Short Stories

Provence

 

I pulled the chairs down from their bedtime spot on the table surfaces, humming to myself, before tilting my head backwards and briefly basking in the growing sunshine. As the chairs demounted, Provence beyond the façade of my café window appeared to be slowly waking. I could see Gérard, the portly baker from across the square sitting on an upturned wooden crate – which was perhaps struggling slightly – and smoking happily on his pipe. He was taken by surprise as Henri, the son of the town’s widowed artist, suddenly slumped against the bakery wall gasping for breath. Tall and thin, the gangling presence of Henri was well known in the village, usually joined by connotations of an aspirant Casanova. Unfortunately, and despite his kind and amiable nature, he rarely seemed to successfully win the affections of many women, even failing to fool the few unknowing and naive tourists. In somewhat modest silken shorts, he had clearly been out for a morning run – his attire exemplified his warped idea of what women want. However, in spite of the piteous first reactions he seemed to distribute, was a guarantee that one day he would find someone able to love his quirks. He was a kind and gentle soul and I was therefore positive that soon these would be rewarded attributes.

I tore my inquisitive eyes from the sight of the two men as they parted ways; Gérard into his bakery, Henri walking tiredly towards a shaded bench near the middle of the square, taking deep gulps from a bottle of water. With my mind back behind the glass, I began to adorn the tables with condiments, trying to avoid the sticky necks of the ketchup bottles. My attention was then pulled towards the empty vases that sat on the countertop. I normally filled these with inexpensive wildflowers, but today was special. I had been to see Isabelle, a close friend to me and conveniently a florist by trade, to collect a dozen red roses and it wasn’t long before each table was bejewelled with the ruby beauties. I was immediately reminded of the café’s very first day, when I stood at the doorway looking towards a tearful mother and a proud father, who whipped a bouquet of roses from behind his back. Nothing had made them prouder, and their smiles had remained etched in my mind ever since.

My nostalgia was broken when I heard my two employees stumbling through the back door laughing happily. Audrey, the café’s waitress, came bounding towards me with a bouquet of flowers and thrust them into my hand, before drawing me into a soft embrace. She planted an affectionate kiss on each cheek and, whilst rubbing off the remains of her garish shade of lipstick, she leaned back to reveal a soft smile. Although she was only six years my senior, she reminded me of my pleased mother all those years ago.

“I’m so happy for you,” she said lovingly, before retreating to the back to remove her coat and run a brush through her thick dyed blonde hair.

Her counterpart stood in the doorway, fastening the buttons on his chef jacket. Campbell, my talented resident cook, was a charismatic Scotsman from Glasgow. In his early 40s he had moved to Provence to be educated in French cuisine, fed up with the monotony of his Glaswegian pub’s menu and with the intention to open his own restaurant. Five years later he had not got any further than my little café, although he was forever telling me it was all he needed. He seemed fearful of ruining such a satisfied life by asking for more. After all, as the result of working class sperm and ova, he had grown up with a humble approach to life. He ran his hand through his head of thick, salt and pepper hair, rubbed his jaw, which was coarsely lined with stubble, and yawned. Noticing me watching him, he winked cheekily in my direction, before moving into the kitchen whistling to begin the day.

Audrey and I, ever the procrastinators, sat at our favourite spot outside to indulge in a mug of rich, creamy coffee in the morning sunshine. Each sip brought a surge of bliss. I had grown up learning the importance of the simple pleasures in life, thanks to a mother whose philosophy revolved around them, so I always tried to find satisfaction with even the simplest of simplicities. Audrey, on the other hand, was a little more materialistic, even when it came to beverages. Lacing her coffee with hoards of sugar and perching her designer sunglasses on top of her head, she was certainly incapable of simple taste.

“You look really nice today,” Audrey said. I looked down. I was wearing a three-quarter length black cardigan buttoned just below my bust. Underneath, was a simple beige camisole with lace detailing around the top. My skirt, also black, but embellished with three pink silk roses near the hem, hung casually and the soft fabric flared out. Audrey had always said she admired the elegance of my choice of clothing, but there wasn’t anything particularly different about my current attire to what I wore every day.

“No, it’s something else.” She said slowly, and paused for a moment, squinting at me slightly and pursing her lips. “Radiance! That’s what it is. You’re glowing.”

Campbell suddenly appeared in the doorway, holding the stems of three champagne flutes in one hand and held in the air a bottle with the other. He gave a boyish grin and walked over to our table.

“Coffee won’t do, ladies, not for today. We need some panache.” He placed the glasses carefully in a line on the table, before popping the cork, an action that seemed to come at great ease to him. The bubbles erupted from the neck of the bottle and Campbell lowered his head to capture them in his mouth. Recognising mine and Audrey’s expressions of shock as an ex-alcoholic who had been sober for ten years began to corrupt himself, he added, “Admittedly it’s just sparkling grape juice in a fancy bottle, but it’s still more classy than coffee.”

After pouring the juice into the three flutes, Campbell cleared his throat dramatically. “To the lady who made me welcome in France,” he started, “and gave a crazy Scot a chance. We wish you all the luck in the world.” Audrey gave a smile of agreement and the three of us gently knocked our glasses together in celebration. Campbell threw his drink down in one large gulp, knowing he had a tight schedule to keep to in the kitchen. Audrey and I, however, were unable to tear ourselves away from the soft sunlight instantaneously, and continued to sit, sip and appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. The branches of the square’s many trees cast moving shadows on the café’s sign, giving the faded gold lettering some much needed shade. The terracotta coloured exterior complemented my Mediterranean roots, the authenticity of which was enhanced by the olive green shutters of my flat above and brought to life by vines that seemed to be creeping up the fascia of the building as though reaching towards the sun. Deep green circular tabletops with mosaic rose patterns sat on top of decorative wrought iron bases, accompanied by matching garden chairs. Pots of plants and flowers were scattered around the cobbled seating area, which I had always said seemed to invite nature into the dining experience.

Eventually, we made our way back inside, away from the nature’s offerings and the pleasant beams of sunshine. I began to write the ‘Specials’ dishes on the blackboard: “Bouillabaisse; Salade Niçoise; Croque Monsieur avec Herbes de Provence; Gratin de Fruits rouges; Tarte Tatin aux Pommes.” They were five of my all-time favourites and five that I knew Campbell would serve justice to. None were too complicated or ostentatious – Croque Monsieur was one of France’s simplest delicacies, being just a grilled cheese and ham sandwich, but its appreciation was widespread. Our Provencal herbs merely gave the dish a sense of regional pride and taste.

Our first customer of the day was found in a friendly regular, Annelise, who came in most mornings for a coffee and croissant to take with her on her long train journey to Marseilles. She worked there as a history teacher five days a week and, although young, was a seemingly perfect fit for the role. During our brief meetings, she appeared to me to be cultured and mature, especially because of her usual appearance of smart, fitted skirt-suits matched with thick rimmed designer glasses. Her brown hair was neatly swept into a bun, but even the few stray hairs framing her face worked in her favour, as they suggested that her style was effortless. As she turned to leave, she asked where Edith and Charles were. Annelise smiled. This was not a kind or concerned inquest into members of the town community, but a friendly mocking of my tendencies. On special occasions, many knew that I would be playing Edith Piaf or Charles Trénet as background music whilst they ate and drank, due to my adoration for the classic sounds. However, with all the excitement of the day, I had completely forgotten, and motioned to Audrey to correct my error. It wasn’t long before the café was filled with the soothing and uplifting creaminess of Charles Trénet’s velvety voice.

Gradually, Charles was joined by more of the town’s inhabitants, many of whom gently swayed and bobbed unconsciously to his songs, making me proud that I could create such a subtly buoyant atmosphere, especially at an hour that was more often met with fatigue and lifelessness. Audrey and I served drink after drink, with the occasional request for a piece of toast and jam or a pain au chocolat. Suddenly, going against the tide of uniformity that saw my clientele as civilised and well-mannered people, a vociferous sound bellowed around the café.

“Well, well, well!” It was Dominique Renaud, making his habitually flamboyant entrance. He was man of average height and build with short, curly grey hair, although he preferred to use the term ‘silver’. Coming from Paris, he was one of the many artists who had relocated to the town from other regions and larger cities. His approach to life had a great focus on refinement, mostly thanks to his influence from art and great love for fine wine, although this was not evident in his clothing, as he tended to dress somewhat shabbily. Today he wore an old brown jacket, which was embellished with beige leather elbow patches, and a red scarf. It was not cold in the slightest. He was just quirky, scatty and probably had nothing else to wear. As he strode over to the counter slowly, unbuttoning the outerwear, I could see his bobbled trademark knitted sweater underneath, moth-eaten and full of holes.

Bonjour Dominique,” I said. “What would you like today?”

“Firstly, I need to tell you off!” He laughed. “You never told me! I’m deeply offended. Why do I appear to be the last to know? Whilst you’re busy making excuses I wouldn’t mind a glass of orange juice, please.”

As I fetched a glass, I shrugged nonchalantly to him, mumbling that I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. However, all the while my back was turned to him, so he couldn’t notice my small smile that was consequential of yet another gesture of consideration and kindness. It was heart warming to see how passionately he had reacted.

“I suppose it’s lucky you have such excitement ahead of you. Otherwise today would become rather sad,” Dominique declared.

I nodded in agreement, as he took my hand firmly in his, kissing it with theatrical energy. His affection could never be displayed by conventional means. I pulled my hand from his grasp, laughing gently and knowing that his friendliness was a blessing, before looking up to see a dark figure blocking the sunshine in the doorway. Instantly I recognised this aura to belong to Sébastien, a man whose angry disposition brought with it a great deal of pity. His face gradually came into view as the blackness of his silhouette diminished. Although he wasn’t that old, he had significantly aged prematurely – his face lined with faint wrinkles from the many years of frowning. He was a man of few words, and even fewer today; noticing Dominique sitting on a stool at the counter, he grunted and turned and within seconds he was out of sight. Nobody knew why he resented Dominique so much. I wondered if perhaps the pair had some vicious skeletons in their closet that none of us were aware of. Or perhaps Sébastien found the cheery nature of Dominique hard to grasp. Or, perhaps he just wanted someone to hate.

Throughout the day, I was visited by numerous townspeople who wished me congratulations and luck. Isabelle even came in during her lunch break to surprise me with a beautiful lily. I allowed it to stand majestically on the counter for a while, before moving it to the more practical location of on top of the table where cutlery and serviettes lay in wicker baskets. It wasn’t until a momentary lapse of customers a little after lunchtime that I was able to perch on a barstool with my elbows on the countertop, rest my chin in the bed of my two cupped hands and watch my miniature society in front of me exist. It was a reduced image of the populace outside, but in its muted form was still an impressive resemblance. This, I felt was what I would miss the most. I would miss seeing so many people pass through my door each day, and getting to understand the diversity of the human race. I rubbed my protruding belly. How odd, I thought, that this pregnancy was so significantly ending an era, but at the same time, beginning a new one.

“Do you know what you’re going to call her?” Audrey asked.

I shook my head. I had been swimming in a sea of baby name books for months, but I was no closer to a solution. All I did know was that I wanted to raise my baby properly; I wanted to stay at home and watch her grow up, rather than be restricted to the hours surrounding those of a job. After all, it seemed to be tradition in my family, and it felt to me that I had lived a very happy, fruitful childhood and therefore I wanted to offer my daughter the same. Originally, my husband had suggested moving to Toulouse, where he claimed he could find a very respectable job to care for his soon-to-be expanded family. I, however, immediately dismissed the idea on the grounds that I belonged in Provence. A happy medium was found when the second suggestion of Marseilles was brought up as it was not far from the village where I was born and had lived in for my whole life, but also offered many job opportunities for him. It would still be a big shock to the system compared to the rural countryside I had grown to love, but was by all means preferable to Toulouse.

Tears began to mist my eyesight at the disbelief and confusion of leaving my current life, but I managed to blink them away before they broke past my eyelids. My last day in the café was to be one that celebrated my time here, not one drenched with sadness. As Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ graced the speakers, I grinned to myself. I regretted nothing of my life so far, and this day was only the end of the first chapter. Still smiling and singing along heartedly, I went to serve my final few customers.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s