“Darling, have you seen my earrings?”
The last time Robert had seen them, he’d been clumsily nibbling her ear-lobe and one detached itself and popped into his mouth. He’d put it on the dressing table trying to suppress his coughs as she nonchalantly placed the other next to it and continued brushing her hair in front of the mirror.
The earrings in question were apparently an heirloom consisting of two single emeralds set off by a band of white gold and in Roberts view possessing the unusual quality of being vulgar through understatement.
Lunch that day at La Mere Lapine had been Roberts first foray in a restaurant recommended by a Michelin Star. The website advertised a theatre of food preparation and serving, as well as the impressive gleaming banks of Fruit de Mer on display that made a great impact on his intention to invest in Susan’s vision of an impressive establishment, she had just bought the premises for in Whitstable.
They spent the whole morning in pursuit of the jewellery in question instead of the planned stroll, window shopping and sight-seeing through the streets of Lyon and it had finally ended with calling the police. The young gendarme that turned up wrote out a form of great complexity and seemed visibly affected by the news of the value and sentimentality of the missing items. He was polite, with his clipboard clutched in front of him in a gesture that made him look like a school boy apologising for being late. Susan was impressed with his seriousness as opposed to Robert's less enthusiastic searching of bed-linen and tooth mugs before giving up, mildly perplexed.
The earrings had turned up in a small locker owned by the concierge who must have entered the room whilst they were at breakfast. The general overwhelmingness of the occasion of their retrieval was augmented by the feeling that the imputation of theft, once aired, had taken on a life of its own. The Concierge was led away to the Commissariat and the earrings were returned with the bravura of a magician, swishing aside the curtains. It was such an over-reaction that Robert couldn’t conceal a smile which was wiped away when Susan’s gratitude became undisguised flirtation.
The trip to France had been designed by Robert as an extravagant way of declaring a turning point in their courtship. Eager for investment, Susan had agreed and tried hard to reciprocate Robert's signals of intention. Holding his hand when the Eurostar entered the tunnel, feigning interest when he talked about his dynamic role in the civil service. She drew the line at a double room and reluctantly accepted the twin room, the only other available option.
Robert was the height of good manners and chivalry, but was irritated at the introduction of the young gendarme and his effect on Susan relative to his own. This increased his reliance on the restaurant setting a good impression to retrieve his reputation. Sadly, the Michelin Star had been an unrequited promise and the food now reflected an air of defeated, craven defiance and an atmosphere of optimism coexisting with sliding morale and the kind words of the customer (in response to the waiters desperate query; “Was everything alright?”, never more pitiful than when sincere) telling one story whilst the empty tables and cobwebs on the chandeliers, told another. There was an air of gloom, of missed opportunity and miscarried ingenuity that mirrored Robert's personal situation.
“It looks like the gap in the market turned out to be a crevasse”, muttered Susan as she took in the surroundings, the preposterous contrast in décor to the local geography and the mundane stuccoed interior decorated in what the decorator probably called a hunting-lodge motif; oak panelling, a threateningly huge fireplace full of ashes and a wall of mounted armaments included a pitchfork.
The plat du jour was the Relais and probably the sole concession to providing food that anyone might actually want to eat as opposed to the vertiginous complexities of the chef's inventions. The namesake dish of baked rabbit stuffed with veal tongue in a sauce of crayfish with orange sauce, named after the chef's daughter (lapin a la mode de Sylvie). For Robert, after a dramatic but unproductive morning, the promise of a saving grace diminished like the deflating parmesan cheese souffle starters.
The waiter proffered forward a sweet trolley like a man contemplating a combined problem-solving exercise and test of leadership in the face of an army-officer selection panel; these planks, this rope, these men, that ravine, now how do you build a bridge across? He wilted like boiled lettuce when after merely glancing at the meagre offerings they both opted for the cheese tray and he trundled away contemplating confinement to barracks.
The triumph of the Epoisses de Bourgogne cheese is its pungency and ability to infect all other cheese in its vicinity with the same smell, so a selection of fromage locale whether blue veined, soft and creamy or firm and crumbly, smelled and indeed tasted the same as the dominant cheese. The summer warmth further enhanced the ripeness. Susan’s pallor looked stark white in contrast to her black dress. When she closed her eyes, the dangling emeralds took over and looked at Robert accusingly.
“I feel ill”, she murmured and took her leave to the restroom. Robert too was feeling nauseous but whether from the cheese or trail of events that collectively sealed the end of this relationship he could not tell.
There was little surprise when a text popped up on his phone to say she had returned to the hotel and was catching an earlier train home. He raised his hands to cover his face in a posture of resignation until he noticed the one stem flower radiant in an understated vase. It shone like a beacon of hope in adversity. If it can survive this thought Robert, then so can I. His finger brushed the petals only to find it was plastic.