The Last Best Friend: A British Library Classic Thriller

The Last Best Friend: A British Library Classic Thriller

"The small man standing on the narrow ledge stared fixedly forward with eyes made wide and blank by terror." At 2pm on a Monday in 1966, Ned Balfour wakes in ...

About The Author

George Sims

George Sims (1923-1999) was an antiquarian bookseller and unorthodox writer who wrote highly popular thrillers with cleverly woven narratives.

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Chapter I

2 p.m., Monday, 1st August, 1966.
Paddington, London.

Vertigo? ‘Giddiness, dizziness (in which the patient feels as if he, as if surrounding objects, were turning round).’ The small man standing on the narrow ledge stared fixedly forward with eyes made wide and blank by terror. His face was ashen and veins stood out in his forehead as though he was straining to vomit. Very slowly he edged one foot sideways without looking down, but the movement was indecisive and feeble like that of a dying insect and he brought it back clumsily so that for a second he trod the terrifying emptiness that lay before him. When both feet were together again there was a sudden movement in his dark brown eyes, spiralling down to meet the treacherous, shifting surfaces of roofs and streets which began to spin below him. As they gathered speed his left arm was pressed ever tighter against the wall’s smooth stone blocks and his fingers scrabbled uselessly at the hardly perceptible divisions while he pushed at the air with an upraised right hand in an equally futile effort to steady himself.

Suicide? ‘Person who intentionally kills himself.’ The small man winced, shutting his eyes and cringing as though he had been punched in the stomach. His face was already streaked with greasy marks and sweat ran down steadily through his thin black hair to join drops which beaded his long top lip. He held his eyes tightly closed while he wrenched frantically at his tie, pulling it loose and tearing off the collar button, breathing noisily through his mouth with a gasping sound. Slowly his body began to sway backwards and forwards like a pendulum, taking up an apparently irresistible rhythm, a momentum to join with that of the crazy switchback ride over dizzy heights and depths which was taking place inside his brain. When he opened his eyes they showed despair but also some kind of resolution—his mouth was set firm, he lifted his chin and made a tiny gesture of defiance. He shouted something incoherently, leant forward at an angle impossible for recovery, appearing to defy the force of gravity for a second or so, then fell, uttering a single short cry, a noise which did not sound particularly human, simply the ignominious yelp of an animal encountering death.

 

 

Chapter II

2 p.m., Monday, 1st August, 1966.
Calvi, Corsica.

‘Ned, are you asleep?’

Balfour woke with a sensation of some grievous but hardly definable loss, just a dim sense of vanished beauty, and then, momentarily, a brief fragment of his dream returned—it had been a delightful little nod off, a glimpse of an Arcadian world where personality did not persist.

‘You were asleep. You absolute no-goodnik. Quelle insult!’

‘Definitely not an insult,’ Balfour said rather indistinctly, still nuzzling the girl’s shoulder which had the hue and texture of an apricot rose. ‘The opposite in fact. I was charmed and lulled.’

Already the dream’s atmosphere of complete tranquillity, such as he never experienced in his waking life, was vanishing irrecoverably, leaving only the vague and inadequate impression of a river’s surface glinting like gold in autumn sunlight. Another kind of vanishing trick had taken place as well. Where were the impatient lovers who had entered this darkened room, oblivious of their surroundings, leaving a meal half-finished, intoxicated with something stronger than wine, exchanging ever deeper kisses of an intense fig-like sweetness? What had become of that mutual madness which dictated such frantic undressing, deep sighs, lascivious embraces? The passionate lovers had disappeared, and in their place there was an indolent amiable girl and a middle-aged man with ‘a selfish expression’ and a scarred body. The tall, brass-framed mirror on the facing wall would have recorded, momentarily, all their hectic goings-on: if it had been a camera instead how ludicrous, even faintly sinister, a film of those few minutes would now appear—truly a study of folie à deux.

Balfour looked round the room: he had pushed Bunty through the first door that came to hand when they had emerged from the kitchen, entwined and slowly moving together like a clumsy animal; it was the one formerly used by the du Cros’ ancient aunt, now dead; it still contained a number of her possessions, mostly valueless bric-à-brac of the highly personal kind which is an embarrassment to relatives. In the room darkened by plastic mosquito shutters her pathetic treasures had taken on a depressing and slightly macabre aspect. There was another, smaller mirror in a passepartout frame, and they were also regarded by the daguerreotype of a grim-faced bearded poilu. On a sun-bleached rosewood table there was a disordered array of sea-shells, dusty invitations in outmoded typefaces, a chipped bonbonnière decorated with cherubs, and a Japanese fan. Balfour felt a long-dormant memory stirring in him, something at first inexpressible—then he recalled the odd and distinct smell of a similar oiled paper fan which he had found many years before in a box belonging to his mother.

“‘Round and round the garden, went the teddy bear…’” Bunty tickled Balfour’s hand, breaking his reverie. She looked and smelt delicious—again like a rose, the André Le Troquer—but Balfour knew that further love-making would necessitate some acting on his part as he felt remote and slightly unreal; at first he blamed this on the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of the room, with its pointless collection of mementoes testifying to the fleetingness and futility of life; then, with a momentary flash of self-candour, he realized that this was just a subterfuge, an attempt to excuse a middle-aged man’s failing ardour.

He raised himself on his left arm and pushed her back firmly with his right hand, extending his fingers in a gently clawing motion like a cat. His heavily muscled arm held her prisoner, lying across her belly with his fingers pointing at the teardrop pearl which hung from a thin gold chain. The small erect nipples stood out like raspberry grains. It would make a good painting—the contrast between the thin brown hand, vigorous and masculine, and the cream-coloured breasts, the quintessential image of womanhood, of passivity and defencelessness. Already the hand showed some signs of ageing—there were tiny silver hairs in among the sun-bleached ones, and a few ‘grave’ marks. In twenty or thirty years it would be an old man’s hand, then after a few more years it would be burnt in an oven—a prospect he viewed with reasonable equanimity. Meanwhile it reached out for a share of the good things. ‘Let each man take up his chisel and inscribe his fate…’

Bunty lifted herself up on her elbows and regarded him dispassionately. ‘First of all you fall asleep on me, now you seem about a million miles away. I like not ye man who…’

‘Well, what can you expect if you will take up with an aged gent?’ Balfour countered. He traced the faint impressions of her ribs, sensuously enjoying the fullness and weight of her breasts pressing against the back of his hand. ‘What I like is this pearl between two rubies…’ He broke off abruptly, lifting his head like a cat sensing danger and holding up a hand in a silencing gesture. ‘I think I hear somebody.’

Bunty sprang from the bed, picking up Balfour’s butcher-blue shirt: with this held in front of her she advanced cautiously to the french windows which opened on to a low balcony and partly dislodged the green plastic mosquito screen.

‘Lord! It’s my mama. Quelle fate.’

Her tone of alarm petered out so that finally she did not sound too worried. ‘So what do we do now? Hide under the bed? I presume you’ve had lots of experience.’

‘Nasty.’ Balfour took back his shirt and gave her a light smack. ‘Well, we can’t keep her waiting there. The heat is terrific. I’ll go out…’

Bunty grinned. ‘Public prejudice runs to at least one more garment.’

Balfour grimaced and pulled on his dark blue swimming trunks, keeping Mrs Hillyard in view as she walked along the path, closely surveying the villa.

When he stepped on to the balcony the brilliance of the light-diffused scene forced him to hold a hand above his eyes. There was no sign of the brief rainstorm that had taken place before lunch and the atmosphere was again oppressive; the sky was a flat blue like a child’s painting and light shimmered on the sea and the distant Citadel and the cluster of white, beige and pink-washed buildings that was Calvi. The green tiles were so hot that it was painful to walk on them with bare feet and he moved gingerly on arched soles to the shallow steps which led down to the garden.

Mrs Hillyard stood on the stony path that was patterned with tough, feather-headed weeds. She wore a sleeveless canary-coloured cotton dress; her arms were badly sunburnt and her shoulders were covered with a white chiffon scarf. Fanning her face with a sprig of rosemary, with occasional swipes at some persistent insect, she looked very hot and uncomfortable. There were no trees in the parched-looking garden to give shade and the air was filled with the continuous noise of cicadas and loudly buzzing flies. She whistled faintly.

‘I knew it would be hot in Corsica but this is like being trapped in an oven.’ She gestured vaguely. ‘Is this yours?’ Her tone was intended to be light but it was tinged with envy and something else which Balfour could not pinpoint.

‘No—alas. It belongs to some friends of mine who live in Paris, Roger and Françoise du Cros. I expect you’ll meet them in a week or so.’ He noticed that there were mosquito bites on her arms and her hands were red and swollen.

‘I wondered—if you’d seen Bunty.’ This time her voice was sharply suspicious. Balfour met her look directly and replied quickly and honestly—evasions that avoided lying usually came easily to him:

‘I saw her swimming at the Sun Beach this morning. And she said something about water-skiing this afternoon.’

‘Water-skiing!’ Mrs Hillyard’s eyes blazed with irritation. ‘Really, that girl! She went off this morning without a word so naturally we thought she would be back for lunch. She knew we had hired a car and planned to go to Piana this afternoon.’

‘Do come in for a moment and have a cool drink.’ Balfour touched the back of her hand lightly, then pointed at the elegant white villa, with doors and shutters painted heliotrope, where she was staying. The garden there was shaded by giant palm-trees; it was regularly watered and tended throughout the year, unlike the du Cros’ which was not touched from October to Easter. ‘You’ve been weeding that magnificent garden.’ There was a hint of an accusation in the way he said this.

‘You’re right, though I don’t know how you guessed. It’s so pleasantly cool there in the evening before the mosquitoes descend and I can’t resist pottering.’

Balfour pointed at the tiny bumps on her fingers: ‘Those are not mosquito bites—they’re minute insects—I don’t know what the French name is, but in Dorset they call them harvesters. Painful and very irritating I know by experience. Bathe your hands here while I get you some iced ananas.

Mrs Hillyard went up the steps and through the front door, pausing for a moment and looking into the large room on her right with its series of french windows and views of the Golfe de Calvi and the Citadel. He put his hand on her back and she turned to him, cautiously smiling:

‘That’s rather super. Must be wonderful at night.’

She hesitated again at the end of the passage where there was a closed door on her right leading to the kitchen and patio, and a passage to the left with the doors of the five bedrooms. For a moment Balfour did not guide her. He was experiencing a light-headed feeling that often came to him in tricky situations: an indifference that was tantamount to a wish for danger, exposure and failure. Sammy Weiss called it ‘the will for self-destruction’. He felt that he did not really care if she turned left, forcing him to take part in a kind of French farce. But there was something else which had caused him to pause. When he had put his hand on her back she had shivered and as their eyes met there had been a momentary expression of attraction—a message so fleeting that afterwards one wondered if it had appeared. He did find her attractive—she had the same widely spaced dark blue eyes, clusters of freckles and firm jaw as Bunty. She smelt rather deliciously of Pears soap and dianthus talc. For a moment he had been tempted to slip his arm round her waist, and then was disturbed by this impulse. Barbara had said: ‘You’re sick. It’s an illness. There’s a name for it.’ It was true that he had always found many women attractive; he was not the type to make a faithful husband. But this casual, practically automatic, lust provoked by a smile and a moment’s intimacy was a new development, and one he did not like. Was Barbara’s diagnosis true—would he become a tiresome old Don Juan, always touching women, making advances to see if they would be repulsed?

He opened the kitchen door and turned on the tap with an abstracted air. Mrs Hillyard’s gaze became suspicious again, directed at the table in the dining alcove set for two, the plates untidy with scraps of ham and olives, a bowl containing the remains of a gazpacho salad, glasses half-filled with rosé wine.

‘Marie-Antoinette, the maid,’ he explained, rather too quickly. ‘She wanted to go down to the Lido so I said I would wash up, after my siesta. She’s not too hot at washing-up, but a splendid cook, comes from Brittany, does a marvellous gigot de pré-salé. You must all come for dinner some time.’

‘That’s very kind,’ she said non-committally. Her renewed suspicion had completely dispersed the air of intimacy; her eyes were watchfully attentive and Balfour wondered if Bunty had left anything identifiable by the table—he had begun to undress her there but only, as far as he could remember, to the extent of undoing the shoulder buttons on her terry towelling beach frock.

‘You’ve stayed here before?’

‘Yes, twice—but with my family then.’

‘Oh—you’re married.’ Again her tone was intended to be light and unconcerned but it was obvious that she had given the matter some thought and was surprised that he should be willing to confirm her suspicions, as if he had casually given her a weapon which could be used against him.

‘Yes—but we’re separated.’ His automatic, not very friendly grin and quizzical expression demanded how long this questioning would continue. She put down the glass of ananas.

‘Many thanks. It seems we shall have to make the trip to Piana daughterless. If by any chance you should happen to see her, perhaps you’ll say we shan’t be back till seven or so.’

He stood at the top of the steps blinking in the brilliant sunlight, then shading his eyes frowningly to make a pause for thought; but a phrase to pass over the tricky situation eluded him and after a moment she walked off, with a brief wave of her hand. He watched her until she had gone over the first little bridge and past the clump of eucalyptus trees, then he turned back and went down the dark and comparatively cool passage.

Bunty had removed one of the screens and put on her polka-dot bikini; she was sitting in a cane chair, reading an old copy of Paris-Match. She regarded him over the top of steel-rimmed dark glasses which were perched halfway down her nose. The look was at once provocative and critical. What was she thinking? That he was practically her mother’s contemporary? That someone her own age would be more fun? He could dive, swim and water-ski better than most of the youngsters on the beach, his sense of humour was still functioning off and on, and no one had ever accused him of taking life too seriously, but he was well aware of his limitations as far as she was concerned. Above all he lacked her true, spontaneous gaiety—and there were occasions when she seemed like an inhabitant of a different planet, instead of a member of another generation, and it was as if he could not possibly communicate with her. Perhaps her appraising look meant that he was for the chop. If so he could not grumble. That was the way they had agreed to play the game.

He patted the bed. ‘Come here.’

Bunty cleared her throat and raised her eyebrows in a meaningful way and said, ‘I’ve been there,’ but she put down the magazine and approached him rather coyly. He pulled her on to his knees, humming a brief snatch of ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads,’ then made a fuss of fingering the pearl, raising his eyebrows like Groucho Marx and saying: ‘Yes, Madam, an eighteen grain orient drop on a fine trace. Worth…’

‘Yes. Worth how much?’

‘Who gave it to you?’

‘My old man. For my twenty-first. Can you really value it?’

‘I could hazard a fairly intelligent guess. I’ve a friend who is a jeweller and he’s told me a lot. But this seems to be the occasion for one of my rare moments of tact. Let us say you could not buy it for £200—a fine pearl. And not a bad bit of skin come to that…’

Bunty was cradled in his left arm. Her eyebrows looked as if they had just been dashed on in pale gold; the fine strokes glistened against her deeply tanned forehead. He tugged gently at the lobes of her ears and pretended to have difficulty in getting her face in the right position for a kiss. He was just bending down to complete this enjoyably protracted business when she gave a start: ‘What the hell’s that?’

She pointed dramatically to the ceiling. He looked up to see what appeared to be the elongated shadow of a man’s torso. For a moment it was stationary, then it jerked forward and down out of their vision. Some chance arrangement of mirrors and lenses had contrived a camera obscura effect to present them with this startling image. Once gone it seemed impossible that it had in fact been there, but Bunty was not in any doubt. She squirmed out of his arms and on to her knees on the floor. ‘Christ! First my mama. Now we have a voyeur out there!’

Balfour moved quickly to the open window, to see a postman straightening up from tying his shoe-lace. The man was sweating profusely and kept dabbing his forehead with a grubby handkerchief. He was obviously annoyed at having had to make this trip which necessitated a steep walk up from the rough track. He muttered something about a telegram and an inadequate address, and then frowned as if searching for something else to say to unburden more of his irritation. He pushed an envelope at Balfour with an aggressive movement which displayed a large black area round the armpit of his faded uniform.

Cables were a daily occurrence in Balfour’s business but he was faintly disturbed at receiving one on holiday: he had left instructions that he was not to be sent any communications from his office—it flashed through his mind that this might be something about one of the children, an accident perhaps.

The telegram was addressed simply to Balfour, care of du Cros, Calvi, Corsica. It read: VITAL I HAVE YOUR ADVICE ON TERRIBLE DECISION I MUST MAKE PLEASE PHONE ME TOMORROW MORNING AT THE ARCADE AS EVER SAMMY WEISS. Balfour was not aware of the postman leaving as he stood re-reading the form, slowly digesting its scanty, puzzling message.

Reviews of

The Last Best Friend: A British Library Classic Thriller

“First published in 1967, this entry in the British Library Classic Thrillers series does a splendid job of evoking London in the mid-’60s, both swinging and decidedly criminal…Sims (1923–1999) takes the reader on a journey to a long-gone world where entire streets of London were devoted to the trade of rare books – items valuable enough to attract the most nefarious of mobsters. Sims captures the mood of these places with an insider’s knowledge, while keeping the brief novel moving with a plot that travels all over London, a city at both the end and beginning of an era.”

Publishers Weekly

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