. It was a letter Jacques had dictated to the law firm.
“My Dear Campbell. It was a great pleasure knowing you in the last year of my life. In you I saw the kind of great talent I could only dream about as a lad. Maybe you have realized that talent by now. I know from what you told me that you missed her terribly. Here is the address of Geraldine. God knows if she is still there. I would like you to go to her and take her with you to my villa in Umbria which will be yours by the time you read this. It’s probably worth a lot but I don’t want you to ever sell it. The view from the lemon grove over the hills is heaven itself. Of course, I could never live there. It’s a long story for an old man of fading health. Let’s just say it involved a woman. Don’t they always. This letter also contains a key to my car, so as you can drive to Alsace. Don’t get too excited about that. It’s a 2CV. It will get you there, just avoid the Autobahns. I wish you love, happiness, success and the most succulent of olives which grow around the villa. Au revoir – Jacques.