Short Story Category: 15 Minutes
When Susan recalled how she had been in the summer of ’68, when she had first gone flat-hunting in Edinburgh, what came into her mind, with a rush of embarrassment even after all these years, was her youth, her innocence and her unshakeable belief in the values that her parents had imposed upon her throughout her childhood. In retrospect, she now saw she had been looking for an ivory tower, or at least a cell, in which she could live her student life in a style more medieval than late 20th century.
The flat Susan found was everything she could have hoped for except that the owner, Mr Veron, made her nervous. He had explained to her, when showing her around, that he did not normally accept students as tenants since his previous experiences had taught him that they tended to form unruly groups who caused endless problems for other tenants, and for him. However, if she could assure him that she would not be sharing and would not be holding parties, he was prepared, in this instance, to make an exception.
There had been something off-putting about this declaration, some underlying prejudice that the old man sought to imply; but Susan had been unable to resist the suitability of the top floor flat with its kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and study, self-contained behind a substantial front door that would be, if required, a barrier to intrusions from the outside world. She had put aside all misgivings and signed the lease.
Mr Veron lived on the ground floor, and once she had moved in, she saw him only when he called on Sunday afternoons to collect the rent. On his first couple of visits, she still found his manner unsettling. He had a way of throwing out sudden questions in his strange accent – French, she thought, with a hint of Scots – while he counted the cash and entered details in the rent book.
‘What is it that you will study?’
Not looking in her direction.
‘English,’ Susan said.
‘You have favourite writers?’
His tone seemed to Susan more in keeping with interrogation than with polite enquiry.
‘Well. . . I did the Brontë sisters in my last year at school. I liked them, and. . .’
His attention still on the notebook.
‘The borderline between romance and hysteria,’ he said, then looked towards her with what she took to be disapproval. Like a sarcastic schoolteacher, she thought, with his carefully constructed sentences, delivered in that ungainly accent. Or maybe like a character in a radio play. Susan, who had been brought up to be polite to older people, was used to being treated with civility in return. Mr Veron’s apparent indifference troubled her.
Later, when she was alone in the flat, she found herself speculating about his age. Ancient, for sure, but it was hard to be more accurate. Her father had been only 62 when he’d died, but had been ill for a long time, thin and pale and unable to shave himself, so that latterly his face was covered in grey stubble, making him look like some derelict, some old tramp. She was sure Mr Veron was older than that, yet he was tall and held himself erect. He had a full head of thick white hair, and a broad moustache, the rest of his face clean-shaven, a healthy, ruddy colour. When he climbed the stairs, she could hear him coming; not the footsteps of a weary old man, but brisk and steady. She thought about asking him how old he was, but decided that might offend him, giving him cause to be even more curt.
In October, the first term began and soon the crispness of the Edinburgh autumn darkened into winter chill. Susan enjoyed the routines of university, although the solitary habits that she had established as a schoolgirl continued to determine her life. In an environment dominated by her father’s illness and her mother’s constant anxiety, Susan had drawn inwards, finding in her school studies a way of escaping from the tensions of home and the senseless obsessions of her contemporaries. She had managed to maintain a kind of distant familiarity with fellow pupils, but was close to no one. She wished to play no part in the rebellion of youth; she was glad not to have attracted the notice of boys, whose loud and constant clamouring for attention was an irritation and worry to her. The fact that this made her an object of pity or ridicule did not unduly concern her.
Now, in the more adult world of the university, she thought of herself as creating her own aura of mystery, making a game out of her remoteness and consciously avoiding giving away personal revelations. She immersed herself in her studies, allowing her love for classic literature to compensate for her lack of interaction with others. Books were, after all, more interesting than life. She saw nothing strange in this, and harboured secret feelings of superiority when she saw how much of their time her fellow students squandered on rock music, arguing in coffee rooms or getting conspicuously drunk in the bar at the Union. They seemed to be pursuing fantasies of student life, while she was content in what she felt to be old-fashioned isolation.
What she had found, on first acquaintance, to be threatening in Mr Veron’s manner she came to interpret, with growing familiarity, as an eccentricity that was almost entertaining. His enquiries about the progress of her studies became routine, and although he invariably followed these with dismissive opinions on the writers she mentioned, she guessed his intention was to be wryly humorous. Susan, with growing confidence, took to disagreeing with his views; in response, Mr Veron would adopt an expression of mock grievance that was entirely French in origin, usually accompanied by some muttered comment about the naivety of the young or the lack of critical judgement in the students of today. They would both smile.
His Sunday visits extended in duration. She would offer him a coffee, and their conversations developed to encompass the weather, events of the day, even, on occasion, politics (although Susan’s knowledge of this was limited and she was happy to listen while Mr Veron gave her the benefit of his reflections). And of course, literature. She discovered that he was widely read, and knowledgeable even about the authors he claimed to consider inferior. She sensed that, despite his often-morose manner, it gave him pleasure to hold forth in this way, and she had to admit to herself that she increasingly looked forward to the sound of his footsteps on the stairs.
One Sunday, a book left lying on the kitchen table caught his attention. His expression grew serious. He picked it up.
‘Is this one of your study texts?’ he asked.
‘Well, it’s really a piece of extension reading. We studied one or two of his early stories in tutorial, and I enjoyed them a lot. I’ve been looking at more of his work.’
Mr Veron flicked through the pages, pausing occasionally to read the title of a story.
‘No doubt, he could write. But, forgive me, he was an absolute shit.’
She had never before heard Mr Veron use such language – what her mother would have described as ‘colourful’.
‘Is there something in the work that leads you to hold such a poor opinion of the author?’ she asked.
His eyes rested on the book in his hands.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I have read all of his fiction, and never cease to be amazed at how such a man could write so well. I knew him, many years ago in Paris. It is with regard to his behaviour towards other people, particularly towards his wife, that my poor opinion is based.’
He had grown distant, his voice low as if talking only to himself, his eyes still on the book.
‘I have not thought of these events in a long time,’ he said. ‘Even when I read that he had died – that must have been about eight years ago – I tried not to dwell on my memories of him. I long ago came to the conclusion that it is pointless to allow the sins and follies of the past to cloud the present. I am an old man, and try to take what happiness I can, or if not happiness then peace, from what is left in my life as it is now.’
Susan was surprised by his sombre tone, and thought it best to ask no further questions. Instead, she made a pot of tea (as her mother might have done), and, without asking, poured cups for Mr Veron and herself. The rattle of the cup when placed on the table before him seemed to bring him back.
‘Sorry, my dear,’ he said, smiling. ‘You must forgive an old man his regrets. It was all so long ago.’
He sat at the table, put down the book, and lifted the cup.
‘Perhaps, since it has some bearing on your studies, you might like to hear my tale of youthful folly,’ he said. ‘If you’ll allow me to cook you dinner tomorrow evening, I will tell you a strange story.’
Susan was too curious to even consider refusing his invitation.
The ground floor flat was more spacious than Susan had expected. She was taken down a long hallway with doors on either side, and was shown into a large kitchen. Two places were set at a plain wooden table in the middle of the room.
‘I thought we’d be more comfortable here, rather than being formal in the dining room,’ he said.
Against one wall, a Raeburn stove filled the room with warmth and a delicious smell of cooking. Mr Veron took a casserole dish from the oven, and served from it into two large bowls, which he set on the table. From a cupboard, he produced an opened bottle of red wine, two glasses and a basket of sliced bread.
The meal was chicken, in a rich dark sauce that tasted unfamiliar but delicious to Susan. Her only previous encounter with wine had been at Christmas lunch at home, where a single glass of sickly-sweet German wine had been served with the obligatory turkey, her mother reminding her that, at seventeen, she should not be drinking alcohol at all. The wine that Mr Veron served was smooth and earthy, and went beautifully with the casseroled bird. She felt remarkably grown up.
As they ate, Mr Veron spoke brightly, with an almost youthful good humour.
‘My parents were both rather ashamed of me,’ he said. ‘They hoped that I would become a lawyer or a doctor, or perhaps would make my way in business and build a great trading empire. Unfortunately, my chances of studying were interrupted by the Great War. I enlisted as a private soldier in 1916. I pretended to be older than I actually was, and managed to stay alive until I was demobilised in 1920. By then I was no longer suited for the academic life. Instead, I took myself off to Paris, with the intention of becoming a writer.
‘I didn’t want to be dependent on my parents, so I took lodgings and worked in a café. It was cheap to live in Paris after the war, if you were able to put up with spartan living conditions, and didn’t mind hard work. The city was alive with writers and artists, all celebrating that the war was over, and that they had survived. I’m sure you have come across references in your studies to the writers who gathered there in the 1920s. There were so many. Sadly, a large number of them, like me, discovered that the desire to be a writer is not sufficient if it is accompanied by a lack of genuine talent.’
He smiled and drank the contents of his wine glass in one long draught.
‘However, despite the disappointment of my discovery, there were many compensations. The city was wonderful. The people were wonderful. I found the emotional scars left from the war were gradually healing.’ He paused. ‘And of course, I was in love.
‘It was a very literary café where I worked; writers came with their friends to argue and show themselves off; or they came alone to write, or pretend to write, or to stare at the pretty women passing in the street. That was how I first encountered the American. He would turn up most mornings, never too early, and sat at the same table, outside on the pavement. He would order coffee, produce his paper and pencils, and begin to write. When you brought him coffee, he liked to talk, especially if he thought you were impressed by his being a writer. He spoke rather poor French, and considered himself to be a great humourist. Being an impoverished waiter, and always trying to encourage customers to indulge in the handing out of gratuities, I showed my appreciation of his wit by laughing more than was merited, and spoke to him in the English I had picked up in the trenches. Of course, the tips were minuscule, he being just about as badly off as I was, but to be fair, he would sometimes leave a few coins on the table when he departed. If the writing was going well, and he remained at the table into the afternoon, he would reward himself with some cognac, one or two glasses at the most. I gather that, later in life he was not so abstemious.
‘He liked to talk to the waiters, especially those of us who had been soldiers. He liked to talk about the war. The conversations usually began with stories of his adventures on the Italian front. He always seemed to suggest bravery, without actually boasting. Then he would want you to tell him about your own war. I had been caught up in the 1917 mutiny, and did not wish to share those experiences with him.
‘Occasionally, he would come in the evening, and mingle with the other artists, and then he brought with him a beautiful woman, his wife. There is no rhyme nor reason to falling in love. At first, when you find your eye caught by someone, you may not even know what it is that attracts you. I have known men to fall for women who were spectacularly ugly, or wore some habitual expression of pleasantness or innocence or even of belligerent aggression.
‘I cannot tell you why my attention was drawn so powerfully to the American’s wife. She was beautiful, yes, but Paris was full of beautiful women. She was bright and cheerful, always smiling, always ready with a word for those around her, not only friends and acquaintances but also the girl who took the coats and hats, the barman, the waiter. When I took their order or brought their meal, she would smile as if a long-lost friend had just arrived, and chattered as if what happened in my boring life was of significance to her. I started to take on extra shifts, just in the hope that they would drop in for a meal, or maybe to have a glass of wine with some writer-friends. There was always the hope that I might be able to speak with her.
‘Most evenings, the American would be holding forth, or provoking an argument about art or writing, or boxing, or horse racing, or fly-fishing. He seemed to regard himself as an expert on all things, and he needed to dominate whatever company he was in, while his wife looked on silently wearing an adoring look, or struck up quiet, intense conversations with other wives or girlfriends, similarly ignored while their men sought to out-do one another.
‘I was becoming obsessed. When she was there, my entire attention became focused on her – whether he paid her attention, or ignored her; whether she looked happy or displeased; whether she was engrossed in conversation or could perhaps be persuaded to give a moment of her attention to a humble waiter.
‘When he came to the café alone, I watched him as a police spy would watch a criminal. If the weather was good, he would sit at his outside table, drinking coffee, watching the passers-by, writing. If it was cold or wet, he would come inside the café, taking a table by one of the steam radiators, and keep other clients away by making himself look surly and aggressive. Sometimes a young woman would join him at his table, and the writing would stop. Not always the same young woman, you understand. It might be one of the street girls who frequented the district, or the wife of one of his fellow writers; but always young, and always hanging on his every word. Later, they would go off together.
‘I used to watch with anger growing inside me, unable to understand how he could behave this way with ordinary women, while his own very special wife was at home, believing him to be struggling with his art. I would have punched him on the chin, except that he was taller and wider and heavier and obviously stronger than I, and I would only have ended up looking stupid, and probably injured.
‘Only occasionally would she come to the café by herself, and I could engage her in conversation. When this happened, I almost shook with joy. I would tease her, suggesting that she was perhaps looking for a new companion, but she ignored any such possibility. On one occasion she was so happy, because her husband was off earning money that would make their frugal life more exciting. It saddened me to see the excitement in her face when she talked about him. She said that he was in Geneva, reporting on some conference for a newspaper, and that, even better, she was going to join him there for a holiday, their first for many months. I wished her a pleasant trip. My joy was all evaporated.
‘Two days later she was back in the café with a woman friend. She was dressed for travel and carried a suitcase. I waited on their table and eavesdropped. She told her friend about her husband’s unexpected earnings, and explained that she was on her way to catch a train to be with him. In her suitcase, she said, she was carrying all of his draft stories; he was hoping to be able to do some rewriting during their holiday, before sending them to an American publisher who had shown interest. She was very excited.
‘”This could be his big break,” she said, her eyes bright, her voice breathless. “I only hope nothing happens to the stories while I’m in transit. He’d never forgive me if anything happened to them.” She laughed at the unlikely possibility, and a dark notion began to form in my mind.
‘When she left the café, I also left, telling the patron that I was feeling unwell, and followed her. I had lost control. The suggestion that he cared more about his stories than he did about her enraged me, but at the same time it sparked off a plan by which I could break them apart and create an opportunity for myself. Madness, I know, to believe that I could win the affection of this woman by engineering a falling out between her and a man she so obviously loved deeply. I was young, I was foolish, I was besotted. I make no excuses for my stupidity, I merely comment on how my actions came about.
‘I followed her to the Gare de Lyon. It was a day of December sunshine, I remember. The station was crowded, and it was easy to stay out of her sight. I watched her as she purchased a ticket and made her way to the train. I followed at a distance, and when she climbed aboard, I watched through the carriage windows as she entered an empty compartment. She placed her suitcase under the seat, out of sight, and then retraced her steps. I had to hide behind a cast-iron pillar as she left the train and walked back along the platform to where a vendor was selling filled baguettes and fruit. I entered the train, and took her suitcase. It was early, and there were few passengers in their places. It was easy.
‘I moved back along the train, and watched from a doorway until I saw her returning, carrying the food she had bought. When she came back on board, I returned to the platform and left the station, walking as briskly as I could without attracting undue attention. I imagined how it would be when she discovered her luggage had been stolen. Perhaps it would not be until the train was in motion, or even when she arrived at her destination and reached down to lift the suitcase.
‘It was only then, when I thought of the shock and unhappiness that she would feel at that moment, that I understood the malicious foolishness of my actions. My love for her was like a child’s infatuation; it was based only on my imaginings. My hatred of him was a by-product of that infatuation. I had attempted to be a writer and had failed, but I knew how precious the pages I had filled were, the stories I had carefully clipped together and posted off to publishers. I could not have found a more brutal way to wound him; it would destroy their marriage. It would destroy her.
‘I made my way slowly back to the room I rented, and lay on my bed, full of self-loathing. It took me a long time before I could bring myself to open the suitcase. I remember that it was not even locked. On top of her neatly folded clothing was a cardboard file, bulging with sheets of thin copy paper – his stories – not even clipped together, the type blurred from the carbon. Some were handwritten. I wondered whether the originals still existed somewhere, or if these were indeed the only drafts. She had seemed so concerned in case she lost them. I felt so foolish: to have robbed her – for what? A sheaf of flimsy papers?’
Mr Veron fell silent. He lowered his head forward and stared at the table, as if he was seeing once again the pile of papers. He did not move for a long time, until finally Susan asked him, ‘So what did you do?’
‘I read the stories. My English was not so fluent then as it later became, but I knew enough to realise that these were very fine stories indeed. Some were about the war, and how it was, after the war was over. They captured feelings that I had been unable to express. His brilliance only made me angrier with him, and more contemptuous of myself. Like mist clearing on a grey morning, I saw how impossible my scheme had been, how I had been existing in a fantasy world.’
‘Did you give them back? Did you admit what you had done?’ Susan asked.
‘No. I did not have the courage to make confession.’
He poured the last of the wine, sharing it between their glasses.
The final weeks of the academic year were hectic, with assignments to be submitted and examinations to be taken. Susan’s days were spent in the library, digging out appropriate references, compiling notes, attempting questions from previous years’ papers and assembling essay answers. She ate her evening meals alone in the student refectory, and seldom returned to the flat before nine. She had not seen Mr Veron for two weeks, and was surprised, without feeling anxious, that he had not called for the rent. She assumed that, like herself, he was otherwise occupied.
It was the day after her last examination, when she was packing to return home to make a visit to her mother, that she learned of Mr Veron’s death. The news was delivered by a portly, middle-aged man who introduced himself as ‘the solicitor representing her former landlord’. Susan’s shock must have been obvious, for his formal manner softened.
‘I’m sorry, I had assumed that you would have heard by now. Mr Veron suffered a severe heart attack two weeks ago, while shopping, and was taken to The Royal Infirmary. Despite the best attentions of the staff, he passed away the next morning.’
Susan stood in her doorway, in silent astonishment. She stared into the man’s face stupidly, her mind racing, trying to find the appropriate reaction to his words. He shuffled his feet and looked back down the stairs, as if expecting someone to join him, turning his head away from her gaze.
‘I had no idea,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, I’m completely. . .’ She did not know how to end her sentence. ‘I’m. . . Sorry. . . Please, come in.’
She indicated that he should sit, which he did rather awkwardly, and, still aware of her own incoherence, she sought to gain time to think by offering him a cup of tea, which he declined.
‘I really don’t know what to say. He seemed so fit, so healthy for a man of his age. It’s so sudden, so unexpected. Maybe that’s a stupid thing to say. I don’t know what to say.’
The man gave a melancholy smile.
‘I always think that there is nothing quite appropriate to say in these situations. Did you know Mr Veron well? Have you been a tenant here for long?’
‘I’ve been here for about a year. I took the flat last summer before I started University. I liked Mr Veron very much. I could not really say that I knew him very well. He was such a mystery. I mean I don’t even know if he had any family in Edinburgh, or anywhere else for that matter.’
‘No, he had no surviving family,’ the solicitor said.
‘When I came here at first,’ Susan said, ‘he seemed very private, rather abrupt but. . . it’s difficult to explain. . . I got to know him better I suppose, although. . . he didn’t really go in for day-to-day chit chat, but when he did open up, he was fascinating.’
‘Yes. I knew him as a client. He was very enigmatic, yet in conversation he gave glimpses into. . . what one might call a life well lived. It is strange what you say about his being rather standoffish at first. That was my experience of him too, but over the years, I came to see him quite often – I handled legal matters for his business – and eventually got to know him. He was. . . how can I say, quite a raconteur. His experiences in two world wars, his travels in Europe and beyond, his eventual settling here in Edinburgh, the restaurant that he ran for years. When I went to see him professionally, I would sometimes go to the restaurant in the afternoon, when it was closed. He was always happy to open a bottle of wine, and we usually ended up talking about. . . what people call “old times”. He told wonderful stories. I even suggested to him he should write them all down, and he said that he had tried that once, but he didn’t have the capability. I never quite knew whether or not to believe him – some of his exploits seemed rather far-fetched – perhaps belonging to the world of imagination rather than history – but they were always entertaining to listen to.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘you must have made a very powerful impression upon him, because what I’m here to tell you is that he has left this flat to you, in his will. The downstairs flat is to be sold, and the money donated to Oxfam, but this one is yours to do with what you wish. You will be aware that property in this part of the city is valuable, so Mr Veron has left you a very substantial legacy. He has also asked that you be given this.’
He opened his briefcase and took out a faded file of green cardboard, which he passed to Susan. It contained a bundle of thin sheets of foolscap paper, some covered in handwriting, others closely typed.
‘They seem to be a collection of stories,’ the lawyer said. ‘He left them with me for safekeeping, at the same time as he altered his will in your favour. I have to confess that I have read them – I can only assume that these are his own attempts at writing, which he disparaged in his conversations with me. What I found extraordinary was that as well as telling of life in Europe, many of the stories are set in the USA, which I had never heard him speak of visiting. They are interesting, although hardly of a professional standard. The style is rather derivative. I think he must, at some time in his life, have been too much influenced by the work of Ernest Hemingway.’
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