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Chris Tinniswood

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The Pilgrim's Shell
By Chris Tinniswood
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Ray Coomb revisits a tea-shop from his childhood, armed with a copy of Proust and a heart full of grief for the death of his father. He is looking for closure, but what he finds... is a miracle.

‘Do you have any of those petite madeleine cakes?’

Ray looks up at the waitress enquiringly, his wet hair lying in strands across his forehead, leaking tears into his eyebrows. It’s still raining outside the tea-shop window; it seems to Ray that it’s done so incessantly since his father’s funeral.

‘Of course, Sir,’ replies the waitress, with a smile and a ready notepad. ‘We’re famous for them in these parts. That’s why this tea-shop’s called ‘The Pilgrim’s Shell’.’

‘Oh, yes,’ he says, nodding wisely, whilst rummaging in his coat pocket for something, ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.’
The waitress looks shifty; her eyes widen as Ray takes out a battered copy of Proust’s eponymous work, and starts flicking through it.

‘Would you like tea?’ she enquires, hoping to steer the conversation away from literature. She wishes she’d listened to her employer when he’d read her the famous passage with the Madeleine cakes and tea. She’d blithely thought that she’d never need to know it. Typical luck; first day on the job, as well.

‘I expect you’ve read this a thousand times,’ says Ray, ignoring her question and wondering why he’s being so mean. From the look on her face, it’s obvious that she doesn’t have a clue what he’s on about, but he can’t help himself. Ignorance is no excuse.

‘Actually, no I haven’t,’ blushes the waitress. She must be no more than sixteen. Of course she hasn’t. Her reddened cheeks stand out from the starch-white apron she has on. Ray suddenly feels like a total heel.

‘I’m sorry,’ he exclaims, ‘that was rude of me. I shouldn’t have assumed any such thing.’

The waitress blushes even more. ‘It’s okay sir, really. I was told to, but I…’ her voice trails off, and she shrugs. ‘Was that a yes to the tea?’

Ray nods, then turns his attention to the book in his hands; it’s opened at the very place they’d avoided discussing. The passage has been highlighted in yellow. He casts his mind back to the day before; finding it in a box of things his father left him in his will. But why leave him this book? He doesn’t see or talk to him for twenty-six years and then he leaves him a French intellectual’s magnum opus with yellow highlighter all over it. What’s he trying to say?

Ray reads the passage: ‘She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory-this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?’*

He stops reading and starts remembering: His grandfather took him to this very tea shop, twenty-six years ago. He is there now, re-living it: Grandfather, with his cane propped against the spare chair at the table, and the sunlight glinting off his glasses, lovingly narrating Proust to his eight year old grandson. They’d shared madeleine cakes and tea afterwards, like a literary Eucharist. He had been fascinated by the way that Proust had described how the accidental combination of tastes had reawakened a memory. But what had happened next? He can’t remember. How ironic.

‘Your tea and cakes, Sir.’

The waitress serves him his order. Ray thanks her and she leaves, not once looking him in the eye. As Ray pours his tea, he realises that he’s been estranged from his father for the same amount of time since the afternoon in the tea-shop with his grandfather. Presumably, whatever happened afterwards was the cause of their estrangement; it had to be something traumatic to make a child block it out, and to make the man return to the scène du crime so many years later.

Ray stirs the cup with a silver spoon. He has never had time for regrets. The absence of his father during his formative years makes him insular, but gives him drive and ambition to succeed in spite of his family’s shortcomings. He makes himself busy; every waking moment is taken up with making money. In the cold, lonely moments during the small hours of the night, he sometimes lies awake, looking at the shadows cast through the open window by the moon. But those moments are few and far between and they fade with the morning light.

Ray looks at the petite madeleines. They are dusted with icing sugar and look delicious. The icing sugar gathers in the fluted rivulets of the shell-like cake. It makes them look like frozen rivers. He picks one up and feels the moist texture on his fingertips. He takes a bite and sips his tea. He shudders involuntarily, and something shifts in his head, as if a camera lens has refocused: Suddenly, he is eight again, walking down the hill from the tea-shop towards his old house, strolling to the beat of his Grandfather’s walking stick, their shoes supplying the scuffing syncopation. He looks up to see his Grandfather smiling down at him, and catches the faint scent of Imperial Leather. Grandfather reaches into his pocket and retrieves a bar of Fry’s Peppermint Cream. He can hear the crisp rustle of the foil wrapper as his Grandfather snaps off a chunk and hands it to him. As he puts it to his mouth, the heady scent of peppermint fondant entices his taste glands, and the dark chocolate snaps in his mouth.

Ray’s adult mind invades the scene in a rush of thoughts: This is when it happens; we have always raced each other down the hill, and this day is no exception. I start running before Grandfather has a chance to finish his chocolate. He grins and follows me. I am always amazed that he uses a walking stick and yet runs as fast as I can. But this time is different. After a few paces, I look back and I can see that Grandfather is in trouble. He is already slowing down instead of getting into his stride. He drops his walking stick and clutches his left arm with his right hand. Grandfather collapses and I don’t know what to do. He dies right there in the street, and I blame myself. My father blames me, too. I can hear him now: ‘Just because you didn’t know that Grandfather would have a heart attack, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t to blame. Ignorance is no excuse, boy.’ In that defining moment, we become estranged. He banishes me from his life. My father has sent me to Coventry on a one-way ticket. His unforgiving nature alienates him from my mother, too, and in just under a year they divorce. I don’t see, or talk to, or hear from my father again until his solicitor calls me with the news that he has died. I don’t expect him to leave me anything, but he does; a box of things, and inside it, the book. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu; Remembrance of Things Past.

The memory re-awakened is so powerful, he has tears in his eyes and the taste of dark chocolate and peppermint fondant in his mouth. He is a living literary moment. It is as if he was actually there, as if this communion with the past has somehow transubstantiated the cake into the chocolate. And if this is possible, at this moment, within this bubble he has created, who knows what could happen?

The memory repeats itself. This time it is clearer, more precise. It starts from the beginning again, as if it’s on a loop. It seems to be unstoppable, inevitable: His grandfather tucks his walking stick under his arm and starts to run down the hill saying, ‘Come on, Ray, I’ll race you!’
The exultation Ray feels on hearing these words releases the pent-up guilt he has felt all these years. It isn’t my fault; all this time I’ve been blaming myself, and it isn’t my fault! The memory is so vivid, Ray thinks he can change it, and suddenly it's happening: Ray tells his grandfather to stop. ‘I don’t want to race today’, he says, ‘let’s just walk, Grandad’. He looks slightly deflated, but there’s a glimmer of relief on his face, too. They’re walking down the hill now, hand in hand, and Ray is trying to keep his footsteps in time with the old man’s. Quickly, his grandfather adjusts his pace, and Ray is out of step. They’re laughing now, the awkward moment forgotten. Ray smiles in the tea-shop, and outside the rain stops.

‘Everything okay, sir?’

Ray is startled by the waitress’s voice. It brings him back to the present, and he’s glad to see she’s looking him in the eye again.

‘Yes,’ he replies. ’Everything’s fine.’

‘Will there be anything else?’

Ray thinks for a moment. Suddenly, he doesn’t want tea and cakes any more; they’ve served their purpose. ‘No thanks,’ he answers, ‘just the bill.’

‘Certainly, sir,’ says the waitress.

Ray sighs contentedly; for the first time in ages, he feels at peace. He looks down at the table and his unfinished petite madeleine; it’s then he notices another plate on the table; another tea-cup and saucer, another half-eaten cake. He looks at the chair next to him; a brown corduroy jacket sits on the back of it. Something stirs in his belly. He was alone when he came in.

The waitress comes over with the bill.

‘Who does that jacket belong to?’ he asks.

‘The gentleman you’re with,’ she says, frowning. ‘He’s in the toilet.’
Ray looks over at the toilet door. It’s shut, but he can just hear the rushing sound of a hand-dryer from within. Sweat breaks out on his forehead. The door opens.

It is his father.

Ray stares, dumbfounded. He’s aged, undoubtedly: crow’s feet, glasses, grey hair, wrinkles, but it’s definitely his father. He smiles at Ray, then picks up his jacket and puts it on.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. At that moment, the sun breaks out from behind a cloud, and glints off his glasses. Ray squints, and in that instant he remembers everything: Grandfather still dies that day, but his father doesn’t blame him. Instead, they visit this tea-shop every year on this day, in his memory. All the intervening years are there, too, but now his father’s in them as well; laughing at his own jokes, smiling with his crow’s feet, just being there. His rock.

Ray blinks, then smiles. ‘Nothing’s wrong,’ he answers. He pays the bill, thanks the waitress and they leave.
Outside, the sun is shining brightly now, and they set off down the hill towards their old house, recalling fond memories of his grandfather. Suddenly, his father breaks into a run, then looks back, beckoning Ray with his hand.

‘Come on, Ray, I’ll race you!’ he says.

*Proust, Marcel: A la recherche du temps perdu, Vol. 1: Swann’s Way, Overture, online version, available from: [posted March 29 2003: accessed Sept 28 2007].

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