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Authors: Hannah Tunnicliffe

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BOOK: A French Wedding
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She glances to the sky, despite herself, and thanks it for Louis, as though he might have fallen out of it. Juliette and Louis make a good pair. Louis, restaurant manager, runs front of house at
Delphine
but possesses an intuition for the kitchen that is rare. Juliette has him taste every single dish before she places it on the menu. He is good at hiring staff, he is good with numbers, he is sweet with customers but not too sweet. He is organised and discreet. Comfortable, tactful, and diplomatic with staff and customers, he never loses his temper or drinks too much or too late with the team. His personal life is as quiet and organised as he is. One boyfriend, one cat, one small apartment and enthusiasms for Japanese whiskey, British gins and the American ceramicist and decorator Jonathan Adler. Louis' life makes Juliette's life look dishevelled, just like her flat, and full of problems.

Juliette's boots step over the cobblestones, pinching
,
as she reviews, again, the things she needs to do this morning before Amelie Dusollier arrives. Her chefs have her hand-written lists and are already well rehearsed. She hopes their whites are truly white and pressed and she hopes her best waitress, Fleur, did not argue with her boyfriend last night, which leaves her face sour and her mouth pouted. She hopes the blush-coloured peonies she bought have opened a little more. She hopes the cutlery is speck-and-spotless and the tablecloths are creased crisply. Most of which she can feel reassured Louis will have handled before she gets there.

Unlike Louis, Juliette does sometimes lose her temper and drink too much and too late with the team. Perhaps because she is a chef in her heart and these are things that chefs do. Or perhaps because she is her parents' only child, or perhaps because she is a woman and feels she has much to prove. Or perhaps because she works excessively, obsessively and it is easier to stay at
Delphine
and drink than go home to her apartment with the browning roses and the clothes left on the floor and the bed that is so half-empty it feels vast and cold to touch.

A cyclist almost crashes into Juliette. His head is turned and looking the wrong way. He screams at Juliette as though it is all her fault.

‘Putain! Fils de Salope!'

Juliette opens her mouth to return the insults. She grips onto the phone in her hand, dying to throw it at him, knowing there is no point. Then the phone in her hand rings. She reluctantly slows to stare at the screen. It reads ‘Dad'. She is so close to
Delphine
. She lets it ring twice more. Slowing. Deciding. Stopping.

‘Papa?'

‘Juliette!'

‘Hi Dad.'

‘Morning, love. How are you? Where are you?'

‘Almost at the restaurant,' Juliette replies, frustration prickling at her.

‘Oh good. Good …' Her father's voice is distant and distracted. Juliette shifts her weight from one boot to the other, regretting not getting them stretched. Mainly regretting answering the call. ‘Are you okay, Dad? Is it Mum?'

Her father's voice comes back clear and present now. ‘Oh no, darling, I'm fine. We're fine.' Juliette's father clears his throat.Juliette hears a voice in the background; she presses the phone closer to her ear.

Her father says, ‘I was calling about you! Your big day!'

Of course he had remembered about the
Gault et Millau
interview. Juliette's father remembered everything. He had been at every ballet recital, every school play and every prize giving. Not that it was hard to win a prize in Douarnenez. It was a fact of such a small population – prizes were statistically probable. But Juliette's parents never regarded Juliette's achievements flippantly. In their eyes Juliette was a star, a beaming light, a source of perpetual pride. Somehow this made Juliette feel terrible instead of wonderful, made her notice and rue her imperfections, her hidden parts, her confusions and errors, with even sharper judgement.

‘Thanks Dad,' Juliette replies. She taps one foot, and then steps back to let a person pass her. She moves under the eaves of a jewellery shop, the shutters still closed.

‘How are you feeling about it?' Juliette's father's accent is strong even over the phone.
You can take the boy outta London, but you can't take London outta the boy!
he was fond of saying. Juliette's parents had moved from England to Brittany before she was born.

‘Fine, fine. Yeah, lots to do …' Juliette says, hearing the pleading in her voice.
Let me go. Let me go now.
She stares in the direction of
Delphine
.

‘Darling?' The voice Juliette had heard in the background calls. It is reedy and longing. Dislocated.

Juliette's attention snaps to the phone. ‘Is that Mum?'

‘That's great. We just wanted to wish you luck –'

‘Darling? Where …?' the voice murmurs.

‘Dad?' Juliette frowns. ‘Dad, is that Mum? Where are you?'

‘Don't you worry about us, sweetheart –'

‘Dad?'

Juliette hears a groan that sluices her like a frigid ocean wave. It is full of pain. Everything else seems to vanish.
Delphine
. Amelie Dusollier. Paris. Juliette grips the phone as though it is a life buoy. There is only her and the phone and the two voices at the other end.

‘Dad? Are you at the hospital?'

‘Your mother is getting the best care. We didn't want to worry you.'

‘What is it, Dad?'

‘It's nothing to worry –'

‘Tell me what it is, Dad.'

Juliette's father sighs and Juliette suddenly wants to cry. Not today. Not now.

‘Pneumonia,' he answers wearily.

‘Darling? Violette?' The voice is her mother's but it sounds alien. Whispery and urgent. Detached and begging. Like a ghost's. Juliette squeezes the phone so tightly her hand hurts. As though she is trying to crush it, as though replicating the feeling in her own chest, the vice around her heart.

‘Dad? Did she say Violette?'

Juliette can hear her father's breath but he does not reply. A woman, walking swiftly, with a skinny, grey dog on a lead, steps too close to Juliette under the eaves. The proximity brings Paris rushing back. The light, the noises, the smells of the morning and the city throw themselves at her; assault her. She blinks and draws breath; coming up from the wave. She thinks, urgently, of that other place, of the mineral sea-air, the quiet split by gulls' cries, the awful smallness of her village and her mother's face, laid against hospital sheets thick and starched like the tablecloths at
Delphine
.

‘I'm coming.'

‘No –' her father protests.

‘I'm coming,' Juliette says again.

*

The door to Juliette's parents' cottage is red and shiny. The colour of British post boxes and telephone booths. On either side hang baskets with flowers falling over the edges and green buds that will produce many more. Sweetpeas and geraniums and pansies in yellows and purples; all her father's handiwork. Juliette needs to take her boots off. Her father struggles with the key and then has to lean his shoulder against the door to get it to open.

Inside is a time warp. Juliette's father climbs the stairs, the walls of which are lined with photographs in wooden frames, mostly of Juliette, colours bleached to amber and peach and brown. School photos and family photos in which the three of them make a little trifecta, a pyramid, Juliette in the centre. One of her first holy communion, Juliette a tiny bride with stiff ringlets and wearing a frown. Her feet throbbing Juliette pauses to sit on the bottom step and wriggle off her boots. It had been easy enough to borrow a car, she explained the situation, hurriedly, to a friend, who lent her his, but she hadn't had time to fetch a change of clothes or shoes. In the car she'd longed for a cigarette, settling instead for cheap petrol station coffee and the radio turned up loud. The music had not helped to scuttle her fears.

‘I'll put the kettle on,' Juliette's father calls out from the top of the stairs.

In Juliette's parents' opinion, the solution to every problem lies at the bottom of a teacup. If in doubt, put the kettle on. In an act of rebellion Juliette had started drinking coffee at the age of eleven; the blacker the better. But these days, she accepted the milky, sweet cups of tea with resignation. Perhaps her parents are right; perhaps tea will make it all better. A miracle is needed. Rituals are to be obeyed.

The hospital had smelled of antiseptic and decay. One insufficiently masking the other. Not the decay of lover's roses, but the decay of flesh and blood and skin and bone. The smell of atrophy and loss. The smell that was so opposite to freshly baked bread, to pan-fried fish, to softening garlic and chilled wine; scents that were all aliveness and joy. The smell of the hospital made Juliette's appetite vanish, made her feel queasy.

Her mother is very sick. Sicker than she imagined, much sicker than when she last saw her, though perhaps her parents had been keeping the dire nature of things to themselves, as they tended to do. The pneumonia has ravaged her in a short time, her father admitted. The nurse that came in, to change dressings, to empty and refill things, and who seemed to know her parents better than Juliette did, evidenced in the manner with which she spoke to them and smiled and patted Juliette's father's shoulder so kindly it sent a bolt of guilt straight through Juliette, seemed to agree with her father about that. The pneumonia had been a huge blow. It was very unfortunate. They had all looked towards Juliette's mother as she inhaled noisily, in such a laboured way, as though to demonstrate the point. She sounded like she was trying to breathe under water, from under a wave.

Juliette climbs the stairs in stockinged feet. Her soles ache and pulse with each step. The balls of her feet are the worst and the side of her right foot. She passes a pile of newspapers on the middle stair. The kettle is bubbling by the time she reaches the kitchen. She glances around at the mess in piles. Bills, newspapers, notices, general detritus. Counters are covered in odd things. Screws, seed packets, library books, a comb.

‘Dad?'

He has his head in the fridge and is moving things around, mumbling to himself.

‘I had some … Oh, your mother's jam, I should …'

‘Dad?'

He lifts up a bottle of milk and peers at the date.

‘Is it the sixteenth?'

‘Twentieth.'

He opens the lid and sniffs anyway, uncomfortable with waste.

‘I don't take milk,' Juliette offers.

‘Sorry, love,' he apologises. When he puts the bottle on the counter Juliette picks it up and puts it in the rubbish for him. The smell of rotten food coming from the bin is strong. When the tea is made they take their mugs to the dining table. Juliette's father has to clear more piles of papers to make room for them.

‘With your mother gone, I know it's a bit untidy …' he says, absently, sipping at the sweetened tea.

‘How long has she been in the hospital?' Juliette doesn't add ‘this time'.

Her father looks over to a pile of papers and picks up the newspaper on top.

‘Dad?'

‘Not long. A couple of days? It is Wednesday, isn't it?'

‘Yes, it's Wednesday.'

‘We went in at the end of last week.'

‘So more than a few days then.'

Her father waves the paper triumphantly. ‘I was going to show you this!'

‘Dad, we're talking about Mum.'

He pushes it over to her side of the table. It is Douarnenez's local newspaper. Juliette's name had been in it a few times. Once for representative gymnastics, when she was twelve. Twice for high school exam results. Her mother had clipped the articles. They were probably still in the house somewhere, maybe in a pile of papers in another room. Her father stands to lean over the table, twisting the paper back to face him, flicking through to find what he was looking for.

‘Ah! There.'

He prods at the page.

A vendre. Boulangerie.

‘A bakery
for sale
? Dad, I have
Delphine
.'

Her father pulls the paper back towards him. ‘Oh, I know, I didn't mean … It's Stephanie's, do you remember her? Stephanie Jeunet?'

‘Yes, I remember –'

‘I saw it and thought of you. Knew it was around here somewhere. It's only a week old I think …' He checks the date at the top of the page ‘Yes! Only a week. She hasn't sold, I am sure of it.'

‘Dad, I live in Paris.'

‘I know, love, just thought you might be interested. Have a read. You never know.' The paper comes back over her side. Juliette gives it a polite glance. Of course she knows the bakery, of course she remembers Stephanie Jeunet. Juliette had been to Stephanie Jeunet's bakery hundreds of times. Stephanie had tried to teach her mother how to make
kouign-amann
, the tender, chewy pastry Douarnenez was famous for. Maman could never master it but Juliette took to pastry like a duck to water. When she had been younger she had dreamed of owning a bakery. Now her plans were bigger. More significant. Juliette had outgrown that youthful ambition. She had outgrown Douarnenez. Above the for sale notice for the bakery is a tiny one line advertisement requesting a housekeeper and chef for a property outside of the village. Juliette peers at it, curious. Very few wealthy people or holiday-makers have properties outside of the village.

‘You don't need to keep these things, Dad,' Juliette says.

Her father looks around the room. ‘It needs a little tidy up.'

BOOK: A French Wedding
5.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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