Another structural challenge today, which was to write a story using the Ugly Duckling structure (protagonist struggles to fit in, is frustrated repeatedly, comes to a life changing realization and then, in a mirror image of the initial part, finds acceptance).
It took me a while to come up with a premise that was short story length (I had vague ideas of using the structure for a coming out story, but that would be a much longer work!), but I ended up this — a bit simplistic perhaps, but I am happy with the general idea.
“No. Just don’t do that.”
Paul looked up at Gerard, the chef, with his knife poised above the cutting board the aesthetically pleasing group of tomatoes that sat on it.
“Don’t cut them like that. You’re cutting in the wrong direction.”
And, to Paul’s embarrassment, Gerard leaned over and took the knife from his hand. In full view of the rest of the kitchen staff, Gerard demonstrated the proper way of cutting a tomato.
Paul was sure that he had been shown how to do this before. In fact, he was positive he had been. And yes, every time he looked down at a tomato, sitting in front of him, he could not remember which way was the correct way. He did know that there was a correct way.
Certain that his face was flaming red by now, Paul nodded at Gerard.
The older man looked at him with what could only be described as disdain.
“Try to remember this time, young man.”
Paul shuddered and returned his attention to the tomatoes.
“Paul. Come to my office.”
His mind began racing, wondering what he could have done that would have brought him to the attention of Angela, the restaurant manager. He rarely spoke to her. In fact, he avoided her as much as possible.
He trailed along behind her.
“Close the door,” she said as she took her place behind her desk.
He stood in front of her.
“What is this?”
She was pointing to a plate on her desk. It was the day’s special, he could see.
“It’s the beet salad,” he said.”Roasted and pickled beets, with a smoked trout fritter with beet relish, walnuts, blood orange, …” he began to recite the dish’s description.
“Yes, yes,” Angela interrupted, “so what is this?”
And she was pointing at a thick clump of something beside the fritter.
Paul felt himself go pale.
“Is that shallot confit?” he said faintly.
“It is,” she confirmed. “And it does not belong on this dish. Did you plate this?”
He was certain he must have, if only because no one else would have made such a mistake.
“I expect I did.”
“I expect you did, too. Why don’t you go and think about what you have done? No, just take the rest of the shift off and really think about whether this job actually suits you.”
Paul mumbled something, even he was not sure what and stumbled from Angela’s office.
Taking off his apron as he went to the staff room, he felt himself begin to shake.
All he had ever wanted was to be a cook. And not just a cook, a chef! Since he was a child, it was what he had wished for and now that he was here, now that he had done so much, he couldn’t seem to do anything right.
The tears were pricking at his eyes as he gathered his jacket and outdoor shoes and quickly left the restaurant.
His first thought was to return home and spend the afternoon sobbing or trying to distract himself, but the reality of his empty apartment kept him away. The sun was warm on his face as he walked and he decided to go through the park at the end of the street.
It was an urban park, surrounded by busy streets, but there were lovely winding paths, a duck pond, and an old, but still functional, greenhouse. On the other side of the greenhouse, there was a small, enclosed play area for children.
He walked and tried, as hard as he could to empty his mind. At first, it kept returning to every last wrong thing he had done at the restaurant. He had to admit to himself, if he was at all honest, that he did not appear to be cut out for this. The realization hurt him deeply.
How could this not be working? He had wanted it so much. He had worked so hard to be here, to get this position at a restaurant like that.
How would he able to tell his friends, his parents, everyone that he had failed?
He sat on a bench under a spreading willow tree and tried to think to nothing. He leaned back and closed his eyes.
He was young and healthy and had so much otherwise going for him. Those were the things that he needed to think about.
Maybe he could get a job at a fast food place. Or a coffee shop.
He shuddered at the thought.
Maybe not that.
The warmth of the sun worked it’s magic on him and he began to nod off.
It was a whistle that woke him. A slightly out of tune whistle that repeated several times.
He opened his eyes, shading them against the sun. Across the path from where he sat, a woman with a cart was kneeling in front of a small flower bed. She had a tray of pansies beside her and held a trowel. On the other side of her was a small watering can. On her cart, she had a larger container of water, more flowers, more equipment.
Her whistling continued as she took the pansies one by one and planted them in a circle around the edge of the bed. She worked slowly, methodically, and all by herself.
There was no noise other than what she made herself. There was no heat and steam. There was peace, rather than the sense of barely restrained pandemonium.
Perhaps, Paul suddenly thought, he had gotten the wrong end of the stick.
Perhaps it wasn’t the cooking part of food that he should pursue. Perhaps it was the growing part.
He sat and watched the woman as she filled the flower bed and by the time she was finished, he had decided on a rather major career change.
He did not go back to the restaurant the next day. In all fairness, he did send Angela an email, although he expected that was not particularly sufficient, but he was not afraid of burning bridges by that point.
He signed up for classes and volunteered at a small children’s garden and it all came together.
Unlike in the kitchen, where he always had to second guess himself and his choices, in a garden, the right thing seemed to come to him effortlessly. It was a joy and plants thrived under his touch.
As his first instructor had said, he had a true green thumb.
So it was not until sometime later that the prospect of returning to the restaurant arose. Years had passed and he had recently written a book, on gardening with children, that had received no small amount of local attention.
He would not have chosen the restaurant himself, but his editor Meghan was, coincidentally, fond of it and she suggested it as a location to celebrate the publisher’s offer on a second book.
“Paul!” Any hopes that he had had of flying under the radar vanished as they walked in the door. There was Angela, at the reservation book, looking straight at him. “How are you?” she exclaimed as if his departure had been on much better terms.
“I’m fine,” he managed, all the confidence gained in the intervening years vanishing.
“And who is this?”
“I’m sorry. Angela, this is my editor, Meghan. Meghan, Angela, the manager. Are you still the manager?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “Come, let me take you to your table.”
“How do you know her?” Meghan asked after they were seated and Angela had hurried off to fetch them drinks.
“I worked here, in the kitchen.”
“You? The kitchen?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“I cannot believe it! Paul!”
And Gerard was coming towards them, beaming. “It has been so long,” he said as he clasped Paul to him. “I have read your book! It is wonderful, interesting children in the food they eat and how it grows. What a wonderful thing.”
Paul relaxed a little. It was all good now.