You can read the first 2 chapters on this page… I’m about to release a print book and publish wide. Watch This Space!
May 1990. Somewhere over Amsterdam.
Karen’s eyes were fixed on the screen suspended from the ceiling midway along the cabin. She could see the route the plane had taken across the top of Europe. The captain announced that they had begun their descent in Paris but according to the map, they were somewhere over Amsterdam. She felt her stomach churn. It’s just excitement she told herself. The flight attendants seemed to be walking about a lot she noticed. Perhaps there was a problem. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. She wondered if she had time to use the toilet again.
Another announcement but she was so tired she couldn’t seem to understand what the captain was saying, but then realised he was speaking French. Rubbing her eyes like a small child, Karen elbowed her travelling companion, Agnès, who opened one eye and mouthed an expletive at her over-excited friend. Twenty-two years old, sexy and world weary the way only French girls can be, Agnès was reluctantly returning to her family home in Paris, after a two year stay in Australia. She had travelled the world with her diplomat parents, and nothing troubled her. Karen was always in a fluff about something. She wished she could be more like her friend. The only things that excited Agnès were fresh cigarette packets, surfing and platform sneakers. Karen turned to look at her boyfriend, Peter in the seat next to the aisle, his knuckles white on the arm rests. Unlike their well-travelled friend, Karen and Peter were experiencing air travel for the first time.
Agnès reached across Karen and patted Peter on the arm.
‘We still have maybe ten minutes before we land. Try not to burst an artery,’ she said.
Peter chuckled and relaxed a little. Agnès could always be counted on for a joke. He took a deep breath and rubbed his stubbled jaw. He didn’t mind the flying, but the landings and take-offs would take a little getting used to.
By the time the plane touched down Karen had managed to drop her passport and landing card between the seats, enlisting the help of the honeymooners behind her to retrieve the documents. Agnès rolled her eyes, affectionately and tucked Karen’s loose hair into a stylish but messy bun on top of her head, securing it with two hair pins she had pulled from her own hair. Karen grabbed her makeup mirror and admired the effect.
‘I will never learn to be as stylish as you if I live to be one hundred!’
‘No. You won’t.’
Agnès pouted but then broke into the broad grin she had named her Aussie Smile. She didn’t want to go home to Paris, having fallen in love with Australia. She was planning to return as soon as she could to work on an enormous cattle farm in the ‘outback’. Paris versus the Outback? Karen loved her friend but thought she had rocks in her head.
Karen and Peter were nervous about navigating Customs without Agnès’ help. Agnès said she would be waiting, cigarette in hand, in front of the Arrivals hall. They had known each other for nearly a year, and she had been a true surprise package in the friendship department. Fiercely loyal, funny as hell and always up for a good night out, or in, if there was food and beer and perhaps a television. She and Karen were obsessed with sushi, Baywatch and surfing but all the same, Karen half expected to emerge from arrivals to find her new friend had disappeared back into her French life like a beautiful dream. Karen still couldn’t believe that someone like Agnès would want to be friends with her.
Happily, Customs was almost empty and the officer on duty was very sweet and keen to practice his English skills. Upon finding two Australians in front of him he mimed a kangaroo jumping and, in a mix of heavily accented English and French, drilled Pete for information on the Australian Rugby team. After a few minutes of animated discussion, the Customs Officer welcomed the young Australians to France and directed them to the exit.
‘He probably thinks you play rugby, Pete,’ Karen said once they were out of earshot. ‘I don’t think they’ve ever seen a bloke your size who wasn’t a rugby player. I’m just glad you didn’t tell them you were a chef, or we’d still be there discussing the correct method for stuffing poultry.’
‘I am so glad you said method, because of course, there is only one way…’
Peter took a breath as though about to launch into a detailed description of such a method. Karen jammed her hands over her ears. He laughed.
To their relief, as Peter and Karen emerged into the morning sunlight, their friend could be seen smoking at the kerb, as promised. She was waiting with a young, dark haired man who had the biggest eyes Karen had ever seen. Peter handed Agnès a bag of duty-free cigarettes, which she happily added to her own allocation. She believed you could never have too many cigarettes.
Karen reached for her sketchpad and pencil and started drawing.
‘Guys, this is Jan. Jan, Karen and Peter.’
‘It’s great to meet you!’
Jan shook Peter’s hand energetically and smiled at Karen. He tilted his head to see what she was drawing. Karen looked up and smiled and added a few more lines. She showed him the quick portrait. His face lit up.
‘C’est moi! This is me…’ he said, intrigued. ‘You are an artist…’
He said the word with reverence. Karen blushed. Jan held the portrait next to his face so they could see the likeness. Peter and Agnès smiled and nodded.
‘Err, Peter, perhaps you will come and work for my father?’ Jan said without taking his eyes away from the drawing.
‘Whoa, wow, okay, I have a job offer before I leave the airport,’ Peter laughed.
‘Let’s talk and drive,’ Agnès interrupted, slapping Jan on the backside, ‘I need some decent bread, some gum, and a fuck. In that order!’
They all piled into Jan’s mini-van and roared off into the quiet Sunday morning. Karen gave up wondering who this enigmatic young man was, and would he be the one to help Agnès with the last thing on her list. She slipped the drawing over the seat into Agnès lap, who looked back and mimed applause.
‘It’s a gift, for picking us up,’ Karen said.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Agnès said. The skin around her eyes crinkled when she smiled at Karen. Jan tucked the sketch into the visor so he could see it as he drove.
‘You will be a famous artist one day and this will be worth thousands of francs. No, millions,’ Jan said, smiling at her in the rear vision mirror.
She would have preferred he watch the road.
Karen was mesmerised by the farmland surrounding the airport, glowing with beautiful golden light as the sun rose over the landscape. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but it certainly hadn’t been farmland dotted with fat cows. Industrial sheds began to appear beside the road, along with huge parking lots, truck stops and the occasional power station in the distance. Karen could see apartment buildings ahead, which she had guessed was their destination, but they pulled into a gas station.
‘I’m getting gum. Proper French gum! You want anything?’ Agnès asked the rest of them. ‘You should look at the market with Jan,’ she said to Peter nodding in the direction of the tents in the next allotment. Peter smiled and sniffed the air for a tempting scent. The girls laughed at him and Jan looked around, confused.
‘He smells everything!’ Agnès nodded and smiled at Jan.
Peter handed money to Jan to pay for the fuel, but he declined.
‘I was coming to the market anyway. It was the perfect opportunity to meet you and see if you want a job before someone else gets to you.’
Again, the offer of a job caught Peter off-guard. He was flattered but confused.
‘What business are you in? What does your father do?’
Jan looked at Agnès and asked her in French why she hadn’t explained it to Peter.
‘His father owns three famous restaurants. He is desperate for his own Australian,’ Agnès said, as though this explained everything. She turned walked toward the convenience store.
‘His own Australian?’ Peter asked, somewhat nervously.
‘Ha, yes, my father wants an Australian, because his greatest rival has an Australian and they are the best chefs, after the French, of course.’ Jan laughed. ‘Georges, Agnès’ father told us all about you and how much you love food. My father is so happy!’
‘Okay,’ Peter said slowly.
‘So, you will come and meet my father and you can decide. No pressure, man.’
Jan moved the van into a parking space and grabbed Karen and Peter’s backpacks, securing them in what looked like a specially designed space under the floor.
‘You can’t trust anyone,’ Jan explained, touching the side of his nose. ‘In Paris, don’t trust anyone,’ Jan said again.
‘Can we trust you?’
‘Of course. Of course. Sorry, yes. I work for the President. I am very trustworthy, and I have known Agnès since she was a baby and I was two years old.’
Jan handed Peter the keys to the van, in a show of good faith. They both relaxed, but Peter pocketed the keys all the same.
The little group made their way into the market, the two Australians felt they had entered a magical world. The dusty gas station seemed a distant memory as stalls piled high with seasonal vegetables stretched out in all directions, the two boys were soon lost in Culinary Heaven. Deep in thought, she hadn’t noticed Agnès standing beside her, unlit cigarette in one hand and a long half-eaten bread stick in the other. She offered the bread to Karen who took a huge chunk off the top and devoured it. They hadn’t really eaten since Jakarta, where they boarded the flight hung-over, sunburnt and not in possession of enough paracetamol. She could see Jan and Peter walking towards them, somehow already laden with boxes of produce, matching grins on their stubbled faces.
‘Jan, eh?’ Karen mumbled; her mouth was filled with bread.
‘Oh, we’re just friends really, but he’s sweet and we love sex together,’ Agnès explained in her typical nonchalant manner. Karen laughed.
Seconds later, the girls were laughing and choking on their bread in the middle of the market, while Jan and Peter looked on, puzzled.
‘Let’s get coffee, you crazy women,’ Jan said, shifting the weight of the cartons in his arms, filled with white asparagus, tomatoes and tiny strawberries.
They piled the cartons around them and stood at the makeshift bar drinking strong coffee. Karen was amazed to see people with glasses of beer in their hands at eight in the morning. Having grown up in Sydney’s inner eastern suburbs she was no stranger to people drinking at daybreak, but these were farmers and vendors, not drunks or party animals. She immediately felt at home in a country that was civilised enough for drinking to be acceptable at all hours, although she could hear her mother’s judgemental tone in her head. The predictable wave of guilt soon followed, and she turned her back on the men in denim overalls.
Karen wondered when her mother’s voice in her head would start speaking French.
She looked over at Pete who was busy preaching on the finer points of tomatoes and why hydroponics will never be the future of growing food. Agnès rolled her eyes and squeezed Karen’s hand.
‘You’re going to love it here,’ she enthused. ‘We will go to the Louvre this afternoon.’
Karen couldn’t believe her ears.
‘The Louvre? Where is it?’ she said, looking around excitedly.
‘It’s not here, you egg head,’ her friend laughed, head back, mouth open.
The farmer closest to them tutted and made a hissing sound. Agnès stopped laughing and quietly apologised to the older man. Karen was astonished to see the unexpected display of deference from her friend, but made a note that in France, loud laughing in public, even at a truck-stop produce market in the middle of nowhere, would not be tolerated.
‘When we get home, we will take a shower, have a rest and after lunch, we will go to the Louvre.’
It never ceased to amaze Karen how well her French friend had adapted to Australian life; how well she seemed to naturally understand everything around her, blend in. Karen hoped she would adjust to Paris as well as that, but feared Australia was a much more open society. She was so worried she would make a mistake, be immediately marked as ‘Un-French’ and banished from polite company. Agnès seemed to be reading her mind and squeezed her hand, offering her a drag on her cigarette.
‘You will have to learn to smoke to fit in here, you know,’ Agnès said, blowing smoke elegantly over her shoulder. ‘Everyone smokes.’
Karen carefully took the cigarette the way she had seen others do it and put it to her lips. Her mother’s voice boomed in her voice again and she quickly handed the cigarette back to her bemused friend.
‘I don’t care, I could never smoke,’ she protested, screwing up her nose.
The boys reappeared in time for Peter to see her put the cigarette to her lips.
‘This day just keeps getting weirder.’ He rubbed his hands through his messy hair.
‘Let’s go home,’ Agnès announced, stabbing her cigarette out on the ashtray in front of them. ‘And I am quitting smoking.’
‘Yeah, right,’ Jan, Peter and Karen said in unison, picking up boxes and bags of produce.
‘You watch me. Once I’ve gone through all the duty-free!’
Karen didn’t doubt that Agnès could do anything once she’d made up her mind. She realised she loved her French friend more than she loved Pete. Only a true friend would give up the thing they loved most in the world for you. Without being asked.
Karen couldn’t believe that someone like her had found a friend like Agnès, waiting at a bus stop in Bondi.