The City of Light, where Illya once lived and loved. Has Thrush started a revolution?
On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the last episode 15 January 2018.
A prequel to my All in Honour series
A prequel to my All in Honour series
The news of what was happening in Paris was alarming. Illya was deeply troubled: his favourite city; where he had felt at home; where he had been among people of his own kind – people who welcomed him and liked, even loved, him.
Paris in May
Paris in May
“It seems to be groups on the Left trying to overthrow De Gaulle,” said Napoleon, reading his own newspaper. “I see the students want to be allowed to sleep together, too,” he grinned.
“Napoleon!” Illya was impatient. “Even if that’s true, it’s an irrelevance. They also say their courses are out of date. They’re idealistic; they want reform – to break free of the old authoritarianism.” He looked at his partner, “But if the workers join them and it becomes a mass revolt, that is more worrying.”
France had been turning on itself since February, risking revolution or civil war. And now Paris was gearing itself up for further trouble. Mr Waverly, getting the latest news, foresaw opportunities for Thrush and called his top agents into his office.
“Gentlemen, I want you to go to Paris and monitor the situation. Social unrest is always a chance for Thrush to manipulate events to its own benefit.”
Napoleon looked at Illya, who appeared surprised. The Chief observing the exchange of glances, said, “It seems to be genuine social unrest, on the part of both the workers, and the students in Paris. But if Thrush could combine those two elements, it could mean disaster for France.”
“It could mean disaster for France even if Thrush isn’t involved,” said Illya. “How can we stop a mass movement?” and he added, “It’s like 1848 – it seems to have become a year of revolutions –– and it may end as badly.”
How would 1968 end? The 1848 revolutions in Europe all ended in failure and further repression. Already this year, there was significant revolt in different countries against authoritarianism. The events in Prague earlier in the year were a risky attempt at liberalising citizens’ rights and an even more dangerous attempt to decentralise. There was no saying how Moscow would react. In the United States there was continuing unrest over civil rights, made worse by the recent assassination; and there were continuing horrors in Vietnam. Campaigning for the presidency was likely to be more than usually fraught. There was violence and unrest seemingly everywhere – and suddenly it was the turn of France.
Paris in May was still in its spring glory. As on previous visits, Napoleon observed and was baffled by his partner’s relaxed demeanour, quite unlike his usual stiff self. For his part, he liked Paris for what it offered in a number of respects, but thought it would be quite a lot more attractive if it weren’t spoiled by the soot-blackening of its buildings, the polluted air – and in particular, on a warm day, the rank atmosphere around the pissoirs that still occupied odd corners of the streets. These sometimes elaborately decorated circular metal screens, established a century or more ago for a basic human function and still fulfilling it, were a curiously disgusting feature of the city in Napoleon’s opinion. Illya had long ago grown used to it, and was in any case accustomed to worse in his own country.
“There used to be hundreds,” he had said, in response to Napoleon’s revulsion. “It gets a bit much in the summer.”
“They’re not even that private,” muttered Napoleon, observing the decorative patterns punched in the screens.
“I suppose so. Just a minute, what do women do?”
“I expect they go to cafés. It was probably a way of keeping them off the streets a century ago, or not too far from home. Either that, or they were thought not to have normal bodily functions.”
The stink didn’t particularly bother Illya, and he even liked what Napoleon regarded as an only slightly more pleasant aroma – French cigarettes. Illya loved the smells of Paris; a non-smoker now, he nevertheless breathed more deeply when someone passed smoking a Gauloise or a Gitane. The blackened buildings were just Europe for him, though there was talk of cleaning them, which he wasn’t sure he would like. It was home – grubby, smelly, but beautiful. He sometimes allowed the thought of coming back to live in Paris to surface in his mind.
Napoleon’s lack of enthusiasm had been augmented when they arrived at their hotel and settled in. The Marais was living up to its name. The hotel was close enough to the former marsh, as well as the river, to share its delights, chief among them a lively community of mosquitos. The penetrating high-pitched whine woke them regularly during the night and in the morning Napoleon was covered in small itchy bites. Illya remained unblemished; he seemed to be immune to the creatures.
Napoleon endured it for several nights while they spent the days investigating the possible infiltration of the trades unions. “Why weren’t we given somewhere further from the river?” he grunted, trying not to scratch.
“Because it’s cheap, presumably.”
“We have to move,” said Napoleon decisively.
“All right. Let’s try the Latin Quarter – closer to the action. That’ll be good enough reason for them back at the ranch.”
Illya’s idiomatic English often amused Napoleon. Where did he pick these things up?
It was certainly closer to the action, if their intention had been to find themselves at the centre of a revolution. The Sorbonne had been invaded by the police and sealed off, and students and their teachers marched in protest. There was a wave of public sympathy; huge crowds gathered and closed off the whole Left Bank. Whether it had been started or was being fomented by Thrush was immaterial at the moment. The stand-off had been going on intermittently for a week, and things had come to a head. It was difficult to get around at all, never mind find a hotel.
After taking a huge detour to get there, it was a matter of chance, and literally the force majeure of the crowd, that pushed them into the foyer of a small hotel on a corner of the Boulevard St Michel. The anxious receptionist was a little more polite than usual, in the circumstances. Everyone had left, or was trying to, so someone actually wanting a room was to be encouraged. They told him they were journalists, and he gave them a recently-vacated room overlooking the square.
There were thousands in the streets – students and workers together – pursued by helmeted police firing tear gas and water cannon, and beating anyone they could reach, including innocent bystanders. Protesters fought running battles with the police and tore up the cobbles to throw at them, which the police returned with interest. So much sand was revealed that it was like a beach in places. Burned-out cars were overturned and dragged across roads; even trees harmlessly lining the boulevards were felled to add to the barricades and block off major arteries. Protesters, arm-in-arm and several lines deep, blocked other roads.
There was no way, in these confused conditions, that the two agents could do more than observe and take note. They watched from their window in increasing concern and horror, as streams of people ran across the square, fleeing the police batons and the many fires that had been set. There was a constant sound of what sounded like gunfire, which was in fact, a rain of tear gas shells from the police, and exploding Molotov cocktails thrown by the protesters. People lay unconscious among the debris, bleeding from head wounds as Red Cross volunteers ran to their aid. It was like a war zone – it was worse than war – it was peacetime Paris, brought to a standstill.
“The police are either out of control,” said Illya, grief-stricken after seeing some egregiously vicious behaviour, “or some of them are being controlled by you know what. Do you see what I see, over there?”
Napoleon looked across at a window overlooking another part of the square, and saw the tall figure of a man, and beside him looking out, an unmistakeable head of peroxide-blond hair.
“Victor and Angelique. Coincidence? I guess not – Mr Waverly must be psychic.”
“What do they think they can achieve? They can’t control a whole population.”
“Well, you should know – revolution – a collapse of the government so that they can mount a coup and put their people in power.”
“I don’t think the French are going to accept another bunch of corrupt politicians. This has gone far wider than Thrush can control.”
“I hope you’re right. But I think we might pay them a visit, don’t you?
There is a casual friendliness and camaraderie among the people on the edges of a riot if you keep back from the main event, so, by keeping well away from the worst of the protest and taking their lives in their hands to get across the road, they reached the other hotel unremarked and unharmed – if a little breathless, and with their eyes streaming from the clouds of teargas. The latter had at least the merit of concealing their movements.
Napoleon remained below, keeping watch in the lobby, while Illya ran up the stairs to the fourth floor. Prowling the corridors, he counted the doors to find the Thrush-occupied room. As he approached it, he heard the lift stop and the doors clang open. He turned quickly, and came face to face with a woman; he stopped, transfixed, every nerve quivering. They stared at each other in gradual wonder.
“Illya? Est-ce que c’est bien… toi?” She reached out and touched him with the tips of her fingers.
“… Yvette …”
He gazed, almost overcome. No longer the leggy student he had once … She had matured into a woman, smoky-eyed and with lustrous dark hair. “Are you staying here?” he asked, and to his dismay, she pointed to the door of the room he had been looking for.
“Not staying, no. But come in and tell me what you are doing in Paris – it’s been so long. Come and meet my friends.”
“Yes. Come.” She took his unresisting arm, and knocked on the door.
Napoleon had, of course, observed the beautiful woman who entered the lift, and watched to see where it halted. She had gone to the fourth floor. Anxious now, as Illya should have called him by this time, he ran up the stairs. There was no-one in the fourth-floor corridor. He checked the service-room doors, all locked. Then, as Illya had done, he counted the doors until he came to the right room, took a breath and knocked, like any visitor might.
The door opened. “Napoléon Solo – mon cher, we have been expecting you. How good of you to join us,” said a familiar, mocking voice, as Victor Marton took his arm in a firm grasp and drew him in.
“Enchanté, of course,” he replied, “I hope you are treating my partner well.”
“As well as he allowed us to, mon vieux. See.”
He saw Illya seated and bound with his own belt. On a sofa sat two women – his blonde nemesis, Angelique, armed with a gun, and the dark beauty he’d seen earlier, now looking fearful. He then saw a bruise on his friend’s forehead, slowly turning purple. “Did they have to fight you off?” he inquired, gesturing to the two women, expecting the usual glare and getting only a limp shake of the head.
Marton ushered Napoleon compellingly to a seat beside his friend and tied him to it – rather loosely, his captive thought.
“Are you OK?” he asked Illya quietly.
“What’s wrong?” even more quietly. But there was no response; Illya only hung his head.
Victor Marton spoke. “My dear Mr Solo, delightful as it is to have the pleasure of your company at this moment – and Mr Kuryakin’s, of course – you are dreadfully in the way and we are a little preoccupied with business. So, you must excuse us, though I’m afraid I can’t ask you to make yourselves at home – or even comfortable. Another time, perhaps.”
He drew his companions with him as he left the room. The dark woman turned to look at Illya before she left, but his chin remained on his chest and he would not look up.
Napoleon had no difficulty in freeing himself from loose bondage; he then released Illya and gave him back his belt.
Before leaving the hotel room, they first searched it, looking for their various weapons and communicators which their hosts hadn’t appeared to take with them. It seemed odd, but they weren’t going to question it. Illya found them, tucked under the headboard of one of the beds.
“You’re getting better at searching the furniture, pussycat” Napoleon commented, and this time got the expected glare.
“That was a long time ago,” Illya snapped. “Come on, we must get out of here.”
There was nothing else to be found – the room appeared to be in use only as a meeting place.
“What happened back there?” Napoleon inquired when they got down to street level. The rioting had not abated, though it seemed to have moved on a little. “Who’s the dark beauty, do you know?”
Illya said nothing.
“She seemed to know you.”
“I knew her once.” Illya’s downcast appearance was unusual. Napoleon squeezed his shoulder.
“OK. Not a happy reunion, I take it.”
“At least it wasn’t she who hit me,” he said, trying for a lighter note. “She was upset… I don’t know how she got into this,” he ended.
“That’s quite a bruise. What did he hit you with?”
“Victor doesn’t like violence. It was Angelique. She hit me with the lamp.”
“Oh... I didn’t think she liked violence either.”
“She didn’t like mine.”
There was no point getting involved in mass street violence in this disaster area; the two UNCLE agents retreated to their hotel and made their report. The answer was, “You must find those Thrush agents and follow them. The unrest is spreading.” A nearly impossible instruction to follow.
Only conspiracy theorists think that a revolution can be started, let alone orchestrated by any individual or organisation. Neither UNCLE agent (nor their chief) was quite that naïve, though they thought it was likely that elements of the situation were being manipulated. Unfortunately, they had no idea where from. The hotel room was unlikely to be used again – where would Marton and his henchmen (and women) go?
The following morning, Illya sat with his head in his hands, trying to remember the kinds of places people used to gather to discuss politics. “I don’t know where to begin,” he said. “And what’s the point? I don’t believe Thrush has any power here, even if it was they who lit the touch paper – which I doubt.”
“There are such things as agents provocateurs,” his partner reminded him.
“Napoleon, after a week your accent ought to have improved. Say it like this…”
Napoleon interrupted, “However I say it, they exist, and they could be members of Thrush.”
“Yes… I know.”
Napoleon touched his arm gently. “You said yourself – you don’t know how she comes to be involved, old friend. Anyone can be led astray. Victor Marton could charm snakes, let alone an unsuspecting woman, and Angelique…”
“Is not charming. Don’t, Napoleon. I know what you’re trying to do.” Illya looked acutely embarrassed.
“All right. I’m sorry. Think – where can we try?”
“I remember a room… where we used to meet.”
“Who, you and your dark lady?”
“My … No, of course not. People who wanted to discuss politics – left wing politics – social inequality, that sort of thing.”
“OK. Where was it?”
“Near the Luxembourg Gardens, somewhere. I might remember when we get there. If we can get there.”
Illya’s colourful bruise proved something of a passport with the demonstrators, and they were able to make their way without hindrance round the edge of the crowds, hoping to turn off somewhere, towards the gardens. Illya was on home ground in both 5th and 6th arrondissements so he was able to trace a somewhat round-about route, out of the immediate area of the University, to the streets west of the gardens, where they found the crowds were thinner, and there were even some businesses open.
“I’m hungry,” he announced, as they stopped to look in the windows of a café.
“I’m surprised you haven’t said so before.”
“Aren’t you hungry too?”
“Yes, I am,” Napoleon confessed. The café was open.
Seated at a table inside, away from the window, they drank coffee from wide green cups, and ate cheese and ham baguettes.
“French bread tears your mouth to shreds,” Napoleon remarked, sipping coffee to soften the shard-like crust in his mouth.
“There’s a knack to eating it,” Illya agreed, also sipping coffee. “The inside of my mouth was like leather after a year here.”
“I can believe it,” said Napoleon, wondering if his tongue would ever recover.
Their low conversation in English was overheard by the youth waiting at the tables. “Anglais?” he said.
Illya replied in French, “No, American journalists. We’re looking for the house where the Left used to meet in the 1950s.”
The boy looked at him in surprise and said with reluctant admiration, “American? I don’t believe it – that’s real French.”
Illya smiled and said something in what sounded part French, part a foreign tongue; the boy laughed but replied in the same way. He went behind the counter and spoke to the patron for a few minutes and then crooked a finger and beckoned them to follow him through the café into the back.
“What did you say to him?” Napoleon wondered.
“I asked him if he knew where that meeting place was, using some idioms from the street argot of Paris.”
“I’d like to know where you learned that.”
“Yes, I daresay.”
The boy led them out into the yard and thence into the road. He pointed to a building on the corner and Illya clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s it, I remember,” he said. “Thanks, kid.”
Turning back to the café, the boy looked round at them and said, “Faites gaffe, les gars!” He wagged a warning finger, “Pigez?”
“Wait,” said Illya. The boy turned. “Why? What do you know about that place? What should we watch out for?”
“The word on the street is that it’s being watched by government spies,” said the boy. “People who don’t belong around here.”
“What else could they be?”
The building was guarded of course, so clearly there was something going on in there. “Try your patois on them,” suggested Napoleon.
“They don’t look the type,” said Illya, looking at the way the men outside were dressed. “I could approach them as a member of the PCF and see what happens.”
“Might work,” Napoleon conceded, “You are a communist – are you still a member? Anyway, you speak convincing French.”
“Yes to all of those – well I’m not strictly a member of any Communist Party, but I have been.”
“Good thing you weren’t working in the States in the 50s.”
“I know. I’ve often wondered how my recruitment was ever conceived.”
Napoleon watched as his partner crossed the road and approached the men at the entrance and talked to them. He saw them let him in.
All Illya said, trotting up to them as if in a hurry, was, “Am I late? Have they started?” at which they sized him up and nodded him in. Simple as that – he shook his head, quite surprised – and, after reminding himself of alternative exits and hiding places, he mounted the stairs to where he thought things might be happening.
It was easy to find. There was a lot of noise coming from the large room he remembered from his student days. He turned the door knob and sidled in unobtrusively and, in fact, unnoticed. He was gratified – and, just for once, glad not to be taller – to see on the raised platform Victor Marton, and seated beside him another man and the two women, Angelique and Yvette. Everyone else seemed to be on his or her feet, shouting, so he was well hidden.
Out in the street, Napoleon kept well back, out of sight, and just in time before a police van raced up and stopped outside the building opposite. Men armed with batons jumped out and forced their way into the building past the men guarding the door, who were arrested and flung into the van.
Inside, someone watching from a window shouted, “Police!” which silenced the shouting crowd, but before any of them thought of moving, Victor seized his companions’ hands, pulled them with him down the steps and ran towards the door, where they came upon Illya who had secreted himself beside it with similar intent – to escape when the police came in. There was no time to take issue over their differences and when the door was flung open, they waited together for all the invaders to enter before dodging round the door and making their escape.
Victor’s long legs took him to the head of the stairs and he ran down them, the women immediately behind him. Illya brought up the rear, leaving behind the sounds of shouts and screams as the police laid into the crowd at the meeting.
At the bottom, Illya said, “Slow down, and follow me.” He led them through the building and out of another entrance so that when they came round the corner together, they looked perfectly innocent. Napoleon watching from his vantage point, was startled to see his partner apparently escaping in such dubious company.
“Why, what a surprise,” he said, coming out of seclusion as they crossed the road to join him. “It’s a small world, isn’t it, Victor? Angelique, so nice to see you again – and so soon. This time, you must introduce me to your friend.”
Victor interrupted, “Dear boy, there may be much to discuss, but I think we should remove ourselves to a more salubrious location, don’t you?”
He walked off with Illya, who had not once looked at or spoken to Yvette. She was less successful at ignoring him, but Napoleon, happily giving an arm to each lady, engaged them both in pleasant conversation as they followed the tall Frenchman, who had his hand firmly clamped on Illya’s shoulder.
The Luxembourg Gardens provided a kind of huge ante-room to the Odéon, where a twenty-four-hour debating chamber had been set up. Here and there were small groups of people talking and arguing, so they were less likely to attract attention if their own discussion became heated. They stopped under the trees. “Now, Victor,” said Napoleon, in UNCLE-agent mode, “What is going on? What is Thrush’s interest in this business?”
“Sadly misguided, I fear,” said Victor, examining his nails. Illya looked up at him, his eyebrows raised. “Yes, Mr Kuryakin, such a mistake – that, of course, is why we made it so easy for you to escape from that room.”
“Oh, you allowed us to escape,” was Illya’s scepticism-rich comment.
“But of course – though I do feel we were extraordinarily magnanimous, given your outburst. We left you all your belongings, which I imagine you successfully found.”
Illya rubbed his bruise ironically. “Thanks. I feel your magnanimity deeply.”
“I hope so.” Turning to Napoleon, Victor said, “We had nothing to do with starting the unrest – that was the students. Of course, when the workers joined them, it seemed a golden opportunity to offer our assistance.”
Napoleon smiled, “But things got out of hand, didn’t they? You couldn’t control both the police and the crowds.”
“The police are their own worst enemy. Foolish, greedy, and corrupt beyond words. And, of course, the trade-unionists are merely stupid. They just want more money – I’m sure they’ll accept any bone the government throws them.”
Illya growled a little at this.
“And the students,” said Victor, disdainfully. “Wanting to sleep together? – my dear boy!”
“They’re over age, why shouldn’t they? If they were workers, they’d be free to do what they liked.” Illya could not resist looking fleetingly at Yvette.
“As no doubt you did, of course,” replied Victor, noting the exchange of glances.
Napoleon interrupted. “This is getting us nowhere. There is no way any of us, or either of our organisations, can handle this situation – or does Thrush think it can manipulate even these events to its own purposes?”
“Well, of course it does. It always thinks it can control events. Utterly misguided.” Victor repeated, and sighed theatrically.
Napoleon, at a loss to know what to say to this surprising admission, looked inquiringly at Angelique, who had so far said nothing. Illya was no help, he was looking at Yvette.
“Darling, we’ve decided to leave them to it,” Angelique murmured. “You can have the whole thing to yourselves.”
“Do your masters know?” Napoleon asked, curiously.
“Oh no, darling. We’ll tell them our men are in custody, that we were betrayed by the police we trusted …”
“Hush, Angelique. Don’t give away all our trade secrets.” Marton, looking round, saw that Illya and Yvette had moved away a little and were talking together. He smiled at Napoleon and nodded towards them. “You’d better take your friend away before he learns any more about us,” he said archly, raising an eyebrow.
“Frankly, I shouldn’t think he’s interested in you,” said Napoleon, observing a certain angry animation in his partner’s body language and that of his dark lady. And yet, they were a beautiful couple, standing under the trees. A shaft of sunlight caught their hair and turned Illya’s to a gold flame, while Yvette’s became a smouldering glow. But there was also ice as well as fire. Ice that burned.
Their frosty conversation might have been more successfully conducted in private. Illya learned no secrets, about either Thrush or his former lover. If she had been able to talk to him alone, possibly they might have parted with at least mutual understanding. As it was…
“Why… How … did you get into this?”
“How did you?”
“I was sent. I’m a law enforcement agent. Yvette – the people you are with operate outside the law. Thrush seeks to subjugate wherever it strikes. That means here, too. Did you know that when you joined them? … What possessed you…”
“What possessed me? How dare you, Illya – they haven’t subjugated me! They said they could help us. And they tried to.”
“By bribing the police? By organising agents provocateurs? By …”
“Stop it, Illya! They’re my friends.”
“Friends! They’re not anyone’s friends – least of all the friends of France or Paris.”
“That’s not true! They’re French – as you are not!”
Illya was silent, stricken. They stared at each other, both now distressed. Their first words to each other in many years and it was a quarrel, as so often in the past, but unlikely to end – as on all but one occasion in the past – in assurances of undying love, and passionate embraces.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.” she whispered. She held out her hands hesitantly.
“I’m sorry, too,” he said, taking them in his. “I wish things could have been different.” That so many things could have been different.
“Where will you go, after today?” Illya spoke more calmly now.
“I shall stay in Paris, with my daughter. Victor and Angelique have their own plans.”
“You have a daughter? You’re married?” She wore no ring.
“Yes, she’s ten. Her father, my husband, is no longer with us. Illya …” she stopped and shook her head.
They looked round then and saw that they were observed. Napoleon was standing beside Angelique. No shaft of sunlight, however bright, could transmute her base metal to gold, but Napoleon’s dark head gleamed in the sunshine. Victor appeared to be enjoying the show, judging by his malevolent smile. Illya released Yvette’s hands, and turned back to Napoleon, who tactfully refrained from comment. The others went to Yvette, who had covered her face. Victor patted Yvette on the shoulder, just a little satirically, while Angelique glared at Illya.
“What now?” said Napoleon, free to speak without being overheard.
Illya’s reply was a little disjointed. “She doesn’t know their plans. It looks like they really are giving up. That is if you can believe anything Victor Marton says – or Angelique. I don’t know.”
“I’m inclined to believe them. Victor has only ever had his own interests at heart. Angelique, too, for that matter.”
“They do lack the basic requirements of Thrush agents, don’t they?”
Napoleon laughed, relieved that Illya appeared to be recovering. “They do. Makes you wonder why Thrush chose them for this.”
“Perhaps we give Thrush Central greater credit for intelligence than it possesses.”
“Oh, I don’t know – those two make a formidable team.”
“It takes more than a camp humorist and a peroxided gangster’s moll to manage a revolution, Napoleon.”
“Gangster’s moll? Where did you pick that up?”
He was still chuckling when the other three came back to join them. “Chers amis,” said Victor, with a crocodile smile, “parting is such sweet sorrow, but I fear we must.”
“Don’t let us detain you,” said Napoleon, bowing slightly. “May we know where you plan to celebrate your failure?”
“Oh, my dear, not failure – a simple withdrawal, to regroup – and I’m afraid not. You see, we are creatures of whim; spontaneity is our chief pleasure – we shall go where the wind blows us.”
Illya cast up his eyes. But when he turned them reluctantly to Yvette, her little amused smile was suddenly reflected in them. His heart skipped a beat and, just for a moment, he thought she would speak – but when she did, it was just to say, “Adieu.” Then she walked away, without a backward glance.
Napoleon, taking Marton’s whimsy with a pinch of salt, was saying, “We’ll come with you part of the way and see you off.”
It was no easier to get around even with lengthy detours. The Thrush agents had left a car on the other side of the river, near the Gare de Lyon. In it were their bags – Marton’s pessimism had already suggested flight before the events of the afternoon. Napoleon and Illya watched them drive away. “That will take them towards Fontainebleau,” said Illya. “They’re heading south… I see you aren’t concerned for Angelique’s honour.”
“With Victor? What do you think? Anyway, time to think about going west, young man.”
“What do we say to Mr Waverly?”
“That Thrush has been seen off, and there’s nothing more we can do. This revolution, or whatever it is, will have to burn itself out without us. But there’s no way we can get a flight till at least tomorrow.”
“Then let’s go somewhere a bit quieter before we try to get back to the hotel. I’d like to see some other old haunts before we leave.”
They made their way slowly along the riverside quais, stopping once to have a beer to slake the dust of a very thirsty day. Moving on, they passed the great square towers and flying buttresses of the cathedral, and the grim walls of the Conciergerie, on the Île de la Cité, before arriving at the almost-as-grim walls of the Louvre.
“You know, cleaned up, it would be quite a handsome building,” said Napoleon.
“I suppose so. It’s probably Lutetian limestone under all that dirt.”
Napoleon raised an eyebrow inquiringly, and Illya explained, “It’s one of the reasons why Paris was called the City of Light – not just because of the Enlightenment and its early gaslighting. A lot of it is built in limestone – so in the sun, it gleams white, or would if it were clean.”
“Well, they should clean it and light it up again.”
They passed on and went through into the Tuileries Gardens and made for the huge circular pond, surrounded by uncomfortable metal seats, where they sat down. Illya had brought a stale roll from the bar where they had stopped for a drink; now he broke it and threw some crumbs into the water. “Watch,” he said.
Monstrous carp rose to the surface to snap at the bread.
“Good God, look at the size of them!”
Illya smiled. “I know. You wouldn’t want to fall in. I’m sure I used to know that one from years ago – nearly took my finger off once.”
“Could have swallowed you whole, by the look of him.”
“It’s probably a her,” said Illya, and stood up restlessly, “shall we get back?”
Napoleon said only, “Sure. We can take in dinner on the way.”
“If anywhere’s open.”
“Always the pessimist.”
They booked a flight for late the following day to give plenty of time to get to the airport, which remained open. The receptionist at the hotel, who had assumed their stay would be longer, abandoned his unwonted politeness and, unable to summon an adieu, let alone au revoir, merely nodded when they left.
On the flight, Illya, never garrulous at any time, was subdued but fidgety. Napoleon tried to ignore it for a while, but when his friend continued restless, he said, “What’s up?”
Naturally. “Come on, Illya – you’re usually asleep by now.”
“It’s just…, I wish…”
“You made a mess of things, and you didn’t get her address, is that it?”
Illya looked at him, “Am I so obvious?”
“My friend, sometimes you’re quite transparent. I’m right, aren’t I? This is about your dark lady.”
“My dark lady.” He heaved a sigh, and quoted, “‘For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, and dark as night.”
“Do you really think that of her?” Napoleon shook his arm slightly. “You could be wrong, you know. Shakespeare also said, ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action,’ What you had wasn’t lust, was it? From what I could see, there was more than that between you.”
Illya shrugged. “…And, as you well know, that sonnet ends, ‘yet none knows well to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.’” He turned away, hoping to sleep, and added, “But I try.”
Napoleon lay back, surprised. It was a rare admission of distress, and it gave him to think. Were they so damaged by their work? So long unable to establish or keep a loving, trusting, relationship – or restart one – that they were afraid, or incapable, of love? They were both almost past their peak. Maybe they should be thinking about the future, and stop assuming there wouldn’t be one. Start afresh. Get another job. It was a revolutionary thought after all these adrenaline-filled years of expecting death. It could still come, of course – some madman might yet organise an execution squad for them.
Maybe UNCLE itself was past its peak. Thrush too, come to that. They couldn’t really handle the kind of widespread social unrest he and Illya had seen in France. He put these unsettling thoughts aside to worry about another day, and composed himself to sleep.
Illya, still awake, wondered if there was anywhere now that he could live and feel at home. It was a revolutionary thought – he hadn’t felt the need of a home before. He’d been happy to live out of a suitcase, in a hotel room or a tent, gypsy-like, in one different place after another – even in his own apartment. He had assumed, and still believed, that he wouldn’t live to see middle age, and now on the verge of it, with the possibility of surviving to see it, the thought of having a future was unsettling. The thought of Paris again, one day… a beautiful dream. He’d think about it another day. Not now.
The violence of the demonstrations in Paris can be seen on newsreel film from the time. Apart from the odd flare-up, the whole thing was more-or-less over by the end of May 1968. The government called an election and in June won by a huge majority.
Est-ce que c’est bien toi? – Is it really you?
Faites gaffe, les gars! Pigez? – Watch out guys! Understand?
PCF: Parti Communiste Français
Shakespeare’s sonnets 127-154 are addressed to his dark lady. Illya quotes first from 147, and they both quote from 129. (Victor’s “parting is such sweet sorrow” is, of course, from Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, sc.2)
The old pissoirs have long since been replaced with more hygienic, if less artistic, edifices.
Buildings in the city, including the cathedral of Notre Dame, have been cleaned. All is light.
The carp in the Grand Bassin Rond were pretty large when I saw them in 1967. I didn’t see any in 2016 – were they shy, or have they gone?