They were in the garden behind the cottage, dancing to a tune from the wireless inside. The crickets sang like mad in the rose bushes.
‘I owe you an apology,’ Maurice whispered to Clive. ‘I was so beastly to you on the beach that morning.’
Clive smiled and led him in a semicircle. ‘I don’t blame you in the slightest,’ he said. ‘After all, I was even more rotten to you when you bid me goodbye outside the boathouse years ago.’
‘At least you didn’t tell on Alec or me,’ Maurice observed. ‘He and I are forever grateful to you for that.’
‘I couldn’t, I wouldn’t,’ Clive said, gently manoeuvering him further away from the porch. ‘There was enough talk after you left. I didn’t want to lay eyes on you or Scudder ever again, but I didn’t want the two of you of you to come to harm either.’
‘I appreciate that,’ Maurice nodded. ‘But why didn’t you just slam down the receiver when I telephoned you at the hotel and invited you to tea?’
The song had ended and now a reporter was delivering news, repeatedly mentioning Allemagne.
They had stopped on the lawn. The alpine smell of snow from the north had grown stronger, but the heat of the day still lingered between the rose bushes.
‘Because of what I saw on the beach that morning,’ Clive said calmly. ‘I saw a man dive off the cliff.’
‘So you knew,’ Maurice remarked. ‘That place has a reputation…Bachelors meet there.’ Now he grinned. ‘Tell me then, were you looking at someone or for someone?’
‘Not for you,’ Clive stammered. ‘I must admit that the powerfully built man on the rocks reminded me of an old friend, but that was all.’
Maurice threw back his head and uttered a delightful laugh. He then cradled Clive’s hands onto his chest and gave him a loving look. ‘Is that so?’ he asked. ‘Why did you swim in my direction?’
‘To get a closer look of you,’ Clive said. ‘To see if you were indeed like the man I’d once known…Do you remember that morning at the boathouse? Scudder was splashing in the pond and you stood there on the deck, naked and in the sunlight, and then you dived in.’ His voice faltered. ‘You dived in, so gracefully, so beautifully, like a merman…You disappeared under the waves…Only later did I come to understand that you must have looked at your secret kingdom then, secluded from the rest of the world, a deserted place were you and Scudder would live, free from prying eyes and slander and conviction…And the image of you holding him in the water so he wouldn’t drown was so incredibly lovely and sweet…It ended with you and me standing on the deck, talking and smoking. You had shaved off your moustache and you looked like an unburdened creature of Nature wearing that cloth like an Asian garment. When you showed up later in shirt sleeves and trousers, I thought it a bad masquerade. You had finally chosen Nature, and with it, Love, so you no longer needed clothes from Bond Street. A few minutes on a Sunday morning before the war, long ago – that was all I got to keep from you…And that’s why I ventured out to that deserted beach last week, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone diving, to revive the memory.’
It was dark but he could see Maurice’s eyes glistening behind his platinum-rimmed glasses.
Maurice smiled and ran his finger over Clive’s upper lip. ‘It was odd,’ he murmured. ‘I was swimming in the sea and thinking nothing until a man crawled towards me with powerful, elegant strokes. I thought: ah, a gentleman, and obviously a Brit…I say, he does look familiar, like someone I once knew, but that fellow had a moustache and this one hasn’t.’
‘I shaved it off when I quit my military duty at the ministry in 1918,’ Clive explained. The war was over, no more need to be an officer, much less to look like one.’
‘And then, at the car park,’ Maurice said, ‘I could tell you were upset…And I understood instantly. If you hadn’t cared for me, you would have been more at ease, showing your indifference and ennui by chattering about the lovely sights of the Provence like all tourists do…I drove home, sat in this garden, drinking coffee and smoking, realizing that I had behaved so curtly that morning because I could not believe I had actually met you again. I thought the gods had played a nasty trick on me. But you were there, alive, and staying in Le Lavandou. And that was why I telephoned the Breitner a few hours later, and the rest is a deliciously jolly rotten mess.’
They laughed and crept into each other’s arms. The wireless was playing another chanson now.
‘One more Armagnac and then we’re going to bed,’ Maurice whispered in Clive’s ear.
One of the French customs officers, young enough to establish useless significance, gave Josie a stern look. ‘You were speeding, Mademoiselle,’ he admonished her. ‘If a gendarme had seen it, he would have fined you.’ His colleague, much older, nodded in tacit agreement.
‘Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry, Messieurs,’ Josie panted. ‘I am due in Milan to perform an operation.’ The men raised their eyebrows until they disappeared under their caps.
Now she pointed at the two enamel badges screwed to the ledge that held the windscreen, sporting a British Red Cross emblem and the image of the rod of Asclepius.
‘Would you please show us your passport, your driving licence and a health certificate for your dog?’ the older one asked pleasantly. When they leafed through the documents, Boris barked furiously at them.
‘Quiet now,’ Josie said to him in English. ‘These are good gentlemen.’
They must have understood, for now they handed her back the papers and touched the rims of their caps and opened the barrier.
About a hundred yards further on, two Italian customs officers signaled her to stop. They were more elaborately clad than the ones from the others side of the border and spoke heavy-accented French and perhaps smelled the alcohol on her breath, because they wanted to check the whole vehicle. ‘I’m in a hurry,’ Josie explained. ‘I’m on my way to Milan to operate upon Colonel De Santis. It’s very urgent.’
The men gave each other looks, one of them mumbled something sounding like ‘Irredenta’, they both cooed at Boris, who wagged his tail in appreciation, and then they waved her through.
She put the car in first gear and drove on. Men in uniform, she thought with bitter satisfaction, they believe they rule the world but a mere reference to an old revolutionary hero needing to be saved, which was a lie, and the presence of a nice doggie will make them topple over in a split second.
And now Italy lay before her, rows of colourful houses and gardens bursting with oleander and Indian cress and rustling palm trees, and roads clogged with dilapidated lorries and overflowing buses.
The radio played an American ragtime. Josie turned up the volume, lit a cigarette and petted Boris’s head. ‘How do you like this?’ she asked him. ‘It looks lovely, doesn’t it?’