nestor, the cook
Sunday, twenty-ninth of March (in the small hours)
His mustache was stiffer than ever, so stiff a fly could have stepped out to the end, like a prisoner walking the plank on a pirate ship. Except that flies can’t survive in a cool room at twenty below zero, and neither could the owner of the blond, frozen mustache: Nestor Chaffino, chef and pastry cook, renowned for his masterful way with a chocolate fondant. And that’s how he was found hours later: eyes wide open in astonishment, but with a certain dignity still in his bearing. True, his fingernails were scratching at the door, but there was a dishcloth tucked into the string of his apron as usual, though looking smart is hardly a major preoccupation when the door of a 1980s-model Westinghouse cool room, two meters by one and a half, has just shut automatically behind you with a click.
And click was the last sound he heard before congratulating himself on his luck, Bloody brilliant, but it can’t be true, since incredulity often precedes fear, and then: Jesus, why now of all times? The housekeepers even warned me about it before leaving, and there’s a notice in three languages posted prominently in the kitchen, stressing the importance of not forgetting to take certain boring precautions like lifting the bolt so the door doesn’t accidentally swing shut behind you. You can never be too careful with these old models. But Christ almighty, I can’t have been in here more than two minutes, three at the most, stacking away these boxes of chocolate truffles. No doubt about it, though, the door went click. You must have done something to upset it, Nestor, and click it went. Now what? He looked at his watch: four in the morning, said the phosphorescent hands—click—and there he was in the pitch dark, inside the spacious cool room of a country house, almost empty now after a dinner party at which maybe thirty guests had assembled. . . . But think, think, for God’s sake. Who’s staying the night?
Let’s see: the owners of the house, naturally. And Serafin Tous, one of their old friends, who arrived at the last minute. As it happened, Nestor had made his acquaintance a few weeks earlier, briefly though, very briefly. Then there were the two employees of Nestor’s catering company, Mulberry & Mistletoe, whom he had asked to stay on and help him clean up in the morning: his good friend Carlos Garcia and the new one (he never could remember his name). Karel? Koral? Yes, it’s Karel, the Czech boy who does weights and is so handy around the place, beating egg whites to a stiff peak and unloading a hundred boxes of Coke without working up a sweat, all the while singing “Lágrimas negras,” a Caribbean son, with his rather unfortunate Bratislava accent.
Who would hear him shouting and kicking the door, again and again, bang bang bang, each blow resounding in his skull as if he were on the receiving end? Bloody brilliant. Thirty years in the trade and not one accident, now this. Just great! Who would have thought disasters could pile up like this, Nestor? A couple of months back you were diagnosed with lung cancer, and just when you’re starting to get over the shock and accept it, you end up locked in a pitch-black cool room. Dying of cancer is unfortunate, but it happens to about one in five people. Freezing to death on the Costa del Sol is just ridiculous.
Keep calm; it’s going to be all right. Nestor knew that American technology, even the most dated, was designed to handle all eventualities. Somewhere, maybe near the door frame, there had to be an alarm button that would ring a bell in the kitchen, and someone would hear it. The thing was to stay calm and think clearly. How long can a man in a short white jacket and checked cotton trousers survive at twenty below zero? Longer than you’d think; come on, pull yourself together. His hand started to feel its way quite calmly (under the circumstances) along the wall, up a little, down a little. No! Not to the left—careful, Nestor. His fingers had just encountered something prickly and ice-cold. Holy Mary! There’s always some sort of dead animal in these cool rooms, a hare or a rabbit with its bristling whiskers . . .
Suddenly, stupidly, Nestor thought of the owner of the house, Mr. Teldi. He pictured him not as he had seen him a few hours ago but as he remembered him from twenty or twenty-five years back. Not that Ernesto Teldi’s famous mustache resembled a rabbit’s long, sparse whiskers, then or now. It was smooth and elegantly trimmed, like Errol Flynn’s. And it hadn’t so much as twitched when he had seen Nestor reappear in his sitting room. Total indifference. But then perhaps that was to be expected; a gentleman like Ernesto Teldi has little reason to trouble himself with the domestic staff, so why would he remember a cook he had seen just once, ages ago now, back in the seventies, in the course of an afternoon fraught with such terrible emotions.
nestor’s hand was feeling its way across another section of the wall. A little to the left now . . . but always trying not to wander too far from the door . . . this way. The lifesaving button must be over this way. Everyone knows Americans are practical people—there’s no way they’d put the alarm bell where it can’t be found. Let’s see . . . but his hand seemed to be delving into an even darker abyss, so Nestor decided to give up the methodical search and go back to banging: six, seven, eight (thousand) kicks against the stubborn door. Holy Virgin of Loreto, Merciful Mother of God, Santa Maria Goretti, and Don Bosco . . . please make someone wake up and come down to the kitchen looking for something to eat. There must be one insomniac among them. Adela maybe. Oh yes, dear God, please make Adela come down.
adela was mr. teldi’s wife. A banal thought ran through Nestor’s mind (it can happen even in desperate circumstances): Time is so unkind to beautiful faces. Adela must have been about thirty when Nestor met her in South America. Such smooth skin . . . He stretched out his hand . . . Jesus! Those bloody dead hares again. There they were—yes, it was them, with their furry bodies and little white teeth glowing in the dark in defiance of the laws of physics—but what about Adela?
No. She hadn’t recognized him either, apparently, when they’d met to finalize the details of the evening, and that was much more surprising. Their paths had crossed on various occasions, at her house too, but of course that was all many years ago. More than once she had come in and found him chatting with Antonio Reig, the family cook, in that house of theirs in faraway Buenos Aires. “Ah, so it’s you, Nestor, back again?” she would say, or simply, “Good evening, Nestor.” She always called him by his first name. Yes, that’s what Adela used to say to him back then—“Good evening, Nestor”—and sometimes she would even add: “How are you? . . . Well?” before disappearing from the kitchen, trailing the unmistakable fragrance of Eau de Patou while the two cooks went on gossiping, swapping stories about her, as even the most discreet people are bound to do when someone vanishes leaving such a delectable trace.
A sound from outside made Nestor perk up and listen. He could have sworn he’d heard a noise coming from the other side of the door. And for someone with his long experience of kitchen sounds, there could be no doubt: it was the fizz of a soda siphon. Except that soda siphons disappeared from kitchens years ago, and, anyway, you wouldn’t hear a quiet little sound like that through the reinforced door of a cool room. Santa Gemma Galgani, Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, he begged, don’t let the cold make me stupid. No nonsense, no hallucinations. I’ve got to stay calm to find this damn button that’s going to save me. If this weren’t a summer place in the off-season, there’d be a light in this bloody cool room for sure, and none of this would be happening to me.
But of course a blown bulb isn’t going to be replaced in a house occupied for most of the year by an old couple whose idea of housekeeping is a halfhearted look around now and then to check that there hasn’t been a burglary. People are so inefficient and sloppy in their work these days, Nestor thought. It’s just plain irresponsible. But, no, he couldn’t let the cold or panic cloud his thoughts. He had to go on feeling his way in the dark. The button couldn’t be far away; that much was certain. The housekeepers might be chronically slack, but the alarm wasn’t up to them. It must have been built into the system, and no self-respecting American engineer would design a cool room where a man could freeze to death like a sorbet . . .