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  • Writer's pictureStanislava Buevich

Taster. WIP. Cap D'Ail

The cabbie garbles something nasal and incomprehensible, and I can only understand the curse words. In a Michelin-star kitchen, obscenities flow as freely as amens in a Catholic church. From his overall demeanour, I gather his reluctance to venture beyond the imposing arching gates that open before us like wings of an eagle.

“Porcs russes,” he mutters, bobbing his head in the direction of the estate. Food, I understand. As for the latter word, I can only surmise.

I look beyond the iron wickets and “oh, my God,” escapes my lips. Words like ‘jaw-dropping’ and ‘breathtaking’, I often toss around casually, suddenly carry weight, as my jaw slackens, and my breath catches somewhere deep inside my larynx.

The snow-white tip of the villa peeks through the scattered palm trees, rubbing shoulders with pines, bougainvilleas, and citrus, a stone throw away from the sapphire-blue waters, unfurling as far as the eye can see.

My hand lingers over the latch for just a moment longer than necessary. As I open the door, a wave of balmy heat rushes in. The fresh air, laden with scents of salt and flowers, feels almost viscous on my skin. I peel myself off the faux-leather seats, my bones protesting after the long journey, and stretch my arms behind my back, allowing the sun to caress my face.

The Frenchman emerges from the driver’s seat and heaves my suitcase from the boot, a constant stream of grumbling accompanying his every movement.

“Merci,” I say with a polite smile, taking charge of my luggage.

“Courage,” he replies.

I step through the gates, as thought entering a portal to Wonderland, puling my suitcase along the spacious drive, dotted with lemon trees. As I approach the rocky steps that ribbon around the mansion and descend to the sea’s edge, I feel butterflies multiplying within my core. I’m not entirely sure if it’s due to the sudden awareness of heights or the overwhelming joy that I now live in this fairytale. I pinch the skin of my wrist to make sure that I am not dreaming, and feel a warming smile spread across my face.

“Ey?” comes a voice from behind.

I turn around with surprise to see a wrinkled woman in a black-and-white maid’s uniform studying me curiously. Her expression bears a hefty degree of suspicion as she eyes the tattoos on my arms. I instantly feel self-conscious about them, and cross my arms over my chest. The maid sucks on her cigarette with the gusto of a vampire sucking on its victim’s neck. The familiar smell of smoke instantly stirs the nicotine hunger within my blood. I touch my shoulder, feeling for the patch, thinking that I could use a new one.

The woman grumbles something in a foreign tongue, much rougher around the edges than the soft French drawl. It must be Russian.

“Hello, do you speak English?” I say, a question I’ve asked at least five times in the past hour since landing in Nice.

The woman spits on the ground and licks her teeth. “What do you want?”

I feel instant panic rising, unsure if I’m at the correct address.

“I am Bella,” I say, considering for a moment whether to offer my surname too, “Dawson,” I add, averting my gaze. The name feels dirty on my lips, but the recruitment agency insisted I use the one stamped in my passport. “I work here, I think.”

“You think you work here, or you work here?”

“If I’m in the right place,” I glance around, not really knowing what I’m searching for.

“You cook?”

“Yes.” I exhale with relief.

“Madam waiting for cook,” she says, pointing at the black wooden door with iron latch that seems disproportionately dark, austere, and oppressive for the delicate white mansion. An itch spreads from the bottom of my stomach, as though I am about to leap off a skyscraper. Doubt nibbles at my bones; perhaps it was premature of me to get excited. What do I really know about these people?

“Through there?” I say, failing to take my eyes off the door.

She finishes the remainder of the cigarette in one inhale, wets her fingers with her saliva, and extinguishes the remaining flame, stashing the stub in her apron pocket.

“I take you. Door don’t bite,” she laughs. “But madam, she bites. Madam bites hard.”

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