It was an icy winter, and I was holed up in a four-hundred-year-old stone house in a small French village. Two months before, I had run away from Hungary, from a love story I no longer believed in. Now, huddled beside a wood-burning stove, I was writing a mystery, Death by Slanderous Tongue, on the kitchen table, incorporating into the tale, all the pleasant and unpleasant characters around me, much local gossip, and the strange goings-on that, when put in the right — or wrong — context, could lead to a (fictional) murder.
I was filled with longing — for published books, for recognition as an author, for warmer weather, for candle-lit dinners and a wonderful new romance, for something unusual to take place. Of course, all of those things do require an impossible alignment of lucky stars, and that never happens in my universe.
I had already had two books published: my romance, Felicity’s Power, had been released by, Power of Love, in Australia, but the company had folded three months later. My non-fiction book, Finding Home: in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers, had been published the preceding autumn. It was a project that had taken me six years of research in the archives of Romania, Austria, Germany, Holland, England, France, the USA, and Canada; the learning of a new language (Yiddish) so I could translate documents; much uncomfortable travel on buses and trains; and the crossing of Romania on foot. Then, came the hard work of writing, the torture of book proposals, and the discouraging rejection letters. However, the manuscript did soon find a welcome home at the now-defunct Sumach Press, in Toronto.
Finding Home received a few excellent reviews, but it earned no money. No surprise. Not earning money is nothing new in my life: I never did figure out how to do it, and I’m too old, and too ornery, to learn now. So, there I was, freezing, poor, living in a very unromantic French village. Understandably, life seemed rather flat, eventless. Thus, the murder mystery to cheer me up.
It was on a late Thursday afternoon that the telephone rang. It was Rémy — he’s a sculptor, a friend, a cultural attaché who had arranged several of my art exhibitions over the years.
“How do you feel about going to Egypt for eight days? It won’t cost you anything: free flight, free food, free travel, free hotel.”
“Sounds fine to me.” (I knew he was joking, of course.)
“Okay, we leave on Saturday morning.” He didn’t sound as though he were joking. “If you need a visa, you’d better get to Paris right away.”
“Oh come on. What’s the gimmick?”
“No gimmick. Just yes, or no. If you aren’t interested, I have to know right away. Now.”
“I’ll explain when we’re on the plane. Yes, or no?”
I took a train to Paris, almost three hundred kilometres away— sometimes you just have to take risks — and got myself to the Egyptian Embassy. I was lucky. Normally, obtaining a visa took three days, but I would have one that afternoon: there had been a terrorist bombing in Cairo and, at the moment, tourists were very thin on the ground. I then went out to the edge of Paris where Rémy had arranged I spend the night in a circus trailer. Yes, I know, dear reader. This all sounds so unlikely. Like some romantic, highly unbelievable fiction. But it’s all true, I swear it is. Rémy’s son had his own, very original circus, and one of the trailers happened to be empty. No, there was no heating. Yes, the bed was a lumpy affair. Yes, there was running water, but it was in a washhouse way out in the back of beyond. However, the accommodation was free (I did mention that money and I don’t often meet), and I got to watch a wonderful circus performance.
On Saturday morning, I joined Rémy out at the airport. He was with a small group of friends — three sculptors, two painters, a blue-eyed pastelist, an art photographer, his wife, and an art critic I knew from way back — he was a very slimy guy. I did like the blue-eyed pastelist however.
On the plane, Rémy told me his story: he had originally planned to go on this trip with his mistress of the moment (he has always had a string of mistresses) but she’d left him the week before, after he’d made it clear he wouldn’t be leaving his wife. Now, he was broken-hearted. He had already paid for the mistress of the moment’s ticket to Egypt, for the hotels; weeks before, he’d told his wife he would be travelling with the art critic and a few artist friends — so he definitely couldn’t announce now that he’d suddenly found a ticket for her. But, why let that ticket go to waste? Besides, Rémy needed a shoulder to cry on: mine.
In Egypt, the days passed very pleasantly. We all went to museums, travelled to a few towns, spent hours (as the French do) over long lunches in shady gardens, drinking wine, discussing art at great length, and with much heated debate — French artists do like doing that sort of thing. I flirted a bit with the blue-eyed pastelist, and although he was polite, he wasn’t encouraging. We went to visit Egyptian friends of the critic, and they all lived in crowded back apartments; we took slow boats across the Nile to other shady gardens where we dined, drank wine, and discussed art at great length, and with much heated debate. In the evenings, after wonderful dinners, a considerable amount of wine, and many fiery discussions about art, we strolled through the streets. Then, we’d bid each other goodnight and go to our rooms (the slimy art critic always suggested I join him in his — he was not an easily-discouraged man). I, of course, was sharing Rémy’s room — the one he would have stayed in with his mistress — but not his bed (we really are just friends). And, each night, he waxed on about the mistress, about how much he loved her, missed her, about how wonderful his wife was etc. The usual.
Then, suddenly, something very strange happened (very strange in my life, anyway.) Somewhere out in that very distant universe, a few stars aligned.
It was the day before we were due to leave. Not quite lunch time, we were all sitting in the shade outside a café in some forgotten town along the Nile, and, as usual, discussing art at great length. Rather bored, I looked across the road and noticed a sign: cyber café. Announcing I was going to check my mail (the French artists I know have no modern cell phones, and they don’t travel with computers), I crossed the street, entered the café, paid my money, and went online.
Which was when I discovered that my publisher had written to announce I had just been awarded the Tanenbaum literary prize for Canadian history, and I was to fly to Toronto for the awards ceremony. I would then go on to speak at book festivals in a few cities.
I don’t know how many times I read that letter; how many times I checked that it really had been sent to me; that it had been sent by my publisher — I mean, things like this don’t happen to me. Stunned, I finally managed to stagger back outside into the sunshine, to lurch across the road, to announce what had happened.
Heated discussion about art stopped immediately. Everyone stared. Then, they began to cheer. Someone — was it Rémy? — flagged down a donkey cart filled with sacks of grain, and, pushed me into it. The blue-eyed pastelist jumped in beside me, handed the ancient and confused driver some money, and we were off, clomping through town with the group of artists walking beside us, cheering. It was quite a moment. All my hard work had paid off. I was on the dizzying heights. Finally. Well… sort of…
Okay, my publisher was a small one, there was probably no luxury in sight, but I vowed I would use this opportunity to the full: I would criss-cross America, go on long book tours, meet readers, writers, talk, see places. Wasn’t that exciting? True, I would be back on those miserable all-night buses and trains again; I would probably stay in dreary hostels; in Toronto, I would be sleeping on a cot at my step-sister’s, sharing the back room with the cat’s litter box. Did any of that matter? Of course not. I was a recognised writer. I had won a much-coveted prize.
Yes, I know what you’re waiting for. You want a love story. That evening before we left Egypt, the blue-eyed pastelist discovered I wasn’t Rémy’s wife or his girlfriend (after all, we were sleeping in the same room), and he wanted to know if I would have dinner with him once we arrived in Paris. And, if I needed a place to stay, he could always put me up…
Of course, we all know that stars don’t stay neatly aligned for forever. But, dear reader, just in case you’re wondering, the blue-eyed pastelist and I are still together after all this time. As for reading about the book tour, you’ll just have to wait for next month’s Episode Two. In the meantime, take a peek at all my delicious books right HERE.
J. Arlene Culiner on Amazon:
Jill Culiner on Amazon: