A La Carte
Amuse – Gueule
— What do you think they mean by pilon de dinde? asked the young man.
— I don’t know, some kind of turkey drumstick I suppose.
The young woman ran her finger down the menu, noting the cost of each dish. If they hadn’t bought The Tropic of Cancer from the bookstall alongside the Seine, they’d have had enough money left for two meals. Now they were down to their last few francs, sitting together on the same side of the table so that when the food arrived they could share more easily. But it was worth it, reading aloud to each other in the rickety bed on the seventh floor attic room, if only for the scene in the restaurant where she hung her handbag on his erect cock, under the table.
— We could reenact it, if you like? Melanie had suggested.
It was mid-summer. The air was sweltering and the humid evenings stayed light. Crowds of people were thronging the Left Bank. Hippies stripped to the waist, wearing beads and bangles, spilled over from the First International Festival of Pop Music, jostled office workers, shop assistants and tourists along the Boulevard Saint Germain, urging a summer of love not war. It was the last night of their holiday, honeymoon really, although they had married several months earlier. But they were students, both too busy working on their theses to be able to take a break. Why they were married at all when they didn’t believe in it (at least he didn’t believe in it) was a bothersome contradiction. It just seemed to make living together easier.
Tomorrow morning they would lug their cases down seven flights of stairs and make their way back to the *Gare du Nord. It was part of the romance of Paris, the cheap hotel with broken shutters, the Metro with its hard wooden seats specially reserved for war-wounded, the vain prohibition on spitting, the still extant reeking pissoirs. They would spend the whole day traveling, most likely standing in the space between two carriages on a crowded boat train to Calais, and then the ferry back to Dover, finally reaching Victoria, exhausted. And they had to get home. Arrive in another world, where bread never appeared automatically on a cafe table, where nobody wished you bon appetit, where people talked about weather rather than wine, and where they themselves subsisted mainly on tins of Campbell’s condensed pea soup.
— That’s just it, David said. The thing about France is that you do feel like a character in a book, a different person, when you’re here.
— I feel like a spy sent by Churchill to liaise with the Maquis. I should be welcomed with kisses and taken to a safe house, plied with cognac, instead they just refuse to understand me.
A couple at the next table had already been served. A short, thickset man in his late forties, with balding head and heavy brow, was sitting opposite a slim young blond in a tight, multicoloured top. She crossed her legs, causing her black mini-skirt to rise up her thighs. He had put down his newspaper when the food arrived. The headline, just visible, read ‘Succès Sur Tous Les Fronts pour les Forces Israeliénnes.’ His napkin tucked in at the neck hung down to his pot belly. He was grabbing moules, one after the other, from a bowl piled high. She was picking at a green salad. Pushing his jaw forward, he sucked the contents of the shells into his mouth with evident satisfaction, slurped the garlic-wine juice which trickled down his chin into a bushy red beard, and discarded the empties at great speed. She just seemed bored.
— What do you think their relationship is? David said. He can’t be her father. I can’t understand what she sees in him. Money I suppose.
— I was thinking about the Empress Josephine, Melanie said. She kept an exotic menagerie in the garden of Chateau de Malmaison, you know, kangaroos, emus, zebras, black swans. Apparently she dined regularly with an orangutan. I’m including her in my current chapter on Autocrats’ Pets: Absolute Power and the Animal Kingdom.
— He’s more than twice her age.
— And more than twice her size.
— You can’t help wondering how they do it.
— They probably don’t, Melanie said. He just likes to be seen with her. I suspect he’s more interested in food than sex.
A harassed waiter plonked a plate down in front of them and disappeared almost immediately. The couple scrutinised it. An avian foot was clearly visible. Something you’d expect to be used for making stock. There was a tiny amount of meat at the top of the bone and small amount of garnish. There were no vegetables.
— What’s this? David said.
— Well it’s certainly not a thigh. Not what I’d call a drumstick.
— It’s all gristle.
— It’s not exactly appetising.
— It’s inedible, I’d say.
A man wearing a linen suit approached their table. He was tall, olive-skinned and clean-shaven. He was wearing an imitation Rolex. The metal strap flattened the thick black hair on his left wrist. He must have been in his mid-30s, smiling with a kind of benign parental amusement.
— Do you mind if I sit here?
He spoke in English with an almost imperceptible accent that was difficult to place. Pulling the chair out opposite them, he sat and stubbed out his Gitanes with a couple of twisting prods. A thin, final wisp of smoke rose from the glass ashtray on the table. He looked across at their plate. Both averted their eyes simultaneously. Undeterred by their embarrassment, he continued his assessment of their meal.
— Are you two on some kind of special diet? he inquired wickedly.
— Actually, we’re on our honeymoon, David replied, looking up. But we’ve run out of money, he added.
— Well I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay in Paris, the man said. Did you get to the Pop festival? See Eric Clapton? What do you do when you’re not running out of money?
— We’re both PhD students, Melanie said, deciding to enter the conversation, I’m studying political history and he’s in International Relations. We’re at the London School of Economics. What about you?
He probably thinks we’re Trotskyites, she thought. He’ll definitely think that when he finds out David’s writing a thesis on the 1862 Sioux Uprising. She wondered if their protest against Adams’ appointment as Director of the LSE had got any publicity in France. Sit-ins, hunger-strikes, demos, lecture boycotts, pickets outside the main building, the death of a college porter, it must’ve done.
— Me? I’m a doctor, he said. A paediatrician. I work at the Hôpital des Enfants Malades. But wasn’t there some kind of student revolt at your college last winter? That could never happen here. The students are too passive. They had their revolution two hundred years ago.
— We didn’t want a director who’d been part of the racist Rhodesian regime, Melanie said. Then, shifting in her chair and changing the subject: — It must be difficult, having to constantly come into contact with all those sick children. I don’t think I could do it.
— You get used to it, he said. And they need help. Actually it’s very fulfilling.
— Of course.
He glanced around and snapped his fingers in order to attract a waiter’s attention. Turning to the young couple he asked their names.
— Look Melanie and David, he said, you can’t eat that. Why don’t you let me buy you a proper meal?
— No no, they chorused. We couldn’t possibly. Really we’re OK, we’re fine.
— Well at least let me get you a coffee. Have you ever tried Lebanese coffee? They do a very good one here, with a pinch of cardamon. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll never ask for anything else.
He looked over his shoulder to see the waiter hurrying over, this time somehow with a more respectful demeanour. He ordered his meal and added,
— Deux cafés libanais s’il vous plaît, pour mes amis.
The barman had finished polishing glasses and decided to put on an old Louis Armstrong album to impress his anglophone customers. Just below the hubbub of conversation a trumpet began to filter through and then a gravelly voice. Near the front door Melanie noticed a beggar being ejected. The restaurant manager was applying pressure with one arm on the beggar’s shoulder, like a gendarme making an arrest. The beggar was cursing aggressively. Finally the manager handed over a cigarette and the beggar reluctantly yielded. They seemed to know each other. It looked like a scene that had been repeated many times before.
— Thank you. Melanie said. What should we call you?
— My name’s Nadeem, the man replied. It means ‘friendly’ in Arabic. I don’t always live up to it.
— I don’t believe that, Melanie countered. How come you speak such incredibly good English?
— I worked in your NHS for several years at Great Ormond Street, he said. I learned a lot, but can’t recommend the hospital food! I can recommend The Lamb just across the road. Excellent draught ale and always bustling with activity. It’s a good pub. What about you, David? You don’t look English.
Two small dark green coffee cups arrived. They were thick and heavy, had a thin gold rim and white interior. The black liquid inside covered with a thin layer of bubbles, sweet like Turkish coffee, gave off a seductive scent of cardamon. A small omelette filled with grated black truffle was also placed on the table. Nadeem took hold of his knife and fork.
— Everybody says I don’t look English, David said. I’m taken for a native in almost any southern European country, but not my own home, England. I’m an English Jew.
— Well nobody’s perfect, Nadeem quipped. He noticed David looking at the omelette and offered him a taste.
— No, No honestly … My ancestors arrived in England in Cromwell’s time, David said. We’ve been there for generations. But I feel an affinity for the Amerindians, that’s why I’m writing about them. Millions were wiped out, they were subject to a massive genocide, like my own people.
He began to feel some rumbles in his stomach, tried hard to look away from Nadeem’s omelette and concentrate on taking tiny sips from his cup of coffee. He wanted it to last last a long time. An involuntary borborygmus escaping from his abdomen seemed to explode like a bomb. He hoped it was drowned out by the background jazz. Melanie sensed the conversation drifting in an undesirable direction.
— I’m not sure you can say that, she said, addressing David. It’s true that the Indians were dispossessed and that their nomadic lifestyle was undermined by colonialists. But most of the deaths were caused by the importation of diseases to which they had no immunity. I’m not sure you can say they were all intentional. You’re a doctor Nadeem, isn’t that true?
Nadeem’s second course, was placed on the table. Coq au vin de Bourgogne. There were some shallots and a few mushrooms among the chicken pieces. You could detect hints of garlic, parsley, and bay. The sauce had a shiny glazed appearance, a mixture of a small amount of brandy with red wine, thickened with beurre manié. There were three delicate triangles of fried bread around the edge of the plate. A glass of red burgundy accompanied the meal.
— Well, bon appetit, Melanie said. She began to feel a more continuous ache just under her diaphragm. Some tables along the wall nearby had been arranged in a long line in order to accommodate a party. A lot of young people came in wearing fancy dress. Some had Beatles masks on and were carrying toy guitars, others had enormous afro hairstyles. Some of the girls had long flowery dresses and headbands, some wore Indian-style pants and waistcoats with feathers in their hair. They were talking animatedly and very loudly. Every now and then a deafening communal belly laugh burst out of the crowd.
— Actually I also empathise with the aboriginal Americans, Nadeem said softly. Europeans took their land and built a country on it. There’s no way round that, however the population diminished. They should be held to account.
Their waiter reappeared carrying a plain glass bowl and smiling. He served it with a magician’s flourish — Îles Flottantes, he announced. There were sponge biscuits soaked in kirsch lying in a pool of crème anglaise. Two poached meringues rested on top covered with lashings of caramel.
— Why are we so attracted to poisons? Nadeem grinned. Nothing satisfies unless it contains sugar and cholesterol. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to share? We can get some more spoons.
— No, no, Nadeem, thank you very much, they said in unison, each feeling an abdominal gripe nagging at the same moment.
For some time Melanie had been wondering how she could wrap up the bread in their bread-bowl and get it into their pockets without Nadeem or any of the waiters noticing. Just then, as if he’d read her mind, Nadeem suggested:
— Why don’t you two take the bread with you? You could save it for your journey. Might be a bit hard, but better than nothing. Take some of mine too. Here wrap it in these napkins and put it in your pockets.
— Nadeem, I think we’re going to have to get going, David said, taking the advice and stuffing the remaining pieces of baguette into his trousers. It’s been great meeting you. And thanks for the coffees, he said, rising from the table.
— Yes, thanks for the coffees and the conversation, said Melanie, enchanté.
— Pas du tout, said Nadeem smiling broadly. Well, au revoir and good luck with your theses. Hope to kill you some day.
© 2020 Stephen Wilson
Stephen Wilson is a psychiatrist turned critic and writer, who has lived and worked in Oxford, UK, for many years.