Culinary Delights – A little romance

CULINARY DELIGHTS

By Deb E Howell

Word Count: 2,967

Culinary Delights was written for and entered in the Dunedin Writers’ Workshop 2012 Dorothy Meder Competition and received 3rd place. The judge’s comments are at the bottom.

“And now, to make us a delicious Fruit Tart, or Tartes aux fruits—” I glance over for Michel’s proud nod; I’d done well. “—for the last time on Brunch Time—” What? First I’m hearing about this—as I read the auto-cue! Why didn’t anyone tell me?

Lisa.

What am I going to do now? Why isn’t he coming back?

Lisa. You’re staring. Read.

My producer’s voice is in my ear. Oh! I’m on camera. Right. I mentally shake myself. Just read the cue. Think later.

“—on Brunch Time, is Michel Berteau. Welcome back, Michel.”

“Hello, Lisa.”

Oh, his accent is divine. Divine. Oh god, I can’t think straight. You’re leaving? Why? Why?!

“So, Michel, what kind of fruit are you putting in our Tartes aux fruits, today?” Well done, well done, just keep going. One word at a time.

“Well, Lisa—”

I love it when he says my name. Does he know how much I love it? He certainly says it a lot. Is he flirting with me? But it doesn’t mean anything. Besides, he’s about to leave the country, dumb-arse. That, and I’m a washed up middle-aged solo mum, while he’s a hot, sexy, deliciously single Frenchman who can cook …

Oh crap. What’s he been saying?

“…and blueberries. Very good for you, blueberries.”

I nod enthusiastically.

“And tasty,” I say. There, see, I’m a good host. I know what’s going on.

Quick inventory of the fruit on the counter: bananas, strawberries, kiwifruit (I love how he pronounces “kiwifruit” … focus!), some sort of melon, and of course, blueberries.

Now I’m up to speed.

“And now you’re mixing up the crust?”

“That’s right,” he says in that deep, dreamy voice, with a glance and some pearly whites, then back to business. “I’ve put a little salt in the flour. Now I cream the butter and sugar.”

The electric whisk is too loud to talk over, but it speeds up the progress immeasurably. Our viewers don’t mind the noise if it doesn’t go for long. We’re both miked up, so we can natter about the deliciousness of butter creamed with sugar, but it can only be light conversation. We do get complaints if the hard-of-hearing are unduly handicapped as far as information-gathering is concerned. Light banter during noisy processes, yes; discussions of special techniques or other cooking secrets, no.

His elbow brushes mine, sending sparks right up my arm, zinging up my neck, buzzing my brain, and down … phwow! We’ve been doing this at least once a fortnight since he started on the show six months ago, and it never gets old. He flashes that grin and I’m struggling to keep myself composed.

He adds an egg, still beating until it is combined, and finally turns the ruddy thing off. Even I was getting annoyed. Then he’s mixing in the flour and salt and showing everyone how to combine it to a smooth dough, and telling us that it must be flattened and frozen for half an hour. And lo-and-behold, he’s already got pastry in the freezer and pulls it out now. The magic of television.

“Of course, this recipe and all the necessary steps can be found on our website,” I explain to the camera, giving the URL. Michel rolls out and presses the pastry into a greased flan tin. I watch the veins on the backs of his hands popping up, the muscles below his shirt sleeves rippling under tanned skin. He returns the pastry to the freezer and makes a start on the tart’s cream mixture.

It’s rude, but I rest my elbows on the bench, chin in hand, and lean in. “So, what are your plans after you leave us, Michel? Will you be winging your way off to France, or are there things—” people … me? “—keeping you in New Zealand for now?”

Sneaky, Lisa.

Hush, Becky. Let me work.

Of course, I can’t talk back to her. Everything I say goes to air, broadcast to the nation. Whatever she says is strictly in my ear alone—unless she accidentally broadcasts to the entire crew. Quick glance. Seems I’m safe.

“… back to France. I’ve enjoyed my time in New Zealand.” He winks at me.

He winked at me! Why, oh why, do you have to go? Stay. Fall madly in love with me. Bear my children. No, wait. I’ll have yours! Mid-forties isn’t too old …

So we chat our way through mixing the custardy-cream, spreading it across the sweet pastry and layering it with fruit, glorious fruit. Kiwifruit. I giggle when he says it. I can’t help myself.

“Do you think you’ll ever return?” A legitimate question; many of our viewers would like to know, he’s had quite a bit of fan mail.

“I hope so.” Another smile, and he garnishes the dessert with the final blueberry.

I relax—hadn’t realised I’d tensed.

“How did you not know?” Becky exits the production room as soon as we sign-off, and corners me. “The email went out last week. We’re having farewell drinks tonight.”

“I never got any email. Wait. Who sent it?”

“Me.”

“To who?”

“The usual crowd.” She doesn’t get where I’m headed with this. “The Social Club?”

“Becky, I fell off that mailing list months ago. Ever since my parents moved I just haven’t been able to lock in babysitters. I got sick of saying ‘no’, so I asked to be removed.”

“Oh. I wonder who else doesn’t know, then.” She taps her chin with a forefinger before coming back to the here and now. “But that’s beside the point. You have to tell him.”

“I know.” And I do know. But at the same time, I also know how humiliating it is to be rejected. “I should have said something months ago.” If I was ever going to say anything at all … “It’s wrong, isn’t it? To wait until he’s leaving before I finally come clean.”

“Every great work needs a deadline.”

“Ah, but I don’t have one. You heard him. He wants to come back to New Zealand.”

“Really? You’re gonna play that card? Take that bet?”

“What?”

“He said he hoped to return to New Zealand—looking all friendly-like at you, I might add. But what if he meets Mademoiselle Droit while he’s back home, eh? What then?”

Right about now I want the studio floor to open up and swallow me whole. I’m blushing and deflating all at once. She said he looked at me “friendly-like”, which is code for flirtatiously. But she’s also right about his trip back home … all those young, gorgeous French girls. And I want him to stay here with me?

“Just forget it, then.”

“What?”

I mumble when I’m feeling down. “I said, just forget it. I mean, why should he settle for me, the older woman with a child already, when he could have anyone?”

“Are you fishing for compliments? They never feel as good when you’ve had to ask.”

“I’m being serious, Becky. He’s gorgeous and talented and young and … and … French.”

“Exactly. And I bet all those French girls would fawn over a Kiwi bloke just as you do over Michel. He’s nothing special over there. He’s special to you.”

I almost believe her. Fact is, though, Michel would be special anywhere.

“So, you’re coming to the party, right? Chantelle could come. It won’t be a raucous night.”

I give her my doubting look—tilt my head, one eyebrow down, one up. We’re talking TV crew, here; cameramen and women, sound engineers, directors, producers, presenters …. On top of that, we’re Kiwis. We know how to drink. Besides, my daughter is fourteen, right on the cusp of entering the drinking culture. I’d like to give her a chance to expand her frontal cortex before she starts killing it. As a mother, is that too much to hope for?

“I’ll keep her busy, so you can focus on Monsieur Berteau. Come on, what do you say?”

Becky is trying so hard. How much do I want this? Enough to change my plans for my usual night in to attend my first work-related shindig in months, risking humiliating speculation from from the get-go, so I can lay my heart before a younger man and wait for him to deliver the crushing blow. Will I keel over right there and then? Might as well. I’ll be the laughing stock at work anyway. No. Something tells me I should have done this months ago. In private.

One bonus of working with a talented French chef on a morning show: a delicious several-course lunch. Today Michel has provided us Pot au feu along with the Tarte aux fruits, and just for fun he’s buttered baguettes, knowing how much I love the rich creamy spread, despite the effect it has on my hips. With a TV crew to feed, there’s no chance for private conversation. What chance am I going to have of getting the young M. Berteau in private at his own party?

I didn’t mean to, but I think I’ve already made up my mind.

So I’m curled on my couch, the teenager in bed. I’m in track pants and a sweat shirt two sizes too big for me, halfway through a packet of Tim Tams, flicking channels. Why is there never anything good on TV when you need there to be?

Yes, I’m a coward. Yes, I’m pitiful. Yes, I’m self-sabotaging. I feel like a teenage girl with the baggage of a middle-aged woman. I used to tell myself it would get easier. When I had the killer career, I’d feel so good about myself I could walk up to anyone and know they’d want me back. When I moved out of home … When I got my weight under control … When I could run a marathon … When I learnt how to manicure, rather than massacre, my nails … When … When … OK. Fine. So I haven’t managed any of those last ones, yet, but a career in television is pretty good. I’ve even had fan mail. But they don’t know the real me. They don’t know what the toilet smells like after I’ve been in there. My husband did, and look where he is now; down south with some piece of fluff half my age.

Oh lord, I sound bitter, even to myself.

Alright, let’s find something on this blasted thing to block out my thoughts.

I hope I never see you … again. Just the song lyrics I needed right now. Thanks.

… and don’t even get me started on the pork. You tried the pork? Am I like old pork? I am old … and perhaps piggy at times.

Weak floors can collapse if they’re not attended to. I think that wasn’t the best line to switch to after the pork one. I suddenly feel a need to do my PC exercises.

Walter, is that vehicle leaving? Yes. Yes, he is. Great. Now my eyes are burning. Don’t cry, you silly woman. Yes, he’s leaving and there’s nothing you— I could have done about it. He wants to go home see his family. Nothing I could have done.

Bro, Monique says you’re dumb. Nothing I could have done.

Out of control …

Something in Swedish. On the Maori Channel. Seems safe enough. Someone might even get killed.

The phone rings. The red wine must be doing its thing, because I don’t leap off the couch in fright.

“Yello?”

“Lisa!” It’s Becky. “What are you doing there? You’re supposed to be here. Here!” She’s shouting to hear herself over the music behind and I hold the phone back from my ear.

“I just didn’t feel like it.” I sound defeatist, even to myself. I’m miserable. I deserve to be alone.

“I’m coming to get you. Now. Get dressed. No discussion.”

“Who are you talking to?” A male voice. A deep, French male voice. Michel.

I swallow. His voice, and my body is already responding. My breathing becomes shallow so as not to drown out any future words from his lips. I don’t hear Becky’s answer, but—

“Lisa!” His voice is clear. He must have grabbed the phone off Becky. “Why aren’t you here? I’ve loved working with you so much. You should be here, my lovely.” My lovely, oh god … But he calls all the girls his lovelies, I’m sure. Besides, he’s drunk.

“I want to see you in a party dress.”

I have the urge to put on a party dress, put on some heels and join the party.

“I—”

“I’m coming to get you!” Becky again. Michel must have moved on already. Lavished a few compliments and away. One of those men.

“Becky, how much have you had to drink?” I shout, not sure if she can hear me over the music.

“Mum! Shhh!”

“Sorry, darling.” I cover the mouthpiece and call up the hallway.

“You’re right, Lisa. I shouldn’t drive. I’ll get someone to bring me over. Now scoot! Get dressed. I’ll be there in thirty.”

She hangs up on me. She hung up on me! Either coming or she intends to come but will get distracted … A distraction is highly likely in her state. I have two choices: sit here feeling sorry for myself and refuse to go even if Becky does turn up; or get my bum off this couch, get dressed, put on some make-up, and go to a party.

‘How about a little Sex on the Beach?’ ‘I think my house is closer.’ Ha ha.

Have fun with that. Wish I could …

There’s somethin’ happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. It’s perfectly clear. I’ve fallen in love with a man I’ve been brushing elbows with on-and-off for six months and now he’s leaving and I’m sitting on my couch, dressed in my moody best, making myself fatter, pretending to watch TV and not care that he’ll never know how I feel.

The tears come. I can’t stop them. I’m glad I washed off the stage make-up earlier. Oh God (’cause I’m such a believer), why are you doing this to me? Why do you dangle this jewel before me, only to whisk him away? I should have tried harder. But there’s no turning back the clock, is there?

What a blubbery mess I am.

I sniff, long and deep, swallowing the phlegm, and bite into another Tim Tam. Only three left. That deserves a hefty sigh. I cough on tears, snot and misery.

Blurgh. This is me.

But, you know what? (When you spend as much time alone as I do, you talk to yourself, a lot). I have a great daughter any mother would be proud of. And you know what else? I did that. And I’m good at my job. Not too many presenters put their bodies and reputations on the line like I do. Not otherwise serious female presenters, anyway. I’ve had feedback from viewers telling me they love my flirty style. How about that? I have a style.

And Michel is a good man. He’s been good to me and good for me. We always get to eat what he makes on the show, and more often than not he has asked what I like before planning his menu. It’s made me feel special when I needed it. If nothing else, he’s been a wonderful friend to me.

So I ask myself, just what am I doing sitting here? How selfish am I, staying away from his party? Right. Decision made.

Dressed, I plant myself back on the couch and wait.

And wait.

I’m all dressed up now, and it’s thirty-five minutes since Becky hung up on me. I ring her mobile. No answer. She shouldn’t be driving, so my guess is she’s still at the party, her ringtone drowned out by the music. So …

I’ve only had one glass of red. I can drive myself.

One last pat down of the dress.

I grab my keys off the bench.

“I’m going out. I’ll lock the door.”

No reply. Chantelle must be asleep. I’ll only be gone a little while.

Had better grab my jacket, it’ll be cold out.

Nothing else? Purse, phone, jacket, keys …

Oh, fine. I’ll take a look in the full-length mirror. Talk about mutton dressed as lamb. Sure, the aerobics demonstrations I do at work are helping, but my love of fat and sugar isn’t. “Curvy” would be a nice way to describe it. Far too nice. Bulgy, more like. And why can I never get my make-up like they do it at work? Guess you really do need to be qualified. Wrinkles there, spots here. Old. Haggard. Well past my prime. I’d sob, but my mascara would run.

What am I thinking?

But I’ve already told myself I’m going. It’s not for me. It’s a show of friendship for Michel.

To the front door.

Turn the handle. I can do this. I can face the world as me. I mean, I’m on TV every day. The world is not a scary beast. And I’m just going as a friend. He’ll appreciate that.

Turn the handle, damn you, and go out there—

“Michel!”

One side of his mouth curls up in a grin and I nearly collapse. My legs are jelly.

“Becky couldn’t drive, so I said I would get you. You look ravishing.”

Ravishing.

“And you look …” Divine. Delectable. Scrumptious. Ambrosial. Yummy. “Nice.” I can’t breathe. He’s at my door.

“I already gave my speech.”

Speech?

“They won’t be expecting me back.”

“Uh …”

“I could make you a hot chocolate.” His grin spreads as he lifts a block of melting chocolate. Proper hot chocolate, he must have stopped to buy it on his way over.

Well …

How could I refuse?

Judge’s Comments:

This story used direct speech and internal monologue to excellent effect: revealing (without over-explaining) the characters’ back-stories, hopes, dreams and fears. The settings – work and domestic – feel authentic, and the situation between Michel and Lisa is believable. The story is well-developed – beginning, middle and end – and flows nicely. As with most of the stories entered, the reader knows from the outset what the denouement will bring, so the pleasure is in seeing the characters grapple with the ‘barrier to romance’ scenario. Lisa’s journey to Michel’s hot chocolate is sweet indeed.