The recently published Best Paris Stories is available as a Kindle book and brings together the winning short stories of the 2011 Paris Short Story Contest.
The book features works by Jeannine Alter, Bob Levy, Lisa Burkitt, Nafkote Tamirat, Marie Houzelle, Jo Nguyen, Julia Mary Lichtblau, Mary Byrne, Marie Houzelle, Jane M. Handel, and Jim Archibald.
Below is a short story from the Best Paris Stories anthology entitled A Pinch of Tarragon. It was written by Lisa Burkitt, whose novel The Memory of Scent was published this month.
A Pinch of Tarragon, by Lisa Burkitt
SHE WATCHED AS George patted his moustache with a napkin, lifted his hat from the wall and heaved his way around the other customers, his large girth pressing against the backs of many of the chairs. She knew he was trying to hold his breath in a vain effort to ease his passage, and that by the time he made it outside to the fresh air at least one small object from several of the tables would have teetered and crashed to the floor. She waited with a broom.
Stragglers from the luncheon service were settling in to drink large pitchers of beer, their hats still balancing on the wall hooks where they had been hung several hours earlier. Others began spilling in wearing top hats and frock coats, their laughter and chatter breaking the shadows of the oppressively dark, panelled walls. With scraping chairs, they arranged themselves around the small marble-topped tables. She looked at the plump woman in the apron who was standing behind the bar with a small towel draped over one shoulder. She smiled briefly at her and then realized she had caught her own reflection in the large mirror. She stared at the image. It was not how she wanted to look - the face flushed, the hair wispy and graying.
She wiped her hands on her apron as Pierre slid the plate through the serving hatch. He did not even wait to see if she was there to gather it up. She carefully retrieved it with one hand and wafted the scent of garlic and tarragon towards her face with a sweep of her other hand. It was a habit. The aroma of cooking was like incense at a holy temple to her and despite the fact that Sophie had been working there for over a decade, she still considered that short walk from the serving hatch to the tables to be like an offertory procession.
As she trudged home each evening with her skirt slightly hitched up so as to avoid the clumps of horse manure and the putrid smelling water coursing over the cobbles, it was only the anticipation of the following day’s cooking odours that could lure her from her bed. Her apartment was at the top of the building and had a slanting roof under which she tucked her mattress. She had to roll over to its edge before sitting up, otherwise she would bump her head on the slope above her. Often after a long shift at the café, she was too tired to bother trying to light her small stove and sometimes just lay, fully clothed, under her blankets. As she peered from under the covers in the evening’s half light, her eyes fell on the only two things of beauty in her room; a casserole dish, adorned with delicately painted red and white blooms all threaded through with bright green leaves, a gift from her late grandmother and a small frame with some dried and faded rose petals encased beneath its glass
Sophie responded instinctively to the sound of the bell. She arranged five plates of green beans, fried tomatoes and seasoned frogs’ legs on her large tray. She glanced down at the food then bent her head and inhaled. With quiet efficiency, she centred five large glasses of beer for balance and carried the small feast to a noisy table. She stood back slightly and watched them pierce into their food. Their conversation was so robust that none of them noticed the crease of disapproval quivering across Sophie’s forehead or the irritated clicking of her tongue. How could they just fall on their food without one second of pause? Not like George, who gently turned each new plate of food in one full circle inspecting it with his head tilted – first to one side, then the other. He would tuck the large, starched serviette over the collar of his shirt and with one deep breath, he would begin. It was a slow, deliberate ritual and Sophie liked to steal glances at him. Sometimes, he would lean with his left elbow on the table, his arm crooked protectively around his plate. When he used his bread to mop up the juices, he would often lightly and quickly lick the tips of each of his fingers. And to signal that he was finally finished, he would nudge the empty plate ever so slightly forward then fold his hands across his stomach, like a priest concluding prayer. Sophie would then shuffle towards his booth and silently gather up the vestiges. He usually just nodded, with what she always registered as imperial disinterest, but suddenly and surprisingly on that one day as she reached to scoop up his plate, she felt his soft, pudgy hand gently rest on hers. Still in an awkward, half-leaning stance, it was as if some kind of spell had been placed on her hand as she was unable to move it, even though there was no real pressure keeping it there. George smiled up at her.
"I think you may regard food with as much affection as I."
Sophie slid her hand from under his and clattered the table’s remnants gracelessly on to her large, silver tray. She found herself, inexplicably dipping into a small curtsy before turning towards the kitchen. George patted his moustache with a napkin, lifted his hat from the wall and hefted sideways between two gentlemen who were making their way to his empty booth.
Sophie climbed the creaking, spiralling wooden steps to her top-floor apartment. She deftly plucked out her hat pin and placed the squashed, green velvet creation on the corner dresser, just beside the small, framed petals. The softness of George’s hand on hers made her think of that lovely wild garden behind the Boulevard de Clichy with the lemon trees and the lilac bushes and of the hours she spent sitting framed in the afternoon’s crisp, sharp, light. A grisette, plucked from among all of the other laundry girls who loitered at the models’ market in Place Pigalle, who stamped their feet in an effort to keep warm – all the while trying to appear beguiling, desperate to be chosen by a painter. She never knew what these painters were searching out as they stood in front of her, then circled around her, then dismissed her. She was not even sure they knew themselves. Many of those gathered there wore the grey muslin typical of a laundry girl. And many of the men were such unimaginative painters that they could not see beyond the grey. She thought of young girls standing for hours on end while newly urbanized painters weaved around them in search of pale beauties. They were met instead with reddened skin, chapped hands and untamed hair all of which spoke of too much character, too many life tales. These girls, like Sophie, had grit in their blood. And then one Sunday, she was chosen. He was much older, perhaps by twenty years, and she thought when they made love in his studio in Neuilly, that she would be his forever. It was at that same garden on Boulevard de Clichy that she was finally tossed aside. She kept some petals as a bitter-sweet token of that last day. George’s touch unexpectedly thrilled her, briefly reminding her of that young girl from thirty years ago.
Sophie found herself patting and tidying her hair several times in anticipation of George’s arrival at the café. She felt foolish and was going to make a supreme effort to be archly efficient in her service. She watched him hook his hat and settle in to his booth. When she approached the table, he smiled up at her.
"Madame, am I wrong in finding you a kindred spirit in the art of gastronomy?"
"I know little of it, just that it pleases. My senses."
"Then I would consider it my honour to teach you. Would that be agreeable to you?"
Sophie neck flushed slightly. Could she be taught? Without thinking too long about it, she gave a short, swift nod and turned toward the serving hatch on hearing her name being shouted. She had forgotten to take George’s order but saw that he was being taken care of by another server. When eventually he readied himself to leave, he nodded at her to approach.
"We will start tomorrow afternoon with the street vendors, and by the time we get to the best place in Paris for meringues, creations as light and imperceptible as the flutter of an angel’s wing, you will overwhelmed with astonishment."
* * *
Sophie waited at the appointed spot on Rue Montorgueil and watched as George approached with a surprisingly light-footed step. He did not stop to exchange banter just barked with enthusiasm that she needed to keep up. She fell in step behind him.
"Have you any idea how fortunate you are to be French when it comes to food? We have the sublime influences of all those masterful chefs who had been attached to the great houses of the ancien régime until they fell through the revolution. How blessed are we who were not born into heightened circumstances, that these chefs then needed other work and our restaurants will forever reap the benefits. Do not look to any other country for your gastronomic impressions. The English, for all their arrogance, are only good for scorching perfectly decent joints or boiling chickens. The Germans, they cannot do sauces and without them, your food is naked, your art unfinished. Look, here you'll find some of the most reliable oyster vendors in the city but I want to start you off simply."
He brought her over to a large man in a striped apron and after speaking quickly to him, he turned back to Sophie instructing her to close her eyes and open her mouth. The taste was a mixture of sharp and sweet with a quality that she could only compare to something melting.
"Madame, please acquaint yourself with quail pâté soaked in Malaga wine."
Sophie flicked her tongue the length of her lower lip.
"Mmmm, it's lovely."
"Now across to a soup shop run by a very cranky lady. I think all of her love and passion goes into the soups so by the time the customers turn up, she is spent. I wanted to take you to my favourite butcher near Boulevard St. Germain, but the place was nearly burned to the ground recently due to some mob incursion, a riot of sorts. The influence of the Communards still abounds. Just because they were given amnesty a couple of years back, today I cannot shop for pork flesh. The world is upside down."
They walked on a little and paused in front of a narrow shop window before George lifted the latch and stepped down into the small, steaming room with the aromas of kitchens remembered from childhood winters.
"Here we are. Now, what you should know about soup is that it can be very underestimated and misunderstood, like the pretty little sister in the family who is overlooked by her more glamorous older sister. Because soup is comforting, many mistake that for something altogether more pedestrian whereas it is really the great tease, a portent, the overture and should be approached with love. Yes, a good soup heightens expectations and that is the desired state to be in while approaching any table. Smell this and tell me what is most distinctive about it."
George held a ladle high. Sophie breathed in.
"Well done. A cook needs to be able to use all of the senses and smell is most important as our palates can be easily compromised, depending on what one has most recently ingested. Thankfully, yours is a sensitive nose, and that will be your compass on your culinary journey."
Sophie shook her head vigorously; "But I’m not a cook."
"Most women will only ever be good at cuisine de la ménage. Domestic cooking is women's work, because, apart from the very odd exception, they are far too easily distracted to be great in the kitchen. Only men have the dedication and temperament to elevate it to an art. But you could be different – with a little daring. Now, enough information for one day."
George reached for the door latch.
"Next week we will go to Les Halles and into the belly of Paris where we will do some promiscuous inhaling around the stalls."
George held his hat to his chest while he informed her of this then turned and walked away. Sophie watched as he positioned it back on to his head mid stride.
Sophie watched keenly as Pierre stirred a large pot of soup. He then asked her to take over, a regular occurrence when he had to busy himself with other things in the kitchen. That task used to simply be just one more on a long list of chores. However, this time she tilted a large spoon into the saucepan, and with her other hand cupped below it to catch any spillage, she raised it to her lips, blew softly, then tasted it. She licked her lips in a way that made her think of a cat and then glanced around the shelves. With Pierre distracted, she reached up for a bottle of Cognac and tipped in a couple of glasses. After another broad stir, she again tilted her spoon into the pot and supped. She smiled broadly.
Sophie had an afternoon with George to look forward to, and she immediately spotted him pacing with his cane. The labyrinth of Les Halles awaited and he swept his arm dramatically introducing the spectacle to Sophie as if it was a production that he had laid on specifically for her. She was buffeted from one stall to the next, engulfed in flavours and smells and sensations as she followed in George’s wake. She felt he could have navigated the market blindfolded, led simply by his nose. He brusquely name-checked the salt cod, carp, mackerel, herring, turbot and sturgeon at the fish stall, as if he were a general ordering them to fall into line. His voice lowered slightly and lilted with a nostalgia one normally reserves for absent friends as he discussed the merits of the various vegetables, for most were out of season. He outlined the peculiarities of cabbages, onions, artichokes, asparagus, showing special reverence for celery which he claimed gravely and respectfully, was an aphrodisiac that should be eaten only sparingly by bachelors. He plunged Sophie's hands into a mound of pistachio nuts and did the same himself, sinking and luxuriating in what he described as a perfumed wonder to be savoured delicately on the tongue. Sophie was tingling with the assault on her senses and the crispness of the Parisian air.
George had opened up a sensory experience to her and she promised herself never again to look at food in the same way again. It was to be elevated. She felt honoured that someone of his distinction should spare even a moment of his time on her.
In Pierre's kitchen, she continued to surreptitiously tip cognac into the soup. He wondered aloud at the upturn in its popularity. When he cooked mackerel, she added about half a glass of Champagne and some olive oil to the stock. That dish too, quickly became a favoured request, so much so that Pierre had to increase his order for mackerel. She had much to be grateful for in the convivial approach with which drink was served at the café. The measures were always laissez-faire.
Sophie was beginning to get very anxious. Each morning she looked toward the door as it clattered open. Customers arrived in twos and threes. Chairs were scraped on the floor and hats were hung. Chatter and debate coiled through the air with the cigar smoke that darkened the ceiling. But there was no sign of George. By the third week, she had begun to cease caring whether or not the steam from the kitchen was perfume scented. She began to consider the plates of food that she delivered to the tables as merely functional, something to satiate the clients until they continued onward to their more important destinations.
"It wasn't easy, but that's why I'm the best."
Sophie had excused herself from the kitchen when she saw young Joseph, a local pickpocket, gesturing at her through the large front windows. She had given him a few centimes to try and find out some information about George. Joseph had the swagger of someone who had been left to his own devices for a very long time. He always wore an overcoat that was much too big for him, because, as he liked to say, he had to carry his office around with him.
"The fat gentleman lives on the corner of Rue St. George and Lafayette. There's a small butcher's shop, and he lives above it."
"Above a butcher's shop? That can't be right. Are you sure?"
"Doubt me if you insist, but go see if you can prove me wrong."
"I didn't mean to...thank you for your help."
It was still early evening and Sophie knew that a brisk thirty-minute walk would get her there, so feigning a lightness in her head, she untied her apron and set off to find George. As she pounded the streets, her step quickening, she had no idea what she was going to say once she arrived there. She hurried past many shops that normally she would linger at, like the cake shop with its lemon and pink creations stacked prettily on china plates. The striped awnings billowed overhead as she hurried along the footpath until she reached Rue St. George and the butcher’s shop. She tried to cool her face with the back of her hand before she pushed back the door, which was slightly ajar. It opened easily on to a small, dark hallway. There was a strong smell that Sophie imagined to be animal intestines. The staircase had narrow, scuffed, wooden steps. With creaking underfoot, Sophie made her way to the only door on the second floor landing. She knocked, at first gingerly and then loudly and could hear the slight shuffling of furniture being pushed aside and the cumbersome sound of someone moving slowly across the floor. George’s cheeks flushed slightly on seeing Sophie at his door.
"Madame, what are you doing here?"
Without being prompted, Sophie crossed into the apartment. George slowly closed the door behind her. Sophie found herself standing immediately in a tiny kitchen area with a short counter and a small stove lined to one side. To her right, an open doorway which led straight into another slightly bigger room. There was a mattress on a wooden platform placed just under the sloped ceiling, a fireplace with a large mirror resting on it with a few picture postcards tucked into its frame and a cluttered desk to the right of it. Apart from that, there were a couple of hooks for clothes, dozens of books piled high to the ceiling at the foot of the bed, a battered divan and one plump, well used arm chair. George pulled out the chair that was tucked under the desk.
"I’m not used to visitors."
"I have to say, I’m surprised Monsieur. It is not how I expected you to be living."
"I became a little worried for your well-being when you didn’t show up at the café for these past few weeks."
"I’ve been in a bit of discomfort and unable to walk any great distance. My toe is throbbing and most painful to put pressure on."
"Let me make you something. Are you hungry? Have you been eating?"
"There is a bottle of crème de menthe on the shelf under the basin. Just pull back the curtain and you’ll find a couple of glasses too."
Sophie could not help but notice the pitifully empty shelves. She poured two generous glasses and handed George one as she took her seat again. They clinked glasses and took the first two sips in silence. George smoothed his moustache between his thumb and forefinger.
"You are clearly grasping for some kind of explanation."
Sophie laughed a little.
"Let’s just say I would have pictured your household to be a little grander. You, sir, are clearly a well bred man with distinguished tastes. I would have expected servants and fine crystal and a heaving larder. I would have imagined your ceiling buckling under a glistening chandelier. You do not even have enough food to rustle up a proper supper."
"That is the very decent thing about Paris. If you know enough people, you will never be without a meal."
"But did you lose your fortune somewhere along the way?"
"My dear, I was never possessed of one. I shall let you into the secret of my true background. I served as a valet at many fine tables, as did my Papa before me. Everything I know about food, dining and etiquette, I pilfered with the surreptitiousness, audacity and dexterity of a pick-pocket and believe me, it has served me well. The Revolution caused a scattering. Traditions that were once locked away like trinkets in a cabinet with only a certain elite as key-holders became accessible. Other people’s skills, talent and knowledge are like curios and vanities – all there to be purloined."
George shifted uncomfortably in his chair. His pallor frightened Sophie and as his eyelids fluttered, she was worried that he was going to sink away right there before her. He raised one hand and waved at her to leave.
"I’m sorry but I do not seem to have any energy. If you would be so kind as to leave me so I can rest a little."
Sophie stood up in indignation.
"I will not allow you to shut yourself away in this room where even the short walk to your window will soon seem hardly worth the effort. This room is cold and you should at least have a small fire lit. You have to teach me some more. I will give you one more week to build up some strength and then we will begin again."
George smiled wanly.
"What date would that be?"
Sophie thought briefly. "It will be the first of May."
"The first day of May - an excellent beginning. It brings with it the promise of flavour when herbs are at their best. I shall meet you at the entrance of the café de Foy at 5:30 precisely. There we will further your education by trawling the cafés and restaurants of the Palais Royal."
Sophie nodded and dissuading George from rising to see her out, she made her way downstairs and stopped by the butcher’s shop where she arranged for a nice piece of pork to be sent up to his apartment.
* * *
Sophie stood, shivering slightly in her finest dress, a light blue colour with a contrasting underskirt and matching Basque. It was coming up to six o’clock as she swivelled her head trying to pick out the gait of George from among the evening’s strollers. But each time she thought she could spot him, she turned out to be wrong. She would give him another ten minutes and then would yield to the inevitable crash of disappointment that she could taste, rising from her gut and catching in her throat. She caught her reflection in one of the windows and suddenly felt ridiculous. What was that ageing woman doing loitering pathetically when all around her, bright and handsome couples elegantly eased their way passed her.
"Madame, we will begin with our first restaurant where will sit down to the finest bowl of mock turtle soup."
George’s breath sounded shallow in his chest, but the colour in his cheeks had returned. He crooked his arm for her to hold on to and Sophie knew that to lift your fork in unison with someone else, was the greatest feast of all. She would trust in the healing powers of garlic.
Lisa Burkitt lives in Co. Donegal, Ireland and worked as a weekly columnist and print journalist before moving into broadcast journalism and presenting.