Friday, January 13

The Smell of Chocolate Croissants

HER SON had told her explicitly on the telephone that she was to go into a home. Rather than argue, she hung up and sat down on her sofa in silence, without the radio playing, and looked at the shape of her window.
There was space in her son’s house for her to live but she knew that his wife, Tabitha, did not really like her. She had never really liked her.
So, it was to be a residential home for Sally from now on, once the flat was sold.
The window had its blind pulled down halfway and let in a portion of daylight from outside. Without the radio playing, Sally felt more lonesome, as if the radio were another person in the room who loved chatter and never ran out of things to say. Sally kept it tuned to a classical station.
Perhaps I should have invited them over more often, she thought. Perhaps, then, Tabitha will have grown to like me. There is always tension between a mother and her daughter-in-law—and I was a part of that, too, some years ago—but I am sure we could have worked some things out and at least been civil with each other.
She stroked the pronounced veins on the backs of her hands.
Truthfully, though—Tabitha’s hostility aside—she enjoyed it very much whenever her son and his family came to visit. At that point an old lady is so tired with her children and with life that only a grandchild brings her any joy. Her joy was Henry, her grandson. He was eleven-and-three-quarters and he was the apple of her eye. In Henry she saw her husband, petrified by life and swallowing it in gulps like foul-tasting medicine. She suspected that Henry was bullied at his secondary school and she wished she could do something about it but she couldn’t.
Whenever Henry visited she made his favourite: chocolate croissants. He could not get enough of her chocolate croissants.
“Mum, don’t keep giving him those. He’ll get fatter.”
Tabitha nodded her head.
Henry sat there, a plate on his lap to catch the crumbs, and a look of adolescent embarrassment across his face. His eyes would swell.
The entire flat smelled of chocolate croissants.
“What do you mean ‘fatter’? He isn’t fat . . . You’re not fat, sugarplum.” she said, addressing Henry who smiled at her. “Besides I never put much butter in them.” She lied. It was the butter that really gave them flavour. She had perfected the recipe. She had perfected the recipe for Henry.
She stood up and made to raise the blinds but thought that it would be getting dark soon anyway. She switched the radio back on. It sounded like Rachmaninov.
When he finished the croissant he glanced at her and she read his mind—“Have another one, darling.” He gleefully stood up and rushed back to the kitchen where the smell of chocolate croissants was strongest. Upon his return, he tucked back into the second without wasting a moment. He almost took his fingers off. Noticing the silence from his parents on the other sofa, he pointed at Sally’s white windowsill—
“How comes they don’t smell, Nan?” he was pointing at her taxidermies; a kingfisher, and a pair of squirrels.
“I don’t know, darling. I suppose it is because they are stuffed and there is nothing to make the smell. They’re just skin and fur now—and stuffing, I suppose.”
“They’re cool.”
“Yes. They are ‘cool’.” She obtained a certain joy in hearing the word ‘cool’ from Henry, as if he had told her a secret.
“I like the way they’re both sat on logs.”
“Yes, I like the logs, too.”
That was their last visit. The flat hadn’t smelled of chocolate croissants since. The smell was associated with Henry and Henry was associated with the smell. Neither came before the other. Both were wound together, inseparable, innocent and sweet.
She turned the radio up.
In the midst of a thought, she stroked the glittering feathers of the stuffed kingfisher and looked out of the window where she could see the sea. The feathers were soft. The sea sparkled beneath the blind. The feathers felt soft. Slowly, stroke-by-stroke, she remembered where she was and moved to the kitchen.
The estate agent would be here in a half-an-hour. There was time to make half-a-dozen chocolate croissants.
She moved very quickly, so quickly that she almost fell over while reaching for the dark chocolate. Dark chocolate, she opined, was the best sort of chocolate and the best to use for chocolate croissants.
There would be the smell. The estate agent would be here in half-an-hour.
The croissants were baking and Sally was doing the washing up when the estate agent knocked very firmly in a sharp rhythm—as if the knock were a copyrighted motif—on the door of the flat. Sally raised her soap-sudded hand and said—“Just one second.” She dried her hands roughly on the towel that hung on the cupboard door beneath the sink and went to let them in.
Two women stood there, one considerably younger than the other and dressed in an expensive jacket with a matching skirt. Behind was the possible future owner, the lady who would walk these carpets as Sally had. The old woman had longer hair that was grey and bore the lines of a comb. They both smiled. Sally did not.
“Hello, Mrs Finn. We’ve come to look around. I spoke to your son.”
“Do come in.”
The old lady nodded hello, raised her hand from the clutch that she strangled around her handbag strap and shook Sally’s hand very lightly.
“Oh, a lovely smell! What is that lovely smell?” asked the estate agent.
“I just put some chocolate croissants in the oven.”
The estate agent laughed. The smell of fresh baking or brewing coffee was always the advice she gave people wishing to sell their homes. Sally did not know that.
“They smell delicious, Mrs Finn, they really do.”
Sally did not like the estate agent, but she was in her home and there was nothing she could do about it now.
“Would you like me to show you around?”
“No, it’s quite all right, Mrs Finn. I can do it, if you don’t mind.” Her breath smelled like she had not eaten since breakfast. “You go tend to your chocolate croissants.”
The pair of them smiled once more.
“So, this is the reception, or hallway, if you prefer . . .”
The estate agent showed the old lady the entrance. Sally paused in the doorway to the kitchen, took a glance at them and went back to the kitchen. The smell of chocolate croissants was faint.
I do not like them in my house, thought Sally. I do not like any strangers in my house. They look around and nose. They probably stare at my photographs and make comments in their mind about the people I have photographed throughout my life. They would not even think nice things about the photographs but would think that the weather in the photograph doesn’t look very nice or that the jumper the person is wearing looks terribly out-of-date by today’s standards. If one does not know the subject of a photograph hanging on the wall of a house, they are likely to find them the most boring things in the world.
Now the smell of the chocolate croissants had faded entirely; she had grown accustomed to it. She wished Henry were there, alone, so that she could deliver a cooled croissant right into his fleshy fingers and watch him gobble it down in less than a minute. She wondered if he would grow tired of her chocolate croissants as he got older but that was impossible; of course it was impossible, when you saw the relish he exhibited when he had one on a plate before him.
“You could easily turn this room into a study or a . . . knitting room, or perhaps a guestroom for when family come to stay. It is by the coast. They could visit you for the summer, your grandchildren.”
To hear a voice that doesn’t belong reverberating through walls that are too thin for strangers made Sally feel terribly alone. She sunk her hands into the warm sink water and retrieved a wooden spoon that coated itself in soapsuds on the way out.
When he was young, his wide blue eyes were fixated on the stuffed animals. The two squirrels had their log, and the kingfisher had his and all three waltzed around Henry. “Don’t touch them, dear,” said Tabitha. He, unsure and with trembling childish hands, withdrew. When he stared at the kingfisher, it was as if the kingfisher stared back, reflecting the immaculate light of his eyes and youth in its dead plumage. The kingfisher sat on the windowsill and Henry went to it on the windowsill.
“He’s fascinated with those disgusting things,” said Tabitha to her husband.
“I suppose they’re quite pretty to a child.” he replied.
He did not defend that they were not disgusting, Sally noticed and promptly asked if anyone wanted a cup of tea. The kettle boiled and Henry was scolded for touching the beak. “You’ll break it!” she said, and pulled him away. Sally saw in from the kitchen. Out of the window, in the great distance that extended from her ground floor flat, was the sea. Unless there was a wind, the sea—for all its mass and hue—was silent and did not make a sound but rolled for thousands of miles without a peep.
They were in her bedroom now. What does her bedroom smell of without her perfume, she wondered. Everyone smells of something, just as perfume smells of something, but the smell of someone is finer than the smell of perfume. Surely she did not smell of chocolate croissants. Henry smelled of chocolate croissants. Henry who licked his fingers and smudged the crumbs around the plate to collect them all.
“Do they eat chocolate croissants?” he had asked when he was much younger.
“What have I told you about asking silly questions, Henry. No, kingfishers don’t eat chocolate croissants. They eat fish.”
The sink drained and a residue of scum remained that Sally peered at before washing away.
“Thank you very much, Mrs Finn,” said the estate agent, suddenly in the kitchen doorway. She smiled. Her teeth were quite white. The old woman with the long hair stood behind the estate agent and smiled also but her teeth were not white. “That shall be all for today.”
“Lovely little place you’ve got here,” remarked the old woman.
Sally dried her hands.
“I’ll be in touch. Good-bye, Mrs Finn.”
Sally nodded and followed them out.
The door shut, they echoed down the hall, and Sally was alone again. She turned the lock slowly to not make a sound and returned to the living room where the radio was still playing. The light beyond the blind had fallen and did not brighten the room so much. Less light meant the kingfisher did not look so proud, nor the squirrels so inquisitive. The croissants would be done soon. She would let them cool and then have one before dinner.

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