Tony Thomas

Fool’s gold on Rue de la Folie Regnault

Marg and I lobbed into our latest apartment in Paris, delighted to find it well fitted out. Previous apartments were stocked with items left over from the owners’ attics after all the relatives and local gypsies had picked them over for anything of value. Next morning, I explored the bookcase in the bedroom while Marg washed up, swept the floor and went off to check the local laundromat.

Most books were in French, one of the few languages I have difficulty with. I opened an old paperback called ‘Fontainebleu’ and – oh ciel! — banknotes began to pour out of it like beautiful pressed flowers.

They were Euro (€) notes, which meant they had been hidden there in recent history. As to the amount…a couple of hundreds, a fifty, a fistful of 20s, they just kept coming. Still unbelieving, I counted them out. €380 in total, that is, about $A500. I speculated that some previous traveler hid the funds, departed in a hurry or half-blotto, and for some reason never followed up to reclaim the money, or maybe thought it had been lost to pickpockets on the subway.

I was sitting there, eyes glazed over, when a sepulchurous began chanting, "Do not tell Margaret…do not tell Margaret." When I hear this voice, I am instantly in its power, fight it though I may.

In any case, I reasoned, if I did tell Marg, any of the following would happen:

1. She would tell the apartment agent to come and get it, or

2. She would spend it on essentials, or

3. She would insist we celebrate with a snack, coffee and cake for two at the friendly and picturesque French café down the street with its red-striped awnings, after which there would be nothing left of $500 but small change.

The sinister voice then commanded me, "Re-hide it in case Marg opens the book by coincidence. Put all the notes between the two baseball caps on the top of the wardrobe." This I did, robot-like."

But my higher faculties cut in. Would my actions, however involuntary, meet the four-way test of the XXX Rotary Club, of which I am a much-loved member and wannabe President? Grrr, probably not even meet a two-way test. But I could email the apartment owner in Adelaide and alert him that some money had been found, that it was held in trust by myself, and would be given to anyone who could correctly state the amount, hiding place and my mother’s maiden name.

That left the ethical dilemma. Would Marg find out, e.g. through her snap audits of my wallet or her spooky intuition, that has felled me so often in the past?

Previously I could launder amounts I overspent (above my meagre weekly allowance) in the Bermuda Triangle between our bank and Visa-card accounts, as per rogue forex dealers. But that has become dangerous since Marg took a course in forensic accounting, apparently as a hobby.

I remembered I shortly have a two-week window traveling solo in UK, where I could "disappear" quite a lot of funds on opera tickets, "presents", the odd book and CD etc.

Another option is the fait accompli. I would come home to Melbourne with the funds. Soon after that, I buy the computer I have long craved, and march through the front door with it, saying, "I’m home! By the way, I’ve just bought an iMac!" The fait accompli really separates the men from the boys. Although the initial explosion can be large, things usually settle down a bit after three or four months.

Another point is that the body will embark, as after childbirth, on "biological forgetting". In fact, I previously  tried the tactic in 1991, 1994 and early 2004.

Best thing for now, I thought, would be to let the matter ferment for 24 hours, in the expectation that a safe and honorable plan would emerge.

So, time now for our daily expedition. We headed off for Chateau de Vincennes. I walked with a slight swagger, as per a Lachlan Murdoch, youthful, virile and very rich. The subway trip was enlivened by some French plainclothes police collaring a small gang of teenagers from our train and banging their heads against the wall, as in excessively violent cop movies.

The chateau was wonderful and so was I, treating Marg to a coffee, buying her a CD (Cavalry Fanfares of the Republican Guard), and arranging a trip for her that afternoon to the Musee de l’Armee. On the way home she begged a second stopover at a French café. Instead of having the usual ugly scene, we sat on the pavement table sipping beer and watching the sun set on a perfect Paris spring day, while the café proprietor could hardly believe his luck. Certainly, Romance was in the air.

So much so that your hero began to re-examine his plans on the $500. Surely Marg deserved better treatment than this? I should come clean. But how to cover my grimy tracks?

I would seize a moment while she was peeling spuds or sorting washing. I would retrieve the hoard from the baseball caps, put it in my wallet, and leave the wallet conspicuously on the table. And it all went like clockwork. Marg looked out from the kitchen (not hard to do as it is the size of a phone box) and said, "Have we any money left over from today?"

Myself, on derelict sofa, engrossed in The Guardian: "Probably something. {Casually} Why don’t you check my wallet, it’s on the table."

The wallet is opened. I peer over the newspaper to enjoy Marg’s expression. Her eyes widen. She starts pulling out high denomination notes, instead of the tatty €5 note or two she had expected. They pile up on the table. Of course, she wears an expression of deep suspicion. This I had allowed for.

Marg {deeply suspicious}: You have been to the autoteller and got money without checking with me!

Me {smugly}: No I haven’t.

Marg: Yes you have! You promised me you wouldn’t do that!

Me: No, I haven’t been to any autoteller.

Marg: Yes you have. You’re lying, as usual.

Me: No I’m not. I haven’t been to the autoteller.

Several cyclical repetitions of this exchange, with a rising inflection, are omitted here to save space. 

Marg: Well, where has it come from?

Me: {triumphantly}: I found it!

Marg: Marg carefully counts the money and gets the tally of €380: What do you mean, you found it?!

Me {delightedly}: I found it in the bookcase!

At this point, I sensed from Marg’s darkening expression that my scenario was running off the rails. I felt I was out on a lonely plain, with a bolt of lightning hissing down and a thunderclap to follow. What had come unstuck?

Even my thickest reader, yourself probably, has by now worked it out.

Marg made a tiger-like spring to the bookcase and I sat dumbfounded as she grabbed that very same book, Fontainebleu, and shook it like a brown bear with a salmon.

Marg {through gritted teeth}: Great. GrrATE! That just happens to be the rent money for the agent. I hid it in the book. She’s coming in a couple of days for it.

Unable to find words, I essay a small fake laugh.

Marg: When did you find it?

Me: {unable to find words}

Marg: Where has the money been all today?

Me: {unable to find words}

Marg: Why didn’t you tell me you’d {heavy sarcasm} ‘found it’ in the first place?

Me: {unable to find words}

In stage comedies, eg by David Williamson, the hero generates a wry, self-deprecating line, the heroine responds with an angry put-down, but then her eyes twinkle and we know that, actually, she has forgiven him. She giggles, throws herself at him and they collapse helplessly on the divan in a tangle of limbs, while the audience breaks into delighted applause.

But I was in  another screenplay altogether. Many husbands may have been in situations like this (perhaps even worse ones, although that’s drawing the long bow) so there is no need for a verbatim account of the next half hour. I did all I could to show I was genuinely contrite, including a failed whipped-puppy impersonation.

After the counselling, we had a quiet dinner, characterized by rapid and somewhat noisy and theatrical table service. After that, I watched French TV.

Certainly, romance was off the agenda. I would be a stupid man if I failed to draw any lesson from this trauma. I mentally reviewed the events phase by phase, and concluded, "Well, tomorrow night is another day."

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