Short Fiction

The Way to a Man's Heart

By Jenna Wallace
first published in Woman's Weekly, Fiction Special Issue 45, 2006

The sun is just starting to appear as I unlock the door. Juggling my market bags, I slip into the restaurant. I never used to be a morning person, but I find I like coming in before the streets come alive.

I find this predawn ritual meditative. The soft light comes through the window as the steaming kettle fills the open kitchen with a light fog.

It is a small restaurant, just four booths and three tables, and room for only two in the open kitchen behind the counter. I like it this way. Usually, I’m on my own in the kitchen, except when Aida pops back to brew more tea or ladle out soup if I’m caught up in something else. We’re full at breakfast and lunch, with a steady stream through the in-between time. I even open in the evening upon special request, although I know that were I do it on a regular basis, whatever semblance of personal life I have (and I must admit it hasn’t been much lately) would be gone entirely. I get to control things, which is good, but it’s not so big it controls me, which is better. I am slightly obsessive by nature, with the potential to become a workaholic, so I have learned to set limits.

Each afternoon, after the last customer has left, I leaf through the many dozen cookbooks beneath the register looking for an interesting dish to serve.

Most of my customers come in more than once a week. Many say they people come back just to see what soup will be next.

At least, that’s what he said. "I can’t wait to see what you serve next," he said. "I never knew there were so many different kinds of soup."

That was the first time we spoke, apart from the polite ‘hello’ and ‘good afternoon’ we tossed at each other. I’d noticed him before that but it was when he looked me right in the eye, with a half smile and raise brow that I was smitten.

I began to cook just for him, even though twenty other people would eat that same food. I watched what he ate and what he left behind, making notes for future menus. And each day he’d throw me that smile, and head out the door. I despaired of ever being anything more to him.

And then a friend, knowing my passion for food, gave me a book on herbs. Now this wasn’t your common or garden book of herbs telling you to use sage with pork and mint with lamb. This was a guide to herbal potions, things to arouse passions, bring money, inspire greatness and invite love. Just what my besotted, lovelorn, slightly-obsessive cook’s heart needed.

At first, it was really more of an amusing thought than a deliberate choice. I tried the first one on Monday, serving cinnamon rolls (apparently a light sprinkling of cinnamon will cause amorous thoughts) instead of my usual scones. He ate two. And still walked out the door.

I made a few new herbal tea blends as well, lemon verbena to make one more attractive to the opposite sex, orange blossom for serenity and good cheer, gingerroot, cloves and peppercorn to enliven the love life. They were big hits with all my customers. I didn’t occur to me until I was pouring someone a second cup that it would be just my luck for Bill, the pensioner from Swansea, to fall for me instead.

The Egyptians swore by saffron for inspiring love, so I made a garlic and saffron soup. I served it with rosemary bread. The rosemary bread was a waste of time, I think, because the book’s passage actually recommended filling a linen bag with rosemary leaves and wearing it under my clothes over my genitals. I may be a bit flighty, but I’m not quite that desperate, yet. Nor was I crazy enough to try grinding up one common cockroach, mixing it with cinnamon, and adding it to coffee. If it comes to that, I’ll live without love, thank you very much.

But yesterday, he came in accompanied by a stunningly beautiful woman, wearing a short skirt and blue shoes. A colleague, I first thought, but the way she touched his arm was a little too casual, a little too comfortable. To add insult to injury, she even looked a bit like me, except for being stunningly beautiful. I must admit I considered putting a cockroach in her dish, not ground up, and not mixed with cinnamon.

Last night, I glumly leafed through the book, with a thought to just chucking it in the bin and pulling out Delia, who never inspired great passion in me but also never steered me wrong. Then I spotted what was reported to be a Druid love potion. It looked innocuous enough: pinches of rosemary, thyme, nutmeg, leaves of mint and lemon, rose petals, boiled in spring water and sweetened with honey. Only the directions and verse underneath took it from interesting herbal tea to slightly off-centre herbal potion. Being slightly off-centre anyway, courtesy of too much rosemary bread and a lot of red wine, I made it. I didn’t follow the directions entirely. First off, it wasn’t Friday and it wasn’t a waxing moon. And I used tap water, having drained my Evian bottle after a particularly gruelling Pilates class earlier in the evening. But I did recite the verses, asking the goddess of love to hear my plea and make him ever desire me.

Which brings us to present, with the light coming full on through the window and the bread rising above the stove. My first customers should be coming in shortly. I finish chopping the potatoes for the soup, which today will be Potato, Leek and Lavender. And with it, I will serve to him (and only to him, lest Bill the Pensioner gets any ideas) a mug of Druid love potion. I will be bending the rules again, since it should be served to him the Friday the week after I originally consumed it. But I did make this batch with Evian, so we should be fine.

I continue pottering about the kitchen, drying the greens and steeping an innocent ginger and cherry tea for everyone else. Aida comes in and starts setting out silver and glasses. Lovely aromas come from the kitchen now, the lavender a subtle addition. The morning passes quickly, as does lunch. I start to wonder whether he’ll be here at all. Then I see him come through the door. We smile and nod at each other. He sits at one of the booths.

I pour a mug of my brew and ask Aida to give it to him. A special tea, I tell her, that I thought he might like. And recommend the potato soup, I add. She delivers it and he takes a sip, smiling and raising his mug to me in thanks. I just nod and turn back to the kitchen, suddenly feeling that I’ve done something very sneaky and underhanded. He must have ordered the soup because Aida comes back to fill a bowl. Unable to look at him, I chop some carrots.

I hear a quiet cough and look up to see him standing at the counter.

"Can I ask you something?" he says. He’s looking at me. Smiling. Say something witty, I command myself.

"Er…" Oh, well done. At least I think I’m nodding.

"I don’t know if you would be interested…" Yes, a thousand times yes! "Would you consider catering our wedding?"

Our wedding? This is a bit sudden. I must be looking very blank because he continues. "My fiancée was in here with me yesterday. She had the quiche."

Oh. Miss Blue Shoes.

"Catering your wedding?" I repeat, clever to the last. "I don’t know."

"We’re planning for the last Sunday in May, but we can work around you schedule a bit if need be."

Now I’m nodding non-stop, like some demented bobble head. "I’ll have to check."

"Right. I do hope you can do it. I’ve just fallen in love with your food!"

Ha ha. Of course. My eye falls on the steaming tea kettle and I’m not sure about the rushing in my ears. I hear myself saying out loud "In that case, I’ll do it." What?!

"Great," he says, flashing me that smile. "I must be going so we’ll talk about this next time, yeah?"

"Fine," I say, "and thank you."

And out he goes. I lean on the counter, not sure if I am going to laugh or cry. I feel a little of both coming on and, lest I scare my remaining customers, swallow them back before they have a chance to escape. A few stalks of lavender flowers lay on the soup board, the last of the garnish for my love-inspiring soup. I crush them and inhale the soothing aroma. Breathe. In. Out. I tell Aida to go, that I’ll finish up.

The stragglers are standing up now, ready to leave, so I wish them a pleasant afternoon and follow them to the door, turning the sign around and the front lights out to indicate I’m closed. In the half light, I am more aware of the herbal smells around me. I move back behind the counter and sit on the stool beside the cooker. He’s fallen in love. With my food. Head in my hands, I begin to laugh. I laugh until I’m breathless and my eyes are streaming, although I don’t think all those tears come from the laughter.

Cater his wedding? Maybe I can back out. But I can’t, really. I’m committed. The thought makes me laugh again. Committed. As in ought to be. And what should I make for this little party? A soup to promote domestic bliss? A salad that drives lovers apart?

I pick up the steaming kettle and pour it in the sink, watching the leaves and petals catch at the drain. I think I’ll just make a lemon cake. Cockroaches not included.