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

111. 1471

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Photo by Marco Chilese on Unsplash

By the time the police arrived, Mrs Jones was sat on a low garden wall, next to what was left of her car. A couple of kids on bmx bikes were watching from a short distance away. The man who saw it all happen was sat in his car still talking into the handset. 

That beautiful red union jack mini was a write-off. Crumpled against a concrete lamp post, a perfect arc of skid marks visible in the road. People drove slowly past, phones ready, craning their necks to see if there was any blood.

As she was being breathalysed, a teenage girl briskly walked up, held out her phone at arms length, took a photo, then ran off. Her friend followed, shouting, “Was that Mrs Jones? Was it? Wait for me!” 

Still gently sobbing, Mrs Jones was grateful for the quiet routine of the police station. She listened patiently whilst the Police Constable spoke to the Custody Sergeant. Fortunately, he was one of those rare officers still working in a public-facing role in his fifties. Mrs Jones was relying on his age and experience for his empathy of her situation.

“Arrested for dangerous driving. She said she saw a mouse in the car and panicked. Drove through a red light and into a lamp post. Breathalyzer negative. No injuries. Car towed. Scene clear. CCTV requested,” said the PC, closing her pocket notebook.

The PC then lightly touched Mrs Jones on the arm and said, “My Sarge will look after you now. Don’t worry. It’ll get sorted out.”

“The Duty Solicitor has just gone into an interview, so it will be about an hour. I’m going to have to put you into a cell for a bit,” said the Custody Sergeant.

“Um. Ok. Oh, I need some things from my bag though,” she said.

“What sort of things?” asked the Custody Sergeant. He’d heard it all before.

“Um.” This was no time to be coy.  “I’m going through the change and I’m flooding, so I need a few sanitary towels. I need to take my pills in an hour and I have to eat a biscuit soon because stress makes me hypoglycemic and I can’t take tablets on an empty stomach or I’ll vomit.”

The Custody Sergeant studied her face for a moment. He remembered how it was for his missus a few years back. How the bleeding got so heavy that she couldn’t leave the house some days. When she sneezed, it looked like a crime scene.

“What pills do you need?” he asked.

“I’m due to take two ibuprofen, two paracetamol and codeine and two tranexamic acid in an hour,” she replied.

“I just need to make a quick call to the Doctor.” he said.

A few minutes later, he handed her a clear plastic evidence bag containing four sanitary towels, six tablets, plus the remains of a packet of hobnobs from her handbag.

After an hour in the cell, a different police officer brought her a cup of tea. “Your solicitor won’t be long now,” he said.

“Oh it’s ok. I don’t want to be a nuisance. I know you’re busy,” she replied.

The police officer turned to leave, then paused, “You don’t remember me do you? I was in your class at Hill High School and in the army cadets with your Davey. How is he these days?”

“Oh, I’m sorry love, my Davey passed away two years ago. He had a few problems with heroin and ended up homeless,” she said. Mrs Jones was used to this, having to offer comfort to those who only just found out.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. We were good friends for a bit, me and Davey. We got up to all sorts, like teenagers do. I joined the army straight from school and we lost touch. I remember he was well into his music and motorbikes. I did 12 years and then joined the police,” he replied.

Mrs Jones already knew this.  

A couple of hours later, she had been interviewed, charged, bailed, and was home in time for Emmerdale. She surprised herself at how little shame she felt.

The next day, Mrs Jones was walking through town and saw Fred, one of the homeless guys she often chatted to, sat on a bench near the fountain in Town Hall Square. His worldly possessions were neatly packed into a rucksack on the ground. He was watching the pigeons scratting around for bits of discarded food, as he absentmindedly picked at the edges of a paper coffee cup.

“Hi Fred.” She said, cheerfully.  No matter how many problems she had, they paled into insignificance with what was going on in his life. “You’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday?” she said.

“No, what?” said Fred.

“I got arrested for dangerous driving.”

He sat up straighter. “Are you ok? Was anyone hurt?” he said quickly.

“No, I’m getting a bit of a bruise and my neck’s a bit stiff though.” She drew a diagonal line from neck to waist to show where the bruise was.

She stuffed her hands into her pockets, then said hesitantly, “I saw him though. I talked to him. He remembers Davey from before….” Her voice trailed off, then almost immediately she composed herself.

“He’s on afternoons all week. You still want to do it?” She asked.

“Yep. I’ve made up my mind. I can’t spend another winter outside. He’s as good as anyone, and he deserves it. Those who think they haven’t done anything wrong when they have, deserve it more,” said Fred.

They held each other’s gaze for a second longer than they usually did.

“His collar number is 1471” she said. “They never even searched me, probably cos I’m a doddery old woman. They even put it in a bag for me. It’s in the mattress, in the seam at the top. Cell number two.”

“Well, then,” said Fred. “Consider it done. For Davey.”

“Well then, yourself. Take care,” said Mrs Jones. “Oh, I got you these.” She pulled out a new packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and offered them to him.

“Thank you. That’s really kind. God bless. See you, Mrs Jones,” he said, as she turned away, her hand raised in an it’s nothing/don’t worry about it/goodbye gesture.

Two months later, Mrs Jones and Fred are sat at a table in the visitor’s room at the local prison. “This is nice, isn’t it?” said Mrs Jones, “to be out of the cold.”

Fred’s cheeks have plumped out and his limp is less pronounced than before. Even though he’s just about to officially start a life sentence, his spirits have lifted. 

“Three meals a day, a room to myself with a telly, no-one kicking or pissing on me while I’m trying to sleep, hot showers, proper toilets, books, people to talk to. I might even get some qualifications. This is luxury. If I’d have known what getting lifed off was going to be like, I’d have done it years ago.”

She smiled. They both got what they wanted.

The one who gave her son his first cigarette. His first can of beer. His first joint. His first ecstasy tablet. His first wrap of speed. His first shoplifting spree. His first joyride. His first fist fight. The one who started it all. He was gone now. 

Killing a police officer meant that Fred was given a longer sentence, but the tariff didn’t matter. It would be a life sentence. Years of living on the streets had taken its toll on his body. Fred would die in here, but it would be in the warm with a full belly surrounded by people who were paid to care. He wouldn’t be alone.

“They put me in cell number one at first, so I puked on the floor, and they moved me. I think after the sentence next week, I’m getting transferred to a prison up north,” said Fred. “Will you still come and visit me?”

“Course I will, love,” she said, having absolutely no intention of ever seeing him again.

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Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

25. Bus Stop Story

pexels-photo-303327.jpegMan wearing a strange outfit of combat trousers, cheap steel toecapped boots, not-in-fashion t shirt, carrying a black bin bag, at my town bus stop “Do you know if there’s a bus due to xxxxx aka some suburb of some town in the north of England? I’ve been waiting here ages.” He looked a bit like when wizards wear muggle clothes and get it a bit wrong.

Me “It’s due in about two minutes.”

Man. “Everything’s changed round here. I’ve just come out of the big house. They don’t even sell baccy in twelve-and-a-half-gramme packs any more.”

Me. “I know. I sometimes used to buy some for that homeless guy outside Tescos. You didn’t have any fivers and tenners stashed away did you before you went in? And pound coins? They’ve all changed.”

He chuckles.

“Did you do much reading in there then?” I enquire.

Man. “I did actually. And cos I don’t smoke weed my tests came back negative so I could get on a cooking course. I’ve got an NVQ.”

Me. “That’s good. Got any work lined up?”

Man. “Nah. I’m kind of unemployable. I’m just gonna spend time with my kids.”

Someone sticks their hand out for the bus.

“Well. Good luck to you mate.” I say.

“Thanks.” He replies and I put my earbuds back in and sit next to an old lady on the bus.