Paris, alone

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special - VIKKI MOORE

I’M hold­ing the menu in my hands. It’s worn and wine-stained and smells like a li­brary book. At the top is the date in smudged, wa­tery ink; leaky edges fad­ing, num­bers cling­ing, los­ing their grip.

I didn’t no­tice you at first. Lost in the labyrinth of those rooms, I stood spell­bound. Colours like toast and honey, walls drip­ping with sto­ries and scenes, ooz­ing mem­o­ries of lovers and friends, hus­bands and wives, cel­e­bra­tions, dev­as­ta­tions. Un­der my feet, a maze of mo­saic with paths worn bare by the hordes who’d been be­fore. Large win­dows veiled the frost out­side, opaque in a screen of steam; fire­light flick­ing shad­ows on white­wash. Amid the chaos and clat­ter of cutlery, el­bow room was for a lucky few. The food sucked at my senses, held my gaze hostage from one plate to the next: enor­mous mounds of snails, swollen and shim­mer­ing, glit­tered with gar­lic; stacks of fried frogs whose legs had leapt their last. Lan­gous­tine and foie gras; rab­bit braised with truf­fle — this was the place of my dreams.

I drank too much, talked too much, didn’t no­tice you at first. My eyes fol­lowed an iron pot bub­bling with co­qau-vin, and in a cor­ner of the kalei­do­scope you ap­peared: a lone, flinty-grey flicker in my un­tar­nished golden globe. And I won­dered, even then, how you could ever hope to eat it all. I talked, drank, got back to my lunch. But you stayed on my mind, a tiny black ant tick­ling my skin, punc­tu­at­ing my thoughts with sharp, self­ish nips.

I judged you to be as old as my fa­ther — maybe 60, no more than 65, but with years etched hard, a con­certina of creases, graphs of laugh­ter and re­gret. Eyes sunken and sal­low, skin yel­lowed, not gold like the room but more green, al­most grey, and mot­tled, like a tired old grape­fruit. Your de­formed ear, buck­led and bruised, held my mor­bid fas­ci­na­tion. I looked away, slightly ruf­fled, sub­stan­tially re­pulsed.

The whole roast duck made me think there’d been a mis­take. But you took it, and thanked her, never rais­ing your gaze. Her smile was sym­pa­thetic. Olives like sage salt bar­rels strewn over a tanned duck crust, the flesh un­der­neath leak­ing oily nec­tar on to the plate. I watched as you took a fork­ful to your mouth, eyes closed, not a move­ment too many.

Afil­let of sole buried in beurre blanc, set down as she stud­ied your ta­ble: six plates, each piled high, barely touched. Her ques­tion wasn’t spo­ken, but you an­swered it with­out af­fect. ‘‘It’s per­fect,’’ you whis­pered, your voice husky and dry.

I watched you then, lost track of con­ver­sa­tion, aban­doned my ex­cite­ment. I watched your move­ments, slow and deliberate; your ex­pres­sion sober; pulling me out of my sanc­tu­ary, back to the re­al­ity of a cold, grey day. I saw the bloated bumps, the bruises brand­ing your arm like spilled pur­ple paint; skin sores and scars, a to­pog­ra­phy of tor- ment. You sipped at your wa­ter; you had no wine. I should have poured you some of mine, but in­stead I stared, trac­ing your dents and dis­fig­ure­ments, won­der­ing how you’d come here, and where were the peo­ple who loved you?

To me you were old, and so dif­fer­ent to me: your som­bre res­ig­na­tion; the pa­thetic scene of a last lonely lunch.

It’s been 20 years since I scrawled that date, and it’s only now I re­alise: your lunch at Allard was no dif­fer­ent to mine. We were wring­ing the last drop from that mag­i­cal place, pos­sessed by the fear of not see­ing it again. I close the menu, bump it back to its dusty, derelict cof­fer. Still the num­bers cling. This is an edited ex­tract from Din­ing Alone: Sto­ries from the Ta­ble for One, edited by Bar­bara San­tich (Wake­field Press, $24.95).

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