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Fiction Drama Romance

The queue provides the perfect excuse for Malika to return to her Toyota, take the forty-minute ride back to her maisonette and keep her reputation in check. She thinks about sliding out from between two pairs of loved up couples and returning to her life of modesty and mundaneness. But if she does that, she’s proving him right, isn’t she?

If she backs out now, she’s letting him win. And she’s not going to let him win.

Not today, not this time.


I’m staying; she resolves, shutting down her introverted mind. Pushing away her nagging anxiety, she defiantly exhales and scrolls through her phone to find her reservation confirmation.


He’s the reason she is here, on this conspicuous Valentines day, ironically dateless and standing out like a sore thumb.

She isn’t even dressed for the holiday occasion, donning faded jeans, an ugly puffer coat and the largest shirt she owns. But she is dressed for her own mission.


As Malika is greeted finally by the host and an aromatic wave of heated butter and chocolate hits her nose, she suddenly feels ready - ready for the battle before her.

The waiter smiles sadly at her singleness and at the booth, he remains professional but is evidently curious - or perplexed - about her peculiar request.

“Wow,” his eyes widen and his scoff surprises both of them as he takes in Malika’s petite frame, “are you, are you sure?”


“Of course” Malika replies brightly as she removes her heavy coat, shuffles to find a comfortable stance and once again speaks to her hysterical inner voice; I’m doing this.

“Well,” the waiter collects the unnecessary menus and his scoff begins to turn into a disbelieving laugh,“ I guess, I’ll be back with that for you. You should know since it’s Valentine's night and it’s peak hours, it’ll be upwards of thirty minutes for the kitchen to prepare everything…”


“I'll wait,” Malika interjects quickly. The waiter nods okay and leaves. When he is gone, Malika falls backwards away from the glare of the bustling restaurant. She closes her eyes tight and tries not to feel nauseous at the overwhelming memories and familiarity sitting coincidentally in the very booth they once called their favourite spot.


She is proud of herself, she has completed the first part of her mission - getting in without being recognised. It has been more than a year and the staff turnover at Guillermo's is high, but just in case, Malika walked in with her head down. She doesn’t want to be seen by any of his colleagues. Not just yet anyway.


The booth shields her for a full forty minutes, during which time, Malika uses the bathroom twice - first, to make sure she is completely empty and second, to declare to the deserted restroom all the awful things he said to her on that mortifying night. It was exactly one year ago, on this conspicuous Valentines day that he bulldozed her self-worth with hurtful shots at her reserved tendencies, dashed her hopes at their forever when he called their relationship lifeless and named her as the sole culprit for its predictability and eventual demise.

Puppies are nice and all, for a time, but I need more of a bad B. You get what I mean?


The memory of the unexpected breakup, his ugly words likening Malika to dull and predictable and the outlandish way he had left her at the table to foot the bill and Uber home alone, replays like a horror film in Malika’s mind.


She splashes her face with cold water and breathes deep, willing her anger to shoot down from her pounding head and into her fingers where she grips the sink to steady herself. There is no time for a panic attack. Not today, not now.


Because she has come all this way. She is here, back at the scene of the crime, to set the record straight. She is here, not for him, but for herself. She is here to prove to herself that she is and can do more than he thinks and more than she believes. It has taken her more than a year to muster enough courage. He may have forgotten, but she has not.


Back in the dining room, Malika arrives at an entourage of service trolleys parked at her booth. Nerves begin to flutter within her stomach as the first set of plates are unveiled and set down in an arrangement in front of her awestruck face.


But the plates are beautiful. And they are full and tempting, swelling with intricately pipped delicacies and fat glossy glutinous bakes. Malika hears her empty stomach groan lustfully at the abundance. Her waiter feverishly sets down napkins, cutlery and jugs of ice-cold water as further plates are unloaded, all fighting for space and attention on the table. Malika’s eyes waft over the display; a multi-layer gateaux adorned with candied fruit and molten chocolate, seven sweet tarts crowned with plump fresh berries, sticky berry jam and crystallized sugar, seven boats of fluffy cream and custard, seven iced eclairs, a skyscraper of seven fist-sized praline truffles, a platter of seven identically flaky religieuses and a stack of seven golden cookies speckled with squares of fudge, chocolate and toasted nuts.


The comforting sight jabs away at her anxiousness and Malika begins to feel her balance return. Her waiter produces an accompanying document and barely waits for Malika to take her seat and thumb through the pages before emphasizing the requirements, restrictions and reward stated on the waiver.


“This is Severin’s “Sickly Sweet” challenge,” he informs Malika, but his voice rises purposefully high, calling to attention the entire restaurant, “if you choose to accept it.”

Seventy minutes to complete.

Seven custom-made items to consume.

Seventy pounds penalty to pay with failure.

Seventy pounds reward and her name on the Wall of Fame to gain with success.

And an even sweeter victory over her ex….


What are you doing? Malika’s mind screams. The waiver paper feels like wood pulp in her sweaty hands. But as she notices diners straining to see what is going on, she remembers she has nothing really to lose. She is here, after all, to win back what he stole from her, what she lost.


“I understand,” Malika replies and signs to the ripple of excited chatter around her.

“Well,” her waiter raises his brow, he is impressed. He steps back and aligns himself with the nearest diners, “You have seventy minutes. Bon appetit”


It is Valentines night at the height of service. But the couples are no longer gazing at each other. Not now that their intimate date nights have been hijacked by an unknown singleton, looking to make a spectacle by doing the very thing very few have done successfully.


I am here, Malika declares silently and she sits up straighter in her booth as the waiter starts a timer. And locking eyes with her fascinated audience, she feels a smile begin to spread across her lips. Ignoring the cutlery, she snatches the first eclair...


And with that, the elusively reserved setting of Guillermo's erupts into a stadium of spirited supporters, willing this pint-sized girl to take down the most notorious eating challenge in the town.


Waiters rubberneck on the sidelines, pretending to clear tables or tend to dirty silverware. But no one can work efficiently ,even in a full restaurant, with such a thrilling display of gumption.


Malika has no plan of attack. She did not wise up by watching speed eaters on the internet or do a test run in the privacy of her own maisonette beforehand. She is as surprised as the strangers, roaring at her from the bleachers, about how coordinated she is. Her hands and mouth find an easy rhythm. The pastries are pliable in her grasp and smash soft between her teeth.


When the eclairs are gone, Malika turns to take some water but someone’s boyfriend is already leaping up to assist her. He fills a glass and gawks as she downs it.

“Wow,” he marvels, “how are you feeling?”

“Good,” Malika manages. She’s not lying.


On her stage, she commands more cheering as she eyes the gateaux.

Damn, someone else cries. Malika’s heart is pounding in time with the sugar and the thrill. The candied fruit are tedious but tart. The cake is decadent but dense.

Her vision starts to go hazy at the sugar rush but she snaps out of the heaviness when her mind’s eye sees him. Leering at her.


By the thirty-minute mark, Malika’s jaw begins to ache. The cookies are loaded and clarified, segments splatter the table cloth as she almost chokes on a hazelnut to keep the treat down. She cannot throw up. If she throws up, the challenge is over and she loses. And she has not come to lose.


“Yes!" declares one of Malika’s adopted groupies and he punches the air on her behalf as she manages to swallow, sip and sigh, “You’ve got this, Malika, you’ve got this”.


Malika’s stomach groans, but she nods in agreement. Another supporter helps her stand up. You gotta stretch it out, take a walk, get that space in your gut; he tells her and starts demonstrating, flailing his limbs. And then the crowd starts copying in support. And Malika wants to belly laugh so hard because the whole thing is ridiculous, but she can’t because she has no air to spare inside of her belly.


Forty-three minutes in, the praline truffles become spoons for the cream and custard.


Valentines’ night is fading away and closing time looms. But the remaining rally protest when the waiters begin to suggest postponing. Let her finish, the people pound the linen with their cutlery and the waiters relent.


Malika overhears that the Guillermos' themselves are coming in to witness the event.

To see her.


Her groupies have taken over proceedings; she is far too drunk to even taste let alone think about how much more of the challenge is still ahead. While they organise the spread, she just consumes.

Cleared plates flank her left and the remaining delicacies - the religieuses and the tarts pose patiently on her right. 

It is almost nine.


"When do they get here?" Malika asks a groupie who has joined her booth permenantly. She is struggling for words, in between bites of the first tart.

He leans across the table to check the running time before answering.

“You’ve got seventeen left. They’ll be here in ten. Stop talking and save your energy”

Malika nods, clears the gummy residue out of her teeth and signs instead for more water.


The thought of the Guillarmos' coming drives her to push. This is the news she’s been waiting for. 

*


They arrive at the ten-minute countdown and shove their way through the crowd to meet their challenger. But just as they emerge, good fortune shines down on Malika. She takes the last mouthful of their prestigious produce and as her time hits sixty-eight minutes, the third generation of Guillarmo brothers burst forwards and finally uncover her identity.


I did it; Malika’s laboured body pulses with heat and her eyes prick at the empty plates before her; I actually did it.


“Oh my God,” her right-hand man hoots, his eyes wide with admiration “You, my friend, are an absolute legend!”. His compliment produces a giddy giggle from Malika. Even his girlfriend runs in, still wearing her heels and hi-fives Malika over the stacked plates.

“You killed it, babe,” she says and the girls both laugh.


The cafe cheers for their champion and a line of strangers invade Malika’s stage to fist-bump and gasp at her determinedness. Malika allows herself, for the first time in sixty-eight minutes, a moment to fall back against the plush booth seat and just back in the presence of the praises.


Her face and armpits are damp, her jaw and stomach are throbbing. She is a sweaty, fatigued and swollen mess. But the lively chanting around her is lifegiving and the approval is vindication.


Everyone is celebrating her win. Everyone is saying her name. Everyone, except him.

He came. He saw. But she conquered.


Malika’s entourage demand a ceremony from the Guillermo family. The brothers stare at Malika, their blonde-haired, tanned faces register a mixture of shock and embarrassment as they take in the evidence of her rightful win. The two of them refuse to look Malika in the eye as they snap their fingers at an adorning waiter to fetch and present the prize to their victor.


But Malika hasn’t come all this way to demolish all this food for a meaningless exchange.


“No”, she shouts and slams her sticky hand against the table and the room swivels. The brothers’ expressions darken, “That’s not what it says on the waiver.”


“Many congratulations,” The oldest brother Renaldo stifles a smile. But Malika already knows he’s charmless and playing ignorance. Unbeknown to her new fans, she knows these brothers very well. “I’ll have my staff arrange your prize.”


Malika shakes her head and stabs at the waiver form, line 21.

“The rules state that the prize is to be awarded to the winner by the challenger himself." The watching room murmurs, unaware of this intricate detail, “This is Severin’s Sickly Sweet challenge after all, isn't it?”


Renaldo’s face falls and his brother, Pierre swears. With the crowd spectating, the brothers can do nothing but agree. The third brother is in the kitchen and the waiter goes to retrieve him.


Malika returns the facade of sweetness to the brothers and splays patiently for her prize. The prize she really came for.


And as the waiter returns five minutes later trailing an equally attractive but moody Guillermo brother, Malika shakes off nausea from her fill, flexes her stiffened body and starts to rise to her feet.


Severin Guillarmo stops cold as he rounds his cafe’s patisserie counter, boasting the delicate works of his hands. He is infamous: he is the darling youngest brother, the joint heir of Guillermo’s empire and the creator of the Sickly Sweet challenge. But also most ironically, he is also the sweet talker who broke Malika’s heart a year ago on this very same night.


The gift certificate swings from Severin’s thin fingers. But the expression on his face is worth a thousand times more than the sum on the cheque he holds.


The exes face each other to the sound of encouraging applause. Malika’s body tingles with the pleasure of the revengeful rendezvous.


“Dude,” her right-hand man yells at the dishevelled brother, “She crushed your challenge. Don’t keep her waiting. Get up here and give her what she came for.”


Malika smiles gratefully, pats her new bestie's arm and hushes her allies.

“Mr Guillarmo,” She projects, “My prize, if you please”.


When Severin doesn’t move, Malika, restored by her plight, cocks her head to one side and says with a mocking tone, “I guess I beat you at your own game, babe”.


Severin throws down the certificate in a fit of rage and calls her a B.


The curse triggers the memory of his words from the previous Valentines night and Malika knowingly, now vindicated, smirks. With a hefty eating challenge under her belt, her supposed puppy days are well and truly over.


“Woof,” Malika replies curtly, “Compliments to the chef.”

February 19, 2022 00:16

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