I woke up one morning, in this big bare one room bachelor pad; a friend had given her the keys, you know, to water the plants and open the windows once in a while, until he would come back from abroad… It was a small but cool place to crash in, a secret space for young broke and starving lovers. My girlfriend was already up, making coffee and smoking Pall Malls while listening to “Barbara”… The rain was battering the old zinc roof and I kept staring at a painting of ” Keith Haring” precariously hung beside the portable gas rings, just over the sink; Prevert came to mind and while Brest was calm at last, Sarajevo was getting battered. It was 1992, I was twenty and free, with a girl five years older than me, hiding from nothing – or rather from a future too scary to contemplate-right in the heart of the Breton Capital.
While holding her cigarette in one of her exaggerated Audrey Hepburn poses, Katie asked me:
“ Are you hungry?”
“ I must say I am; one cannot live out of love and fresh water” I replied nonchalantly, while putting down the water and fresh lemon filled bottle of “Absolute vodka”, by the mattress. A part of me wanted to stay in bed, looking at the grey ceiling, wondering about the past tenants who might have roamed this abandoned block, the chatter, the laughter, the music that was once played, right between these walls; the old single man from the third floor, always humming to himself or the echo of a mother’s steps on the old wooden staircase, carrying her heavy shopping baskets; the weekly shopping, with leeks and a baguette sticking out. This room, this floor were now empty, with a fern and an aloe vera looking over Antrain’s street; “Barbara” was still spewing her beautiful and disturbing melancholy on the tape player, while the staff of the “Yellow Dog” pub on the other side of the street were busy recycling beer bottles from Friday night.
“Let me get dressed and wash my face, and I’ll be as good as new” I said while snapping out of my day dream…
“Do you want to go to the market?” It’s just around the corner!” Katie said.
“I can’t remember the last time I went to Rennes’ market; I was a kid I think!”
“c’mon it’ll be fun, we’ll get something, I’ll cook something! Make up your mind “Mister”; get!
We were a couple of streets away from the biggest market in Brittany; the butcher on City Hall Square was still there, hanging whole wild animals outside his shop front. This used to creep me out big time, and it still did. The noise of the street merchants was deafening, reminding me of my childhood, when my mother dragged me around on the wet cobblestones of Vannes for similar rituals. I hated it! And now, I miss it like hell. My father once said, out of sheer frustration: “you are one contrary little bastard, aren’t you?” His statement insulted his very paternity; I just enjoyed the pun… Another lesson learnt about not taking things for granted… Check!
Katie was interested in the vegetable stalls, especially one out of the multitude, a more quiet guy who didn’t fit the cacophonic madness I was now part of. The chap was in his forties, with a soft North African accent, shy and cold, hands tucked tight in his black jeans’ pockets, shoulders shrugged. She loved people with clumsy misdemeanour and could tell me who was a chancer or who was genuine, haranguing people out of their dopey torpors, calming the arrogant, verbally bitch-slapping the rude. “Fuck me” I thought… “I am with my mother again!”
“ Hey Laïd, what’s up with you today?”
“Ah cousin, how are you? It’s been a while!!!”
“Yes I know, I have been busy and I work in Vannes now!”
“C’est la vie cousin, c’est la vie!”
“ I am looking for some chicory, do you have some?”
“Of course I have some, they are the best! And those are even from North Finistère, Miss Katie, not far from Brest; the best from Brest! Always the best for you!”
“ha-ha! You old charmer! OK, I need four, I trust you to pick the best ones”…
We said our goodbyes to Laïd, who put his hands back in his black jeans’ pockets, pretending to the next customer that he wasn’t cold. We stopped for a beer in the notorious “Ozone” bar on St Malo’s street before heading back to the apartment. Katie was about to play the same tape again and I simply requested:
“No offence, I love the girl, but any chance we could listen to something else? It gives me the Heebie-jeebies a bit”.
“Do you know Nick Cave? My sister made me a copy, stick it on…”
I felt a chill down my spine, when the Aussie started to sing his threnodic “Papa won’t leave you, Henry”; Katie was too busy preparing her mother’s chicory recipe, to notice my reaction, gently stirring the Béchamel… That moment never left me, something happened, something was going to happen. We sat on the old mattress, Katie licking the remaining cheesy white sauce with her index finger, the chicories had caramelised a bit, and it was delicious and warm. It sure was a change from my steamed vegetables in the pressure cooker!
I resumed my day dreaming, looking at the grey ceiling above, afraid of nothing but the bottomless pit ahead of me, ahead of us… The chicories were just lovely, we didn’t get to eat that well back then, or that often rather! A bit of warmth, in a world of brutes!
( Recipe coming soon)