Poacher’s Priest

story about a restaurant critic

It was a miserable evening in November. Odilio – legendary restaurant critic for England’s most prestigious food magazine – bound purposefully along the shiny, waterlogged pavement, through the crowd of rain-drenched commuters, ducking into shelter every so often, skipping the puddles and potholes that threatened to dampen his stride. Only a riveting professional assignment could catch him out on a night like this, and here was one: Les Trois Canards. The talk of the town. A flagship restaurant run by two Parisian brothers, right in the heart of Mayfair: was it, as some colleagues insisted, the saviour of the Haute tradition? Or, as his more cynical peers derided, the opportunistic money-grabbing of savvy business-chefs looking to cash in on the city’s abundant oligarch money? London was awaiting his verdict. Odilio turned the corner and crossed the road, narrowly avoiding a cycle-rickshaw, striding now with a determination that seemed to cut through the rain.

But there was more at stake this evening than a well-anticipated review of the controversy-courting new restaurant. Only the night before, he had had another strange dream. His third this month. The two others had preceded two earlier assignments. Both had ended in disaster. Both times had seen him sweating in his seat in the respective establishments as the food in his mouth had taken on a taste and texture he could only describe as like eating wood ash. Yet he knew that the food had been decent. There was no way it had been that bad. The problem was with his own faculties, he was sure of it. He had reason to believe that the dreams had inspired these wildly distorted sensations and, as such, had let the restaurants go unscathed, compiling two franken-monster reviews, stitching together the reviews of his colleagues, TripAdvisor comments, the restaurants’ press releases and so forth.

Now, making his way into the foyer of Les Trois Canards, the prospect of once again bluffing filled Odilio with dread. He’d got away with it the last two times, but the publicity surrounding this one was too great – the debate as to its legitimacy as a figurehead of French tradition too fierce – to rehash the opinions of others again. He had drunk two large martinis. The plan was to put the events of last night out of his mind. A drink was sometimes necessary to see to the stress. To take the so-called edge off.

‘Bienvenue, monsieur,’ the host greeted him, taking his jacket to hang on the coat rail. ‘What terrible weather monsieur has been out in.’

‘Terrible,’ Odilio parroted. ‘But we made it.’

‘We did,’ said the host with a thin smile. ‘And who, may I ask, is the booking in the name of?’

‘Squirrel,’ said Odilio. ‘Gareth Squirrel.’ At that, the waiter did a double take. A few of the front-of-house staff glanced up from across the bar. Odilio knew his pseudonym was almost as well-known as he was within the industry and it amused him to watch the pin drop this way. ‘Come with me,’ said his host with newfound enthusiasm, leading him to a generously sized table.

Another waiter arrived. ‘To drink, sir?’

‘Champagne,’ he said, opening the menu, which listed a seven-course meal with one option for each of the courses. He noticed the prices weren’t listed and made a mental note: pretentious ordering system; lack of prices revealing an elitist streak. The champagne arrived. Odilio took a greedy sip. He could feel the brandy additive strike a bassy note in his throat. The bubbles blistered his tongue. ‘This is good,’ he said aloud. ‘This is very good.’ Then: It’s the end of the world, came the thought, penetrating everything: cutting through the taste of champagne, the light classical music, the chitter-chatter of diners, cutlery scraping on plates. It’s the end of the world – the thought so pronounced it was as if it had been shouted from the next table.

The first course arrived as Odilio began sweating. The waiter plated the table, racing through the dish’s description: something involving an amalgamation of onion soup with ox’s tongue. The tongue sat suspended in the centre of the bowl, protruding from the surface of the broth with a seedy quality. Taking a spoonful, he realised he tasted nothing. ‘Soup’s ace, dontcha think?’ came the voice of an American at the adjacent table. ‘Wife reckons it’s the highlight.’ Odilio nodded and said nothing. He’d save the American’s comment for later, should the worst come to the worst.

The waiter cleared the table as the champagne was refilled and another arrived with the second course, this time a play on coq au vin, the two ingredients typically paired to stew for hours with a blend of Provençal herbs. What was plated in front of Odilio was a marked departure from the French classic. Chicken sashimi – raw slices of chicken flesh – accompanied strips of gari and a dish of soy sauce, served with a goblet of wine from the year of the revolution. Silver chopsticks were provided. Odilio pulled at the sticky flesh, peeling one strip from the other to hold up for inspection. The flesh glistened under the light of the chandelier, quivering at the end of the chopsticks. Quickly, he dipped the meat in soy sauce then buried it in his mouth and swallowed. The familiar, acrid taste of wood ash came back to him, first as a smell so gentle it could be mistaken for a phantom sensation, next as some devil burrowing itself into his mouth cavity, arresting every taste bud and nasal pore with the oppressive stench of cinders. Immediately and unthinkingly, his hand reached for the goblet and he poured the entire glass of two-hundred-year-old wine down his throat to gurgle the taste away. It’s the end of the world – it’s all over! Fine wines won’t save you!

Some hours later, Odilio stumbled out of Les Trois Canards, drunk and defeated, the evening having been a monumental failure. The third course had been pork gratin. That, too, had tasted of nothing but ash and he’d deposited most of it into his napkin to spare himself disappointed looks from the waiters. The fourth course had been a wink to the salad niçoise – the traditional components of the dish stacked vertically to reflect the growing aspirations of the city, both figuratively but also in the proliferation of high-rise architecture, the waiter had explained. He’d picked limply at the tuna and potatoes before adding them to the napkin, impressing himself with how much lettuce he could cram into a small space when necessary. The fifth course was the restaurant’s signature dish. The American at the adjacent table had leant over as it was served to say: ‘Good luck, big boy.’ A duck dish: Odilio watched as five waiters wheeled various pieces of apparatus in from the kitchen, performing a dissection of the freshly roasted duck, blending, mincing, boiling and skilleting the various parts, and lastly reassembling them on the plate with a boat of jus thickened with the duck’s blood. All that had joined into the napkin. Afterwards, there had been profiteroles, followed by cheese from the Langres region. In the end, the bill had come to over five hundred pounds.

Now, back on the street, the rain having calmed, the pavement drizzled with light from the overhead streetlamps, Odilio was disposing of the bundle of gourmet food he’d acquired over the evening. Checking no one was watching, he tossed the contents of the parcel over a park railing. At last, he hailed a taxi. He’d drunk too much to write the first draft of the review tonight, as he usually did. Tonight, he’d sleep right away and, in the morning, would try to claw back as many details from memory as he could. Failing that – and he hoped he wouldn’t – he’d consult what was already written on Les Trois Canards in order to forge his opinion on it. It didn’t bode well. He sat in the back of the taxi feeling very sorry for himself.

 

*

 

Odilio grimaced as he refreshed his inbox to the sight of sixty-eight new emails. Turning over on his bed, he shut his eyes and tried to sleep. His hangover was still lingering well into its third day. True, the morning after his visit to Les Trois Canards, encouraged by a splitting headache and an impending deadline, he’d added to the residual alcohol in his blood with a few gins. This had broken his second adage – write sober; edit sober – with the first being not to get tanked up on the job in the first place. For the whole of the next day he’d trawled the internet for reviews of Les Trois Canards, categorising these into the insightful, the clichéd, and the banal. Rejecting the last category outright, he’d stitched together the best of the insightful pile, with a smattering of commentary subverting the clichés of the second in an attempt to retain something of his famed originality. In the end it hadn’t read so badly, although the prose was hardly the problem. What was unforgivable was how he’d based a paragraph on the cheese on a comment by someone called DarkStark15 from a forum on cheddar.

The piece had gone to print the following morning. ‘Les Trois Canards: Canardo better? Maybe – ***’. Three stars. That was enough to kick-start the disappointment from his readership, whom he knew would be baying for polarity. But how could he convincingly write a five-star, or better, one-star review, having been unable to taste the food all evening? He was holding the handrail with this one; his readers would know it. Yet his reasons for doing so could hardly be more elusive.

Responses to the review came in thick and fast. It had always served as a chilling indictment of human nature how, for a good piece, his inbox remained empty, yet whenever he misstepped the delicate line of his readership’s expectations, he was inundated with the sort of vitriol that would ordinarily see the perpetrator arrested. But it was feedback from colleagues that was most unsettling. The evening before, an old rival had phoned to ‘see how he was doing’. The euphemism was enough to reveal what they were all thinking. He knew the kinds of gleeful rumours that circulated the London food world – he’d been on their perpetuating end before. And now he imagined the younger columnists, eager to topple him from the top, feigning condolences, thinly veiling malicious relish as they asked with faux-sincerity over lunchtime cocktails: ‘Does Odilio, perhaps, have wet brain?’, or, as another joke in the industry ran, ‘tastes-like-chicken-itis’, a reference to the washed-up critic who compares everything to chicken as a last-ditch bid for novelty.

Odilio rolled over and returned to his inbox. Time to sift through the hate mail, he decided. It was best practise to identify this as soon as possible, then delete it immediately. He gained no masochistic pleasure in reading the hateful ramblings of what he assumed were middle-aged men living with their mothers. ‘What a fucking—’ *delete*; ‘Shove your hors d’œuvres up your—’ *delete*; ‘I enjoyed your last column. It reminded me what a twat you—’ *delete*. But it was the feedback from moderates that bothered him most. Those emails that could hardly be described as hate mail but which affected Odilio in more profound ways. His loyal readership had been awaiting a feisty dismemberment or last word of endorsement for Les Trois Canards, and instead they’d got a stifled, unsure-of-itself ramble they’d take as selling out. It was the third review to appear in such a way, and now a greater anxiety was developing: how could he be sure this wouldn’t happen again?

 

*

 

It was a miserable evening in November. The Flaneuse of Bohemia bounded along the Old Kent Road with steadfast determination while others huddled in doorways or covered their heads with copies of the Standard. ‘To dérive is to wander without purpose,’ the Flaneuse would say. ‘The dérive is the art most antithetical to the sentiments of capitalism. Occupy space meaninglessly! Move for movement’s sake! The goal is inspiration, the method is to enter dreams, not as a character or event but simply to tinge that dream with a different feeling. To become a moment of light or colour that makes the dream different, special.’

The rain was lashing down. The streets were deserted. At the bank of the Thames, the river ran like a torrent under the bridge. Rain mottled the water’s surface. The city lights were dazzling. ‘Everything’s here if you look,’ the Flaneuse would say, a challenge rather than a certainty. Finding a path down to the shoreline, she removed a shovel from her backpack and got to work, clawing away Thames sediment until she hit a vein of clay. Filling her bag with five or six good scoops, she walked home. There, she refined the muddy clay through a sieve until it was of a workable consistency. At last, she slept ten hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep.

 

*

 

It had been two weeks since the disaster at Les Trois Canards. Despite Odilio’s protestations, his editor insisted he take time off to recuperate. ‘Have a holiday, lie in the sun,’ his editor had ordered.

‘Give me work!’ Odilio had shouted. The editor slammed down the phone. Far from lying in the sun, Odilio had spent the next two weeks in his bedroom, reading various online conspiracy theories. The end of the world as a formidable notion suddenly fascinated him. He’d trawled all sorts of odd internet forums. He was fast becoming an expert on the Mayans and their astrological predictions. He was now well-versed in the texts of Nostradamus. At night, the dreams returned like clockwork. And what dreams they were! Terrifying fever dreams; sweeping visions of death and decay, fire and brimstone. Such vivid imagery that Odilio woke puzzled as to whether they’d really occurred, whether they’d just been dreams, or whether, ultimately, it even mattered.

One evening, on one of the rare occasions he now left his room, Odilio took a walk along the river. A new urge had recently gripped him. He would take the train to Paris. Tell no one where he was going. Roam the rues and the boulevards – see what was left of the place he once knew. With nowhere to be, he wandered over the bridge. The river is dark and treacherous looking, but beautiful, he thought.

The Flaneuse of Bohemia lugged a satchel of clay up the embankment stairs. The tide was coming in. Tonight, she had two full bags. Enough for ten kilos of good, refined clay. She emerged onto the pavement, the whole night ahead of her. Lighting a cigarette, she decided to walk westwards, up the river, all the way, perhaps, until she reached its source.

The tall man with sad eyes. There goes a man who is sad. Why else would he watch the river? How could he? No one here knows how to look. Everyone moves with such conviction. The river doesn’t give up that easily. Indeed, it would wreck them to stand here and watch and for it to give nothing back. For the dominator, the river is too much. It dampens thoughts of power, dissolves the self into fragments, casting the pieces downstream. He looks familiar. I’ve seen his face in the magazines I use to light my stove.

‘What did you see?’ the Flaneuse asked, leaning on the railing beside Odilio. ‘You were looking so hard, I was sure you saw something.’ What did I see? Odilio wondered.

‘I imagined I was a fish swimming downstream, all the way out to sea.’ The bohemian lit a cigarette. ‘River fish die at sea,’ she said, exhaling a plume of blue cigarette air. ‘Their bodies can’t handle the salt. Why strive towards something that will kill you?’ Odilio laughed.

‘Now you say it, I’ll consider going upstream.’

There was silence. The streets were deserted. Even the river seemed to match a slower pace of time. ‘The world’s about to end,’ Odilio ejected. ‘Yours, mine – I can’t tell. Something’s about to happen.’

The bohemian smiled.

‘I’m certain,’ said Odilio.

‘Certainly,’ she said, grinning.

‘The idea’s maddening.’

‘I know you,’ said the bohemian. ‘You’re a restaurant critic. Since when was it the occupation of the paranoid?’

Odilio shrugged. ‘My life’s work has been the pursuit of pleasure. My career is hedonism masquerading as something intellectual. It’s all an escape through food and fine wine. Now I’m waking up to a cold reality. And you? Why are you collecting filthy mud from the river?’

‘I could tell you in a sentence or it would take all night.’

‘In a sentence.’

‘I’m sculpting my dreams.’

‘What else is there to say?’

‘As I said, it would take all night.’

‘Then we should get going.’

 

*

 

‘This is how it works,’ the Flaneuse would say. ‘First, you move. One has to have full control of their movement: to change direction as often and as suddenly as one needs. Speed up and slow down. Try not to be bound by one axis. Move in the plane. Time and space are yours to play with.

‘Two. It is crucial to adopt an attitude of absolute purposelessness. There is no fixed destination. Do not limit your time. Addiction is the anticipation of a vertiginous experience. The passage of time, the movement through the parallax of space, is the only vertigo we need.

‘At every junction we take action or affect new thoughts. But the drift is functionless. Instead, aim to affect new thoughts, which with discipline will proliferate until the whole mind is working. To remember a bill, then to pay it, resets the mind to a narrower, task-oriented state.

‘Purposeless movement, when maintained, results in a breakdown between the boundary of the conscious and unconscious minds. A trance-like state where dreams and memory mix with the objects of real perception. During this state it is vital for me to play with clay. I make the objects of my dreams, the creatures of my nightmares, scenes of memory I no longer knew I had.’

 

*

 

Over the next few nights a friendship blossomed between Odilio and the Flaneuse of Bohemia – the first spring shoots of an otherwise dreary month. On a series of long walks, the bohemian offered several topographical theories of London: insights on magnetic fault lines that formed power triangles, and on ancient places of sacrifice, inches below the asphalt, that still held sway over the evolving city. Odilio shared stories from his years in the critic’s trade – lurid secrets of the world’s most prestigious restaurants; what the top chefs were really like – tales of dope and sex and sabotage that went on in the underworld of high-class cuisine.

At the end of these long walks, the Flaneuse and Odilio dug clay from the bank of the Thames at low tide. Filling the rucksack, they’d part ways at the bus stop, the bohemian heading home to work on her sculptures. On such nights, Odilio slept a long and dreamless sleep.

 

*

 

One evening, Odilio was unable to meet. A new assignment brought with it new dreams. Waking before sunrise, he sat at the kitchen table and read from the New Testament. The Book of Revelation. The Revelation of the Apocalypse to St John. Outside, the morning rain started to drizzle. Odilio had all day to kill before his 7.30pm reservation. Flicking through the rizla-thin pages of the Bible’s final book, he caught himself nodding off, constantly rereading paragraphs, straining to turn the unfamiliar prose style into the surreal images it described. Odilio made a pot of coffee. He turned on his laptop to watch a documentary on ‘chemtrails’. ‘The government is spraying behaviour-modifying chemicals into the air without our consent,’ the narrator began. Within ten minutes Odilio was asleep again.

At the entrance of Le Coq Rouge, the maître d’ greeted him. ‘This way, Mr Squirrel,’ she said with a knowing grin, escorting him to the table. ‘To drink?’

‘Water, please,’ said Odilio.

‘Just water?’ The maître d’ looked alarmed. ‘This is a five-star French establishment. I strongly recommend a glass of vin rouge at least.’

‘Wine, why not? Go on then,’ he said with a foreboding expression the maître d’ mistook for performed arm-twisting.

At the table, Odilio scanned the menu. ‘Mort de cochon’ – death of the pig. ‘A thrice-broiled ham hock, wrapped in bacon, stuffed with minced pork.’ He was feeling nauseous. Perhaps he’d stick with vegetarian. Not long ago, ten per cent of a given column went on roasting those meek puritans forever denying themselves the pleasure of a bloody rare steak. Recently, he’d begun to empathise with them. The tone of his old columns had grown to embarrass him. Now, where were the vegetarian options? Did one have to request a separate menu for that?

The maître d’ arrived with the wine. She held up the bottle to show him the label, uncorked it, then poured a drop into his wine glass. ‘Try,’ she ordered. Odilio rolled the red bead around the glass, sniffed it, then took a sip. Stupid oaf with your stupid wines. Fat lot of good they’ll do! ‘Delicious,’ he said, sweat pouring down his forehead.

‘Is Sir ready to order?’

‘Yes,’ said Odilio. ‘Indeed, Sir was wondering if it would be possible for him to simply have a plate of… steamed vegetables?’ The maître d’ let out a short, mean laugh. When she realised he was being serious, her face re-adopted a familiar glower. ‘And some potatoes,’ Odilio continued, doing his best to remain unfazed. The maître d’ snatched the menu card without saying a word. Odilio loosened another button on his shirt and dabbed the top of his chest with his already damp napkin.

He watched as other diners made their way through dinner. A bustling restaurant had once been akin to his temple. Food, the great escape from life’s monotony. What a fantastic ride he’d had. He’d left England – left his village – at sixteen and moved to Paris. How marvellous those years had been. True, they’d nearly destroyed him with their excesses. And yet he’d outlived the trouble, taking his life to London to establish himself as the figurehead of the English culinary renaissance. What a life it had been. And now, he simply didn’t fit it. He’d outgrown it like his many pairs of jeans. Sitting in the restaurant, watching the other diners dig in, it suddenly occurred to Odilio how little he’d been truly living all those years. As if he’d simply been a tongue connected to a tiny pleasure-seeking part of the brain.

The maître d’ arrived with an amuse bouche. ‘Soupe aux dix oiseaux,’ she said proudly. Odilio thanked her. He took his spoon to the dark liquid, noticing its high viscosity, more like a treacle in its stiffness than a soup or broth. ‘Soupe aux dix oiseaux,’ Odilio said aloud. Soup of ten birds. He ran his spoon through the tiny bowl, inhaling a rich, salty aroma that made his throat salivate with nausea.

La soupe aux dix oiseaux,’ began the maître d’, reappearing at the table, ‘is a four-day reduction of stock made from the ten great birds of the French tradition. For four days we boil the birds down, until only their essence is left.’

‘Ten birds?’ Odilio choked.

Oui,’ said the maître d’. ‘Canard, poulet, coq, pigeon, corbeau…’

‘Wow,’ said Odilio.

‘Try it.’

‘It looks very rich—’

‘It’s only a teeny-tiny bowl—’

‘Still, it could flare up my gout—’

‘One spoonful can do no harm—’

‘I’d love to—’

‘I insist.’ The sides of the maître d’s mouth curled into a malicious grin. ‘I will not take non for an answer.’

By now, diners at the neighbouring tables were looking over. A rotund Canadian said loudly: ‘Hey, eat the damn soup!’ Another diner, to the protestations of his long-suffering wife, banged the table with a steak knife. ‘Get it down you!’ yelled someone else.

The sight of the braying mob had worked up such a feeling of revulsion in Odilio that he imagined there was little extra harm eating the soup could actually do. ‘Ten bird soup, eh?’ he said, taking la soupe aux dix oiseaux on his spoon. ‘Chin-chin.’

Later on, recounting the story to the Flaneuse of Bohemia, Odilio would describe this as the moment he realised they were not dreams he’d been having but visions. That visions – like prophecies, premonitions, revelations, and so forth – are not the preserve of the religious or insane. Taking the mouthful of ten bird soup, watched on by forty sets of bright eyes, the images that flooded his mind – of the sort that occupied his visions at night – were more visceral, more profound, more hellish than anything that could fill a dream. ‘It’s quite possible I was at the foothill of Vesuvius on its eruption over Pompeii in 79 AD,’ Odilio would tell her. ‘I saw shepherds and children scream as the earth shook and the white-hot ash cloud covered the valley. The people and the trees were incinerated before they were masked. My last sensation was of ash entering my nose and mouth, filling my lungs: the sensation of eating one last bland meal.’

 

*

 

Odilio was out on the pavement, sweating. The restaurant door slammed shut, muting a cacophony of laughter directed at his sudden expulsion. He knew where he needed to go and that was the Thames. Flaneuse or not, it was time to find the secrets in the clay.

At the bridge, the bohemian was nowhere to be seen. She’ll be walking now, Odilio thought. She’ll be building the electrostatic of association, dissolving the boundaries of consciousness until her two minds are free to talk. He lowered himself down to the Thames by ladder, only to find the tide was in; the bottom of the ladder was submerged. He climbed back up to the embankment. A crowd of people were watching. He was almost ready to give up when a familiar figure caught his attention, meandering nonchalantly over the bridge.

‘They’re visions,’ Odilio said casually, masking a sudden and unanticipated elation at spotting his friend. Without looking, the Flaneuse handed him some wine. Odilio gulped it down. ‘Someone is trying to show me something. Perhaps it’s time to write the next book of the Bible?’ The bohemian said nothing. There is something whimsical about her today, Odilio thought. Her eyes dart around like they’re looking for clues in some game.

‘I sculpted an almond last night,’ the Flaneuse said at last. ‘I spent the morning trying to figure out what it meant. In the Hebrew testament, the almond is a symbol of watchfulness due to its early flowering. In Christian iconography, the almond represents the virgin birth of Christ. What was my almond telling me?’ With that, the Flaneuse made her way over to a street vendor, where a squat man was stirring almonds in boiling caramel. ‘Now, I realise, it was telling me to try these.’

‘It was that straightforward?’

‘Seemingly so,’ she said, offering Odilio a nut. ‘I’ve never tried them before. A little sweet for my taste, but not bad.’

They walked the embankment for some time, watching the river. ‘I want to work with clay,’ said Odilio, taking another swig from the bottle. The wine was working with him in ways it hadn’t for a long time. He could feel it caressing the knots of his soul, encouraging him to come out of himself. ‘I want to do what you do. I want to know what’s keeping me obsessed with these visions.’

The Flaneuse of Bohemia took a cigarette from her pocket. ‘In the short term, it will be a fruitless endeavour. It’s a life’s work, not a quick fix.’ She lit the cigarette and took a long drag. ‘But I know you’re going to ask to join me anyway, so we can start right away. Tonight I’m finding a passage to Holloway.’

Over the next few nights, they walked the Roman roads of old London, to which the roads of the present day still bore a correspondence. ‘There is energy in these lines,’ the bohemian explained. ‘The Romans were the first settlers of what was otherwise deserted marshland. Naturally, they gravitated to the energy currents. We can access this energy today.’

Every night, after an exhausting walk across the city, Odilio and the Flaneuse of Bohemia dug from the riverbed of the Thames at low tide, filling two sacks of dirty clay. Back at the Flaneuse’s house, they worked in shifts to refine the clay until it was of a workable consistency. At last, they sat down to sculpt. The bohemian, who had developed a naturalness with the clay from experience, worked quickly, churning out several sculptures of a morning. As soon as she was finished, she slept, delaying the assessment of their meaning until she’d rested, whereupon she’d log them in her notebook, discarding work she felt was trivial, or conversely too daunting for a full analysis. Odilio, less rehearsed in working with clay, struggled at first. But within a week, he was producing figures of a recognisable quality. One morning, he sculpted an old neighbour from the village. ‘Mr Kaplan,’ said Odilio. ‘I’d forgotten about him. He used to drink in the local with my dad.’

 

*

 

As December turned to January, snow began to fall. The nightly walks became exhausting. Yet they continued in their projects, charting the energy grids of the various Saxon forts that supplanted the old Roman city. Odilio was developing new competence with the clay. His sculptures were drawing the attention of the Flaneuse, not just because they manifested increasing technical prowess, but because she could sense the boundaries of his two minds dissolving: sharing their respective secrets; growing new synaesthesias. ‘Ah, Mrs Grint,’ said Odilio one morning, having spent the best part of an hour working a piece of clay. ‘The butcher’s wife. She lived in the village, too.’

Another morning, Odilio produced a sculpture of a dog. ‘This was Mr Prantree’s bull terrier. He was a cruel man who drank a lot. The dog guarded his house and came crashing down the garden whenever we walked past. Mr Prantree also drank with my dad.’

‘The village is key,’ said the Flaneuse one afternoon. ‘It’s obvious: something happened there.’ It was hard for Odilio to disagree, looking at the pile of figures he’d produced over the weeks, more than half referencing the place where he’d grown up. ‘Let’s see if we can put the pieces together. Maybe they mean something as a whole.’

The Flaneuse of Bohemia cleared the table of clutter. Together they arranged the figures, Odilio correcting their positions as memory saw fit, until they resembled something of a nativity scene. ‘This was the pub where my dad drank. Here are the children and some of the animals. Where am I? Where is my father?’

‘It’s possible the scene isn’t finished yet,’ said the Flaneuse. ‘There’s more work to do.’

‘Maybe, but maybe some of these discarded pieces are relevant.’ Odilio sifted through the pile of figures set aside, double-checking he hadn’t left anything out. ‘Ah! I’m sure this is important now,’ he said, placing one on the table.

‘A fish?’

‘A pike. I was confused when I made it, but it’s coming back to me.’ Odilio positioned the pike at the centre of the scene, like a miniature baby Jesus. ‘We’ll walk at dusk,’ he said. ‘Tonight will be a night of secrets.’

It was a night of playing hide-and-seek with a bitter headwind. In narrow streets, they huddled together in shells of wool as snow scoured their faces and cold nipped their extremities like crab claws. On a hill outside the city, snow fell heavily, obfuscating a view of the landscape, the sky and valley one sombre shade of grey. Around a campfire in a London park, they smoked hashish and drank root beer. As the dawn light crept in, they made their way back to the Thames, frozen and hungry, wild and euphoric.

Back at the house, the Flaneuse lit the log stove, arranging the frozen lumps of clay around the fire to warm them through. Odilio brewed a flask of sage. ‘Time to get started,’ said the Flaneuse. ‘While the mind is free to explore.’

Odilio stared at the lump of clay for some time. Then, with sudden urgency, he got to work tearing it into pieces, recoupling the clumps, rolling them into balls: drawing, moulding, constructing, destroying. Thud, thud. Odilio drummed at the worktop, his face a picture of pained concentration. All the while his hands worked the clay with the strength of pistons as he churned it over, the cycle of creation and destruction in perfect equilibrium, resembling a sort of time-lapse of narratives. ‘The process of sculpting is the temporal dimension of the sculpture,’ said the bohemian. ‘To watch the process is to learn something about the end – its teleology.’ When Odilio was done, a single object ejected from the medley as his hands continued to work the ether, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he began gabbling incomprehensibly.

Some minutes later, Odilio came to on the sofa. The Flaneuse of Bohemia was already at the table, studying his creation. As soon as Odilio saw it, seeing it now as if for the first time, his face turned pale; he let out a groan and was forced to steady himself back into a horizontal position on the sofa. The object, resembling a miniature baseball bat, was a seemingly underwhelming outcome for such frenzied activity. But the Flaneuse, seeing the visceral reaction it had stirred in her friend, knew its significance at once.

‘What is it?’ the Flaneuse asked after some time. Odilio swallowed. He reached for the object, studying it in his hand, casting his eyes at the bohemian with the look of someone who will imminently deliver bad news. ‘Just what I feared,’ he said. ‘Do you know what this is?’ The Flaneuse shook her head. ‘A priest,’ he said, placing it on the table. ‘A poacher’s priest, used to club fish and small game to death. So-called as we’re the ones delivering the last rites.’

‘We?’ the Flaneuse of Bohemia was confused.

‘Pete the Pike,’ said Odilio. ‘It’s a long story. Tonight, we’ll take the train to my village.’

 

*

 

‘The pike menaced the village of Streatley one summer in the early eighties. At first, just a handful of the old hats saw it. The grizzly types from the Shires, who said they saw UFOs and magic trees. We didn’t pay them much attention in the village. Not until the reports started coming in. A damaged boat, some drowned cats. When the boy went missing it became an emergency. They said: well, we’ll have to catch it now.

‘They sent a fleet down the river one evening. That’s when pikes eat. They’d named it Pete after a fisherman who had drowned there a couple of summers earlier. The joke was, he’d come back as a monster fish to get his revenge. Pete the Pike. The name was on the lips of the whole village.

‘Well, the old hats didn’t stop telling their tales, and soon our mothers stopped letting us play outside. They’d heard the stories of the missing boy and the pieces of limbs turning up in the drain with the teeth marks and so on.

‘A couple of dogs went missing. Some meat was stolen from the market. Naturally, the pike was blamed for all of it.

‘The first few expeditions were unsuccessful. It was early summer and the nights were long. Dad went out with them. He got annoyed if we asked about the trips. ‘I’m out risking my life for you and all you have is questions?’ For three weeks it went on like this. That’s when the boy reappeared. He’d been in town with his father. His grandmother had forgotten when she raised the alarm. Early onset dementia. Didn’t stop the old hats telling their stories, though, nor did it put an end to the expeditions.

‘One evening, Dad said he was taking me with them. Said it would do me good. I didn’t want to go, mostly because the stories about Pete had put the fear of God in me. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to be with them. They were nasty men who brought out the worst in Dad.

‘They caught Pete that night. At least, they caught something. They were rat-arsed when they pulled it in and it thrashed around the floor, threatening to have us all in the river. It was big but it didn’t look like a monster. Didn’t look like it could eat a boy. In the end, I felt sad seeing this great big fish – king of the river – reduced to the entertainment of a few drunks.

‘Dad said: “Kill it.” He gave me the priest. Last rites, as I say. Gave them a right laugh. I stood there frozen. How could I begin? “Kill it,” Dad growled. Now the old hats were turning their laughter from Pete to him. Nasty laughs, they were, ones that made Dad angry. I don’t know how long I stood there until I found it in me to lunge for its head. I think I felt sorry for Dad.

‘I missed the first time. They nearly wet themselves laughing. It took a couple of blows for it to calm down, then a dozen more until it was dead. By the time I was finished I was blubbering my eyes out. I’ll never forget the look of disgust on Dad’s face.

‘In the end, it was a record specimen. Record for the village, at least. A local taxidermist had it stuffed and gilded. It hangs in the Bull Inn alongside other record catches from the past century.’

 

*

 

They arrived in Streatley just as the last of the dusk light was fading. The train crept out of the station, leaving them alone on the platform, the silhouettes of hills and forest dimly visible against the indigo sky. ‘Welcome to the heart of Berkshire,’ said Odilio. ‘A land of secrets and perversions.’ Beholding the veil of darkness in front of her, the Flaneuse of Bohemia felt a sudden sense of displacement.

‘In the countryside, appearances are rarely what they seem,’ Odilio said. ‘Listen, first: silence. Listen again and hear the maddening cries of the forest canopy.’ The Flaneuse of Bohemia strained to listen. When she paid attention, it was clear that what she had taken for silence was really the white noise of a million wailing creatures of the night.

‘Let’s make our way into the village,’ Odilio said, pointing towards a cluster of lights at the end of the path. ‘There’s a good fire in the inn there. We’ll warm ourselves inside and make plans. It’s too early to do anything yet.’

They sat until last orders were called and the fire was no more than a scattering of embers glistening in the vast stone hearth. ‘Time, gentlemen,’ the landlord called into the vault. The locals, fetching their overcoats, shuffled reluctantly out of the place that threatened to nurture them there forever. ‘Time to get going,’ said the bohemian, forcing herself out of the chair. Odilio nodded. The plan, which they had discussed in hushed whispers, would require nerves and patience to execute.

Snow was falling as they made their way into the night. The valley glowed white from the moon that broke occasionally through the clouds. All activity in the village had ceased. Only wisps of chimney smoke coming from the houses signalled habitation, while occasional breaks in the curtains betrayed the presence of suspicious onlookers. At the end of the lane, on the boundary of the forest, stood the village’s last building. ‘The Bull Inn,’ said Odilio, pointing ahead. ‘The shutters are locked; smoke is rising in dregs from the chimney. It must be closed. Perfect.’

As they approached the Bull Inn, however, it was clear it wasn’t empty. Through a gap in the shutters, they could make out a dozen men smoking at the bar. ‘A lock-in,’ said Odilio. ‘And look who’s here: Frankie Two-Spoons, Eddie the Lizard, Old Tony the Trout Man. Even Barry the Bastard.’ The Flaneuse peeked through the shutter. Adorning the walls were the stuffed bodies of birds and fish. A deer head was fixed above the fireplace, a cigarette dangling from its mouth. ‘We’ll have to wait this one out,’ said Odilio.

‘I have an idea,’ said the bohemian. ‘One that might help speed them up.’

Wackoww-kow-kowwww! Wackowwwwww-kowwwwww-kowwwww!’ And: ‘Wackowwww.’ The Bull Inn emptied in seconds. ‘Bloody hell,’ said Eddie the Lizard.

‘Did you hear that?’ growled Frankie Two-Spoons.

‘Was that what I think it was?’

‘I think it was.’

‘A golden grouse, I’m sure of it,’ said Old Tony the Trout Man, as the men finished their drinks. ‘Get the guns!’

Odilio entered through the open door, closed it gently, then put the bolt lock in place. Casting his eyes around the room, he saw no sign of the fish. There were chubs, trout, salmon and roaches. There were quails and pheasants, fowl and partridge. But no pike. Maybe they sold it, he thought. Where would he be now?

Suddenly, there was a thumping at the door. ‘Someone’s inside. Open up!’ Odilio froze. The banging grew louder as the men struck the door with their rifle butts. ‘I’ll shoot the bastard who thinks he can rob me.’

Thinking quickly, Odilio made for the toilets. He could hear the men smashing their way through the door lock. Above the urinals, in a glass display case, he spotted what he was looking for. Pete the Pike. So this is how they treat you. Using the rim of the urinal to take his weight, Odilio reached up and lifted Pete off the wall. Opening the toilet window, he backed outwards, the glass case in tow. From inside the pub, he could hear the door crack open and the men pour in. He was down the hill making for the river before they could work out what had been taken.

He met the Flaneuse at the riverbank. It had stopped snowing. The night was silent. ‘You did great,’ said Odilio, placing the case on the grass. ‘I didn’t count on them having guns,’ said the bohemian. ‘Luckily I kept my phone on a length of string.’ She held the battered phone up. There were pellet marks in the side. Odilio pressed the golden grouse sound effect one last time. ‘Wackoww-kow-kowwww.’

The Flaneuse of Bohemia lifted a rock and smashed open the box containing Pete the Pike. ‘Sorry to wake you,’ she said, prising the fish from the water-coloured background of reeds and river lilies. ‘I should be the one apologising,’ said Odilio. ‘Sorry, Pete the Pike, whoever you are. Sorry for clubbing you. I really didn’t want to.’

The yellow moon rose silently from the receding clouds. In the busy reeds, river animals could be heard rising from their slumber. The river was black as oil, reflecting the emerging light, cut into columns by the sudden jerking of creatures beneath. Mystery, terror and rebirth promised themselves at once below the seal of the water’s surface. In the culverts and hollows, myriad worlds as complicated as the greater fractal outside – as intricate as the even tinier ones inside those – promised everything to those who could be bothered to look.

‘Time to send you home,’ said the Flaneuse. With that, she threw Pete the Pike into the Thames.

A streak of foam marked the spot where Pete landed and for a while, nothing happened. Then, bubbles started to rise from the depths of the water, emerging with a freakish vigour that shook the river’s surface. From the reeds, ducks started their songs as waves lapped the riverbank, bubbling up the runnels that gurgled as the water withdrew. Soon, the first one appeared – silver and muscular – leaping from the surface in a perfect arc before being swallowed whole again. Four more, then ten, then hundreds: a dazzling shoal churning the river into a phosphorescent wash. Open-mouthed, Odilio and the bohemian watched until all but the last fish had returned to the depths – to their mysteries – and all birdsong had once again resumed into silence, until they were back in the familiar place, with the moon and valley, changed only in their dispositions, redeemed by the river’s decision to greet them as it had.

 

*

 

‘Most people have no idea how to eat falafel,’ said Odilio, looking at his companion. ‘Most people hardly pay attention to the way they eat at all.’

‘How do you eat falafel?’ the companion asked, taking a mouthful of tabbouleh.

‘Eighty per cent of flavour comes from the nose,’ said Odilio, with a knowing look his companion hadn’t seen in a long time. ‘The mouth tastes so little. It’s the nose that does the work. Grind the falafel and inhale. The trick is to not let it go down the wrong way.’ His companion chewed with pained concentration. ‘You’re right,’ they said. ‘This is a good falafel.’

‘A very good falafel,’ said Odilio, making a note.

‘Anything else I’ve been eating wrong?’

‘Those olives,’ said Odilio. ‘You’ve been putting them in your mouth!’

Outside, the streets were damp but London was warming. In a month, it would be spring, bringing with it nature’s most elegant display. ‘Look closely and you’ll find everything you need,’ said the Flaneuse of Bohemia as they greeted one another at the bus stop. ‘How was the job?’

‘Excellent,’ said Odilio. ‘An impressive new vegan place – The Pickled Aubergine. I gave it five stars.’ The Flaneuse glanced shyly away.

‘And how have you been?’ Odilio said, stopping on the bridge to watch the river. ‘I had a dream,’ she said, hesitantly.

‘Very well,’ said Odilio. ‘Let’s take the canal eastwards; we can find a southerly passage under the foot tunnel. Later, let’s dig from the banks of Greenwich. We will work fearlessly to elucidate the dream’s meaning.’

‘Actually, I already know its meaning. You lived with me in the house. Two swans carried us away on their backs to the rolling hills of the valley, out across the channel, to distant lands.’

‘What does it mean?’ asked Odilio.

‘Firstly, that it’s better to be in company. Secondly, what a wonderful thing it would be to fly.’

Odilio put his arm around the Flaneuse’s shoulder. She threaded her arm around his waist. The viewer’s eyes arc away from the pair as they stroll the embankment, panning along the buses and the traffic, dipping past a café where the odd piece of conversation can be overhead, tracking up along a tall building, up, up to the sky where it is quiet now; the city is a low hum below and the birds – the geese – fly in a skein out towards the setting sun.

 

 

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