In this debut instalment of Viand, we travel back to the 1940s to meet Maya Tzolkin, the enigmatic owner of Queen’s Heights’ poshest restaurant Viand, as she welcomes her two favourite and most eccentric customers…
Hammond Hughes sat across from his wife Dr. Verity Lake at their regular booth. They had been married less than a year, but watching Hammond’s transformation was mesmerizing to Maya Tzolkin all the same. When he first dramatically came to propose to Verity, he was a thin man with short wavy white hair wearing plain denim pants and plaid shirt with thick glasses and a cane as he was an amputee who needed it to walk.
He married her in that outfit, and when he and his bride held their reception at Viand, he was shy and never left Verity’s side. Despite the teary-eyed looks, he seemed overjoyed and serene.
Now he came to celebrate his new look: that short hair was long enough for him to keep in a daring ponytail. He replaced his cane with one he carved himself to look like a hammer of all things. His glasses were now half black on one side and white on the other with one lens yellow and the other one red.
But it was his clothing that was the most brazen of all: he wore a shocking orange blazer and yellow pants with red shoes, yet somehow it suited him perfectly.
Maya almost gasped at his peculiar transformation. Until then, he was the shyest man she had ever known, and now, suddenly and without warning, became the boldest. There was a war raging in Europe, and everyone was sombre, and yet Hammond suddenly became a light to stand up to the darkness.
Hammond had an endearing smile and laugh. His eyes would twinkle and his cheeks would flush a rosy hue, and no one made him laugh like his wife, who, despite her elegant, learned, and glamourous movie star demeanour, had a cutting wit and delicious sense of humour. It was always an amusement watching them from afar. Maya knew Verity from the day she was born, but no one expected the confirmed bachelorette to ever marry, let alone find a soul mate who basked in her idiosyncrasies as if they were blessings.
When Verity was small, she was silent, always deep in thought, and a prodigy whose intelligence levels were off the charts. She was polyglot by the time she two years old. She skipped grades, but as a girl she was something of a holy terror with her numerous science experiments.
Her parents were worried when the trances came. She would be unresponsive, and then begin to write on her grandmother’s walls before going out in the shed that doubled as her own laboratory and create something complex.
She had little time for chit chat. She had friends who were content to have her around, even if she barely spoke. She seemed to stare into space with intensity, but she didn’t seem enthralled with people.
Until she was eight and her sister Holly was born.
Then suddenly, Verity bonded with her younger sibling in an almost maternal way, and then became a social butterfly, always with Holly tumbling right behind her bouncy and giggly.
And it was a ten-year-old Verity who made reservations to bring her toddler sister here for their first lunch date, but there would be many more to come. This was Verity’s haunt and the place she took family and friends regularly, or just dined alone on a whim.
But when she brought her fiancé for the first time, one look and Maya knew he had immediately fallen in love with the place, even more so than his wife. They held their wedding reception here, and it became their regular romantic dinner spot ever since, always laughing and chatting as they seemed at peace with each other.
Maya came over to greet them as both got up to give her a kiss and hug.
“You look beautiful this evening, as usual, sweetheart,” Maya said as Verity smiled.
“As do you, Maya. We are here to celebrate this evening as Hammond is finding real success with his fiction stories.”
Hammond blushed as he laughed. “They are short stories, but as I have now a regular gig with The Mutation magazine, writing my stories about futuristic space travellers Pillar Rivers and Fletch Phoenix as they work toward creating a planetary paradise.”
“You are the hopeless romantic, Hammond,” Maya mused, “Certainly there will be more to your stories than travelling the universe looking for the Promised Land.”
“Will Pillar and Fletch ever get together?” mused Hammond, “Of course, they will. How else will I be able to tell my Sweetness how much I love her?”
“And you, Verity? How is your writing coming along?”
Verity and Hammond sat back down as he Verity looked radiantly at Maya. “It is moving along beautifully. We have both found our rhythms, and it makes writing both my fiction and nonfiction pure joy. It is the outlet where I choose to express the wisdom of my revelations as I continue to ponder the deepest truths of the universe.” She winked. “But tonight, I wish to savour something new.”
“Not the usual crab cakes and salmon sausages.”
“It is a new phase, and I wish to mark the occasion with something else.” “How about my Flamiche or Ficelle picarde?”
“Ah, you are in a Parisian mood tonight,” replied Verity.
“Flamiche? Ficelle picarde?” asked Hammond. “I feel like a peasant asking what they are.”
“Not at all,” consoled Maya, “The former is a sautéed leek pie that is native to France, while the latter are crepes with mushrooms, cheese, and ham with crème fraiche.”
“Both sound divine,” sighed Hammond who looked as if he were in a trance. “I will have to have the Flamiche, or I will just die.”
Verity giggled. “I will have the Ficelle picarde so that we can try some of the other dish.”
Hammond rubbed his hands together. “Now, I am too excited to even think about an appetizer.”
“I will have the lobster bisque as usual,” said Verity, “I can never resist it.”
Hammond looked at the menu. “I will keep within the French theme tonight, and try the tapenade.”
“And to drink? The usual mineral water?”
“Yes, please,” said Verity, “I will ponder dessert later.”
“Not me,” said Hammond, “I want that Crème Brûlée that makes me drool just thinking about it. I am absolutely famished.”
Maya rubbed Verity’s shoulder and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I will see to it, and congratulations, Hammond.”
“Thank you, Maya.”
As Maya left, Hammond placed his hand on top of his wife’s. “You have no idea what tonight means to me, Sweetness. I never thought we’d make it this far or together.”
“I know, and you have no idea how happy I am that we arrived together. I had never known that two people could have as many different dynamics as we did, and then it come together with love.”
Hammond became teary-eyed. “I don’t know why providence gave me that blessed second chance at life. That night you found me should have finished me off, but it didn’t. You found me in a place worse than Hell, and the second I came to Queen’s Heights to tell you how much I loved you, my life has become a place better than Heaven.”
“Our lives have been blissfully divine, Hammond, and it is a relief that we are now truly enjoying our blossoming lives.”
“I was just such an emotional wreck for as long as I could remember, and I never thought I could just free myself from my past. I used to tremble and cower every morning when I went to school, horrified at what laundry list of defects that other children would find in me. That little boy had no idea how blessed he was that he had all of those qualities.”
“I am glad the man set the little boy straight.”
“It was you who did that…”
“Those qualities were always your, darling. I just basked in them.”
“You know, the very first time we came here to celebrate our engagement, we talked about what our plans for the future would be.”
“I remember. You had no idea what sort of job you would be capable of doing, even your physical constraints.”
“I was frozen in panic. I was broke, and I didn’t have any degrees to my name. I used to repair watches, and I thought it had been too long for me to have remembered, but when I repaired that old clock in Modesty’s shop during our honeymoon, I knew I found my temporary employment, but writing science fiction? It never crossed my mind.”
“I am happy that it did.”
“Did you ever think you’d be writing fiction?”
“Not at all. I wrote nonfiction, but I was always measuring the world through my experimental studies as a psychological, and I had placed a silly barrier on myself, never venturing out from that world. When I agreed to marry you, something in me became unleashed. I suddenly felt as if my heart and soul expanded into territory that was completely unfamiliar to me. I broke all my own rules, and never looked back.”
“We both did. We both had many unusual things in common, Sweetness. We both were very precise about the rules we would follow, yet neither one of us saw them as the barriers and confines that they were. We were both staunchly loyal to those rules, and we both began to break those rules at the same time without ever realizing that we were rebelling against our own establishment. We were becoming anarchists to our own self-imposed decrees.”
The server came out with the appetizers as both seemed giddy with their choices.
Hammond inhaled deeply as he smiled in satisfaction. “That lobster bisque smells divine. Verity? Verity?”
He chuckled to himself as he began to savour his tapenade. His wife was having a revelation over her lobster bisque. He wondered about what insight she’d have once she got out of it, though he hoped she’d come back before her soup got too cold.
Within a couple of minutes, she began to eat. “How is your tapenade?”
“So you come back to me. It is a wonderfully savory dish, but what did the deep universe serve to you while you were pondering?”
“It was about your observation how we both were shackled by our own decrees only to liberate ourselves by venturing out from them.”
“Tell me more,” he said he gave his wife a sample of his appetizer, as he usually did.
“Well,” she said, “We could do it as we discovered that the other had developed strengths from those original confines. We incubated our greatest strengths, but held back because we did not know where to apply it. As we made our way through a war-torn Europe, we abandoned everything we no longer needed, and it included those confines, but in its place was someone who developed a strength the other had not tested. Your strength is love, and it allowed me to unleash the truths I had gleaned in a more benevolent way. My strength is truth, and it allowed you to unleash the love you had in your heart in way to would bring kindness to your endeavours as well as purpose.”
“You always knew you had worth. I never did until we made our way through that war. I awakened, and I felt like a child again because I was in a world I did not understand. I matured again, but this time, in the right way where I wasn’t ashamed of who I was. By the time we got married, I was grateful to have had the chance to mature again. I could never go back to those old ways.”
After they finished their appetizers, the main course arrived, with the two immediately cutting a portion and swapping their meal as was their habit.
Hammond seemed in a blissful zone as he ate his meal, always making his wife laugh.
“I do not need to ask about your feelings about Maya’s Flamiche and Ficelle picarde.”
“I grew up poor, and yet these two meals are an interesting puzzle.”
“That all these ingredients were right there in the farm you grew up in, and yet you never tasted before.”
“My psychologist wife can read my mind as well as my heart. We could have made these dishes and cheaply to see them, and we could have not been so poor.”
“But your grandfather shut out any idea that did not follow his own.”
“That would have been ‘women’s work’ to him, and he thought he was being manly. He hated my talents. If I sang, he yelled at me. If I carved something out of wood, he threw it in the fireplace. I was ashamed of my gifts because of it, and I never knew where I belong because I could never express myself.”
“You have found your place now.”
“I take one bite of this divine Flamiche and I can see another life very clearly.”
“Because it represents all the opportunities missed.”
“It’s shocking what revelations open when one mundane sense is triggered.”
“I know that very well…”
“You have all sorts of revelations, and profound ones because you do not fear neither your ideas nor what you sense. You are attuned to the world because of it. Mine are not as intense as yours, and yet I understand their importance, and can glean insights because I have seen you do it.”
“It is the reason your fiction writing has been immediately successful. Your keen details of senses and what they mean make your stories thrilling.”
“I am confident and excited about my prospects, thought I am not giving up repairing time-keepers until I can make a real living from my writing, which I suspect will take another few months. I found my footing with my horological skills as I used to repair the watches in my father’s business. I can do more than repair clocks and watches: I can make them like I made the one for my cane. I almost decided to become a make of timepieces.”
Verity smiled. “You would have done extremely well.”
“I could see it all very clearly. I was going to make watches that did more than just tell time, but also be a compass, and other tools of measurement and call the whole thing Veritas Timepieces in honour of you.”
“That is very endearing of you, but what changed your mind?”
“This may sound silly, but I knew whatever I did would do well. I am hard-working and the support this town would give me would be enough, but then I thought about your writing, and what my work would entail, and sooner or later, I couldn’t work from home anymore, and that meant more and more time away from us, and then a sudden sadness came over me. It is not as if we absolutely must always work together, but I would have rather just stuck to repairing watches at home, than start a business that starts to separate us.”
“And it was then you wanted to be a novelist.”
“No, I didn’t think that way at that point. Whatever I did had to be something I had a passion for, would keep us together, would be fulfilling as it let me grow – and always express how much I love you. Then Season Stoney came to ask me what happened to the leg I no longer have, and then the idea popped into my head. If I could spin a yarn on the drop of a hat that hit all of those benchmarks as it was always true and true to who I am, then I had a viable lead to pursue, and it worked.”
“I am overjoyed that it did.” She smirked. “I do not know of too many people who look for a career where they can express the love they have for someone else. Your sensitivity touches me as it moves me.”
“When your sister Holly read your first Azura the water woman story, I never saw her – or anyone else – look for happy. She lit up and beamed, and then you did, too. You two never looked so beautiful and radiant together as you did that day. That’s when I knew you found your calling. A career dedicated to truth is essential, but one dedicated to love as well? It’s divine. I felt it when you two were there, and I could not wait to read it. It was inspiring.”
They had finished their main course, and raved about their meals, and it was then that Verity had ordered the Baked Alaska. They were greeted to their sweets a few minutes later, as they shared their choices with each other.
Hammond seemed bouncy as he tasted the Baked Alaska. “This is manna from the gods, Verity, but this looks complicated to make. We ought to try to do it.”
“Maya makes her own ice cream for it.”
“It just melts in your mouth – the cake, the meringue, and the ice cream. I do love my brûlée, but I think I found my new favourite dessert.”
“She does not make it too often…”
“All the more reason we ought to do ourselves. I see many possibilities. You always know what to order.”
“With Maya, there is never a wrong choice.”
“But some a more right than others. This one is exciting.”
“More exciting than the Flamiche?”
“Oh, I loved the Flamiche, but it will never be your Gaisburger Marsch. Never. That is my favourite meal and it was the best thing I ever ate in my life. When we were trapped in that house with Nazi soldiers, and you tricked them with your disguised, making them that meal that sent them on their merry way, and you had leftovers – Verity, I was exhausted, terrified, confused, and one bite just placed me in the middle of paradise in the hotbed of that hellacious war. I never thought a meal could just bring out the best in a person, but it did. So Flamiche is fine, but your Marsch gives me strength. But this Baked Alaska is a mishmash of odd extremes coming together under complicated steps to deliver something pleasing.”
“If you want the rest of my dessert…”
“No, no, you made the right call, you enjoy it. I will attempt to make this for us, although my first effort may not be anywhere near this good.”
“But you are a very able chef.”
“So you are. It is exciting when we can cook together.”
“Or just sit at Viand and dine together.”
“It gives me peace, Verity. My life was always painful and a struggle where I lost more than I ever gained. Then we got married, and everything became serene and happy. I would have never have been here with all of these countless blessings if you hadn’t found me alive in that wretched pile of corpses in Vienna. I will never forget that, and no matter what we ever celebrate, I am always celebrating that. Nothing else. My career is aa wonderous thing, but I am here tonight because you love me against all impossible odds.”
Hammond became teary-eyed as Verity reached over the table and held his hand and squeezed it.
Maya looked at Queen’s Heights most endearing and eccentric couple and smiled. Whenever those two came to eat, everyone always wanted whatever meal they were having, hoping some of their happiness was contagious. It was a happy town and an endearing town, but those two were on a cloud on their own, and the bliss they felt was their own language, as their hearts were always giggling and chatting to each other.
Viand was a place filled with endless stories, but the most beautiful love story of all always came with a voluptuous and glamourous redheaded novelist and professor along with her now boldly dressed and soon-to-be novelist husband came inside to bask in their love and gratitude for life, their love, and all the beautiful things in the world.