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Blind Date - Sylvia Petter

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Fiona loved French food. When a teaching job in Lyons was offered, she couldn't resist. It was not long before she needed a diet, but it had to be one with which she could live. So she noted down all she ate and soon had notes to fill a book. She tempted a publisher, no lean feat in the day of diet miracles. But she had a hook: snails.
Snails as protein. She collected them in a wicker basket after early morning rains lushed the banks of the Rhone. The local chefs were only too happy to lift their lids to the engaging young woman from England. They showed her how to clean the snails, to sieve them three times, four times, five, to scrape the muddy froth from the top of the boiling pots. Not once did she hear scalded squeals.
But it was not enough to trade the heavy garlic butter sauce for parsley chopped in garlic broth. She needed to know much more about the creatures that would launch her book. So one day, from the University where she worked, she posted a request for information on snails and was directed to a Internet discussion group on molluscs.

The only live molluscs Fiona had ever seen were brown bearded barnacles on an English seaside pier. The Tourism Department of the university had sold the hard- boiled Lyons entrepreneurs the prospect of a new market: handicapped tourists. Fiona worked with deaf-mute students.
Her students knew the trade, but had yet to master English and computers. They would gather in her campus office: "You can use the Internet for networking and private correspondence," Fiona said. "You may even find like-minded electronic pals."
For face-to-face encounters, Fiona chose the local cafés. She coached her students in toning down their sometimes exaggerated gestures, trained them to read English lips of different accents and gave them clues: "Body language is different in the business world. Read it well, but take it with a grain of salt. Trust your intuition."
Her students saw she was one of them, not just in her love of the city and its food, but in the way she explored new possibilities with them. "The Internet is great for research. You can find anything out there if you just look. I even found material on *mollusca*."
They smiled. An English woman who loved snails. When they ate out together, Fiona always ordered snails.

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And it was the snails that introduced her to Yves. When she posted her "snails" request, it was Yves who directed her to *mollusca*. A computer analyst in Nice, he loved all things English, especially the language free of the diacritics that sprung from his native tongue like tiny blades to twist a life of school dictations failed.
His hobby, though, was snails: studying and eating them. "Snails belong to the mollusc family," he wrote. "Snails in France are just common land snails of the Helix species. But there's a magnificent specimen in the London Museum." He told her about their habitat, their nutrient value, their habits: "Snails have teeth, thousands of them."
Nibble, munch, ...
She told him about her diet, about the book. She told him how the snails had been the hook.
Yves wanted to practise his English and it was not long before their conversations went beyond snails to become a weekday 'Net chat of "getting to know you .." Fiona told him where she worked, told him what she did. She did not tell him that he would never hear her voice other than through the tone of written electronic words. She did not tell him she could neither speak nor hear.
"I'm six foot tall and thin, " he wrote. "My hair's all there and it's dark brown, like my eyes. I enjoy my food, particularly snails." The words grinned out green at her.
Fiona giggled and straightened her glasses. "I'm five foot six and slim now, but I like my food, particularly French." She added a :) "How could I not, living in Lyons?" She brushed her hair back from her face. It was the sort of hair halfway between a crinkle and a curl, a barley-sugar blonde that frothed about her shoulders at the slightest hint of damp in the air. "I have blonde curly hair," she wrote. "My eyes are blue, or grey sometimes."

Weekends brought a pause to their chats. A modem at home was beyond Fiona's budget since her studio of rustic chic in the Old Town of Lyons was greedy for her salary. I'll get one when the book's published, she thought, popping a piece of Brie in her mouth. Nibble, munch ... She leant back on the self-upholstered sofa, a glass of table red in her hand and picked at the cheese.
Her mind ran through Yves' Friday message. "Bon weekend," he'd wished. He had little respect for the latest law demanding purity for his mother tongue. He would sometimes delight her with whole sentences in French made up of mostly English words.
Monday mornings always brought a note from him to start the week. Sometimes it was late and then she would feel a little tug in her chest at the empty shell. The Net on detour, you never really knew... then a little trip in her throat would tell her the highway was open again as the words "message waiting" lit up.

She told him when her diet book proposal flew. He wrote back in support. When it landed and was retained, he was the first she told.

"A month to finish, I'll have to work flat out. Forgive me if I speak of nothing else," she wrote. Nibble, munch. She bit a leftover breakfast croissant. "It's going to be published. The pressure's off. The snails did it." Her fingers tripped over the keys. Nibble, munch ... She bit a bite of Brie and baguette. "The book's out!" She hit the exclamation mark. "Nibble, munch," she mouthed.
She told him about Sarah, her childhood friend who worked for the publisher handling her book.

"Fiona, they want you to do a signing at Waterstone's," Sarah's fax rolled its tongue out on her desk at home. "A Friday and a Saturday morning. It'll be over by noon. You have to. It's promotional. I'll be there. Don't worry. It'll be OK. Love, Sarah."
Fiona knew Sarah would calm and shield her at the signing. Fiona preached to her students with the calm of a lagoon, but in practice her gestures flooded her face and shoulders like waves rippling, then almost crashing with mounting emotion.
Nibble, munch ... I'll have to stop nibbling, Fiona thought. She knew she had broken all the rules. She'd let herself go. The waiting time between submission of the final manuscript and publication had taken a load off her and she had succumbed to between-meal tidbits. She'd been taken in by the elongated shadow the sun cast in the afternoon, ignoring the truth of the rounder one it cast at midday.
And now they wanted her to come to London and sign copies. She'd have to get those pound off quick. They were bound to show. No more bread and Brie. No more croissant, no more éclair. She was the proof of her own method. No more nibble munch.

"I have to go to London. To sign the book," she wrote.
"I'll be there for work. Maybe we could meet?" Yves replied.
"But I'll be busy Friday and Saturday morning."
"I could wait in the London Museum - the Helix, you know."
"But I wouldn't be finished before the evening."
"Meet you in Soho, the Groucho Club."
<> the letters blinked. The 'Net was down. Too much traffic. No, they didn't know when it would be up and running again.
Fiona reached for the last remains of carbs and fats, but stopped midway to her mouth. I'll just not turn up, she thought.

Fiona arrived in London on Friday morning. Sarah was at the airport and stayed by her side all through the signing. Sarah did the talking and patrons quietly offered their purchases for Fiona's signature.
"Sarah, I can't go to the Groucho. He doesn't know. I'd rather take the next flight home." She remembered other blind dates when the guy lost his tongue and stammered off on his way. And for those that weren't blind, the hours stretched past initial shyness into elastic bands of incomprehension, exhausting her nerves more than her muscles. If only she'd told him. It could have worked. He seemed kind enough. He had wanted to meet her.

Sarah left Fiona at the airport and dropped off the remains of the promotional material. It was late, around 10h30. She was relieved to see the entrance light of the publisher's and pretended to ignore the lanky figure on the steps. As she took her keys from her beige leather tote, the man pulled his hand from his pocket without a word. Sarah froze. He held out a small white card. She took it in with a glance. And then a smile melted her face.
Sarah ushered Yves to her office as he explained how he'd waited at the Groucho all evening, how Fiona hadn't turned up, how he was so worried. Sarah took a sheet of creamy paper from the pad on her period desk and scribbled wet inky words which she carefully blotted.

On Sunday afternoon the doorbell lamp flashed a ring. Fiona opened the door. A tall thin youngish man with brown hair and brown eyes stood on the porch. She knew it was Yves. Her heart thumped. Her eyes raced over his faded jeans, the white T-shirt, the cropped brown leather jacket, the horn-rimmed glasses ... he'd never mentioned the glasses. Her mind flashed in cadence with her eyes as her fingers fiddled with the folds of her skirt.
Yves held out a box with a transparent top. Tilting her head to one side, Fiona smiled and accepted the chocolate molluscs as his fingers flurried perfect signs: "We do have a common language, after all," they said, their accent distinctly French.



Sylvia Petter is an Australian living in France. She has her own home page at http://www.sylviapetter.com.

Another short story by Sylvia Petter on this site. And another one...

You can read some of her stories as e-book at the site of Iumix.

Notice © 1998 IP and the author

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