First appeared in ASM 93

The first time Michel breaks me, it is with onions. Mine do not satisfy. I do them again without question; this is Michel’s world. These onions are worse than before. I do them again and again, a night of chopped onions, each set more ragged than the last, each knife-fall pulling the tears from out of me. I have chopped for hours now, and a mountain of white and sweating onion is before me. Michel sweeps out his arm, careless cat, and they are on the floor. You have done nothing, he tells me. Start over. I ask Michel if I am being taught some sort of cosmic lesson. He tells me I am a little bitch. What can the cosmos have to teach you? You cannot even learn from an onion.

It doesn’t quite seem fair that everybody else on the planet gets to dream, and I have to be a chef in a French restaurant. I used to have proper dreams, with water slides and war zones and even a little bit of sex. The sort of thing you could spend some time interpreting over cornflakes. I used to have nightmares too, nasty things crafted out of films and personal setbacks and an enduring belief that someone, somewhere, wanted to remove the blood from my body and keep it in little sachets. Now it’s head down, no time for symbolism, those potatoes should have been prepped twenty minutes ago. I miss the gargoyles and the plains.

The restaurant is not like other dreams. Here, time moves in one direction and it does so slowly. There are consequences, and a continuity to events. I knocked into a tray of desserts and Michel would not look at me for a week. When I look at myself in the unframed mirror in the toilet cubicle, I am still me, with my face, and no more beautiful. I tell Michel this isn’t what dreams are for; sometimes I break down and beg during his weekly team meetings. Michel does not care. He has a restaurant to run, and the fact I am dreaming it is only of minor interest to him. Michel is tall, lean and completely imaginary. He knows everything I know about French cuisine, which isn’t very much. Perhaps that is what drives him to be the Michel he is, a shock-haired man who would beat an orangutan to death for the sake of his art, or maybe just if he had nothing else on. He is the emperor who rules my dreams, and it provides no comfort at all that I have made him up. The restaurant isn’t in France. It’s in Bedfordshire, and I wonder if Michel blames me for that as well. Sometimes I see him run his fingers over the spiraliser and look my way with eyes that promise dismemberment.

It’s eight in the morning in the real world and Lucy has just come out of the shower. What are you doing? she asks me, as she drips her way into the kitchen. Nothing, I tell her, and put the iPad face down on the work surface. Why are you chopping onions? What were you watching? Really, it’s nothing, I say. Just practicing my julienne. Oh. For Michel? Yes, I say, for Michel. She looks at me, a little worried. I smile a practised smile and put my hand in her hair. I pray she does not look in the compost bin, at the two full bags of onions I have already disassembled into lanky strips while she lay asleep.

I dream the restaurant every night. I’ve never been to Bedfordshire, not when I’m awake. Once I looked up the restaurant on Google and found it didn’t exist. The town did, but I had most of the streets wrong. I still think that’s pretty impressive.

I do not know if Michel sleeps, if he is nourished by those daylight hours I spend in work, and gardening, and seeing my children, all in fear of him. If he does, he shows no sympathy for it: my slipping hands, the thin nicks in the folds of my fingers, these are sore insults directed only at Michel. When I wake up, the cuts remain, and there is blood under my fingernails. I return to the world of the kitchen and I crave his pardon. Please, I say, Michel. I can’t moule another mariniere. But Michel is relentless, and I am compelled by him to moule without end.

There are others with us in the restaurant, although they are more shapes than people. Most of the time I’m sure they don’t have a front; they’re just broadshoulders, a blur of hands, some culinary sound effects. I don’t think my brain has the power to fill them in any further, it has put too much energy into Michel and Michel won’t give any back. The other chefs, the waiters, the customers, they must all be husks. But I have a paranoia, a tight and bubbly dread that ripples up my stomach and theorises an alternative. They have a back, and a front, and complex, fully realised inner lives. They just loathe me above all else.

The chefs, like Michel, have good reason to hate me. I am the architect of their misery as they are the architects of mine. I am late, and I am ignorant, andneither of those they can forgive. It doesn’t matter when I fall asleep: when I arrive at the restaurant, I am already late. It’s ten minutes into my shift and I am outside the fire escape. Maybe Michel is there, leaning over the railing, waiting for me, garlic on his hands and evil in his heart. If he is not, it is only because there is a grander and more demanding crisis elsewhere, and I am required to wind my way through the corridor alone, to race the thick tubing of the vents to their starting point, the long, low box that is the kitchen. The walls and floor and ceiling are all the same, and that same is grey. Monochrome tiles splash across the backs of wide sinks and fat ovens that hug their bellies beneath them. Through the narrow framing of the line and the grim silhouettes of cooling plates, I can see the snug where the customers are kept, a mustard place with sunflowers and pillows that leak stuffing like animals foaming at the mouth.

My station is ever-changing. I chop. I stir. I peel. I pull thin and undesirable strings from the guts of various rare and exciting sea creatures. A normal kitchen might not work like this, but this is not a normal kitchen; it is the seat of my punishment. Michel stalks me through it like a flightless and predatory bird. Each night he builds me some new torment, in revenge for my ignorance, my tardiness. If I knew anything about restaurants then Michel would too, and he would be spared the vigorous and unending complaints that are the only things to temper his excesses. He is right to be ashamed. The plates coming back threaten to outnumber the plates going out; I imagine them colliding in the middle and detonating in a cloud of shrapnel crockery.

One night, Michel leads me back through the grey gullet of the fire escape and into the cold sharpness of the pretend night. This is novelty, this is aberration. I wonder if he is planning to shoot me in the head. First I smell it, something rounded and earthy and warm, a world apart from the cultivated scents we breed inside. Then I hear it, and I begin to panic.

There is a cord tied to the metal railing. We follow it around a sharp brick corner. In the alley, at the other end of the cord, there is a cow. It makes anothernoise, something between fear and anger and an acknowledgement of deadly hooves. I meet its gaze and resolve not to check, in the daytime world, if cows truly have such human eyes.

I step back. I’m not killing a cow for you, I say. Michel rootles in his pocket and passes something to me. I lift it and it catches in the red emergency lighting. It looks like a knife, until the redness fills the hollows of the blade. It is a potato peeler. We are having steak, he says, and leaves me to my work.

They say there was once a man who dreamed he was a butterfly. He dreamed it so fully and so well that, when he woke up, he thought perhaps he might still be a butterfly, and only dreaming he was a man. There were times in the kitchen when I considered being a butterfly. It would have been easier if I was a chef who only dreamed he was a man, my days under Michel’s shadow, my nights with Lucy and our children. But as I stabbed the cow to death in the dark of the alley, as we both slipped in the greasy fluid of its blood, made invisible by the night, as we stumbled together into the bricks of the wall like drunken lovers, as I prised myself out from under its dead weight and set to butchering, I knew enduring was not an option.

It is four in the afternoon in the real world, and I am booked to see a specialised sleep therapist. I tell her about everything, Michel, the restaurant, the cow. She says, I see, and fetches another notebook. The first thing, she says, in a voice that suggests there will be a lot of things, is to remember that none of this is real. Michel isn’t real. The cow—

Do you know about lucid dreaming? I ask her. Yes, she says. Can you teach me? She hesitates, and inside that hesitation there is a question, which I answer. I need to lucid dream a machete. She shifts in her chair and looks at me again, and this time I think she sees a different person than before. It’s to kill Michel, I say, apologetically.

When it comes to an end, it is a normal night and I am only bleeding very slightly. Michel wants me to make soufflé but neither of us know how. It has been four months of the restaurant, and my subconscious is running out of inspiration. I spent the night before with two tubs, one labelled coq and one labelled vin. I did my best to use an equal quantity of each, but Michel had the only set of scales and would not share.

I have been practicing with my peeler, bloodied artefact. I will it into a sword, a scythe, something that will let me kill him from a distance. Better to live in the shell of a restaurant, husk holding husks, than follow Michel. A man can only kill so many lobsters. Each crustacean is like a tiny suicide. This is my subconscious, and I am taking it back.

I have applied myself to my lessons. Tonight I hover at my station, just slightly, just to prove I can. Michel only sees the half-inch I have gained. I have blossomedin the dark, conjuring metal teeth from the peeler in the sanctum of the toilet cubicle, watching myself in the mirror as I rearrange the tiling with my mind.

I whisk, and zest, and plot, and watch Michel. I choose my moment and pull a sabre from the stained metal. He is still and I am in motion, and there is a jolting and terrible connection. I feel the blade snag against his bones, and then the door of the restaurant opens.

The television static of our usual clientele is displaced by a new sound, a mess of overlapping talk and escalating emotion. We stand there, Michel and me, him on the end of my skewer, and we listen. The voices slide inside me and push sweat out of my arms and neck. I recognise them, of course I do. Michel has his back to me, but in his shoulders I see a kind of triumph. He shrugs, and my weapon collapses into soft, wet metal. It runs down my front, hissing through my apron and cooling itself against my skin. Michel stands intact, immaculate. He has not even turned around.

I smell burnt sugar. I ought to feel despair. Somewhere far away my soufflé softly weeps, but I leave my victim and my station, somnambulant, and head towards the portal, the food-stuffed bottleneck that hives the kitchen off from the sunned and pouchy decadence of the dining room. I peer through, and a frigid platter of decaying oysters bears witness. My family have come for dinner.

It is Michel that greets them. They are all holding little French flags, which seems a bit much. Our children are waving them about, they’re so excited, they’ve never been this excited for my cooking before. Lucy’s there, and Lucy’s mother, and me as well, and we—they—are all grinning at each other. Michel leads them to a frilly table, and I can’t bring myself to interrupt, to try again to slay the dragon, not in front of my children. He fusses over them, he flirts with Lucy’s mother, he pulls a penny from my daughter’s ear. My doppelganger takes his seat and Michel is all smiles, you would never know he had built a career exclusively on hating me.

I tire of dreaming the way I do.

I see the cow in my mind once again. I see the bloodied output of all the petty inhumanities he has inculcated in me, that bloomed like spores in my unsleeping carcass. I see the hollow ghost chefs, whirling their way through his artless design. I see the restaurant for what it is. I watch Michel smile as he poses my family, urges them closer for a group photograph, and I know he must never smile again.

He is impervious to my attacks, and I am his prisoner forever.

All the same, I tire of polishing my jail. We will both dream in ruins from tonight. First, I explode the work stations. I point at them and they blaze, incinerating the thin phantoms that attend them. Fragments of shell fly through the air and cut into my face. Next, I crack the tiles from the walls and sand drips down onto the floor. They can hear me in the front of house—they can hear me in other people’s dreams. All the dead things in the pantries, I make them alive, and they scamper and scramble their way through the chaos. I give them tusks, all of them, even the poultry, and watch them gore their way through the clientele.

The restaurant is a battlefield. My family do not seem to notice; they have been given the wrong drinks and are trying to get Michel’s attention. I detonate a row of soups at a nearby table. They spring up in scalding geysers that blast the pictures from the walls. Michel ducks, and I send the floorboards up to meet him. He swerves and the windows flood from their panes, an ocean of glass ready to engulf him.

I bring his livelihood down in flames and at last, as if reluctant, Michel allows himself to bleed.

My shift ends for the final time.

I find Michel in the front of house, stacking chairs and dying. The tables have been overturned, and the walls are full of metal. He is bleeding through his shirt; there is a red stripe going through him as if he’s been cut in half. They didn’t leave a tip, he says. You cheap bastard. Something in him breaks off and dies. Since you are here, he says, you can help me stack these chairs.

We pile them up in a corner. Plates shatter underfoot and garnishes hang out from their sides like viscera. When there are only two chairs left, Michel gestures that I should sit down. I have something to tell you, he says. The restaurant is going away. I know, I say to him, in the voice I use for dying relatives. I’m selling up, he says. Fast Italian. Oh yes? I say, and he says yes, onto new challenges. He pulls himself to his feet but leaves quite a lot of his blood behind him on the chair. He says goodbye. He steps outside.

I catch up with him in the street, which isn’t bad, although I think the real Bedfordshire has fewer palm trees. The roads wobble hazily if I don’t focus on them. Wait, I say, Michel. You’re me. You’re me, and I accept that, I accept it even if you won’t. You hate me and I hate you and that’s awful, but you can’t just walk away. You can die but you can’t walk out of here, you can’t walk out of me.

Michel hefts himself up, holds his guts in and gives me a look of extreme condescension. You are wrong, he says. I’m leaving now.

He pulls his coat around him and he walks away, out of my dream. I am alone, and all I can hear is the wind rushing through the palm trees and the roads lapping at my feet.