Installment One - Installment Two - Installment Three - Installment Four - Installment Five - Installment Six - Installment Seven - Installment Eight - Installment Nine - Installment Ten - Installment Eleven - Installment Twelve - Installment Thirteen - Installment Fourteen - Installment Fifteen - Installment Sixteen - Installment Seventeen - Installment Eighteen - Installment Nineteen - Installment Twenty - Installment 21 - Installment 22 - Installment 23
THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission
Tory drove straight to the international terminal, where her mother took the wheel. Dad insisted on accompanying her in to the airport, rolling her carry-on for her. They saw Max as soon as the airline desk came into view, and he spotted them seconds later, walking toward them with a welcoming smile and only a handsome clutch for baggage.
“Good afternoon, Max,” her father greeted the Dutch doctor. “Goodness, you travel light.”
“I’ve just checked two large suitcases, actually,” Max explained. “I’m bringing some supplies for my friend’s clinic. The ordinary shipping channels are slow and expensive, so he often asks visitors to carry odds and ends. I’ve even got some spare parts needed to repair the golf cart he and his staff use for local transport.”
“I should have thought of that,” Tory exclaimed ruefully.
“No need,” Max assured her. “If I hadn’t been able to accommodate everything Everard needed, I know I could have called on you.”
“I’ll wish you every success with those golf-cart parts, and the rest of your mission,” Tory’s dad said. He enfolded his youngest in a generous hug, explained, “I ought to get back to Hannah; I don’t want her to have to circle the terminals too often. She gets dizzy.” He smiled at his mild joke, while Tory rolled her eyes up. Max smiled, too, and for a moment Tory felt slightly dizzy herself. She concentrated on waving good-bye to her father, which helped her focus again.
Their check-in was uneventful, and by unspoken, mutual consent, they both spent the hour until their boarding time reading – Tory noticed Max was taking copious notes on whatever he had up on his e-reader. Once they were aboard, comfortably settled in business class, Max suggested he provide more background on Luisa Nepala before the dinner service started.
“Yes, please,” Tory responded. “I’d love to learn more before I meet her.”
“I had a chance to talk with her briefly,” Max informed her. “She’s very grateful for the opportunity to return home. I believe she’s been very lonely for the last few years, since the De Groots moved to Paris from Amsterdam. Her arthritis makes everything more difficult, as she has been accustomed to stay very busy with household tasks she can barely perform anymore. I went to school with Piet de Groot, and used to spend an afternoon or two a week at his family’s home. Luisa baked marvelous speculaas – you know those cookies? She also made a... stew, I suppose, that was part Dutch hutspot and part Namibian potjie. It was perfect on cold afternoons after rugby practice. And she filled our imaginations with marvelous stories of her life as a girl on the plains. On my first trip to West Africa, everything I saw that ought to have been exotic seemed familiar from Luisa’s vivid descriptions. My earliest realizations that not everyone lived as my family and I did are due to her.”
“She sounds very special indeed,” Tory commented.
“For me, yes,” Max confirmed, then continued, “I spoke with her doctor in Paris. She recently diagnosed Mrs. Nepala with congestive heart failure, which was causing water retention and orthopnea. She also had a chance to prescribe treatment for the arthritis...” Max detailed the medications Mrs. Nepala was now taking; Tory was very familiar with them and nodded her understanding. The flight attendant interrupted briefly to offer them a choice of tournedos of beef or mushroom risotto; orders placed, Max resumed his briefing.
“Mrs. Nepala was never a very assertive person, and I sense that age and pain have increased her timidity. I know you’ll be a real help to her. Together, we may be able to encourage her to try a few exercises that will help maintain what function she has left in her hands. I think she also needs a good deal of encouragement to understand that her heart condition is progressive, and not an immediate death sentence. She seems to be very worried about that. She is also deeply concerned that she not give any trouble to her former employers or to you and me. We’ll need to be gently reassuring, without seeming to ‘protest too much.’”
“That’s all very clear, and very reasonable,” Tory said, sitting back as their dinner trays arrived. “Thank you for telling me all that. It’s really helpful.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing Mrs. Nepala,” Max mused. “And especially to seeing her reunited with her family. She’s been a very long way from them for several decades now.”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” Tory asked. She was struck by his compassion for someone with whom he’d had, from the sound of it, a fairly fleeting relationship many years before.
“Ten years or so,” he answered. “She’s been in Paris for almost that long. I believe the last time we had a proper chat was after a party celebrating Christina’s graduation from university.”
“Could I ask you...” Tory began hesistantly, poking her risotto as she spoke. Max looked attentive, and she was encouraged to finish, “...what’s it like growing up with nannies and butlers and things? It seems so different from, well, my life and my friends.”
Max smiled, but took her inquiry seriously. “It varies, of course, Tory.” She nodded silently. “For my family, staff are, in many ways, part of the family. Nanny Winton was paid, of course, but she treated us probably very similarly to how your Gramma – it was ‘Gramma?’” Tory smiled affirmation, and he continued. “My nanny was very like your gramma – someone who took care of us and praised and punished as needed, and taught us how to become adults. My mother didn’t do the kind of work your mother does, with an outside employer, but she had responsibility for the bookkeeping on the farm and the Amsterdam house, as well as ordering the maintenance of both those large, old properties. That kept her very busy, and she added to that volunteer work that she still does today, as well as meeting the many social demands that my father’s work, and I suppose our family’s position, required of us. So a nanny was a very valuable resource for her.”
“Jaap and Sitske, my cook, are both third or fourth generation members of their families to work for ours – maybe more. Mother could tell you; she keeps an extensive family history amongst her other works. Jaap’s son manages my family’s farm in Friesland, and his daughter housekeeps for my sister Joke. There are cousins who work for cousins of mine, and then Jaap’s second son is a very successful entrepreneur who employs household staff himself. In any event, for my siblings and me, household staff seemed more like extended family than anything else. And while we could cut back on staff, do more ourselves and be less meticulous in the housekeeping, and maybe spend the money saved on salaries for private planes or luxury resort vacations or some other high-end treats, we prefer this way.”
“It actually sounds rather cozy,” Tory responded, after a moment to digest what she’d heard.
“I think it is,” Max answered. “There’s the expression, ‘It takes a village,’ but sometimes we make our own villages.”
“I actually used to play at being a butler when I was little,” Tory confided. “I thought it sounded like a wonderful job.”
Max muffled his shout of laughter, in deference to the confined space and lateness of the hour. “I’m sure you would ‘buttle’ impeccably well,” he said. “As you do everything.”
“My work for the next few hours will be trying to sleep,” Tory replied, unnaturally pleased by his extravagant compliment. “I don’t want to be staggeringly tired when I meet your friend Mrs. Nepala.” With that, she adjusted her seat, headrest, blanket and light, and closed her eyes.
She slept lightly for most of the flight, and woke tolerably refreshed in time to creep to the washroom to tidy up a bit. Face, hair and teeth gleaming again, she returned to her seat to decline breakfast, finding that Max agreed with her. Why eat an airline croissant 90 minutes before arriving in Paris proper, with a wonderful bakery on almost every block? Realizing they had not yet talked about the itinerary for their 36 hours in Paris, she said, “I didn’t think to ask you about this, but will we be staying with the De Groots? Or someplace else?”
“Elsewhere,” Max told her. “One of my cousins works here in Paris. The company provides a flat, and it’s quite generously-sized, so we’ll be able to stay with Arne and Elsa. I think you’ll like them.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure I will,” Tory answered. “Arne and Elsa – are those Fries names?”
“Similar, though in this case Norwegian. Mother’s sister Antonia married a Norwegian; Arne is their son.”
Soon they were busy with organizing themselves for landing, and shortly after debarking they split up for passport control. Since Max went through the EC line, and Tory was in the slower ‘all others,’ they met again at the baggage carousel, then walked through customs together toward the cab stand. Soon they were speeding through the outskirts of Paris, and slowing as they entered the city proper. Tory gazed around with delight, spotting the distinctive shape of the Eiffel Tower and taking in the broad contours of the famous boulevards. They made little conversation beyond the occasional, “Lovely, isn’t it?” but the silences never felt uncomfortable.
When their taxi pulled up to one of the iconic creamy-grey stone buildings on a quiet avenue, Tory happily gazed about at the city coming alive in the soft light of morning. While Max paid the driver, a dapper gentleman emerged from the building and collected most of their luggage. Uncertain of the etiquette, Tory kept quiet and followed her companion’s lead. He greeted the baggage-handler formally and gestured to Tory to follow. “Monsieur Darot is the concierge here,” Max explained as they entered the lobby, which offered a view into a traditional Parisian courtyard.
“Bonjour, Monsieur,” Tory offered, and was rewarded with a grave nod and a spate of French too fast for her to follow. She nodded in turn and entered the elevator through an ornate ironwork grill. The three of them traveled to the fifth floor in near-silence, and exited into a hallway with just two doors. “Two flats per floor,” Max noted. “Arne and Elsa’s is to the left.” As he spoke, the door on the left side flew open, and a lovely blond, some few years younger than the doctor, strolled into the hallway with her arms open before her.
“Max,” she called, “Goedemorgen, en welkom.” Seeing Tory’s expression, she offered a reassuring grin. “Not to worry, that’s the extent of my Dutch. I’m Elsa Rasmussen, and you must be Tory, and you’re very welcome to our home.”
Tory thankfully shook the proffered hand, replying with a relieved smile. “I’m sure you know ‘dag’ as well. Everyone seems to say that all the time in the Netherlands. And ‘danku’ – I so appreciate the welcome and your excellent English.”
“Max, she’s charming,” Elsa informed her cousin, ushering Tory into the apartment as Max tipped the concierge. Tory, her cheeks on fire, barely noticed the small foyer floored with marble as she made her way rapidly into a large living room with a thick rug and half a dozen armchairs upholstered in different fabrics featuring pale, warm yellow shades accented by various tones of blue-green and lavender. The walls were soft yellow, and silk curtains in a deeper, marigold shade flanked the tall windows.
“Oh, how beautiful,” Tory exclaimed, forgetting her embarrassment in delight at the view of the courtyard.
“I am so glad you don’t mind my wife’s eccentric manners,” a slender man in a gray suit said, coming through the wide arched doorway at one end of the room. He offered a hand, saying, “I’m Arne Rasmussen. I’m delighted to meet you.”
“It’s a great pleasure,” Tory answered, and then stepped aside as Max and Arne greeted each other with a vigorous hug and wide grins.
“They are treating you well, aren’t they?” Max said, with a speaking glance at his cousin.
“Well enough that we can offer you breakfast,” Arne answered, voice and expression deadpan. “And then we’ll let you sleep if you’d like.” He gestured them toward the archway, and again Tory was struck by the beauty and effortless elegance of the room. This one carried the yellows of the living room, but toned down with lots of cream and the large sideboard, the table and its matching chairs. Tulipwood? Tory wondered – but didn’t care to ask. Her attention was focused on the platters crowding that sideboard. There were croissants and other pastries, a chafing dish promising eggs, fresh fruits, sliced cheeses, yogurt, granola and a bowl of hard-boiled eggs.
“We don’t always breakfast like this,” Elsa assured them, “but one never knows with long flights, so I thought a bit of everything.”
“You’re very kind, Elsa,” Max thanked her. “Tory and I skipped the airline’s breakfast, and all of this looks just the thing to welcome a person to Paris. Thank you.” They each chose a selection of the delicacies and sat down to enjoy them. Tory added little to the conversation, which focused on family matters. It seemed Arne and Elsa were already familiar with Mrs. Nepala’s story. They asked nothing about Tory and Max’s errand, but did wonder whether the two had plans for their time in Paris.
“Is there anything you would especially like to see or do?” Max asked her.
“I think getting to know Mrs. Nepala, so she’s comfortable with me, is the most important thing,” Tory answered. “If there’s time, I love to climb Notre Dame and look at the city from that roof-top bit. I’ve only been here twice, though, so I don’t know Paris well.”
“You must explore the Jacquemart,” Elsa insisted.
“A museum, right?”
“Indeed,” Max confirmed. “And I believe Elsa has it exactly right. The museum was once the home of a banker and his wife, an artist. It includes not only paintings and sculptures but also the furnishings they chose at the turn of the last century. I have not been for several years, but if my memory is accurate, I think you and Jacquemart will be perfect for each other. I also enjoy Notre Dame, so if we plan to visit those two sites, we should be able to accommodate a couple of visits with Luisa as well.” Tory had a sudden image of sitting over breakfast every morning with this man, watching his long, sensitive fingers peel an orange and listening as he thoughtfully arranged the details of a day. “Bliss,” she murmured.
“What did you say?” Elsa asked, her brow puckering.
“Nothing, really,” Tory answered mendaciously. “I’m a bit tired, and I think some sleep-talk leaked out.”
Arne laughed while his wife still looked puzzled. Max continued peeling his orange, unconcerned. “Let me show you your room,” Arne offered. “Your things are there – we have a maid in the mornings. I have to be off to the office, but will see you both for dinner this evening.” Tory gratefully shuffled along beside him to a handsome bedroom furnished with everything a weary traveler might want. She sank into the crisp sheets and was almost asleep before she’d finished setting her alarm.
Waking ninety minutes later, Tory showered quickly and dressed in the slacks and pullover. The outfit was comfortable for walking, but dressy enough for the urban environment. She joined Elsa in the living room, and Max emerged a few minutes later. “I thought I heard you,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Dreamlessly,” Tory assured him, and turned to Elsa. “Your home is lovely.”
The Norwegian smiled prettily. “Not really our home,” she noted, “it’s a company flat. But we’re very lucky to be so comfortable while Arne is stationed here. We’ve been almost three years in Paris, and should learn soon whether they want him to stay on here, head for a new location, or return home to Norway.”
“Maybe he’ll be asked to move on to Den Haag,” Max teased. “Then you’ll have a chance to improve your Dutch.” She laughed gaily, and Max looked to Tory. “Are you ready to leave?” he asked. “We’ll be welcome at the De Groots’s anytime this afternoon to meet Luisa Nepala.”
“Oh, yes,” Tory assured him. “I’ve got everything in my bag.”
With Elsa assuring them of an excellent dinner that evening, Tory and Max headed out into a cool and overcast morning. “The museum first?” he proposed. “And then Luisa for an hour or so, and then to Notre Dame? We’ll have time in the morning to stroll along the Sienne, and drop by the church again if we like before a longer visit with Luisa.”
“It sounds perfect,” Tory concurred with the plan. Even if she hadn’t admired Max as much as she did, she would have been enjoying the trip. He was an excellent companion, smoothing the way without any trace of pushiness, and they agreed easily on almost everything, without needing the stiltedly polite negotiations required so often when traveling with a friend, or a relative.
The Musée Jacquemart-André was everything she had been promised, and maybe more. The 19th-century mansion that had once housed Madame Jacquemart and Monsieur André was as discreetly elegant as a massive, neo-Classical mansion could be. The furnishings, decoration and especially the Parisian passementerie were sumptuous, and the collection of artworks was very much to her taste. They had a light lunch in the museum’s café, where Max eulogized the beauties of Van Ruysdael’s 17th-century Dutch landscapes. Tory agreed wholeheartedly, but admitted finding guilty pleasure in the extravagantly rich colors and romantic fantasies of Boucher and Fragonard. “Why guilty?” Max asked in real puzzlement.
“They’re just so pretty,” Tory explained. “If I really had to choose, I’d prefer art that’s a bit more challenging. Fragonard lets you off easy; he just makes gorgeous pictures of gorgeous people in gorgeous gardens. He’s like whipped cream – rich and delicious but not very nutritious.”
“What was it you said about whipped cream, that evening in Dartmouth? Better than being angry?”
“Did I? I’m not angry often – but I do like the occasional dollop of something 100% enjoyable and luxurious, even though I doubt I’d want to live in a house like this, surrounded by pudgy cherubs and gilt and beautiful dilettantes in head-to-toe silk.”
“Too rich, indeed,” Max agreed. “I find myself wishing for a bit of mud and a worn old towel with which to wash it away.”
Tory chuckled infectiously. “Rembrandt, anyway, didn’t focus on sunshine and flowers.”
“No, indeed. I quite enjoyed the piece they have here. It’s amazing to see how well he handled both theme and technique at so early an age.”
Not for the first time, Tory marveled at how comfortable she was with Max, and how much she enjoyed their conversations. He took her seriously, but didn’t mind teasing, and while they usually agreed, they had enough different opinions to keep things interesting. As Max settled the bill, she sighed for the thought of the years ahead, when she would, she expected, search vainly for someone to equal him.
Tory, however, was not the type to stay glum for long, especially not in Paris, under a reasonably clear sky. “This is just my third time here,” she commented as they left the museum and strolled toward the De Groot home, “so I know Paris isn’t always cloudy.”
Max interrupted her with his characteristic shout of laughter. Tory smiled herself, as if his amusement was contagious. “I don’t spend a great deal of time here myself,” he said, “but I do think of overcast weather as the norm for Paris. The city isn’t known for clouds, but I suspect that’s partly because in comparison to London, it’s a paradise of sunshine. This soft, half-light, though, seems ideal for the white stone so many of the buildings here use.”
“I remember being surprised on my first visit that it really is as beautiful as people say,” Tory remarked. “The gentle glow of the buildings is part of that. Like in the Cotswolds – I’ve only been once, but it was gorgeous sunshine, and the yellow stone really did look like honey. It seemed so perfect for the hills and pastures and everything. ‘Mellow.’ Isn’t that was people always say? There’s a mellow glow to the stone.”
“Yes – that word suggestions relaxation, doesn’t it? Tranquility. I find the same thing in Paris, curiously, despite the miserable traffic and noise. Were you in Stratford-upon-Avon?”
Thus they chatted as they walked briskly through the chilly avenues. It was just over a mile to their destination, another large, creamy and elegant apartment building. Max took the lead as they entered the lobby, greeting the concierge politely and informing her of their mission. After a brief phone call, or intercom call, she ushered them to the elevator, swiped a security card and pressed the fourth floor button for them.
As the doors opened, Tory understood why the card. They emerged directly into the apartment, specifically a marble-floored foyer with a mix of modern furnishings and stuffed animal heads that seemed incongruous together, and in that specific building.
A young woman in a severe black dress with white apron, collar and cuffs was waiting for them. “Monsieur van den Nie?” she asked.
Max replied, in French, that it was indeed he, and introduced Tory. She extended a hand to the maid, who seemed surprised but quickly reached out her own in response, smiling shyly as they shook. “Bonjour, Madam,” Tory offered, and asked how she did.
“Ca va, merci,” the woman replied, and offered to take their coats. The coats hung in the hall closet, she announced she would take them directly to Luisa Nepala’s room. They followed her through the large, high-ceilinged rooms, all furnished in an aggressively modern style of swooping sofas and zigzag chairs in bright colors, interspersed with an occasional elephant-foot table or tusk-and-hide footstool.
“Goodness, it’s very... interesting, isn’t it?” Tory remarked. When Max chuckled, she suddenly hoped the maid had a limited understanding of American vernacular. ‘Interesting’ wasn’t always a compliment, after all – but she was taken aback by the decor, and had started her comment before she had thought through what she might say. ‘Weird’ would have been a lot ruder, she consoled herself.
Before she could regret too much, they were through the kitchen and in a narrow white corridor with linoleum floor. The maid tapped at one of several doors, opened it slowly, and then left them with a respectful nod. Tory hung back to allow Max to enter ahead of her, but he swept her in first, following closely behind with a hand – warm and firm – on her back.
Mrs. Nepala was already on her feet, her eyes alight and a gentle smile curving her lips. She held out both hands to Max, and he folded her, delicately, into his embrace as they greeted each other in Dutch. Tory stood quietly, waiting her turn. When Max switched to English to introduce the two women, Tory took Mrs. Nepala’s offered hand in the lightest of grips, saying simply but sincerely, “I am so very pleased to meet you.”
Their hostess gestured to two small chairs at a tiny table. “Please, will you sit,” she invited. “Marie will bring us tea. She is a very good girl.” She herself sat down on the edge of the daybed that offered the only other seating in the room. Tory and Max took their places at the table, and he asked after his old friend Piet. Tory silently applauded his decision to begin an involved conversation with a neutral subject like his childhood playmate. Mrs. Nepala showed her enthusiasm for Piet, who was serving in the Dutch Navy and sailing around the world as a reconnaissance specialist.
Marie appeared with tea and a plate of delicate cookies, which she deposited on the small table. “Please be mother, Tory,” Max asked, and she poured the hot brew into two light china cups, then discreetly placed the special cup she’d brought with her on the table. She signaled Max with her eyes, and he smiled broadly when he saw the plastic mug with two sideways handles. Explaining its purpose to Mrs. Nepala, he encouraged her to try it. “Not quite so pretty as the china,” Tory acknowledged, “but it is much more comfortable for most people with arthritis.” As their hostess took hold of the cup Max carefully extended to her, Tory could see the doubt in her eyes change quickly to joy.
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “I can hold it quite easily.” She added an obviously heartfelt, “Thank you,” while Tory mumbled her ‘of courses’ and ‘it’s nothings.’
With a few interjections from Tory, Max gradually moved their conversation to the next day’s journey, and his friend’s health. She had a good grasp of her medication regimen, and was well-supplied with the pills she would need. Tory, with her daily experience of general medicine, was able to explain the purpose of each drug and assure Mrs. Nepala that while her condition was very serious, its affect on her daily activities ought to be limited. Given there was little hope of a cure for congestive heart failure, Tory felt a change of subject would be for the best, but couldn’t think how to manage it. She blessed Max’s quick perception when he told Mrs. Nepala that the dry climate in her homeland would be beneficial to both her heart and her joints, and moved the conversation to the weather and culture of Namibia.
Tory was delighted to hear more about the long, hot days and cool nights she would soon experience, the birdsong and animal calls of the savannah, and the wide variety of game meat her hostess enjoyed there. She asked about Mrs. Nepala’s family, and the topic was clearly a hit. They spent a very pleasant 30 minutes or so with descriptions and exchanges of photographs, and even Max contributed a snapshot of his very pregnant sister. Shortly after, Marie, the maid, tapped on the door to inform the party that Monsieur and Madame de Groot had returned, and would like to see Monsieur van den Nie in the drawing room.
“While you visit with your friends, Max,” Tory suggested, “I can help Mrs. Nepala with her packing.” Max seemed like he might protest, but the older woman’s obvious appreciation of Tory’s offer stopped him.
“Will you join us in, say, 20 minutes?” he asked, and Tory nodded her agreement. She genuinely enjoyed her time with her new friend, carefully folding a suitcase’s worth of well-worn, well-cared-for garments, and gossiping about grandchildren and in-laws as they tucked small gifts of specialty foods, delicately-scented soaps and second-hand books into every available cranny. After twenty minutes, she reluctantly took her leave of Mrs. Nepala, and made her way back through the kitchen and into what she thought of as the ‘decorated part’ of the house.
Hearing voices behind one of the imposing doorways, she knocked lightly before turning the knob and peeping around the door. A brusque voice said, “Marie, we’re quite all right here,” before its owner noticed her. “Hah!” he added. “Not Marie.”
Tory almost giggled before Max smoothed over her arrival, stepping toward her to take her hand and introduce her first to Mevrouw de Groot, who smiled warmly, and then to her husband. Minjheer de Groot had the same supercilious air as his daughter, Tory thought, conjuring a vision of the icy blonde at the Concertgebouw two months earlier. ‘Much less hair, though,’ she added naughtily, as he pumped her hand roughly, twice, before dropping it like a stone.
“You are so kind to be a help to our Luisa,” Mevrouw de Groot offered after the introductions. “I have been worried.”
Her husband interrupted. “Ridiculous to worry. You coddle these people, and no good comes of it. Of course Max is always happy to help, but Piet would have taken care of it on his next leave. Better this way, though. Piet would fuss too much. He is like his mother.” He ended with something like a glare at his wife.
“We are delighted to assist,” Max interjected calmly, “if I may speak for Tory.” She smiled her assent. “And now I simply must make good on my promise to get her to Notre Dame in daylight. I hope we shall be able to visit briefly tomorrow, before we leave for the airport?” he asked.
“Tomorrow?” Mevrouw de Groot sounded surprised, and unhappy. “You leave tomorrow? I believed it was two days from tomorrow. I am sure that was Christina’s plan. She means to join you on the trip. She has such a fondness for you. And for Luisa, of course,” she finished bravely.
“Oh, dear,” Max said, his eyes, for once, wide open. “I hope I am not responsible for the confusion. Definitely tomorrow. We are on a very tight schedule.”
“Nonsense,” Minjheer de Groot blustered. “No need to rush. Christina will wish to join you. Simple matter to rearrange your travel.”
“I am afraid not this time,” Max replied. “What a disappointment. But I shall look forward to seeing Christina in Amsterdam at the end of the month. You will be there as well, I know. Old Year at our home, as usual – I do hope you will join us.”
As he spoke, he maneuvered Tory toward the door with a strategic hand, and she, conscious of undertones she didn’t understand, kept a social smile tacked on her face. The farewells turned more general as Marie retrieved their coats, and after another round of handshakes, she and Max were back in the elevator, headed down.
“Not a word, Tory. Not a word,” Max requested, and she struggled to hold back a giggle. Unsuccessfully: a peculiar mewing escaped, followed by a series of gurgling laughs. Max joined her, chuckling quietly, and they escaped onto the pavement in great accord.
“I don’t even understand what just happened,” Tory confessed as they strode briskly toward the Seine.
Max caught her hand. “And yet, in a way, you do. Laughter was certainly the correct response.”
“Just his handshake,” Tory sputtered, very aware of the contrast between Minjheer de Groot’s awkward attempt at bone-crushing and her current companion’s warm, firm clasp. She quickly realized she may have been guilty of a faux pas. “Sorry; I know they’re friends...”
“I’ve never been friends with Piet’s father,” Max said emphatically. “Mother and son are quite nice people, though they don’t assert themselves as they ought when father and daughter behave badly. It’s the thought of our narrow escape in fooling Christina, actually, that had me laughing. She is a terrible travel companion, and I’m afraid I outright fibbed to ensure we wouldn’t have her company.”
Tory’s eyes grew huge. “You lied to her about the date?”
“I did. You’re welcome.”
At that, she burst out laughing again, startling an elderly gentleman walking past with a Pekingese. The sun had, in a languid manner, swept its way past a few of the clouds that had predominated that morning, and in its rays Tory suddenly felt like skipping. The uneven cobblestones of the sidewalk, and Max’s calm presence beside her, kept her to a walk.
“I mentioned my first trip to West Africa,” Max continued. “I went as a guest of Piet’s, traveling with the entire family. Christina brought three or four cases, for a week’s visit to her own home, where she had a wardrobe stored. She never offered to carry anything. At one point she handed her purse to her mother, saying her fingernails hurt. The air hostess who waited on her deserved a medal of honor. Amongst other horrors, Christina sent back a glass of tomato juice three times. I don’t remember all the reasons. She had to buy a new pair of shoes in the airport shop at Johannesburg, because the shoes she was wearing pinched. She replaced them with something equally tight and pointy and high heeled. I learned later that Piet had tipped the porters lavishly from shame over his father and sister’s poor treatment of them – I had done the same.”
He told the anecdotes in such a lighthearted tone that Tory felt free to burble with laughter throughout the monologue, their clasped hands swinging. For a moment, Max was tempted to try a skipping step, and wondered where so peculiar an impulse had arisen.
Soon enough, they were at the magnificent cathedral on the Île de la Cité, standing awestruck in the small throng of tourists always to be found there, even on a gloomy, early-winter weekday. However, the line for the tower stairs was almost non-existent, and she and Max were on their way up the tightly circling, worn stone steps. Tory liked to stop and peer through each window slit, imagining the people who had mounted a guard here centuries before. “It seems a bit... counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Waging war from a church tower?” she shared the thought with Max.
“Are you sure these were used for defense?” he asked. “I suppose, 900 years ago, everything had to be ready for an attack, but I had imagined narrow windows in a stone tower were simply a function of this thick stone being very difficult to carve.”
They continued their spiral path, speculating amiably about the middle ages, and finally emerged onto the first roof, to gaze with delight at the city sprawling away from the river below them, and the gargoyles and other architectural flourishes on every side. Tory walked to the front of the cathedral and put her hands on the ancient railing, looking toward the beginning of the sunset, picking out the Eifel Tower, the Louvre, wondering if she could see the Jacquemart-André Museum from here. As she leaned forward and dropped her researches in favor of simply enjoying the view, she relaxed into the romance of Paris.
And sprang immediately upright, pushing herself back from the fenceline. Romance! She could not risk feeling romantic, here, now, present company considered. She would not risk romance. They had an 18-hour flight to survive tomorrow!
Max, seeing his companion’s sudden leap, wondered whether it had just occurred to Tory, as it had to him several times that day, that sightseeing together in Paris was not the best method of maintaining a cordial but entirely platonic friendship. Resting one elbow on a parapet, he sighed at the thought of what Paris could be with the right woman – someone happy to walk for miles, alert to the beauty around her without being blind to the more difficult sights, interested in history, art and culture but not obsessed with obscure details (he had dated an historian, briefly), and not endlessly concerned with her hair and interested exclusively in sightseeing through the more expensive boutiques. Someone Dutch, or free to immigrate – his responsibilities to family and household were too convoluted to shift. Someone in her 30s, who had seen enough of life, and of men, to be sure of what she wanted, and ready to settle down.
The phrase came oddly into his mind: “settle down.” It was not an idea he had articulated before, even to himself, but it was, in fact, exactly what he wanted. He enjoyed his life, loved his large family, his work and students and staff; the house in Amsterdam, the small farm near Hindeloopen. He had taken for granted that in the course of time he would meet a family-minded woman and marry, have children and grow old together. That vision had always seemed part of a vague future, however. Since getting to know Tory, it had begun to take on a more concrete dimension. He looked over the rooftops of Paris and wondered whether his ideal woman might be somewhere in those elegant streets and buildings. Abruptly, he realized he had drifted into reverie, and pulled himself from his daydreams. Since neither luck nor fate had brought him a wife, he resolved, he would need to take a more active approach to marriage when he was re-settled in Amsterdam. With that decided, he strolled off to find Tory. They would need to head back down before the evening deepened.
As they walked back toward Arne and Elsa’s apartment, Max made sure not to take Tory’s hand again. The dusk of early evening deepened and softened the city’s beauty, and it became easy to understand how one might be carried away, and do something foolish in the twilight. Instead, he made sure they engaged in shop talk. “Tell me, Tory,” he requested, “what sorts of issues do you see most often in your practice in Bristol?” That was a harmless topic, and got them safely through the city in a welter of asthma and heart disease.