Authors: Hannah Tunnicliffe
âBloody hell,' says Nina.
âShe's got no top on,' Rosie murmurs, frowning. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.
âShe's a firecracker,' Lars says admiringly. Nina swats him and Rosie shoots him a pointed look.
âHow old is she?' Nina asks.
âMid twenties maybe?'
âStop staring,' Rosie scolds.
âThere's just so much â¦ boob,' Nina says.
Nina turns to Juliette with a wry smile. âI bet you've seen worse.'
Juliette recalls the girl who came down to breakfast still tipsy from the night before, and the one who couldn't find her shoes; Juliette lent her a pair of old slippers that had been her father's and which she kept at the house to wear when she did chores. Gorgeous, giggling, smooth-skinned, half-naked girls. Girls smitten with Max, clinging to him like a bean plant to a stake.
âTopless is okay in France,' she says.
âYeah, girls â topless is okay in France,' Lars pipes up.
Both women give him withering glares.
Lars picks up the platters with the bread, cheese and cruditÃ©s. âDo you want these on the table, Juliette?'
,' she says gratefully. âYes, please.'
When Lars has left, Rosie plucks two bottles from her basket and sidles closer to Nina, who is still standing at the window. Juliette busies herself, going to the fridge to take out a large tray of whole silver-bellied sardines.
âAre you okay?' Rosie whispers.
âI'm fine. Truly,' Nina says. âStop worrying.'
âI can't help it.'
âWell, you'll have to. Sophie is with us and this is supposed to be a nice weekend away. If anything, you can help me with her. She's â¦ having a hard time.'
âYou can't blame her, Nina.'
Nina glances over at Juliette. She is
salting the sardines and doesn't meet Nina's gaze. The years
spent running a restaurant and hearing the most personal conversations
means Juliette knows how to be invisible. She's seen it
all â fights and confessions, breaking and making up. There
isn't much that shocks her anymore.
had been known
within a circle of high-ranking politicians and businessmen as the
place to bring your mistress. It was small, dark, intimate and safe.
Nina lowers her voice. âWe're not telling anyone. Not even Sophie, remember? We don't know anything yet. Don't say anything, please. Not even to Hugo.'
The door opens and a thin man with glasses steps in. His back is ramrod straight, and he pushes his glasses up his nose to survey the kitchen. âTalking about me?'
Rosie's face brightens, a little too much. âHugo! No. Do you mind putting these bottles in the fridge?'
Hugo is almost as tall as Lars, but his hair is dark and thinning, and the creases in his face run in different directions, making him look worn and disappointed.
âAnything else?' His tone is exasperated.
âI've been getting instructions all the way from Paris.'
âDon't be silly.'
Hugo's voice rises, âDon't be rude. Stop here so I can take one hundred photos of lavender. Be nice to Nina. Don't say anything inappropriate. Don't be too smart.' Hugo pauses to lift his eyebrows to Nina and says in his regular voice, âHey, Nina.'
âI did not say that.' Rosie glances from Nina to Juliette back to Hugo. âJust take these, would you?'
Juliette gestures outside. âThere is a drinks fridge in the bar, by the deck. This one is full of food, I'm afraid.'
Hugo takes the bottles then steps over to Nina. She lifts her head as he kisses her on the cheek. He looks over at Juliette. âHi, I'm Hugo, husband who does as he's told.' Rosie sighs.
âI'm Juliette. I work for Max. It's a pleasure to meet you.'
Hugo nods. âDo we put our things in any room?'
Juliette had anticipated Max being here by now to show his guests to their rooms. âThere are four spare double bedrooms and one twin single upstairs, please help yourself.' She doesn't mention the little bedroom off the original hallway. That is hers. Max offered her one of the bigger, modern rooms, especially when it was just him and her in the house, but Juliette refused. She loves âThe Blue Room', as she has named it. The duck-egg coloured walls are thick and warped, the floor made of stones just like the kitchen, partially covered with a braided rug she transplanted from her parents' cottage. It's small but cosy, nostalgic somehow but none of the memories are hers or her parents. The walls block out both sound and light like a womb. The only window, dressed with wooden shutters on squeaky hinges, contains old glass, which makes the view wobbly.
Nina starts ticking off her fingers. âOne room is Max's, I presume. Then one for Eddie and what's-her-name â¦ the boobs â¦'
âBeth,' Juliette supplies again.
âBeth. You and Hugo. Lars and me. That's four. Where is Helen sleeping?'
Hugo snorts. âAre you kidding? In with Max, if he gets his way.'
âIt hasn't worked for him so far,' Nina says. âJuliette, is it okay if Sophie sleeps on a couch?'
âYes, sorry,' Juliette replies. âI put spare linen at the top of the stairs. There is a day bed in the music studio or she can sleep in the lounge, whichever you think is best. The studio is further from the rooms, so you might not be very close to each other.'
âOh, she'll be happy with that,' says Nina.
Hugo adds, acerbically, âMax will be thrilled too. Thought we weren't bringing kids.'
âJesus, Hugo,' Rosie cries out.
âYou get out of the wrong side of bed, Hugo?' Nina asks.
Juliette remembers what Max had said next.
Hugo â¦ he's a fucking twat.
âIt's been a long drive. My wife has been battering me with instructions on social graces.'
Nina smiles sweetly. âMaybe you need them.'
Despite missing guests â Max and Helen â Juliette prepares dinner. Tonight's menu is fish â sole and silver-bellied sardines, a salad of beetroot, pink grapefruit, goat's cheese and mint, spring asparagus with almonds and a lemon dressing. Max told her to keep the meals very casual, so she set a table outside with simple silver cutlery, tea lights in glass jars, a pile of paper napkins, and two little wooden bowls with flakes of
fleur de sel
and black pepper. Already there is a craggy pile of shells in the bin, the group having tasted their first Breton oysters, which Juliette served with lemon cheeks as a starter. In the kitchen, Juliette pan-fries sole fillets in a little butter, making mental notes about her guests and their eating habits. Eddie and Nina are enthusiastic about food; Hugo is more of an academic. He informs everyone that you shouldn't eat oysters in a month without an âr' in it and explains that Cancale is the most famous village in Brittany for them. Rosie eats only a little and then becomes distracted in conversation. Beth, now wearing a short, swingy summer dress with grey and white stripes, is curious but tentative. All of the group, barring Beth, drink a lot of Muscadet wine, direct from a wine supplier from Quimper who enjoys the opportunity to flirt when Juliette places her orders.
Max's friends, gathered around the candlelit table, are polite but informal, much like a family. Eddie and Lars laugh and chat while Nina and Rosie have their heads close together, talking in cosy whispers. Beth and Hugo hang off to the sides, looking a little uncomfortable. That is the hazard of old friendships; other people, extras and in-laws, get left out. Lars is clearly in charge of the music, much to the chagrin of Hugo, who doesn't seem to have the same taste as the others. Juliette is pleased she spent that year in an English boarding school because she recognises the tunes Lars chooses; old stuff â The Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses, R.E.M. Beth is quiet, somewhat baffled perhaps, but Juliette can't be sure if that is because the music is unfamiliar, the food foreign, or the company overwhelming. She overhears her ask Eddie, in a whisper, why Max is not with them and looks away as he guffaws, murmuring something about girls or drugs. Hugo is visibly put out. He rests his hand on Rosie's knee but it falls off when she twists her chair to face Nina.
Juliette turns the fish fillets over, one by one. She wonders if the group will find the food too plain. She has become a traditional cook over the past year. She uses ingredients directly from Douarnenez whenever she can â sardines and other seafood, spring vegetables, local yoghurts and cheese. She has given up being experimental, exotic or avant-garde; it no longer appeals to her. Now she cooks as she learned to from Jean-Paul; same name as the pope and the fashion designer, though he was neither pious nor stylish. Jean-Paul had been a fisherman in his late forties when Juliette was still in her teens. Juliette's parents had been horrified at the match, but Juliette really did adore him for a time â his age, his disregard for convention, for rules. He'd been on oceans and seen cities with names that sounded like spices. Juliette always complained that Douarnenez never changed, that it was suffocating â
un filet de peche
â but her mother had just laughed. âYou'll want that one day, Juliette. A place that never changes, that is exactly as you left it.'
The irony was that in many ways Jean-Paul had been Douarnenez through and through. He smelled of the sea, of iodine and salt and rope, like a winter oyster, and his skin, aside from his calloused hands, was strangely soft and smooth. He was a magnificent, intuitive cook. Juliette thought of him a lot since returning to Douarnenez, even though he had died some years ago. She had learned a lot from Jean-Paul. About cooking. About herself. If she closes her eyes she can imagine herself back in his tiny, clean, galley-like kitchen. The smell of hot butter and the softening, relenting garlic; the sound of the sea and gulls calling. Juliette opens her eyes. She removes the sole from the pan and piles the fillets onto a large platter, taking them out to the group.
The salads and grilled sardines, accompanied by pink onions and herbs, are already on the table. Juliette passes around plates.
Please, eat.' She notices Eddie leans over the fish while Beth beside him holds her plate to her chest. Hugo takes two pieces of fish and Rosie chews a spear of asparagus. Juliette goes over to Beth and curls her hands over the back of her chair. She whispers, âIt's sole. It's very mild. There should be no bones; I think you'll like it.'
Beth looks up at her, lips parted. Juliette lets go of the chair and smiles.
âIs there anything else I can get for you?' she asks the group.
âIs there more lemon?' Hugo asks.
âThey're right there,' Rosie says, pointing to a bowl full of lemon cheeks.
âOh, right,' he mumbles.
âAnything else?' Juliette checks.
Heads shake. Juliette watches Beth swallow a mouthful of fish before she leaves the table. On top of the bar is the plate she made for herself. A piece of fish and some bread. It was arguably the best fillet of the lot. The one she imagines Paol Reynaud, whom she bought most of her fish from, had thrown in for free, just for her. She is almost inside when she spots a figure at the edge of the patio, in the dim light. Her pale blonde hair hangs over her back in one piece like cloth. She wears a grey sweatshirt that is much too big for her. Juliette pauses for a moment. The girl is focused on something in front of her, on the grass.
Juliette knows not to approach a person front on, if she can help it. Another restaurant trick, perhaps, or something she observed with her father, in the way he had handled their dogs. Juliette moves slowly and lowers herself down next to the girl, but not too close.
âIt's a pretty night,' Juliette says.
The girl looks to the sky and nods. It is close to being a full moon, the night sky deep blue rather than black, the stars golden rather than silvery. The light has faded to grey-green at the horizon. There are no gull cries but the air is sea-scented. Juliette eats a forkful of fish.
âHave you eaten?'
The girl's head twitches. Now that she is closer Juliette notices that the ends of the girl's hair are dyed black. Irregularly, as though hand-dipped, a handful at a time, into an inkpot. Her fingers, gripping the ends of her sleeves, have nails that had been chewed right down.
âDid you want â' Juliette starts to ask.
âI get car sick,' the girl explains, quickly. âI'm not hungry.'
âNo problem,' Juliette says. She eats more of her fish and balances her plate on her knees to tear the bread in half and mop up the sweet, briny juices. She allows a long silence.
âYou're Juliette,' the girl says, finally filling it in.
Juliette smiles and nods.
âNina and Lars's daughter.'
Sophie stares down at her lap. Juliette begins preparing the dessert in her head. She has homemade apple sorbet ready in the freezer but perhaps she could douse it in Lambic, cider brandy. She is saving Max's favourite,
, for Saturday, his birthday night, when they are all together to celebrate. Max hadn't wanted a party or fuss, but Juliette planned to treat him with favourite dishes all the same. âWhatever they say, Juliette, forty is
the new thirty,' Max had informed her with a grimace. Juliette didn't tell him she'd already celebrated hers.
Despite Max's job, his familiarity with the press, he is quite private. He has few close friends, no family Juliette has ever met, and a tendency to seek out desolate places. He told her he'd found this cottage after a photo shoot in the village, by the marina. When the shoot was over he'd just started to wander. And kept wandering, at times along the cliffs and foreshore. Juliette imagined him with his head full of thoughts and music, dark jacket on and cigarette between his fingers, assessing the sea and beaches she knew so well. It must have taken a couple of hours travelling along the coast to reach this part of Douarnenez, to find the old, stone cottage amongst the overgrown grounds. That impressed Juliette.