backstreet which was pleasingly unlike the smart expense account sort of place he could have been eating in. Although half the items on the menu were unintelligible to him – Brik à l’œuf, Merguez – he managed to have a reasonable meal amid the high-pitched Oriental music and the constant coming and going of the owner’s acquaintances for what seemed to be free glasses of mint tea. He took as long as he decently could over his dinner to stay in the restaurant’s social embrace, although he was forced to give up on a deathly sweet pastry which seemed to set all his fillings jangling like alarm bells.
Afterwards, he couldn’t find any entertainment he wanted to see on his own. With Roland or Guy, he might have gone to jeer at somewhere like the Crazy Horse but on his own it seemed profoundly sordid. He walked back to the hotel through the party-going crowds of a Saturday night, feeling like the classic outsider from French A-level, and Sunday,when he couldn’t make any business appointments to reduce the time available to stew, was even worse.
On Thursday or Friday of the following week, as he came back into the office from some specious errand he had invented to make himself seem busier than he yet was, Marie-Yvette told him he had had a phone call from Mrs Hirshfeld. She handed him the number and added, “It was something to do with a flat.”
Edward’s heart plummeted. The last thing he wanted was for the paper to get involved in his accommodation arrangements. The more elusive his Paris flat became, the more convinced he was that it would be his only hope of redeeming his time here. Above all, he didn’t want that slender possibility appropriated by the paper too, so that his single remaining chance of displacement was removed.
He went into his office and sat there for a while, feeling disgruntled and also apprehensive, before he lifted the receiver and dialled Henry’s home number.
The phone was answered by Dinh. While she was fetching her mother, Edward prepared a polite explanation of why he could not take up Mrs Hirshfeld’s proposition, whatever it might be. Her bright, “Hi, Edward” interrupted his train of thought.
He mumbled, “Oh, hello, Mrs Hirshfeld. I was told you telephoned while I was out. I’m sorry I wasn’t here to speak to you. I’d just gone off for a bit to deal with some bureaucracy.”
Her laugh was high and concise like a wind chime. “Don’t worry, Edward. Have you found a flat yet? Henry told me the other day you were still looking, you were having a lot of problems.”
“I’ve sort of got something in mind,” Edward lied.
“You have? That’s great. Where is it?”
Edward thrashed around. “I haven’t seen it yet. It’s just the estate agent told me this morning she had something a bit more promising sounding. I’m afraid I don’t remember the address exactly.”
Mrs Hirshfeld marked an infinitesimal pause. “Well, take down this number anyway,” she instructed him. “It might not be what you want. But I think it is worth looking into.”
The number, she explained, belonged to another teacher at the school where she taught art. By a complete coincidence she had been talking to this other teacher in the staff room a few days previously and she had happened to mention that a flat which she and her family rented out was standing empty. It was the last chapter of a long story involving an unsatisfactory tenant. Anyway, she, Mrs Hirshfeld, hadn’t given it another thought until a couple of days ago Henry had quite by chance spoken at dinner about Edward’s difficulties and she had remembered Mademoiselle Iskarov. She had spoken to her about it again that morning when she went into the lycée and it seemed the flat was still vacant and the Iskarovs, who only let it via personal contact and not through advertisements, would be happy for Edward to come along and have a look at it.
Drearily, Edward took down the address and then the difficult name as well.
Eve Bunting, ZACHARY PULLEN