The Onion Johnny by Yvonne Clark, Short Story Finalist, LISP 2nd Quarter 2020
Click HERE To Read The Interview With The Writer
‘Bonjour, Madam.’ Monsieur Masson, forty something, with weather-beaten skin and Wedgewood eyes, and a gentle cadence to his voice which reminded me of a lullaby from my childhood. I flashed my most beguiling smile, sensing a familiar flush spreading up my neck as I did so.
‘I need your best produce today – French onion soup is on our lunch menu this week.’
‘Of course. I save always my finest produce for you.’
As ever, I yearn to take this as a personal compliment, a sign that I was not just a good customer, but also that I meant something more to him. I had known Monsieur Masson for several years, however, and his feelings for me, if any, had probably evaporated like the English drizzle by now. I make my selection from the strings of pink Roscoff onions, fresh and plump, hanging like giant grapes from raffia ties. Monsieur Masson snakes off down the lane, a random trajectory of Citroen van.
We are all as delicate as onions. Outside, pinkish-brown, striated with age, our dried up, papery carapace ready to be peeled away to expose new skin beneath. Tears flow as I remove each layer, tough becoming ever more soft, richer in aroma and paler in hue. Then the tender centre, the unblemished flesh like that of a new-born child - the child I yearn to hold in my arms.
My job was a stop gap while I was as battered and bruised as a windfall apple, and I am still working here, ten years later. The head chef, George, claims he could not manage without me, but I know this is not strictly true – I am as replaceable as the wine glass broken by the mâitre d’ yesterday as he gestured expansively towards the table reserved for our most esteemed guests. We were a competent team, with an unquestioning loyalty to George, whose two Michelin stars had been acquired with dignity and modesty – attributes which were all too rare in his profession. I was a chef de partie, responsible for preparing the fruit and vegetables, and today was the day my weekly orders were delivered by Monsieur Masson, an original Breton ‘Onion Johnny.’
But that day after he left, I discovered a problem. As I sliced into each onion, despite their unblemished outer appearance, the centres appeared to contain some sort of larvae, dark and gelatinous, as evil smelling as a sewer.
‘Madam, I am devastated, how can this happen? I buy only from one farmer for many years, never has this happened before. Je suis desoleé.’ Monsieur Masson had returned promptly with more onions and an insistence that he take me for dinner by way of apology. I accepted his invitation with alacrity.
He told me about his family, his successes, his sorrows, and I warmed still further to this unassuming man with the lilting voice and endearing self-deprecation. I reciprocated as though I was in a confessional, reliving my experiences with an abusive husband who drank himself to death and how I struggled for years to build up an impenetrable, protective fort around me. Marc Masson has unlocked the key to my subterranean secrets. As we quaffed a sublime velvety Merlot, my words tumbled out like grain released from a hop. Neither of us noticed the restaurant had started to empty, unaware of the clattering of cutlery as the waiter reset the tables pointedly for the next service. How I longed to stroke this man’s hair, greying at the temples, and smooth those frown lines with a gentle caress of my fingers. He too had had his hardships and I wanted to be the balm that soothed him. ‘I enjoyed very much this evening,’ he murmured as our hands touched gently, subtly. I leant into him. Me too, I thought, but didn’t say.
Every week Marc presented us with a different variety of onion for the restaurant to experiment with, each having its own unique and subtle flavour, so much so that George began to build a reputation for all things Allium. Echalote Grise, or banana shallots, mild and sweet tasting, half onion, half shallot. With these, George conjured up a divine sautéed potatoes with parsley cream. Another week Marc presented us with black garlic, deliberately aged to yield sticky, sweet black cloves with a delicate molasses flavour. Stuffed into poussins and served with truffle and champignon sauce, the heady aroma was dizzying in its desirability. Picardie White garlic, grown in cooler, wetter areas and with a very strong flavour, ended up as a superb pureé on succulent Tiger prawns, an orgasm on Sèvres porcelain.
Marc and I exchanged chaste kisses every week. My heart had not yielded to such physical intimacy for many years, and I was afraid that I may regress to a darker time, when pleasure – pain – pleasure – pain was the seesaw of my life. And yet . . . .
We had reached a plateau in our relationship, going neither back nor forwards, having cemented our feelings for each other without building something stronger and, more permanent. I was ready to peel off another of my layers, ready to expose more emotions, to take a gamble on the roulette wheel of life, but I did not have the courage to promulgate my feelings.
‘Tomorrow I go back to France for more onions. Come with me; I want to show you how beautiful is my country, my village, and in the evenings I will take you to the most superb restaurants.’
I decided to take him up on his offer. George was a little surprised but acquiesced on one condition: ‘Bring some cheeses back with you!’ he ordered as we drove off.
As we neared our destination the aroma of Alliums assailed my senses: a heady, pungent tang mixed with sea salt spray, grasses, earth and ozone. Delicate pink onion flowers stretched into the distance, darkening from pale salmon to deep pink as they stretched into the horizon. We dined simply before heading home - Marc’s home. His garden was peppered with thistles, downy centres providing soft pillows for pollinators. It led to a modest cottage with chalk- white render peeling off the walls in thick, flaky layers. The magic of the place peeled another layer from me too, dangerously close to my tender core. What would happen that night?
The next few days were a whirlwind of meeting farmers, sampling their produce (chew, spit, clear the palette with a swig of local wine, repeat), learning how to grade and then plait strings of onions, all the while surrounded by a kaleidoscope of floral fields. Such simple pleasures emboldened me to ask Marc why, at night, we shared a bed but not our bodies.
He told me.
‘I fear I cannot love you in the way you want or need,’ he concluded.
‘I don’t care,’ I sparked furiously, ‘I love you.’ I had already begun to envisage a future with this man: maybe a family, and a second chance of happiness.
I was beginning to fall in love with something else, too. The region, ripe with arable fecundity; the people, so warm and honest; the lifestyle; the food; the unpolluted air. I wanted to stay longer. I phoned George and told him I would not be going back for a while. In my fervour I failed to detect the nuances of irritation in his voice as he agreed to my extended leave.
Days became weeks. I feasted on crunchy baguettes, their soft, fluffy centres dripping with home-made garlic butter; rainbow platters of seafood caught that day; Breton galettes, both sweet and savoury, made with locally-grown buckwheat - and the cheeses! George would be thrilled when I returned to the UK with these, I mused.
As time passed, Marc and I fell into a comfortable pattern – he delivering onions round the UK during the week, while I conjured up a confusion of culinary delights for us to enjoy together at the weekends. I was a humble chef de partie no more. We began to dream about opening our own bistro, while continuing to peel off our layers, now without tears. The prospect of not having any children of my own, at first a profound sacrifice, was replaced by the birth of a whole new world for me. In the fullness of time our tender and loving relationship, albeit of an unconventional kind, became all I needed.
George DID replace me, as I knew he would. As I write, he has acquired a third Michelin star, thanks in part to his creative genius with onions, still being delivered by Marc Masson, my very own Onion Johnny.