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Restaurant Palmyra (short story)

Harald Renner

With quick steps, Wolfgang had crossed the wintry spa gardens of Bad Homburg. Now he was freezing and longed for warmth, candlelight and the aroma of Mediterranean herbs and spices. He trudged slushy clumps of snow off his boots as he arrived in front of the green-panelled entrance door of the “Palmyra” restaurant. A faint glow of light filtered outside through a gap in the curtain. He heard muffled voices and the clatter of dishes.

“Come closer, my friend,” Thomas, the landlord, greeted him and closed the door behind him. “You are our only guest today. Sabine is looking forward to seeing you too.”

“That’s right,” his wife agreed with him. “Take off your coat and make yourself comfortable! You’re just in time. A little joy will do us good today.”

Esat appeared from the kitchen, balancing a silver tray of delicious smelling hors d’oeuvres. He raised his shoulders. “I don’t speak German well, you know. Too difficult.”

“No,” protested Wolfgang. “You get better every time. How nice to see you again!”

The young cook put the tray down on the side table and pointed to the food. “Muhamara, a pepper and walnut paste, and warak inab, stuffed vine leaves. That’s how we always started the meal. In Damascus, before the war.”

“Enjoy it!” urged Sabine in an occupied voice. Instead of reaching for her knife and fork, she blew into her handkerchief. “Please excuse me!”

Wolfgang looked at her. “You don’t have to apologise. Are things that bad with you?”

The host took over the conversation. “Yes, it’s worse than bad. Six weeks ago we were hoping for a solution, remember? But now our debts keep growing. Business is getting tough, even for other restaurants. The owner wants to renovate. He offered us a new lease, but we had to turn it down. Much too expensive for us. We’re giving up, it’ll be over at the turn of the year.”

“I saw this coming. Do you want to stay here?”

“We’d like to,” Sabine intervened, “but we can’t afford everything around Frankfurt anymore. We’ve been looking at a two-room flat in the Vogelsberg district. That might work.”

Esat appeared with a bottle of deep red Syrah from Bargylus, presented the label and let the host taste it. “Yes, it’s good!”

When the cook had disappeared again, Sabine picked up the thread. “We also wonder what will become of Esat. He arrived here four years ago, all alone. He hasn’t heard from his family back home for a long time, will have a hard time finding a new job.”

The Syrian cook was now sitting at the table, and the four of them enjoyed each new dish with a good appetite. When Esat brought out the falafel in lamb sauce, followed by sea bass in sesame and lime sauce, and finished with a select of exquisite desserts and a strong-smelling mocha, his enthusiasm infected everyone. Without even noticing, he explained the dishes in his mother tongue and everyone understood what it meant.

Now other topics now dominated the conversation. The precious wine helped to loosen tongues. Finally, Wolfgang asked that had been burning on his mind at every meeting, so many times in the last few years.

“Tell me, Thomas, how is your health?”

“Very well!” the host replied.

Sabine touched his forearm. “Leave it, Wolfgang can know, can’t he? My husband is not well. Ever since the accident, he’s found it hard to breathe. It’s been going on for five years. He’s missing a lung. That’s why he can’t work in the kitchen any more, only in service and billing.”

Wolfgang hesitated. “Can I ask you one more question?”

“Go ahead!” the landlord encouraged him.

“The thing about the accident. I know you don’t talk about it. But I’ve been wondering for a long time what happened back then. Was it a road accident?. I’m asking as your friend, not out of curiosity.”

After a long silence, Sabine came out with the complete story.

“It wasn’t a road accident, and it was in many newspapers. My husband is my hero, brave, kind and idiotic. He saved the boy’s life and paid for it.”

What happened then has now come to light. The attack by five young men at Frankfurt’s main railway station. Without cause, out of a desire for naked violence. The seventeen-year-old boy on the ground with his face covered in blood. The kicks with the jumping boot aimed at the boy’s head. And then Thomas in between, with a shrill scream. Who lunged at the first one he caught hold of and rammed his knee between his legs. Then the others, who attacked Thomas, beating him again and again until he lost consciousness. The attackers fled as the first police siren sounded. They ever caught none of the culprits.

Wolfgang let the words sink in. Then he wanted to know if the boy or his family had ever thanked the rescuer.

“Thanked them, yes,” Sabine replied. “They wrote a touching letter and suggested a meeting, but we didn’t want that. It petrified my husband. To this day, he doesn’t want to be reminded of the gruesome deed. No, we don’t know the people.”

Wolfgang sensed that the three of them wanted to be alone now. With heartfelt words, he thanked them for the wonderful meal. As a farewell, he pulled a letter from the inside pocket of his jacket and placed it on the dining table. “Is from my wife. She sends her love.”

Half an hour later they had tidied up the restaurant and washed dishes, glasses and plates. Sabine discovered the letter and tore open the envelope.

As she read the few lines, the words blurred before her tired eyes, which filled with tears. Her body came to rest. She felt the long months of tension and worry dissolve.

The letter was brief.

“Our company is doing well, and each year we have been able to save more for you. Yesterday we spoke with your owner and settled everything. Worry no more, you keep the restaurant. Our son Sebastian is dying to meet the man who saved his life five years ago at Frankfurt Central Station. We will never forget you. Merry Christmas to you all!”

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