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5.

It didnt take long for sleeplessness to take its toll on me. I began to lose concentration during the daytime. I forgot recipes. I couldnt remember whether Id already salted the omelette, and salted it twice or not at all. I cut myself seriously as I was chopping onions, only realizing Id been asleep on my feet when I awoke with a handful of blood and one of my fingers gaping. I was abrupt with my remaining customers, and even though the loud music and the motorcycles seemed to have quieted down a little, word must have got around, because the regulars I had lost didnt come back. Oh, I wasnt entirely alone. I did have a few friends who took my part, but the deep reserve-the constant feeling of suspicion-that had made Mirabelle Dartigen such a stranger in the village must be in my blood too. I refused to be pitied. My anger alienated my friends and frightened my customers away. I existed on rage and adrenaline alone.

Oddly enough, it was Paul who finally put a stop to it. Some weekday lunchtimes he was my only customer, and he was regular as the church clock, staying for exactly an hour, his dog lying obediently under the chair, watching the road in silence as he ate. He might have been deaf, for all the notice he took of the Snack-Wagon, and he rarely said anything to me except hello and good-bye.

One day he came in but didnt sit down at his usual table, and I knew something was wrong. It was a week after the fox in the henhouse, and I was dog-tired. My left hand was bound up in thick bandage after Id cut myself, and Id had to ask Lise to prepare the vegetables for the soup. I still insisted on making the pastry myself-imagine having to make pastry with a plastic bag mittened over one hand-and it was hard work. Standing half asleep on my feet at the kitchen door, I barely returned Pauls greeting. He looked at me sideways, taking off his beret and stubbing out his small black cigarette on the doorstep.

Bonjour, Madame Simon.

I nodded and tried to smile. The fatigue was like a sparkling gray blanket over everything. His words were a yawning of vowels in a tunnel. His dog went to lie under their table at the window, but Paul stayed standing, his beret in one hand.

You dont look well, he observed in his slow way.

Im all right, I said shortly. I didnt sleep too well last night, thats all.

Or any night this month, Id say, said Paul. What is it, insomnia?

I gave him a sharpish look. Your dinners on the table, I said. Chicken fricass'ee and peas. I wont be heating it up for you if it gets cold.

He gave a sleepy smile. Youre beginning to sound like a wife, Madame Simon. People will talk.

I decided that this was one of his jokes and ignored it.

Perhaps I can help, insisted Paul. It isnt right for them to treat you this way. Somebody ought to do something about it.

Please dont trouble yourself, monsieur. After so many broken nights I could feel tears coming closer to the surface by the day, and even this simple, kind talk brought a stinging to my eyes. I made my voice dry and sarcastic to compensate, and looked pointedly in the opposite direction. I can deal with it perfectly well by myself.

Paul remained unquelled. You can trust me, you know, he said quietly. You should know that by now. All this time I looked at him then, and suddenly I knew.

Please, Boise

I stiffened.

Its all right. I havent told anyone, have I?

Silence. The truth stretched between us like a string of chewing gum.

Have I?

I shook my head. No. You havent.

Well, then. He took a step toward me. You never would take help when you needed it, not even in the old days. Pause. You havent changed that much, Framboise.

Funny. I thought I had. When did you guess? I asked at last.

He shrugged. Didnt take long, he said laconically. Probably the first time I tasted that kouign amann of your mothers. Or maybe it was the pike. Never could forget a good recipe, could I? And he smiled again beneath his drooping mustache, an expression that was both sweet and kind and unutterably sad at the same time.

It must have been hard, he commented.

The stinging at my eyes was almost unbearable now. I dont want to talk about it, I said.

He nodded. Im not a talker, he said simply.

He sat down then to eat his fricass'ee, stopping occasionally to look at me and smile, and after a while I sat down next to him-after all, we were alone in the place-and poured myself a glass of Gros-Plant. We sat in silence for a time. After a few minutes I laid my head down on the tabletop and wept quietly. The only sounds were my weeping and those of Pauls cutlery as he ate reflectively, not looking at me, not reacting. But I knew his silence was kind.

When I had finished I wiped my face carefully on my apron. I think Id like to talk now, I said.


| Five Quarters of the Orange | c



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