123. The Elusion of Sleep

Photo by Kai Alyssa Bossom on Unsplash

I need to walk off this nightshift or I won’t sleep. I can’t sleep anyway, so who am I kidding? Last night was brutal. Three came in and we lost two more. 7:00am used to be when this town began to stir into life. Now it’s dying. Before, I’d see white delivery vans. Now, Deliveroo bikes. Shutters going up not staying down. Whistling shop window cleaners flicking water. Walks of shame. Free newspapers thrust into my hand. Drops of dried blood on the pavements from people I patched up a couple of hours before. I know that muggings have increased because there are fewer people to beg from, so I now keep an emergency fiver in my coat pocket. Cyclists are breeding and they’re getting faster and braver. No-one cares about takeaway coffee cups anymore.

I see him, near one of those cruel anti-social designed benches. A sleeping sailor swaying on a washing line. His eyebrows raise when he hears a rattling Nourishment can clink against an empty bottle. I watch this underwater marionette conduct an invisible orchestra in one smooth tai chi arc, then stumble onto the pavement. A passing car swerves and beeps which is his cue to spring up and swing a punch, but he’s too slow and falls as solid as a tree. Fortunately, he’s wearing everything he owns and his padded shoulder hits the ground first. I run to him. He’s shaking and the freshest smell is his loss of bowel control. For my efforts, I get a mouthful of abuse then he tries to kick at me. He’s alright. I don’t know whether to call an ambulance or the police. I doubt he even opened his eyes.

We’re both coming down from last night and neither of us wants to do this anymore.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash


👀 in other news…

You know how the algorithm is always watching? That supercomputers know more about us than we do? How it’s too late now and we’re too far gone to even try to live off-grid, under the radar? (Yes, I am terrified of those Boston Dynamics robot dogs.) Well, it was only a matter of time that twitter recommended someone I used to know (pre-internet) as someone that I should follow. But what I want to know is, how did it know?

This is a video of his band, The Boy Tate. They are delightfully northern blokes and are really quite good.

Please enjoy.

119. Sour Dough

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Part I

Rule 1. It is exclusive.

Hushed rumours of a new restaurant were circulating on the message boards. Apparently, you had to sign up to a mailing list to get an invitation for the website address link.

Rule 2. You do as you’re told.

Everyone at the entire table had to have the full tasting menu. No exceptions. No substitutions. The menu changed slightly every day, and completely each season. Two hours after the first reviews on Food Cube, the website crashed. Bookings from then on were taken three months in advance on a rolling basis. At 10am on the first Monday of every month, fixed slots opened up for three months later. Friday and Saturday evening bookings were often sold out within thirty seconds, and it was rare for there to be a table still available by the afternoon of the day the bookings were released. Food critics and celebrities had to take their chances with the rest of the hoi polloi. No special treatment. 

The website had specific instructions with the requirements for booking a table.

We cannot accommodate food intolerances, allergies, vegetarians or vegans.

It is strongly recommended that patrons do not drive a vehicle or operate heavy machinery for at least 8 hours after dining. We can provide a courtesy car to pick you up and return you to a local hotel. Please indicate when booking your table if you require this complementary service. Driver gratuities are at your discretion.

A non-refundable deposit of £150 per person is required when booking a table.

We cannot cater for parties of over six people.

Persons under 18 are not allowed in the restaurant.

Please allow 3 hours for your meal. 

No party will be seated until all guests are present. Please arrive promptly. It is at the discretion of chef patron whether latecomers can be admitted. 

All guests must provide legal, photographic identification upon arrival. No guest may dine in the restaurant on more than one occasion. Bookings are non-transferrable. Should this occur, then the management reserves the right to cancel the entire reservation.

No recording devices of any kind are permitted in the restaurant, including cameras. Lockers are provided for mobile telephones.

Rule 3. You eat what you’re given.

This is a copy of one of the actual menus.

  • Corpse reviver cocktail (contains absinthe)
  • Vegan mushroom faux gras mousse with sorrel (and a microdose of Psilocybin.)
  • Spherified olive, pickled juniper berries and cucumber.
  • House pumpernickel sourdough bread with virgin lava bread butter. (70 year old starter, smuggled from behind the Iron Curtain)
  • Three-cheese profiteroles, sprinkled with chive dust. (Grown from the oldest variety of chives on earth.)
  • Pea and ham hock shot, with pork crackling infused foam and micro leaves. (Endangered rare breed British Landrace Pig.)
  • Quail egg with asparagus and (million year old) pink himalayan salt. 
  • Langoustine ravioli in a clear broth.
  • 50 year old Crab in an avocado shell, topped with trout roe, dusted with dehydrated miso.
  • Smoked eel, pickled radish, with celery powder.
  • Corn Fed chicken with monkfish liver and onion cream.
  • Tomato consomme. Served poured from a silver teapot into 17th century vintage teacups.
  • Salt marsh lamb with samphire, kale, mashed heritage roots and port reduction.
  • A quad of desserts.
  • Wild strawberries, meringue shards, lime basil, lemon curd, frozen goats cheese.
  • Home-made chocolate hazelnut spread on toast. 
  • A shot of frangelico. 
  • Ricotta, honeycomb and pistachio ice-cream.
  • Coffee or tea (exclusive, single-sourced estate)
  • Customers were also given a little bag of goodies (to take home for later) which contained soft tangy rhubarb and creamy custard sweets. Three jelly gummy bears, (each containing 25mg of CBD oil) and a tiny wrapped walnut brownie. (All of these sweets were clearly marked as not suitable for children due to the cannabis content).

Rule 4. Keep them wanting more.

A fragment of one of the first reviews on the home page of Pumpernickel’s website stated  “this meal heals. I felt soothed, comforted, nourished. There is an enviable depth and complexity of such simple ingredients. It’s elemental. I hugged the maître d’ as I left.” Another simply stated “I sold my soul tonight and it was worth it.”

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Part II

Brian and Laura Jones considered themselves to be innovators whose entire existence relied on being ahead of the curve.  By the time their friends heard about something, they had already done it or were booked to do it next weekend. Front row of the circle concert tickets of the next big thing. Eco-tourism. That new tv show. They’d ticked off the bucket list of things to do before you’re forty, well before that half-decade.

A day or so after dining at Pumpernickel, basking in the smug know-it-all glow, trying not to boast, thinking of the casual remarks they would enjoy dropping, to let those who know, know, that they had already been-there-done-that, their teenage son tragically died while skateboarding in the street. At his funeral, (no flowers please, but donations to a child hunger charity were welcomed) whenever someone asked which university Joel would have attended in a few weeks, the word “Yale” now seemed a hollow victory. Even Mrs Jones’ funeral dress was an advance, bespoke, pre-season exclusive and her Italian sunglasses frames were made from a prototype material.

The post-mortem revealed that Joel had cannabis in his system which may have impaired his judgment, and an accidental death verdict given. 

Neither Brian nor Laura ever mentioned that their son had eaten their take-home sweets. They let people believe that he smoked a few joints, as teenagers were prone to do.

The authorities deemed that no further action was taken against the woman driving the car that killed the youth, but she never got over it. She changed her name, then moved house because of the scandal, and vowed to never get behind the wheel ever again. Her depression prevented her returning to work, and she soon lost her job. Her sedentary lifestyle at home and ruminations contributed to insomnia, back pain and an apathetic low mood. To try to lift her spirits, her husband booked a special treat for them both. After months of trying, he had managed to get them a table at Pumpernickel, the restaurant that everyone was talking about.

Photo by shawn henry on Unsplash

92. A Northern Light

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“Sorry I’m late.” Lauren was slightly out of breath. She took off her cross body bag and unravelled her scarf. Sitting down wearily, heavily into the chair, she fanned her face. “How’d it go then?” She asked, but before I could reply, she had clocked the boxed tuna Niçoise salad I’d bought for her.” Ooh thanks!” she said, as I hand her a burgundy-coloured plastic knife and fork and a couple of recycled napkins.

“Coconut water or lemonade?” I held up both bottles, lifting each one slightly higher than the other as I said its name.

“Lemonade please.”

“Yeah, he was a great date, but I don’t think I’ll see him again.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, Harry’s a lovely bloke, exactly like his profile, which makes a nice change, and I really liked him online – he was funny, kind, and we got on great – but we just didn’t…” I paused trying to find the right word. “You know? Click.”

“No spark?” She peered at my avocado and crayfish salad. She did this to me every week. Lauren always wanted what I had.

I shook my head.

“Oh that’s a shame.” said Lauren. “You sounded like you really liked him.”

“I did. I do. I mean, he’s great. I keep thinking I’m being too picky. I just want to feel that, you know, that, pang of desire.” I said, trying to summon some kind of enthusiasm for the whole ridiculous process.

“You gotta have the pang.” She replied using a fake American accent. “Mind you, it never lasts, so what you never had, you never miss. No wonder-lust.”

I shook the tub of already-separating peppery oil and vinegar dressing and just about managed to open its fiddly lid, without spilling it. Dribbling the glossy, opaque liquid over my salad, a lemony garlicky aroma filled my nose. I gently prodded first at a slippery slice of avocado, then stabbed at a big piece of lollo rosso. There was no elegant way to eat this.

“Why don’t you just go out with him again? Just for the practice. It was only one meal.” She emphasised the word, ‘one’. “That’s a lot of pressure. He might have been nervous. Your nerves make you” pointing at me “a bit full-on whenever you meet someone and that’s not the real you. You wouldn’t give up on someone you really liked if the first time you went to bed, it was a bit… er, off.” She said, trying to be supportive.

“Nah.” I say. “You’re totally right though. You always are. I don’t know. Maybe I should, but there wasn’t any spark and I’m alright for friends. It might give him the wrong idea if we met up again. I can’t do that to him. He’s one of the good ones. Anyway, what if I met someone? I can’t have two people in my head like last time.”

“Yeah, good point” said Lauren. She screwed the lid back onto her cloudy lemonade bottle then smoothed out some imaginary creases on her skirt. “Actually,” she cleared her throat. “I’ve met someone.” She looked up at me, and then paused for a second to pick at some invisible lint from her cardigan. “He’s called Robert. He’s a Solicitor and he’s wonderful. We’ve been out twice. Once for coffee and once for lunch. I’m a little bit smitten and we’re going out for dinner on Saturday.” She clapped her hands together with glee.

I chewed and smiled as best I can though a mouthful of lettuce, but she wasn’t looking at me.

Her hands had formed a prayer pose, thumbs together, fingertips touching her lips. Sighing longingly, she opened her hands slightly, and placed the tips of her index and middle fingers over her mouth, almost as if she was trying to stop herself saying something. Her eyes darted around for a second. She was worried. Pensive. Then she took a deep breath in, sighed out, whilst doing a cleansing, pushing away tai chi gesture.

“God, please, please, please, let him not be one of those Don Draper types that only likes the beautiful beginnings of things.” She was almost begging. Then she looked right at me and said. “You know what I mean don’t you? When you think you’ve found the perfect gent, but once you’ve had sex, he loses interest completely. You’ve met one of them?”

“I have, unfortunately.” I said wearily. “I hate them. I absolutely effin hate them. Why is sex like a switch? The first month they adore everything about you, and they even say they think they’re falling for you, and then the next week, literally everything you do or say is annoying, and they make you feel like you’ve don’t something wrong, that you repulse them. It’s exactly like that Foo Fighters song, “Then I’m done, done, onto the next one.” Or they just disappear. Why do they do that?”

“Because they can, and we let them. They’ll wait as long as it takes to get what they want. I’ve heard some pathetic excuses. The reasons they give are just shocking.” She said, shaking her head.

“I know!” I said incredulously. “How can they not be ready for a relationship when they’ve signed up to a relationship site?”

“Billy liars. That’s what.” She said. “I tell you what, right? If Robert turns out to be a complete tool, then I swear I’m off men. Fini. They’re not worth it.”

We clink our plastic bottles together to seal the deal.

“Do you think we should keep these from now on?” I said, holding up my fork.

“Why’s that then?” She asked.

“You know I’ve got this theory that in a few years, when cannabis is legalised, there will be sales reps that come round to your house to sell you ‘weed for your needs,’ from the comfort of your own home? They’ll ask you if there is anything else you want, like home-made edibles that aren’t regulated, or vape oil or whatever. And you’ll go, “Actually, I’m having a party, so do you have any plastic knives, forks, spoons and straws?” So, they’ll go to the boot of their car and get them. It’ll be totally illegal.”

“Probably,” she chuckled. “A reversal of fortune. Like fox hunting and homosexuality were last century. Carrying a plastic bag will be the new fur.”

I laughed and nearly coughed at the same time. “Do you want to get a gelato?” I asked hopefully.

“Mmmm. Yes. That sounds good. Next week I am definitely getting THAT.” She said, determinedly, pointing her knife at the remainder of my salad.

“You still coming with me to that Twitter Writers meet-up book launch thingy tomorrow?” I ask her.

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. I get a free book written by someone you know, and you finally get to meet the people you spend so much time with.” she replied. “Will there be anyone famous there?”

“Nah. Doubt it.” I say. “The author’s brother is in ‘Holby City’, so he might be there if he’s not working, and that bloke from that band, ‘Air Mail’ likes to be seen out and about. I reckon he’ll be there. It’s probably how he got his band name.”

I had no idea what to wear to a book launch. I’d only been to a couple of indie publisher’s launches in bookshops before. Nothing like this, with money thrown at it, from a major house. The invitations were printed on cream stiff card that had a fake red wine stain ring on it to echo the novel’s subject matter.

The hotel foyer’s sign indicated the event was in the Kensington Room, and there had already been an afternoon tea pre-launch event earlier in the day, to which I had not been invited. I had a plus one to the wine reception/mixer and official book launch. The author was going to do a reading, then there was to be a Q and A, a quick half an hour signing, photos, then four, maybe six of us from Twitter were going to go for a meal. That was the plan anyway. It might end up being just me and Lauren down the pub.

It seemed like quite a posh do. There was a sign-in table which still had about 60 name badges on it by the time I arrived. I considered whether I should write my Twitter name on the badge as well as my real name, and decided to go for it, or how else would some people know who I was?

I admitted to myself that I was a little nervous about meeting people in the flesh that I already kind of knew. I wasn’t bothered that they might not like me in person. Not that at all. People are hardly ever like you imagine they are when you finally meet them in real life. No, it was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I just felt a bit, uncomfortable.

I scanned the room. There was a long table with some good Malbec, chilled Sauvignon Blanc, elderflower cordial and sparking water. Retro cheese straws and those Japanese coated peanuts that look like tiny eggs to nibble.

I think I would have quite liked to have gone to the afternoon tea, but it was a private event for the author’s ex-students and family.

I recognised a local journalist talking to the actor, and my old English tutor. She was with someone I didn’t know, and I thought I’d go over and say hi.

Two waitresses with black waistcoats and white cloths over their bent forearms, were slowly walking around, topping up glasses, and pointing people in the direction of the loos.

The usual canvas tote bag with the name and logo of the publishing house contained a hardback copy of the book – already signed – plus a bookmark for a future release, a promotional postcard, a pen, a granola bar for some bizarre reason, the obligatory metal water bottle, and a yellow stress ball with a smiley face on it. That last item was an in-joke for the Twitter community, for that was the author’s avatar.

My old English Lit teacher was talking to someone called Bob. I realised I knew him online as ‘Night,JimBob’ and he greeted me enthusiastically with an awkward sweaty handshake/arm squeeze, and then went in for a two cheek kiss. We both clumsily went to the same side for the first kiss.

He smelled incredible. There was definitely a pang, alright. I felt it. I desperately wanted to kiss him again right there and then. To this day I can’t walk past a bar of Dove soap without wanting to smell it, to try to recreate those few seconds.

An observer would never have realised that this was our first meeting, as our conversation felt so natural and fluid. It picked up right from where we left off online yesterday. Within ten seconds of meeting, we were laughing.

I finally understood why people said, “Never meet your heroes”. Everything was going to be different between us from that point onwards.

These first few moments were amazing. We just bounced off each other and after only a couple of minutes, it felt like I’d known him all my life. It was too soon to know whether he felt like that too, but it felt like he did. I hoped so anyway.

I couldn’t believe that I paid dozens of pounds every month to be introduced to police line-ups of unsuitable men, and I still managed to pick the wrong one every time. Here was someone right here, right now, in real life, standing in front of me and I’d never even noticed him before. All that time, wasted.

Bob’s interest in me abruptly halted and his voice trailed-off mid-sentence. Something else had caught his attention. He was no longer looking at me, but over my shoulder. Surprised and delighted, he had obviously just recognised someone who meant a lot to him. Someone who he was not expecting to see here. I felt like a voyeur intruding, as I observed his expression change. His face visibly softened; he beamed, eyes sparkling with pure joy at the person behind me. I turned to see my friend Lauren gazing lovingly in a lingering, locked eye embrace, with her new beau Robert.