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When the fall is all there is

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When the fall is all there is

It started with a cup of coffee.

And a biscotto. Those damned biscotti.

It would be easy to blame Americans, of course, or, more particularly, Starbucks. Whatever else Starbucks may be, a purveyor of fine coffee they are not, and when Henry said, “But Starbucks—” we all of us, even John, laughed.

To his credit, so did Henry.

It is more difficult, but more fair, perhaps, to blame the French, and, more particularly Cafés Richard. La Reine Deux Fois has been in the coffee game since our esteemed ancestor, that admirable officer Gabriel de Clieu d’Erchigny, seduced the mistress of Louis Quatorze’s botanist, thus obtaining a clipping of a singular coffee tree from the royal gardens, and established coffee in Martinique. By 1730, my family were exporting coffee to France — and coffee plants to Brazil.

Oh, that’s a story, and it’s one that my son Richard, in particular, is fond of hearing. As we established coffee in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guyane, Brazil’s emperor, a far-seeing man, grew interested. He sent one Francisco de Melo Palheta to “negotiate a border dispute.” He negotiated himself into the bedroom — and, one infers, the bed itself — of my long-dead ancestress, Marie-Claude, wife of the governor of Guyane. Their affair was short-lived but fruitful: when the lieutenant-colonel sailed from Cayenne, Marie-Claude gifted him with an enormous bouquet. Wrapped carefully in the midst of that bouquet, under her husband’s very nose, were five coffee trees.

I still have the emerald parure he sent her. And, more to the point, several thriving plantations of coffee in Brazil.

Similarly, a roving ancestor of mine heeded Mgr. Pigneau de Béhaine’s call to arms in 1787, thus managing to be in Indochine française when the revolution began. As a reward for assisting Nguyễn Ánh, he was granted land. That ancestor — peripatetic, as I said — parlayed those grants into a trade network stretching from Keelung to Pondichéry to the Île de France to Djibouti and Aleppo and, of course, Bordeaux, the centre of my operations.

I still have an uncle in Aleppo — dear Uncle Raymond. I fled to him when my disastrous first marriage fell apart, another thing for which my first husband, Louis, never forgave me. He went so far as to hint to the divorce court and to Le Parisien — the only paper that would print such calumny — that Raymond and I were having an affair.

But it was in vain: my divorce was granted in full, my trade network and heart intact. That I married Henry two weeks later ought to have been more of a scandal, but Le Parisien was licking its wounds, and many said it seemed fitting. Henry had a vast inland trade network, based in Tours; I, a vast international one.

It would have seemed to have been enough: Henry and I met and matched and clashed, passion for passion: seven children in twelve years, four healthy sons to inherit the “empire,” as Henry laughingly called it, and three lovely daughters.

But the idea of this “empire” took root in Henry’s mind and drove us apart. He began to want to control my possessions, to put our boys at far-flung corners of our networks to “learn the business.” When I refused, stymied, he sulked off to Lyon to establish a boutique café, “Rosa Mundi,” leaving me and our sons (our daughters, perhaps most like me of them all, had long since shaken the dust of Bordeaux, and their parents’ marriage, from their feet): our oldest son, Henry, just like his father, restless, more full of ideas than wisdom; then Richard, the child of my heart, who throws himself into everything he undertakes with passion and commitment and earnestness. Of them all, he is the most competent, though his brothers call him plodding and methodical. And Geoffrey, poor dear Geoffrey... how he fits so little in so much I will never understand. And then there is John, the last of our boys and the last of our children, in some ways — if I were to indulge in flights of fancy — the last of our marriage.

John was too young at the time for Henry to take with him to Lyon, but now Henry is making noise about “invading” England, setting up a rival to Café Rosa Mundi, this one to be called Café Alais (Henry is nothing if not obvious), in London. I and my advisors suggested Dublin — I have always maintained that one can tell the Irish are not British by their palates alone — but when Henry insisted on overlooking the rest of the boys and putting John in charge of an Irish venture, we all rebelled, save John, of course, who has no more awareness than a pigeon of his own manifold shortcomings.

So there we sat, in Bordeaux, where I tried my best to instill some patience in Henry fils, a personality in Geoffrey and some moral fibre in John. Henry had gone so far as to concede that he might put Henry fils in charge of London, if not Ireland, when disaster struck: our firstborn, my impetuous, rebellious imp of a son, fresh off a fundraising effort cycling through southern France in the height of the summer, fell ill and died. It was so sudden, so unexpected, no one seemed to have had time to react: not the doctors, or the nurses, nor his father — nor I.

Then it was Christmas. In September, Henry suddenly decided that what the Brûlerie de la Reine Deux Fois needed was to be more “cosmopolitan,” involving the removal of the brioche and the croissants, and inserting such things as biscotti and — for all I know — amaretti into our cafés. That led to our most recent fight, when I told him if he wanted biscotti he could begin serving vino santo, or he could go to England or the United States, where they wouldn't know good coffee from pig swill. He shouted that the swine in England were more welcoming than me, that he would return when pigs flew, and stomped off.

I flung a retort at his retreating back, something to the effect of that we would see jambon in the treetops by morning, and returned to the cafe to conduct a vigorous and thorough descaling off-cycle.

The next word we had of him, he was back in Lyon instead of Tours, where his own head offices sit. Richard, who had been glum since returning from Gennevilliers — I’d sent him to the Cafés Richards coffee academy to get his mind off his brother and his father, with the added benefit that a course at Cafés Richard would be certain to teach him how not to roast coffee nor to run a café — roused himself from his gloom and tried to reassure me. I count it as a point of weakness that he sensed the need in me, but since it was Richard, I could let it pass.

We had interviews scheduled that day: I had long since implemented a working café on the grounds of our roasting operation where we could try our blends as well as acquaint all the children with the finer points of the last stop in the coffee supply chain. It had been running on a skeleton staff since Henry’s death, relying almost entirely upon William, my right hand man, “le Maréchal” we affectionately called him — I suppose our hearts weren’t in it. But Richard came back from Paris with ideas accompanying his gloom; thus, employees were needed.

It was about halfway through the afternoon, after Geoffrey had broken his third cup of the day — like clockwork, it seemed, the third cup of the day always preceded the afternoon rush — when John came in, trailing puddles of university friends. Like John, they seemed to have perpetually sticky fingers and runny noses, and as always, despite his petulance, I banished them to the game room — so-called because there was a tennis table there, and older, sturdier furniture — and resolved to make him wipe down all the display cases yet again. As with Geoffrey, I had hopes that repetition would instill knowledge; God knew nothing else seemed to work. Richard was practicing his microfoam when the bell jingled and he and I looked up instinctively. There was a young man, neat in appearance, a small trimmed beard and moustache, standing just inside the door, blinking. As if channeling Geoffrey, Richard dropped the pitcher and splashed foam everywhere. For once it was good foam, too, silky and smooth.

“I understand you’re looking for help,” the young man said, and his voice matched his face: a neat Parisian with a neat Parisian accent. “Or has the position been filled?”

“No,” Richard said before I could open my mouth. “No, it has not.”

Well. He, William, and I had already decided on two of the applicants, Gilbert and Louis, both of whom were to begin the following day. But Richard can have good instincts about people, so I kept my mouth closed. Richard brought the paperwork over and spoke with the young man for several minutes before he gestured to me.

The young man, Philippe-Auguste d’Artois, had worked in cafés in Paris; Cafés Richard, as one might expect. Stammering a little, Richard said he had run across Philippe-Auguste while at Gennevilliers. I had been about to ask what brought M. d’Artois to Bordeaux but upon seeing that they had progressed beyond tutoyer already, I held my tongue and merely listened.

He had found an Airbnb, he said, in Rue du 14 Juillet, only two stops on the red line from the Place de la Victoire. “Saint-Genès,” Richard said. “I know it.”

Since Richard attended the University of Bordeaux along with his brothers and sisters, the remarkable thing would have been if he had not known it, but I again said nothing.

Philippe-Auguste agreed, and some discussion was had on rental prices in Bordeaux compared to Paris, a conversation that leaves me at a disadvantage. When in Bordeaux, our residence is my family’s house in the Cauderan; its provenance — the 17th century — results in some inconveniences, but its location, moments from Sainte-Catherine yet surrounded by hectare upon hectare of trees and woodland, leaves one to imagine oneself to be transported to the time when it was built, surrounded more by vineyards and much less by a city. But practical considerations, such as only eight bedrooms, meant that the children spent much of their time when younger at our slightly larger château on the Dordogne, between St. Emilion and Bergerac, which contains a much more reasonable twelve bedrooms in the main house. Less often we would take up residence in Henry’s family home in Tours, but it was even older than our Cauderan home and was not popular with either the children or myself.

I’d lost track of the conversation, but the conclusion was foregone: of course M. d’Artois was added to our staff, even if only temporarily, he said to Richard, his smile outmatched only by his agreeable mien.

John and his friends interrupted the conversation: fisticuffs had broken out, as they so often did, and when I arrived, Geoffrey was in the process of boxing his brother’s undoubtedly filthy ears while John squealed and shrieked in a manner quite at variance with his age. Sorting the two of them out took some attention and time; when I looked around, Philippe-Auguste had gone and Richard was preparing the orders for the next day.

We walked home, Geoffrey and John sniping at each other and Richard quiet, as was his wont, and dinner proceeded with little incident. We dispersed after our digestifs — John to his video games, Geoffrey to his interminable phone conversations with his remote petite aime, Constance, in Brittany, and Richard to plan, no doubt, the invasion of London (or Dublin), and by the time I looked up from my needlework, it was long past time to retire.

The next morning there was an emergency at the docks. It was no more than the dockworkers wishing to have their importance recognised, and perhaps an element of boredom; it seemed to have acquired the air of a ritual, with mutual complaints transforming into mutual compliments, but it meant that I did not arrive at the café unti mid-morning. One of our new staff members, Gilbert, was following Geoffrey earnestly; the others, Philippe-Auguste included, were nowhere to be seen, nor was Richard. When asked, Geoffrey was less than no help, to no one’s surprise, of course. He blinked and looked around at his little shadow with an air of surprise that may not have been entirely feigned, and hummed.

Just then the latest iteration of our newest blend, “le Bordelais,” was delivered. Richard, William, and I had been working on it for some time, and Christmas seemed an ideal time to debut it. Our efforts had been focused on subtlety, eliciting the mouth feel and nose of our claret along with hints of the ethereal Bordelaisian mist and a well-developed body. We had worked through several Central American providers before we hit on the current combination, the bulk of the beans from Guatemala and Honduras, some from Ethiopia. The newest iteration of this blend was to be served in our café today both as filter and espresso.

Just as we were sitting down to our first cup — Richard and his new shadow having appeared seemingly from nowhere to partake as well — there was a commotion in the small courtyard. The door flew open and there was Henry, as always larger than life, trailed by clouds of dogs and glory.

And dear little Alix. Of course.

Chocolate was his latest passion: well, chocolate and Alix. I foresaw another argument, inevitably: there were tens of premier chocolatiers, but only one Brûlerie de la Reine Deux Fois. This argument, with small variations, had been undertaken for the past decade. But I had little wish to air these family disagreements in front of the new employees, so I excused myself to telephone Marie-Sophie and alert her to Henry’s return. We had some little discussion about Alix and settled, finally, on Matilda’s older room: on the third floor, with a lovely view and two creaky staircases away from Henry’s domain.

My desire to spare Richard the embarrassment of a family disagreement in front of the new employees was, I discovered upon my return, in vain. For it transpired that Henry, too, knew M. d’Artois, and he had poured scorn on the notion that he was all the way out in Talence. Henry had, naturally, gone to school with the pen of Philippe-Auguste’s favourite aunt or some such, and without ceremony or permission he installed Philippe-Auguste in the small appartement above the carriage house, little used except when Marie-Sophie’s nephews came to visit.

But all these small irritations were forgotten when we served Henry the Bordelais blend. He was struck silent in awe: “You have captured Bordeaux in a cup,” he said finally. “There is even a hint of the idea of the terroir behind it all. I have no idea how you do it.”

One of Henry's sterling qualities is his ability to provide unstinting admiration, even when in the midst of a towering rage. He respects his enemies and his friends, and sometimes even his lovers.

So it was with some cordiality we were able to discuss blends and beans during luncheon, to which Philippe-Auguste was of course invited. Our détente held until the cheese, when Henry brought up chocolate once again, insinuating that since I could blend coffee beans so well, chocolate would be a rare and adventurous new challenge. I had attempted to spike his guns by sending out for his favorite little ganaches and pralinés from Darricau, but to no avail. He rapidly descended from cajoling and flattery to a red-faced rage, shouting that he could have ruled all of Europe had he but no women in his life as he flung his napkin to the floor and himself from the table. Alix folded her napkin and quietly fled. Richard stared straight ahead, no doubt wishing himself, or his father, to Jericho, while John sniffled noisily and dragged himself after his father. Geoffrey excused himself as well, almost as quietly and quickly as Alix (although without committing the faux pas of folding his napkin — where does Henry find them?), leaving only William, Richard, Philippe-Auguste, and myself to carry on.

Philippe-Auguste won a small amount of admiration: I essayed a topic, William gallantly seconded it, and Philippe-Auguste launched into a charming anecdote. Richard overcame his discomfiture quite naturally over coffee (our flagship blend, “Planta Genista”), and we four walked back to the café quite in charity with each other. Geoffrey arrived just as we did, and the three of them took themselves off to the machines where I soon overheard Richard and Philippe-Auguste discussing the steaming of milk while Geoffrey came and went, waiting on customers.

William and I went into the brûlerie to examine the shipments finally released by the gentlemen of the docks and spent a happy afternoon experimenting with an Ethiopian Mormora until William left to meet his wife. I was again unsurprised to learn that Philippe-Auguste would be joining us for dinner; clearly he had been added to the household. Geoffrey begged off and disappeared in the direction of Sainte-Catherine. Philippe-Auguste fell in with me on our walk home, asking some questions about the new blend, and sharing his own experiences with roasting beans at home to experiment. He had not much luck, he said, getting the shiny, deep rich brown.

Naturally, to a young man whose exposure had been only Cafés Richards, that would seem to be the ideal. I mildly proffered the opinion that many coffee beans were over roasted but, in fact, the shine certainly was admirable. He seemed struck, and eager to follow up, but by then we had arrived. “Richard has a good sense for roasting beans,” I said. “Richard, if you would show Philippe-Auguste to his quarters...”

“I have not yet obtained my things—”

“It is no matter,” Richard said. “I’ll show you around, find the key, and we’ll ask Maurice to fetch your luggage from Talence.”

So off they went, Philippe-Auguste in Richard’s more-than-competent hands, and I went in to Marie-Sophie to discuss our evening meal and then to bathe and dress.

Henry and Alix made an appearance at dinner and Henry strained himself trying to be conciliatory. With a wry grin that once would have melted my heart, he said he had been collecting pork chops from the treetops or he would have returned before now. He complimented the food, the wine, the cheese, and even the chocolates, and jovially suggested a game of Belote. Alix immediately excused herself on the grounds that she found cards very confusing. Since I had long since banished John from all games until he learned not to cheat, the evening passed quickly with four competent players: myself, Henry, Richard, and Philippe-Auguste. Maurice’s return was the signal for our party to disperse, and Henry and I exchanged no more than wishes for pleasant dreams. Alix had gone up some time before, and I had little doubt she had already made her way back down those creaky stairs, but my message was made clear, so I could retire peacefully.

I spent some time brushing my hair, idly watching the lights in Philippe-Auguste’s quarters. There were shadows to and fro in front of the windows; the lights were still on when I finally retired.

The next morning, over chocolatiers and plain croissants, Richard and I discussed the training and the plans for the rest of our week. Richard and Philippe-Auguste had discussed roasting further last night, Richard said, and he wondered if it might be useful for the staff — including Philippe-Auguste — to have tours of the brûlerie. William, who had joined us (he and his family live only a few streets away and they often wander in for breakfast) enthusiastically seconded the idea. He has often expressed the concern that our entire operation could be done in by one inexpert enthusiast, and he espoused the view that the best way to engender expertise is exposure. I felt William was too optimistic in his view of human nature and their capacity and desire for learning, but I am always willing to concede that the acquisition of knowledge is a consummation devoutly, etc. When Philippe-Auguste arrived, with all the appearance of a hasty toilette and apologies for oversleeping, he nonetheless seemed delighted to hear that a tour — at the least — of the brûlerie’s operations was planned.

(Having raised four of my own, I have some experience with young men and I had no doubt that his delight would not be compounded by the actual work of running a roasting and blending operation. I have often felt that if my own husband had been put to such tasks as a youth, his ideas would be well-tempered with realism.)

The tour itself was a success. Both Philippe-Auguste and Gilbert seemed to enjoy it, and Richard was in his element. He and William implemented many efficiencies of organisation: only partly in jest do we maintain that we can track an individual bean — essential for quality control, as both William and Richard have often reiterated. We finished the tour in my petit laboratoire, with several small roasters and other equipment. Philippe-Auguste was intrigued by the roasting process: he had not encountered double-roasted beans, nor had he encountered blends made from beans, he frankly admitted, that would be considered green at other places he has worked.

Therein lies the problem, I told him, the natural follow-on from our conversation yesterday. It is quite simple to over-roast a bean: it looks appetising, it smells delicious. But the flavour? It’s gone — burnt away. Add to that the fact that over-roasting homogenises flavours and takes away the unique flavour notes, even the intensity, and you have a recipe for, well, Cafés Richard coffee.

At luncheon, Richard and Philippe-Auguste conferred enthusiastically about the roasting process. At last William offered to shepherd the two of them through one of our roasting-tasting experiments and I spent the rest of the afternoon at my office, reviewing inventories and trade advisories. I anticipated more lively discussion at dinner, but the afternoon seemed to have fallen flat. Philippe-Auguste was pensive, and Richard, abstracted and solemn. The dinner was made even less comfortable by Alix attempting to be vivacious and charming. Even Henry seemed pained by her efforts, and Geoffrey rudely snubbed her. William’s wife, Isabelle, swooped to her rescue and I — despite my own feelings — backed her. While several faults may be laid at her door, the initial, original, and obtruding fault was Henry’s. We played at a juvenile card racing game after dinner; Richard and Philippe-Auguste had excused themselves, but Richard joined us again after a time, wearing a heavy frown that made him resemble nothing so much as his father.

It is not a look I like on him.

Thus it was the next day, when I happened to be passing the stockroom and overheard the two of them, I unabashedly and wholeheartedly eavesdropped. “...not what I expected—” thus, Philippe-Auguste; and my own son: “My mother will be the first to tell you there is no magic, no genie in a lamp, to shortcuts.”

“But how?” Philippe-Auguste said, sounding if he was pleading. “How is it possible to have this — this coffee that tastes, that smells, that — that—”

“This is what you care about?” There was a note in Richard’s voice I had not heard in years, not since his beloved spaniel died in his arms. “The coffee, the coffee — this is why you’re here? This is what you want?”

“Yes — no — but yes —”

“No! That’s enough!”

“Yes!” Philippe-August managed, astonishingly, to override Richard. His voice softened then. “Yes. But let me—”

“No!”

Ah, I could have told Philippe-August a thing or two about my immovable Richard. But — given the fact that he seemed to have been trifling with my son’s affections — I had no inclination to do anything of the sort except perhaps kick him into the street and let the dogs eat his liver.

“Yes,” Philippe-August said again, and this time his voice was lower, quieter. “Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire. Please let me—”

“I have let you,” Richard ground out, sounding as if he was pulverising his teeth. “I have let you—”

“And I you,” Philippe-August returned swiftly. “You know I did not know who you were when we — when we first met.”

“But when you discovered it—”

“Yes. Yes. This is what I am telling you. When I discovered it, I thought two birds, one stone, mon lion. You have had the coffee there, at Gennevilliers. You have seen it, tasted it — how did you do it? How could you? After growing up with this? I had thought La Reine overrated — yet how could I have been so stupid?”

“How. Indeed,” Richard said, his voice like marble.

“So I came to see for myself,” Philippe-Auguste said. “I came to see, to learn—”

“To steal,” Richard said, the scorn in his voice like the lash of a whip.

“To steal the nonexistent secret,” Philippe-Auguste said. “Of a verity, Richard, to steal it. But there is — there was nothing to steal.”

“No,” Richard said, and I heard his smile gone all awry, twisted and wrung out, like my heart. “No, there was... nothing.”

“Nothing but you,” Philippe-August said, and I must confess his honesty surprised me and, I make no doubt, my son as well. “I did not know until now how much I had learned from you, and from your family, from your mother, as well, until these past few hours. I have had to look behind me and in front of me and all around, and there was nothing there, nothing in any of those places but you.”

But Richard was not to be so easily won: immovable, as I said. “I won’t beg,” he said. “I will only say to you that was — clearly — not enough.”

“It was already enough,” Philippe-Auguste said. “If you will listen — I will beg, I will tell you, it was already enough, only I didn’t know it.”

The sarcasm in Richard’s voice was thicker than Turkish coffee, politely amazed. “And you learned it — from the coffee.”

“I learned it from the coffee. I learned it all from the coffee: that when the bean turns brown, and shiny, it is deceptive. By that time you have lost all the nuance, all the subtlety, and nothing but the appearance remains. I am trying to tell you, mon lion, mon cœur de lion—”

“—please could you not—”

“—mon avenir—”

Then there was a thud, and a gasp, and after that a slight moan in between the sound of lips meeting, a whispered plea to please, please cut the pear in half—

And I — I had long passed any remnant of propriety.

I backed away as noiselessly as possible, and shut the door into the corridor to keep wandering Gilberts and Geoffreys out, and I checked my pockets for a white handkerchief.

Henry and I would need a truce, after all, to negotiate our son’s betrothal.

***fin***