Parallel love stories play out in Paris a generation apart in this funny, lyrical story from U.K.–based chick-lit writer Colgan (Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe), about striving for perfection—and forgiveness. Anna Trent and her former French teacher, Claire Shawcourt, reconnect at the hospital where Anna is recovering from a bizarre industrial accident—a spill at the chocolate factory where she works, which has left her missing two of her toes. The cancer-stricken Claire, meanwhile, is being administered chemotherapy. The women bond over their shared pain, and Claire, inspired by the life-changing trip she took to Paris at age 17 in 1972, decides to help launch Anna on her own journey of discovery. What Claire doesn’t anticipate, though, is that Anna will take a job at the famed Parisian chocolate shop of the older woman’s first lover, Thierry, and that Anna will fall in love with Thierry’s estranged son, Laurent. The City of Lights is not just a backdrop here—it’s the beacon guiding Anna’s emotional awakening and Claire’s reconciliation with her first and last love. This cross-generational story is as irresistible as Colgan’s portrayal of Paris itself—and all things chocolate. Agent: Deborah Schneider, Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents. (Feb.)
"Her voice was just perfect. Shy, happy, confused, sad and witty." -Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
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The really weird thing about it was that although I knew instantly that something was wrong-very, very wrong, something sharp, something very serious, an insult to my entire body-I couldn't stop laughing. Laughing hysterically.
I was lying there, covered-drenched-in spilled melted chocolate and I couldn't stop giggling. There were other faces now, looking down on me; some I was sure I even recognized. They weren't laughing. They all looked very serious in fact. This somehow struck me as even funnier and set me off again.
From the periphery, I heard someone say, "Pick them up!" and someone else say, "No way! You pick them up! Gross!" And then I heard someone else, who I thought was Flynn, the new stock boy, say, "I'll dial 911," and someone else say, "Flynn, don't be stupid; it's 999. You're not American," and someone else say, "I think you can dial 911 now because there were so many idiots who kept dialing it." And someone else taking out their phone and saying something about needing an ambulance, which I thought was hilarious as well, and then someone, who was definitely Del, our old grumpy janitor, saying, "Well, they're probably going to want to throw this batch away then." And the idea that they might not throw away the enormous vat of chocolate but try to sell it instead when it had landed all over me actually was funny.
After that, thank God, I don't remember anything, although later, in the hospital, an ambulance man came over and said I was a total bloody nutter in the ambulance and that he'd always been told that shock affected people in different ways, but mine was just about the differentest he'd ever seen. Then he saw my face and said, "Cheer up, love; you'll laugh again." But at that point I wasn't exactly sure I ever would.
- - -
"Oh come off it, Debs, love, it's only her foot. It could have been a lot worse. What if it had been her nose?"
That was my dad, talking to my mum. He liked to look on the bright side.
"Well, they could have given her a new nose. She hates her nose anyway."
That was definitely my mum. She's not quite as good as my dad at looking on the bright side. In fact, I could hear her sobbing. But somehow, my body shied away from the light; I couldn't open my eyes. I didn't think it was a light; it felt like the sun or something. Maybe I was on holiday. I couldn't be at home-the sun never bloody shines in Kidinsborough, my hometown, voted worst town in England three years in a row before local political pressure got the show taken off the air.
My parents zoned out of earshot, just drifted off like someone tuning a radio. I had no idea if they were there or if they ever had been. I knew I wasn't moving, but inside I felt as though I was squirming and wriggling and trapped inside a body-shaped prison someone had buried me in. I could shout, but no one could hear me. I tried to move, but it wasn't working. The dazzle would turn to black and back again to the sun, and none of it made the faintest bit of sense to me as I dreamt-or lived-great big nightmares about toes and feet and parents who spontaneously disappear and whether this was going crazy and whether I'd actually dreamt my whole other life, the bit about being me, Anna Trent, thirty years old, taster in a chocolate factory.
Yes, actually. While we're at it, here are my top ten "Taster in a Chocolate Factory" jokes that I get at Faces, our local nightclub. It's not a very nice nightclub, but the rest are really much, much worse:
1. Yes, I will give you some free samples.
2. No, I'm not as fat as you clearly expected me to be.
3. Yes, it is exactly like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
4. No, no one has ever done a poo in the chocolate vat. (Though I wouldn't necessarily have put it past Flynn.)
5. No, it actually doesn't make me more popular than a normal person, as I am thirty, not seven.
6. No, I don't feel sick when confronted with chocolate; I absolutely adore it. But if it makes you feel better about your job to think that I am, feel free.
7. Oh, that is so interesting that you have something even tastier than chocolate in your underpants, yawn. (N.B.: I would like to be brave enough to say that, but I'm not that brave really. I normally just grimace and look at something else for a while. My best mate Cath soon takes care of them anyway. Or, occasionally, dates them.)
8. Yes, I will suggest your peanut/beer/vodka/jam-flavored chocolate idea, but I doubt we'll be as rich as you think.
9. Yes, I can make actual real chocolate, although at Braders Family Chocolates, they're all processed automatically in a huge vat and I'm more of a supervisor really. I wish I did more complex work, but according to the bosses, nobody wants their chocolates messed about with; they want them tasting exactly the same and lasting a long time. So it's quite a synthetic process.
10. No, it's not the best job in the world. But it's mine and I like it. Or at least I did, until I ended up in here.
Then I normally say, "Rum and coke, thanks for asking."
A man was sitting on the end of my bed. I couldn't focus on him. He knew my name but I didn't know his. That seemed unfair.
I tried to open my mouth. It was full of sand. Someone had put sand in my mouth. Why would anyone do that?
The voice came again. It was definitely real, and it was definitely connected to the shadow at the end of my bed.
"Can you hear me?"
Well, of course I can hear you. You're sitting on the end of my bed shouting at me was what I wanted to say, but all that came out was a kind of dry croak.
"That's great, that's great, very good. Would you like a drink of water?"
I nodded. It seemed easiest.
"Good, good. Don't nod too much; you'll dislodge the wires. NURSE!"
I don't know whether the nurse came or not, because I was suddenly gone again. My last conscious thought was that I hoped she or he didn't mind being yelled at by people who sat on other people's beds. And I couldn't remember: had my parents said something was wrong with my nose?
- - -
"Here she is."
It was the same voice, but how much later I couldn't tell. The light seemed different. A sudden shock of pain traveled through me like a lightning bolt and I gasped.
"There you go; she's going to be great."
"Oh, I don't like the look of this."
"Uhm...can I have that water?" I asked, but it came out like "Ca ha wa?"
Thankfully someone spoke desert sand, because instantly a plastic cup was put to my lips. That small cup of tepid chalky tap water was the single best thing I had ever put in my mouth in my entire life, and that includes the first time I tasted a crème egg.
I slurped it down and asked for another, but someone said no, and that was that. Maybe I was in prison.
"Can you open your eyes for us?" came the commanding voice.
"Course she can."
"Oh, Pete, I don't know. I just don't know."
Oddly, it was slightly to spite my mother's lack of ambition for me in the eye-opening department that really made me try. I flickered and suddenly hazing into view was the shape sitting on the end of my bed I'd been aware of before-I wished he'd stop that-and two shapes as familiar as my own hands.
I could make out my mother's reddish hair that she colored at home, even though my best mate Cath had offered to do it down at the salon for a price that she thought was next to nothing, but my mother thought that was extravagant and that Cath was loose (that last bit was true, though that had nothing to do with how good she was at hair, which admittedly also wasn't very), so about one week a month my mum had this kind of odd, henna-like fringe around the top of her forehead where she hadn't wiped it off properly. And my dad was in his best shirt, which really made me worry. He didn't dress like that for anything but weddings and funerals, and I was pretty much 100 percent sure I wasn't getting married, unless Darr had suddenly regenerated into a completely different physical and personality type, and I figured that unlikely.
"Hello?" I said, feeling a rush that somewhere, the desert sands were retreating, that the division between what was real and what was a writhing sandy ball of confusion and pain was retreating, that Anna was back, that the skin I was wearing was mine after all.
My mum burst into tears. My dad, not prone to huge outbursts of affection, gently squeezed my hand-the hand, I noticed, that didn't have a big tube going into it, right under the skin. My other hand did. It was the grossest thing I'd ever seen in my life.
"Ugh, gah," I said. "What's this? It's disgusting."
The figure at the end of my bed smiled in a rather patronizing way.
"I think you'd find things a lot more disgusting if it wasn't there," he said. "It's giving you painkillers and medication."
"Well, can I have some more?" I said. The lightning-sharp pain flashed through me again, from the toes of my left foot upward right through my body.
I suddenly became aware of other tubes on me, some going in and out of places I didn't really want to discuss in front of my dad. I went quiet. I felt really, really weird.
"Is your head spinning?" said the bed-sitter. "That's quite normal."
My mum was still sniffing.
"It's all right, mum."
What she said next chilled me to the bone.
"It's not all right, love. It's not all right at all."
- - -
Over the next few days, I seemed to fall asleep on and off and at completely random moments. Dr. Ed-yes, really, that's how he referred to himself-was my named specialist. Yeah, all right, I know he was a doctor and everything, tra la la, but you can be Ed or you can be, like, Dr. Smith or something. Anything else is just showing off, like you're a doctor on telly or something.
I think Dr. Ed would have LOVED to have been a doctor on the telly, looking at people who've got two bumholes and things. He was always very smartly turned out and did things like sit on the end of the bed, which other doctors didn't do, and look at you in the eye, like he was making a huge effort to be with you as a person. I think I preferred the snotty consultant who came around once a week, barely looked at me, and asked his medical students embarrassing questions.
Anyway, Dr. Ed shouldn't have been so chummy because it was kind of his fault that I was even there. I had slipped at the factory-everyone had gotten very excited wondering if there was some health and safety rule that hadn't been followed and we were all about to become millionaires, but actually as it turned out it was completely my fault. It was an unusually warm spring day and I'd decided to try out my new shoes, which turned out to be hilariously inappropriate for the factory floor, and I'd skidded and, in a total freak, hit a vat ladder and upended the entire thing. Then I'd come into the hospital and gotten sick.
"A bug tried to eat me?" I asked Dr. Ed.
"Well, yes, that's about right," he said, smiling to show overtly white teeth that he must have gotten whitened somewhere. Maybe he just liked to practice for going on television. "Not a big bug, Anna, like a spider."
"Spiders aren't bugs," I said crossly.
"Ha! No." He flicked his hair. "Well, these things are very, very tiny, so small you couldn't see a thousand of them even if they were sitting right here on my finger!!"
Perhaps there was something misprinted on my medical notes that said instead of being nearly thirty-one, I was in fact eight.
"I don't care what size they are," I said. "They make me feel like total crap."
"And that's why we're fighting them with every weapon we have!" said Dr. Ed, like he was Spider-Man or something. I didn't mention that if everyone had cleaned up with every mop they had, I probably wouldn't have caught it in the first place.
And anyway, oh Lord, I just felt so rough. I didn't feel like eating or drinking anything but water. (Dad brought me some marshmallows and Mum practically whacked him because she was 100 percent certain they'd get trapped in my throat and I'd totally die right there in front of him.) I slept a lot, and when I wasn't sleeping, I didn't feel well enough to watch the telly or read or speak to people on the phone or anything. I had a lot of messages on Facebook, according to my phone, which someone-Cath, I was guessing-had plugged in beside my bed, but I wasn't really fussed to read any of them.
I felt different, as if I'd woken up foreign, or in a strange land where nobody spoke my language-not Mum, not Dad, not my friends. They didn't speak the language of strange hazy days where nothing made much sense, or constant aching, or the idea of moving being too difficult to contemplate, even moving an arm across a bed. The country of the sick seemed a very different place, where you were fed and moved and everyone spoke to you like a child and you were always, always hot.
- - -
I dozed off again and heard a noise. Something familiar, I was sure of it, but I couldn't tell from when. I was at school. School figured a lot in my fever dreams. I had hated it. Mum had always said she wasn't academic so I wouldn't be either, and that had pretty much sealed the deal, which in retrospect seems absolutely stupid. So for ages when I hallucinated my old teachers' faces in front of me, I didn't take it too seriously. Then one day I woke up very early, when the hospital was still cool and as quiet as it ever got, which wasn't very, and I turned my head carefully to the side, and there, just in the next bed, not a dream or a hallucination, was Mrs. Shawcourt, my old French teacher, gazing at me calmly.
I blinked in case she would go away. She didn't.
It was a small four-bed side ward I'd been put on, a few days or a couple of weeks earlier-it was hard to tell precisely-which seemed a bit strange; either I was infectious or I wasn't, surely. The other two beds were empty and over the days to come had a fairly speedy turnover of extremely old ladies who didn't seem to do much but cry.
"Hello," she said. "I know you, don't I?"
I suddenly felt a flush, like I hadn't done my homework.
I had never done my homework. Me and Cath used to bunk off-French, it was totally useless, who could possibly need that?-and go sit around the back field where the teachers couldn't see you and speak with fake Mancunian accents about how crap Kidinsborough was and how we were going to leave the first chance we got.
"I had you for two years."
I peered at her more closely. She'd always stood out in the school; she was by far the best dressed teacher, since most of them were a right bunch of slobs. She used to wear these really nicely fitted dresses that made her look a bit different. You could tell she hadn't gotten them down at Matalan. She'd had blond hair then...
I realized with a bit of a shock that now she didn't have any hair at all. She was very thin, but then she always had been thin, but now she was really, really thin.
I said the stupidest thing I could think of-in my defense, I really wasn't well.
"Are you sick then?"
"No," said Mrs. Shawcourt. "I'm on holiday."
There was a pause, then I grinned. I remembered that, actually, she was a really good teacher.
"I'm sorry to hear about your toes," she said briskly.
I glanced down at the bandage covering my right foot.
"Ah, they'll be all right, just had a bit of a fall," I said. Then I saw her face. And I realized that all the time people had been talking about my fever and my illness and my accident, nobody had actually thought to tell me the whole truth.
- - -
It couldn't be though. I could feel them.
I stared at her, and she unblinkingly held my gaze.
"I can feel them," I said.
"I can't believe nobody told you," she said. "Bloody hospitals. My darling, I heard them discuss it."
I stared at the bandage again. I wanted to be sick. Then I was sick, in a big cardboard bedpan they left a supply of by the side of my bed, for every time I wanted to be sick.
- - -
Dr. Ed came by later and sat on my bed. I scowled at him.
"Now"-he checked his notes-"Anna, I'm sorry you weren't aware of the full gravity of the situation."
"Because you kept talking about ‘accidents' and ‘regrettable incidents,'" I said crossly. "I didn't realize they'd gone altogether. AND I can feel them. They really hurt."
"That's quite common, I'm afraid."
"Why didn't anyone tell me? Everyone kept banging on about fever and bugs and things."
"Well, that's what we were worried about. Losing a couple of toes was a lot less likely to kill you."
"Well, that's good to know. And it's not ‘a couple of toes.' It's MY TOES."
As we spoke, a nurse was gently unwrapping the bandages from my foot. I gulped, worried I was going to throw up again.
Did you ever play that game at school where you lie on your front with your eyes closed and someone pulls your arms taut above your head, then very slowly lowers them so it feels like your arms are going down a hole?
That was what this was like. My brain couldn't compute what it was seeing, what it could feel and knew to be true. My toes were there. They were there. But in front of my eyes was a curious diagonal slicing; two tiny stumps taken off in a descending line, very sharp, like it had been done on purpose with a razor.
"Now," Dr. Ed was saying, "you know you are actually very lucky, because if you'd lost your big toe or your little one, you'd have had real problems with balance..."
I looked at him like he had horns growing out of his head.
"I absolutely and definitely do not feel lucky," I said.
"Try being me," came a voice from behind the next curtain, where Mrs. Shawcourt was awaiting her next round of chemotherapy.
Suddenly, without warning, we both started to laugh.
- - -
I was in the hospital for another three weeks. Loads of my mates came by and said I'd been in the paper and could they have a look (no, even when I got my dressing changed, I couldn't bear to look at them), and keeping me up to date on social events that, suddenly, I really found I'd lost interest in. In fact, the only person I could talk to was Mrs. Shawcourt, except of course she told me to call her Claire, which took a bit of getting used to and made me feel a bit too grown-up. She had two sons who came to visit, who always looked a bit pushed for time, and her daughters-in-law, who were dead nice and used to give me their gossip mags because Claire couldn't be bothered with them. Once they brought some little girls in, both of whom got completely freaked out by the wires and the smell and the beeping. It was the only time I saw Claire really, truly sad.
The rest of the time, we talked. Well, I talked. Mostly about how bored I was and how was I ever going to learn to walk properly again. (Physio was rubbish. For two things I had NEVER, ever thought about, except when I was getting a pedicure and not really even then, my toes were annoyingly useful when it came to getting about. Even more embarrassing, I had to use the same physio lab as people who had really horrible traumatic injuries and were in wheelchairs and stuff, and I felt the most horrendous fraud marching up and down parallel bars with an injury most people thought was quite amusing, if anything. So I could hardly complain. I did though.)
Claire understood. She was such easy company, and sometimes, when she was very ill, I'd read to her. Most of her books, though, were in French.
"I can't read this," I said.
"You ought to be able to," she said. "You had me."
"Yeah, kind of," I muttered.
"You were a good student," said Claire. "You showed a real aptitude, I remember."
Suddenly I flashed back on my first-year report card. In amid the "doesn't apply herselfs" and "could do betters," I suddenly remembered my French mark had been good. Why hadn't I applied myself?
"I don't know," I said. "I thought school was stupid."
Claire shook her head. "But I've met your parents; they're lovely. You're from such a nice family."
"You don't have to live with them," I said, then felt guilty that I'd been mean about them. They'd been in every single day even if, as Dad complained almost constantly, the parking charges were appalling.
"You still live at home?" she asked, surprised, and I felt a bit defensive.
"Neh. I lived with my boyfriend for a bit, but he turned out to be a pillock, so I moved back in, that's all."
"I see," said Claire. She looked at her watch. It was only 9:30 in the morning. We'd already been up for three hours and lunch wasn't till 12:00.
"If you like," she said, "I'm bored too. If I taught you some French, you could read to me. And I would feel less like a big, sick, bored bald plum who does nothing but dwell on the past and feel old and stupid and useless. Would you like that?"
I looked down at the magazine I was holding, which had an enormous picture of Kim Kardashian's arse on it. And she had ten toes.
"Yeah, all right," I said.
- - -
"It's nothing," the man was saying, speaking to be heard over the stiff sea breeze and the honking of the ferries and the rattle of the trains. "It is a tiny...look, la manche. You can swim it. We won't."
This did nothing to stem the tide of tears rolling down the girl's cheeks.
"I would," she said. "I will swim it for you."
"You," he said, "will go back and finish school and do wonderful things and be happy."
"I don't want to," she groaned. "I want to stay here with you."
The man grimaced and attempted to stop her tears with kisses. They were dripping on his new, oddly shiny uniform.
"Well, they will make me march up and down like an ape, you see. And I will be an idiot with nothing else to do and nothing else to think about except for you. Shhh, boutchou. Shhh. We will be together again, you see."
"I love you," said the girl. "I will never love anyone so much my entire life."
"I love you too," said the man. "I care for you and I love you and I shall see you again and I shall write you letters and you shall finish school and you shall see, all will be well."
The girl's sobs started to quiet.
"I can't...I can't bear it," she said.
"Ah, love," said the man, his accent strong. "That is what it is, the need to bear things."
He buried his face in her hair.
"Alors. My love. Come back. Soon."
"I will," said the girl. "Of course I will come back soon."