1.5 Olympe: Hope

1.5.1 Olympe Montrachet-Picpoul

Hôtel-Restaurant Le Gardon, Pouzay, France

About 10 pm Tuesday 1 April 1987

Pouzay: Dark but for the amber glow of the lamp above the entry of Hôtel-Restaurant Le Gardon, and silent but for the occasional slop and hiss of the swift-running water of the River Vienne.

"Bonsoir," Olympe called after the last of the departing diners. "Bonsoir, Mesdames-’sieurs. A bientôt, à bientôt…." Tall, pale, slightly stooped as women who in youth wished they were not so tall tend to be, sleek in the black silk gown of the restaurateuse, she continued to smile and wave until the last diners had vanished in the gloom.

She turned back into the empty restaurant, suddenly tired after another long day. She flexed her shoulders, twisted her neck to relieve a long day's accumulation of tension. She loosened her hair band, and a multitude of jet-black curls, previously tightly confined, sprang away from her skull in riotous disorder. She let fall her mask of politesse. The local customers, what dull and tiresome people! They kept coming back, week after week, always clamoring for the same boring dishes, always disdaining her modest attempts at artistry: Black bean soup, okay. White bean soup, okay. But black and white slid simultaneously into the bowl in a visually appealing yin-yang formation—non non non et non! Definitely not okay. Olympe sighed. The locals had to be catered to. Their patronage was essential to the business of Le Gardon.

The business—such as it was, Olympe thought as she sank into the chair behind the counter. She let her mind follow a familiar course, a melancholic recollection of her life's course from cosseted only child in the Paris branch of the wealthy, aristocratic Le Montrachet family, to lonely menopausal virgin operating a struggling restaurant in this provincial backwater, Pouzay.

Her parents were cold and remote, but prosperous--and generous in a way. From her earliest years, they had seen to it that she'd had all she needed to prepare herself to shine in the haut monde of Paris. She had a dancing master, a riding master, maids and governesses to cater to her every need but love, and children's picnics and dance parties galore. Later came the theater, the ballet, the opera....

That golden period of her youth ended abruptly when her parents and several other family members, vicious  criminals all, were convicted of trafficking in prosubs--Beluga caviar, liver of fattened goose--and then they were sentenced to life in prison.

Olympe, in her mid-teens at the time, was taken in and later adopted by distant relatives, restaurateurs named Picpoul. Starting as a kitchen drudge in the Picpouls' restaurant Le Gardon Frit (named for its signature dish, deep-fried gardon) Olympe learned the family business alongside her adoptive brother, Jean-Paul Picpoul, and she eventually took over the restaurant in partnership with Jean-Paul in charge of the kitchen.

Under its new name, plain Le Gardon--"Frit" having been dropped in deference to popular sentiment against the killing and eating of fish--the restaurant attracted a larger and more sophisticated clientele. But this period of prosperity came to an abrupt end after Jean-Paul fell prey to the allure of prosubs.

They soon caught him, and he tested positive. No test was needed to tell he was spectacularly overweight--he was nicknamed "Le Cèpe" for the bulbous-stemmed mushroom--and other health indicators registered amber alert for CHAOS AND OUCH. He was given the option of rehab, a thirty-day water-only fast in Prison Simone Weil, to reverse some of the damage and open the way for him to return to decent society. But he balked at fasting, made a deal, and the authorities set him up as a chef in an entrapment program run by the French unit of PROFATPOL, the international Substance Police.

They installed him in a small, secret but luxuriously appointed restaurant in a basement under Le Gardon, even allowed him to name the place for the Picpouls' once and now reinstated signature dish, Le Gardon Frit. Meanwhile, plain and honest Restaurant Le Gardon, now Olympe's sole responsibility, was relegated to the status of a mere front for the entrapment operation.

Le Gardon Frit's entrapment activities were known only in the shady world of wealthy prosub users, crooked politicians and of course, PROFATPOL. Le Gardon’s clientele never suspected a thing. Olympe smiled wanly. If only those dull and tiresome people could see what substances were served in that decadent subterranean den of delights, how shocked they would be!

But that thought ought not be the occasion for a smile, she reminded herself. Her thoughts followed a weary daily groove. If worse came to worst, she thought, if Le Cèpe’s undercover entrapment activities on behalf of PROFATPOL were ever exposed to public scrutiny, to save face the authorities would be obliged to step in and put an end of it, and put an end to Le Gardon as well. The entire family enterprise—built up over the years by the Picpoul family and subsequently expanded by her and Le Cèpe—would come to nothing.

On the other hand—and this idea had come to her mind more often of late—suppose this happened, would this be the end of the universe? Of course not, she told herself. In the worst case it would mean a lengthy term behind bars for Le Cèpe, and perhaps prison or at least a serious term of Community Service for her as well. It could be the end of all she had striven for and sacrificed for. Or--she forced herself to look on the bright side--with Le Cèpe out of the picture it could mean a new beginning: the end of the long hours, the interminable helping out in Le Gardon Frit’s kitchen, the struggle to keep up standards of dining-room service without a regular waitress….

The waitress problem—would it ever be solved? Probably not, but there seemed nothing for it but keep on trying. Today’s applicant had given signs of promise--had she perhaps responded?

Olympe swiveled her chair to face her old-fashioned computer, and checked her mail. No, nothing. Despondent at this last in a seemingly unending series of disappointments, she crumpled in her chair, so tired, so tired....

***

Olympe woke to the beep announcing a message waiting. Good Gaea, she thought, I must have slept  for hours....

She caught her breath as she recognized the name. A quick boodle search showed there could be no mistake—the reservation was in name of the most happily remembered figure of her childhood, her favorite governess! Ada Lynche, Miss Ada as she'd been taught to called her, was an American student at the Sorbonne, hired to help her acquire fluency in English. And now it seemed that Ada Lynche was a person of some consequence in the United States, in Washington.

The restaurateuse stared unseeing into the darkness above the glowing screen. Four decades dropped away, and she revisited a particular moment of her childhood. She would have been about five years old at the time, Miss Ada a little over twenty. She was holding Miss Ada’s hand in the still sunshine of a springtime morning. They must have been in Parc Monseau, for she remembered the American-accented voice of Miss Ada as she named off its curious follies and grottos.

There were other grown-ups in her young life. The riding master who taught her to mount her pony. The funny little man who came by with the dog cart for her to ride in, and a real dog, a Saint Bernard, between he shafts. Her parents too, though they were no more than vague shadows out of a nightmare. But brightest in her memory was Miss Ada, in the springtime of life....

Would Ada remember any of this? Olympe was surprised to find herself longing to ask her, perhaps to reestablish some strand of their long-ago intimacy. She shrank from bringing it up directly. But with the aid of some delicate hint, some allusion, perhaps?

Sentimental nonsense, Olympe told herself. Why would the former governess wish to recall one of her charges from long ago?

On the other hand—and here Olympe felt a slight shock at seeing Ada’s tenure as governess from an adult perspective—she might have been even then an unscrupulous striver bent on her own advancement to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps Ada had never taken her governess duties at all seriously. Perhaps, rather than help Olympe with her English, Ada had concentrated on polishing her own language skills as she bantered with the young gentlemen who were always following them about. Olympe had always regretted her weakness in English. She felt so out of things, when so many of her contemporaries spoke English, and other foreign languages as well.

Another, more disquieting thought came to her. Suddenly agitated, she stood up and prowled about the dimly lit foyer. She turned the question over in her mind: Why had an important a public figure, as Ada must be, chosen to stay at as modest a hostelry as Le Gardon?

The answer seemed inescapable: to investigate the prosub trade going on underground, at that very moment, in Restaurant Le Gardon Frit!

Olympe stopped. How should she see Ada—friend or foe? Agitated, she permitted herself a rare liberty: she went to the bar and poured herself 20 milliliters of Le Gardon’s finest eau de vie, Bott Frères’ Poire Williams.

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