Let them eat brioche
He gave up the pretense of being a flâneur the moment he caught sight of the awning that billowed ever-so gently over the café on the next corner. The lettering on the red canvas announced an irresistible destination and a flâneur, he knew because he’d read it, walked the streets at a saunter and stroll, idling the hours without purpose. He dashed across the intersection, purposeful of eye, set on a clear goal.
Jason Vickers, or just Vickers as he insisted on being called against equable Australian convention, had also been putting forward the character of an unrufflable young man. Me, a man of the boulevards, why yes. He’d repressed all excitement that this pavement was a boulevard in name too, namely the unpronounceable Saint-Germain-Des-Prés. He kept the fever under wraps even now as he took off his metaphorical flâneur boots, for what could be more natural, he assured himself, than a young man in Paris popping in for a morning coffee at the Café de Flore?
He followed ghosts through the awning-covered outdoor section of the café where women leaned across tiny tables, literally head touching head: tête-à-tête. Aside from his dead heroes, he also followed a man in leathers and a motorbike helmet. The main door swung back toward him, an excluding gesture, and he paused and had to push his shoulder into the wood. Which felt brave.
In the time it took the biker to divest himself of his helmet, Vickers had the chance to look and to see. Of course he’d seen the photographs, but now the scene was in colour. The banquettes along the walls were red, as were the islands of benches on the floor, set around tables as tiny as school desks: perfect for writing on. A thick pillar in the centre held up the ceiling which harboured florettes of lights which were on, still, at 11am because Paris was not bright in late November. All those artists going on about the quality of light knew something after all. Above the banquettes, mirrors: reflections of reflections of himself looked back at him. Into infinity he was tall and thin and bulked up with a long Sherlock coat. He closed his gawping fish-mouth.
Which wall would he ask to sit along to look most like a Sartre, a Hemingway or a Picasso, a Durrell, Capote, or those blokes whose names he couldn’t spell or remember? A waiter took the choice from him and led him to the sidewall. He could sense the purr of cars outside on the road, while the room buzzed, the acoustics of a hive intensifying and dissipating conversations he wished he was part of.
The waiter was still at his side. Their eyes met, assessed; Vickers resorted to the finger that knows everything and pointed to coffee then down to the brioche.
A nod, understood, then one word was offered in return: ‘toasted?’
Vickers was sent into a fluster. Was it cool to have your brioche warm? Was it sophisticated to have it toasted or did this smack of the Nursery? Was the man in the long, white apron double tied around his waist, having a lend of another naïve tourist?
But toasted sounded lovely. Toast: Australia’s national dish. Toasted brioche: a bit of comfort on a cold, ice-slippery day.
He took the risk: ‘Oui.’
The waiter smiled for the first time, and gave a discreet thumbs up with both hands before turning and waddling toward the kitchen. His flippers flapped and his head bobbed. Other waiters on the floor rocked from foot to foot, their soft, white chests puffed, their beaks ready to sing, oui, oui, oui, all the way home, like a troop of Mary Poppins’ penguins.
Vickers blinked them away. He stared down at the desk-sized table and tried to imagine the words that had been written here over the years. He ran his fingers over the wood, feeling for the Braille of time. The gods had left traces if only he could find them.
Surreptitiously, Vickers checked out the habitués with quick glances sweeping faces, sweeping up images while pretending he was only keen on what was coming out of the clattering kitchen. He noted, in one sweep, the empty bottles piled at the entrance to the kitchen, indicating good times past.
Also: a white-haired man and a much younger woman passed handwritten pages between them at a table near the centre of the café. The word amanuensis leapt like a cricket into Vickers’s head. He might not have more than a handful of French words, but he had pockets and pockets full of other words dying to get out. To the right of this pair, up against the back wall, was an older woman, field mouse innocuous, head bent over a similar mock-leather notebook as his own. He didn’t want to think about what she was writing, in case – for surely this was a possibility – it should be better than anything his imagination could conjure. So, where was his biker? A dark man in a three-piece suit sipped from a thimble of an espresso cup with one elbow resting on a motorbike helmet. Leathers slouched like a devoted dog at his feet.
Through all this sweeping, Vickers’s eyes kept slipping away from one other man, the one in the corner, in the way you have to when confronted with the brightness of the sun. Vickers shifted his bottom on the banquette, squeaking slightly, to half face this irresistible presence. Chic. No figure could so perfectly embody this description.
‘Monsieur,’ the waiter coughed at his side.
Vickers put his notebook away self-consciously so the tray could fit, though he wanted to write this down immediately: to describe with love and longing the petite cup – speaking both French and English here – the miniature jugs, the big pat of butter. All the crockery was labelled just in case he’d forgotten he was sitting in the Café de Flore of Hemingway and Sartre and de Beauvoir and intelligent revolution in thinking. The jug with the coffee, the jug with the milk, the plate holding the pyramid of sugar cubes, all emblazoned proudly.
While engaged in an almost oriental ceremony of pouring and preparing – coffee, milk, sugar, stir, sip – his eyes kept slipping back on the magnet of chic. This was what a real vampire would look like: the symmetry of his face, the dark crescents of his eyelashes, the twitch of his thin lips as he half-smiled.
The smile, Vickers later recognised, heralded the transition in the morning from sequence to scene. The characters tramped onto the stage as Monsieur Chic’s smile broadened to give a glimpse of sparkling teeth. Vickers disembodied himself to audience briefly then remembered himself, sipped the too-strong coffee, slathered butter on the carefully cut toasted brioche, watched from the wings, ie from the corner of his eyes.
A large Irishman had moved like a glacier through the café, knocking against the chair of the amanuensis, choosing a chair rather than the bench when he got to the corner table. He was Irish by evidence of his accent not his leprechaun green leather jacket. His voice was caramel and heather. It greeted while the vampire stood to air kiss, once, twice, the companion who’d washed along in his wake. The companion was American, horsey, blond, an accoutrement or an agent, Vickers couldn’t decide, though he was absolutely, positively sure she was the accompaniment to a real, live writer. Who else keeps their grey hair long and in a ponytail, wears crumpled shirts, and dares that shade of green except someone who spends more hours than not in a world of his own creation?
Vickers was dabbling up the last crumbs of brioche on a wet index fingers when the writer’s meeting at the corner table were served their breakfast. Dishes chattered as they jostled on the table, briefly drowning the preambles of talk. The woman devoured two boiled eggs with soldiers instantly, scoffing them down like a washerwoman – clearly unworried by the childish aspect of the skinny-cut toast. The writer left most of his omelette, though his muffin top tummy said this was a rare occurrence, and the Frenchman had a second French breakfast: another cup of espresso. Vickers poured what was left in the little jugs into his own little cup, ears burning. This was the life of a writer in his natural habitat.
A piece of paper was torn out of a notebook, little more than serviette sized, and the three drew on it in turns. The moment of conception? The mystery of creation? In a tricky glint of the florettes lighting, two carnivorous fangs extended over the Frenchman’s thin lips. The suave vampire was determined to suck as much blood from the deal as he could: he wrote 51% on the apex of a triangle. There were answering nods. The horsey woman alluded to ‘the people upstairs,’ the writer to a degree of excitement at the opportunities, the woman cutting in to remind of the co-production aspects – point, stab at the triangle – and wasn’t that Pixar; at least that’s what Vickers was sure she said.
‘I envisage six weeks post-production.’
The might of the marketplace had its own language. It did not sing. It did not dance, nor did it fight bulls or defeat the bourgeoisie.
Vickers watched the biker slip back into his leathers and leave. He imagined the small gasp of cold through the opened door reached him, though it didn’t. The chill was all in his heart. He wrote down the word pilgrimage in his notebook, and the observation, better to be an atheist.
There was nothing left to milk from the jugs. The old woman on the back wall, Gertrude Stein upholstered, looked up as he rose, watched him with a frankly appraising look. The cashier in her golden cage on the other hand, hardly registered him through her thick black-rimmed Existential spectacles. He hand over €10 and got a little, a very little, change.
‘Toilet?’ he whispered.
The cashier’s chin pointed up the spiral staircase to her left. Vickers climbed it stoutly remembering the moral of Hemingway’s story about a café, albeit a Spanish one. It was all about maintaining dignity in the face of a frankly intolerable universe.
The upstairs room was empty, the banquettes and chairs expectant of a later crowd when the fire was lit. Vickers remembered reading about this room too. This was where the philosophers and writers worked, coming for the warmth and to escape heating bills in their Spartan apartments. With toilets handy too. Vickers locked himself in one of the cubicles so he could let the sadness of it all penetrate. In realism, as opposed to the fantasy of his ambitions, it was all about money. How to ensure the making of it. How to avoid the spending of it.
A china bowl sat on the bench by the bathroom sinks. Coins swam in the bottom like goldfish. Vickers hesitated. Was a tip part of the deal? The situation was beyond him, not something in his experience or ken. What was the sophisticated thing to do? Ah, that perennial question! A euro coin seemed too precious; nothing, too ungrateful.
Cultural paralysis stopped him making a contribution. No one was watching though. He saw himself in the bathroom mirror and worried about his new moustache. Jumped at the shadow of a man.
This man behind him was a ‘tall, handsome, muscular, broad-shouldered, brown-eyed, rosy-cheeked, square-jawed, soft-voiced young man.’ Hemingway of course, exactly as his biographer Meyers described him in the days before writers were scared of adjectives.
‘Boy,’ Hemingway called Vickers, though he wasn’t much more than a boy himself, in Paris in the 1920s. Vickers ignored him. Hemingway only talked to people like Woody Allen, not wannabes from the colonies. He pushed against the lavatory door.
‘Boy,’ Hemingway said again, completing his advice this time. ‘Boy, there’s no such thing as a free piss.’
Vickers scuttled away. Fuck the imagination. But he turned at the top of the vertiginous spiral of the stairs. Hemingway was propped against the mantelpiece now like a Bronte brother. There was authority in his broad-shoulders and square-jaw. It was the authority that had author at its root. Vickers quailed, started back across the carpet; dug in his pocket for change.
Was it all about money though? Being a foreigner was so difficult. He felt a wave of homesickness for a land of sweeping plains and free public convenience networks.
It was then Jason found some kind of voice. He addressed Hemingway directly. ‘You know mate, you should come to Australia. It’s a whole different world.’
A shop further along the boulevard sold postcards. With his loose coins Jason bought shrunken reproductions of a couple of Toulouse-Lautrec posters. The great artist’s work advertised concerts and confetti. Jason lent his daypack against his feet, rummaged about and found his notebook again. He stuck the postcards in the back of it so he’d always have something to remind him – because he knew he’d forget – of the way of the world. Then he took up his flâneur boots, started to walk without destination.
Jane Downing has poetry and prose published in Australia and overseas. Her Doctor of Creative Arts is from UTS and she is a sessional teacher at Charles Sturt University, Albury campus.
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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence