When her daughter vanishes during a heatwave in Europe, writer Frances Sinclair embarks on a hunt that takes her across continents and into her own past. What clues can Frances find in her own history, and who is the mysterious Mazarine? Mazarine is a literary thriller about family, disappearances, terrorism and love in the age of Trump, set in Auckland, London, Paris and Buenos Aires. It has been described as “a masterly novel”, and “a beautifully evocative, sensual story of a woman’s search for freedom and love.”
Extract from Mazarine (Chapter Twelve)
I hadn’t expected Sophie Greenaway to be at work in the middle of the summer break and so soon after her husband’s death, but I called her at Gillmans since it was the only contact I had, and left a voicemail message. When she didn’t reply, I found my way to a secretary, who was guarded but gave me a work email address, to which I sent a message containing my cellphone number, saying how sorry I was about Aiden and mentioning his and Patrick’s connection.
Mazarine dragged the picnic table into a shaded corner of the roof terrace and sat out there wearing sunglasses and coughing and typing on her laptop, while I ranged around London on foot, visiting all my old haunts, the street where Patrick and I had lived with Maya, University College Hospital where she’d been born, even past her old nursery and her junior school, Christopher Hatton, behind Gray’s Inn Road.
The city was teeming, vivid in the heat wave, and I walked through the green parks and crowded streets, the summer air vibrating with sirens, and at moments forgot why I was there, drifting about mindlessly in the city, until the sight of French schoolgirls gossiping and giggling as they queued for the London Eye, or a young woman with long dark hair disappearing into the crowd at a Tube station, reminded me of Maya, and my anxiety would flare again.
Everywhere I walked, I looked for her. I must have scanned every street in Queen’s Park, in case I should see her wheeling a battered suitcase out of the Tube, just back from some European music festival or clubbing spree, or among the crowd at one of the bars on Salusbury Road, or strolling with Joe across the dusty grass in the park, and imagine her surprise when I raced up to her and threw my arms around her, my darling my joy, and then I walked all the way back to the Normanby via Notting Hill, the edge of Hyde Park, the West End, arriving back at the flat with sore feet, worn out, discouraged.
After that first night, I’d said that I was going to check in to the hotel in Cartwright Gardens and Mazarine said, ‘Okay. But how will we coordinate?’
‘By phone,’ I said coldly.
‘Let’s eat first. I’ve bought wine. I’ll be the one to move — this is your flat after all.’
After dinner she felt weak, her cough had exhausted her, she must spend a long time in the shower ‘to steam open her airway’, and then she sank down on the bed (her back) and I made her a cup of tea, and my legs ached and my feet were killing me, and it would have been monstrous of me to make her get up and walk to Cartwright Gardens with her unwieldy suitcase, but she wouldn’t hear of me going, that wouldn’t be fair, by the way she couldn’t believe how expensive London was, the food, the transport, and then she started telling me a story. It was about herself and her ex-husband, and how they’d met at Oxford where his degree was in linguistics, and how he had perfect English and perfect teeth.
‘He’s very handsome. And clever. His family sent him to Britain to be educated.’
‘Why did you split up?’
‘So, no regrets.’
‘Life has its own way of working things out.’
‘Do you want to understand why though? I spent my whole life just accepting everything, until suddenly I wanted to find out.’
‘Find out what?’
‘Why I am the way I am. Which has annoyed people.’</span
‘Your family doesn’t like you questioning.’
‘No. You know the story of Theseus? He has to enter the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, and Ariadne gives him a thread to take in so he can find his way out again. The past is the labyrinth. The self too.’
‘You need an Ariadne,’ Mazarine said.
I woke in the night hearing voices, the same American students heading back to their rooms late, a couple of noisy women with them this time. I went to the peephole and listened until the corridors went silent, but just as I was about to turn away a woman came soundlessly up the stairs and looked straight at me, looked at the peephole I mean, her face greenish in the institutional light of the stairwell, a face I felt I’d seen before, with full lips, a turned-down mouth, straight brown hair, brown eyes. I resisted the urge to step back and for a second we were staring straight at each other, although she couldn’t see me, and then she pulled out a phone, sent a text, turned, and slipped away down the stairs as noiseless and quick as a fox, leaving me uneasy, frightened even.
Had she been on her way up to one of the rooms on our floor, then changed her mind? Her quickness and silence seemed odd, and I puzzled over where I’d seen her before, presumably in the dining hall or the Square, but I had a sense it wasn’t around here but on one of my long rambles across the city that I’d caught sight of that pale, intent face.
On a hot morning, Sophie Greenaway called.
I was in the shower and didn’t pick up, but she left a message. She’d flown back from New York the day before, and was in her office at Gillmans. Despite the fact that she’d worked on her accent she was immediately identifiable as Australian, which Daniel Gray hadn’t mentioned. It made the task of calling her marginally less daunting, since it was never easy to decode British manners, even after living in London for years. It seemed to be the rule that the posher people were, the more inscrutable their demeanour, which made the highest caste of British person both Sphinx-like and unpredictable, if that’s not too oxymoronic. Anyway, what I mean is, my British was rusty, but I could talk Australian.
‘Look. It’d be great to meet you,’ I said.
‘Come around for a drink tonight,’ she said unexpectedly, and gave me an address. ‘Look, that’d be great, I’ll see you then.’
Just like that.
I was pleased, since I’d expected a brush-off, and then immediately uneasy, wondering what I would say, dreading meeting a stranger in such odd circumstances, depressed by the fact that there was no word from Maya or Joe. Still, I’d agreed to Mazarine’s plan that we would work through our list before consulting authorities who, Mazarine emphasised, wouldn’t be interested, given that our children were adults and free to evade their mothers as long as they liked.
I gave myself an hour to get there, by Tube and then on foot.
We had decided I would go by myself, but as I came up from the Tube and set off towards Oxford Terrace I wished Mazarine was with me, so awkward did this seem, going to visit a woman I didn’t know, with no other purpose than to ask about her dead husband, whom I was intending, guiltily, to pretend to have known.
I rang the bell of the ground-floor flat and the door was opened by a tiny, dynamic, voluble person who shook my hand and ushered me in, through the apartment and out to a spacious garden with a wooden deck, on which there was an outside table, a barbecue, an umbrella, deckchairs and large pot plants, even a papyrus, and beyond the deck a little outhouse made of Scandinavian-style joinery, with glass sliding doors, the whole space enclosed by high walls covered in green climbing plants, one of those unexpectedly beautiful spots you find hidden in the city, and surprisingly quiet too, although we were close to busy roads.
Sophie Greenaway handed me a glass of white wine, looked at me with exaggerated, almost theatrical warmth and said, ‘God I miss Patrick.’
Surely she meant Aiden?
‘He was great, so warm and funny. Do you remember the night we went to that exhibition, there was a party in the pavilion and then a whole lot of us walked back through the park when it was just about to close?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said, I did remember that party, in fact in was my only clear memory of Aiden Wood, and yet I’d had no idea that Sophie Greenaway was there; if you’d asked me I would have said that before she’d opened the door of her flat I’d never seen her in my life.
‘You were great company that night too. Remember we thought we were going to get locked in the park? And then we went to some terrible nightclub and Patrick and I danced, and Patrick fell over and injured his knee.’
‘Oh, yes,’ I said. I did remember the knee injury, but had it happened the night of the exhibition? Perhaps she was right, she must be, yet still I had no memory of her.
‘God it’s weird, isn’t it, that we both …’
‘Yes,’ I nodded. I knew what she meant. Patrick and now Aiden.
‘I mean, who gets “widowed” at our age? Both of us.’
Silence, while we looked at the garden in the green evening light, the delicate fronds of the papyrus, a cat walking along the top of the wall.
‘Was he …?’
‘He jumped in front of a train. I guess he must have been depressed. Is that what you were going to ask? But the thing is, Frances, I saw no sign of it. He and I were happy, we’d worked everything out.’
‘Well, you must remember, he was such a one for flirting. You know, we were together a long time and after a while I had to get someone else too, or I would have just been heartbroken, or a complete doormat. I sort of knew it when we got together, that he was a terrible commitment-phobic. We couldn’t have kids, which neither of us minded too much. So, when he died we were both seeing other people. But he was happy, we both were, that’s what I can’t understand.’
‘Maya enjoyed working for him,’ I said, trying to be enthusiastic. ‘Unsurprisingly,’ I added, and then winced, it sounded so insincere.
‘He thinks very highly of her — thought. They got on, he said she was clever.’
‘So, you and he weren’t together.’
‘We’d worked it out, we were going to sell the flat, but we weren’t in a hurry, it was all harmonious. We were really good friends.’
‘Was he going to move in with someone else? Was it Angela Lang?’
She frowned, looked evasive. ‘He had various women he was seeing, no one special. He wanted to be free. I can’t believe he’s gone, it makes no sense to me. I mean, you knew him, he was incredibly optimistic, a cheerful person, total playboy, charmer.’
She refilled our glasses, then giving an exaggerated shiver and saying it was chilly, ushered me inside.
I said, ‘Maya’s going to be terribly …’ I couldn’t think how to finish.
‘Has she told you about their projects, the authors?’
‘Some. It all sounds pretty interesting. I’m hoping she’ll tell me more.’
‘They were doing a book about the Czech Republic when he died. Also, you mentioned Angela Lang; there was a man she introduced Aiden to not long ago, a guy she’d come across years back when she was a crime reporter. She’d kept in touch with him after he was convicted of hacking. Did Maya tell you about him? Dominic Hay-Godwin?’
‘A bit,’ I lied.
‘They were thinking tentatively about a memoir — the life of crime, the connections, and the hacking. He was a kind of “identity” apparently, and quite narcissistic, which was a hook to get him talking. Aiden told me about it; I said, Go on, a real-life black hat criminal, how fascinating, meet him, what fun. That was the kind of thing they did.’
Nodding, I was still bewildered by the fact that I couldn’t remember Sophie, yet she was talking to me warmly, as if we were old friends.
‘I’d kind of forgotten about it, but Aiden did tell me the criminal had taken to contacting him — a lot. That it was unnerving.’
I listened. As she talked she played with her necklace, shifted her glass, brushed imaginary crumbs from the table and from her sleeves. Her face was small and heart-shaped, with narrow, intense eyes; she had a slight gap between her front teeth.
‘Angela eventually told him the guy had some Mafia connection. He said maybe she should have told him that in the first place!’
‘Angela often introduced them to weird and wonderful people, like the boy who escaped from Isis. But he decided that last one wasn’t such a good idea.’
She poured more wine. ‘Anyway, Aiden didn’t think there was a book in it.’
‘Well. Talking to the Mafia, how interesting.’
She held up her hands. ‘I didn’t want to know about it. I’m a boring corporate suit. Aiden teased me about being narrow, he called me the bean counter. He always used to tell people that after 9/11 happened I said, Excuse me, but who the fuck are the Taliban? I had no idea. He loved that stuff, but I don’t like hearing about current events, crime, all that. Too depressing.’
I listened. In the distance the faint thumping of a stereo; outside, beyond the window, I could see the cat making its way along the wall in the soft dusk.
‘I’d rather watch Lord of the Rings, read Harry Potter. Life’s real enough.’
‘Sure, of course,’ I said, sipping my wine, unhappy that Maya had been near a dangerous criminal, and it came to me that I had wronged her by allowing her to go to London by herself, I should have followed her, stayed near, I had neglected her, and that was why she was lost.
Sophie was drinking fast. I asked her for a glass of water. She drank and talked, her cheeks grew flushed and she stumbled over the odd word as she told me about meeting Aiden for the first time on Bondi Beach, he a young British backpacker afflicted with severe sunburn and she a commerce student who gave him first aid in the form of cold beer and a room in her rented house around the cliffs at Bronte, summer light through the rattan blind, sex and smoking and cheap wine and in the morning there was an earthquake and a vase fell on his head and gave him a black eye …
I realised that she was actually heartbroken, and sat listening as the sky outside turned black and the streetlights came on; there we were, two widows drowning our sorrows and talking around the gaps in our memories.
She talked about Patrick, strange to hear someone I couldn’t recall telling me about her fondness for him, when I’d come here determined to lie to her that I remembered her husband. And even more odd that she remembered me, or some version of me that she described. Apparently on that Hyde Park night I’d talked a lot about little Maya, who was being babysat by Patrick’s niece, and had argued with someone about climate change, and had gone off at dawn supporting Patrick who’d been crippled after slipping sideways on the dance floor under the weight of Sophie Greenaway.
‘That knee was never the same again,’ I said.
As I was leaving, she kissed me on both cheeks.
‘Oh, by the way,’ she said, ‘do you want to give this to Maya?’ She pressed something into my hand. ‘It’s Aiden’s, he said it was important.’
It was a flash drive, not much bigger than my thumbnail.
‘Aiden got me to store it at my office. He was going to give it to Angela but then he died. I feel I shouldn’t just chuck it away.’
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know. Something to do with their work, presumably confidential.’
I thanked her, and walked back to the Tube.
The night was hot, the air humid. At the entrance to the park a fox turned and looked at me, its wild eyes intent, reflecting light.
Charlotte Grimshaw is part of WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Take a look!