“Welcome to my château.” The Duc beamed like some ghastly unseeing machinery; he wiped his hands upon an untucked shirt that was already as blotched as chip wrappings. He turned and lumbered into motion, swaying from side to side, and Claud followed him obediently, over the cobbles of a white bridge that gleamed acutely in the afternoon sunshine and on into the dimness of the building. They entered a kind of cubby that turned out to be a rudimentary shop and the Duc took his place at the till. “I give the tours with me,” he confided significantly. He probably thought that he was collaborating with Walt Disney’s plans for France, with this Duke’s personal tour around his own sparkling château. “My father and his father and his father owned this magnificent château, all the way back to the tenth century.”
Yes, the château was magnificent, or at least pretty, Claud reflected, but it appeared to be embarrassed to the point of wretchedness by everything around it. You went down a dust track, past some eerie farm buildings, past fields so still that a crow’s caw boomed like a thunderclap, until you startled the château in a clearing behind a row of silos. You might suspect that it was really a cottage and that its lake was just a mill pond, but any confidence in its true perspective was lost in all of those turrets and towers, which were jumbled together like hats on a stand. The towers meandered up and down around a cobbled courtyard that was so small that a Mini surely couldn’t turn a circle in it.
Claud bought a ticket. How many tickets did this Duc sell? One a day? A week?
“Come on!” The Duc smiled with a mixture of encouragement and faultless patience at Claud, as though he was being forced to entertain a schoolchild. Outside again, they jogged up a stone staircase that was unconventionally steep and lacking a handrail. They arrived at a shrunken door and a chamber in which you could have stirred the gloom with a pitchfork. “This is the Summer Tower,” the Duc declared finely. “Added in the fifteenth century. The fireplace, fifteenth; the windows, fifteenth.”
Tat, Claud saw at once. All of the furniture had been purchased in some department store in the 1930s. You could walk into any antique shop in Edinburgh… in fact, you could see more remarkable specimens lined up outside such a shop in the rain.
The Duc paused for a quarter of a second to allow Claud to absorb the room, before flourishing a scrawny arm onwards. “This way!”
The tour spun on into another dreary interior. “The Rose Tower,” the Duc sang. “Seventeenth though the ceiling 1980s; that gun is seventeenth.” How do I stop this?, Claud asked himself frantically.
From over the moat came the abrupt salute of a car horn.
The Duc stopped on tiptoes. “The Duchess?”
Claud moved to the window. He could pick out bawdy voices, which were being already flung at the castle walls like rocks. “Fuck, her sisters too!” the Duc whimpered in French. Claud gathered that he boasted about his château in English and whimpered about his wife in French.
“Eh, c’m out an’ show your pig face. Your children are here.”
Rampaging on the grass verge, there were three stout women who looked as belligerent as a whole hen night. A boy and girl in smart shoes had been left a little distance back, waiting meekly under a tree.
The Duc had fled to the other side of the room. On hearing mention of his children, he flinched as if a cannon had been fired.
“I’ve had them for the last three weeks solid,” the chieftain of the women maintained. “You’re weeping in the court, oh I must have custody, oh she’s wanting not to let me see them. How can I have a sex life with them in my flat every day? Well we are going out tonight and you are having them for all the weekend!”
The Duc took Claud by the arm. “We need to go this way…”
“Yes, I’m glad we’ve got around to the subject at last. You possess something like a panic room. I’ve been contemplating the floorplan of your château and I believe that the gap is located between the curtain wall and that sixth tower.”
The Duc did not hear a third of this. He just nodded at the words “panic room.”
The door was concealed behind a tapestry that was by this century so murky that it might have depicted pondwater. The Duc now found that Claud was ushering him into his own haven. “I’ve long had a crocodile eye on this château and I fancy that the story goes rather like this. During the war, your father was a party member and there were strings he could pull in the Red Army. The Russians had carted off huge chunks of the German state art collection but eventually the time came when a lot of the booty had to be given back, on Stalin’s express orders. Your father stepped in. He purchased art which was not easily sellable in the Soviet Union. And not so easily sellable here by the looks of it.”
The Duc glared dully at Claud. He was trying to worry about the siege of his château and so what was this surplus distraction?
The panic room was conceivably rather bigger than a standard box room, but there were so many items, cocooned in wrapping and piled everywhere, that only a thin path between them was available to stand on. A space had been additionally assigned on the wall between the cocoons to exhibit a canvas. Claud glided up to inspect it.
“A self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn.” The artist looked characteristically podgy and glassy-eyed. “Well it’s… oh… goodness!”
Despite the velvety noiselessness of his movements, Claud had disturbed a fug of dust. He had sneezed explosively before he could stop himself.
“Man!” The Duc was gaunt with outrage.
I’ve never liked Rembrandt, Claud chuckled to himself. He managed to pinch away a string of phlegm from the artist’s fleshly face with his fingertips.
He spun around to the Duc with a brand new smile. “You can keep your Rembrandts. The particular piece that I want is a statue, made of terracotta.”
And if I find it, you’re going to have to scream with all of your might for weeks on end, trussed up with your own artworks in this panic room. Claud communicated this very lightly, with a bob of his eyebrows.
Fortunately for the Duc, he was unable to satisfy Claud. “I know the one. My father sell it. It was different to the others an’ he find a special buyer.”
“My client will pay very generously for any information. More, in fact, than he will spend on purchasing the statue itself.”
Unwisely, the Duc tried to haggle. “Your gnome’s castle in a pond isn’t worth that much,” Claud snapped.
After he had been begrudgingly supplied with a name and an address, Claud remembered something else. “Can I please take a photograph of the Rembrandt, or something better if you have it? I won’t identify your château, of course.”
“It’s a euro to take photos… but…” the Duc regarded him narrowly. “This only for the château main tour.”
“You see,” Claud recounted, “I have a Twitter account and I live tweet my research for a small following of art connoisseurs and experts.”
The Duc broke into beauteous smiles. “Oh me too the Twitter. I am meant to be live tweeting our tours here.”
“Gosh, we should retweet each other.”
“Yes, please yes!”
He has nine times more Followers than me, Claud would reflect enviously later.
The next day Claud was driving to the airport. He had had no breakfast and he was anxious that he would not possess the strength to fly. There was a McDonald’s beside the road and so he pulled up.
The Duc was behind the till, scowling like a cherub beneath the baseball cap. He did not recognise Claud. “You want Big Mac Deal?” he snarled, his face savage. “With Coke or Diet?”
On his way to the exit, with his meal swinging in a paper bag beside him, Claud saw the two solemn children. They were seated on high stools in front of the glass window, with a carton of uneaten French fries before them. The Duchess had evidently overrun the castle.
[Next instalment: “Chainsaws!”]