Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Gin and Peach

And so it was done, the last fragile wafer laid down atop the eight equally dimpled rounds of cream, the last strawberry halves fanned out and dusted with the powdered sugar that Naman insisted on, the last swooping up and setting down of completed pieces with the blunt-nosed spatula, and finally the night’s mille-feuilles sent out in trays of eight each, to be examined and relished by those who had the calorific bandwidth and no prior appointments to keep. Aziz was waiting for her near the stairwell with his back against the wall and his legs pushed out in front. She hadn’t done much to herself—a wiping of any smudged eyeliner, a redoing of the knot to hide the floury bits, which was all she needed really, because the first thing his eyes went to was her shirt front.

“Something with frosting tonight?” he said as they went up.


Today he was talking about parkour.

“Pretty profound, if you think about it,” he was saying. “Making use of whatever comes your way to carve out a path forward. Sort of like a spiritual connection, but with concrete.”

“Have you tried it?”

“Hell no,” he laughed, “Does it look like I can? They train for years, those folks. Not something you can just pick up off the internet. That’s what we were talking about, Alisha and I. She thinks anyone can learn anything if their mind is really on it. The way she said it . . .” His voice trailed off, the lower lip hanging open and glossy in the moonlight.


“Well . . .” He shrugged. “Sounds like she thinks I’m a bit of a sloth. But come on”—his hand swung theatrically upward—“she’s the one who wanted a double masters, not me.”

Nicole lay back with her arms clasped behind her head, keeping her eyes on the ceiling as she always did when he talked about Alisha. Counting till ten in case he had something to add, she turned her face toward him and raised a foot to stroke against his calf.

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I learnt baking off the internet. And here I am.”

He rolled over to bring his lips to hers. “And here you are.”


She had seen him look at her the day he arrived and had thought nothing of it. It was their business to be looked at, and the skin tone didn’t help. When he had come around to the kitchen two nights later, he had been gauche, shifty-eyed, with a man-of-the-world thrusting forward of the chest that was at once pathetic and funny.

“Do you make soufflés?” was his opening remark.

“Um . . .”

“I really like soufflés,” he said, stressing the really. What to say that neither disregarded his liking nor set her up even indirectly to cater to it?

“They’re . . . unreliable.”

“Oh, like me then,” he said at once, and giggled. She picked up another dish to scrub and waited for him to say something she could actually respond to. His neck was the scrawny kind where all the veins stood out, topped with a jawline that was almost too clean to be real. Eyes were supposed to be the clincher in a man’s face, but his were small and watery, coloured a dull brown. And then he had changed tack and leaned forward and fixed his gaze on her with what she could only assume was earnestness, and they hadn’t seemed quite as small then, the eyes, which she now saw had pale yellow flecks in the black pupils that gave them the appearance of tiny, just-lit orbs.

“I am convinced, truly, that the essential point of life is to eat well.”

And in hindsight, really, how had that made any sense in the context, much less as a comeback? But it had worked, or maybe she’d been too tired to not let it work, and when he asked if she’d be able to step out early the next night, she had nodded yes, conscious of the batter smudge on her cheek and conscious, too, that he was eyeing the smudge, not as a blemish but as something he’d rather like to taste. She had a room of her own up in the east wing, the top two floors of which had been cordoned off for the staff, but the first time had happened in the supply closet near the pool after his friend circle had been dispatched, flock-like, to the beach with a crate of beer. “They won’t be back a good hour yet.” Off had come the brassiere then, the slipping out of the straps and the retrieval from under the blouse, and then the snaking up of his hand to stroke, to squeeze, to do as much as was humanly possible without the removal of the top, for that she had insisted on. He had asked only a second time and then assented, and she had felt a tinge of alarm that he had not pressed her, had not tried harder for her flesh. They had parted ways a half hour later when Aziz remembered an email that had to be sent, and the next morning she had waited his table prepared to spill the coffee or drop the toast. Neither happened, however, and Aziz made it a point to keep his eyes and attention on his phone throughout. At his right sat Alisha with tightened lips, shaking her head every time Nicole tried to approach her with the coffee pot or the toast rack.

And so it had begun.


The hotel itself was the sort that one might come to for days or even weeks and forget, temporarily, that one had a life other than this. Once a single block of rooms out by the beach, it had expanded front, back, and sideways to become the premier resort in Pondicherry, far enough and yet not too far from the town centre and packed to the gills with luxuries of the rustic-chic kind. Guests would drive or fly down in pursuit of going remote and insist that they had accomplished it, loudly and on Instagram. Variants of “Man, I needed this” were to be heard at least once a day on the premises, usually at the poolside or at the bar, from recently suited men and women now in the breezy freedom of florals. The staff regarded them with indifferent tolerance, except Daisy. “Fucking grease-nuts,” she would say, shoving vegetables into soup pots and stirring them as others would mix cement. She was Irish, the only Irish person in town, and had signed up at the hotel as cook and bartender after the spirituality she had come looking for had worn thin. “Fucking grease-nuts acting like they’d found the elixir of life because they’re here for a fucking weekend.” It had to be put on, the swearing and the accent, and yet they’d never caught her slipping up yet. Families like Aziz’s would arouse her particular scorn, the sheer multitude of them and the variegacy of their tastes—“You try remembering twenty fucking salad combinations for a single table”—and yet it was Daisy who viewed the situation with Aziz with untempered approval.

“Objectively, you know,” she said to Nicole, “he’s much better off with you.”

At thirty-two Daisy had rusted hair cropped to the skull and sinewy arms and bags that ran deep and black beneath hooded eyes. She would smoke as she talked, thick black cigars sourced from heaven knew where, balancing them between her teeth like blowpipes.

“You stay neck-to-neck with someone like that, all family and everything together, she’s more of a sister than anything. Can’t fuck a sister, not legally anyway. And you ask me? She’s like something on a slab, that girl. Cold and shiny.”

“Like that ring on her finger,” said Nicole, managing a laugh.

“Oh, well”—Daisy tucked the kitchen towel into the waist of her apron and picked up a knife—“they’re all just grease-nuts anyway.”


Being with Aziz was to adopt the role of comforter, their sessions always having about them the air of a confessional. He would bring up something new each time, as earnestly as though he’d been waiting forever to say it, and then talk of something unconnected the next time with the same earnestness and liberal use of gestures. Nicole had learnt early on that it was enough for her listening to be mostly passive—he didn’t want opinions, he wanted ears. The views themselves were harmless, and mostly jejune, but it was evident that his possessing them was important to him. They were proof, in a way, that he was someone to be taken seriously, a sentiment that Nicole suspected was not one that everyone shared. Aziz himself admitted that he had never successfully asked a girl out until he was eighteen.

“Xenophobia, plain and simple,” he said. “And I can still sort of understand that, but then the girls at college, the ones I did go with, they’d make it a point to tell me they’d never been with someone like me before. People of my faith,” he added, “are kind of regarded as, well, not quite of the regular run. All those stories about us being terrorists. And it’s easy to pick us out in a crowd, we tend to have distinctive features.”

“Well, maybe they really do find you different? Something to try out? For example,” she kept her tone casual, without a hint of sarcasm, “I’ve had a lot of people take interest in me just because I’m French.”

He looked at her as though noticing her for the first time. “Do you know, I never thought of it quite like that?”

And did that mean that he was taking her seriously? The next day she was assigned to pool duty and spent much of the first half shuttling between the bar and those thirsting for cocktails while swimming. Aziz and Alisha were playing tennis, Alisha with her hair up in a high ponytail and returning serve for serve with no apparent effort. The ball came back at her too high, so she leaped, actually leaped, skirt and hair flying out behind her as she hit back with the rim of the racquet. It was the first time Nicole had ever seen anything close to a gazelle. On her way back in she heard one of the waiters say to another: “The size of that ring on her.” She made her way to the kitchen and grabbed a tin, lined the insides, filled it with batter, and shoved it into the oven with a surge of irritation that only an entire batch of brown butter cake could hope to quell.


On Saturdays Nicole would visit her mother, who lived a mile’s walk out from the hotel in a tiny house with a sprawling garden attached. Jeanette had spent most of the last twenty years bent over her plants and picking out herbs, spices, fruits, flowers, and anything else she could turn into food and eat or sell. More recently she had taken to making pills and potions for local believers. She would put the potions into anything she could find, mostly drink bottles rinsed out and stripped of the label. There were potions to thicken your hair, and potions to thin it out. There were pills to settle your stomach, and pills to rev up the parts below the stomach. There were unguents for dry skin, oily skin, bruised skin, pimpled skin, dark skin to make it white, white skin to make it dark. They sat on the counter like troops awaiting orders, no two bottles the same and no price tags in sight. Nicole had once tried the bruised-skin ointment and it had been like thrusting her legs into aloe-scented butter.

“They used to burn women like you as witches, you know,” she had once said.

“Would you like to?” Jeanette had responded without change of expression.

From the gate of the house Nicole would watch the peacefulness of the road, the trudging and biking about of the same handful of Tamilians and French. She knew them all by sight, knew where they worked, where they lived, how their daily routines went. Those who didn’t work at the hotel ran general stores, made chocolate, or lived off the spiritual largesse of the local temple, mostly the latter. It was what they had come for originally, and why they kept coming—the pursuit of something simpler and yet bigger than either cheque books or themselves. That they would embrace the pills and potions was only natural—it was a step closer to spiritual oneness with the earth, and could on occasion do what chemical tablets couldn’t. One of their neighbours, an ex-pilot named Henri Blanchard, had invested in one of Jeanette’s hair tonics and grown an unexpectedly full head of fuzz in under a month.

“And besides, these aren’t magic,” Jeanette maintained. “They just bring out whatever already exists in the body. Potentially, the things that happen as a result of the potion could have happened anyway.”

It was a particularly hot weekend, and the grounds and corridors were empty when Nicole came back. Daisy was polishing a bottle of rum at the bar, its contents gleaming faintly and dark brown like something gone bad.

“You’ll never guess who stopped by,” she said as Nicole approached.



There was a pause.

“Looking to have it out with me, I suppose?” said Nicole lightly.

“No, actually,” said Daisy, putting the bottle down and picking up a wine glass, “she just wanted to talk.”

“To you?”

“She’d have been OK talking to anyone, it looked like.”


Daisy picked up another glass, rubbing at one particular spot at the base that Nicole suspected was in fact a scratch. The air-conditioning rumbled overhead. They were all in their suites, likely as not, dropping into or waking up from siestas and filling up on room service. Soon it would get cooler, and they would be out again, drinking, sunbathing, playing tennis, swimming. Alisha was as fine a swimmer as she was a tennis player—when she cut through the water, everyone stopped to watch. And she was pretty, really pretty, with a figure as good as any model’s. All of a sudden Nicole was conscious of her own dry skin and small teeth and pale hands roughened from all the stirring and kneading.

“So what’s she like?” she asked.

Daisy shrugged. “OK, I guess. Took a couple drinks to loosen her up. She was saying how this trip was a sort of mingling deal before they got married. Family and friends together. Been really looking forward to it, seemed like.”


“All of them. They’ve been planning this for years. She said they’d be having the wedding in one of those big Mauritius resorts. Chartered plane, Michelin-starred private chef, designer dresses. Apparently they’ll be putting Swarovski crystals on her gown.” She snorted. “Vile, the way these people spend.”

And why not, thought Nicole. A grand wedding on the cards for years, a resort in Mauritius, Swarovski crystals on the gown. People bankrupted themselves for much less. Footsteps came up from behind, and a youngish couple dressed in pyjamas placed their elbows on the countertop and demanded martinis. Daisy mixed and poured and slid the glasses over before returning to Nicole and adding confidentially:

“Then again, she takes her gin with peach syrup. I mean”—she snorted again—“what kind of grease-nut asks for peach syrup?”


Every other day had to have a vegan option, was one of Naman’s rules. It made for extra work, if not quite double, and Nicole would have made him do with cut-fruit platters if he hadn’t been so amusingly pumped about it. “This is our chance to make it gourmet,” he would say, flourishing his hands. “Everyone does energy balls and nut spreads. But us? We’ll give them gateaux. Meringues. Financiers. Beignets. Vegan, but so good you’ll never know it.” And he would look at her sideways as he said it, and she would respond as was expected of her, with a smile and a ‘oui.’ It was people like Naman who mostly reminded Nicole of her Frenchness, of the inborn proficiency she was expected to have with all things French, desserts, alcohol, bread, the language. She herself felt nothing but a floaty displacement when she asked herself: “Who am I?” Long ago she had asked her mother which part of France they were from.

“Bordeaux,” came the answer from within the asparagus.

“Do we still have family there?”

“My brother, maybe.”

“Would they like us to go see them sometime?”

“I have no reason to,” said her mother indifferently.

The hotel kept limited stocks of Bordeaux wine for the people who knew what was worth paying for, and occasionally Nicole would take a bottle down and read the label, try to feel a sense of home in the loopy font and pencil-sketch scenes of grapey abundance. Even the speaking of French was to her more a way of life, a habit not worth the extra thought rather than the expression of an identity. But she was born French, lived among French people, and so? And so she must by default feel an affinity. Naman was an export from the north, fresh from the grip of corporate enslavement and passionately earnest about making a haven here for people of all faiths and diets, and, as he had given Nicole a more than generous allowance of almond and cashew milk, she had duly set about whipping and flavouring extra batches of filling to cater to people who wanted to save the planet but not their waistline. As it happened, she had so far been unable to veganize a soufflé, and Aziz, while a compulsive meat eater, had recently given up dairy.

“It doesn’t suit me,” he explained during one of their encounters. “I mean, certain kinds of suffering are grand—the kind that demonstrate how insignificant we all are—but other kinds, well, there’s just nothing grand about constantly passing gas. Although as a Chekhovian I suppose I ought to take suffering of any kind as an opportunity to reflect. How’s the book going, by the way?”

He was referring to the tattered volume of stories he had insisted on lending her, procured from an old-books vendor some seven years ago and having consistently supplied him with wisdom ever since. She had read some of it, because it mattered to him, and he needed for it to matter to someone else too, but she had found it unbearably dark and had not known whether to be sorry for the author or to be glad that he was dead.

“Take Misery, for instance,” he was saying. “The one with the cabman. In three pages, the essence of humanity. Sweeping. Magnificent. Doomed! We’re all doomed.” He leaned back and closed his eyes as though he had just proven something unprovable. They had reached the shirts-off stage by now, at which point there was the absent move of his hand towards her jean button and her equally absent pushing away of it. “I wish you wouldn’t,” was his only response. Why didn’t she just let him? She was no virgin, far from it. The counter-argument—why didn’t he persist? To change her mind now, to offer herself to him, would be to cheapen herself. If he really wanted me, she thought, he would’ve had me by now.

“And so what must we do?” she asked instead.

“As it happens”—he rummaged in his pocket—“I gave an informal talk about this last year at college. Topic—what do we do when the whole world is fucked? Like to see it?”

“Yes please,” she said, reaching towards the phone. She must have missed her aim, or perhaps she had been too quick to take it, but the next moment the phone was on the ground, facedown, and Aziz was on his knees with a loud oath and picking it up. The fall had spiderwebbed the glass at the top left corner, with two cracks running down the middle of the screen, thick and definitive.

“I’m sorry . . .”

“It’s OK,” he said, shoving the phone into his pocket and getting to his feet.

“I’m really sorry, I don’t know what . . .”

“I said it’s OK,” he said tersely, and walked out.

That night she dreamt of being chased by a giant phone, one with a mouth screaming expletives exactly where the glass had spiderwebbed. It was both comical and sad, and she woke up at three unable to sleep again. Neither Aziz nor Alisha showed up for breakfast, and Nicole tried her best to not think about why. After the dinner service she made her way to the stairwell half certain that he wouldn’t show up, but then there he was, rumpling his hair, his expression neutral. He said nothing on their way up and she wondered again about the phone. Perhaps a quick question about whether he’d found a way to repair the screen . . . Trying not to flush, she opened her mouth.

“Do you know, I think Alisha’s losing weight,” he said. “All that tennis. She’ll become one of those bean-pole underwear models if she isn’t careful.”


Not that there hadn’t been men before. It was the kind of setup where men happened, and most of the female staff had allowed them to happen. Even Daisy had permitted one or two, although she grumbled uniformly about them afterward. “What kind of idiot puts eucalyptus oil on his fucking gonads!” Those men liked to keep it under-the-table, passes made in whispers and breasts grabbed in dark corners and half hours eked out in rooms and closets, their morals only briefly laid aside and resumed shortly after at the sides of their wives and women. With those men, she knew she had cut no ice—with Aziz, she was not so sure. There was the openness with which he talked to her about Alisha as though she—Nicole—were just another member of their circle, and then there was the way he continued to spend all day with Alisha as though she—Nicole—didn’t exist. Or he’d go the other extreme and pay open court to Nicole as though he were single and she was his equal. She was on pool duty again the next day and there he was, lying back in orange trunks. From behind his sunglasses, he could ignore Nicole safely—instead he pushed them down the bridge of his nose and gave her a wink, notwithstanding Alisha in a yellow bikini three sunbeds away rubbing lotion into the backs of her legs. She felt an unexpected twinge of guilt and turned away, almost dropping the tray of drinks. This is ridiculous, she told herself. The last thing she needed now was a conscience. But the guilt persisted well into the night, to the extent of her responding to Aziz’s kisses with a lifeless tongue, and Aziz left minutes later with a distant remark about having an all-night gaming marathon the next day. She decided to get some perspective.

“Maman,” she said on Saturday over dinner, “is it normal to blame yourself when you’re the one someone leaves someone for?”

“Did you ask him to?”

“No.” A little too quickly. The mother said nothing through the rest of dinner, and when they were washing up her voice was flat.

“Rule of thumb, if a man left someone for you, he can leave you for someone else.”

Jeanette herself had been left for someone else, years ago. Witchcraft, she had said to Nicole, it could have been nothing but witchcraft. The girl had had no more flesh on her than a one could pinch between two fingers, but then there he was, telling Jeanette and a four-year-old Nicole over breakfast that he’d met the love of his life and would be leaving that afternoon, Jeanette could keep the house. The physical evidence of him had been easy to remove, but she had cherished the hurt over the years, as she cherished her garden, and her new foray into potion-making was almost certainly an offshoot of that hurt, a belated safeguard against fleshless homewreckers and faithless men, from whom she had stayed scrupulously away nonetheless. But that night Nicole took out the Chekhov book and read the story about the lady with the dog, which helped her see that she was not the homewrecker, not in the least, but was in fact a dogless version of the lady with the dog. The act of pinning it down this way was a comfort, if of a cool and distanced sort, and allowed her at least in her own mind to separate out the twin threads that her thoughts were running in. She was aware of the inherent finiteness of this type of affair, yet simultaneously aware that what began as a fling often condensed into a passion intense enough to overthrow any existing attachments, however socially sanctioned. It was a way of the world, as was getting a degree or investing in shares—and Aziz, oddly enough, seemed to echo this view.

“What I always say is, make use of what you have,” he said. “Everyone’s born with a set of skills, and if for some that means physical beauty, I mean, why not? If you say that’s not right, you’re saying it isn’t as valid as intellect, which means you’re actually making the discrimination worse, if you know what I mean.”


Half of the guests had gone, the part-time staff had gone. Soon the weather would turn sour and the hotel would shut shop, its employees left to amuse themselves until the next tourist season began. It was also the time of year when Nicole would reconsider whether aiming for something more than this life was worth it. She could bake at other hotels, she supposed, somewhere bigger, and then perhaps transition into something different. As to what that different thing was, she didn’t know, or even whether she truly wanted to leave. Perhaps it was the indolence of the place that stripped people of any real ambition, or perhaps it was the spiritual vibe, but all the people of her age she could recall leaving had done so either to volunteer for causes or with people whom they loved, or at least could say that they loved. Once or twice men had spoken of taking her away somewhere, but that was a thing one said in the throes of the act, or when the moonlight made one especially wistful. Aziz didn’t say that he would take her away, or even talk about what might happen when his visit came to an end. She tried to sharpen her senses for clues—kisses with more abstraction, longer pauses, lowering of gazes—but then Aziz would often do those anyway. Now, perhaps, she might even go ahead and let him do it, close the accounts so to speak. And yet when he came up the next time and they were lying bare chest to bare chest, she found she couldn’t, that there was an invisible band snapping her hand back every time she reached for his belt buckle. Daisy, meanwhile, had taken to complaining about Alisha.

“She keeps showing up at the bar,” she said, scrubbing a frying pan with unnecessary vim. “Her and her fucking peach syrup. I tried to get rid of her the other day, told her we were out of syrup. She just gave me this little blink and said I could probably find some in the cabinet where she’d seen me stash it not two minutes ago.”

“But what does she do?” asked Nicole.

Nothing!” She threw her hands up into the air. “Just sits there and drinks like a fucking grease-nut!”

Toward herself—Nicole—Alisha had displayed from the start an indifference that would have been admirable if it hadn’t been so galling. When their eyes met Alisha’s would simply slide away, neither embarrassed nor angry, and the one time they had crossed each other on the garden path Nicole had stiffened but Alisha had merely given her one long look, as though at a new species of moth, and then swept on. It occurred to Nicole with a pang that this must have happened before—there had been others Aziz had dallied with—and Alisha had made her peace with it, and why not, when she was the one with the ring and the wedding in Mauritius? Off they would go, any day now, into the sunset or sunrise or whichever way they liked their Helios, and here Nicole would remain in the little French colony somewhere along the coastline of southern India. She tried to cast her gaze toward the latter half of summer, the post-Aziz section of life. A leaf came along in the wind and slapped itself on her cheek.


He had given her the Chekhov book without any specific injunction as to its return, and she only now realised that it had been three weeks in her keeping. She brought it down with her before the dinner service and kept it out of her way in an old Dutch oven, checking now and then through the kitchen window to see whether he had arrived. He didn’t show up all through dinner, and when she went outside, he wasn’t at the tennis court or the pool area either, and she was about to panic when she recalled that there was a trivia scheduled at the bonfire site. She made her way down with a cloth held to her nose. Everyone was coughing and sneezing, but the quiz was on, vehemently, and Aziz’s team seemed to be winning. The final question asked by a sweaty Naman was: “Who is the Greek god of love?”

Cupid, she willed Aziz to say. His eyes as he spoke were blank.


He approached her afterwards and asked her along for a smoke. They walked further down to where the rose gardens were, and as he cupped his hand around the lighter, the fingers stood out in layers, smooth and impenetrable like some wind-weathered dune. She could have held back then, played the cool girl all guys wanted to be with, and that was really what this was about, wasn’t it? And yet she had to ask, she couldn’t not.

“Why aren’t you with Alisha?”

It was the first time she had ever uttered Alisha’s name to him. He wasn’t as annoyed as he might have been, at least not visibly.

“She and I”—he waved his non-smoking hand—“we’ve been together a lot.”

He paused, likely because he had run out of things to say on the matter, but what Nicole registered was the ambiguity of ‘a lot.’ Did it mean they had been together as a couple a lot, or had they simply both been present in a lot of situations, or had they engaged in a lot of sex? She saw what he meant the next day at the tennis court, Alisha in another pleated dress and Aziz demonstrating a new type of swing. They were straight-faced and not touching but it was the ease that hurt, the unstinted comfort they had with each other. An ease like this couldn’t be shaken, not by earthquakes, and certainly not by girls like Nicole. And she could have let that be her cue, let the situation play out and reach its natural end like others that had happened and others that likely would, but it was like someone else was pulling the strings in her head, urging her to do things the old Nicole wouldn’t, and later that day when she was assigned to pool duty and saw the ring perched on a towel across one of the sunbeds, she had picked it up before she could stop herself and slipped it on. Against her own whiteness it looked duller, sicker, and if it were her, she thought suddenly, she would ask for a ruby instead, something on the lighter side, and surely Aziz would appreciate her for that, for not demanding too much . . . There was a splash behind and Nicole turned to see Alisha emerge from the pool, dripping and stony-faced. The ring sat on her hand like a blister.

“I . . . it had fallen down,” she said, pulling it off.

Aziz swam up to them and caught Alisha by the ankle. “Come on, we’re starting a race.” Alisha looked again at Nicole, who had dropped the ring back on the towel and stepped away, and allowed herself to slide back in. He had either not seen Nicole or had chosen to not see her.

They were all at dinner that night, the people in their group, Aziz and Alisha on either side of Aziz’s mother and dressed in black. Glasses of wine sparkled beside each of their plates. The dessert tonight was cheesecake with strawberry compote, and she took her time with the ones that she would send out to their table, cutting each slice exactly the same and using a stencil to spoon the compote into identical circular heaps. At the very centre she placed the one she had spent the most time on, with a card marked ‘Vegan.’ She signalled to a nearby waiter to take them out.

“That table said no dessert,” he said.

“No dessert?”

There was a shuffling sound behind. The kitchen staff were making way for Naman, who was walking toward the kitchen doors with an elaborate three-tiered cake. Two waiters held the doors open and he went outside, toward their table, and placed the cake in the middle.

Nicole snatched one of the water jugs and went out, refilling the glasses on the tables nearest to theirs. She saw Aziz get up and come over and put his arm around Alisha’s waist, say something into her ear. They picked up the knife together, cut into the cake, pulled out a piece, gave each other dainty little bites. Everyone clapped. Naman, standing deferentially to the side, was beckoned forward and handed a slice on a paper napkin. “It’s their six-month engagement anniversary,” the mother announced to the rest of the room, pulling the two towards her with all the affection of ownership. Alisha was wearing a new pendant about her neck, the locket a replica of the solitaire cluster on the ring. Someone was nudging at the side of Nicole’s waist.

“Excuse me,” said a sharp female voice. She turned and saw that she had left the jug tilted over the glass and the water had seeped into half the cloth.

It was then that she recalled the Chekhov book, stowed away and never retrieved. Searching through the Dutch ovens, the saucepans and the pressure cookers on the shelf revealed nothing, and she had rifled through three sinks full of soapy dishes before she found it. The front cover was dangling by a single strip of fabric, and the ink had run in slanted lines across the pages, almost elegantly, in a manner one might even mistake for some little-known script. Fishing in the water revealed the back cover and the pulpy remains of more pages. She managed to push them all into a plastic garbage bag, knotted the mouth, tucked the bag behind the flour canister and washed her arms up to the elbows with a heaping dollop of dishwashing soap.


There was only one way left to her that she could see, and they did say, as with religion, that belief counted for a lot. As she unlatched the gate early next morning, Jeanette was sifting through coriander and putting dead bits into her apron front, her hair tied back in a patterned wrap. She showed no surprise as Nicole made the request, but a shadow passed over her face as she gestured toward the south end of the garden.

“You’ll want the plant next to the dahlias, twenty leaves, all the same size.”


What else the potion was made of Nicole never found out, but it had no effect on the batter, composed with a brand-new batch of cashew milk and cream and stirred with a light hand for that frothy cloudy texture, and what came out when the oven timer went off was perfect. She had taken Aziz up to her room and presented the soufflé, and he had spooned his way through it and stopped about halfway in to make a face.

“Is it supposed to be this bitter?”

She had shrugged—not the I-don’t-know kind but the oh-well-if-you-don’t-know kind—and said, “It’s chicory,” and he had finished the rest without comment and left. The next day he was at the kitchen at 4:30 a.m. when she was still washing last night’s glasses and sorting the day’s produce into crates. He had staggered slightly as he came toward her, his eyes stretched open and unblinking, and before she could speak, he had launched himself forward and landed mouth on mouth. What followed atop the nearest free counter was what always followed in encounters like these and what she now wondered at holding off for so long, morals or no morals, when it was just like what everyone else did and probably sloppier than most. When it was over, he pulled himself up and off her and exited without looking back, his gait its usual swagger again but his head bowed, as though in contemplation. Later she would learn that he had gone back to the suite and roused his still-sleeping friends and insisted that they leave at once, all of them, no excuses, just take the car out and go. And so they had driven off in a cloud of dust, or so she pictured it in her head—dust whirling up in genie-sized puffs, building-high, thick and final.

He never came back, at least not while she was there. She would leave three years later, when the uncle from Bordeaux whom she had tracked down online would send enough money to buy plane tickets for herself and Remi. Bordeaux would prove less verdant than she had imagined, but the uncle’s wine business was in the breaking-even stage, and it wasn’t long before he put her to work in the vineyards. She would learn the trade well, so well that the uncle, who had no children of his own, would end up naming her owner in his will. Remi would grow up a quiet child with a turn for mathematics that would be evident by the age of seven, and by then Nicole had been promoted to manager and could send him to a school for gifted children. She would watch him as he used the abacus or covered the whiteboard with neat blue symbols, his eyes and jawline already noticeable, striking even, and wonder how long it would be until he asked his first girl to do something pretty for him. Whether Nicole harboured any grudge against Jeanette for how the potion had worked it was not known, either to Jeanette or to Nicole herself; nor would they talk about whether Jeanette had made the potion to induce love or to induce a display of true colours, and whether one was any better than the other; nor would they talk about what Nicole had wanted the potion to do, and whether the way things had turned out had been her own fault for not knowing what she wanted. The two of them would exchange emails and pictures a few times a year until the cancer would no longer be held back by potions and Nicole would take the flight down to India to lay Jeanette to rest amidst the camellias, as stipulated by her over their last call. Afterward she would drop in at the hotel and find it much changed, its offerings less presented than cranked out wearily and Naman the only familiar face among a sea of replacements.

“It’s only weekenders now, everywhere,” he would say moodily, “and they don’t want to eat here. All these new cafés in town, that’s where they’re at. Morning, afternoon, evening, all at cafés. Ask them why, all they’ll say is we aren’t vegan enough.” He shook his head in disbelief.

“Didn’t the management think about keeping up? Adding more vegan things to the menu?”

“They did, they did, but it was never as fast as it should have been. Too little, too late, as they say. And then there were the prices to reckon with. Travellers these days are mostly kids on a budget—can’t expect them to cough up like old money can.” He sighed. “I suppose we thought we’d escape the tide, you know?”

“By the way, what happened to Daisy?”

“Oh.” A shadow crossed his face. “Well, she left a few years ago.”


“With . . . Alisha. She came back.”

For a moment Nicole was ready to have hysterics. And then the wisdom of either the years or her own counsel intervened, and she smiled.

“Well, guess Alisha wasn’t such a grease-nut after all.”  

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