A.M. McCaffrey is a newcomer, with two short stories accepted for print publications, one in a coming BTS Books anthology, and the other in Inscribe Journal. A short story and a couple of flash/micro fiction pieces have been published online. He is currently querying a recently completed Y.A. fantasy novel and two sci-fi /fantasy novellas. He holds a university degree in English and Philosophy and taught in a Further Education College and a high-security prison. He now writes full-time.
He cut a dash in flannels and a striped jacket, and Catherine, in her dropped waistline, flounced knee-length black skirt, and stylish cocktail hat, was the epitome of chic.
Freddy told an off-the-cuff anecdote at the cocktail party that he had rehearsed in front of a mirror that morning while drinking his café au lait—a trifling and superficially self-deprecating account of his attempt to hire a horse from an innkeeper in a remote area of Hungary—but it was the implication that he spoke fluent Hungarian that vexed Catherine more than his silly story; it was more than she could take.
Catherine: Searchlights lit the night sky of wartime London like a Hollywood premier and the continuous thump thump from the anti-aircraft guns provided the soundtrack, but it was hard to sustain the comforting fantasy. The ambulance swayed from side to side as she attempted to navigate the wreckage-strewn streets and the engine screeched in protest at her handling of the unfamiliar gears, but she never thought of turning back.
The burning Spitfire went into a nosedive, crashed into the sea, and sank to the bottom of the icy Channel with the pilot still strapped in his seat.
Catherine could not resist the opportunity to bring Freddy down.
“This is quite a coincidence. I forgot to mention earlier that Mr. Max Acs, a Hungarian producer, intends to watch the show tomorrow night, and we must all give our best performance.
“He has invited the cast to dinner afterward. He speaks little English, and you will be in high demand as an interpreter, Freddy.”
“Delighted,” said Freddy, taking a sip of his martini. “I look forward to it.”
The Cote d’Azur was full of La Bohème Chic in 1934 and there seemed no finer time to be alive for the dazzling butterflies and gilded youths who adorned the cocktail party of the dowager, Madam la Comtesse Sophie de Valoise, a member of la noblesse française by marriage.
The young invitees, members of the cast from a touring review, had toasted La Belle Sophie with raised flutes of champagne. Their evenly tanned complexions reflected the new fashion for health, and the scent of Huile de Chaldée, the very first sun cream, lingered in the air.
“Max Acs,” said Freddy, “I believe that I have heard of the fellow. Budapest holds him in high regard, and rumor says that he is looking to expand into the rest of Europe.”
“Really?” said Catherine, gulping a large mouthful of gin and tonic.
“Yes,” said Freddy. It might be an idea to alert the local press; there is bound to be lots of interest. Has he confirmed his attendance, Catherine?”
Freddy had thrown her a lifeline and Catherine grasped it.
“No, but I have not checked for any messages.”
“I should do so. He has a reputation for not turning up.”
You absolute sweetie, Freddy.
“I will ask at the desk.
The dowager grasped Freddy by the arm.
She had once been stunningly beautiful; now the youthful bloom on her cheeks had become delicate white parchment, unblemished, exquisite to the touch, but increasingly fragile.
“Do you play cards, Freddy?”
“Remind me never to play against you. That was the finest double bluff I have ever seen.”
“Bluff? said Freddy.
The dowager smiled and gently touched the soft skin of his cheek with her open palm.
He is just a boy.
She knew that her charade was over.
“You were right, Freddy,” Catherine said when she returned, “he canceled this morning.
“We should celebrate. I should have looked an absolute fool had you not advised me.
“Would you care to share another bottle of champagne? We can have it on the balcony and dine later.”
They walked away arm in arm towards a terrace overlooking La Croisette.
Sophie hailed a passing waiter.
“Une bouteille de champagne pour eux deux avec mes compliments.”
The dowager ordered her driver to take her back to the villa in Grasse and cried a little.
An incendiary bomb hit the road twenty yards ahead and burst into flames. Catherine, a volunteer driver on her first shift, swerved desperately, but the wheels hit a piece of fallen masonry. The ambulance toppled over on its side and the ruptured fuel tank exploded in a huge ball of fire.
It had been Catherine’s face that Freddy saw reflected from the canopy of the spitfire before it shattered on impact. Theirs had been a brief affair and Freddy died never knowing that Catherine bitterly regretted her faux-sophisticated adieu at their parting at Dover.
“Sure to cross paths in town, darling.”
After the war, a diminished Sophie smiled in bemusement as a sea of raised champagne flutes toasted her great age in the garden of her villa in Grasse. Champagne bubbles sparkled in the sunlight, and in an ephemeral moment of clarity, she remembered the cocktail party and the soft skin of the boy in Cannes.
The memory never returned.
Chaldée perfume was a favorite in her later life, although she never made the connection.
Prose in this post: © A.M. McCaffrey
Published with the permission of A.M. McCaffrey