A Proustian Moment by Ndimu Grignon

Illustration by Andrea Miranda

The rhythmic tapping onto the table began to irritate me. My eyes flicked up from the menu I was perusing. Tap-tap-tap. I searched for the accuser and landed on a young woman, her ring was taking the lead and I began to feel the rhythm on my temple and the teeth I was currently clenching. I inhaled slowly, following her gaze to the entrance. She was sitting alone, just as I was. My irritation seeped out replaced by curiosity, I watched as she shifted nervously in her seat. Her fingers were covered in rings, gold and silver bands with inscriptions I was too far away to read. I wondered if she was meeting a partner. On her middle finger rested a sizeable crystal, opaque green in colour. It was beautiful. I peeled away from her fingers to investigate the rest of her. Her hair was a vibrant orange, I was surprised I hadn’t noticed it before. She had multiple necklaces with ornaments decorating her chest. As I observed this woman I felt as though she were unfolding before me. Every piece of jewellery and clothing, even her hair, seemed to be meticulously arranged. Her appearance was telling me a story that I couldn’t quite decipher, I was reminded of my mother. Mama used to always say that clothes introduced themselves. 

Mama loved colour. On Sunday mornings she’d wake me and I would be greeted by her favourite yellow dress. It felt as though the sun had come down to hold me. Warmth emanated from her very being, as though she was shrouded in gold. After breakfast, which consisted of at least 3 different coloured fruits and some hot ginger tea, I would follow her up into the library. It was the most treasured room in the whole house. I used to wait for her to enter first, my fingers crossed behind my back in childlike excitement, hoping that we would get to read my favourite book. We always did. As I peeked behind the door I watched her ring clad fingers glide across the shelves touching the binding of her books, as though she was garnering their magic. I stared wide-eyed, wondering if this is where her powers of gold came from. She smiled as though she heard my thoughts and beckoned me over to the window seat. The noon sun glided in through the windows and the dust floated lazily around the light. I giggled moving my arms back and forth, feeling the warmth spread deeper than my skin. 

“Mueni darling, would you like to pick a book?” Her words dripped like honey, leaving a pleasant taste on my tongue.

“Yes, mama. I have it right here.” I had taken Lazy Lion off the shelf. The cover had started to fray from overuse. I frowned, afraid that it would begin to fall apart. “Mama, I think it’s breaking,” I murmured as I went to sit between her outstretched legs, leaning my back on her torso. She patted my little afro down and laughed placing it under her chin, “my, your crown is growing.” 

“Look!” I pointed at the binding, half turning around to see if she was as afraid as I was. I only caught a smile. “Don’t worry Mueni, it’s not breaking. When we love something with intensity, sometimes we need to step back and remember why we fell in love with it in the first place.” 

“What does that mean, mama?”  

“It means that your book isn’t breaking baby, it’s starting to show how much you care for it. How about we try a different book today and next week, like visiting an old friend, you can come back to it. What do you think?” Gentleness carried her words, I nodded enthusiastically grinning with ideas of old and new friends. I slid off the window seat and went to my shelves. Mama had divided the library in two, leaving half the shelves for me and the other half for herself. I never understood why she left me so much space. Her shelves were crammed with books from all around the world piled on top of each other, while my collection took up just one shelf. One evening I had decided to move some of her novels to fill up my shelves but the next morning everything was back in its place. 

“I found one!” I grabbed The White Giraffe off my shelf and dashed back to mama. I settled in and opened the first page. She wrapped her arms around me and I leaned back breathing in deeply the safety of lavender and lemongrass. I spent the rest of the hour reading aloud to mama and she responded with appropriately placed gasps and laughs.  

“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Albert, happy birthday to you!” I blinked, looking around at the cluster of waiters around a table. It always seemed odd to me to have strangers singing at you in off-key notes with no real interest in your life. It appeared that this particular life was a long one. I watched as a couple and their two sons congratulated a wizened looking man. He was smiling widely, his lips stretched out over a set of over-bleached teeth. I wondered if they were real. His hand shook slightly as he lowered the knife into the cake, everyone cheered when it reached the bottom. I read “Happy 79th, Grandpa” in white icing. After contemplation, I concluded with some distaste that it may have been some sort of fruitcake. The rest of the cake’s icing was blue, I was curious as to whether Albert had chosen it himself. Candles littered the top. I counted sixteen. My gaze rested on the candles as he blew them out. The flames disappeared, save one. He attempted to blow it out but he was beaten by the little boy sitting beside him. I could hear his mum chastising him and it made me want to laugh. Smiling, I was taken back to a time of lost electricity and candles. 

I screamed as we were plunged into complete darkness, “mama, mama, I can’t see!” my voice was laced with panic, sounding louder in the dark. I groped blindly trying to feel for her purple dress. Suddenly, a warm hand gripped mine and I was comforted by the smell of lavender and lemongrass. 

“Don’t worry Mueni, we’ve lost electricity. Could you come with me to fetch some candles?” Her calm voice carried down and I looked up, the darkness stilled as I felt her presence, golden warmth floated about her. I let it carry me away into the storeroom where we kept the candles. 

“I have to let go of your hand now to get the candles, okay?” I whimpered but conceded. Shutting my eyes tight I waited, listening to the rustling and jingling of the junk we kept in there as my mother searched for the candles. “Found them!” 

She took my hand and led me back to our little living room. I sat, impatiently waiting as she lit one candle after the other with a purple lighter. Eventually, she had placed several on our wooden table and the window sills. Shadows danced along our walls as the flames flickered back and forth. The scratches and drawings on the wood became distorted, reminding me of those prehistoric cave drawings mama had shown me a picture of. Noticing my eyes darting around in fear mama called me to her. I went, grateful to seek solace in her arms and crawled into her lap. 

“Would you like to hear a story that your grandmother told me?” she offered. Peering up into her face I noticed the warm light reflected in her eyes. Her lips had turned downward slightly, dimming the golden glow. She never spoke about grandmother. “O-k” the syllables sounded foreign on my tongue as I wasn’t sure whether to say yes or no. She seemed to noticed my hesitation and brushed a hand on my cheek.

“I haven’t told you this one yet.” I waited for her to start, anxious that she would change her mind. I leaned into her chest holding my breath in anticipation. 

“There once was a hummingbird.” She paused and began to hum softly. The sound was melodic, carrying itself amongst the dancing shadows as they leapt and soared. Moving this way and that, they followed the soft tune pouring from her throat. My lids began to feel heavy as I felt the weight of comfort. Mama once told me that grandmother used to sing her stories. And so she continued with the tale of the hummingbird and the fire. Sleep took me away before I could hear the end of the story, the next morning I found myself balled up in soft bedsheets that smelled like fresh cotton. I was in Mama’s bed, she was sitting up beside me, glasses perched on the tip of her nose as she read. Her lips were slightly parted as she mouthed the words. I closed my eyes shut again, hoping that the dream would last forever.    

I could still hear the humming in my ears as the waiter stood by, waiting for my order. 

“Would you like to hear the specials?” he raised one of his sharp manicured eyebrows. 

“No, thank you. Could I please have a slice of chocolate cake and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon?” I asked, smiling politely. The obtrusive thought of waiters spitting in food clouded my mind and I frowned brushing it away.

“Would you like a starter or main course?” I could tell the waiter was curious as to why a thirty-year-old woman was sitting alone, clad in a yellow wrap dress, with a book on the table, ordering cake and a glass of wine at eight in the evening. 

I shook my head and glanced at his name tag, “no, thank you… Nathan.” I hoped it would cut the questions short. 

“What are you reading?” It didn’t. I think he thought my use of his first name was incentive to continue. I had another irresistible urge to laugh again, reminded of my incessant asking of questions when I was a child. 

“It’s my mother’s favourite book.” He peered down at the cover, mouthing the title. It was an old, battered copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. 

“Will she be joining you?” he asked tentatively. I opened my mouth to respond but no sound came out. So, I shut it. His eyes bore into mine waiting for the response I was desperately trying to formulate. Instead, I shook my head turning to inspect the cutlery. I heard him mumble an apology but it sounded far away. I blinked as I lifted my gaze to the ceiling. Silence speaks for itself. 

I was gnawing on my fingernail as I continued to examine the room around me, a habit mama used to despise. She always used to say it was bad for my teeth and I would always retort something along the lines of: “at least I don’t suck my thumb.” I later learned that giving an equally bad excuse did not make my actions any better. I had been coming to this restaurant on the same day every single year. Nothing had changed. It was a quaint restaurant, one of my mother’s favourites. It had been a classic diner when I was a child. Booths lined up along the walls, while small tables seating four or two were stuffed in the centre. The waiters, usually grumpy, barely had any space to manoeuvre between orders. It was a zoo of disorganization, laughter and birthdays, solemn couples and loud groups, irritated locals and wide-eyed tourists, waiters shouting orders to chefs in the kitchen who often did not respond with grace. I hated it. Mama loved it. Around five years ago new management took over, renovating everything from the walls to the bathrooms. I remembered walking in thinking I had the wrong address only to informed by a woman wearing glasses and a green jumpsuit, as I was walking out, that it was the same Orion’s Grill that I had been frequenting for the past twenty years. The changes were drastically elegant. It was sad. The hustle and bustle replaced by tinkles of china. The hum of life by soft jazz. Not a booth remained as the tables were spread apart leaving enough room for easy circulation. They even had clinical white table cloths, adorned with silver and plates that never seemed to be used, paper napkins were replaced by cotton ones. The first time I was handed a basket of bread with a miniature bowl of French butter I almost walked out. Still, it wasn’t about the place itself it was about the memories. Those I would cherish forever. 

“Miss, your chocolate cake and glass of wine. I hope you enjoy your…meal. If you need anything I’ll be right by.” I smiled my thanks at Nathan and he nodded, walking away. 

I traced the slice of cake with my fork, it was the same as last year. The thin layer of dark frosting complemented the rich, spongy texture. My fork sunk in and I thought of Albert and his shaky hands as mine held my cutlery steady. I lifted a piece to my lips and closed my eyes, gently taking a bite. Chocolate stuck to the roof of my mouth as I savoured the taste. It was magnificent. I reached out for my glass of wine and took a meditative sip. Wine trickled down my throat and I licked my lips. I inhaled softly, already feeling more relaxed as the flavour settled itself on my tongue. I thought of Proust and his Madeleine. 

In 1913 Marcel Proust produced a seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. Proust explores an interesting concept he named involuntary memory triggered by sensory experiences. While biting down on a Madeleine, Proust was brought back to his childhood. I believe that it is impossible to define time as linear as we experience little pockets of memory that bring us back to lost moments in our lifetime. Although we may live in the present, that existence is shaped by every experience up to that point. Whether we allow our experiences to define us is up to the individual. I recall Proust because as we experience loss and heartbreak, memory can be the soft hand that rests on our cheek, inviting in the smell of lavender and lemongrass. 

As I paid the bill I took one last sweep around the room. Change is inevitable, whether we would like to accept it or not.  

Thanking Proust, I stood and tucked my chair beneath the table. I sent a brief thank you to Nathan and walked out of the door, onto the busy streets. 

Ndimu Grignon is a writer based in Kenya. She studies English Literature and is inspired by all of life’s little intricacies. You can find some of her other work on her website https://byndimu.wixsite.com/website

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