Fall 2023, Volume 35

Fiction by Marco Etheridge

Claude & Chloe

Claude Lambert was widely believed to be the clumsiest waiter in the region. There were unfounded rumours, usually mumbled over too many glasses of calvados, that Claude dropped more forks and sloshed more coffee than any waiter in the entire republic, but it would be difficult to prove the merits of these drunken slurs beyond any reasonable doubt.

And yet he was tolerated, even treasured, as a necessary member of the community. The townsfolk esteemed the familiar over the unknown, small serving accidents notwithstanding. The reasons for this were twofold.

First, the local citizens placed a high value on things that did not change. They knew Claude. Why risk the introduction of a stranger in their midst, an outsider who offered only the vague possibility of fewer chipped saucers at the risk of a foreign influence?

Second, Claude Lambert possessed other characteristics that offset his clumsiness. Empathy and kindness made him a very good listener, and his customers had much to complain of. The occasional minor accident seemed a small price compared to the value of a patient and understanding ear.

Claude cared about and for his regulars. Soup not too hot for Mme Moreau, coffee with warm milk for M. Dubois. He knew each of their habits, small desires, and foibles, with one notable exception.

A new customer had appeared of late, and always in the company of the elderly Madame Sophia Gauthier. Claude was well acquainted with the old woman, but the dame’s companion remained a mystery. Local gossip informed him that the young woman’s name was Mademoiselle Durand, recently moved here from the metropolis, of all places. Claude decided he wished to learn a great deal more about this mysterious newcomer.

Claude Lambert was a thirty-two-year-old bachelor, a youngish man weighed against the average age of the general populace thereabouts. He lived alone in a snug suite of rooms situated in the same building where he waited tables, a convenient arrangement.

A first glance at Claude revealed a not unattractive man, tallish but not tall, lean without being cadaverous, and demonstrating no obvious outward signs of obsessive awkwardness. In other words, an average sort of person, one easily overlooked.

Likewise, the provincial town in which Claude lived and worked, centuries old and at the crossroads to nowhere. The town squatted atop a slight hillock, looking out over fields bordered by ancient hedgerows. The ocean washed the shores to the North, close enough to chill the town’s stone walls, but too far away for weekend tourists, who booked rooms elsewhere.

To the south lay the vibrant and noisy capital city, which the local citizens feared and envied in equal measure. The inhabitants of the town took great pride in their long history, some of it true. They were people who viewed change with a suspicious eye and accepted tradition, true or not, with a shrug.

One such tradition was Les Sœurs François. The sisters François, Camille and Elise, both in their eighties, owned and ran a combination of brasserie and bistro. The sisters administered the establishment with the zeal and vigour of much younger women. And it was there that Claude served as the senior waiter.

One busy Thursday evening, Claude exited the kitchen balancing a tray heavy with four main course plates destined for table seven. As he made his way across the noisy dining room, he spotted Mlle Durand sitting at a two-top sans the elderly Mme Gauthier. She was alone! Here at last, an opportunity to learn more about this intriguing new customer.

That thought careened through his skull and, unfortunately, radiated up through his arm to his outstretched fingers. The very same fingers that supported a tray of steaming dishes.
His distracted digits wobbled, and with them, the laden tray. A catastrophe threatened. Claude executed a strange two-step, weaving like a drunkard, and just managed to avoid disaster. And all of this witnessed by the tables of diners on either side, each customer holding his or her breath. As Claude righted himself and the tray, a collective sigh ran through the fragrant air.

 Drawing a moment to pull himself together, Claude aimed at table seven and set out once more, feigning an outward poise belied by an inner fervour. A silent prayer echoed through his skull, the singular hope that Mademoiselle Durand hadn’t noticed his latest awkward escapade.



Sitting alone at her table for two, Chloe Durand had, in fact, taken note of the waiter’s odd capering. Her livelihood, after all, depended on swift, sharp eyes. But Chloe was also discreet. One sidelong glance proved sufficient. No need to turn her head or gape like the local clientele.

During her few previous meals at Les Sœurs François, always in the company of her ailing aunt, this odd waiter had piqued Chloe’s interest.

For one thing, the man seemed vulnerable without appearing to be broken. Vulnerability was an attractive trait, if taken in moderate doses, whereas broken men were useless. Plenty of those in the metropolis she had been forced to leave behind. But a fellow like this waiter, vulnerable and as yet unbroken, was a rare creature indeed.

Chloe felt kindness and gratitude for anything or anyone who could stir a spark of interest in her. There were damn few sparks in this moribund backwater of a town. And she was stuck here for the foreseeable future, in exile until Aunt Sophia shuffled loose the mortal coil. She had bowed to family pressure and taken on this saintly chore. Chloe felt it only reasonable that a reward should appear in her path, some slight recompense for services rendered to the dying.

Being trapped in the provinces was not Chloe’s idea of a good time. Yes, she was fond of her aunt, and yes, thirty years ago she had been born in this very same town, but all that was beside the point. She had left as a girl of eight years, whisked away to the grand city by her family and their eager avarice. Chloe did not recall shedding any tears over the departure.

Families rarely change, and the Durands were no exception to this general rule. Chloe knew them, and knew herself, sadly, to be one of them. Yet another clan drawn to the bright lights, hoping to exit the petite bourgeoisie and join the nouveau riche. In this, the Durands had proved merciless and adept. All except Chloe.

Family Durand had their children, careers, and causes. Chloe lacked all of these. They considered her life meaningless. Single, of course, and working in theatre. Not even proper theatre, really, but cabaret, a term they wrapped in a barely hidden sneer. And as for jongleuse, that word would never pass their thin lips. Imagine, a thirty-year-old woman prancing about on a public stage, tossing balls and wooden clubs into the air. Mon Dieu!

Chloe banished any further thoughts of her clan. This was a table for two, not twenty.

Enough of this nonsense. No sense wasting a free night on the foibles of your unfortunate family.

Ignoring the menu before her, Chloe peered at the specials chalked upon a nearby blackboard. At least this graveyard of a town had one decent eatery. Far more than decent. The food at Les Sœurs François was excellent, and she meant to enjoy it.

And here came that amusing waiter, a tray tucked under his arm. She made her choices and smiled at his approach.

“Good evening, Mademoiselle.”

Really, in this day and age? Ah, but we are deep in the provinces.

“Good evening, Monsieur. I see that our little town remains a full decade behind the times. Mademoiselle has disappeared, banished even by our creaky government ministers. The feminists won that round.”

Chloe smiled up at the man, ever so curious how he would respond.

“Then I am at a loss. Clearly, madame will not serve. Could you suggest an alternate form of address?”

Her smile grew wider. This was the sort of banter she loved. This waiter might be clumsy, but he was not without charm.

“Chloe. Chloe Durand, if you must.”

“In that case, Claude Lambert, at your service.”

“A pleasure, I’m sure. I believe I’ll have the charcuterie with the walnut and goat cheese salad.”

She waited for his response and received a simple nod, with no trace of snobbery. A refreshing change from the big city.

“And perhaps a glass of wine?”

“What would you recommend, Monsieur Lambert?”

“I would recommend that if we are to proceed on a first-name basis, it should be mutual.

Oh, very good. Very good indeed.

“Agreed. That’s settled, then. And now, the wine?”

“For the charcuterie, I suggest a Beaujolais Cru. We have a lovely 2018 Morgon, a good year. A hint of black pepper, a bit of spice, a solid complement to the savour of cured meat.”

Chloe was impressed, and not ashamed to show it. There was more to this book than the clumsy cover.

“That sounds wonderful, Claude. And thank you.”

A smile, a nod, and he was gone.



Exiting the kitchen, Claude backed through the paired swinging doors with a tray balanced at his shoulder. Upon the tray, a perfect charcuterie. He had fussed over the platter until the chef threatened to chop off the waiter’s head and bake it.

Claude entered the dining room, the very picture of grace and poise. So far, everything had gone perfectly. Mlle Durand, Chloe, loved the wine. She praised the salad. And throughout the service, not a stumble, fumble, or clatter.

There she sat; a wine glass raised to her lips. Those lips, that hand. The picture of grace. And so beautiful, soft and vivid at the same time, one of Renoir’s sitting women become flesh and blood. Yes, he felt as if he had stepped into a painting.

And then, disaster.

Claude stepped to her table. Chloe Durand lowered her wineglass. She turned and raised her eyes. Then a smile illuminated her face, a smile that smote Claude a hammer blow.

His brain ceased sending signals to his muscles. Ligaments wavered. Tendons slackened. And his right arm, the arm supporting the tray at his shoulder, turned to rubber.

The tray tipped. The plate began to slide, and with it, the oversized steak knife delicately balanced on its gilded rim. The beautiful charcuterie slipped to the edge of the tray, hung on the raised lip. Time stopped.

And then, a miracle. Horror had frozen Claude’s brain, but his arm reacted of its own accord. A quick shift of the fingers, a slight forward weave, the tray righted itself, only just, yet balance returned. Alas, the miracle came too late.

The plate retained its precarious perch, but the gleaming steak knife did not. Gravity asserted its domain. The knife fell, blade flashing in the air as it plummeted. A dire trajectory and Chloe Durand the point of impact.

In that fraction of a second, Claude perceived his future, both immediate and distant. The point of the knife piercing Chloe’s thigh. The blood. The quick passing of shock into a scream. The stark glare of betrayal.

How could you, Claude? Oh, how could you?

And then the chain of events to follow. Termination, disgrace, a life spent in the gutter, his only companion a bottle. And no Chloe Durand.

All this passed before him as the knife blade flashed a second time.

But then, another flash of movement, lithe and graceful, almost too fast to see. Spidery fingers swept through the air, quick and sure as a predatory cat. Fingertips plucked the spinning blade from the air as a child plucks a cherry.

The blade’s motion arrested, reversed, flicked back into the air. The knife spun above Chloe Durand as if she had banished gravity. Another blur of motion and she held the wooden handle, twirled it between her fingers, then placed it on the table in exactly the correct position.

Claude had been turned into a statue. Only his eyes moved as they swam in his head. Chloe looked up at him, once more bestowing her brain-addling smile.

“The perfect knife. Thank you, Claude.



Three more meals took place before Claude managed to ask her out on a picnic. Chloe did not particularly mind the delay. Old Aunt Sophia showed no signs of imminent death, despite her equally ancient doctor’s dire prognosis. Time on her hands was one thing Chloe had an abundance of.

Granted, four meals might have proved excessive. Not an insurmountable obstacle, as Chloe was a woman who could and would take matters in hand. In the event, Claude proved up to the task, though Chloe was certain the effort had nearly killed him. She was glad it hadn’t. She liked picnics. And she liked Claude.

That chosen Sunday was as beautiful a day as anyone could hope for. The sun gleamed on the cobblestones, the swallows swished through the narrow street, and then the stillness was shattered.

Claude appeared behind the wheel of a faded blue deux chevaux. The tiny car rattled to a stop at the curb. Chloe stood on the stone stairs outside her aunt’s door, wide-eyed and laughing.

The silly little vehicle looked like a frog on wheels, with bulging headlights, a flat rear end, and a little grille for a mouth. An enormous picnic basket dominated the back seat.

Chloe could not have been more delighted. She traipsed down the stone steps as Claude leaped from the tiny car and raced around to open the passenger door. The door closed with a tinny rattle. Claude squeezed himself behind the wheel. The engine coughed, the deux chevaux lurched, and they were off.

Claude pointed out the local sights as he piloted the vehicle to the edge of town. Then they were in the countryside, putt-putting down a farm road shaded by overarching Plane trees. Sunshine dappled the windows. Chloe was thrilled to be out of her aunt’s dour apartment.

A swerving turn off the paved road caused the little deux chevaux to buck and sway, but it regained traction as the pavement fell way to gravel. After a kilometre or so, Claude eased the car to a stop on a grassy strip beside the lane. Before them lay an intersection of sorts.

Rutted lanes led to the left, right, and straight ahead. Tufts of grass grew thick between the ruts, and tangled hedgerows bordered the edges. Chloe felt they were about to enter a tunnel.

Claude heaved the huge basket from the backseat and made a valiant attempt to carry it single-handedly. Chloe had a good laugh at his stumbles, then insisted on helping. Holding the basket between them, they entered the green tunnel, he on one side of the lane and she on the other.

The tall grass rustled against the wicker bottom. Hidden birds twittered in the hedgerows on either side. Chloe found it all marvellous. Claude might have a touch of clumsiness, but the man knew how to pick a romantic setting. A far cry from the dingy downstairs bars of the big city.

More than that, Claude possessed a sense of this place. Here and there he pointed out thinner sections of the hedgerow, three and four metres wide, where the sunlight penetrated a bit more. Remnants of war, he explained, where armoured behemoths had punched holes in the hedgerow. Almost eighty years old, but still visible if one knew where and how to look.

I’m walking with a man who knows how to see the scars of history. Imagine that.

They came to a gap in the hedgerow, and a view of the sunlit field beyond. A gate barred the way. Claude slipped loose a looped chain. The gate yielded with a metallic groan.

Chloe stepped through the gate and stopped. Grass tickled her bare ankles. A miniature paradise spread out before her; a private world bordered on all sides by dark green walls of hedgerows. Rows of apple and pear trees stretch away to either side, their trunks twisted and gnarled. And at the centre, a small pond with grassy banks. It was perfect.

She heard the gate moan and clang. Then Claude stood beside her.

“Do you like it?”

Chloe laughed.

“Like it? Claude, it’s amazing. Look, I see our picnic spot, right there by the pond.”
Basket dangling between them, they threaded a path through the orchard and down to the shore.


Claude sat on the edge of a plaid blanket and smiled down at Chloe. She lay on her back in the middle of the blanket, hands folded beneath her neck. The mop of her dark hair spilled over the rough plaid, concealing her wrists.

Memories crowded around Claude. He saw himself as a boy, chasing frogs, running through the orchard, being scolded by an aunt or uncle. As a young man, picking apples and pears, wishing he were in town sneaking cigarettes with his friends.

A thousand images played out on this very spot. And he knew that none of those past events, however wonderful, would ever compare to the memory of Chloe on a blanket watching the clouds float overhead.

Her voice broke through his reverie.

“It’s very important, you know.”

“What is?”

“Cloud watching. Looking for cartoon dogs or dragons or odd faces. Someone has to do it. They hate being ignored.”

“The clouds hate being ignored?”

“Yes, of course the clouds.”

She rolled her head and smiled up at him.

Don’t be a coward, Claude. It’s only a simple question. Ask her.

Chloe caught the question before he could spit it out.

“What is it, Claude?”

“Tell me about the cabaret.”

“Oh, that. My life a million kilometres from here.”

“Yes, that.”

Chloe turned onto her side and propped her head on her fist.

“The cabaret is everything rolled into one big tangle. It’s not like the theatre, or so my family maintains. In the cabaret, everyone is expected to do everything. You must be able to sing, dance, act, paint sets, clean the loo, even play a musical instrument. Of course, everyone has a specialty. Mine is juggling.”

“And you love it?”

“Yes. One must love it to survive it. So much work for such rotten pay.”

“Will you go back to it, back to the city?”

Chloe smiled, rolled onto her back, and said nothing. Claude looked up at the sky as if searching for another answer besides the obvious. Of course, she would leave. Who would choose a dull little town over the excitement and the bright lights of the city?

You would, my friend, but not Chloe. Her aunt will die, and then Chloe will flee back to the cabaret. Face the facts.

Chloe interrupted his thoughts before they sank any deeper. She raised her arm and pointed at the sky above.

“There, do you see it?”


“The old man with the big nose.”

Claude spied Chloe’s cloud, a puffy white Cyrano with a gargantuan nose. The cloud floated on, changed shape, became nothing but another white cloud.

“You see? Poof! Gone, just like that. That’s why I don’t waste time on the future. Tomorrows are dangerous things. Who knows what will happen? A meteor could strike the earth. Some new plague might kill us all. The moralists may finally succeed in banning cabaret. Or something closer to home. My Aunt Sophia might die tomorrow.”

Claude pondered her words.

“Do you love your aunt?”

“Yes, I do. She is the only decent person in my family and the kindest. But that is not why I’m doing everything in my power to keep her alive.”


“No. I want her to live because I’m selfish, Claude.”

Before he could answer, Chloe tucked her legs, spun like a cat, and in a blink was on her knees facing him.

“Now you, just like this.”

Claude pushed himself up to kneeling. Chloe was close, very close. He smelled the sweet tang of her body, the scent of her sun-warmed hair.

She rummaged through her shoulder bag. Her hand reappeared holding three plum-sized balls fashioned of stitched leather.

Then Chloe’s green eyes were on him, keen and sharp, studying him. Claude experienced the same feeling he’d known as a boy when the headmaster stood over his desk.

“Hold out your forearms, palms up.”

He did as she commanded. An electric shock run down his spine as she wrapped her fingers around his wrists. She pulled his forearms ever so slightly, up and down, side to side.

“Yes, good, not too much tension. You must be limber and tight at the same time, like a spring. Shoulders back. And don’t suck in your gut like that. Your stomach grounds you to the earth. Let it anchor you.”

Claude tried to follow her instructions, but the sensation of her fingers on his flesh seemed to dull his hearing. Then her touch slipped away. She plucked one ball from the blanket and placed it in his right hand.

“The arm moves from the elbow like rippling water. Forearm, wrist, then a flick of the hand. Palm, fingers, quick but gentle. The ball rises, hangs in the air, and falls back to the waiting palm. Try.”

Claude obeyed, tossing the ball into the air and catching it.

“Yes, now again, but look at me, not the ball. Your hand knows where the ball will be.”

He fixed his eyes on hers. He tossed the ball. Either time stopped, or gravity was denied. The leather orb disappeared. There was only Chloe’s green eyes, the grin parting her lips, nothing else. Then he felt something drop into his palm.

“Well done! Now again, but as soon as the ball touches your hand, send it back into the air. Juggling balls are sad unless they’re flying. Think of music, a waltz. One-two-three, one-two-three. One is the toss, two the flight, three the catch.”

Claude wanted to pitch the ball over his shoulder and wrap Chloe in his arms, but she gave him a look, cocking her head as if reading his thoughts. That smile, a roll of her hand.

“Remember, a waltz. One, two, three. Begin.”

And he did. There may have been a waltz in his head, or a polka, something with an accordion. Later, Claude did not remember any imagined music, nor the gentle slap of the leather ball finding his palm, nor flicking the ball back into the air. He remembered only the juggling ball as it floated up and down, Chloe’s smile, her eyes. Then his voice speaking words that would not, could not, remain unsaid.

“I want to kiss you, but I can’t while I’m juggling.”

“Catch the ball.”

Claude caught the ball, dropped it to the blanket, and leaned forward.

Later, as the sun angled lower towards the hedgerows, Chloe showed Claude how it was possible to juggle and kiss at the same time.


The days grew hot and languid as summer entered the dog days. The heat seemed to enervate Madam Gauthier. Chloe’s aunt did not die, not that summer at any rate. Mme Gauthier’s elderly physician was not so fortunate. He succumbed in the first week of August and was interred with solemn rites and little weeping.

While Claude worked his evening shifts at Les Sœurs François, Chloe put her abundance of free time to good use. She founded a new venture, a cabaret she named Le Petite Risqué. Aunt Sophia became her first convert and conspirator. The old woman volunteered to serve as a costume consultant, drawing inspiration from the vibrant and bawdy company she’d kept in her younger years. Another Durand family secret brought to light.

Chloe supervised the work of resurrecting a derelict brasserie, rented for a song and a promise. While she charmed the workers, Aunt Sophia enlisted a cadre of local matrons to stitch sequins and baubles on second-hand gowns and hand-me-down suits.

Claude became the talent recruiter, sifting his regulars for anyone who had ever trod the boards, danced the stage, or squeezed an accordion. He was diligent in his work and fiercely loyal to Chloe’s cause. By the middle of August, rehearsals were underway in the unfinished space.

Chloe managed to bring off a small coup. She enticed a few cabaret veterans to venture north from the glimmering capital. The only promises she made were the surety of hard work, rotten pay, and excellent food. The stage was set and the local population astir with anticipation.

Claude and Chloe pursued their private venture amidst the buzz of public preparations. No matter how dire the looming catastrophes, Chloe disappeared at eleven AM sharp. She never resurfaced before two o’clock. Those middays were sacrosanct, Chloe and Claude alone together, the rest of the world shut out. And again, the quiet hours after the last customer departed and Les Sœurs François closed its doors. Then Claude walked upstairs to his simple rooms, knowing Chloe waited for him.

Their secret was known to almost everyone and whispered by only a few. Claude and Chloe did not care.

On one of those August nights, as they lay tangled in the bedsheets and each other, Claude asked Chloe a simple question. His voice was calm and soft, and his mind clear.

Mon amour, will you marry me?”

Chloe smiled, reached to stroke his cheek.

Non, mon beau, I will not marry you, not this year. But ask me again when this sordid affair of ours is one year old.”

“And then will you say yes?”

Chloe shrugged her lovely naked shoulders.

“Perhaps, or perhaps we will just continue to be sordid. Time will tell.”

Claude laughed at her refusal, and Chloe laughed at his laughter.

At long last, August drew to a close and the final days ticked away. Everything was ready, but only just. There was one final dress rehearsal, a secret rehearsal behind closed doors.

Cabaret Le Petite Risqué opened to a standing-room-only crowd. The lights dimmed, and the buzz of the crowd died in taught expectation. A glowing spotlight illuminated a narrow strip of stage, and the closed curtain behind.

The miniature orchestra struck up a wheezing fanfare. Chloe strutted onto the stage. Three coloured juggling clubs danced in the air before her. She wore a gown cut low on the left and slit high on the right. She stood in profile as the clubs flashed end-over-end in the spotlight. Then Chloe cocked her chin over her shoulder and smiled at the audience. The twirling cascade of clubs did not miss a beat.

 “Mesdames et Messieurs, ladies, and gentlemen, welcome to the opening night of Le Petite Risqué. My name is Chloe Durand, and I will be your guide this evening. We hope to enthral you with a bit of everything. Song, dance, juggling, and yes, some small risks as well. After all, without risk, what is there?”

Chloe kept her eyes trained on the crowd as the juggling clubs fell one-two-three into her waiting hands. She turned, took a bow, and the crowd applauded. Then she waved an arm towards the opposite end of the stage.

“Before we raise the curtain on our humble entertainment, I would like to introduce the man who sparked the idea for our cabaret. Here he is, a man you all know and love, but not as much as I do, Monsieur Claude Lambert.”

With that, Claude appeared from the wings, wearing an ancient tux and tails, and on his head, a top hat cocked at a jaunty angle. His eyes were riveted on the trio of juggling clubs bobbing in the front of his black tie. If he was sweating like a labourer, the audience was polite enough not to notice.

Claude took up a position two paces from Chloe. She turned to face him, and her juggling clubs danced into the air as if propelled by magic. When her clubs matched the rhythm of his, she counted aloud.

Un, deux, allez!

Two clubs flew between the pair of jugglers, tumbling end-for-end before being snatched from the air and sent spinning upwards. Again, the clubs dashed through the spotlight, again caught. The crowd cheered. Chloe smiled. Claude ignored the beads of sweat trickling from beneath his top hat.

Un, deux, arrête!”

One last flying pass, two clubs caught, and the last clubs fell to waiting hands. Not a club fumbled, and none dropped. Chloe tucked the imprisoned clubs to her right hand, Claude to his left. They turned to face the audience, grasped each other’s free hand, and took a deep bow.

Claude threw a smile at Chloe, then back to the cheering audience.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, Cabaret Le Petite Risqué.”

The couple ran hand-in-hand from the stage. Behind them, the curtain rose. The show was about to begin.




BIO: Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in more than one hundred reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA.U6 Stories: Vienna Underground Tales is Marco’s latest collection of short fiction. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor for a new ‘Zine called Hotch Potch.