A warm conspiracy of disapproval: the table of six, the waitress and me
London Letter: Unfortunately, we ensured anguish was on the menu that day
“The food in this shabby, neighbourhood joint was a stranger to flavour.” Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
She looked like trouble the moment she barged through the door, swaddled in layers of cotton and silk beneath a full-length cashmere coat, with a huge woollen scarf reaching down to her shins. With a histrionic thrust of her right hand to her brow, like Sarah Bernhardt in La Dame Aux Camélias, she commanded the attention of the staff.
“Could you give me a table please? I’ve had such a traumatic morning. I hit my head off a lamppost,” she said.
The Polish waitress, who was new to the restaurant, the country and the English language, gave her a blank look and pointed to the table next to me.
“Is the food good here? I hope it is because I’ve really had a traumatic morning,” she said.
“It’s lovely,” I told her, with a short, unwelcoming smile.
The food in this shabby, neighbourhood joint was in fact a stranger to flavour but I was happy to let her find that out for herself. Jaded by a surfeit of human society, I was here to snatch an hour of solitude, determined that nothing would come between me and my book.
Opened as a kind of French bistro in the early 1960s, the kitchen toned down the sauces and seasoning to match the taste of the time, ignoring the intervening revolution in English eating to remain resolutely bland to this day. This involved an arms-length policy towards garlic and herbs, in the spirit of Noël Coward’s approach to making a martini, filling a glass with gin and waving it vaguely in the direction of Italy.
Solid meals at modest prices
There used to be many such places in London, serving solid meals at modest prices, but almost all have disappeared in the past few years amid rising rents and changing tastes. For me, however, the mediocrity of this place was a comfort in itself, as indeed was the flavourless food, perhaps because it reminded me of my late mother’s cooking, which at its very best tasted of nothing at all.
“Are you having a party?” my neighbour was asking a table of six on the other side of her. “Are you ill? If you are, please move away from me. I’ve avoided the flu so far this year and I don’t want to get it now. If you wouldn’t mind.”
Amid the shuffling of the party rearranging itself, I felt her turn towards me, spreading her Evening Standard over the edge of her table, but my eyes remained fixed downwards as she turned her fire on the waitress.
“Could I have a jug of tap water please? I know you want to push us into buying mineral water by pouring it a glass at a time but I like tap water. I’m on medication so I drink a lot of water and I don’t want to keep pestering you so it will be better for you too.”
We were all now joined in a warm conspiracy of disapproval: the table of six, the waitress and me. So I felt a small thrill of satisfaction when the waitress said she was happy to keep refilling the glass but the woman was not getting her jug of water.
“Please. Please can you make an exception for me,” the woman said, her voice starting to shake.
“I’m having cancer treatment.”
Everything stopped. The table of six went silent and the waitress moved off to fetch a jug. I turned towards the woman, noticing for the first time the bloating in her face from steroids, and asked her how she was feeling.
She answered amiably that she felt terrible and we eased into a conversation about her treatment at the Royal Marsden, the oldest cancer hospital in the world and one of the glories of the National Health Service. Soon we were laughing and joking about her walking into the lamppost and about the restaurant and I admitted that I had lied about the food here.
But we both knew it was too late. For want of a little kindness, I had helped to turn what might have been a comforting interlude in a difficult day for this lonely, frightened woman into a scene of humiliation and anguish.
Now I was seeking redemption and she was gracious enough to play along, allowing me to amuse her until it was time to go. I wished her well as we parted but when I added that we might run into each other here again she gave me the kind of smile I had greeted her with.
“I really don’t think so,” she said.