The restaurant was fairly booked up when they got there. A table had been set for them, the cutlery laid out already, gleaming silver alongside perfectly crystal-clear wine and water glasses which gave the entire place a rather snowy, frosty appearance from afar. The atmosphere was muted, with classy and sophisticated diners conducting hushed conversations over small plates of exquisite food.
Theirs was a large group by comparison; among the softly-spoken couples, their group of eight seemed like a brash and bumbling band of baboons, even though they kept the same decorum the other guests had. It was Gwynne’s birthday (her thirtieth), Charles’ birthday (his thirty-eighth), Michel’s birthday (his thirty-ninth) and Rochelle’s anniversary with Théo (their ninth). Their friends Pierre, Raffa, and Vanessa were all there to help them celebrate in style, because that was what they did. Their friend group was scattered across France, so it was rare when they found themselves in Paris during the same week, when they could meet up and celebrate each other. A pity, though, that Pierre, Raffa and Vanessa all celebrated winter birthdays, but they’d get a Christmas-esque tie-in when the time came.
“Voilà, mesdames et mesieurs,” the maître d’ said politely, gesturing to the table with a flourish. He waited for everyone to be seated, the gentlemen of the group helping the women and so forth. It was amicable enough. “The wine list, perhaps?”
“Oui, s’il vous plaît,” Michel smiled, and the maître d’ handed over some wine cards. He left them to it.
“Beautiful place, as always, Michel,” Gwynne smiled, smoothing the rich, silky tablecloth down in front of her.
“Only the best for notre chère groupe,” Michel grinned. “And besides, we’re all celebrating tonight. Only the finest will do.”
“Speaking of finest,” said Rochelle. “I’m inclined to take the house white to start. It’s a vintage 1850.”
“I’ve no idea what that means,” mused Vanessa, shaking her head. “I put my trust in you all for the wine.”
“You’re not at all French, are you?” Charles quipped from the end of the table, a glint in his eye. Vanessa flipped him off discreetly behind her hand and a demure smile.
“I’m more French than you, cherie. They call me Vanessa Bonaparte at home.”
“I’m sure they do.”
“Alright, you two, get a room,” Pierre grumbled, but his eyes gave away his amusement.
As the conversation flowed naturally and easily among them, drifting first towards wine choice (ultimately left to Michel to decide, since he was a sommelier in his free time), another group of diners arrived, a group of five. The atmosphere in the restaurant was now a pleasant, lively hum, with a smooth kind of movement among the staff and guests.
“Well, as I live and breathe – it's the Coquettes!” a male voice rang out at the end of their table, and the conversation halted in its place. Everyone turned to look at the person who’d spoken a rather intimate group name. All eight faces lit up.
“Laurent!” the group cried, silencing the restaurant for a beat.
“The very same! What are the chances you’re all here tonight?! You remember these guys, right? Paolo, Seb, Rudy and Ginny?” he gestured to the four other people who stood watching. Each smiled, and introductions were made.
“It’s so great to see you! It’s our usual birthday-anniversary-catch up meal!” Rochelle beamed. Théo nodded in agreement. A man of few words, he gave his talkative wife the limelight whenever they went out. Happy to sit on the sidelines, Théo was content with his place within the group.
“Say - why don’t we ask if we can have the tables pulled together? There’s plenty of space!” suggested Charles, beckoning the maître d’ over.
“Great idea!” came the unanimous reply.
“Gosh, it’s been years since I saw you all,” Paolo beamed, his pearly white all-American smile adding to the slight American twang he now added to his still-native French. He’d moved out there shortly after they’d all graduated, and it had been almost twenty years.
“We thought we’d lost you to the Americans almost entirely,” Michel mused, leaning back.
“Can I help you all?” the maître d’ asked, smiling.
“Yes - is it possible for us to form a larger group? We are eight, could we pull their table of five over?” Vanessa asked.
“Certainly. Please, allow me to fetch a colleague.” The maître d’ disappeared, returning a few moments later with three colleagues, who helped him to slide the tables and chairs over effortlessly.
“Ah - a problem!” Gwynne cried. “We are thirteen!”
“Yes we are,” agreed Seb, his eyes scanning the table to count. “This will not do.”
“Are you sure?” asked Michel, counting. “Yes, indeed, we are. Hmm...”
“Excusez-moi, monsieur, but are we are thirteen – are there any single diners who could join us, this evening?” Charles turned to the maître d’, who had fetched several bottles of the chosen wine.
“Aha... Hmm...” he scanned the rom. “Unfortunately not, monsieur.”
“This won’t do! We cannot be thirteen for dinner – we all know what happens when we’re thirteen for dinner!” Gwynne shook her head.
“Well, either we don’t sit together, or one of us leaves. Vanessa, you may volunteer.” Raffa’s comment earned him a jab in the arm from Vanessa, who grinned.
“Perhaps one of your staff could join us?” Ginny’s small voice piped up. “If one of them would like a free dinner tonight?”
“Oh... well, that is irregular...” the maître d’ didn’t seem too keen on the idea, but then no-one wanted to split the tables. Technically, they’d still be a group of thirteen, even if the tables were split.
“Monsieur, we need our quatorzième. S’il vous plaît, if there is a nice person working here who would enjoy a free dinner?” Michel’s dulcet tones were persuasive.
“I will go and ask our staff for the night,” the maître d’ smiled and turned away.
It would indeed be bad luck for the group to eat as thirteen. The tradition of requesting a ‘quatorzième’, or a fourteenth person, wasn’t unheard of. And in a restaurant like this one, thirteen people did mean that there was a gap at the end of the table.
“Voilà, mesdames et monsieurs, I present to you my colleague Giselle. She is on her break, and has agreed to be your quatorzième.”
“Bonsoir à tous,” Giselle smiled. She was pretty, conventionally Parisienne, with a chic updo and a stunning figure.
“Bonsoir Giselle!” came the unanimous reply from the group. There was a shuffling of seats, so that Giselle was a part of the group, rather than an outlier (because, after all, the point of the quatorzième was not to be an outlier, but rather to complete the group). She introduced herself, spoke a little bit about herself, and discovered that she had a lot in common with Rochelle and Gwynne, since both of them worked in fashion. Giselle had always wanted to design and model wedding dresses, but not the conventional types. She liked the daring, more outlandish fashion choices of the smaller fashion houses in Paris, the types of fashion houses for which Gwynne and Rochelle worked.
The entrées arrived after a languid wait. For some, it was a light mushroom soup. For others, it was small confits. For others, small toasts with various toppings. Murmurs ran around the table about the taste, offers made to all to try the food – after all, what was the point of a meal if not all could experience it?
The main course was equally as stunning; cuts of meat so tender they melted from the bone; filets of fish cooked just to the point of the perfect flake; vegetables and salads roasted just so, not too crispy, not too overdone. Each jus was drizzled just perfectly, not too much, not too little. Sauces were the perfect amount of creaminess, never too rich. There was a reason each plate cost a little more than one hundred euros.
The desserts were as interesting as the conversations that flowed around them. Cream cakes topped with fancy chocolate latticework clashed with delicate puff-pastries and macarons, just as the conversations were becoming more and more stilted. Giselle felt comfortable enough, but it was not she who felt out-of-place.
As the group tended not to meet so often, lives moved on. People changed, and grew.
Michel’s intelligence and charm had stalled somewhere in the last three years, and now it was evident when he tried to discuss the liberal politics which he was now rather out of touch with.
Charles’ attempts at jokes, although politely laughed at, were a little more sleazy than they once had been.
Rochelle’s constant talking over Théo started to grate on the group, and her incessant chatter about their planned children took over almost every single conversational string. When did she become obsessed with ovulation cycles?
Gwynne’s drunken groping of waiters, once funny, was a little cheap now that she was thirty, especially since the waiter that evening was quite young.
Vanessa’s strongly-worded opining about nuclear politics, and Raffa’s equally violent retorts were too loud, this time, and Pierre’s silence was quite obvious – although he could be forgiven, since he was grieving his sister.
Laurent commanded the conversation half the time, which once had been charming, but was now irritating whenever anyone else wanted to talk.
Rudy’s racist jokes slurred out through lips numbed with too much wine and liquor were downright offensive, and a stark reminder for the first group for why they’d stopped drinking with him altogether, and hanging around him.
Seb and Ginny were obviously desperate to be in bed together, the way they started kissing each other quite shamelessly. Paolo was the only other pleasant member of the group, speaking politely with Giselle, who asked if any of these people really wanted to be there.
“I’ll be honest, Giselle,” Paolo said softly. “I think sometimes is it better for groups to move on, and meet once in a while in a lower-standing bar somewhere, and just drink… because we might as well be strangers, at this point.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Giselle said quietly, finishing the last of the mille-feuille in front of her.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to go for a drink now?” he glanced at his watch. Just gone ten. Plenty of time to find a terrasse and sit in the last of the summer heat.
“I… oui, I think that would be lovey,” Giselle smiled. “We pay?”
“Yours is for free, notre petite quatorzième!” Paolo grinned.
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