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Pancakes Day

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A long, long time ago, Roland had decided there were certain concepts that were necessary to the proper functioning of his kitchen. These included such things as ‘teamwork’, naturally, and ‘respect’, and ‘don’t worry if I never give you any credit, I value you’; working that one into his repertoire had worked particularly well with regards to Bib. 

But, Roland thought, in light of recent events, perhaps the time had come for a change. Perhaps he should change the menu, the decor, ask Caroline to have Bib’s name painted on the sign outside beneath his, it'd do wonders for his self-esteem - Roland could get his own name touched up at the same time, that’d save some money.

Roland would do anything to make Bib happy, anything at all. But there were limits. Obviously. Don’t want to get ridiculous about it, do you.

It was just before lunchtime service on a Tuesday. He peered through the blinds in his office. Perhaps a little busier than usual, but fairly normal. Bib was whisking furiously at a jug of something, and looking stressed - the all-time number one signifier that everything was running as it should be. No need for him to get involved.

But Caroline had told him, on pain of something hideous and awful (that she’d refused to specify beyond gesturing towards the rota board; Roland could only assume she was threatening to give everyone other than him a day off at the same time) that he needed to check through the stock room himself, and not delegate, and that involved leaving his office, which meant passing through the kitchen, which mean Roland finally being forced to tune into their conversation, and as soon as he emerged he was struck by a familiar kind of alarm. 

“I’ve been reading about this amazing restaurant in Denmark,” Bib was saying to Kiki across the counter, a slightly manic look in his eyes, “where they scavenge ninety per cent of what they serve! It’s visionary! It’s extraordinary - I saw the head chef on TV, he served fish poached in its own river water, garnished with the raw herbs from the very same riverbank the fish was landed on! - Roland,” and Roland had hoped to get past unnoticed, or at least un-accosted; he had a plan for dealing with this kind of conversation, ever since the Australia incident, and that plan was not to engage in it. “I need to ask you about something -”

“Great! Come and see me in my office later,” Roland said, hoping he was conveying total eagerness and not utter disinterest.

“What place are you talking about, Chef?” said Kiki, who seemed not to have noticed Skoose trying to catch her eye and was instead gazing at the panful of tiny squid he was flash-frying.

Bib put down his whisk and breathed a single word, “Emu.” 

Across the kitchen, Axel sighed. Skoose sneered.

Roland thought, oh god, not again, and decided that he needed to cut this train of thought off nice and sharpish. “Yeah, Emu,” he said. “Dickheads, all of them. ‘Oh, we’re so pure and Nordic, we eat nuts and berries and twigs, and like it - come on, Bib, anyone can scavenge some seaweed and roadkill and say it tastes like nothing anyone’s ever tasted before, it’s because no one has tasted it before.”

Bib’s face did that weird thing where the impulse of every muscle to contort with rage seemed to cancel out all motion, leaving no visible movement at all but only an extraordinary tension.

“It’s only the most revolutionary, highest-ranked, most brilliant restaurant in the world, Roland! It’s only the harbinger of a change in the very concept of cooking!”

“Wow,” said Kiki, enraptured, staring at the squid, now plated, in her hands. “They’re amazing, aren’t they. Their little tentacles! It’s like you’re cooking babies.”

“Ooh, there’s Caroline, been meaning to ask her about - sideplates,” Roland said. “Kiki, I’ll take that, no worries,” and he slipped through the swing doors, taking the squid out of Kiki’s hands and planting it on the first waiter he came across.

He ducked around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief, sweet relief which lasted for a whole five seconds before Caroline really did pass by and say, “Bib doing okay? It’s a busy day, thought you’d be in there helping him -”

“Bib wanted me out of there, Caroline!” said Roland, “He’s on fire, didn’t want me cramping his style, he’s chilled, he’s great.”

Caroline murmured, “Bib - chilled - words that go together so well. Like ‘Roland’ and ‘reliable’, in a way.” She looked at him sidelong. “Or ‘this restaurant’ and ‘avant-garde’, or ‘Celia’ and ‘restrained’.” She shuddered.

“Pinata flashback?” asked Roland soothingly. “It’s okay. I have them too.”

“Can you be the nice Roland today?” she said. “I don’t really want to say out loud how little hope I have of that, oh well, I appear to have done so - but today, why not actually listen when Bib wants to ask you something?” 

The thing was, most people who asked things of Roland had learned to deal with the fact that his answers and promises to follow through were often not in the strictest sense true. Caroline was sensible like this. Bib was not. (Neither was Kiki, but then answering Kiki’s questions required something quite different to human logic.)

So apparently Bib wanted to bring new influences into the restaurant. New, avant-garde, Michelin-star-orbiting influences - sod that. Roland had been there, sort of, and done that, or tried to, and was so over the whole business. Mostly.

Although - it wasn’t as if Roland would turn down a Michelin star. Or even a regional restaurant-of-the-year award. There would be benefits, he could see that. Prestige, recognition, nubile patisserie chefs - Roland was lost in reminiscence for a moment. Oh, the past. A foreign country. They did different people there. Or something.

So, well - if Bib wanted more, Roland could deal with that, and when the lunchtime service was finished, Roland decided the time had come to do so.

Bib did not want anything of the sort. Bib had, in fact, spent most of the day wondering what Roland was up to, and when he’d get a chance to ask him, but when Roland had said “Bib, I need to talk to you about the new menu,” gesturing to follow him to the back door where the bins were, Bib felt a gnawing anxiety underneath his excitement.

He followed Roland out, still wiping pheasant juices off his hands. Skoose was already there, smoking; Roland got a light off him. Skoose made a gesture that Bib assumed was to offer him a cigarette; Bib was wary, and was about to tell Skoose he didn’t, actually, when he was cut off by Roland, helpful as always.

“No worries, Skoose, Bib gave up smoking to increase his sperm count!” Roland said.

“Really,” said Skoose, his face twisting into a delighted sort of grin. 

Bib cast his eyes upwards, closed them, breathed. One. Two. Three. Calm. Peace. Serenity. Walking in the hills. Lake District. Sunset on a Hebridean island; he could almost smell the clean air, hear the babbling of a burn. A single curlew’s call -

Skoose said, blandly, “Good thing you gave ‘em up, you probably needed to have an increase on nothing.”

Roland clapped Skoose on the back. “Healthy banter in my kitchen, that’s what I like to see!” 

Bib twitched. The bins. God. Why did everyone in every kitchen always have to have their important meetings at the bins. It wasn’t really the nicest place to ask - what he wanted to ask.

They stood, the three of them, awkwardly. Skoose looked from Bib to Roland and back again suspiciously, and, finally, put out his cigarette and went back inside.

Roland said expansively, “So Bib! Your wife, how’s she doing. How’s the oven, how’s the bun, the Bib-let.”

Bib brightened; maybe Roland wasn't going to freak out - “She’s fine, she’s good - weren’t we going to talk about the new menu? I mean - I have got something I want to ask you, the new menu isn’t what I really want to talk about - ”

Roland hemmed. Roland hawed. “Bib, about that.”

Bib felt the prickles of fear down the back of his neck. Bib waited. What would it be this time. What new portion of his life would he have to sacrifice, what indignity would he have to suffer?

“You know that restaurant in Denmark you were talking about? Nemo? Uma?”

Bib nodded, warily.

“Which is supposedly, you know, officially the best restaurant in the world?”

“What are you getting at, Roland.”

“Well! I’ve done some research,” and he hadn’t, of course, Bib could tell, “and I think we should try to move the menu in that direction, I’ve already written down some ideas.”

Bib opened and shut his mouth, and noises came out, and at last he managed to say, “We can’t change overnight to - foraging leaves and berries! Celia won’t be able to take it.”

“Celia can take anything, she’s a tough old girl.”

“You have no experience in foraged food!”

“Ah, but’s easy, innit, it just grows there. Send Skoose and the other kiddies out with baskets, we’re laughing.”

“Roland, I don’t want - when I said I wanted to talk, I didn’t mean about that!” Bib yelled, and then, when he realized he was shouting, said more quietly - “Do you really think we could pull off that sort of - of - profound and wonderful cooking? No, Roland. No is the answer,” and he returned to the kitchen.

Roland shook his head in disbelief. Good grief. Bib obviously didn’t know what was good for him. 

“Caroline!” said Roland, “what a surprise. May I say your hair is looking lovely today and I noticed that you parked your car particularly elegantly this morning.”

Caroline made no response to this, but then her part in this was being played by a cushion with a paper plate sellotaped to it that Roland had sat in the chair opposite. 

Roland had thought it best to rehearse. 

“I’ve had thoughts about a change in direction, menu-wise,” Roland continued. “Caroline, as a woman of the world, a woman of delicacy and sophistication, I’m sure you’ve heard of a little place across the Baltic sea called.... Uma. I mean Emo. Emu.”

That was where he’d pause for dramatic effect. She probably hadn’t heard of it, not her sort of thing, was it.

“Oh, you haven’t heard of it?” Roland replied. “Fair enough, Caroline, you do the fonts, I do the food - but! It’s only the most revolutionary, highest-ranked, most brilliant restaurant in the world! It’s only going to change the way we cook forever, sod Heston and his waxy face and his snail ice cream and electric jelly - ”

That bloody electric jelly. 

“Roland, I have heard of it, it’s been in every weekend newspaper supplement. It’s been on Masterchef, for god’s sake.”

The person who had entered the room was, quite inconveniently, Caroline herself.

“Roland,” said Caroline, deathly calm, “It’s nice that you have friends to talk to. It is. So nice. But, Roland, Bib has made seventy-five crêpes since service started, and you’re here. In your office. Talking to a paper plate.”

Roland said, “It’s stuck on a cushion, it’s a cushion too, look - “ He picked up the cushion to show her and then decided she could probably already see it perfectly well.

Caroline said, “Do you know what day it is, Roland?”

Roland said, “Tuesday! Tuesday?”

“It’s pancake day. It’s Shrove Tuesday. Roland, there are days when I wish this restaurant was innovative - there are days when I wish it was functional. This is one of those ‘oh god can’t we just get through service so we can go home’ days. Roland, do you know what Bib wanted to ask you?”

He shook his head.

“I’m resisting the urge to tell him he needs to find more friends, because you’re still on his list of potential godparents, even now. He told me this morning. I did try to tell you to listen to him.”

"Godfather?" said Roland weakly. "For Bib's spawn? Me?"

"You? Yes, I know," said Caroline, "which is why he asked me whether it was a good idea first and I said probably not, but I don't think he knows anyone else."

He followed her to the door of his office with the cushion in his hand and said, hopelessly, “Can you tell him yes from me?”

Caroline said, in the doorway, “Can you not be a dick?”

Roland said, "So that's a maybe."

“Mrs. Plateface!” said Kiki, spotting the cushion in Roland’s hand.

“Mrs... Plateface,” said Caroline. “Kiki - Mrs. Plateface? Oh, I don’t think I want to know, and yet somehow I’m compelled to ask - ”

“I made Mrs. Plateface for Chef to talk to,” said Kiki happily. “Chef, I haven’t seen Mrs. Plateface in ages! And what happened to Mr. Plateface? I drew a face for him and everything.”

“Mr. Plateface went away, Kiki,” said Roland. “He had money problems. And ran off with a tractor salesman, poor old Mrs. Plateface was beside herself - speaking of which, what’s Robin been up to recently?”

“Bib,” said Caroline, ignoring him. “Roland wants to tell you something.”

Roland felt himself flush.

Roland said, “Er, Bib, I’ll talk about it later with you, yeah?” and turned away.

Bib said, “Okay?”, quite automatically, and hated himself for doing so. He turned back to his station and poured more batter into the frying pan.

Caroline wordlessly turned and pushed through the swing doors back into the restaurant. Roland watched and thought about following her, and didn’t.

“Said I’d check the stock room,” Roland announced, to no one in particular, and went to do so.

“Chef,” said Kiki, speculatively, lingering - “I’ve been thinking for ages, why is it called pancake day, when there isn’t just one pancake? It should be pancakes day.”

Bib clamped his mouth shut and turned over the crêpe dentelle that lay in the pan before him, a beautiful, reed-thin affair, crisp and lacy at the edges, leopard-speckled across its centre.

Then he said, “Kiki, I think you need to ask Roland that,” set the plate with the perfectly folded crêpe au citron on the counter, and shouted, “Service!”