1.16 Breakfast at Le Gardon

1.16.1 Scenes Disturbing and Painful

Hôtel-Restaurant Le Gardon

About 7 am Thursday 3 April 1987

The following morning Alenby awoke out of a vaguely disturbing dream of a woman in black--Le Gardon's enigmatic propriétaire, he realized as consciousness returned. At dinner in the small, sparsely occupied dining room, she had focused her attention almost exclusively on Ada. She'd greeted Ada with a forced smile—more like an angry grimace, actually—and alternately pushed forward aggressively and withdrew in apparent diffidence, as if burning to put a question yet terrified of the response. In the end Ada had put her off with a promise of a short interview the following morning.

Yet despite her gauche manner, the woman in black was mightily impressive, Alenby thought. A striking figure, tall and pale, with a great head of  corkscrew curls, black, glittering like anthracite, that seemed on the point of springing loose from her headband.

He half raised himself out of bed. By the gray morning light he recognized the second-floor bedroom of Le Gardon; the wallpaper, the little rattan chair, the armoire in which he had stored his clothes overnight, the dressing table, and on it his wallet, the key to the Mercedes, the by now familiar pump, a selection of everyday medications. But where was Ada?

Ada, he realized, was his sole guardian in an alien universe. Without her, how long would he last before being threatened, exposed, written about in the tabloids, "looked up to" as a U-person?

He flopped back in the bed and pulled up the covers in a spasm of anxiety. Another, even uglier thought had struck him. Without Ada, without a credit card and all that implied, how long would he last before being hunted down by PROFATPOL, found to be a user?

A little later, calmer after his first Paxitin of the day, he realized that he ought to be more accommodating to Ada’s carnal desires, and listen more attentively to her ramblings on the subject of that important administrative post she wanted.... But his heart was not in it.

For the moment, though, he felt no need to worry about Ada. There were no signs she contemplated abandoning him. Her personal items--her green fedora, the dress she'd worn at dinner, an item of underwear--were still lying where she'd dropped them. The depression in the mattress next to him still gave off the cinnamon-toasty scent of her body, as did the top part of his chardonnay and pinot-noir striped silk pajamas that she’d insisted on wearing because otherwise her shoulders got cold....

Fully awake now, he got up and put on his woolen plaid dressing gown. He opened the window and breathed the damp outside air, listened for a moment to the rustle and murmur of the Vienne.

A morning fog, typical of the place and season, still lay thick along the river and had barely begun to lift along its near bank. A hycell inched across the bridge behind low-set amber headlights. No point in leaving for an hour or two, he thought as he closed the window. No point in staying, either. No point in anything at all in the petit pas-pas of this accursed universe....

Yesterday, for example--utterly uneventful, a day wasted. Breakfast must be more than an exotic coffee, however excellent, to register as an event. Lunch must be more than swill, however richly redolent of truffles. Dinner more than bean soup....

No denying it, though--the presentation of the soup was attractive. Black and off-white components casually swirled in a yin-yang pattern, the sign of an artist at work. And on the palate, the wholesome flavors elegantly adjusted.... 

He shaved and dressed with his customary care. Into his jacket's lapel pocket he slid a silk handkerchief diffusely striped in pale shades of orange and red.

After a last glance in the mirror, he checked his supply of LiftiorpH to keep his heartburn banked for the time being, and Crudulax to ensure safe, natural bowel regularity. Then he headed downstairs to the bar in search of whatever apology for petit déjeuner might be on offer. And Ada.

He found her sitting at a little table set for two, engrossed in what appeared to to him to be an exceedingly light and thin computer monitor. "A digital tabloid," she explained. "It's loaded with fanciful videos by a French comedian named Al Toqueville. They purport to show present-day life in U, projected from earlier times on the assumption that people never became accustomed to act in accord with science and reason. This one shows people in stinkpots on an enormously wide road. One moment they are going along separately, very fast, and the next they sow down and  flock close together and sound their klaxons. Do U-people really do that?"

Alenby confirmed that they do, and asked if she had slept well.

"No, she said, "I did not sleep at all well because of that roaring noise you made."

"Excuse me, not roaring. You mean, I believe, snoring."

"Whatever it was, it kept me awake all night. Oh, I must have slept a little, because I had a hellish nightmare—flames and wavering shadows and singed flesh, just as in the tabloid—but your snoring went on and on. I’ve never heard such a racket!"

Alenby allowed he should have slept on his side. "But I felt cramped," he explained. "I’m not used to such a small bed. Now if we’d had a queen-sized—"

"But Alenby, we already had Jack size, which is two steps bigger! Queen size is the smallest, you see, because the queen is the most respected royal personage. King is next, and Jack—ah, here is Madame with our petit déjeuner."

In contrast to her antic manner of the previous evening, the restaurateuse approached with a controlled step. She set out a bowls of fruit salad—papaya, mango and star-fruit—and a little later, tiny cups of what Alenby identified approvingly as Colombian Excelso. "Bon appétit, Your Lowness, Excellency," said she with a graceful élévation. She took the standard two paces back and turned about, tossing her massy black mop with a haughty gesture, and returned to a task at the sink behind the bar--taking up newly-washed goblets one by one, inspecting them and sliding them on to an overhead rack.

Impressive, Alenby thought idly as he followed her deft movements out of the corner of his eye. Poised, dégagé, a refined Parisienne.... She caught his eye, and his normally dormant stunt-driver personality came awake in a flush of testosterone. His pulse accelerated smartly. She had a heap of firepower under the hood, he acknowledged inwardly. Personality, du chien as one says in French, idling silkily.... But then she spoiled the moment by curling her lips lasciviously in the French equivalent of Hello there, Big Guy--a gaucherie to which he could find no polite response save to pretend he hadn't noticed it. But even as he followed that cowardly formula, he felt a piercing identification with the woman of his dream. Meanwhile, flushing deeply, she turned away, hung up her towel and stalked out of the room.

"Several of my other lovers slept on their backs," Ada was saying with a slight smile. She unwrapped a packet containing three thin sugar wafers, dropped one wafer into her cup, stirred the coffee and tasted it carefully. Satisfied, she laid the remaining two wafers aside.

"But not one of them," she continued pensively, "not one—what’s that word again?—snored. Not one of them snored like that." She picked up several sugar packets, and started arranging them in different patterns.

Alenby gratefully registered the word "other." So he qualified as a lover, despite his reliance on the pump.

He pictured Ada’s other lovers: small, sinewy, libidinous no doubt, and active as the bubbles of freshly-popped Clairette de Die before dropping into silent slumber. Could impotence, like snoring, be so rare in u as to lack even a name? Could it be just a diet thing?

He permitted himself a moment of optimism. Already, after only a day of the lean u-diet, he was feeling lighter, less tight about the waist. More relaxed, too, on the whole. Paxitin was clearly getting some traction on his anxiety problems, and here was something new--a light, unblocked sort of feeling as if one were not constipated. Apparently his persistence with Crudulax was paying off at last. Next, perhaps, his snoring meds would kick in. And after that, the hitherto ineffective virility boosters? He smiled at the prospect of becoming a lover, a spontaneously virile lover, a lover in the full meaning of the word. A lover to Ada. Perhaps a lover to—but that was looking too far ahead, and he put the idea out of mind. But left a way open for it to get back in again.

***

Ada meanwhile continued to toy with the sugar packets. She brightened. "Oh look, they’re puzzle pieces. They have different parts of a scene on them, and you can assemble them and—hmm, it’s something to do with prehistoric cave dwellers. Based on highly reputable, peer-reviewed pre-history research, according to the fine print. Quite an easy puzzle, actually…there, it’s done!"

Her elation was short lived, however. After she put the last piece in place, she studied the completed scene with evident unease. "Alenby," she whispered, "those reddish things those cavemen are depicted as eating—I thought it was a salad, but all of a sudden it came to me, it’s—it’s bloody animal parts!"

Alenby studied the puzzle. Ada was right. It wasn’t a salad, at least not a correctly composed one. It would have had to contain far too much radicchio and rouge d’hiver, a multiply-repeated gesture of ruddy notes throwing the whole concept out of balance.

"You’re quite right, Ada. It’s animal parts. Meat."

She lowered her voice. "Alenby, when U-men eat...meat, do they pick it up and tear at it with their teeth as these savages are depicted as doing? And do women just cower in a dark corner of--the cave, or whatever. Do they also eat meat?"

"Members of the weaker sex order meat dishes as often as gentlemen do," Alenby replied. And in answer to your first question, U-people normally use a knife and fork. However, in the case of certain meats, it is correct to pick it up and, as you say, tear at it with one’s teeth."

"Ugh, that sounds uncivilized! Are you sure the practice you describe is perfectly acceptable?"

"Certainly. Frogs’ legs, for instance, as prepared in the traditional manner of Grandpère Bach of Chaussin, in the Jura. Chez Bach, delightful place...."

"Frogs' legs, hmm. So it’s okay, then?"

"Oh, quite. With a finger bowl. A finger bowl, which is to say a miniature wash basin scaled to accommodate the fingers, is offered in such cases to deal with any accumulations of grease that one has not succeeded in licking off those appendages."

"A finger bowl," Ada repeated thoughtfully. "And U-fast food like this Big Mac you told me about—I suppose that the Big Mac is eaten out of hand and so is also served with a finger bowl? By the way, what is a Big Mac, exactly?"

Alenby’s acquaintance with the Big Mac was limited to promotional material he’d happened across in one of his cardiologist's waiting room, but he answered as best he could: "In essence, it’s meat of some sort, ground fine and converted by a combination of mechanical and thermal treatments into two flat cylinders, drab--grayish brown, you know--yet glistening with superficial fat. These are intercalated between grease-absorbent pads that not only render the finger bowl superfluous, but are considered to be themselves edible."

"How elegant! Evidently the eating of meat in U is at a far remove from the uncouth hasty gobbling indulged in by our remote ancestors." With Alenby's permission she drew his red-shaded silk handkerchief out of his lapel pocket and pressed it to her lips. "Now," she said, folding the handkerchief and sliding it back into his pocket, "now the fog must be lifting and it nearly time to leave for Chezeley. You must go up and pack your things. I will see Madame Picpoul to settle our account. And grant the colloquy she requested so insistently."

***

The business took longer than expected, and Ada returned pale and shaken

 "No, Alenby," she said as she came into the bedroom, "we can't leave just yet." She shut the door went on in a low tremulous tone, "I just relived the worst time in my entire life. I finally twigged who she was--the Le Montrachet child--and it all came back to me like a hideous vision. In my last year at the Sorbonne, short of money. I was so naive--honored, honored can you believe it?--to be hired as the kid's governess. Hired by the marvelous rich aristocratic Le Montrachets--the elite of Paris, and the whole pack of them rotten to the core. I had no idea...until I had to say no to something she wanted--a pony ride. She had a tantrum, told her mother I was cruel. The grande dame called me to account, trembling with rage yet cold as ice. I looked into her eyes, and it was like looking into the eyes of a reptile. With a mother like that, no wonder the poor child was a bundle of nerves, constantly clamored for attention. Miss Ada this, Miss Ada that. Ugh, I could've wrung her neck! And now, forty years later, still a virgin, wants me to stand in for a mother and tell her how to kick-start her sex life! Oh, I sympathize. But I simply can't do it!

"Anyway, she insists on seeing you, alone. Alone--what fracking nerve!"

What nerve indeed, Alenby thought admiringly as he hastened down the stairs to the foyer.

She stood tall and pale, white arms raised fumbling with her hair, drawing the crinkly black mane tightly over her scalp into a lustrous jumble behind. She snapped the band in place, all the while regarding him gravely, tear-filled sea-green eyes sparkling under her black, high-arched eyebrows.

"For your ears alone," she said. She spoke Parisian French in a dulcet tone yet with icy precision, every word seemingly sculpted out of still air. "You are in danger of interception by PROFATPOL. You must leave immediately. You go to Chezelet? Yes, it is as I thought. Then after the bridge, you must go straight. Do not turn right. Go straight.

"Au revoir," she added, and Alenby heard a slight catch in her voice, a fugitive woodwind tone.

"Au revoir," he returned. He felt a heart-wrenching sensation, not less intense than he'd felt on parting from his Borstal.

***

The tomato red Mercedes rolled out of the restaurant's tiny parking area and stopped at the exit.

"Alenby--must you always obey a stop sign, even when there's no traffic? We're running late--"

"Yes, but it's no use being half-safe--"

"Half safe is as safe as we're going to get, unless we get a move on. That salope, she's up to something. Maybe hand in glove with PROFATPOL. Might've tipped them off so they can set up a reception party for us. They'd most likely pick that track by the river--"

"The D18," supplied Alenby, taking the opportunity to display his knowledge of both the local geography and the Hollywood area vernacular. The thought of a reception party did not worry him particularly. He was never more relaxed than with a possibility of stunt driving in prospect.

 "Yes, Route D18. So when we cross the bridge, don't turn right on the D18, as you call it. Go straight."

"Okay." Go straight, he thought. Just as Olympe had said. No use being half safe. He eased the hycell on to the road and headed towards the bridge.

But then another thought struck him. If Olympe were indeed mixed up with PROFATPOL--a vicious crowd, by all accounts--going straight might put her in a highly unpleasant situation....

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