I once put a suit that cost as much as your car in the bin. The jacket had a bleach splatter just below the breast pocket. It had been a really unique shade of blue. Kind of like my mother’s eyes I would tell people, even though I couldn’t remember what colour eyes she’d had. It was a magnificent suit, and the bleach damage was fatal. I blamed my cleaner, privately, but didn’t see any use in confronting her. She cried once when she chipped one of my Venetian side plates, so this would have been too much. I put the jacket in the recycling with its matching trousers and took a half day off work to choose another.
The new suit was black – although the tailor and I agreed it read sometimes as grey, even brown. It had a life all of its own we thought, it had moods. Everything about it was real: real Escorial wool from a real Maghreb sheep; real bone buttons from a real camel; real silk from real mulberry silkworms. It cost more than the old suit but for something of such beauty it seemed absurd to pick at numbers. Once, in Naples, an art dealer told me that authenticity is the most valuable commodity in the world. He’d told me that before I bought a sculpture made of sugar that would one day degrade to nothing. Maybe he’d told me that after I had bought it. Either way, the piece was authentic and so was this suit. It made me impossibly happy.
I wanted to take it out and celebrate with my fiancée and looked for somewhere special, befitting its authenticity. I got a thousand restaurant recommendations, and each place sounded the same: daring and extremely difficult to get a table at. My boss overheard me at lunch, on the phone to one place that was famous for its spider crab soup and cottage pie. They asked me first who put me in touch. I said who, then they said there were no reservations for the foreseeable future. What about unforeseeable, I asked, but they’d already hung up. I felt myself blush, then said goodbye and told them not to worry, even though the line was dead.
My boss took me aside. He has these big meaty hands and his breath always smells of toast. He has fifty different aftershaves and he cycles through them, slapping a tonne onto his neck each morning, topping it up over the course of a day. My nostrils flared as he brought me close – sandalwood, what seemed like paraffin today, and top notes of semi-dry sweat. He dug his fingers into my shoulder and spoke with a quiver. There is a place, he said, that makes these other places look like kindergarten dining halls. You’ll have to get to France and you’ll have to be careful who you speak to. It’s very illegal, he said, but as an experience it was transcendent. I took a card with a number and my boss stood with me while I called. Elongated French beeps, then a man answered with a too long ‘allo?’. Then we set it up. What he proposed, in broken English, thrilled me. And all the while my boss grinned. He seemed giddy. Very much a one-time thing, he said, but assured me it would give meaning to my life as it had given meaning to his. He suggested we go for a drink, but I said I had plans. That night I stayed at work late, surfing the internet for The World’s Best Socks and watching videos of yachts crashing into ports.
French roads send me off kilter, make me question reality. It’s just different enough that all the givens are no longer given and everything is new and odd. The road signs must be deciphered, the distances converted. I get used to it but I hate it, especially when I’m alone. Eventually, my fiancée had refused to come along. Where I was going, what I was doing was, to her, grotesque. They drown them alive, she had said, you’re a monster. She’d said it in the hysterical way that she often said things, voice shrill, eyes wide and unwavering, as if she really meant it. She kind of screamed it. All I could think to do was go for a walk and compose a text in reply.
You know chickens for your chicken nuggets, I wrote, they’re kept in a cage the size of a shoebox with a dozen others. They breed them without feathers now. They eat each others’ feet. They go blind eventually from the endless pecking. When I got back, she told me that she hadn’t eaten a chicken nugget in a decade and that I should have known that. I said her tofu had destroyed the orangutang’s habitat. The cobalt in her phone fuels civil war. Each almond for her milk requires a gallon of water to grow and California is now a dust bowl. You’re a hypocrite, I said, we all are. She didn’t respond but I was late for my flight and I’d made my point. In the taxi on the way to the airport I tried calling her ten times, until finally her phone must have switched off. So I left three messages and gave up.
Now, crawling along the slow lane somewhere north of Lyon, I kept glancing down at the phone on the passenger seat. I was getting a work email every twenty seconds but nothing from her. My therapist had once told me that I push away those that get closest to me in case they let me down and break my heart. I’m sure she was right. It was nice to know, but we were getting married so I didn’t think this was that. I followed the Sat Nav off the motorway and up into the mountains. My boss started sending me messages, one after the other. Unable to read them, my heart thumped as they rolled in. When I pulled in at a viewpoint, I opened them up. There were thirty of them and each was a stream of gibberish, a mash of letters. I guessed that he’d sat on his phone, but then I saw – coddled in the stream of each message’s nonsense – a very distinct word: YUMMMMMMMMYYYYYYY. He sent me one message that said delishdelishdelish, like that over and over, and that one really chilled me. I supposed he was excited for me, but I felt strongly compelled to turn my phone off. The sky was losing its light and I gazed out over icy woodland that stretched all the way to distant snow-topped mountains. They had turned from pink to purple to blue in the time I’d been parked there. I turned my phone back on to take a photo, then carried on up roads that twisted through pines until eventually it was night and my headlights picked out the reflected eyes of deer and rabbits on the verges.
I carried on through the woods until I reached a slab of car park perched at the edge of a village on the side of the mountain. The cold stung my face but the suit was warm enough. The village was dreary and frost-bitten, plastered in cracked, beige plaster, lit up in neon orange, its air heavy with the smell of pine needles and burnt lamb. I followed the instructions I’d been given: left at the church, right at the pink house, then down the cobbled alley. I counted the houses and stopped outside the one with the green door and the brass fox knocker that I wasn’t to knock. Instead, I tapped on the wood in the rhythm my boss had taught me. I straightened my suit and noticed happily that it shimmered purple under the porch light.
He bundled me in, like an old friend rather than a kidnapper. The door slammed. I heard it bolt shut. Then I looked up. The waiter had his arm round my shoulder and I was in a low-beamed room alight with candles and fire. Bienvenu, Monsieur, he drawled. He was dressed like a Halloween version of a French waiter – bow tie, waistcoat. He even had a thin moustache. I handed over the cash and he thrust a champagne coupe into my hand. I took a sip and said it was biscuity. Said it how the French would say it: Biscweety. He gave me a smile and admired my suit. I imagined I looked impressive in the flickering light. I thought I even held my glass like a movie star. While he discretely counted the cash, I took in the room. A huge table – the only one, mine – took up most of it. It was perfectly dressed in heavy white linen, a candle on a silver stick, giant white plate, no cutlery. I settled in and the waiter hurried through a half-height doorway to a kitchen beyond. I turned my phone on again. Thirty more messages from my boss but none from my fiancée. I felt my chest tighten.
Before I’d finished my drink, the waiter brought through the plate that bore the cloche that hid the bird. He placed it in front of me and told me the story. It was plucked from a tree as it migrated across the alpine forests. Carefully, so as not to kill it, they poked its eyes out with a hot needle. They sort of stirred it, he said, until the ocular gelatine melted. Comme ca. He mimed it with a teaspoon. When they’re blind, they consume more, he said, but no one knew why. Eventually they were so large they couldn’t move, their livers so engorged that all the other organs bunched together at the edge. Then they drowned them in Armagnac and slowly roasted them in butter. I asked what sort of Armagnac and he laughed. Then he whipped the cloche away. He screamed, Voila, L’Ortolan! and left me alone with the bird. The fire crackled, the wind rattled. Some contraption in the kitchen roared and a grandfather clock sounded an endless marching beat.
On the smaller plate on top of the giant plate, the little blind bird, fat from grain, roasted slow and basted in butter. It was the size and shape of a toddler’s mitten, its skin blistered and yellow, neck contorted. Once, it was a songbird. Where its eyes had been seemed to look into mine. But there was nothing to see. Because of tradition I put a napkin over my head before I ate. Whether this was to savour the aroma of the sweet steam, or whether it was to hide such a shameful and cruel act from God, was not known. The distinction, at that moment, scarcely mattered. It was one mouthful, hidden from Heaven. Buttery juice trickled down my chin and hollow bones crunched until I pushed them from my mouth. They parasailed on spittle back onto the middle of the plate and settled into a frogspawn mound, saliva bubbles popping around them. And it was done.
I had plucked a bird from a nest and drowned it, before that I had blinded and force-fed it, and now it was over. Gamey fat slicked my lips but I had only the faintest sense that I had eaten anything at all. Bits of meat stuck to my molars and I wiggled them off with my tongue. I brought the champagne glass under my napkin and slurped it up. I understood after a time that the waiter wouldn’t be returning and so at last, I slipped the napkin off. The fire had diminished to embers and smouldered in the grate, the candles had burned to stumps and a cold damp air seemed to rise from the tiles. The whole house felt empty and I had the strongest sense that I was the only soul in the whole village. I unbolted the door and made my way into the brutal air as the church bell rang out nine heavy tones. The pigeons scattered into the sky momentarily before returning to their perches.
At the airport I was hungry so ordered a burger. They burned down the Amazon for this, I’d read. Now cattle grazed where a thousand different creatures once made their homes. But I had looked into the voids where a songbird’s eyes once were, and they hadn’t fazed me. The minced beef tasted of salt and fat and nothing else. It was gone in four bites. My suit, when I looked down, seemed black and lifeless. One of the buttons had fallen off between check-in and the departure gate. I was struck by its ugliness but found myself too exhausted to care. I’d been staring for a long time at a text from my fiancée. I can’t be with you, it said, you’re too cruel. We’re all hypocrites, I eventually replied and then my phone died. My flight was severely delayed, and as I waited, I realised that I hadn’t meant hypocrites at all. I’d meant blind. We were all blind. The irony of it made my stomach churn.
About The Author
Julian Harvard is a London-based writer and screenwriter.
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