A terrible night needs to be assuaged by pleasure. And now for me the greatest pleasure was a visit to my favourite patisserie. No longer just for the wonderful food, of which there was aplenty, but also in the hope of snatching a glimpse of her, the perfect one, the chef in training, the girl in the calico apron.
This morning I selected a short black coffee and a chocolate croissant. I normally find the latter a bit too obvious, a bit clichéd, but chocolate has its endorphins and it is a comfort food and I felt in need of comfort. This, in itself, is a type of trigger, but one that is less powerful because I am aware. I have learned to control it rather than have it control me. But in those dark days so often after my conditioning Imogen would give me a hot chocolate to drink, or after the very worst of trials, she would open the big carved box in which she held the most sacred chocolate treats and sweets.
We become addicted to sugar and chocolate in many ways, and for me it was through pain and its cessation. A Pavlovian dog, I even now seek that comfort, but it does not re-trigger the pain and the memories as it once did. For now it is just soothing, as knowledge and the mastery of it is soothing.
One day she will know. I think she will understand this, grasp this more quickly than I did, partly because she is older than I was then, and partly because she knows food. She knows food so well, given the artistry of her work.
I took a deep bite of the croissant and let the chocolate melt into my mouth. They had heated it slightly for effect – not enough to wilt the pastry, but just enough to make the inside chocolate a running stream of joy. It was not fresh from the oven, for I had arrived to see a line of the croissants in the counter display and had seen the serving girl select one for me. So it had been prepared a second time, and briefly, to restore its original just baked glory. It was a small, and quite open, deception, and so one that could be tolerated and indulged.
But one day she will cook only for me and I shall have her bounty fresh.
I licked my fleshy lips after each bite to secure every last drop and sipped at my coffee. There was no sight of her, yet I could sense her, feel her presence, in the shimmering morning light, in the bustle of the serving counter, in the depth of the flavours.
My serving girl for the day, much larger and more gauche, came up to take my plate as I finished. I was not yet ready to give up my quest, and ordered a second coffee.
‘Anything with that?” she asked, and was clearly bored. I refrained from replying with disdain, for I wanted her to take a message for me.
‘Compliments to the chef,’ I said, ‘Please pass them on, but no, nothing more. To have any more would be to spoil the perfection of the work.’
The girl frowned at me, her freckled skin seeming to fold into itself as she processed what I had said. Perhaps she is slow, I thought, a bit stupid. She seemed to consider something, then nodded and said, ‘I’ll let her know.’
‘Her?” I asked innocently, but I had known already, I had been sure I had eaten her food.
‘No reason, just a cliché I suppose, one expects a chef to be a man.’
‘Does one?’ she asked, stressing the last word with a kind of derision, stupid, uncultured girl that she was. It is pathetic these days how few people really know proper English. But then she seemed to think better of insulting a customer, and offered, ‘Francine is a chef in training, working for our head chef Michael. But she makes these pastries.’
Francine? The name would never do. It was too manly, too unrefined, for my precious girl. We would have to see to that, but re-birthing her with a new name would be appropriate, in any case.
‘Well, please pass on my compliments to…Francine.’ I said and she nodded and withdrew.
I watched her go to the counter, ring up my order, and then disappear into the kitchen area for a moment. I waited with bated breath. Would the foolish, ugly girl actually pass on the message, or was this just for show? But then it seemed perhaps even those not blessed with looks might have other nobler aspects to recommend them, for she was good to her word. Moments later Francine emerged for a brief moment with her, looking out to those of us in the café area.
The girl pointed me out and Francine followed the line of her direction and met my gaze, fully, and knowingly, for the first time. Sheer joy coursed through my system, but I was measured in my response. She smiled demurely and nodded, with perfect, precise happiness and humility mixed, mouthing ‘thank you’ towards me, and I simply nodded and smiled warmly in response.
Then she was gone, a faun lost to the forest of the night, a brief moment of transcendent, incandescent beauty, then but a memory – sweet, sweet memory – more precious and more rich than the flavour of chocolate could ever be.
(c) Helen M Valentina 2015, All Rights Reserved