Today's Reading

Seconds later, I'm looking at a WhatsApp from my lovely friend Evelyn. As a neighbour in Holland Park, she's seen me through countless crises, both marital and medical. She's worked in publishing all her life, becoming the doyenne of London editors with a fine list of authors who all adore her almost as much as I do, but recent retirement has bought her a rather nice bungalow in a seaside town called Budleigh Salterton. She's had a long association with the place, thanks to their annual literary festival, and now—it seems—they want to stage a little welcome to celebrate her settling down for good.

A whole evening of yours truly, she's written. Sorry about the short notice but it's taken me by surprise, too.

The event is to take place tomorrow in St Peter's Church, and I can tell by the rest of the message that she very definitely needs moral support. I'm in the middle of replying to her when Malo rings. He has H's bluntness when it comes to bad news.

'Sorry, Mum—' he begins.

'No problem.' I cut him short. 'I've got another date. Best to those mates of yours. I'll take the train back to town.'

I hang up, and then finish my WhatsApp message to Evelyn. Of course I'll come down for the event. Might I beg a bed afterwards?

She's back within seconds, absolutely delighted. Of course I can stay the night—in fact I can stay forever if the mood takes me. The message ends with one of those cheesy emoticons, which is a bit of a departure for Evelyn.

I study it for a moment, and then reach down for my suitcase.

'Later, eh?' I know Pavel is listening. 'Some other weekend?'


TWO

Not going to Prague turns out to be a godsend. Getting back to my apartment in Holland Park, I find a message waiting for me on my landline. My agent, Rosa, has been trying to raise me but without success. I apologize for having my cell phone switched off but she says it doesn't matter. She has some interesting news. One of our favourite BBC development executives has been on. Like me, by some strange twist of fate, he's been thinking hard about ways to mark Pavel's passing and has caught wind of a script, or perhaps a long treatment, he evidently never showed to anyone.

The honchos at BBC drama, bless them, have always held a candle for Pavel, recognizing his distinctive voice and doing ample justice to script after script. Rather than wasting resources on some dutiful retrospective, with warm words and extravagant curtsies from his favourite thesps, they're keen to lay hands on this rumoured masterpiece.

'Any ideas, my precious?'

'None, I'm afraid.' I'm thinking hard. 'Have they got a title? Subject matter? Lead names? Any other clue?'

'Alas, no. They rather thought that you might be able to help.'

'They think he told me everything?'

'They think you were his muse. It might be the same thing.'

'Christ, no. He didn't even tell me he had a son. As you know, the guy had to fly halfway round the world and knock at my door before I twigged that bit of the back story.'

Rosa has a throaty laugh, a tribute to half a lifetime on the roll-ups. Ivan, Pavel's son, teaches world literature at the University of Western Australia in Perth. He turned up in London a couple of months ago to attend a conference. Pavel's obituary, and then a call to Rosa, brought Ivan to my apartment, where I was only too happy to share a story or two about the father he'd never known. That afternoon has stayed with me ever since, partly because Ivan's smile and playful intelligence brought Pavel back to life, and partly because he left with the knowledge that his father's estate was worth at least three and a half million pounds. When I share this news with Rosa, of course she isn't surprised.

'Five,' she says briskly, 'at least. I'm told the French have just come in with a huge rights bid on that Huguenot costume series he did way back, and Pavel's agent is expecting something similar from the Canadians. Have you talked to Claude recently?'

'No.'

'Then maybe you should.' Claude Ransome was Pavel's solicitor, and is now acting as executor for his estate.

'This missing gem...' I say, wanting to change the subject. 'I don't even know where to start.'

'His house, maybe? The one in Chiswick?'

'It's gone. Sold.'

'That place you bought him down in the West Country?'

'That went, too.'

'That laptop of his?'

I nod, but say nothing. Before he went blind, Pavel used to write on an Apple MacBook, an object to which he was fond of ascribing almost supernatural powers. A decent bottle of Chablis plus Steve Jobs, he used to say, are the twin keys that will open any fictional door. Latterly, paralysed as well as blind, Pavel acquired a significantly expensive piece of software that would turn speech and dictated stage directions into screen text. This MacBook, I still have.

'I can take a look,' I tell Rosa. 'No promises, though. You knew the man. He buried everything. Layers and layers of deceit, and that was just for the day-to-day stuff. Something like this, something he really wanted to hide, you'd need to be an archeologist, not a muse.'
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