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

118. Family Matters

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

This is a story I wrote specifically for the brief of ‘GLASS’ for a competition, but it was not longlisted.

Some things that people assume are fragile, are often the most resilient, because they have to be to survive. If I’d never tapped that screen, then I wouldn’t know what happened and Mum would still be here.

When I was little, I stood on a chair, climbed under the net curtains and tiptoed precariously on the window ledge, between the photographs. I remember stretching up my arms like an angel. That window was bigger than I was. Mum was so happy to see me waiting for her, that she forgot to tell me off.

In my first year, almost everything I made broke, so I reused the smashed shards in my other work. By year four, I instinctively sensed how glass flowed. I could control my breath and feel the stresses and tensions. There was always a risk that kiln shock might crack a piece, but that was part of the process. People only saw the results, not the work leading up to it. Failure to produce or anticipate the market, meant I couldn’t pay my bills. It was all or nothing.

As the car drew up to what was left of Mum’s house, molten lead dripped into my stomach, and fizzed. I howled like a dog left home alone. A flapping stripy ribbon was the only barrier keeping strangers out.

I knew we would bicker over the scraps. His wife never appreciated the sentiment of unfashionable stem crystal, kept safe for best in a velvet-lined box, but she didn’t want me to have them either. I pretended that a new dandelion clock paperweight was Mum’s pride and joy and reluctantly gave it up for the wine glasses. If they had ever visited my shop, then they would know that the bowl they loved was one from my ‘Empty Vessel’ collection.

I hadn’t been a little sister for years but I still needed my big brother. This may as well have been a closed visit with a 6mm invisible barrier between us. I tried to reach out but I still couldn’t touch him. I think we both knew this would be the last time we didn’t speak.

He poured Mum’s ashes onto the sand. I picked up a muted, green pebble from the shoreline and sucked it like a travel sweet. Mum used to call these ‘mermaid’s tears’. Everything that fused us together was gone. I looked at the frosted, weathered sea glass nugget and wondered what it once was. I think I’ll make it into a pendant and wear it next to my heart.

When I got home, I wrote him a letter and pushed it into a bottle. I thought about throwing it into the sea, to be with Mum, but decided to slump it in the kiln. Flat bottles were always my best-sellers.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

114. You Got The Love

Photo by Krista Bagnell

“Mummy’s going to pick you up from nursery today,” said Violet, as she smoothed down her niece’s hair. Gently cupping the child’s face, she turned it upwards towards her own, and smiled. “Ooh. how I want to eat these little cheeks!” she said. The girl squealed with delight, as her face was showered with “mwah, mwah, mwahs and nom, nom, noms”.

The moment the front door closed, Rosemary burst into tears. Her sister, Violet was leaving today, so she couldn’t put it off any longer. She clapped her hands together, then raised her clasped hands to her mouth, pausing as if in contemplation or prayer. Breathing in deeply, she sighed then walked over to look out of the window. She could see her daughter skipping down the street hand-in-hand with her Aunt. They stopped as the girl pointed to a rainbow in the sky. It’s true what people said. Children were so resilient and a great comfort at times like these. Rosemary pressed play for the company of the radio, then began to busy herself.

It took over four hours to shower, dress, change the master bed, and put on two loads of washing.

Picking out the remaining flowers from several wilting bunches, she created smaller posies that fitted perfectly into two children’s drinking glasses. One for each bedside. She took a picture of one of these floral arrangements, with a slightly blurred family photograph deliberately in view behind. Then she posted it to all of her social media accounts and added the caption “Taking it one day at a time.” There was no way she could reply to all of the well-wishers and notifications right now, but if people saw this picture, at least they’d know she was doing ok.

Rosemary poured the cloudy water from the vases down the kitchen sink, picked out the slimy leaf debris from the plughole and looked at the grubby kitchen sponge. It needed to be thrown away but it was something he’d touched. Was it too soon to get rid of his toothbrush? Then she remembered she’d just washed some of his clothes. She went back into the bathroom and picked up his deodorant, shaving cream, razor, moisturiser and toothbrush and put them in his underwear drawer. There was still so much to do.

At around two o’clock, Rosemary decided to go to the Convenience Store down the road to get something easy and nice for tea. Pizza and ice-cream. Her sister had been so good to stay with them, but she had to go to work tomorrow and life had to get back into some sort of routine. The thought of speaking to her own colleagues made her clutch her stomach. ‘Not fit for work’ was written in spidery Dr handwriting on the sick note, so why did her boss keep ringing her on the pretence of checking whether she was ok, as a cover to ask her work questions? She’d had enough of people saying “how are you coping” and the endless platitudes of “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” without anyone actually offering something tangible that might make her life easier. Like the ironing or cooking a meal. This tired and angry person she was right now would be unprofessional at work, but it was too soon to fake it until she made it. No, a few more weeks away from people was what she needed. She had to face the parents and staff at nursery today. That was enough for now.

Living inside her own head, Rosemary had forgotten just how loud and busy this street was. Double glazing really does dampen down the noise. Hopefully, she wouldn’t see anyone she knew at this time of day. She approached the Convenience Store at the same time as a woman wearing a yellow jacket, who seemed to be in a hurry. “After you,” Rosemary said, then stepped back. The other woman nodded a thanks and walked through the sliding doors. Just then, Rosemary noticed a tiny white feather floating from the sky, right in front of her face.

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Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

A few minutes earlier, Patricia (the woman in the yellow coat) was leaving an almost-identical block of flats on the other side of the same street. She too was preoccupied with troubles of her own. Her phone buzzed and there was a brief flicker of hope that this call was from her boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend – but it was her mother. She double-pressed the button at the side of her phone and lowered her arm. Stepping down onto the pavement, a man on a bicycle whizzed past, missing her by millimetres. She shouted “Oy you! Watch where you’re going!” Further along the pavement, the same cyclist grabbed a phone from a woman’s hand then rode away. Patricia stared as the woman tried to run after him, then she faltered when she realised it was futile.

Patricia turned to hear a woman swearing at a man who was trying to stifle a laugh. Apparently a bird had pooped down the back of the collar of the woman’s blouse, between the fabric and her skin. “I can feel it sliding down my back!” That poor woman was stood in the exact spot where Patricia would have been if she’d not spent the last ten seconds watching a brazen daylight robbery. Reaching into her pocket she felt for a couple of coffee shop napkins and handed them to the couple, saying “there you go. Sorry. It’s not much.”

She briefly considered joining the group of people who were hurriedly crossing the road but thought better of it as the green man was flashing. What did her dad used to say? “First in this queue instead of last in that.” She pressed the button and waited for the cars to pass and the green man to appear again. Just as she put a foot forward into the road, a man grabbed her and pulled her backwards away from the kerb, out of the path of a speeding van that had jumped the lights.

A homeless man sat on the ground a few meters away from the shop doorway. “Spare any change please, Miss?” he asked hopefully. “Sorry, mate, no,” she said, then changed her mind and fumbled around in her bag. She brought out half a packet of cigarettes and offered them to him. “You can have these. I’ve given up.”

“Thank you Miss. Good luck to you, Miss,” he replied. Here was a man with nothing, who was kinder to her than her own boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend. Strangers cared more about her than her ex boyfriend did. Her arm suddenly prickled with goosebumps as if someone had lightly stroked it, but there was no-one there. It was exactly like the secret pang of joy when you think of a new lover. Her eye caught sight of a white feather slowly zig-zagging down, then it gently settled on her right shoulder.

Hurrying into the Convenience Store, Patricia asked for a lottery ticket but changed her mind at the last moment and spent the money on a scratchcard. In a nearby coffee shop toilet, she rubbed off the silver coating on the instant win ticket with a 2p coin.  One four-leaf clover emerged. Two. Three. Four.

No way! She’d only won ten thousand pounds!

She put her hand out onto the wall to steady herself as she felt her knees buckle. Brushing the bits of silver, then blowing them away, she checked the card again. She tried to read the back of the card for details of how to claim, but it was difficult because of the low-level lighting in there, designed to discourage drug-taking.

The woman in the post office seemed genuinely pleased for her and wished her well. Patricia noticed that the woman’s hand was shaking as she slid the cheque through the little window slot. In the bank, she was taken into a side room, which made Patricia feel special, until she realised it was a sales talk about investments and upgrading her account. She made her excuses and left. Next was coffee – although what she really wanted was a proper drink to steady her nerves. Caffeine wasn’t going to help her racing heart. Her apologies for using the loo without buying anything weren’t necessary, as the barista claimed not have noticed her earlier. While she sipped her perfect coffee, Patricia made an appointment to view a flat the next morning, and booked a hotel room for two nights. She needed time to think. This was a second chance so she literally couldn’t blow it.

A few days later, the local paper ran a story about a young widow who’d scooped the double rollover lottery jackpot. “I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel watching over me. My husband said he’d always look after us. When I saw that white feather, I knew it was a sign from him. We might have lost him but he’s still with us in spirit and in our hearts. I feel so blessed.”

Meanwhile, the occupants of one of the flats above the branch of Tesco that sold the winning tickets, were still finding tiny feathers from a split pillow. Duck down was so light and impossible to catch, clogging up the vacuum cleaner. Even opening a door in the flat was enough to puff up the delicate feathers into the air where they would drift out of the window into the street below.

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Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash