‘Now listen!’ said Odetta, punching her vowels like they were a lump of dough. ‘I didn’t come to this country for the weather,’ she said, laughing. ‘I came here because I have a gift.’
‘A gift?’ said Autumn, her pen poised on the notepad.
‘Oh don’t get excited, Mademoiselle!’
Odetta waved away Autumn’s interest with a flick of her meaty wrist. Odetta’s podgy frame was accentuated by a tight-fitting black dress that came to just over her knees. The stretched capped sleeves revealed her muscular arms, which, she said, had been developed through years of pastry rolling and whisking by hand.
‘Can’t you just use a mixer?’ said Autumn, carelessly.
Odetta was horrified at the suggestion. ‘I need to feel the chocolate,’ she said, while caressing a chocolate mixture with a hand whisk. ‘You can’t do that with a mixer.’
Odetta took a swig from a large wine glass, even though it was barely midday. A stream of burgundy coloured liquid dribbled down her lined chin. She mopped up the trickle with her finger and licked it.
‘Mmm,’ she said.
Autumn got the feeling Odetta was a regular drinker and scribbled words to this effect on her notepad in a tight and frustrated scrawl. She was still annoyed at being given such a parochial story to cover, especially after her exposé of Councillor McDoughen’s dodgy financial affairs. Didn’t a Regional Press Award mean anything anymore?
Autumn was perched on a stool in an alcove of the pokey kitchen behind the chocolate shop. She could barely move her arms for fear of elbowing a stack of recipe books off a sideboard on one side, while on the other, she risked disturbing a pile of ceramic mixing bowls, battered cake tins, and burnt wooden spoons that were drying on the draining board beside the old Belfast sink.
Autumn perched her tea back onto the congested sideboard. ‘When you say feel,’ she said, shifting from one dead bottom cheek to the other. ‘What do you mean exactly?’
‘It’s like making love,’ said Odetta. ‘You can’t just rush straight into it. You have to warm a woman up first. Only then can you begin to caress and tease her and finally make love to her. But it’s only by using your hands that you can feel when she’s ready.’
Autumn wanted to laugh, but managed to hold it in. ‘Oh right,’ she said, unable to contain a smile.
‘Oh don’t tell me you’re shy, Mademoiselle,’ said Odetta. ‘You know how you want to be touched, no?’ Odetta winked as she pulled the whisk in and out of the runny chocolate in long exaggerated strokes. ‘You prefer the man who pounces on you and humps you like you’re a lump of meat, or the man who wines and dines you and makes you feel like the only woman in the world.’ Odetta stopped and looked Autumn up and down. ‘Or perhaps you prefer a softer touch altogether?’
Odetta revelled in Autumn’s faltering response. ‘Oh relax! I didn’t ask you what your favourite position is. You English are so repressed. I’m not ashamed to say that I love sex.’
‘Why am I not surprised?’ said Victoria, hurrying through the door with a plastic tray brimming with dirty cups and plates.
Without missing a beat, Odetta yelled her love of sex. Distant giggles emanated from the shop beyond the passageway.
‘You were just as shy, my little Victoria, until I trained you to embrace your womanly curves.’
Odetta had wandered up behind the young woman who was now bent over the steaming dishwasher on the other side of the kitchen.
‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ said Odetta, as she grabbed a handful of Victoria’s backside.
Autumn was uncomfortable at the blatant sexual harassment being perpetrated by Odetta, yet Victoria herself seemed unfazed, even bored by it.
‘You know, we could use a hand out there,’ said Victoria, as she moodily stacked the dirty cutlery. ‘And I don’t mean that kind,’ she said, looking down at the hand on her meaty arse.
Victoria was in her late teens. She wore a scowl across her pasty face and a cherry red apron around her chunky waist. The apron framed her large bottom like a painting and drew attention to her much too small pair of black leggings. The fabric was so stretched it had become see-through, showing off her cellulite and love handles.
‘A woman must be comfortable with her own body. Learn to not just accept it, but to embrace it. Look at, Victoria. Look at how much she loves her body. She doesn’t care who sees her arse!’ she said, slapping Victoria’s bottom.
Autumn was appalled by Odetta’s behaviour, yet manners still got the better of her, and so she sat quietly fuming to herself, as she scribbled the words ‘sex pest’ on her notepad.
‘You see, my darling, chocolate is no different to a lady,’ said Odetta, striding back across the kitchen.
Autumn noticed that Odetta appeared taller and much leaner than she’d previously thought. Perhaps it was the fanlight in the middle of the kitchen casting a different set of shadows onto her body.
‘A woman wants to feel special. She wants to feel loved,’ said Odetta.
The chocolatier resumed whisking, while also continuing to expound on what women want. A jet of chocolate flicked off the end of Odetta’s whisk as she was gesticulating this point. It splattered across the worktop, just inches from Autumn’s notepad. Autumn subtly leaned forward and stared at the little splodge. She’d never really been a lover of chocolate; she always preferred savoury foods. But something drew her to this particular chocolate, and she found she had to fight the urge to poke her finger into its glossy smooth surface and lick it.
‘My chocolate is tailored to the heart as well as the mouth,’ said Odetta, staring pointedly at Autumn.
Victoria slammed the dishwasher shut, hit the start button, and huffed her way out of the kitchen. The sudden noise jolted Autumn out of her chocolate daydream.
‘She’s always so moody when she’s on the blob,’ said Odetta, shrugging her shoulders. ‘Each one of my chocolate’s are unique, because I only ever make a recipe once.’
‘One recipe for each batch of chocolate?’
‘One recipe,’ she said, nodding and then pointing to the stacks of recipe books millimetres from Autumn’s right elbow. ‘An artist is always moving forward.’
‘That must be pretty time consuming.’
‘Why of course it is, that’s why I have a waiting list as long as my arm,’ she said, gesturing to her bicep, which now seemed to fit the sleeves of her dress more comfortably.
‘And do you add anything out of the ordinary to your chocolate at all?’
Odetta stopped the whisk.
‘Out of the ordinary?’ she said, her eyes boring into Autumn’s. ‘Why everything is out of the ordinary to the barbarian palate of the English.’
Odetta laughed, grabbed a handful of walnuts, and smashed them to pieces with a rolling pin, sending bits of shell flying about the kitchen. One piece rebounded off the low ceiling and landed in Autumn’s lap. Autumn feared the vibrations might send the delicately stacked mountain of washing up crashing down on top of her, but Odetta seemed unconcerned by her guest’s anxiety and continued merrily crushing the walnuts.
Autumn cast a sneaky glance towards her watch. She’d spent far too much time at the shop, but she couldn’t extricate herself from the alcove without brushing past Odetta’s slender frame, and she didn’t want to give the old woman any kind of encouragement to get handsy with her.
Autumn picked up the brain like shell from her lap and deposited it into her empty teacup on the sideboard.
‘Some of our readers-’
‘Readers? What readers?’
‘For the Eastern Daily Press, Madame Odetta. It’s a regional newspaper that covers Norfolk.’
‘Ah yes, I think we use that to line the litter tray,’ she said, as she tossed the now naked nuts into the mixing bowl.
‘Well,’ she said, ignoring Odetta’s slight, ‘some of our readers claim to have had some rather peculiar experiences after tasting your chocolate.’
‘Really?’ said Odetta, looking surprised. ‘Well as you can see, there’s no funny business in this recipe. It’s all natural ingredients. None of that rubbish you find in commercial chocolate.’ She stopped folding the nuts into the chocolate and thought for a second. ‘It must be the flavours,’ she said, aiming the spoon at Autumn. A stream of chocolate flicked off the end of the utensil and landed on Autumn’s exposed knee. Odetta hadn’t noticed the arrant chocolate splodge, as she was now adding ingredients from small glass bottles with faded French handwritten labels on them.
‘You English aren’t used to food that actually tastes of anything!’ said Odetta, throwing back her head and laughing like a gurgling drain.
Autumn didn’t know what made her do it. Perhaps it was that ages old niggle between the English and the French, or more likely Odetta’s condescending manner, but while the cook was busy adding ingredients, Autumn leaned forward, swiped the chocolate from her knee with her finger and licked it. It tasted exactly as she’d predicted: bitter, but then there was a metallic aftertaste, and so many competing flavours that her head pulsed as her brain worked overtime to identify them. She certainly couldn’t see why some people had travelled from as far afield as Edinburgh to try Odetta’s ‘special’ chocolate. Suddenly her lips tingled, spots appeared like hundreds and thousands before her eyes, and she felt like she was going to throw up. Autumn stood bolt upright.
‘Are you ok? You look like a ghost.’
‘I’m fine. I just really need –’
Autumn barged past Odetta towards the bathroom.
‘If you’re going to throw up, make sure you spritz. My customers don’t like a sickie toilet,’ she said, yelling after the journalist.
Autumn hugged the pink walls of the passageway to stop herself from falling over. She felt drunk, but knew she couldn’t be. She’d watched Odetta add every ingredient and not seen a splash of alcohol go into the mix, not even that dodgy looking wine she was drinking. She bolted the toilet door behind her and rested her head against the red glossy paint. She felt hot and clammy and confused. It couldn’t be the chocolate. Nothing could make you ill that quickly. It must be some other sickness. A bolt of fear shot through her.
‘No, it can’t be that.’
Autumn shook the thought away, put the toilet lid down, and sat with her head in her hands.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not pregnant. It’s just stress,’ she said, fanning her face with her jumper.
Luckily, the other toilet cubicle next door was empty, so no one could hear her nervous habit of muttering to herself. Autumn hung her head between her knees and made herself take slow and deliberate breaths.
‘Ok, get it together, Autumn.’
The room had stopped spinning and she was starting to feel better.
‘I can’t believe the tight bitch didn’t give me any chocolate.’
She sat back against the cistern, took off her glasses, and wiped the sweat from her brow. Looking down at her new glasses, she suddenly felt very silly.
‘Sorry, about that, it’s my glasses. I’ve just got a new prescription.’
‘No. I just needed a moment to clear my head.’
‘Perhaps some coffee?’
‘Oh no, thanks.’
The thought of more liquid sent a queasy sensation through Autumn.
‘Are you sure it’s the glasses? Perhaps you should visit your doctor? You can never be too careful, especially when it comes to children.’
Autumn shook her head. ‘Oh no, I don’t have children.’
‘But you might, no?’ said Odetta, smiling serenely.
Autumn felt a shiver run up her spine, and she suddenly wondered if she really had been alone in the toilet.
‘Perhaps you should sit down?’ said Odetta. ‘You look like you might faint.’
Odetta guided Autumn not to the stool she’d sat on earlier, but to a crimson chaise longue in the opposite corner of the kitchen. This side of the kitchen was less functional and dishevelled and much more homely than the other. It was bathed in a low yellow light cast from a Tiffany lamp and surrounded by neatly stacked bookcases and two beautifully cast bronzes of a ballerina in flight.
It was only now that Autumn noticed Odetta’s eyes. Earlier she been too busy noting the various ingredients of Odetta’s recipe, but now the chocolatier was facing her, she saw that her eyes were a remarkable shade of black. But they weren’t dull like a blackboard. They shimmered like the metallic paint on a new car or a starry sky at night. Autumn was mesmerised by them.
‘Here, drink some water,’ said Odetta.
The glass was already at her lips before she could protest and so she obediently took a sip. But the sip turned into a gulp when Odetta cupped her chin and encouraged her to take on more liquid. She drank and drank until finally she couldn’t breathe and she wrenched her head out of Odetta’s palm and caught her breath.
‘That’s better,’ said Odetta, wiping a dribble from Autumn’s chin with her fingers and smiling. ‘You should start to feel better soon.’
As much as she hated to admit it, Autumn was starting to feel a bit better.
‘Just relax for a little while, Mademoiselle.’
Odetta gently eased Autumn back onto the chaise. She slipped off her maroon shoes and lifted her bare legs onto the plush sofa. Autumn was surprised by Odetta’s tender touch and the softness of her hands. Perhaps it was the low light, but Autumn noticed that Odetta appeared younger than she’d initially thought. The deep-set lines on her chin and around her eyes looked smoother, and her cheekbones seemed to have emerged from her face like dumplings popping up in a stew. Perhaps the steam from the dishwasher had inadvertently given her a facial.
‘While you were in the bathroom, I finished your recipe.’
‘Why of course, that’s why you came here, didn’t you? To try my chocolate?’
‘About bloody time,’ thought Autumn.
Odetta bent down in front of Autumn and put her hand on her bare knee. Autumn felt nervous as Odetta rested her hand on the very spot the dollop of chocolate had resided minutes earlier. Odetta was nattering on about how she added ingredients based upon a person’s character, but all Autumn could think about was the patch of skin on which Odetta’s hand was softly patting or rather caressing her.
‘And of course I added a little extra fire to the mix,’ said Odetta, squeezing Autumn’s knee with her spindly fingers.
The way Odetta said ‘of course’ made Autumn feel uneasy. She said it as if she some how already knew Autumn’s love of fiery curries that made her lips tingle. Autumn suddenly felt very vulnerable and had to resist the urge to pull away from her host.
‘Do you have children?’ she blurted out, trying to divert attention away from herself.
‘Children?’ said Odetta. ‘Oh! I see,’ she said, suddenly comprehending. ‘You English and your small talk. You never just come out with what you’re thinking. Tell me what you’re thinking right now?’
Autumn was taken aback by Odetta’s directness.
Odetta had stopped caressing and was now gripping Autumn’s knee.
‘Don’t think, just speak the first words that enter your head.’
‘I can’t. My mind’s gone blank.’
Odetta stared intently into Autumn’s eyes, as she clutched her knees.
‘Ah!’ she said. ‘You want me to move my hand? I’m sorry. I can see it makes you uncomfortable. I forget you aren’t a huggy nation.’
Odetta removed her hand and got to her feet. Autumn couldn’t help but feel as if Odetta had somehow bored into her skull with her eyes and read her thoughts.
‘In France we hug and kiss everybody. I hug the postman. I hug the butcher. Even complete strangers. But I can see the thought horrifies you,’ she said, teasing.
‘No, it doesn’t. It’s just, well, we’re just not brought up that way here.’
‘Of course, but I think you also need to let go a little, no?’
Odetta scooched behind the chaise. Autumn thought she was reaching for a book on the shelf, but then she felt Odetta’s hands on her shoulders. She tensed up.
‘Relax! I’m just going to release some tension. I know a few techniques.’
Odetta’s touch was soft at first but became firmer as she kneaded Autumn’s shoulders like she was making bread.
‘Oh! You are like a bundle of tangled wool. Relax, Mademoiselle, relax!’
But Autumn found it difficult to relax in the presence of a stranger who was invading her personal space.
‘Perhaps some chocolate will help.’
Autumn was worried. What if her funny turn earlier hadn’t been her glasses but the chocolate after all? What was she going to do if it happened again? How was she going to finesse her way out of throwing up her host’s finely crafted work? Odetta leaned over to the worktop and picked up a tray of beautifully decorated chocolate balls. Each chocolate was adorned differently from the other: some were zigzagged with white piped chocolate, others were dusted with gold leaf, and another had pink tinged icing splattered across it in a Jackson Pollock like fashion.
‘Oh they’re beautiful,’ said Autumn, forgetting her concerns, as she became transfixed by the galaxy of neatly arranged stars on the tray.
‘They taste even better,’ said Odetta, kissing the air. ‘Here,’ she said, offering her the tray of chocolates.
Autumn reached out. Her hand hovered over the chocolates.
‘Go on. Treat yourself, my darling.’
Autumn picked up a chocolate ball and inhaled its sweet aroma.
‘Mmm,’ she said.
Autumn was surprised to hear herself moan over a ball of chocolate, but she couldn’t help herself. The smell seemed to awaken something primeval inside her.
‘Just go with your feelings. Don’t try to rationalise,’ said Odetta.
Odetta’s voice had slipped away into the distance, although her mouth was right beside Autumn’s ear. Autumn pressed the little planet to her lips, and as the chocolate began to melt onto her fingers, she slipped the ball whole into her mouth. The chocolate wasn’t bitter, as before, instead it was sweet and coppery, yet not sickly. It was just perfect. Autumn tried not to devour the chocolate in one go, but she was unable to control herself. As her teeth broke the outer layer of chocolate to set free the soft and squishy middle, Autumn’s mind flooded with nostalgic images: the house she grew up in, her sisters and brother playing war games in the garden, her parents in the front seats of their post box red family estate, and then various lovers from her past, starting with her first boyfriend to the older women she met at university.
‘That’s right. Let the images flow through you.’
Autumn obeyed Odetta’s celestial like voice and let the images consume her, while chocolatey fingers messed up her hair and caressed her neck.
‘Oh God!’ moaned Autumn.
Autumn was desperate to retain the hard-bitten demeanour she’d spent so long cultivating, but with each successive bite, the mask slipped. The intense flavours caused waves of euphoria to pulse through her body. She tingled right down to her toes and into her fingertips. Unable to contain the feelings building up inside her, Autumn finally threw her head back and screamed. The chocolate had consumed every inch of her. It was like a drug and she craved more and more of it. The fingers that had been in her hair and on her neck were now at her mouth feeding her runny liquid chocolate. Autumn was like a child cleaning up a chocolatey spoon, as she wildly licked Odetta’s chocolate covered fingers.
When Autumn felt the teeth on her neck, she welcomed them. She was happy to return the pleasure Odetta had given her. Autumn let out a gasp as Odetta’s pointed canines pierced her skin and she drank from her. Unlike Autumn, Odetta wasn’t greedy. She took her time: taking slow, deep, and regular mouthfuls of Autumn’s sweet young blood. She was careful not to drain the poor young thing too much, but still Autumn grew light-headed and weak, but it was a pleasant kind of weakness, like the kind caused by a long run. She was exhausted, but exhilarated. Her veins throbbed and she felt more alive than she had done in her whole life. She made to get up but Odetta held her back.
‘No, no! We don’t want you flat on your face.’
As Odetta smiled, Autumn saw that her teeth were drenched with blood. Her blood. Yet the sight of the liquid burgundy dribbling off Odetta’s chin onto her own bare skin and then running down her legs excited her. Odetta leaned forward and kissed Autumn on the lips. Autumn tasted her own metallic blood and realised it was the same flavour as the chocolate. Autumn fainted at the realisation.
When Autumn woke, she was still on the chaise longue, with a blanket draped over her legs. The kitchen was empty, but she could hear laughter from the shop out front. As she made to move, her head throbbed, and her neck ached. Autumn put her hand up to investigate the source of the pain and discovered a red silk scarf gently tied around her neck. Underneath it were the two small raised bumps that had been there for the last fortnight, yet she couldn’t remember how she got them. One morning a chill from an open window woke her, and when she got up to close it, she felt a dull pain and discovered the marks. She wrote them off as being the childhood acne she’d never quite managed to shake off as a grown-up. Autumn closed the window and hurried back into bed. She cursed her terrible genes and went back to sleep.