The Lost Son, Eric Leclere
      Opening Pages...


ONE

 

It was one of those looks men give one another. An angry searching look. The eyes probe from under the ridge of the brows, the lips are closed, the cheeks tense and the jaw stiff. He had probably felt Lombard’s eyes on him as he made his way head down across the expanse of grass from the bandstand to the café. He had probably reflected on the fact that he would have to walk right past Lombard’s table. It couldn’t be helped: Lombard sat right outside the café’s steamy glass door. Perhaps he’d even considered turning around, giving up the idea of going to the café altogether, so as not to have to walk past Lombard’s dark stare. There are men who will take such undignified precautions when they feel thwarted or vulnerable, to avoid the defeat of not returning the look, to avoid the humiliation of looking back but too humbly, or merely to avoid the confrontation that too proud or hostile a look might incite.
People stare for a reason. And when the stare belongs to a grim-faced stranger hardy enough to sit outdoors on a freezing winter morning in nothing more than a thin raincoat, black suit and white shirt, it can be intimidating.
But the man had walked on, determined, and the look he sent Lombard on passing his table showed that he had indeed felt his stare. Still, he wasn’t intimidated. His eyes held no fear. He was a leader, a man used to giving orders, a man used to responsibility, as he had just proved, even though this time things had gone wrong.Lombard stared at him purely out of curiosity, as one does on such occasions. The man had made a fool of himself, carried his wounded pride like a burden, and whether stupidity or clumsiness was to blame for his pain, Lombard neither knew nor cared. The fact was that an old man and his dog had conspired to make him lose his composure, effectively turning what a few moments earlier might have been seen as the symbols of his authority – his leather jacket, short ponytail, cell-phone and bunch of keys that hung from his waist along with a two-way radio tucked into a hip-holster – into a lot of silly-looking and seemingly useless paraphernalia. Yet, in the past hour or so, under his leadership, the bandstand and its surroundings had been commandeered. Two small trucks had been emptied of chairs, spotlights, cameras, generators, musical instruments and countless other props and pieces of equipment. It had been smooth, professional work. Eventually the quiet of the Heath had been shattered by the generator’s drone, someone had switched on the spotlights set up high on scaffolding and the circular bandstand which, with its wrought iron railings and wooden roof, had looked a grey, uninviting structure – as English bandstands do on bleak winter days – was transformed into a gleaming movie set. Garlands of flowers, multicoloured balloons, steel chairs, brass musical instruments now glistened inside its railings. Yet more chairs, these of blue and white striped canvas, stood in neat rows on the grass around it. There were gaps here and there, for cameras, and a small trailer bearing a camera crane was already set up on tracks laid down to skirt the whole set. It was a strange sight. Whereas the rest of Hampstead Heath lay in dull morning mist, the bandstand area seemed bathed in bright sunshine. And it had been he who, leading his crew of about twenty, akin to a little general, bawling, conferring, consulting scripts and drawings, had overseen the creation of this summer island of light and colour.
Lombard had observed all of this from his table on the café terrace. He had drunk two espressos, smoked three Gitanes. Then the dog had turned up, little knowing its appearance would soon lead to the man abandoning his baffled crew and summery film set for the refuge of the café.
Lombard could see his anger; short, hurried puffs of breath from his nostrils clouded the cold air in front of his face. Little of his former confidence remained; the keys dangling from his belt swung with each of his steps, prompting him to clasp them tightly to silence their attention-drawing rattle. In this manner, head down, awkwardly clasping his now bothersome keys, he was a sorry sight as he neared Lombard’s table. But Lombard had gone on staring. By then, he had perversely decided to keep his eyes on him, just to see if...

He’d been right. On passing his table the man had felt compelled to glance, to send one of those looks men give one another. Anger searching for approval or, if not that, at least some kind of sympathy. He was proud; humbled but proud. In the short moment their eyes met, Lombard saw he expected nothing less than approval.
‘Jesus Christ! What’s a guy supposed to do, huh!’ he might have said had he chosen to speak. Doubtless he’d also have found room for a swear-word or two somewhere in there: ‘What’s a guy supposed to fucking do, huh!’ He looked the swearing type, the type who interjects into every other sentence a ‘fucking’ or a ‘bloody’. He was used to bossing people around, used to the privileges that the authority to do so brings, like the right to swear when addressing subordinates.

Lombard looked quietly away. He wished neither to reassure nor condemn him, to confront nor add to his embarrassment. He wasn’t really interested in this man or what had just happened to him.
He heard the café door swing open behind him, felt the warmth escaping from inside hit the side of his nape, heard it swing shut again.
‘Another day, another asshole,’ proclaimed a voice, aloofly.
Lombard frowned. The French accent, the blasé tone of voice were Nathalie’s. He looked over his shoulder. Nathalie stood by the door, in a long black overcoat, her hands in her pockets, gazing stoically towards the bandstand. The man must have walked right past her.

‘How are you, Nathalie?’ he said with a dry grin.
The dry grin was his way of telling her he was pleased to see her, because he only had twenty minutes left, because they’d have missed each other if she’d turned up after eleven, as she sometimes did. But Nathalie didn’t know that yet. She just fixed her black eyes in his. It was a habit of hers. Sometimes she stared, created silence, a moment of suspension, as if to give herself the time to inspect the soul of her interlocutor before committing to a reply. Returning her stare Lombard saw she was stoned again. She saw he saw, raised one brow, pursed her lips, glanced at the two empty cups in front of him, turned to the door.
‘Coffee?’
There was no need for him to answer this. She’d bring him another espresso. She always did. She always arrived after him and however many coffees he might already have had, he always had one more with her. Such was their ritual.
‘Yes,’ he said anyway as she stepped into the café. His eyes lingered on the door slowly swinging shut behind her. He nodded, gently, almost imperceptibly. He was upset. It was not yet eleven in the morning and she was stoned again. He turned away, reached for his pack of Gitanes and lit one with a frown, now oblivious to the bandstand where the film crew was back at work.
Merde,’ he muttered softly, pulling the lit cigarette from his mouth.

He’d already tried. He’d already wasted the time. Nathalie didn’t need him to tell her what heroin did. Nathalie didn’t need to be told anything by anyone. Was that not why they’d once thought they could make a go of it? Was that not what had brought them together in the first place and in the end caused her to break off their relationship? Neither of them needed to be told anything by anyone. They’d always understood that much about each other. Could they really have expected it to last more than the three months or so it had?
‘It’s not working. We’re too alike, Xavier,’ Nathalie had announced one day. She was already packing her bags. Lombard had not tried to dissuade her. She was right. Living together had been like living with an unforgiving mirror, each being a constant reminder to the other of what they were not, of what they had not, of what they’d lost. Even so, he still wondered if something good might not have come of it.

A gust of wind froze the air around him and went on to sway the garlands and balloons in the bandstand. Lombard was glad he’d got his raincoat back from the dry-cleaner. He owned a warmer one, a fur-lined buckskin coat which he’d bought at the Jones Brothers store on the Holloway Road just before it closed down. It had been one of those stores that still employed courteous middle-aged men in their men’s department and, for some reason unknown to Lombard, the assistant who’d sold it to him had called it a ‘car coat’. It was expensive, but he’d liked it, only to discover after wearing it a few times that he’d made a mistake, that he didn’t really like it after all; perhaps this was because it had turned out not to be truly waterproof. He’d understood then why the store-assistant had described it as a ‘car coat’. But, to bother manufacturing fur-lined buckskin coats without making the seams impermeable…? Be that as it may, even though it was raining that day, he’d still been wearing it the first time he and Nathalie had met in Perkins’ butcher’s shop.

At the beginning, Nathalie had put their meeting down to fate. Lombard already knew better, already distrusted such notions as fate. He preferred to think of their encounter as the accidental crossing of drifting lives. But Nathalie was still young, still desired things to make sense. So fate it was...



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