Dockside Ch. 03byAdrian Leverkuhn©
As the little jet rolled down the runway, fat drops of rain streaked across the windows as our speed increased; they vanished into the night as we climbed into the sky. Michelle sat beside me, her hand in mine, while the jet bounced and rolled into heavy gray clouds. Clouds that had brought sleeting rain to London that afternoon, clouds that seemed to chase us wherever we ran. Lightning lit the insides of clouds, cast oblique shadows over the inside of the cabin, then the entire aircraft seemed to lurch upward, slowly upward, then slam down several hundred feet. Michelle squeezed my hand, the woman across the aisle from us screamed, and within a moment we saw her reaching for the "sick-sack" in the seat-back ahead of her. She almost got the thing out in time, too.
A few more bounces and rolls, a mild climbing turn to the left, then fragments of starlight just glimpsed, the moon overhead casting milky glows through the cloud, then up and out of the cloud completely, bursting free into a clear, cold night. I looked out the window; huge towers of cloud rose beside and ahead of us, their pale interiors glowing with lightning that occasionally ripped from somewhere deep inside and jumped from cloud to cloud, or down to an unseen earth now far below.
The pilots steered between clouds as one late for work might drive through slow traffic. That is to say, they were weaving and dodging between roiling towers, the jet still lurching and dropping from time to time, and all the while the woman across the aisle sat miserably, waiting to make her way to the head. The flight attendant, sitting on her fold-down seat by the cockpit door, looked mildly bored and amused until one downdraft shook the jet and cast us down once again, but this time violently, and the left wing rolled down sickeningly. Now even she looked terrified, and the woman across the aisle was openly weeping.
And as suddenly as it had come on, the violent weather receded; we resumed climbing, and soon Calais and the French coast slid below, little amber lights twinkling on a vast plain of black velvet. Bright cabin lights came on a minute later, the flight attendant began readying her cart and the woman across the aisle dashed into the head when the seatbelt light winked out.
Such is the order of our universe.
Michelle snuggled into my side and I pulled up the little blanket she had draped over herself when we'd boarded. She was fast asleep within moments, as was I.
We made our way from the airport in Lyon to the station downtown and managed to get on a late night TGV that passed through Avignon, and so of course arrived there in the wee hours. Perhaps arriving at four in the morning, in mid-November no less, was a mildly stupid thing to do, but travel on impulse often presents you with such confounding realities. There wasn't a taxi to be found, of course, and the station's lobby was preposterously small and almost empty: a couple of men loading sacks of mail onto a cart, a man collecting garbage, a woman dozing on a bench beside a wire rack of light blue rail schedules. The white terrazzo floor was all echoes and dull wax, which is to say I felt like it looked.
But of course, Michelle had a friend in mind. What else are friends for if not to call from the train station at four in the morning and, as if everything's fine and dandy, ask if they might not mind a trip into town.
And of course, friends being friends and all, she came.
Her name, it turned out, was Leslie Dufour, and I saw she was seriously tired when she pulled into the broad circular drive in front of the station and opened her door. She bounded around and hugged Michelle, and then, with her shoulders scrunched up and giggling shyly, slipped over and hugged me too. It all felt very good, this friend thing, and we piled into Leslie's tinier than tiny blue Renault and drove for a half hour until we arrived at her equally tiny house. The sun was coming up over distant mountains, the air was cool and full of promise, and I was about to pass out I was so tired. The girls wanted to talk, of course, and I assume they were more than understanding when I stretched out on the little beige couch and closed my eyes, because when I awoke it was past noon. They were, however, still at it, merrily talking away while drinking black coffee and munching dark chocolate; but food was on their mind.
We drove down a narrow, tree-lined lane east of town and made our way to a small bistro that sat next to a modest square in the center of an impossibly small village. A stone-walled stream passed through the heart of the village, and though it lay on the far side of the square from the bistro we could still hear the water as it slipped through on its way to the Rhone.
It was perfect.
The owner of the place came out of his kitchen when he heard us enter, and the man rubbed his eyes when he saw Michelle, then burst into tears and ran to her. This is, of course, not the behavior I typically associate with the proprietors of small country inns. Ms Dufour stood by, beaming, while Michelle and the man hugged and cried; he stood back more than once, holding her face in his outstretched hands, then was hugging her again and again.
He was, it turned out and not unexpectedly, himself a celebrated chef.
And of course, he was Michelle's father.
Life is full of awkward moments, strained first meetings, uncomfortable silences. This was not to be, however, one of those occasions.
I suppose you could say that for some people, life has passed them by. Such souls are often lonely, beaten down and weathered, and perhaps ready for another life somewhere, somehow, if only, they might tell you, "I could have had this or that chance." Then you might, and not unreasonably, expect to find there are others in the world who have embraced life on their own terms, found no small measure of happiness, and indeed, even some success, and so satisfied that a valid working dichotomy had been established, you might be content to leave your examination of life among the living then and there and be done with it.
But there is another group, certainly less well known and consequently understood not at all. These people have at some point in their lives embraced life and succeeded, even flourished, but even then found something was missing from life. Or perhaps they found there was too much in their life, too much money, too many insincere people, too much frivolity, or too little, and these people set out down a different path, a less conventional path, and, I suspect, what often turns out to be a very enjoyable path. Amongst this last group, you would most certainly find Henri Ricard .
There are celebrated chefs, then there was Henri Ricard. He began working at a beachfront hotel in Cannes and developed a reputation in the seventies. Movie producers and other literati dined under Henri's care and word spread; one Hollywood mogul bankrolled construction of a restaurant in the hills above Cannes, then someone asked Henri to open up a place in Beverly Hills. Why not? Sounds like fun! Then a small place in St Moritz, because I like to ski! San Francisco, New York, Positano. It turned out to be quite a ride, and Henri Ricard loved every minute of it.
But it wasn't enough. Or perhaps it was too much.
He sold out one day. No warning, no mounting dissatisfaction, no agonizing second thoughts, and no doubts. He'd long ago bought this little hole in the wall in a forgotten corner of France and the time was right. He wanted a wife and family, and he did not want to create one within the chaos of the glitterati.
In point of fact, the man flat disappeared. Nobody knew where he'd gone, or what had happened to him, but as it is among certain walks of life, within a few months nobody even remembered his name. Henri Ricard disappeared into blissful obscurity, and he loved every minute of it.
He was a happy man.
Then he cooked our lunch, and I was a happy man. Michelle and Leslie were happy, but Henri was happiest. Such is life with wine and food to keep you company. So many smiles.
And do you know what was funny about that afternoon?
He never questioned why I was there, what I was doing with his daughter, or what his daughter was doing with me. It seemed, for a fleeting moment, as if our presence that afternoon had somehow been predicted. Perhaps it is simply life; we were just living life and all was unfolding according to some vast impenetrable plan, and as we appeared to be happy, that was all that mattered. By the time we rose to leave -- when sharp, black shadows had fallen across the little square -- I felt like I'd known the man all my life, and was the better for it.
I guess it was about four that afternoon when Leslie dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and drove away with a wave and a smile. A small dirt lane cut away from the main road, stretched off into the distance and seemed to drift away into hazy blue shadows under a soft shouldered valley. I could see a village steeple well ahead in the smoky distance, autumn trees overhanging long stretches of the road ahead, cows standing on the other side of a stone wall, their heads hanging over, reaching for that perfect bit of grass.
And then, the silence.
Complete and total -- silence. Embracing, penetrating, so foreign.
We walked. Inside the silence -- though perhaps it was that silence walked with us, for there was nothing else. There was no need. No need for words. No need for time.
Just soft footsteps on an old road, two people walking, hand in hand, and very happy to be alive.
Perhaps a mile up the road we came to a little stone cottage; it was well away from the road and in deepest shadow, for twilight was well upon this forgotten valley. Little windows full of glowing amber held back the night, pale blue smoke drifted from an unseen chimney, filling the air with gauzy memories of distant evenings, the warmth of my mother's comforting smile lingering through time to hold me once again.
We turned up a winding, narrow path that led to the house, the dirt ahead lined with proud round stones, and we made our way past sleeping gardens to an ancient door. A little board adorned the passage, faded wood painted slate blue like the door, the name 'Ricard' carved by a steady hand long ago; the small lamp above the board gold and warm, and Michelle knocked on the door.
A single voice, the rustling of feet across the floor whisper as dry leaves might through a gray forest. The door opening, kind eyes settle on the woman by my side, flurries of recognition fall from the stars and the coming of love fills eyes that have waited far too long in the night. A tear, a sigh, skin seeking skin in the only immortality we will ever know, this passing on of ourselves, a small laugh passes in the still air, small because the joy is so big.
She is ancient, this woman, and beyond her, in the small light of the warm room, I see her husband, Michelle's grandfather, sitting in a pool of firelight, a blanket over his legs. He did not, could not stand, but his eyes were sharp and clear and his surprise seemed complete; his granddaughter ran to his chair and they held one another as though it had been far too long in coming. I was welcomed and asked in, taken to a favored chair by the fireplace, and I listened to a language I had once so incompletely known and I understood almost nothing that was said, but really, words were unnecessary, indeed, they seemed out of place in this here and now.
Michelle and her grandmother slipped into the little alcove off this room, into what was their kitchen, and soon the room filled with the sound of pots rattling against pans and the subtle scent of a love others might call food. Michelle's grandfather sat with his hands on his lap, the fingers of his hands pointed up, forming a line of slender steeples, and his eyes sparkled with firelight.
"She tells me you sailed by yourself, from America to London," he said out of the blue. "What did you learn?"
It took a moment, just a moment, to catch what he'd said, so heavy was his accent, but even so the question caught me unawares.
"Perhaps what most impressed me was how bright the stars are, so far from land, and how dark the night can be."
"An interesting observation, certainly, but was this truly something you learned?"
His eyes smiled, he flexed his fingers, pressed them together.
"Perhaps not," I said. "I guess I learned the validity of certain assumptions, namely that you can't run away from yourself, from your problems."
"Yes. I remain unconvinced, despite overwhelming evidence of the contrary."
He laughed. "Good for you. Go down fighting." Then: "What do you think of Ted Sunderland?"
"Ted?" What could I say? The truth? "I think he plays the gentleman very well."
"I would have to say he's clever, very clever, and vicious."
"The two often walk hand in hand, do they not?"
"Always," I said.
"Do you play chess?" He seemed to consider his next move closely.
"Indeed? Well, perhaps it is time you learned a few new moves."
He cautiously pulled a pipe and pouch of tobacco from his vest, looked over his shoulder at his wife, then he looked back at me, shook his head conspiratorially and smiled while he quietly turned his attention to the aged pipe in his spotted hands. He prepared the pipe slowly, methodically, then lit a match, his leathered skin glowing in the flare of light. When the pipe was drawing as he liked it, he tossed the match into the fireplace with practiced ease. He looked at me again, his eyes full of dancing mischief, and he laughed for a long time.
"He's a character," I said to Michelle while she helped me tuck a sheet onto an old bed on the sleeping porch out back.
"He never talks to people anymore, but there was a time... well... when he did."
"Oh? He didn't say much about himself."
"Yes. That is normal. He was a philosopher, no; that is the right word? Yes, he studied at the École Normale Supérieure, right after Sartre, then joined them for several years, he and Simone de Beauvoir, until the war. Grandfather joined the resistance, but after the war he fell apart from all the intellectuals. He came here with Gran-Mama, to this valley, to the house of his grandparents, and here he has remained. When my father was still a young man, Grandfather began to cook . I mean seriously to cook, and he worked in a place, a small inn, near the palace in Avignon. He became somewhat famous, and one day Sartre came. No one knows, eh, what happened, but the next day he came back to this cottage in a great anger, then he fell sick. He was sick for a long time, and then he could not walk afterwards."
"My God, a man like that. To be cut down. Like that."
"Perhaps. But he began writing. In the early fifties. His oldest friends never abandoned him. Camus, Thomas Mann, they all came to see him, and I think they envied him. You have not seen this valley in the spring."
"Is it so lovely?"
"It is, yes, I think so, but it is impossible for me to separate him from this place now. Perhaps it is that I have always considered him to be so pure, the essence of what is human. And to love this place, this valley, the villages just a few minutes walk from here, for me, this is my humanity."
"So your father learned to cook? From him?"
"Oui. And from Gran-Mama, but there is not so much to teach, or to learn. It is just that you must find the best, the most fresh food, combine this and that, but always in moderation. That is the secret."
"Sounds like a decent recipe for living . . ."
"No, not sounds like. Moderation is the only concept worth holding to. There is never goodness in excess. Never."
"Ah, so you are a philosopher as well."
"One cannot prepare food for a living and not become so."
I had to laugh at that. Michelle did too.
"I wonder if I could ever love you too much."
She pretended to stop and think for a moment, a smile working its way slowly across her face. "Hm-m, I do not know, but I am prepared to let you try. For a little while, anyway."
"Would it be against the rules, uh, tonight, out here?"
"If we do not, Grandfather will become angry. And I will be very sad."
"Ah, wretched excess. I love it. Anyway, I'm glad it's cool out."
"Might work up a sweat out here, ya know."
Henri and Michelle's mother Didi arrived long before the crack of dawn; long before we woke up, anyway, and this proved to be a surprise for me, for Didi was a California girl. Born and raised in Beverly Hills and the daughter of a hard driving studio boss, she was as unassuming and pleasant as another human being could be. She still had that easy-going California thing about her, right down to the way she dressed, but I could see a real strength and elegance about her, too. Anyway, we hit it off and were off to the races in a hurry. She didn't miss America but liked to hear about things.
Henri disappeared into the kitchen and went to work, leaving the rest of us at loose ends. Michelle led Didi and I through the gardens and up a trail behind the house that wound up a ravine and, eventually, to a bluff that looked out over Avignon and the Rhone. The view was worth the walk, particularly as the sun was just slipping up over distant Alps. Venus was still just visible, and how appropriate, I thought, to be out with two such staggeringly dynamic women with her ancient light still in the gracing the sky.
Leslie Dufour arrived, and we had some kind of monumental breakfast that would have made the masters at Brennan's in New Orleans sit up and take note of the error of their ways. We talked about London and sailing thereto, and at one point -- right out of left field -- Henri mentioned wanting to buy a Smart Car, and I told him about the one we'd bought just a few weeks ago. It was, in fact, sitting in a garage in Honfleur, and I mentioned how fun it had been be to drive across France in the thing. And there was so much more to see...
"You want to drive? I do this drive with you!" he implored, and Michelle looked at me, gave me a little, indecipherable shrug of the shoulders that seemed to imply: "Go for it, if you're brave enough."
Didi chimed in: "Lloyd, dear, don't you do it. In his next life Henri wants to be a race car driver."
Henri took ready offense at this: "In my next life! You think I'm finished with this one!"
"I'd hate to think of racing anywhere in that car, Henry," I said, "but a mad dash across France with you sounds like a blast and a half. Maybe next week, okay?"
"Sure, name the day."
Didi and Michelle rolled their eyes.
There was, of course, the indelicate matter of two rather less than faithful spouses to attend. An ugly business, true, but I felt better now. Better, you see, because I'd just been shown a few new moves.
Leslie and her microscopic Renault carried us in a blue streak back to the station in Avignon; she wished us the best luck and hoped to see us soon, then a sleek, orange TGV slid silently along the platform and doors hissed open. Michelle and Leslie hugged again and we sat, watched her fall away as the train pulled away from the station.
"So, now you have met everybody. They were, until a year ago, all I held of importance in my life. Then there came Ted..."
"I doubt there was anything you could have done to prepare for that encounter. He's world class."
"Yes. Did Henri have much to say about him?"
"Oh, not much. Detests him, didn't at first, though. I think it was your Grandfather who first saw through him. That's what I gathered, anyway."