in the café rue de turenne, charleroi, belgium, 1943
words: brian doyle
As soon as the German major entered the café, the manager was aware of the officer's slight unsteadiness and overexuberance; the major eyed the waitress slightly too long, shucked his overcoat onto his chair with a carelessness rare in an officer, and ordered not a glass but a bottle of wine, which the manager delivered himself. The major sipped the wine, pronounced it excellent, and then ordered without looking at the menu. The manager jotted down the order while noticing a yellow folder in the major's coat pocket; it had been jammed into a pocket slightly too small for it and it was buckled and protruding.
The manager poured more wine for the major, signaled for bread to be brought to the table, and went to the kitchen. In the kitchen were four people: the cook, a man of about forty; his teenage son, who did all the dishwashing; a man of about sixty who did all the heavy work, like lifting ice and unloading trucks; and the cook's other son, about age ten, who helped his father slice vegetables and prepare sauces. This boy, even at age ten, was wonderfully talented in the kitchen, and the manager had already let him make his own dishes occasionally; he had a lovely touch with soups in particular, and the café already featured whatever soups he chose to make. A bold move, to give a boy of ten his way in the kitchen; but these were hard days, and anything that would bring people through the door was a very good thing indeed.
The waitress came into the kitchen and saw the manager and understood.
We will have four minutes, no more, said the manager quietly. What he has must be important. The color gives it away. Give him another glass, without making much of the pour, and then he will visit the restroom. I will take the folder and bring it here. Each of you will have a minute, no more. When you hear the toilet flush, crowd the hallway a bit, to slow him down; and you, Justine, present yourself, and escort him back to his table. You might linger a moment or two, but don't sit down. Ready?
They all nodded, even the boy.
Justine and the manager went back out; just as they stepped through the door they saw the major drain his glass, and Justine, with the evanescent step of an experienced waitress, was at his elbow an instant later, smiling as she poured. The manager kept an eye on the front door to be sure the major was not expecting company. The major sipped from his second glass, and a moment later scraped back his chair and stood; he looked inquiringly at the manager, who nodded toward the rear of the café. As the major turned he clipped his overcoat with his hip, and the coat slumped to the floor like a shot animal. The manager, with the same practiced grace as Justine, was bending over the coat an instant later, and draping it back over the major's chair, brushing a shoulder of the coat with one hand. He then stepped into the kitchen. In the folder were two pages of typed sheets, each with the name of a city followed by a string of numbers; in all there were twenty cities, and twenty runs of numbers after them. He handed one sheet to the cook and the other to the man who did the heavy work, and then positioned himself by the kitchen door; Justine stood at the end of the little hallway that led from the restroom back to the café.
Just then a boisterous quartet of men at a table by the window actually shouted for Justine to bring them a second bottle; she delivered the bottle, opened it, evaded their favor, and was back at the end of the hallway in seconds.
In the kitchen the cook and his sons wrote numbers furiously into flour they had spilled and smoothed onto the chopping block; the man who did the heavy work wrote his numbers into blocks of butter in the cold room. In both cases they wrote the numbers first and then the first letter or two of the corresponding city, not the whole name of the city; Na for Namur, for example, and Baa for Baastschnech. The man who did the heavy work somehow finished his page first, and handed it back to the manager; an instant later the cook's youngest son handed theirs to the manager, who put both pages carefully back into the folder and walked out into the café just as the toilet flushed. By the major's table he bent down to pick up the spoon he had left on the floor, and slipped the folder back into the coat just as the major stepped out of the restroom and found Justine smiling as she brushed past him. He smiled and said something complimentary and Justine bowed slightly in acknowledgment. The manager held the major's chair for him and an instant later the cook, with a flourish, delivered the major's meal. The manager filled the major's glass, looked at the nearly empty bottle with disapproval, and signaled Justine to bring a second bottle, on the house. This Justine did, and the major, after tasting his first bite and offering fulsome compliments to the cook, expressed his gratitude for the manager's hospitable gesture. The manager bowed slightly in acknowledgment and then stopped by the four men in the window to see if their meals had been satisfactory, which of course they were, especially the soup. The manager bowed slightly and said he would pass the compliment to the chef. The four men debated a moment about a third bottle; the manager leaned down and showed one of the men a particular bottle of German wine that he highly recommended, and the man stared up at him and nodded that he understood, and would be back later for the numbers. The four men then decided that two bottles were plenty and they had probably better be getting home, as the evening was growing late.