At 12.01 precisely, I enter the staff room, hoping it will be empty. Referred to officially as the ‘Staff Lounge’, it implies it is a comfortable area where one could relax, which is far from the truth. More of a dumping ground for archive boxes, the ancient celebrity gossip magazines give any Drs waiting room a run for their money. Thank you cards from ex-colleagues who left years ago are still on the noticeboard, as well as a flyer for a theatre production from Halloween 2015. This room appears to get cleaned about once a year, but although it is grotty, at least we have somewhere to go.
I’m not an al-desko person because it doesn’t feel like I’ve had a break. My colleagues will interrupt me, (breaks are unpaid) even though I’m clearly not working if I’m looking at clothes online or reading a book. That’s the culture there, so I always try to get away from my desk whenever I can. If I don’t, I know I’ll be climbing the walls or exhausted by 3pm, finding any excuse to go outside for a breath of fresh air, aka a cigarette.
So yes, an early lunch, before the crowd. If I can establish that I’m busy with my book, maybe no-one will disturb me. Annoyingly, I’m not the first one in here. Still, I’m hoping for a polite nod, an understanding. We’ve worked in the same building for fifteen years, so by now there should be no such thing as an awkward silence between us. Our reading materials, indicate (to me, anyway) that we would like to be left alone. She’s got a pile of holiday brochures, I’ve got the new Robert Galbraith, so I might be in luck.
It’s Tuesday, so I already know her sandwich will be ham, and that she will also be on her second packet of cheese and onion crisps of the day. A creature of habit. Monday is cheese. Tuesday is ham. Wednesday is cheese. Thursday is ham again. Friday is slim pickings because she goes to the supermarket straight from work, so she’s probably got dairylea or tuna mayo on white bread. Always white, plastic bread.
I say “Hi.” and sit diagonally across the long table from her. Far enough away for my personal space, but close enough to not be rude about wanting some room to myself.
Lunchbox out. Swig of pop. Not too much at once, even though I’m really thirsty. It’s fizzy and spicy so if the bubbles go up my nose, or I need to burp, it will draw unwanted attention to me. Hand sanitiser, napkin, fork, book.
The obligatory, usual fiddle with the phone. Press the screen a few times, double tap, swipe, double tap, quick index finger thumb combo tapping, chuckle to myself, swipe, swipe, double tap. Phone down. I really need to do something about my stiff fingers. I’m losing out more and more in this game of muscle memory vs arthritis.
There’s about ten pages left to go, which is always the crucial point of resolution in any detective story, so I crack the spine and put my train ticket bookmark on the table. It occurs to me that there’s a definitely a market for spiral bound books, and also why tablets could be so popular with older people for reading. They lie flat, so no aches from trying to hold the pages open, and you can change the size of the font.
Barely five sentences in and my colleague speaks.
“Have you ever been to Egypt?” she asks.
“No. Not really my thing. Too hot. My ankles swell up in the heat.” I reply.
“It’s just that we’re thinking of going there this year. It’s a bit different, isn’t it? The all-inclusive prices look good.”
A beat of silence.
“Ooh, that looks nice. What have you got?”
I hold up my sandwich to show her, chew more quickly than I’d like to, swallow, clear my throat with an ahem, then say,
“Tuna and horseradish mayo with baby gem lettuce and a little tub of radish, celery, apple and cucumber salad. Rice pudding and a can of ginger beer.”
Then I take another bite of my overstuffed, slightly soggy but still crunchy sandwich. My sinuses will thank me today. More nose-tingling deliciousness.
“I had wafer thin ham salad. No horseradish though. That’s like mustard isn’t it? I don’t think I’d like horseradish. Don’t you have it with roast beef? I don’t like hot food. Gives me heartburn. I only like roast beef when it’s well done. I hate meat that’s not cooked.”
She didn’t pause between statements long enough for me to respond. I’m guessing she was just thinking aloud and wasn’t really expecting me to reply, so I hope she interprets my pause as the end of the conversation. Alas, it is not to be.
“Are you going on holiday this year?” She asks.
“Mmm.” I chew slowly, deliberately. Take another sip from my can and wipe my mouth on my napkin. I pretend thump and pat my chest, as a gesture that I’m waiting for my food to go down. Then, I sigh and slip the train ticket back in between the pages. The unveiling of the baddie can wait. I decide to give in and fully engage. That’s what mindfulness says to do. I don’t really have any choice, but I know she means well.
“Vegas” I say.
“You a bit of a gambler then?”
“No, we go for the food.”
“What? You go to Las Vegas for the food? Really? “Her brow furrows and she looks right at me, mouth slightly open. I think she’s trying to decide whether she believes me. “I’ve never heard of anyone going on holiday for the food before. Each to their own I suppose. Mind you my brother went to Las Vegas on a stag do, and he said that drinks were free and that everything was massive, so he went for a buffet every day. He had lobster and steak and everything. Have you been to a buffet there?”
“Nah. We thought about it, but the queue to the place we wanted to go to was too big. The food really is amazing there. I love going out for dinner to a different restaurant every night. There are some really good ones, you know, proper Michelin Starred restaurants just a taxi ride or walk from the hotel.”
“Oh yeah, I remember now when you said that you had to book a year in advance to go to that posh pub run by that big bloke off the telly.” She holds out the blue packet towards me. “Crisp?”
“No thanks. God, I love crisps you know. Every year for New Year, I have a resolution and try to ban myself from eating them because I’m so greedy. I can’t just have a few. I can eat a whole family pack in one day. I don’t even like knowing they’re in the house. I’ve got no willpower. Have you had those sweet chilli ones?”
“Yeah, they’re nice they are. That’s about the right amount of spicy for me.”
I can predict the next question and I was right. It’s always the next question. Guaranteed. I’d put money on it.
What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever been to?”
“Well, there was this one in Denmark. It’s closed down now, but it was voted best in the world once, and so to get a table you had to be online at exactly a certain time and date to book three months ahead. It used to sell out in minutes.”
I take another bite of my sandwich and take the plastic lid off my salad.
“I can’t believe you booked a restaurant before you booked your holiday. That’s crazy. Sorry! I didn’t mean you’re crazy. I meant that’s … er… dedication. Why was it so good?”
I pretend to think whilst I’m chewing, but really I just want to eat my lunch. I’ve said a version of this schpiel a few times before.
“I know what you mean. You’re not the first person to think it’s a bit weird actually. That restaurant in Copenhagen, well, I’ve thought about it, and, for me, it was the endless combinations of flavours and textures. Even though some of the ingredients separately seemed a bit strange, they all went together so well. I think the restaurant had loads of chefs from all over the world all working on their own unique little obsessive projects, so when the individual courses were put together the results were just amazing. Not like anything else I’ve ever had before. Rene sparked a whole new style of cooking. Nordic cuisine is really popular now, but it was confined to that part of Europe before. A lot of the food was wild or foraged or local to the area. So it was basically the same as your ancestors would have eaten but not exactly to that same recipe. So the chefs in this restaurant wouldn’t use lemon, for example because lemons don’t grow in Denmark.”
“What do they use instead?”
“You’re not going to believe me.”
“Ants? Like the insects?”
“Exactly like the insects.”
She puts her hand up to cover her mouth. I don’t think she quite believes what I’ve just said.
“No way. For real? Are they still alive?”
“Not usually. Ant paste tastes just like sharp citrus.”
“I’d never eat ants.” She shudders. “I feel all creepy now.”
I’m actually starting to enjoy this conversation.
“I thought that too, but then I’d gone all that way to the best restaurant in the world, so I thought I might as well try them.” I said
“Is all the food weird in Denmark? I thought it was all fish and pickles.”
“Well, I did eat bulls testicles and cod’s cheek at another restaurant there. It was one of those nose-to-tail places, where you pay a fixed amount for whatever chef cooks you. Everyone at each table gets something slightly different. They don’t waste anything”
“Testicles? Balls? You’re joking?”
“No. Seriously. I really didn’t want to try them, but they looked like chicken nuggets and I dared myself. I think we were into our second bottle of wine by then anyway. I couldn’t eat the fish eye though.”
She makes a fake vomit gesture.
I smile and stab my fork into my salad.
“Why would your eat bulls balls?” She’s baffled and a little disgusted.
“In some of those fine dining, white tablecloth places, where it’s like ten courses, you get served each course by the chef who cooked it. They bring it to your table, and explain all about it. Some of the chefs are so modest and sweet. All they think about is food twenty-four-seven. There must be dozens of incredible chefs in Copenhagen. I think they’re made to interact with customers though, because there are so many questions and compliments. Some of those chefs are definitely going places. Like gonna be famous. Some of them are really anxious and worried whether you’ll like it. There was this one time, where he brought out a huge baked onion and cut it and served it right in front of us. There was no way that it could fail.”
“What, just like a massive onion?”
“Yeah, there was this beautiful, delicate broth with it. I’ll never forget it. In some restaurants, they treat the meal like it’s theatre, and there are amusing little jokes and gadgets from the chefs. Oh yeah, like, get this, you’ve definitely had pate as a starter before, right?”
“I haven’t because I don’t really like it, but yes, go on.”
“Well, in this one restaurant we went to, the pate was disguised to look like a little tangerine. This other time, the chef had made some little tiny balls of pops of flavour that looked like caviar. Another time at this Spanish restaurant, one course was tomato consomme poured from a teapot into little teacups. The waiter told us that there was a Spanish word for tomato that also meant ‘absent’ so the lack of colour in the consomme was a play on words”
“You’re braver than me. I bet you like all that sushi stuff too.”
“Now you’re talking. I love sushi, but it’s all about the rice really, not the fish.”
“What do you mean? The rice? How hard can it be to steam some rice? I don’t know how you can eat raw fish on purpose.”
I hope she’s enjoying these tales more than she’s letting on.
“Oh I really love it. Do you know it takes years to become a sushi master and for the first few years of training, you’re on cleaning up duties? If you prove yourself, then they might let you prepare the rice?”
I stab my fork into my salad and realise that I’m basically eating sushi but in a different format. Deconstructed sushi.
“I never know that. Really? Do you like raw fish then?”
“Sashimi? Yes, there’s some I don’t like much. Like we always trade – his mackerel for my tuna belly, but my favourite food is oysters. If they’re on the menu then I always order them. I can’t get enough. I went on an oyster shucking class once in this restaurant in London. They basically give you unlimited champagne and teach you how to open oysters. It was a great way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. The more we opened, the more we got to eat. It was brilliant. Dangerous though, with that little knife. You really have to go for it when you jam it into the side if the hinge of the shell. I’d love to go again. The Italian bloke who showed us how to open them was the champion of some contest in Galway. I forget which. He could do it really quickly. I forget how many he said he could shuck in an hour. I think I had about 20 of three different kinds. I’ve got a little oyster diary notebook to write down how each one tastes, you know, plumpness, size, rock, native, farmed, so I can learn which ones I like best.”
“Urgh. I don’t know how you can eat them. They look like snot.”
I ignore that comment. Everyone who never dares to eat shellfish always says that. Those who love oysters can’t quite put their finger on why they taste so good.
“I tell you what. One thing I have noticed over the years is how the cheap food that our grandparents would have eaten, has now become upmarket restaurant food. You know like oysters, rabbit, game. And food that used to be really expensive has now become everyday. Like chicken or ice-cream.”
“I get it now. I can see why you go on holiday for the food, like you say. If it’s your hobby and all. Bet you don’t eat Maccy Ds then?” She says.
“Course I do. I like a quarter pounder with cheese or a whopper or a KFC bucket as much as everyone else does. I pretty much love all food. I’m a bit of a snob about my fruit though. It’s gotta be ripe. I’d rather wait all year for two weeks of decent juicy peaches than have hard, sour ones.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Her phone beeps and she plays with it for a minute. I finish my salad.
“So what’s the food like in Egypt then?” I ask.
I hold up my little pot of the childhood favourite rice pudding, to try to show her that I’m just like everyone else.
“Well, normal really. Like canteen or buffets. You know, fried breakfasts, pancakes. Soup, salads, pizzas, burgers, curry, roast dinners. What you get here really. They do have some Egyptian food like those sausages, so you can try them if you want to. It’s just great to be able to have an ice cream or a beer whoever you want and not have to worry about paying for it.”
“Tell me about it. I drink so much when I’m on holiday. At lunchtime I’ll have a glass of wine or a gin and tonic and then we’ll have a cocktail in the afternoon and then a bottle of wine at dinner. I dread to think how many units it is. Ice-cream every day. Pudding after every meal.”
“Yeah, but that’s why you go on holiday. To chillax. Everyone loses half a stone for their holidays and then puts it back on again while they’re there. And it’s not like you’re driving like you would be if you went to Florida.”
“Oh I’d love to go to Florida.” I say, wistfully. “I really want to go to Harry Potter world and I bet the aquarium is awesome. I’ve seen some pictures. it looks amazing.”
“Do you take photographs of your food for Instagram then?”
“I have done, but only to show people I know. I think it’s a bit rude to photograph everything you eat, especially if the restaurant is a bit posh. Like you’re trying to have a lovely birthday meal, that isn’t cheap, and someone is taking a photo every five minutes. A lot of those amateur bloggers are wankers in my opinion, and they don’t even know what they’re talking about. I read this one review about that wine bar in town and she kept saying how much she despised all red wines but loved rose, and never once said what the grape varieties were. She had no clue how rose is even made! They’re just chancers, playing at it for their “brand” and not doing it for the right reasons. I can’t see how someone can be impartial if the meal they’re reviewing is paid for by the restaurant.”
“I never even thought about that before.” She says.
“An don’t get me started about those who hashtag foodporn everything when it’s a flipping readymeal or a cake from the shop. I mean, how big must your ego be to call yourself an influencer? Isn’t that what other people call you, after the fact?”
I put my hands up and say “I’m gonna shut up now. You know what I’m like when I start ranting”
She does know me well enough to smile sympathetically and says “Good idea.”
“So.” I say after a few seconds. “Are you into Egyptian history then?”
Nah, not really. We thought it looked good value and people we know said it was lovely. The kids do love a pool. Guaranteed sun for a bonus. If we take them out of school, it’ll be cheaper and we won’t get fined because Egypt is educational. That’s what the headmaster agreed last year.”
“Sounds like a plan. Can’t fault you.” I say.