The day that would change Emily's life started just like any other with a hurried coffee gulped down as she pushed her feet into her shoes then raced out of the front door slamming it behind her. As usual she was running late and would probably miss the train into the City that would deliver her to work right on time. Not that she really wanted to be there, but a girl has to pay bills ... and buy shoes...
She arrived at the station breathless just in time to see the end of the last carriage disappear into the tunnel. Resigned to being late again with a five minute wait for the next train she slumped against the wall. As she relaxed she remembered the envelope that she had scooped up from the hallway floor the night before when she arrived home late after a night out with the 'girls' from the office. Too tired to bother to look at it at the time she had simply dropped it into her bag. She reached in to retrieve it and was surprised to see a Paris postmark. The only mail she ever received from Paris was an occasional birthday card from her great aunt Amelie, her grandmother's sister after whom she was named. But not only was it several months until her birthday this address was typed, not handwritten with Amelie's familiar flourish. Intrigued she opened the envelope and pulled out the typed page bearing an impressively styled letterhead and read
"Dear Miss Carteron
We are the Solicitors for the Estate of Mme. Amelie Bussiere and wish to inform you that she has left all of her Estate to you, with the exception of a small bequest to M. Eduard Culat. A copy of the Will is enclosed. Please contact us so that we may take your instructions as to the sale of Mme Bussiere's assets. ...."
Emily couldn't read any further, her mouth went dry and then dropped fully open, or was it the other way around? She felt her knees go a little weak and reached out to the nearest solid object to steady herself. The rather portly gentleman who was engrossed in the "Financial Times" before his left forearm was seized upon by Emily was greatly suprised! Regaining her composure Emily mumbled an apology and made for the train that had just pulled into the station leaving the stunned stockbroker in her wake.
The first great shock was that Aunt Amelie had died and that she didn't know, and the second was that it seemed she had now 'come into money'. She wasn't sure which shock was the greater. Perhaps the former was understandable as her grandmother, Amelie's only remaining sibling, was living permanently in a time long past, dancing the Charleston with great gusto up and down the hallway of the nursing home. And Emily's parents who had recently moved to Mumbai where her father had been appointed as manager of an export business were always remiss at sharing family news so perhaps it wasn't so surprising in a way. Emily and her friends often chatted about what they would do if they won the Lottery, or suddenly inherited a large sum of money from an unknown distant relative, but there was never any expectation either would become reality. And yet here in the pages of Mme. Amelie Bussiere's Will the reality of it all was as clear as the black ink on the white page.
Emily struggled with the strange wording of this French legal document but was able to understand enough to realise that she had just inherited all of Aunt Amelie's worldly goods including the building in Paris that had accommodated not only Aunt Amelie but also her beloved "boutique d'antiquites et brocante". Amelie often referred to the vintage treasures as her "collection of the discarded memories of the lives and loves of others". Perhaps she thought of them so because Fate had taken Amelie's youthful expectations of life and love from her when her young husband was tragically killed in the defence of Paris in the early summer of 1940, just as the roses began to bloom in cottage gardens.
Emily had visited her great aunt several times, always accompanied by her grandmother, the last visit about 10 years before. She remembered the old woman as loving to laugh and to converse at length with the visitors to her shop, caring more for the conversation than whether or not she made a sale. An unusual woman, some may say eccentric, who seemed not to care much for convention. In her advancing age she began to struggle to keep her shop open for business but she stubbornly refused to sell it and move into a small cottage in the countryside. She said that she had the soot of Paris chimneys in her blood and that if she couldn't breathe it every day she would die a certain death.
Fond memories of the old woman washed over Emily but her memory of the shop and the apartment above was of a building that was in desperate need of the attention of a number of skilled tradesmen, and it brought a little 'frisson' of panic when she realised that she was now the 'mistress' there. She wondered whoever would want to buy such a building. She remembered her aunt's friend M.Culat who owned the old book store next door, he often called on Amelie just to check that all was well. Images of his engaging smile and the twinkle in his eye brought a feeling of comfort to Emily, surely he would advise her as to how best to deal with disposing of this long neglected old building in the narrow backstreets of Paris.
Emily folded the letter and the Will and put them back into her bag and took out her notebook. She dropped the bag onto the floor of the carriage, putting her foot through the shoulder strap to foil anyone with ideas of snatching it from between her ankles, and began to make a plan of what to do next...
When Emily arrived at the office the witch of a woman on the front desk looked at her watch, tapped it, and rolled her eyes. Emily was so used to this little charade that she didn't even notice.
She had decided on the train that she wasn't going to mention anything about her unexpected 'windfall' to her workmates for the moment. Better to keep it all hush-hush until she'd decided what to do. She knew them well enough to know that at the first mention of 'inheritance' and 'Paris' they'd all get grand ideas of her buying rounds of champagne after work at the little wine bar near the office and in no time at all they'd all be falling about giggling and she'd probably end up inviting them to go to Paris on the weekend to inspect her new 'property'. Much better to keep it to herself. She scanned the letter and the Will, emailed them to her father, and settled down to work as if nothing unusual had happened.
Emily's father confirmed that they had received a letter from Aunt Amelie's solicitors to her sister advising of Amelie's passing that had been forwarded to them by the nursing home. That letter said the beneficiaries of the Will would be contacted shortly and they were waiting for that letter to arrive. He seemed rather piqued that the inheritance had bypassed them. His advice was to contact the estate solicitors in Paris and instruct them to arrange for the sale of the contents of the property first and then have the building inspected and valued before making a decision as to whether it would be better to sell or lease it. He also thought it worth enquiring if M. Culat would be interested in taking it over and expanding his book shop. He also cautioned her that it could be quite some time before she would receive any money so she shouldn't start spending yet! Her father knew Emily very well, she was already dreaming of Caribbean holidays, and shopping trips to Oxford Street - after she had paid off her credit card of course. There was no harm in a little advance planning though so she called into the travel agent's near the station and picked up a few brochures. Emily could certainly see herself in this picture...
When she got home Emily poured herself a glass of wine (this was no time for tea!) and sent off an email to the solicitors in Paris instructing them in accordance with her father's advice. The wine mellowed Emily's mood after a day of hectic activity at work and she began to remember the soft light of the evenings in Paris, and the sweet musty scent of Aunt Amelie's apartment. Perhaps she should visit once more, for old time's sake, before the property was taken over by a new occupant. And it would be so nice to see M. Culat one last time too. She decided to phone him on the weekend and ask him to arrange for her to stay at the nearby pension.
M. Culat didn't seem surprised to hear from Emily, in fact she felt that he had been expecting her to call. What did surprise him, in fact shock him, was that she was considering selling the property. She heard the feet of his old chair scrape the wooden floorboards as he pulled it beneath him and sat down. Did she not realise that Aunt Amelie had left the shop and apartment to her in the expectation that she would move to Paris and take it over? Well, no, she certainly did not! But, M. Culat went on, surely she realised that if Amelie had wanted the property to be sold she would have left it to Emily's father, and did Emily not realise herself that she was a Parisian girl at heart, and it was only an "accident of birth", as her Aunt Amelie described it, that Emily was English at all and had to suffer life in London. For the second time in just a few days Emily was stunned.
Emily hadn't visited her grandmother for several months. It wasn't that she didn't love her but it was a little distressing to see this woman who had taken such pride in her appearance now reduced to a shapeless form crowned with a profusion of wayward white locks. Grandmother Olivie had moved to England after the war with the young soldier she had met a few days after the liberation of Paris. Oh what a time that was! All caution thrown to the wind in the heady days of celebration. Amelie could never understand how her sister could love a man, a mere mortal, more than she loved Paris.
Olivie now spoke French more often than she spoke English. She spent many hours looking through the window into the garden, lost in thought, humming. Emily spoke briefly with one of the nurses, a French girl from Marseilles who had been working as an au pair for a family in Mayfair but after one too many pinches on the bottom from the 'man of the house' she had stormed out and was happy to find a position at the nursing home where Olivie was in care. Nurse Madeline was a favourite of Olivie's because she seemed to be the only one she could have a proper conversation with, she simply couldn't understand why the management of this hotel hired so many English speaking staff. Dear Olivie seemed to be totally unaware that she was in a nursing home in England, not a hotel in the French countryside.
Madeline explained to Emily that generally her grandmother seemed to be quite settled and happy but that they couldn't understand why when she was walking up and down the corridor with her walking frame she often did a little 'kick' to the side. The doctor had examined her but found nothing amiss. Emily just smiled, she knew perfectly well that her grandmother was dancing, and that she was in the arms of her love, not leaning on the walking frame. When Emily and her grandmother had visited Amelie together in Paris the two sisters often talked of the wonderful times they had dancing until the early hours of the morning when they were young, and then they would rise from their seats, giggle, and dance for Emily, humming the tunes together in perfect harmony. Their favourite was always the Charleston which their mother had taught to them, and danced with them, in the peaceful, sanguine days before the war.
These days Olivie always mistook her granddaughter Emily for her dear sister Amelie and her fast chattering French was a great challenge for Emily to follow, mostly she just smiled and nodded. But today was different. Olivie was delighted to see her, but this time she called her Emily and spoke to her in her beautifully accented English. Another great surprise for Emily, but not as much of a surprise as what she had to say. "Emily my dear, I am so glad to see you. Amelie visited me recently you know, and she told me that you would come. She told me that the shop had become too much for her and that she was giving it to you and that you would come to say good-bye to me before you left for Paris. She said that after you had been to visit she would come back for me and take me to her new cottage in the countryside where my dearest Harry and her Philippe would be waiting for us. Can you imagine that! The four of us living there together! I can't wait to push back the furniture and roll up the carpet so that we can dance and dance... And it has a rose garden Emily, a beautiful rose garden... " Her voice trailed off, her eyes misted over, and Emily could see that she was lost to her own world once more. Emily knew that she would not see her grandmother again because she would soon be moving on to join her beloved Harry, and Amelie and Philippe, in that cottage in the countryside. She smiled and whispered "Bon voyage" as she gently squeezed her grandmother's hand and kissed her soft cheeks.
Emily received the call from her father shortly after she got to work on Monday morning to say that Olivie had passed away during the night and that he and her mother would arrive the next day to take care of the funeral arrangements. Her father would have expected the tear that trickled down Emily's cheek, but not the smile that lightened her grief. Only Emily knew that Olivie was dancing again with the people she loved best.
The next afternoon her parents arrived and took over her spare bedroom, and her life. The days were a whirlwind of discussions and decisions that to Emily seemed so unimportant but appeared to consume her parents for hours on end. When they finally left Emily closed the door quietly behind them, put on her pyjamas and climbed into her bed. Bending over to pick up her threadbare one-eyed teddy bear she clutched him to her and pulled the covers over her head to shut out the craziness that had invaded her world. As she drifted off to sleep the scent of roses wafted through her room and there was a gentle, soulful humming of some almost forgotten tune carried with it. Emily took comfort in the unidentified familiarity of it all and was lost in it.
When Emily awoke she knew in her heart that it was time for her to be the unconventional one in the family now, and to throw caution to the wind as her grandmother had done when she moved from Paris to London all those long years ago. In making the 'return' journey Emily was playing her part in completing a circle of Fate. The idea began to settle on her as comfortably as an old raincoat but dealing with the practicalities was another matter altogether. She knew there would be fierce opposition from many quarters and that her only likely ally was M. Culat.
He did not disappoint. M. Culat was not a demonstrative man but she could hear that he was smiling as he greeted her news with enthusiasm and relief. Her parents were a different matter. They in turn berated her with expressions of shock, disappointment and bewilderment but they could not turn her from her decision now that it was made. It was a decision of the heart and therefore unassailable. But the thought of facing her employers as well was one step too far for the moment so she called the office and spoke to 'the witch' while at the same time pinching her nose a little in the hope of making it sound as though she was still suffering from grief, or had perhaps caught a cold while standing in the wind and rain at her grandmother's graveside. She would return to work on Monday she said, giving no hint of her longer term plans.
M. Culat had suggested that she call the solicitors handling Aunt Amelie's estate because he had seen a large truck being loaded with some of the largest and most valuable pieces from both the shop and the apartment a few days previously. Emily worked out that it was in fact the same day as her grandmother's funeral. The young clerk at the solicitor's office was quite curt with Emily when she explained her change of plan and asked that nothing irrevocable take place until she arrived in Paris in a couple of weeks time. He explained that the items that had been removed were to be auctioned that afternoon and to cancel the auction now would not only be inconvenient but quite expensive as a lot of costs had already been incurred. It would also mean the loss of a great deal of money as the auctioneers had reported a good deal of interest in some of them.. "Perhaps mademoiselle would care to look at the auction house's online brochure and reconsider her instructions...".
Yes she would, and yes she did. They were mainly large, solid pieces that held no appeal for Emily and did not form a part of her 'soft around the edges' memories of her aunt. The exception was the iron bedstead. That was Aunt Amelie's bed. Her heart stopped a little at the sight of it. When she was a young girl she had bounced on it laughing and waiting to be chastised at any moment but instead Aunt Amelie had shared in her delight and said nothing more than could be conveyed by her smile. She was torn for a moment as to whether to withdraw it from the auction but decided to let it go in the hope it would bring delight to someone else. If they are very lucky, she thought, they may hear Amelie's lullaby float through an open window on a summer's night, and dream dreams of infinite possibilities...
Emily's father was relieved to hear the auction was to proceed. He had been in touch with the auctioneers on Emily's behalf and had discussed with them the reserve for each item. He knew that the practicalities as to just how Emily hoped to fund her living expenses, let alone all the expenses that would be incurred in maintaining the building (not much had been spent on that in living memory!) and restocking the shop had not really occurred to her. Emily seldom considered financial matters beyond knowing exactly when the Oxford Street sales would be on, and how much she could spend on her credit card this month without exceeding the limit. He dreaded to think how long she was going to be able to afford this impossible dream of living in Paris. But of course he didn't know of Emily's secret weapon, M. Culat. Eduard Culat had promised his dear friend Amelie that he would take Emily under his wing and keep her out of trouble. There was no better protector and mentor in all of France.
When she arrived in Paris two weeks later it was M. Culat who turned the key in the lock and pushed open the side door, hanging back to allow Emily to step inside first. The sound of their footsteps bounced off the walls and the ceiling - the shop was almost empty. A narrow shaft of sunlight fell on swirling dust particles which twinkled like tiny diamonds and the scent of roses filled the air although there was not a leaf or a petal to be seen. Far off in the distance they heard a gentle, tuneful humming floating above the drone of the Parisian traffic. Emily had come home.
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Picture source: Microsoft clip art collection