The extractor fan shakes the bottles of rum, kirsch, cognac in the cupboard nearby, creating a steady clink. The slabs of puff pastry are clammy, not their usual paper-smooth. One extra distraction and it bunches and sticks itself into artistic rumples.
On a roundabout way home, near the golden dome of Les Invalides, I can’t help noticing how empty the avenue seems: one lady in shades of beige to match the dusty air, one thirty-something sedately rolling by, feet firmly placed on a wide skateboard, head balding slightly behind his sunglasses. Two teenagers shrieking over an iphone.
The moment we finally get our long-awaited summer – the moment I wish I could stay here, stay still, to go to outdoor cinema, to lounge in the sandpit at Paris Plage on my canal, the canal de l’Ourcq – everyone begins to leave Paris.
At work, I have to tidy the walk-in before the shop closes for a month. At Christmas, the fridge was so full you couldn’t walk in, only lean over to reach a tub of mirror icing. Now there is just a crate of tomatoes, some cream, some 5-litre bottles of pasteurised eggs and a box of real ones, for brioche.
Around 11am, someone has to start to think about lunch. Whoever is hungriest. Muttering wistfully about Toyko ramen, they open the door of the small staff fridge and sigh at the leftovers. I love the sticky-sweet honey and soy marinades they use to eke out scraps of chicken or pork, served with sticky rice. I have to restrain my hands when they make spaghetti – there’s no cream in carbonara! the sauce does not sit prettily on a swirl of dry pasta – but the meal is always proffered with imagination and warmth. Today it is entirely to my taste. I put off the puff pastry to chop ten large tomatoes, as a finely diced shallot, the last one, waits in a puddle of basalmic vinegar.
Tomatoes. Bread. There is always extra bread, crackly baguettes that scratch the roof of your mouth. A baguette and a half: torn up roughly it is perfect for panzanella, with enough oomph to soak up all the saved tomato juices, the inordinately generous glug of olive oil, and the balsamic. It needs to sit for an hour or so to really meld – the tomatoes get their corners knocked off, the bread softened and full of flavour. So I add half a cucumber, some stolen chives from the person making asparagus quiche (basil would be better) and some plain black olives. More salt and more oil than you might think is wise, a good mix with bare hands and it can sit in the corner, while some eggs turn hardboiled and I finally face the puff pastry.
The flour has started to irritate my skin – now when I fling it with abandon my forearms go pink and scratchy. Tomorrow is my last day, before the holidays yes, but also of my contract. I am done: I can sleep until the sun pushes me out of bed and straight into the hammock in the garden, I can use my energy to run far and hard in the cool evenings, not worrying about aching legs. I can stop eating leftover cake for supper and think about real meals.
When we sit down to eat around the marble counter – a heap of tomato rubble, the now soggy panzanella, two eggs and a slice of prosciutto each – I am reminded of the south of France, our perpetual summer holidays. The tomatoes are infinitely better there, full of sunny flavour. There, there is my happy place: the green lake where I swim out to the buoy and bob for hours – where I have been bobbing now over months of dull afternoons, waiting for this moment. But these more pallid, robust tomatoes will do, and with my colleagues laughter, confusion, translation into French, English, Japanese, even a phrase in Cantonese, it feels pretty happy as it is. The baker boy loves rolling out the loaves, doesn’t really like eating bread, would much prefer rice, but he nods approval at the panzanella, pours me half of a Belgian peach beer brought back from his travels.
Not yet ready to leave my weird corner of Japan in Paris, not ready to think about what I have learned and what I am still missing after nearly two years. I know that my check trousers are a little more snug than they were, but they still button up. My clogs are worn through at the crease, and there is an odd boat-shaped burn on my right arm currently knitting itself into scar tissue.
Tomorrow is my last day, and I am so ready for my summer projects: cartwheels and swimming pools, cooking for pleasure (a whipped cream layer cake has been hovering for more than month now), actually writing things again, dinner around the table with my small family. I am done with the early mornings, for now, but I don’t want to leave these lunches with my work crowd. But it is 1.30pm, the beer is gone and the oven is on again for the peach tarts in puff pastry. The flour must be swept up, the counter wiped down and the lights turned off. I can go home.