Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan is an award-winning short story writer, journalist, columnist, and editor. Her work has appeared in newspapers including The Sydney Morning Herald, Sun-Herald, The Australian, the Sunday Times, and the Sunday Telegraph. She has also been a travel editor for Elle Cuisine Magazine, Australian Table Magazine, and Ocean Magazine. She has also freelanced for a number of magazines. Her academic credentials include an MA (Creative Writing) from UTS and she is a PhD scholar. Currently a casual academic at Western Sydney University, Macquarie University, and magazine editor, she is completing her final draft of an urban fantasy novel.
‘Yalla Nakoul! Let’s eat.’
I position myself, cross legged at the top of the escarpment and gaze out. A fine haze of blue drapes over the valleys like a silk chador deepening the beauty that lies beneath.
Nestling down into my cushion of moss, I see the table is set. A clump of snowdrops snuggles into a large boulder. It could be a crocodile head if it were dark. A very large one but the sun is shining and we are too far south for me to worry about whether to poke my fingers into the eyes of a would be attacker.
My dining partner leans across smelling of sandalwoods and olives. ‘We will start with dessert first?’
Saliva wets my mouth as I conjure up a fine Mafroukeh. So many desserts are made from semolina mixed with sugar and butter infused with orange blossom or rose water but Mafroukeh is extra special because of its light cream of ashta topping.
He waves his hand like a skilled conductor towards the valleys. ‘Dessert is sheets of violet crumble escarpment topped with eucalyptus mist with a drizzle of chocolate.’
I see the escarpment in the distance. It’s exactly as described. My eyes devour what my stomach cannot digest.
My friend continues. ‘Slightly crunchy with a chewy texture that explodes into hints of fruit with smoky notes soon covered over by the pungency of the eucalyptus mist.’
I can taste it.
‘I imagine a furry aftertaste on my tongue,’ I say.
‘Yes that’s right.’
He turns and looks at me.
I smile and think back to a time when we would dip our toes into the warm Mediterranean and describe how we would eat our surroundings. The salty sea would become lime jelly covered namoura and the sand, maa’moul cookie crumbs. As we notched up five years and then ten of meeting on summer holidays, our dishes became more and more elaborate.
‘Next. A palate cleanser,’ he says. ‘Breathable Banksia.’
I follow his gaze to the right. There’s an army of banksia men tucked into a camouflage of branches and leaves; their eyes wide open. A few casualties lie on the matted grass. We both breathe in deeply. I smell freshly mown grass mixed with a hint of eucalypt. Another sniff reveals the odour of freshly baked bread.
My stomach rumbles with hunger as a symphony starts.
The fluty song of the magpie wafts above us as three carollers meet on a large scribbly gum. Their back-up singers, the lorikeets, arrive. They perch on a weeping cherry, slightly hidden by the delicate pink flowers. Then more colour appears in the form of crimson rosellas who are donned in fashion colours as high as their bell like notes. Moments later a softer sub-song of the butcher bird floats into the feathered concert before being pierced by the squawk of a group of cockatoos.
‘You arranged the music?’ he asks. His eyes squint and his face lights up as it did the last night we danced together. We were eighteen then.
‘You choose the next course,’ he says.
I am not from this high altitude town. I moved to Australia and made my life in the city although I never stopped ‘altaeam’ or ‘the dining’ as we called it. I devour buildings on the way to work from the seaweed pie shaped Academy of Science through to the wedding cake-esque National Library of Australia with its marzipan columns and flat iced roof. Gorging on nature again digs up old feelings.
I look around and then up for inspiration. The sky is punctuated with rotund clouds; their bellies heavy and grey, aching to give birth to a cleansing shower.
‘I’ll choose the drinks,’ I say. ‘Buttercup flavoured rain shaken over ghost gum infused ice. Golden in colour. Sweet at first then with a bitterness of gum as it slides down your throat. The tartness makes it addictive.’
He smacks his lips together. ‘Refreshing, Maryam.’
My stomach flips, just a little, as I hear my name tumble from his lips.
‘And to complement our shaken not stirred drinks, we can have our choice from the three shish kebabs.’
To his right I see them. The magical three, steeped in legend but currently being transformed into a delicious meal. One is larger than the other. It must be the beef. Lamb and chicken shawarma are always more popular.
‘The sauce,’ he says, ‘fiery hot made from chilli dipped quince flowers brushed with wattle dust.’
He watches me lick my lips. I love my chillies. Did he remember the first time I tasted one? So long ago now but still vivid to me. I see him back then, laughing as he eats a whole chilli sitting on the sand hot from the noon-day sun. A few drops of sweat build up on his forehead and lazily roll down his face. He holds a chilli between his thumb and forefinger and dangles it above my mouth. ‘Slowly,’ he says, ‘Just a little bite at a time.’
The first time my mouth becomes fire. I scream. ‘You are a passionate one,’ he says.
I guzzle the water he gives me. ‘Too much. Too much. Take it slowly. You are not accustomed to our chillies. They are the hottest. It takes time to appreciate them.’
I feel myself colour and blurt out something to somehow change my thoughts. ‘Something sugary should be next,’ I say.
Behind us are dry wall fences in varying shades of browns and greys. ‘Chocolate rocks to quench the fire.’
He leans closer.
Do I want to quench the fire?
I giggle like the teenage girl I was when I last saw him. The years drop away in that moment and I find myself lying back on the moss and watching the clouds move slowly above us like I did when we first met. We were eight then and I delighted in finding fire-breathing dragons through to genies and vacuum cleaners floating above us.
I feel him watching me.
‘What can you find in the sky for us today, Maryam?’
My name. Again. A shiver.
I search the clouds for a shape. I was always so good at this game but today my heart is racing. My mind searches for something familiar in the white shapes in the sky.
I hear him lie back too.
The moss here is spongey and delicate. I search the skies trying to find something in the darkening grey contours.
Then, the waters burst. It’s not even a pitter patter to begin with but a huge downpour. I sit up and he takes my hand and pulls me away from the ground. His skin is rough. His once soft hands are now plied with callouses. Yet the warmth of his skin on mine makes me feel young, happy, alive. A carefree holiday mood penetrates me.
We make a dash for a large fir tree and huddle by the trunk. I stand facing him. His piercing sapphire eyes look through his newly made wet fringe and catch me staring. I look down, pretending to brush something from my dress. I steady myself on the tree trunk.
‘Now here is some real bread. Italian,’ I say as I run my fingers over the bark. ‘A thick crust smothered in avocado hummus.’
‘Maryam. I’m sorry,’ he says.
The memories are painful. No-one ever knew but I did. I feel bile rising in my throat. I shouldn’t have come. What was I expecting?
The rain stops as quickly as it came.
‘My train will arrive soon. It’s best I leave now.’
He didn’t implore me to stay. He never did. He once said we were like long roads which wound around the world, intersecting at different points of time and space.
I let him hold my hand as we walk along the damp dirt paths speckled with pebbles.
‘This is the avenue of tree amputees or that is what I have named it,’ he says.
One after the other, the glorious oaks had been hacked to make way for a wire. It was a destruction the trees had to live with. They compensated. They continued to grow but in strange directions. Their wounds were not hidden like mine.
‘I had fun today,’ he says. ‘We could dine like this again.’
Looking into his face, I can still see the man he once was, yet those years have made me understand. Life was never serious for him. It was always about fun. Hedonism. Indulgence. Gratification.
‘Perhaps,’ I say.
He gives my hand a squeeze.
I don’t want him to let go but I know in my heart I should. Being here with him is just a fantasy. What we had before was a pipe dream. My pipe dream, not his.
‘My home is that way,’ he says. He grasps my chin gently and holds it as he bends forward and presses his lips against mine in the same way he did decades ago. I longed for that kiss for so many years and at eighteen I succumbed. Now I step back.
‘Good bye,’ I say.
Hurrying away I follow the daffodils that lead to the station. Each of their sunny faces looks up to mock me. ‘You could never have him,’ I imagine them saying. ‘He would never commit. He is a shaken not stirred man.’
The memories become vivid. All that time I waited for a call, hoping he might propose. A naïve teenager from a sheltered life. Then decades later he’s tracked me down via Facebook. My feelings swirl around like dirty clothes in a washing machine. Shyness. Elation. Sadness.
I brush into a Camelia, perfect in its pink symmetry. The petals spill in my path. My feet are heavy as they crunch down on the dry leaves. On the side of the road the grass is covered with tiny white daisies. They could almost be sugar coated. The buttercups are yellow icing. The fir trees a spiky profiterole tower. The beauty is digestible even without him.
I sit in the train. A window seat. The scenery blurs. Trees then sandstone. It could easily be honeycomb crunch. I lick my lips. I can still play this game. I can dine on nature. I can dine alone.
Prose in this post: © Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan
Published with the permission of Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan