Taïga is late for class this morning, she couldn’t find her apron. After searching everywhere in the room she shares with Eveline and Charlotte, she finally found it – under Eveline’s bed. She ties it around her waist as she runs downstairs, past the canteen and on to the kitchen, where her class is taking a non-expectant, but welcome, crash course in cooking. Mathilde Grosjean, the academy’s chef, finally summoned up the courage to try to convince Monsieur Lambert that cooking is also an art. It was easier than she had expected, but France is the culinary center of the world so it was not surprising neither.
She knocks and pushes the door to the warm kitchen open, hesitating on the threshold. She can see her breakfast is still set out on the far counter, feeling a twinge of guilt.
‘Je suis désolée d’être en retard, Madame! I’m so sorry!’ she says out of breath.
Taïga has never been late before, so the kind cook is reluctant to punish her. She had even been slightly worried when the silent girl did not show up for breakfast.
‘Ça va. I was just going through the elementary security –again – because one of the boys burnt his hand on the oven yesterday. But I know you are careful… Just join your working spaces, all of you. Today, we’ll bake muffins!’
The girls scatter, getting the bowls and spoons out of the cupboards, chatting excitedly. Madame Grosjean frowns at Taïga’s unruly pigtails. She thought Taïga had understood the basics, she had been adamant about the girls’ hair hanging loose when cooking. The young girl seems a little unsettled, though. Her hair is a mess, and her mouth is set in a thin line. She is avoiding the other girls, heading straight for Agnès by the window.
‘You can’t imagine what happened,’ Taïga whispers to her friend who jumps guiltily and blushes.
Taïga follows her friend’s gaze and catches sight of Louis outside. Agnès and Louis? Oh… She feels like everything and everyone is against her. Her best friend and Louis? She would never have thought Agnès was that kind of friend. She wouldn’t have thought it of Louis neither. Since they got punished because of their innocent kiss, he has declared himself her boyfriend, and spent as much time with her as possible. He has not tried to kiss her again, even though she knows he wants to.
‘He gave me this before class,’ Agnès whispers back, drawing Taïga back to reality. She fishes out a piece of paper from the pocket in her apron and gives it to Taïga who hesitates, wanting badly to know what is written. Instead she puts it in her own pocket.
‘Aren’t you going to read it?’
Louis blows a kiss to Taïga, making her feel special. He waves a last time and runs off, he’s also late.
‘Girls, we’re here to learn how to cook, not how to use body language!’ Mathilde sounds stern but her eyes are smiling. ‘And for your information – the way to a man’s heart goes through his stomach! Now let’s bake some delicious chocolate muffins…’
Clotilde glares at Taïga and clears her throat, puckering for the chef’s attention.
‘I’ll read the recipe today, Madame Grosjean!’
Clotilde hates to get her hands “dirty”. The very first cooking class they took, she explained that she couldn’t understand why she would have to learn how to do something as basic as cooking. Snottily she stated that her family had always had staff for that kind of “dirty work”. Madame Grosjean has had some difficulty taking a liking to the weasel faced girl ever since.
‘Non, Clotilde. It’s Jeanne’s turn, you read last week. Give her the cook book.’
‘You heard me. If you aren’t happy with that, I’ll send you to Monsieur Lambert’s office.’
Grudgingly Clotilde walks over to the counter where Jeanne is waiting on one of the high chairs. She slams the book down and stomps off.
Jeanne starts reading and soon the kitchen is busting with activity.
‘… beat in the eggs one at a time… stir in the melted chocolate…’
Madame Grosjean keeps a vigilant eye on the proceedings, making sure the girls stay at a safe distance from the now hot ovens.
They take turns melting butter and dark chocolate in the microwave.
Clotilde insists; commenting under her breath, complaining about slimy eggs and sticky fingers. Madame Grosjean tries to ignore her, but when Clotilde irritated exclaims that her parents don’t pay exorbitant school fees for their daughter to get flour in her eyes, enough is enough.
She strides over to Clotilde’s workspace, her usually jovial face darkened by anger. She gives a short, but efficient lecture about responsibility and politeness in general.
Charlotte’s muffins are ready, and she is proud to be first. But her muffins aren’t as ready as she thought they were, they are all pale and when you cut them it is not chocolate floating out but the batter. Madame Grosjean kindly tells her to start over again, and that the timer was set to check the muffins, not to take them out from the hot oven. She throws a glance at Taïga who is energetically stirring the batter, clearing her face from her dark locks with an impatient shake of her head.
‘But there is no more chocolate, Madame.’
‘I’ll pick some up from the pantry, I’ll be right back.’ Madame Grosjean fishes up a key from her pocket and briskly leaves the kitchen.
Clotilde doesn’t miss a beat. She puts down her bowl and walks over to Taïga.
‘Look up everyone!’ She claps her hands for attention. ‘Taïga is preparing a typical gypsy dish – hairy muffins à la Transylvania! Must be a real treat over there.’
The other girls laugh but Taïga just bends over her bowl, trying to ignore Clotilde. Agnès turns vividly around and spits, ‘They’ll probably taste better than yours – venomous muffins à la snob!’
‘Et boum!’ Jeanne says, getting off her chair.
Taïga can’t help but smile at Agnès’s swift answer, she just wishes she had come up with it herself.
‘C’est vrai. Why is she allowed to cook with her hair all over the place?’ Louise adds, blinking.
‘What is happening here?’ Madame Grosjean is back from the pantry laden with chocolate bars. ‘Jeanne, get back to your reading and I don’t think your muffins are ready, Clotilde.’
Crossing her arms on her thin chest, Clotilde nods with her chin towards Taïga.
‘I thought you said we were supposed to braid our hair or wear a ponytail so I just offered my help to, err… Braid her hair,’ she says sweetly, challenging both the teacher and the other girls who have been listening.
‘Agnès will help me.’ Taïga grabs Agnès’s arm and the two girls leave the kitchen.
Louise is the last one to finish, and everyone watches as she opens her oven. But the first whiff is not of tasty baking, but the foul smell of burnt. Agnès and Taïga stop on the threshold, wondering what the foul smell is. Agnès giggles, waiting for the girl’s reaction to her tiny pigtails, but they are all staring at Louise and nobody is paying attention to their return in class.
Louise’s muffins are all burnt. She is so ashamed. She is not used to fail, especially in front of all the girls who uneasily look at each other. Madame Grosjean just glances at the disaster.
‘Eveline, help Louise take away the platter, s’il te plait.’ She nods at Taïga and Agnès. ‘C’est mignon – it’s cute. Now get going, the others have already finished a first batch.’
Clotilde stares at Taïga as if it was all her fault that Louise has burnt her muffins. Taïga stares back and returns to her batter, filling the six holes of a muffin plate and putting it in the oven. She takes the timer from the shelf and sets it. There is also a bag with icing sugar on the little shelf and it gives her an idea.
‘This is what happens when you try to do things too fast. Cooking is an art – you don’t hurry to paint a picture or sing a song…’ Madame Grosjean admonishes, making Louise blush.
She decides she doesn’t like the free speaking Madame Grosjean. Not at all. She’ll ask her parents to give her a special dispense from cooking class. Maybe Clotilde could get one, too. Maybe they could even get the chef fired…
Clotilde waits until Madame Grosjean has finished her lecture.
‘Don’t worry, Louise. I’ve got a plan…’
‘It better be good, because I hate this. You should have passed me your muffins,’ Louise grumbles.
Clotilde stares at her in disbelief. ‘Everyone saw they were yours-’
Taïga has finished the glazing of her muffins, transforming them into basic cupcakes. She puts one on a platter and is heading towards Madame Grosjean, when Clotilde when Clotilde calls out to her.
Taïga doesn’t really want to hear what Clotilde has to say but she has to stop and listen because Clotilde blocks her path. When she takes a step to the side, so does the weasel faced girl.
‘What do you want?’
‘I want you to help Louise.’
Taïga throws a quick glance at Louise studiously stirring a new batch of batter. ‘She seems to be doing just fine on her own.’
Clotilde makes sure the teacher has her back turned. Then she just slaps Taïga in the face and rips away her cake at the same time.
Taïga didn’t see the blow come and is taken by surprise. Gaping she just stands there, rubbing her burning cheek in bewilderment.
‘But you just did help Louise. Thank you for offering your help,’ Clotilde whispers over her shoulder, making Taïga seethe.
She clenches her fists and tries to hold back her rage. I hate her! I’ll wipe that arrogant smile off her face – forever!
Taïga watches Clotilde snickering hurry towards Madame Grosjean in helpless rage. She can’t let her just get away with tormenting her once again. But Clotilde turns her head and mouths “grandmère”, effectively stopping Taïga.
‘Madame! Regardez!’ she calls eagerly and presents Taïga’s muffin to their teacher. ‘Look at my “oeuvre d’art”!’ Clotilde boasts, drawing the teacher’s attention from the little group who had been asking questions about what they would do during their next class.
Taïga gasps at the nerve of the brazen girl, but stays where she is.
Madame Grosjean is surprised. She doesn’t particularly like Clotilde’s attitude, but the muffin looks really good for a 6th grader and, being fair, should be encouraged.
‘Oh, quelle bonne idée! Look at Clotilde everyone. She’s has taken the initiative to glaze it.’
‘It was actually Louise’s idea, Mademoiselle,’ Clotilde says coyly with a glance at Taïga who feebly holds back.
A wave of despair washes over her. Suddenly it all becomes too much – ever since she started at the Academy, Clotilde has been trying to sabotage everything. Everything! And the mean girl has leverage with her knowledge of her grandmother’s liaison with the headmaster. She doesn’t want the other girls to know about it and Clotilde revels in that knowledge.
With a sob she pushes past the surprised girls and flees the kitchen. Agnès doesn’t know what has happened, but she doesn’t hesitate. She follows in Taïga’s wake slamming the door into the wall in her haste.
‘Taïga! Agnès! Revenez tout de suite! Come back!’ Madame Grosjean’s voice follows them out into the corridor. Agnès hesitates but Taïga doesn’t stop. Madame Grosjean blocks the doorway, effectively stopping Jeanne from rushing out too.
‘There will be consequences, Agnès.’
With a last glance after her friend, Agnès troops back into the kitchen. Madame Grosjean puts a soothing hand on her shoulder. ‘Taïga probably wants to be alone for a while, she’ll be back when she has calmed down.’
‘She’s probably upset because Louise had such a brilliant idea,’ Clotilde says smugly.
‘What idea?’ Louise asks, blue eyes blinking innocently.
‘Back to work everyone. Chop-chop!’ The teacher claps her hands, sending everyone scurrying back to what they had been doing.
‘What happened?’ Jeanne whispers.
‘I don’t know,’ Agnès whispers back. ‘But Clotilde seems smug enough.’
Both girls look at Clotilde and Louise who are giggling together.
‘I’ll ask her.’ Jeanne takes a step towards them but Agnès holds her back. ‘Wait until recess…’
Without thinking Taïga has run straight to the empty dance class. The sad tones of the Swan Lake fills her head and with tears pouring down her cheeks, she starts to dance.
Louis is sitting at the piano reading through a new partition when Taïga bursts through the door. His first impulsion is to ask her what is going on, but when she starts dancing he just silently slips out without the crying girl noticing.
He is soon back with Mademoiselle Béjart.
‘See? Her ankle is OK! I think she’s worth the part at the Opera.’
The young dance teacher doesn’t say anything, she is stunned by the sight of the girl swirling gracefully in the faint light of the big windows. Louis discreetly withdraws, his good manners being stronger than his curiosity.
Mademoiselle Béjart recognizes the choreography of the dying swan. They watched the movie “Billy Elliott” before Christmas and Taïga had been very enthusiastic about the finale, asking to see more extracts on the Internet.
When Taïga finally lets herself graciously collapse on the floor, Mademoiselle Béjart swallows a big lump in her throat and hurries over.
Taïga struggles clumsily to her feet, a total contrast to the grace shown just moments ago. She dries her tears on her sleeve.
‘Oh… I’m sorry, Mademoiselle. I know I shouldn’t have left my shoes on, but I-’
Mademoiselle Béjart hushes her with a sign of her hand. ‘I don’t care about your shoes, Taïga. I want to know why you said your ankle was hurt.’
Taïga doesn’t know what to say. ‘I guess I was scared…’
‘I know dancing at the Opera can be impressive, but…’ Mademoiselle Béjart continues talking about how wonderful the Opera Garnier is, not knowing Taïga had been more scared of Clotilde’s revelations than of dancing in front of a crowd at such a famous place.
‘… so I think you should do it. I think you should dance at the Opera.’
Taïga looks up at her teacher in wonder, torn between hope and culpability. ‘But I can’t! What about Louise? Will she have to go?’
‘No. She has her spot secured, but there might be something for you, too. I know Monsieur Le Riche was disappointed when you fell and hurt your ankle… I will give him a call. But, now tell me – how come you are dressed for cooking?’
Taïga doesn’t want to talk about it, she had almost forgotten the whole incident. What is a muffin compared to dancing at the Opera? But Mademoiselle Béjart is waiting for an explanation and she is looking at her with such kind eyes, it suddenly pours out of her. Not only the muffin incident, but everything. The bowl of water, the false accusations, the slandering. Even the occasional beatings. She only withholds the picture.
She cries again, but with relief this time. She has finally told an adult and even though it feels like she has snitched, it also feels like the responsibility has been transferred to someone in control and that feels good.
Mademoiselle Béjart has suspected something was going on, but she didn’t fathom the extent of it all. She holds back the fury she feels, trying to imagine what to do now, because something has to be done. The wicked girl deserves to be expelled from the Academy, but as her parents are among the most influential benefactors, exclusion isn’t an option.
After making sure Taïga is feeling up to go back to cooking class, she heads straight for Monsieur Lambert’s office…
Part I – End of Chapter 55