The Sweetest Part (a short story)
By the time Helena’s alarm went off, Sam had been gone for hours. The pillow held the indentation of Sam’s head, but when Helena felt it, it was cold. She forced herself out of bed and pulled on her running clothes, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She wasn’t fully awake when she reached the sea front and began to jog.
The sun had only been up for an hour. Helena passed other runners, also out exercising before the workday began. Many of them looked familiar, but she hadn’t been here in Brighton long enough to say hello. Eventually she’d make friends. But right now . . . she felt very alone.
Helena remembered a time, not long ago, when she and Sam would have woken up together. It was the best part of the day. They would have curled into each other in bed and talked in quiet murmurs. They would have shared coffee and walked to work hand-in-hand, parting at the Underground station with a kiss.
Now, the surf kissed the shingle and Helena ran past the ice-cream-coloured beach huts on her own. Moving to Brighton hadn’t been a mistake. It was a new beginning for both of them. She was bound to feel lonely for a while.
But it seemed she hardly saw Sam these days, only in snatched hours between work and sleep, when both of them were too tired to really talk. The commute took its toll on Helena, and Sam was starting a new business. They were both doing what they loved, living in a place they loved; but part of what they loved had always been their time together.
Helena finished her run, breathing hard, and wiped her sweaty forehead on her t-shirt. She checked her watch. Station in fifteen minutes, shower and change when she got to the office, and she’d be ready for her nine-thirty meeting. She just had time to pick up a coffee on her way.
The patisserie was quiet at this time of morning, full of the scent of coffee. Pastries sat in tempting ranks: flaky croissants, tartlets topped with jewel-like fruit, macarons in every colour. ‘Morning, Jean-Claude. Double espresso to go, please.’
The young man behind the counter greeted her with a dazzling smile that dug dimples in his cheeks. ‘Good morning, Helena.’
She watched him as he made the coffee with quick, efficient movements. He put a lid on the paper cup and plucked a single purple macaron from the colourful row, popping it into a little bag for her.
‘Another new flavour?’
‘Did you like the one I gave you yesterday?’
‘This one is mûre. Blackberry.’ He winked at her. ‘I hope it will brighten your day.’
She ate the macaron on her way to the station. The intense fruit flavour made her remember picking warm blackberries from a hedgerow with Sam. Their first date had been a walk and a country pub, and wondering whether they would kiss. Helena smiled for the first time since she’d woken up in her empty bed.
On Thursday her hair was sopping wet from the rain, and the macaron was green pistachio.
‘Another new flavour?’ she said. ‘That’s the third one this week.’
‘You’re a very special lady,’ said Jean-Claude. ‘And you run so much, I think you need the calories.’
She used to run with Sam, but there wasn’t time, now. Pistachio was their first holiday in Venice, gelato in the sunshine after a run the length of the Lido.
‘Maybe I’ll try running with you one day,’ said Jean-Claude. ‘If the boss-lady ever lets me rest.’ His fingers brushed hers as he handed her the coffee and macaron.
She devoured it in two bites. Macarons were like flirtation; they were sweet and airy and not serious.
Although if you had a macaron every day, was it more than flirtation? Could the superficial sweetness be something more satisfying?
Helena downed the coffee, put her cup in the bin, and ran for her train. As it pulled away towards London, she wondered if she should tell Sam about Jean-Claude’s flirtatiousness.
‘This one is special.’ Jean-Claude kissed his fingertips.
The macaron was in a little cardboard box, tied with silver ribbon.
‘You must tell the baker what you think,’ he said seriously. He held her gaze with his deep brown eyes. ‘This one, it was made just for you.’
She was running late, but she unwrapped the macaron on her way and popped it, whole, into her mouth. It was salted caramel. Buttery, light, and so good she had to pause as it melted on her tongue.
And she was back in Paris, on their honeymoon, on the sunny steps of Sacré-Coeur with Sam, sticky-fingered, feeding her salted caramels out of a bag.
A piece of paper fluttered out of the little box onto the pavement. She stooped and picked it up.
H: Seeing you is the sweetest part of my day, it said.
She turned around and went back the way she’d come.
Sam was a shock of dark hair underneath the white duvet. Her hand rested on Helena’s pillow, in the indentation Helena’s head had made.
Helena climbed in next to her. Sam smelled of ground almonds and salted caramel. There was a smudge of flour on her cheekbone: she must have fallen asleep as soon as she’d come home from her patisserie, where she’d spent all night baking pastries and macarons. Helena kissed her cheek, and Sam opened her eyes.
‘Hey,’ she said, sleepy and pleased. ‘I thought you were working.’
‘I decided that it was more important to see you today.’
Sam cuddled closer, curling into Helena. She was warm with sleep. ‘Did you like the macaron? I made it for you, and Jean-Claude said he’d wrap it up with my note.’
‘It was the sweetest part of my day,’ said Helena. ‘It’s always the sweetest part of my day.’ She kissed Sam. ‘But this is sweeter.’
For Orlando, 12 June 2016
by Julie Cohen