A Paris Caper by Wendy Janes

Winner of The Long Short Story

With a rumbling stomach I hurry towards my mid-week lunchtime treat in a little turning off Piccadilly. Opening the door to the restaurant, I halt momentarily, hit by a wave of heat and a roar of voices. Delicious aromas envelop me. I dodge round busy waiters and past seated diners, catching the sound of different accents and the metallic scrape of cutlery on crockery as I search for a free table. The second I sit down, a waitress appears beside me, and without requiring a glance at the menu I place my order. Moments later, a steaming bowl of chicken soup is put in front of me and I take a first sip of the satisfying salty concoction with its slippery lokshen noodles. The kneidlach yields to my soup spoon – the dumpling having exactly the right level of firmness and fluffiness – and I sigh in anticipation as I lift the spoon to my mouth and savour this mouthful of perfection. The noise and movement around me fade away as the food works its magic. 

With only a few spoonfuls left, I’m brought back to reality when I hear someone call my name. “Len? Lenny Sinclair. Is that you?” 

At the sound of that familiar voice, I lower my spoon and look up at a handsome smiling face. A face I last saw bathed in late summer sunshine on the day we finished our National Service just over a year ago. 

“Norman Barnett. It’s good to see you.” Scrambling to my feet, I wonder whether to offer my hand or give him a hug. 

Norman pulls me into an embrace, clapping me on the back twice. I breathe in the citrus tang of his aftershave. 

I’ve missed my old friend. Recruited into the same unit, we’d become close pals. Initially we became friends because we were the only two Jewish boys for miles around. Although neither of our families are particularly religious, our shared heritage bonded us: two strangers barely out of their teens and a long way from home. When we discovered a mutual love of opera, which unsurprisingly wasn’t the most popular of pastimes amongst the other recruits, our friendship grew stronger. 

“Well, well, it’s been a while,” says Norman as we break apart and grin at each other. “Would you like to join me?” I gesture to the table and sit back down. 

Norman folds his long slim body into the empty chair opposite me. A waitress whisks away my soup bowl and takes Norman’s order. 

Before we’ve got beyond enquiring after each other’s families, the waitress has returned and put two laden plates of salt beef, latkes, pickles and a pool of horseradish in front of us. 

I’m acutely aware that I have little of interest to report – still living at home with my parents, still no girlfriend, mundane job in a chemist. It feels like I’m waiting for real life to begin. 

I tuck into my nosh while, in between bites, Norman chatters away. 

“I’ve got my own digs on the top floor of a house in Camden Town. Landlady’s a right tyrant. 

Makes things a bit tricky if I want to, um, entertain.” He clears his throat and a blush springs to his cheeks. “But there’s not much time for leisure now my father has me managing one of his factories up in Clerkenwell. He’s a bit of a tyrant too.” He chuckles, spreads a liberal dollop of horseradish sauce on his salt beef and pops it into his mouth. 

“So, what’s brought you to this part of London today?” I ask. 

There’s a twinkle in Norman’s eye, and I know I’m in for one of my friend’s stories. His anecdotes about his onstage magic act, the Prince of Illusionists, were legendary in the barracks. He was always popular with everyone, and he often had groups of lads enthralled by his close-up magic tricks and mind-reading shtick. 

“Ah, Lenny, my boy, thereby hangs a tale. Would you like the official or the unofficial version?” “Need you ask?” I reply, “I’m all ears.” 

“Pin ’em back,” says Norman. “As well as managing the factory, I also take a few bookings for the act, and I’m doing a rather special show on Saturday night.” He gives a dramatic pause. “In Paris.” 

“You’re kidding me.” 

“I kid you not.” Playing up the drama in his tale, Norman narrows his eyes and turns his head from left to right with exaggerated movements. 

“Truth be told, it’s a hush-hush job,” he whispers, leaning forward and putting a finger to his lips. I lean forward too. 

“Promise you’ll keep this to yourself?” 

“Scout’s honour.” 

“My appearance on the show is a cover.” 

I feed Norman his next line: “A cover for what?” 

“Well, back in ’43, a friend of my father’s lent him a sizeable sum of money to expand his business – all legit – and my father is now in a position to pay his friend back.” 

I frown, trying to work out what any of this has to do with Norman being here today. 

“Now, although the war ended five years ago, we still can’t take large sums of cash out of the country. So, I’m meeting my father at his bank today. He’s going to take the money out of his account and hand the notes over to me this afternoon under the guise of needing it to pay for 

new equipment at the factory. I’ll stash it in the safe at the factory, and then fly off to Paris with it on Saturday morning.” 

“You sure it’s not illegal?” 

He gives a great big laugh, “Of course it’s illegal, but my father doesn’t wish to remain in debt to his friend.” 

“Forgive me for being a bit slow, Norm, but how does that fit in with the show?” “Oh, my father’s friend owns the theatre. He’s arranged for my act to be included on the bill. 

He’s a huge magic fan. In fact he used to dabble a bit himself. As he often comes to see the show, we’ll do the handover in his office after the final curtain.” 

“Sounds like you’ll have a fun time.” I think ahead to my weekend. A visit to the new record shop on the high street; finishing off my latest Airfix model; listening to my extensive collection of 78s; regular interruptions from Mama offering snacks, as if I’m going to fade away if I don’t eat something between the three delicious meals she’ll prepare for myself and Papa. 

“Hey, would you like to come with me?” asks Norman, breaking into my thoughts. “Come with you? To Paris?” 

“Yes. Go on, Lenny, live a little,” he coaxes. “Did I mention, the soprano Helene Saunier is on the bill? I know she’s past her prime, but she’s sung with the greats.” 

Of course I’d love to go, but I can’t afford such luxuries. A regretful “no” is on the tip of my tongue when Norman says, “My father’s arranged the flight and accommodation – a quick telephone call and we can add you – plus he’s been rather generous with the expenses, so all you’ll need to do is pack a case and grab your passport.” 

Grateful for Norman’s mind-reading skills and Mr Barnett’s generosity, “I’m in,” I say with no further hesitation. 

“Excellent, it’ll be good to have some company.” Norman’s eyes are shining. 

I can’t keep the grin off my face at the thought of the adventure ahead of us. 

On Saturday morning I’m shaved and dressed in my second-best suit in plenty of time for the cab Norman has arranged to take me to the airport. Despite my protestations, my mother has insisted on making me porridge for breakfast and a snack for the flight. 

“Stop with your nonsense, Leonard. It’s a bit of chopped herring on rye bread. And some of my ginger cake. I don’t imagine it’ll be easy to find any kosher food, so let your mother send you off with a full tummy and a little something to keep you going. There’s enough for your friend too.” 

“Thanks, Mama.” I kiss my mother’s powdered cheek, take the package and put it in my overnight case, hoping the smell of herring will remain contained in the layers of greaseproof paper and the brown paper bag. I know she means well, but sometimes it feels like she’s winding a scarf round and round my neck, and it’s so tight I can barely breathe. 

“I’m not sure it’s right, you flying on Shabbos.” She sits opposite me at the kitchen table, sipping lemon tea from her favourite cup, while I try to eat the porridge. 

“Mama, since when did our family observe the Sabbath?” 

She continues as if she hasn’t even heard me. “And I hoped you’d come with us to the Carlsons tonight. Mrs Carlson said her niece might be there.” 

“Please, not this again. Beryl’s a lovely girl, but not the one for me.” Our single date was a dismal disaster, and the less said about it the better. All I will say is, I could never marry anyone who said that opera was, and I quote: “A load of people screaming their heads off.” 

“OK, OK. And Auntie Tilly has invited us over on Sunday. You know how much she likes seeing you.” 

“I’m sorry, Mama. There’s always next weekend.” 

“Please God,” she whispers. 

Our flight from Croydon Aerodrome to Orly Airport, is as uneventful as you’d wish a trip in an aeroplane to be. 

“Bit smoother than the flights we used to make with the RAF, eh?” says Norman, which prompts us to recall tales from our National Service days, including the time I handed over my parachute for routine checking and it didn’t open. 

“I reckon you lost one of your nine lives, that day, my friend,” says Norman. “Thanks for the reminder,” I reply. 

As we touch down and the plane taxies towards the terminal, excitement and not a little bit of fear keep bubbling in my chest. And while Norman’s usually expressive face is quite impassive, he keeps patting at his inside jacket pocket where he’s placed the money. 

“You’re going to have to stop all that patting if you want to get through customs without alerting anyone,” I say under the noise of the propellers as we unbuckle our seat belts. 

“Noted, old chap,” he says. Adding with a chuckle, “Don’t want to end up slung in a French prison, do we?” 

I gulp and offer a weak smile. What have I got myself into? 

A genuine adventure, I remind myself. Now stop being such a nebbish. 

We collect our cases, and taking a deep breath, I walk towards customs. I do all I can to keep my face neutral, but my heart is thumping as I debate whether it would be worse to be interrogated by the French police or face the grilling my mother will give me if she discovers that her only son has been involved in what amounts to a smuggling racket. 

A middle-aged man in uniform beckons me towards a counter with a brusque, “Monsieur,” and his young colleague does the same with Norman. 

I’m frisked, and then the customs official indicates that I should put my case on the counter and open it, which I do. He picks up the well-wrapped bag of food. “Ouvrir,” he snaps. 

I give him a smile and open the bag as instructed. The smell of chopped herring and ginger cake wafts out. 

He picks up the package and shows it to his colleague. They break into such rapid French, I can’t understand a word. Eventually, the middle-aged man slowly says to me, “Non. Pas de nourriture autorisée dans le pays.” 

I have no idea whether food is allowed into the country or not, but as he carefully rewraps the package and puts it behind the counter, I take a guess that he’s probably going to have a rather nice lunch. And I content myself with the fact that my mother’s food won’t go to waste. 

He rummages further in my case, and I become aware of Norman beside me who is being frisked by the middle-aged man’s colleague. I can’t imagine how nervous my friend must be right now. The young official hovers over Norman’s jacket pocket and although I can’t catch his words, I realise he’s asked Norman to take whatever he has, out of the pocket. 

“Ce qu’il ya dans l’enveloppe?” barks the man. 

That’s it, the game’s up. We’re going to be carted off to prison, I’ll lose my job, never work again, and my parents will disown me. 

And then I hear Norman say, “Lettres d’amour.” 

Love letters? What is he playing at? 

I can hardly believe what I’m seeing when Norman takes out a handkerchief, hides his face in it, and appears to be sobbing his heart out. 

“Elle est morte,” he says, as his sobs subside. He clutches the envelope, turns his red-rimmed eyes towards both officials, gives a shuddering sigh, and puts the handkerchief and the envelope back in his pocket. 

Oh, he’s really gone too far. They’ll never believe this charade. I can almost feel the handcuffs round my wrists already. 

And then, in the blink of an eye, we’re walking towards the exit, and freedom. 

Once we’re outside, I take a huge breath of fresh French air and breathe out a stream of questions. “How did you do that? They just let you go? How did they believe you?” 

“If you believe it yourself, they’ll believe it too. Simple really,” says Norman as he hails a taxi. 

Although we’ve both visited Paris before, we can’t help pointing out to each other the famous landmarks of the Bois de Boulogne and the Eiffel Tower that we pass during the taxi ride from Orly to our hotel. 

Having given the driver a generous tip, we check in at the Hotel Colisee near the Champs Elysees, round the corner from where Norman is going to perform. He removes his overnight things from his case, leaving inside his costume and equipment, and carries it round to the little theatre. When we enter the auditorium, he explains that the afternoon dress rehearsals are underway for tonight’s show. 

He tells me to take a seat in the stalls, and he heads off to the dressing rooms to change into his white tie and tails for his rehearsal. Before I’ve sat down, Norman stops and turns. 

“Oh, just thought.” He walks back to me. “Could you, um, keep hold of this?” Quick as a flash he slips the envelope into my inside jacket pocket. “It’ll be safer with you than being hidden in the dressing room unattended. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.” 

Acutely aware of the bounty nestling against my chest, I settle in a plush seat to watch the rehearsal. A bass-baritone is up on stage giving a spirited rendition of the opening aria from The Barber of Seville. After him, there’s a hilarious mime and then Norman, the Prince of Illusionists. 

Although I’ve seen many of his tricks before, I’ve never seen his act in a real theatre. Here his magic is a slick, polished, and altogether bigger spectacle. Up on stage it’s like he’s an even brighter, sparkling version of himself, and despite the lack of dialogue, his humour shines through in his gestures and expressions. His finale involves sweeping his arm out to send the contents of a newly opened pack of playing cards in a neat arc across the stage and somehow identifying the specific card a stagehand had selected earlier. I presume the stagehand will be replaced by an audience member for the real performance. 

Norman is followed by a group of dancing girls whose sparkling costumes can’t make up for the fact that they are all out of time with each other. There’s a shout from somewhere in the auditorium and my hand immediately reaches for the envelope in my breast pocket. Next moment a woman, probably the choreographer, leapt up on stage and called for a chair to be set downstage. She sits on it the wrong way round and barks at the poor girls throughout three whole repetitions of their number. By the time she dismisses them from the stage I’m convinced their nerves must be in shreds, and it’s hard to imagine how they’ll be able to perform tonight. 

Their anxiety must have transferred to me, because while I watch a couple of instrumental acts, I keep patting at the outside of his jacket pocket – just like Norman did on the plane earlier – to make sure the envelope is in place. Then I surreptitiously reach inside to double-check the flap 

is still sealed down; as if it’ll magically open up and notes will hurl themselves out of his chest like the shower of playing cards in Norman’s finale. Coming along as a spectator is one thing, to end up holding the goods, even if it is only for an hour or so, is another. 

As the rehearsal ends, Norman appears beside me in full make-up and costume. 

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet backstage,” he says with an enormous grin on his face, before leading me along winding corridors and up narrow staircases. 

“Where are you schlepping me?” 

“You’ll see,” he calls over his shoulder. 

Eventually he stops and knocks on a dressing-room door. 

A female voice calls out, “Entrée!” And there, swathed in a long silk wrap and waving a cigarette holder from which protrudes a Sobranie, is the soprano, Madame Helene Saunier. Taking a long drag, she stares at us from where she’s sitting on a slightly tatty chaise longue, and then a stream of smoke flows from her lips. She blinks slowly through the haze. 

“Dhaalinks, asseyez-vous.” She points a painted fingernail in the direction of two chairs opposite her, and Norman and I sit as we’ve been bid. 

Thus passes a wonderful hour in the company of the fading star that is Helene Saunier. In a mixture of beautifully accented English and a liberal sprinkling of French phrases, she talks of performing in famous opera houses with Chaliapin and other great singers who she refers to as either “pussycats” or “tigers”. 

I have never been so close to a famous person before, and I’m charmed by every flick of the wrist and throaty chuckle. The room is quite heady with a combination of her perfume, the bouquets of flowers crowding her dressing table, and the cigarette smoke. She offers us a Sobranie, and as I take a puff, trying to look for all the world as if I do this sort of sophisticated thing every day of my life, I can’t believe I’m sitting in a dressing room in a French theatre having a smoke with a bona fide opera star. 

“Mes amis, vous devez voir les meilleurs operas dans les villes romantique.” 

I think how wonderful it would be to experience operas in the places she’s brought vividly to life. I’ve seen performances at the Royal Opera House and am familiar with the streets of London, now I yearn to explore further afield. 

There’s a jaunty knock at the door, and in walks the bass-baritone who was rehearsing earlier. 

He kisses Madame Saunier on both cheeks and she introduces him as Igor Valinski. Sitting himself beside her, he listens to her stories and shares some of his own, telling of one director who was always a tease, saying to him: “I put the high notes in just for you, mon cher!” 

I could have stayed listening to the two of them all evening, but Igor taps his watch and says, “Ten minutes until curtain-up, ma cherie.” 

We say our goodbyes, Norman gives me my ticket and points the way back to the auditorium. 

In my seat I tap my toe to a seven-piece band playing waltzes, folk tunes and polkas, and on the last trumpet note, there’s a drumroll and the compere steps onto the stage. I have the devil of a job trying to translate the compere’s patter from French into English, but the show itself is all the more entertaining for having seen the rehearsals and met some of the performers. Fortunately the dancers manage a passable effort. Igor is excellent, and so is Norman, who has donned a cape and top-hat to complete his rig-out. However, the star of the show is undoubtedly Helene. 

Her voice charms every single member of the audience, but I imagine she is singing to me alone. 

When the final curtain falls and the applause dies down, my heart gives a jolt as I remember the cash in my breast pocket. I wonder when and where I’ll be able to catch Norman to hand over the envelope so he can take the money to the theatre-owner’s office as per his father’s instructions. Around me, the audience is slowly filing out of the auditorium, and I stand up to search for Norman. 

We really should have made better plans. I’m unsure what I should do, where I should go. A hand falls on his shoulder and I jump out of my skin. Heart thumping, I turn to see Norman in full make-up, cape still on and top-hat in hand. 

“Office. Quick. He’s waiting,” he says under his breath. 

I reach into my jacket to take out the envelope to give to Norman. 

“No!” He slams his hand against my chest and traps my hand inside my jacket. “Not in front of all these people, you idiot,” he hisses. 

He turns from me and, cape billowing, he lopes off. I try to catch up with him as he heads backstage. He eventually stops outside an office where a huge man in a suit appears to be guarding a half-open door. Yet again I reach into my pocket to try and rid myself of the envelope. 

“No, no time, Lenny. You’ll have to do the handover.” 

“Me?” My voice comes out in a squeak, and my mouth is suddenly dry. 

“We’ll look a right couple of schmucks if you give the envelope to me and then I pass it to him.” “I take your point, but–” 

“No time for buts, Lenny boy.” 

We’re ushered into a rather messy office, and standing behind a desk laden with files and papers is a man whose moustaches make him look like a pantomime villain. Introductions are made and I only just have time to wipe my sweaty palm on my trouser leg before shaking hands with the imposing figure of Monsieur Le Cavalle. 

Norman nudges me in the side with his elbow and I look at him, confused. I notice he’s put his top-hat back on and looks every inch the stage magician. 

“The money,” he hisses out of the corner of his mouth. 

Heat rushes to my cheeks. 

I feel like a thoroughly inept and rather under-dressed spy. I reach into my pocket with trembling fingers and place the envelope into Monsieur Le Cavalle’s outstretched hand. A prickle runs up 

my spine to the nape of my neck as I picture a bunch of pistol-wielding men bursting into the room and carting us all off to a cell for interrogation. 

Monsieur Le Cavalle gives a cough and undoes the flap of the envelope. All of a sudden there’s a knock at the door and I turn round, ready to see those men in uniform. Instead, it’s the bodyguard at the door who places what looks like a business card on one of the piles on the desk and backs out sharpish. 

Monsieur Le Cavalle glances down at the card and continues to open the envelope. He frowns. 

“What is this?” He tips out the contents of the envelope, and pieces of newspaper trimmed to the size of pound notes fall in a heap onto the messy desk. 

Norman and I exchange looks of horror. 

“We brought an envelope of cut up newspaper all the way across the Channel and halfway across Paris?” I whisper. 

“I don’t… I can’t…” Norman stutters. 

“Where is my money?” shouts Monsieur La Cavalle, banging his hand down on the desk and causing a mini avalanche of files and papers. 

I can’t believe I’ve spent the last few hours hiding pieces of newspaper in my pocket. I close my eyes, wanting this whole thing to be a bad dream and I’ll wake up in my bedroom safe and sound, ready to go and visit Auntie Tilly tomorrow afternoon. I’d give anything to have an afternoon of whist and her rather dry homemade biscuits. 

And then I hear laughter, and I open my eyes to see Monsieur La Cavalle wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. He takes out another envelope from under one of the piles on the desk and proceeds to open it, and this time he tips out real money. 

Norman sinks into a chair, and mops his brow with his handkerchief, and then starts to chuckle. “Well done, Monsieur. You did the switch while we were distracted by the delivery of that card, didn’t you?” 

“Indeed I did. I hope you’ll forgive an old man a little joke. I rarely have the opportunity to practise these days. I couldn’t resist.” 

“Merci, Messieurs.” 

It’s only after Norman has changed out of his costume, and we’ve high-tailed it back to our hotel that my hands stop shaking. Over a slap-up meal in a nearby restaurant, amid much laughter we re-live our eventful afternoon and evening. 

“So, how’d you enjoy our Paris caper, Lenny?” asks Norman, as a waiter places two glasses of Grand Marnier in front of us. 

“It’s been an experience. Thank you.” We toast each other and I savour a mouthful of the heady orange-flavoured liqueur. “However, next time I travel it’ll be as a regular tourist. No more envelopes stuffed with cash, thank you. La Traviata at La Scala will be sufficient drama for me.” 

Published in Issue #23

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