When Colette was five she spent the summer with her father, her actual father and not just one of her mother's boyfriends trying to be cute by encouraging her to call them "daddy." It had been a surprise for both of them when her mother dropped her off with her backpack full of patched up dresses and an extra toothbrush, not bothering to stay long enough to see if Anton was home, let alone willing to take care of his daughter for three months. That first day she had spent with the house keeper and the fat calico who spent most of his time sleeping in the kitchen. It was the house keeper who settled her into the guest room, who fed her, and who reassured her that her mother would return soon.
She didn't see her father until two days later.
He had summoned her to the parlor and then ignored her for twenty minutes while he typed out his latest review. Occasionally he would mutter to himself, or take a sip from his wine glass, but otherwise it was just typing and Colette wishing she was anywhere else. She'd even settle for being back at her granny house in the country where she would have to hold the boxes of bullets while granny hunted for the deer that had been eating from her garden.
After finishing his review Anton finally turned to his daughter, eyeing her the way her mother eyed the landlord or a new crop of bills. "When is your mother coming back for you?"
"I, ah, I don't know. Sir." Some of her mother's boyfriends preferred to be called sir. One had wanted to be called Presto the Magnificent, but she didn't think her father would like something that dramatic. "She, she didn't say anything about, er, about leaving me. Sorry."
"Don't apologize for that woman." Anton said crisply. He stood from his chair, reminding Colette of the spider that had lived in her window for a month. "Never apologize for something that isn't your fault."
He watched her shuffle, his face forming a grimace. He was probably aware of the ragdoll she had hidden behind her back. He probably though she was being dumb for carrying a doll around. Her mother said dolls were for babies but Bibi wasn't for babies. She was for protecting Colette when she was scared. And nothing was quite as scary as her father.
"I am not good with children and I will not alter my life to accommodate your mother's foolishness. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now come along. It is time for lunch."
For the first few weeks the pattern was simple. Eat breakfast with the house keeper and the calico, find a way to entertain herself (quietly), eat lunch with the house keeper and the calico, look at the pictures in the books from father's library, eat dinner with her father, and be quiet until the house keeper prepared her for bed. It wasn't exciting but it kept her interaction with her father to a minimum which he seemed to like. And the house keeper was nice and didn't disapprove of Bibi or Colette's crayon drawings.
But then she made a mistake that stopped the pattern. She spoke with her father outside of dinner.
It had been while she was in the library, taking advantage of the fact that Anton did all his reading in the morning and none in the afternoon. He, like the house keeper and the calico, was a creature of habit and Colette liked that. Knowing what someone was doing meant knowing how to stay out of their way. But one day her father deviated from the pattern, entering the library at half after two.
Colette had been looking at the drawings in a heavy book about gardening, trying to figure out which plant was which and wondering if there was a strawberry patch nearby when a shadow fell across the yellowing pages. She hadn't meant to gasp, but a tiny one escaped her.
"Colette." He said as a greeting. Or perhaps just an acknowledgement. It was the first time she had heard him say her name since her arrival almost three weeks before. "Certainly you are not trying to read that."
"I am." She whispered, face flushing red.
"It's in Latin."
She shrunk back into the chair, trying to look as small as possible.
Her father lifted a thin eyebrow at the reaction. "Perhaps I can find you a book in French. Provided you can read French."
If it was possible to melt into a puddle Colette would have been the first to try. Tears welled up in her eyes, threatening to pour down her cheeks. "I can read! I can read French! I'm not stupid! I promise I'm not stupid!"
It obviously wasn't what Anton had been expecting, nor was he expecting his daughter to throw the book down and start bawling. His long fingers hovered over her dark curls for a moment before gently touching her head. It didn't stop the tears but it caused the child to startle and begin hiccupping. Still better than bawling.
"What brought that on? You're barely five. It doesn't matter if you can't read yet. True, it's high time you learn but with the teachers in these schools it's hardly a wonder if you can't manage."
"I don't go to school."
Anton stopped his tirade against the public school system at the soft comment. "Surely your mother sends you to school."
"I'm too stupid. Mama says maybe next year."
She wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen it but her father's face paled further than its normal shade of white. He chewed on his cheek for a moment before kneeling next to the chair that she had adopted as her own. At this level Colette could see his eyes, perhaps for the first time. Her mother was right. She had inherited her father's eyes.
"You are not stupid, child. Certainly not if you are my daughter. And I will give you a chance to prove it. Come Monday we will have a tutor here to teach you, but only if you promise to try and learn."
She practically jumped from the chair, heart thundering in her tiny chest. "I can learn to read?"
"Among other things, yes."
And thus the pattern changed.
Her father had hired three tutors. The first was her favorite, a college student with hair the color of the setting sun. Her name was Claire, and she came every day of the week, arriving just after breakfast and leaving just after lunch. She taught Colette the letters and their sounds and how to write and how to read. She would also teach her numbers and basic math, which Colette found she had a great skill in. Sometimes she would teach Colette to read from history books, teaching her about the rise and fall of great nations and the many different people around the world. Other times she would read from fairy tales, making sure Colette knew the moral of the story before sending her to lunch.
The second tutor was older than Claire, but not nearly as old as her father. His name was Pascal and he would come on Mondays and Wednesdays after lunch, usually just before Claire left, and would teach Colette about art. He would show her how to draw and paint and would sometimes take her to the museum near her father's house so she could learn about the masters of art. If it was rainy he'd bring a plastic sheet and lay it down over the desk so Colette could sculpt with clay.
The third tutor was her least favorite, an old man name Henri who came on Tuesdays and Thursdays after lunch. He was trying to teach her music, to which Colette secretly believed she had no talent. Under Henri's fingers the piano in her father's second study sounded like a choir of angels. Under her fingers it sounded like a monkey banging on a rock. Henri didn't believe in deviating from the planned lesson, which meant no trips to local concerts or listening to recordings of famous music. He would just loom over her, reprimanding her mistakes and patting her head at each success until the house keeper came to announce the hour was over.
Friday was the only day of the week where her afternoons were free. Mostly she would play in her father's garden, although it was properly the house keeper's garden since her father never stepped foot there. She would sometimes make mud castles for Bibi to live in, and mud subjects for Bibi to rule. Sometimes the house keeper would show her which plants were for eating and which were just to look pretty. Sometimes she would just nap under the lemon tree, surrounded by smell of herbs and fruits and flowers.
After about two weeks her father began reappearing in her life, having almost completely vanished after the tutors first arrived. He would show up at breakfast on Saturday, the shadows under his eyes heavier than she remembered them being, and tell her to get dressed for a day on the town. They would go to the shops where he would refuse to buy her treats even when she hadn't asked. By the last shop he would ultimately buy her something, usually a candy or a ribbon for her hair. She would say thank you and never mention it again and he wouldn't make a point about how spoiled children were anymore.
By early July Colette had learned all the letters and was begin to piece together short words. Her musical talents hadn't progressed past the most basic of notes but she had managed to make a sculpture which the house keeper kept in the kitchen. She would still cringe when her father rushed by on his way to the study, muttering to himself about the latest review and what a good synonym for 'nauseating' would be but otherwise life in the Ego household had settled.
When July turned to August and her father began planning for the upcoming school year Colette realized she hadn't heard from her mother in two months.
"Is Mama ever coming back for me?" She asked over dinner one night. It was a vegetable stew, carrots and potatoes from the garden with a loaf of artisan four cheese bread her father had bought from the town. And though her father didn't eat a lot, hardly anything, he had helped himself to seconds of the stew. Perhaps the sign of a good mood.
When he put down his stew and pushed the bowl forward for the house keeper to take she realized it she may have ruined that good mood. "Do you not like it here?"
"Oh no, no, no. I like it here, I really do. It, well, it's nicer than the time we lived over the bar. Or that time we lived with granny. Her house smells like moth balls." Colette picked up her own spoon before dropping it into the bowl, ignoring the twitch of her father's eye at the spilt stew. "Who's taking care of Mama now that I'm here?"
"She's a grown woman and doesn't need a child taking care of her." Anton muttered.
Colette shook her head gravely but otherwise kept quiet. When the house keeper asked if anyone wanted dessert Anton merely walked out of the dining room, leaving Colette to fret.
Three days later her father interrupted her music lesson to hand her a piece of paper. The only thing written there was an address and though it took a minute she eventually figured out it was somewhere in Spain.
"Your mother is there. Do you want me to send her a letter?"
Colette simply pushed the paper back into his hand and returned to her lesson, mind focused on the keys that refused to make proper music and nothing else.
Three weeks later, with two days left before Colette was due to begin school, her mother appeared on Anton's front step, holding a crumpled letter and looking years older than when she left. For hours her parents argued while Colette sat beside the fat calico in the kitchen. They both watched the house keeper fret over the state of affairs with Claire who had been preparing to finish her last lesson. Eventually Claire had to leave for her second of four jobs. But before she left she dropped beside Colette and kissed her forehead.
"You were a wonderful student and a very smart girl. Never let anyone tell you otherwise." She paused, as though there were something else she wanted to say. Instead she settled for what she needed to say. "People will tell you that certain things are impossible, but you can't listen to them. If you want something you go and get it, no matter who tries to stop you."
And with that Claire left. Colette would remember those word later, would cherish them for the rest of her life, even if she never saw Claire again.
Almost an hour later Colette was startled from her nap in the patch of sunlight normally reserved for the cat by her father crouching over her. His thin fingers carded through her hair and his lips turned into the smallest of smiles. Even half asleep Colette knew it was the best her father had ever looked.
"Your mother is taking you back with her. There is nothing I can do. I gave up any custody of you when you were a baby and cannot reclaim it now. Do you understand?"
Colette nodded and her father accepted that. There was no need to press the matter. His daughter was a smart one. "Will I ever get to come back?"
"Perhaps. I'd like it if you did."
But as her mother pulled her to a waiting taxi Colette knew that summer would be the last she'd spend with her father. And she was right. She didn't see him when her mother moved them to England where they lived with an up and coming band. She didn't hear from him while she was enrolled in a boarding school outside of Bordeaux. She couldn't contact him when she ran away from school with a pretty red headed girl who took her to Paris.
Sometimes she'd forget about him. When Michelle asked about her family while they were curled up on their ratty sofa Colette would have to pause and think about him. The thin, pale man from her memory who was so much like a spider and so little like a person. But sometimes when they were in a store she would recall the time her father bought her a candied apple after insisting she would ruin her appetite for dinner if she had any sweets. Sometimes she watch Michelle practicing with her flute and recall her father's failed attempts at having a tutor teach her music.
Sometimes she would remember him.
And when Michelle left for America and Colette chose to stay behind for her career those fleeting memories of a summer in her father's house left too. She didn't have time for childish things. Not when she was studying under the masters and proving to them that she was as brave and as daring as they thought they were. She didn't have time to remember the sun warming her as she napped under a lemon tree. The scent of lemon only invoked memories of recipes, not of the house keeper singing as she watered the flowers.
And while very little mattered while she was training to be a chef, nothing mattered after she was hired at Gusteau's. She was too busy proving her worth, working twice as hard for half the respect. Some nights she would return to her apartment, body sore and mind blank, and she would feel like she hadn't been born so much as created alongside the dishes she prepared. A fresh baked chef with no past and a very short future.
The one thing she truly remembered, in that way that some memories were a part of a person and not memories anymore, was her granny's words as they sat on the bridge near her cottage. Even when she felt empty she would remember her granny's wisdom, no matter if she hadn't thought of it as wisdom at the time. "There are some people who come into our lives and change who we were. They create who we will be. But there are people who will never leave our lives. These are the ones who change us the most. These are the ones we change."
It wasn't her first memory but it was her clearest. And it was what she thought of the first time Anton Ego reviewed Gusteau's. She had watched with the rest of the chefs as the dish was presented to the skeleton of a man. She had held her breath like the others when he lifted the fork to his mouth. But she hadn't been thinking like they had when his face grimaced.
She had been thinking that her father was far too skinny.
While the rest of the chefs whispered about the looming review Colette had stood by the door, feet shuffling against the tile. Her motorbike was right there. She could catch him before he left. She could find him, could follow his car if she had to. Could find her father and…
How could she explain the lifetime she had spent without contact him? How could she have explained the loyalty that made her cling to her mother until it was obvious the woman cared more about her boyfriends than her daughter? How could she explain running away from school with a girl and giving up a proper education for a chance to be happy?
How could she explain being a chef who couldn't prepare a dish good enough for him?
The review was devastating. The fallout was worse. Losing Gusteau was like losing a father. One who had actually laughed with her, had praised her accomplishments, had been there when she felt adrift in the world. But she pushed on. They all did, despite Skinner's attempts at destroying Gusteau's legacy. They stood by their restaurant and they stood by each other.
And then he arrived. A noodle limbed boy with more talent than anyone in the restaurant. Linguini was awkward, he was clumsy, but he was brilliant.
He was also a pain in Colette's ass.
But he improved, learning quicker than Colette had expected. He created the strangest mixtures and made them edible. Made them magnificent. And they flourished again. More patrons, better reviews, more praise. He provided the downfall of Skinner and the return of a proper Gusteau's. And in the glow of it Colette forgot about the danger that came with success.
She shouldn't have forgotten about her father.
And though his attention was only on Linguini, without a hint of recognition for his daughter, Colette stood beside the boy. She was ready for any insult, any threat, and challenge. Because in all of France she was the only one who wasn't scared of Anton Ego. Not when somewhere in the back of her mind she could remember the thin man who took second helpings of vegetable stew and bought candied apples from street vendors.
Alone in her apartment, sprawled on the ratty sofa she couldn't bring herself to throw out, Colette imagined a hundred scenarios for if her father recognized her. A hundred more for if he didn't. Chance meetings outside the restaurant. Letters with no signature and no way for him to find her. Just approaching his table and revealing her identity. None of them were appealing.
In the end none of them were close to right. Not when Linguini finally revealed the rat. Not when all the chefs, her brothers-in-arms, walked out. Not when he somehow convinced her to assist with the mad scheme to run a restaurant with rats acting as chefs. Admittedly reconnecting with her father was less important once she was thrown into the madness that came with a kitchen full of rats.
And the rat, the one who had been secretly creating their success, decided in the mist of the madness to create a peasant dish and present it to Paris' most feared critic.
She had been watching when he took that first bite. She saw it all. His shock. His amazement. His happiness.
The rat had impressed Anton Ego.
And she had to convince him that meeting the chef was not a possibility. Had to tell her father to wait for the chef who had done the impossible or leave without ever knowing. But he didn't budge, didn't leave. He waited patiently while Linguini provided him with glass of wine after glass of wine. Colette knew he would wait. He was a patient man most of the time. Worse when he wanted something.
The meeting wasn't nearly as dramatic as she expected it. He was surprisingly calm. Calmer than Colette had been, at least. And when he left she felt, for the first time since Linguini had turned her life upside down, the emptiness again.
She hadn't gotten to apologize.
The review was out in remarkable time and it was nothing short of magnificent. His best writing, if Colette was being honest. Since becoming a chef she had read every review her father wrote, pausing over the insults and abuse of metaphor. But this was amazing. Poetry in the form of a review. Which only made it more painful when they were closed.
But life went on. New restaurants to run, ones with better hiding places for their new rat army, and a new life to live. But even as the plans began for their new restaurant Colette would find herself reading the last review. Pondering over every word, wondering about every sentence. It was brave of her father to write so honestly. Brave in a way she wouldn't have expected from him.
It was time for her to be brave too. After all, she hadn't just inherited her father's eyes.
The house was unchanged from her memory, though maybe smaller. The front step was just as daunting as when her mother had left her, so many years ago. The bell was just as loud. The door creaked just as badly.
The butler was new.
And though she was channeling a new bravery she still waited on the front step while the butler sought out Anton. Better to make a get-away. But the moment he pulled open the door her thoughts of escape disappeared.
As did most of her wit.
The desire to escape reappeared before the wit, but ultimately they were both beaten by a desire she hadn't felt in a long while. The desire to apologize. "I'm sorry I didn't contact you. Or see you. After Mama took me we moved to England and by the time we got back to France-"
A pale hand lifted to cut off her words. "Colette, never apologize for something that isn't your fault. It is I who should be apologizing. Come in for a glass of wine."
They sat in the kitchen where she had spent her first and last day of the summer. The fat calico was gone, her father said he had disappeared a few months after she left and was never seen again. A dog had taken the cat's patch of sun, a Scottish terrier that raised its head slightly to stare but otherwise didn't seem to care about the humans.
"After your mother took you I hired a lawyer to see if I could gain custody of you. By the time a case could be made for negligence your mother had left the country. She didn't respond to my letters or calls and I didn't know you were in boarding school until after you had run away." Anton allowed his shoulders to droop and his face looked older than it had just days before. "I have failed you in many ways over the years. Allowing that woman to take you back was simply the worst of it."
Colette sipped her wine to allow herself a moment of thought. All the angry things, all the sad things that had been in her mind were gone and she couldn't bother to reform them. "You did make a mistake in letting me go, but it's nothing we can fix now. Besides, who's to say I wouldn't have been more screwed up living here."
Anton chuckled, thin fingers reaching out to run through her hair. "I am sorry about your restaurant. And for not recognizing you."
"It's been a long time. Though thank you."
She shrugged awkwardly. "The review. It was beautiful."
"Oh, that. Yes, it was difficult writing. Harder still to admit being wrong. The hardest part may be the destruction of my credibility now that Gusteau's has been closed." He winced, reaching for the bottle to refill his glass. "I suppose you're out of a job now."
"Linguini and I have been talking about a new restaurant. That rat is talented, as much as I hate to even think those words." She drummed her fingers against the counter, amused by how it made the dog tap its tail in time. "It will be hard though. Starting a business in Paris isn't easy."
A soft smile, the same one she had seen in the moments before her mother had taken her away, crossed her father's face. "What you need it a business investor. Someone who knows restaurants. Someone who knows food."
Colette sighed, eyes rolling dramatically even as she broke into a grin. "This won't make up for all the birthdays you missed." She teased.
"I realize. But it will be a start."