passer-by inserted a coin, the doll’s vacant eyes and lumpen breasts rotated mechanically for thirty seconds. A surreptitious coin dropped as Edward approached drew an immediate small crowd.
In the late afternoon, he tried the Iskarovs’ number again and he was a bit put out then that there was still no answer since viewing the flat would have been a convenient way to fill in the time before the evening.
On Sunday morning, there was again no answer. By then, it seemed clear they had gone away for the weekend. Edward didn’t try again and spent most of the day, it was wet and cold, reading on his bed: a couple of hours each of Theodore Zeldin’s The French, Richard Cobb on France’s war record, and Borges. Consequently, he was more than slightly indignant when he rang one last time out of boredom at half past six and was immediately told by the woman who answered the telephone that they had been waiting for him to ring for days.
“Come over and look at the flat now,” she suggested. “I’m not busy.”
Edward leant across from the bed and lifted a corner of his lace curtains. Long ropes of rain were slapping against the window and it was almost dark. He said, “I think I’d rather see it in the daylight, if you don’t mind.”
To his irritation, the woman at the other end positively snorted. “There is electric light there, you know.”
Edward thought, ‘If you’re not going to bother to be polite, I really don’t see why I should either.’ But, mindful of the constricting connection with the Hirshfelds, he ad-libbed, “It’d be difficult timewise too tonight. I’ve got a dinner appointment later. Could I come and see it during the week?”
There was a clatter at the other end and then a long silence as though the receiver had been accidentally dropped,
“Hello?” said Edward. “Hello? Hello?”
He was wondering whether or not to hang up and also whether or not to bother to redial afterwards when the woman returned.
“I’m not teaching on Wednesday or Thursday mornings,” she informed him. “Or on Friday afternoon. Could you make any of those?”
“Wednesday morning would be fine,” Edward said. “What sort of time?”
The woman gave a gusty sigh, as if contemplating many weary hours filled with a round of unwelcome chores. “Eleven?” she suggested.
“Fine,” Edward agreed. “Fine, I’ll be there. Eleven o’clock on Wednesday. Number Nine, Cité Etienne Hubert.”
“It’s the last but one house in the street,” the woman said. “On the left, the last but one.”
Edward reflected, as he dressed against the rain to go out and get some dinner, that the Russian name and Mrs Hirshfeld’s enthusiasm about it seemed distinctly irrelevant. The woman had sounded to him like a typical, hard-hearted Parisian bitch.
He made sure to mention to Henry where he was off to on Wednesday morning although, to be fair, Henry didn’t seem in the least interested. He asked the taxi for the Avenue Duquesne, since the Cité Etienne Hubert was such a small street, and being in good time, he got down at the southern end of the avenue and strolled up.
It was a grey day and there was little difference in colour between the weighty apartment houses on either side of the wide avenue and the sky. The brightest things in the streets were the yellowing autumn leaves, which were just beginning to fall, and reflected a cheering yellow radiance off thepavements as he walked along with his head bowed. Until he reached the corner of the Cité Etienne Hubert, everything ran along predictable, ornate Parisian grooves.
It was hardly a street at all; that was his first thought as he confronted the high wall in which it ended so abruptly only a few hundred yards away. There were about six apartment houses on either side, all of the same stolid mould, and then, immediately, a towering blank wall which ran from façade to façade of the two end houses and blocked off all perspective, views or passage. It rose