Kaput on food, work, travel, Paul McCartney, food, smoking, snooping, restaurants, food
This was when there was peace in the valley; we hadn’t made our mistake.
We thought that love was over, That we were really through
At this time, he started a new schedule travelling to a northern city two nights a week; the cause for this being work. The city, which took one hundred and thirty minutes by train, was prosperous, sunny, but also windy. He set off from home at five thirty each Monday, crossing London to Kings Cross, where he bought breakfast to eat on the station concourse. Waiting for his train platform to be announced, like any traveller, he felt that there were things he should’ve done before he left; but couldn’t think what they were.
Over the weeks, he recognised the same vicar with a latte wearing black shiny shoes. He noticed the rail app on his phone knew which platform before the giant noticeboard knew. And that a clear, uninterrupted run brought him from London to his new office for nine am. Where, firing up his laptop, while gazing out the window, eyes tired with all this time awake already, his sight tracks across the city skyline, landing on the large dome of the town hall, lambent in the winter sun. And, like every Monday morning, the same nagging thought rises: so many hours, all these miles, simply to do his bullshit job from here; when equally he could be doing his bullshit job there, firing up the laptop back home – but still in his slippers. Scrap the early start. Skip the one hundred and thirty minute train. Ditch the hotel. No breakfast out. No lunch out. No dinner out. All those time and cost savings. But No, this is the new life pattern. (So he thought.)
The new life pattern involves getting his own house in the windy city. The purchase currently delayed means for now his working week requires two sleeps in business hotels – with complimentary theft-proof coat hangers; and two nights dining out – table for one.
And you can all believe me,
We sure intended to,
But we just couldn’t say goodbye
From week one, he was determined he wouldn’t be the solo traveller type with a repeat favourite restaurant – night after night, same table, same meal. To him, this is tickets but no coffin. Through all these weeks, he refuses to chomp at any place twice. He prefers to turn dinner into something, to select his restaurants with care – after all, it’s the internet, isn’t it? Covering the culinary waterfront he ranges – from Thai to gastro to Italian to Korean. Latin American, Nordic, pub, pizza, Tunisian, katsu sando, and one lean under-stuffed premium sandwichmasquerading as a complete meal.
There were additional rules for dinner he largely obeyed: no wine on Monday, no beer on Tuesday, and don’t do east Asian two nights on the trot. And though anyway he grew tired with all the eating out, these self-imposed regulations capped the boredom. Now, as he writes this, several weeks isolated, locked up in a West Country cottage with a chicken for a neighbour, he’d kill for any old meal out, just a flat white!
But back during January, February, March, it was one of those nights… He arrives at a restaurant with aubergine-painted walls and waits to be seated. He notes the waiter clock him for a solo customer, that tell-tale facial flicker, and prepares to resist being dumped on a rickety table by the toilet. This isn’t Friday, this is Monday night, with the power on the other foot. While he can accept that the customer is not always king, this evening he’s got leverage, and uses it to pick out a table that works for him: a window seat that’s not too cramped, but not too remote, situated close enough he can keep his fellow diners in view. For Yes, it is so, he likes to watch.
He reads through the menu, but not like it’s Tolstoy. Rapidly chusing a tasty meal and reciting his order precisely, he notices a mini tattoo between the waiter’s right index and thumb. He’s been planning something similar. Leaning back in his chair – preparing to speak collectedly, how much, where, how painful – a stray thought entrains another stray thought, and so on, blocking the interrogation. How often does his waiter eat out? Properly eats out in a place like this? Is he on minimum wage, zero hours, are his tips essential to staying solvent? Does the waiter look at him, lounging in his window seat, Bose headphones, dandy scarf, and see a human being or an entitled wallet? Foregrounding the differences between diner and waiter negates any presumed right to ask personal stuff. Their transactional dynamic doesn’t stretch to individual capital. He’s buying dinner, that’s all. He requests some sparkling water and ice and lemon to go with his meal.
find your quiet place
There is a sour taste in his mouth. He’s had it since work. He hopes the water will get here soon and wash away the sensation as he’s now preoccupied. He scans the room, the covers-to-waiter ratio looks adequate. And after all, here comes his water jug. He pours a glass and takes a sip, and then a gulp, and gets out his phone for the usual routine. It’s got so he performs the soundcheck without thinking, reflexively launching the SoundPrint app to test and log each restaurant’s decibels. He holds out the phone for fifteen seconds with tonight’s ambient conditions ranked ‘Medium/Loud!’ The report is uploaded to a user-generated database available for access to subscribers who would prefer to eat in relative peace. This minor act of data sharing gives off a fuzzy good netizen vibe that warms him while removing his listening devices. Ditching the devices causes a significant drop in sound levels and he exhales with slow relief. The racket of the restaurant, the clatter, the clang, the loud voices over the blarey piped music, the thick end of this amped up by the listening devices, much of it is instantly muffled as the day’s accumulated noise tension uncoils.
Tanked in a partially deaf state, his thoughts rewind to childhood and swimming at the local pool – filling his lungs with air, diving to the bottom of the deep end. He loved it being fifteen feet under, crouching on the large shiny tiles, holding his knees to his chest, suspended in a subterranean consciousness where everything felt simpler. Bubbles escaped from the side of his mouth as he gazed up at the fragmented blue water to the waves of light flooding the ceiling windows, with the howls, screams and superadded splashing of all the other kids having fun far far away for as long as he could hold his breath.
Quiet eating, dialling down the noise, is the solo diner’s dividend. There are also losses. It depends if you look to balance the ledger. With the chair across the table empty, with no one to talk to, how do you occupy yourself eating dinner? Clever Martin Amis once wrote the only drawback to the triple crown of eating, drinking and smoking, is that such oral pursuits are not wholly mentally absorbing. We need something else happening while pleasing our cakehole.
Waiting for his pasta, he scrolls the familiar options. He could stare into space – never hurt a soul. He could read a book, like the woman near the door reading Natalia Ginzburg. Or the Jack Reacher guy boxed in by the Gents. He could pull the iPad from his backpack, switch the confounding fold-out cover to lectern mode to start in on the next chapter of the Topeka School. But the Topeka School has words. Tons of clever precise words – words, words, words – and with the busyness of restaurant life he struggles to get and hold on to words. He’s always had doubts about people reading in public, in bars, trains, planes, even libraries. Rather than accept his own limitations he chooses to question the capacity of others to do what he can’t. He looks at them and wonders if they’re going through the motions. I doubt any of you people, if I shut your book, would be able to tell me what you just read. The young woman and the Sally Rooney, bruschetta starter and red wine, has she really shut out the world so totally to be fully present in Rooney’s smart tale of the rocky road of love and becoming in post recession Ireland? Can she recite the contents of the last page?
With reading not an option, he might flick aimlessly through his phone. Or just sit and chew the dull leftover thoughts from a long day. But there is something else to be getting on with. To artfully, stealthily, sometimes blatantly observe his fellow diners.
The chair and then the sofa,
They broke right down and cried,
The curtains started waving
For me to come inside.
I tell you confidentially,
The tears were hard to hide,
And we just couldn’t say goodbye
His fellow diners. Who eats out on a Monday night?
A man arrives at a table across the aisle and promptly asks for a lager and opens his book. He’s reading Julian Barnes. But the title is hard to make out from an angle in this muted light. He could lean across and ask, Which Barnes you reading? But we don’t do that. The man glances this direction and reflexively they both look away. The Barnes reader is approximately the same age and palpably a bashful solo diner.
But then it turns out the Barnes reader is not eating alone as his co-diner has just arrived. Another man of equivalent years, late Generation X, similar glasses, also sporting a close-cropped head. But much larger, bulked out with a red face, he comes and plonks his abundant frame down opposite and says something amusing and his friend snorts as he claps the Julian Barnes shut. Returning the hardback to the leather satchel at his side, the man briefly glances this way, and smiles. It looks like a smile. Suppose it could’ve been a grimace. Why would he smile? Out of a sense of superiority conferred by having a friend for dinner? Did he imagine the smile? Fortunately his food arrives, interrupting this aimless line of persecutedthinking.
The waiter offers parmesan on top of his spaghetti vongole, which he declines with an open face, hopefully concealing his disgust. His rule on cheese and fish is quite strong in that they don’t mix. (There are exceptions). Recently the Annoying Son wanted cheese on his pasta and prawns. No! he exclaimed. (He really did cry out.)
You know that’s a terrible clash of flavours?
No! No it isn’t.
He expounded briefly on categories of tastes and violations of the palette.
Okay. Yeah, I see what you mean, Dad, said the Annoying Son, as he went and fetched the pecorino from the fridge.
Food rules are both self evident and personal. Way back when he was eight, or nine, or perhaps it was ten, on trips to the cinema the Annoying Son insisted on eating his snack during the film and not a second sooner. He’d patiently sit through the extensive trailers and ads, treats left unopened. Only as the lights went down for the main feature, as the titles started to roll, at this sublime transition from the ordinary into cinema’s waking dream of light and dark, only then would his son reach for his brownie, popcorn, or pick n mix.
As a father, the Annoying Son’s endearing commitment to a self-conceived system seemed admirable. As a film lover, he hated people rustling at the pictures. He especially didn’t like being connected to someone rustling loudly and urged his son to be less annoying. Only to be told it wasn’t annoying, not for him, and anyway this was not something he could actually stop. It’s part of my religion, he said.
(Hold the guffaws.) I see. What religion is this?
He said his religion was called Filmism. And what do Filmists believe?
Hmm. The Annoying Son thought about it. But not too hard. He shrugged. Nothing much else, he muttered, we believe in eating sweets with the film and not before.
He never had food fads growing up, always being hungry and wanting it all. These days there are more food quirks in the world as so many of us eat with abundance. The large man adjacent picks out the olives from a plate of anti-pasti and gathers the rejects in a lopsided pile. The smaller man does the same and scratches his nose while saying something funny, as his co-diner unwittingly scratches his nose in reply.
The mirror phase of their social inter-action continues when the smaller man pulls on an ear lobe as his interlocutor mimics the gesture reaching for the words. He observes how both of them have Ralph Lauren specs and their high foreheads, with no hair and broad lateral creases, are quite similar. He thinks of something a friend told him, how she wished all the men on the dating sites didn’t look like Phil Mitchell off EastEnders.
I love you
What would you prefer?
She said, Some variety?
What if all these men switched from shaved head to that comb-over look from the nineteen seventies? Would this help?
She shakes her head.
If it happened overnight to all the bald men across the land?
But it isn’t going to happen.
Imagine suddenly all those comb-overs on the bus and Tube, or pulled up at the traffic lights. He sees a thousand comb-overs beetling down Oxford Street as the small man at the next booth sweeps bread crumbs from his side of the table, while his co-diner replicates the act. At this point they notice their mimic show and smile. But not like lovers.
The clock was striking twelve o’clock
It smiled on us below,
With folded hands it seemed to say,
“We’ll miss you if you go”
Gobbling his way into adulthood, and a greater awareness of life beyond the end of his nose, he realised he had many unconscious assumptions on how to eat, but few fixed ideas he insisted on bringing to the table. He was impressed but not observant of hidebound Italian table edicts, such as declaring no cappuccino after 11am, or worse, no beer with pizza. He knew people who considered these laws canonical while noticing it didn’t take much for some of his peers to express hard convictions of their own, asserting vehemently for instance never ever mix savoury with sweet. Fat chips better than fries. No baked beans on your toast, always put the beans to the side. So much table stuff over which he didn’t give a hoot.
He supposes it took civilisation centuries perfecting the culinary harmonies. It seems incontrovertible that basil, tomato and olive oil can’t be improved on, that you’d be a chump to drizzle with strawberry jus. In this way kitchen rules suppress choice. It feels wrong however to be choosing always, for the whole of this life to be based on choice. His dream restaurant doesn’t have a menu, no daily specials, serving only one dish a day. There’d be no need to take your order.
Kitchen rules may also support the restricting of intake. In recent times Project Denial has assumed control of significant portions of his own small world. Project Denial has seen half a decade of renouncing so many pleasures it makes him wonder what’s he like. In these times of self-acceptance, he fancies the notion of refusing to accept yourself as almost radical. In this period he’s quit cigarettes, stopped eating meat, turned off booze at home during the working week, reduced the salt in his dinner, and will only eats crisps very occasionally and always with a sense of moral failure. He quit cows milk (but failed to keep it up). He switched to dark chocolate and avoids cake, toffee or sweets. He seriously cut down on cheese and butter, stopped cooking with cream, and completely shut down mayo, as he thinks any real person ought. (Damn, a stupid listicle!) He did what his urologist told him and scaled back radically to one half-caff drink a day, to soothe the bladder, and the occasional soft drug has been ditched (bad for the heart).
Perhaps it was inevitable that in time the renunciations (good name for a band) would extend outwards from the kitchen to include no more plastic coffee cups, no salad in a bag, no longer getting on airplanes (they crash; and they crash the ecology too), and no new clothes for a year. And what about stopping all your internet shopping? You could try.
Gala’s driving at speed, barrelling down the fast A road connecting the chain of settlements on the Essex Borders. She always has a bag of Haribos on the go in the car. Pulled up at the next set of lights, she pops a Tangtastic and offers him the bag which, as usual, he declines.
I’m always turning stuff down. Why do I begrudge myself?
It’s about power perhaps.
Interesting. A part of me has launched a hostile takeover in a bid to gain command of the totality of my sovereign self. Like that?
Something along those lines…
Is it my superego?
Gala takes a second Tangtastic as the lights turn green. She tears away from the junction full throttle, his question unanswered, or her words lost in the roar of the traffic’s boom.
Watching this, observing from a camera in the back seat, or framed as an aerial drone shot, the viewer as spectator might assume Gala is driving during an emergency, with an urgency suggesting it might still be possible to prevent a catastrophe. Of course the catastrophe could not be averted, it flooded forward – reality intensified; avoidable deaths everywhere. The seasons changed, and those winter nights in the northern city became well distant – in tone, as much as in time.
Through this mild, unerringly unnervingly sunny lockdown, he thinks backwards, to a cold night in early February, where he’s sitting at a restaurant window table, watching through the plate glass as a light flurry of snow drifts down out of a dark grey sky. Across the way outside, on the opposite corner, a street light pushes feebly against the darkness closing around it. The night, the diffuse sodium beam, the snow, his eyes without distance glasses, all this makes the view dissolve into blurred vague shapes, constructing moment by moment new patterns of contained flux. Until, that is, his waitress arrives for his order. Her bright appearance is a vision in sharp relief, from bright purple hair to the twang of her local accent.
She smiles and he orders sea bass, but without much inner enthusiasm. Has he had it with sea bass? All round overdone it with fish and lost the love? Or is his difficulty, his problem, one of perspective?
He imagines his dinner laid out back in the restaurant kitchen, spread on a bed of ice, thinking how reality looks from the point of view of a dead fish. Last evening at a loud n funky Thai down the bottom of a Victorian arcade, a garish space of red and white stripes and lanterns, he spent the meal preoccupied by the world seen through the eyes of his busy, busy waitress. What does she think of the customers, the raucous sound levels, her co-workers, her aching ankles in heels, the smell of the cooking clinging to her underwear? Imagine hating taking the kitchen home each night. He surmised all kinds of cogitations while she weaved between tables, plates on the move.
I am multitudes
Why does he do this, go squatting in the heads of others, occupying their thoughts? Is it multiple perspective disorder? (There’s no such thing as MPD, is there? Don’t all speak at once.) His unitary sense of a self perhaps unravels while seeking to occupy his brain solo dining in busy restaurants. The unravelling reveals glimpses of the traumatic void beneath, a revelation best deflected by some healthy magical thinking, where consciousness isn’t restricted to one’s own perceptions but a universality to be shared. What goes on in your head? What are you like?
he went here, there, everywhere
In August 1966, the Beatles left the stage following a performance at Candlestick Park, San Francisco; and driving away from the stadium decided to quit playing live. For the first time in years the Fab Four had spare time on their hands. To begin with, Paul McCartney explored London’s swinging avant garde scene, but found he was always the centre of attention. By late autumn, Macca had decided to create his own kind of living artwork by making himself anonymous. What would it feel like to be normal again? Paul ordered a bespoke false moustache from a London wigmaker, some fake specs, and an unfashionably long overcoat. He changed his hair with vaseline, and took off on a drive across France: ‘I was a lonely poet on the road’.
Each night McCartney ate dinner by himself, writing in his notebook at the restaurant table, exploring different points of view. To ‘retaste anonymity. Just sit on my own and think all sorts of artistic thoughts like, I’m on my own here, I could be writing a novel, easily. What about these characters here in this room?’
The rambling McCartney soon tired of his experiment of going unnoticed. On being bruskly turned away from a Bordeaux disco, he rushed to his hotel, ditched his disguise, and returned to the venue – where the world’s most famous 24-year-old was welcomed with open arms. In a rush of good feeling, Paul realised being famous was actually alright.
He thinks of Paul, his favourite Beatle, surfing other points of view on these solo restaurant nights. So far, he’s stuck to human heads. Tonight he’s a dead fish. Was it the sorry end to an empty meaningless life for a sea bass to be fried, cut up, and eaten in mouthfuls on a cold Tuesday night? Or a triumphant culmination, everything any fish in the sea could wish for? To be brokeback, served on an oval plate with parsley potatoes and green salad, skin done to a crisp, sensing on arrival to the table that they weren’t much fancied for dinner – is this how the dead sea bass thought of their situation this second? A long-standing enthusiasm for fish has apparently flat-lined. There’s a sinkhole in his tummy but no appetite. He wonders why he ordered the stupid sea bass with the other things he might’ve picked. If life is to be understood as a series of displacements from what we desire and seek, then what did he really want for dinner? He looks at the fish with its sad eyes and bites into a potato and squirts ketchup on all the potatoes and decides that probably wasn’t a good idea. As he chews his spud, the sea bass starts humming a show tune.
So I went back and kissed him,
And when I looked around,
The room was singing love songs,
And dancing up and down
Ah, he loves this song. The Boswell Sisters, We Never Said Goodbye. He grabs large handfuls of the song’s lyrics and scatters them across the blogpiece. Lyrics of love, of fuss and bother, of leaving, but not wanting to go, a ditty attributing feelings to inanimate objects, giving furniture its point of view.* How he warms to the commonplace fish for being thisclever and giving pleasure tunefully. Hopes raised, finally he cuts into his dinner, gamely shovels fish flesh onto his fork, and down the hatch, hungrily looking around the room to see who’s about.
look, Concorde again!
There’s a trio of solo diners in his near field of vision. All three of them fake readers, noses in mainstream novels he secretly fancies for himself. His eyes circle and return to his plate, but rise again, before settling on the young couple next door who are talking loudly on, he estimates, their third date.
Off all the meals out, this restaurant is best suited for a snoop. If his rules allowed he’d eat here again. (But maybe not the fish.) There’s no music; and no exposed brick, but quilted wall fabrics in brown and gold. Deep ply carpet and padded seats, with the kitchen tucked out of sight. The softness of the light and the upholstered surfaces makes this the calmest, quietest joint north or south he’s ever ranked on SoundPrint.
Tonight’s neighbours are simply talking he realises, not loudly, not shouting, their agreeable conversation floating across to his table word for word. A pair of third daters in their late twenties, they sound keen for each other, but can’t agree about the Irishman. The male date has a white open collar shirt but was not swept away by the movie everybody’s talking about. He found the slow tale of bad men from the past remote and doubts many millennials care about such dead matters. I felt, Yeah, OK Boomer. I seriously thought that.
She smiles at the Boomer putdown, although already tired by now, but her face flushes and she almost turns tuitional saying she doesn’t agree. Not at all, the film is a study in power and the violence of American history and, I think, relevant to all generations.
He listens in, hears what she says, this smart person speaking up for the mobster movie, and wants to whoop. Her date, though, he visibly wriggles. His voice grows weaker. Really? But so long?
It has to be long – I think.
The film has a loose style. But I like that Scorsese takes his time, this way the ending’s more shocking – I think.
The anti-ageing was ridiculous. De Niro looked bad. So phoney.
Oh phoey! She reaches for her wine.
Phoey. Phoney. He likes these two.
The male date retreats into his padded chair, but quickly bounces back necking the last of his session ale. He feels challenged by her dissection, as though he should do something and prove he’s not just a block of wood. He takes a small handful of pistachios. Are you testing me?
Testing? She shakes her head vigorously. Don’t gobble your nuts.
She smiles, says, reminds me of a funny story about my uncle and his step ladder.
That’s enough earwigging. You can snoop only in snippets, before hopping back over the right side of the line you crossed. He tunes out the couple as his eyes turn slowly through 180 degrees. On the broad pavement running down the length of the restaurant a woman walks by in a long green coat and red hair. The light from the street lamps gilds the dense black foliage above her head as she looks in at him then disappears round the corner.
Seen from the outside, framed by the window in this moment, perhaps we are background characters in an indie film, blurry figures in a Sickert painting, or an isolated Hopper. It should come to us all, at least once in a lifetime – to experience isolation is maybe not the tragedy we dread but the opportunity to know yourself.
He listens to his last statement, plays it back in his head. It sounds like a cigarette kind of thought – after dinner, on the balcony. While the statement is open to doubt, he misses the kind of thinking he did when he smoked. He also misses the fags. It’s four years, but no ways he’s out the woods. This isn’t a chemical addiction dragging its long, windy tail – quitting has had a more complex aftermath. Stopping smoking turned him into a different person. He became a man who shaped his own desires, an adult who says No. To say No, first you need to understand that you never really said Yes. He came to recognise he’s one from those generations of UK adolescents legally absorbed into a social culture of drinking and smoking. These cohorts did not pass the statutory landmarks of sixteen and eighteen as self-determined adults actively decisively agreeing to cigarettes and alcohol. There was no elective moment. If there was; he missed his. Only four years ago, and monumentally late, did he consciously finally make the decision. He said No. His heart wasn’t up to the smokes any longer – not figuratively, but literally his heart. He knew they must go. Even then, even then, he still had to be told.
He sat in grey or brown or green hospital rooms with cardiologists and asked what d’you think, is it the fags? And these reasonable men and women of science, ingrained to speak of evidence only, told him they couldn’t categorically prove smoking done it. And so they never said don’t! He wanted Dr Heart to say No more fags. He needed to explicitly hear the words from a white coat. Without the punchline, he continued to puff away. He’d have to flat out ask. But he didn’t want to, cause he knew the answer already, and the answer involved him having to quit. In a bind with his own dumb predicament, fortunately he encountered the perfect medic, a young Australian locum with a straight-to-it style. Right away, he thought, this guy will tell me. Just ask. Go on! This repeating voice in his head the whole consultation, barely listening to what’s being said. Ask the question. Go on, ask! Do it! Now. Ask him! But he held back; stalled in mute. Their session was about wrap and he hadn’t done it. You’re running out of time.Ask him! He was out of the chair; backpack in his hand. Do it! The doctor was passing him a slip for new meds, freckles on his fingers, already saying Goodbye. Say now! He was at the door. Reaching for the handle. Half out the room. Wriggling from his duty once again. You are such a let down. Ask!
Do you think I should stop smoking?
Pause. The doctor looks up from his desk. Tipping his head to the side, he smiles. You’re kidding? You’re not kidding. You’re a walking heart attack if you keep smoking. It’s all waiting to happen.
Breathe out. Say, Thank you. The punchline finally. That evening he had his dinner and smoked a cigarette. It was a good cigarette. (Most of them are good.) And the last cigarette. He quit a habit of decades. No patches. No gum. No nicotine withdrawal support. No compensatory vape. It was over. He experienced how it felt to say No. Next he was to learn what saying No actually means.
Nicotine is a psychoactive drug. Unlike some psychoactives, nicotine doesn’t make you do crazy things – you don’t hallucinate on fags, or jump off tall buildings. The crazy shit nicotine makes you do is you keep smoking and probably kill yourself. That ought to be the end. But smoking also made him happy and cigarettes were often sticks of reassurance through the sad times. He would like one now as he writes in lockdown and craved a smoke last night to go with the sunset and wine. Some if not many theorise on fags as voluptuous transgressive tubes of desire, hot carcinogens as an escape hatch out of boredom. Cigarettes helped him to think. He always thought so. (Auden calls cigarettes the labour-saving device in ‘the mental kitchen’. But ‘liable to injure the cook’.)
Is a smoky exhalation the head sending out visible proof of brain work? Are we someone else because we smoke? Gregor Hens describes his first cigarette as giving birth to his subjectivity. The German writer remembers, ‘I became myself for the very first time… experienced an inner world.’ If having a drag is a form of self-actualisation, what kind of person is created in the halo of blue vapour? And what kind of man will rise from the ashes post fags – the better being he was always meant to be? Not someone worse, surely – some ratty craving schlub. Perhaps just a fatter version of himself will emerge, over-eating and outgrowing the thin body carrier he’s been living in all these years.
During smoking cold turkey he started drinking more and also eating lots of crap. Mildly drunk most evenings at home, or getting home drunk from a night out, he scarfed too much treat food. Crisps, chocolate and sweets from the cupboard, often stuff got in for the Annoying Son. (Shameful.) Too much junk.
One addiction seemingly replaced another. In the Smoking Diaries, playwright Simon Gray details the pain of a sweet tooth. An ex-alcoholic who can’t quit cigarettes, and will eventually die of them instead, Gray struggles to manage a ballooning appetite for chocolate. ‘…in the first drawer to the right, level with my knee, I keep envelopes and postcards and bars of Green & Black’s organic white chocolate, which I guzzle down – it really is a sort of guzzling, if I understand the word properly, in that I cram it into my mouth in lumps, sucking at it until it turns into a kind of custard, gulp it down even as I cram more lumps into my mouth, and I think I also make snorting and gulping noises – this is not a pleasurable exercise, I assume it’s connected in some way to my alcoholism, some time after I stopped drinking I began to crave sweet things, all the things I used to loathe, biscuits, cakes, ice cream and so forth’. On holiday in the Caribbean with Harold Pinter: ‘there I sit… a prize pig at his trough… but, trying to maintain a degree of dignity, I don’t lower my snout into the bowl, I wield a spoon in a leisurely fashion… But here, alone in my study at this sort of hour, when an awful gnawing begins in the pit of my stomach as if rats were at me there, I begin to double up with hunger cramps, hunger-for-sugar cramps, I jerk the drawer open, scrabble a bar of Green & Black organic white onto my lap, tear off the wrapping and proceed as described above, grunting and snorting, custarding or should it be custardizing – guzzling. Yes, guzzling.’ (Simon Gray, the Complete Smoking Diaries.)
To custardize – a pitiable verbing of the noun. No, he never got into it this bad. He didn’t custardize same as Gray, just grazed with enthusiasm. He didn’t blow up. His trousers still fit. But he did come to face reality, a truth he hadn’t ever recognised, that at heart he was a pig. People say, you’re slender. But he knew his inner reality. Be yourself, wrote Oscar Wilde, everyone else is taken. But how useful if your self is a pig? So he said No again. He took the chocolate, the biscuits, the Annoying Son’s sweets, and binned the lot. He told the Annoying Son, It’s gonna be a bit different round here for a while, there’s an emergency – taking all of the red wine out of his online shopping trolley, switching to tea with his dinner.
The snacking ceased. Saying No to junk didn’t require the will power he expected. Naturally this concerned him. – if it cost little to quit, how much to recommence, to go sliding down the sugary chute again? He would have to be vigilant. He already had the language down – dependency, denial, withdrawal, relapse, intrusive thinking. He easily verbalised his feelings. But there was no guarantee he could transcend them.
Also, it’s boring being your own jailer. Four years down the lane, he knew he could easily smoke again. He was on fag watch always. That protagonist you see in a film, or TV drama, the one who bums a drag from a colleague as character shorthand that the pressure’s getting to them… He’s not that character. He can’t just take a puff. All lockdown, his mind returns to fags. Each evening he wants to smoke. Some nights in bed, briefly, offensively, he fantasises being diagnosed with a terminal illness and smoking makes no odds. With six months left to live, he’d be back on the fags in a heartbeat.
The clock was striking twelve o’clock
It smiled on him below,
With folded hands it seemed to say,
“We’ll miss you if you go”
At an upscale Tunisian restaurant in a bohemian quarter of his northern town he is eating vegetable tagine bulked with turnip. The restaurant interior is a version of what was once the future, a constructed blend of pale wood, bare cement and flashes of aluminium supporting oblongs of stained glass. He orders dinner with high hopes but the inconvenient truth is he’s eating second-rate slop. He could’ve done this at home and cooked it better for one fifth of the price. It’s a downer, but hardly catastrophic, and the low quality is helping him check the rate of his shovelling. He takes in a modest mouthful and rests his knife and fork to the side of his dinner plate, sensing as he does that the couple across the aisle are in trouble and not happy in their silence. Early thirties, well dressed, groomed and accessorised with matched platinum jewellery, her immaculate brows fine, dark, perfectly drawn sable curves. They came to the wrong place perhaps and aren’t happy to be all dressed up for this rough fodder. The man has his face in his phone, and she, her eyes flit between her inattentive beau and the exit, leading back out on to the street, where the wind blows fierce, forcing a white paper bag through cartwheels down the deserted pavement.
He inhales more mini mouthfuls of turnip and couscous and chews consciously as he carefully returns knife then fork to each side of his plate. The couple’s silence is public and carries more pain. The only conversation between them continues unheard, taking place exclusively in the woman’s head. An arthouse movie might contrive it so viewers can listen in on this internal conversation as a dialogue in voiceover. He hasn’t the wit to transcribe her words as a viable script. To render their conversation faithfully would require a co-writer and sympathetic actors to deliver the peculiar rhythms of interior speech. Lacking the skills he can only surmise the inner crosswinds, feelings flipping and slipping between melancholy and anger, shut out from her relationship that she assumes continues on, to exist somewhere, but how exactly?
Returning to the next instalment of his dinner, he arranges a modest portion of veg and grain on his fork, reminding himself to put his cutlery down straight after. Tonight, all this week, he’s trialling conscious eating. He wants to see if going slowly, attentive to how he operates his fork and knife, might help the lump in his throat.
At the ENT, the specialist says it’s oesophageal calcification, but primarily the lump’s a gut thing as she refers him on. For now, she says, try this, telling him how to breathe – something he’s been doing for years. She also says, put your cutlery down between mouthfuls, which is no hardship with this turnip, or last night’s limp sea bass. When the food’s good though, and he’s hungry, mindful’s a reach for pigs like us. If your tastebuds swell with appetite, living feels wonderful, and it’s a struggle to eat with long teeth.
The next table along though, their flat breads and dips have arrived, but the immaculate couple aren’t biting as they palpably fragment in silence. The man’s still ignoring his lover, eyeballs glued to the phone. The twist of his nose and the crease of his lips suggests the way he’s being is pointed – not just unthinking, or indifferent, but an active avoidance. She experiences him as dismissive. You would though, wouldn’t you? She tries to balance up by playing on her own screen but her heart’s not in it. And now she’s had enough.
She reaches across the table and flicks his phone with the tip of her fingernail, which is painted green. His eyes flicker. He smiles tightly and doesn’t look her in the eye, but gazes over her shoulder towards the ornamental brass pot hanging on the wall, and then shifts left in his seat, angles away from the table, crosses, then re-crosses his legs, and drops his eyes back towards his beloved device.
She purses her mouth and smooths the table cloth under her fingertips. She drums her fingers then gives up on this and locks her thumbs beneath her chin which is pointing out in inverted commas.
He watches them across the aisle, knowing he shouldn’t, but gripped by the mime show as the woman launches her next move – reaching over for a second go and flicking his phone again – harder this time. The man watches the flick and observes his partner’s hand retreat back to her side of the table as he hesitates, plotting his response. He reaches for his wine glass. Polishes off the contents then helps himself to a refill and quietly shifts right in his seat, uncrosses then recrosses his legs. Back to the phone.
There follows a mindful pause. With alcohol widening the delay between experience and it consciously registering, during several crucial seconds when the rising dispute might have remained on the brighter side of couples comedy, once more her hand reaches across the table, weaving between the small floral table piece, the flatbreads and dips, and their almost exhausted carafe of plonk. And as her hands advance, impinging on his side of the table, coming towards him, the partner takes evasive action, withdrawing back into his seat, shielding his phone, in this way failing to notice that his device is no longer her aim, as she closes in on the immaculate man’s designer reading glasses left casually on the table.
She lifts the specs and holds them over the table, brandished, clenched in her fist. The man looks out the corner of his eye, finally not so riveted by his screen, as he watches his partner strengthen her grip as she crunches the specs till they crack and break into large bits.
Now do I have your attention?
He turns away from the anger and down at his turnips. But straight away his eyes flit back across the aisle, where the man puts down the phone, his gaze a little lost. The man pretends to smile, thinking, I wish I filmed that, to post what she did. Before he knows what he’s going to do next, the man jumps up out of his chair, walks away, returns to the table for his phone, and quits the restaurant, leaving his partner and his crushed reading glasses behind. He departs, but says nothing. In return, she also says nothing; simply her eyes follow his back out the door. There’s a cold gust of air. She turns away, peers down at the crushed glasses. At then her gaze crosses tables as she catches his eye and holds his attention, knowing he’s been witness to her silent meltdown. He wants to look away. He would prefer to shift his head in a different direction but momentarily has lost the ability. And then simply she turns to the wine in her glass. Her face theatrically passive. After a while, the waitress takes his plate. She asks if he liked his meal and he tells her it was great. He requests the bill. He asks if the service charge goes to her but she doesn’t answer. He unloads several pound coins in the saucer.
They had a little fuss
Said they’d begin anew
The following week it’s Monday again. Monday evening, as he puts his coat on after work, fixes some music for his headphones, double wraps the long speckled scarf, and sets off from the office to walk in the wind and the dark.
Until now, before, back when he worked only in London, every evening down south he flew out the office on the dot. Grabbing his road bike he’d tear home fast. Weaving between the traffic, ruby tailights inching forward, he always made good time – right, left, right, then up and over the hill, getting his lungs working, the heart rate pumping. Every workday evening he was the eager cyclist pedalling, eager to be… eager to be… eager to be where? Eager to be what? To be home? To shower? To eat? To have all his evening and not waste a drop. Keen to be contained within the established guardrails of a life he’d made for himself. Cooking pasta, checking his phone, listening to a podcast. Was any of this urgent?
His nights in the northern city, he doesn’t charge out the office. He doesn’t have a bike here, or a home. Nowhere to be in a hurry, he feels transformed as he slowly ambles free. ‘To walk alone…is the greatest rest’, wrote Virginia Woolf. He never would’ve envisaged that the force of change could do this. That on dark cold evenings, buttons and zips done up to the chin, he happily leans into the wind to go wandering in no particular direction, as he criss-crosses the city on foot.
He wanders and drifts, he goes where he goes, thinking back to those books from his twenties; tales of superfluous men lost in the city, works by Calvino, Auster, or Cortazar. From Poe to Hemingway, Walser, Spark or Murakami, from book to novel to story featuring lead characters suspended between states. Dangling Man, Saul Bellow’s confessional tale of a man idling in the city, waiting to be drafted into the military, was, he decided, the archetypal narrative for his current state. He should call himself Dangling Man, but it sounds porny. The internal drama of someone kicking their heels until the next part of their life engages, might present as a malaise, or a psychic challenge, but at this particular time in his life, meandering feels like freedom. With no appointments, no kitchen, no family in this city, no partner, nor friends, relieved of his duties, in his long coat, wool hat and thermal gloves, he swaps identity for anonymity, passing through an unfamiliar urban space that has no emotional weight. And then, it’s time for dinner…
Tonight he’s changing it up, off to the pub. He finds a large Edwardian stack on the corner not far from the hotel. The place brews its own beer and makes pizzas in house. There’s a quiz, all of the teams comprised of students down from the university up on the hill. The table nearest doesn’t know that last year Roger Federer was runner up at Wimbledon – until he leans over and tells them. Or that Roy Hodgson is the oldest manager ever to work in the Premiership. Between mouthfuls, he whispers the answer. The students smile. They don’t recoil at the mid-lifer with cheeks full of pizza, but ask if he wants to join their team. He appreciates the inter-generational warmth but says he won’t. He tells them Rome is the capital of Italy, and that although the US has an electoral college, it’s not a college. He also says violin. A litre. Fungi. Jaguar E Type. Which is the last from him. His winning streak dries up with a bumper round on Ariana Grande. He’s finished his food and his beer and wants to leave and walk a bit longer. For several minutes he wasn’t self conscious. Now he just wants away.
How do we live without each other’s company? It is a different kind of living, for sure, but we do it fine if we understand how. What also helps is knowing the way. He thought he was almost there but he was quite wrong and is actually lost. He can’t find the hotel. The building has zoomed away in another direction to where he placed it in his head; and now it’s raining. Out comes the phone, fiddling about with Maps down a dead end street. Reaching to remove his glasses so he can see better, he realises he’s not wearing his glasses as he always takes them off when it’s wet.
He’s managed to get himself the wrong side of the busy three lane carriageway – this sixties horror show that cuts deep and fast into the flank of the city centre, a canyon of cars and trucks flooding past at high speed. He tiptoes across a windblown car park towards a narrow footbridge spanning the express highway. He doesn’t want to do this. The wind is blowing up. The footbridge just got hit by a gust and he swears he saw it sway a little. But he has to cross here to get to his hotel. Unless he wants to walk back on himself, retrace his steps in a big loop.
He’s not going back on himself. So it’s got to be the bridge. It’s a precast concrete structure, the kind of precast concrete they used at Ronan Point, the kind of construction that might collapse one day. Tonight? He looks at the zig zag ramps leading up to the start of the overpass and down at the fast stream of rushing traffic and, say it loud, he’s afraid. He can’t believe he’s scared. He has finally become ridiculous – the chicken who doesn’t want to cross to the other side of the three lane highway.
Climbing the ramp with a heavy heart, he tries to conceptualise the challenge he’s about to attempt, his latest urban adventure. Take your brain off the lethality of a thin little bridge traversing a torrent of accelerating traffic in the gusty, slanting rain. Think instead of bridges as humans at our best, these useful structures built to connect us, architecture spanning the differences. Ah, what a lovely phenomenon, the footbridge. Alas, for some people, bridges signify change and therefore are freighted with dread. In which case he absolutely must cross to the other side, it is imperative as the symbolism of failure is too heavy.
At the head of the ramp he dips his shoulders and bends his knees, making himself slighter and less of a target as he shuffles the first few steps across. He is out onto the bridge, directly crossing the urban canyon. Just a few metres beneath the soles of his trainers headlamps fly past like a speeded-up film. The wind gains pace. A surge slams into his side but his legs don’t buckle. He’s got this. Fixing his footing firmly, he takes the next step, then another, and more steps follow with growing conviction. He tells himself capitalism, the inequality engine, is inherently dysfunctional, but bridges nearly always don’t fall down. And although he recognises that affective disorders are often forms of ‘captured discontent’, he chooses not to pathologise but surmount this feeble dread – to walk on, walk on, to walk further. You won’t go down tonight. Just keep thinking of all the cigarettes you will never ever smoke.
So she went back and kissed him,
And when he looked around,
The room was singing love songs,
And dancing up and down
the singing Boswell sisters
* The sea bass in song refers back a little to the speaking fish in the Sopranos, an animatronic novelty item that haunts Tony Soprano’s conscience, reminding him of a dear friend he killed. An emotionally load-bearing device, the creatives at the Sopranos maybe borrowed the speaking fish from the earlier TV work of Dennis Potter – the Singing Detective breaking into song, cartoon skeletons dancing round a hospital ward. So, an imitation of an imitation. What’s called poshlust in Russia.