After dark I have need of food. I want something filling, meaty, tasty, home cooked. I never looked forward to casseroles before but tonight it’s just what I want. I know my body doesn’t actually need it, but my mind does. I choose a bowl of chicken cooked in garlic and wine and cream and as I take it to my table by the window I have the clearest memory of a hotel we stayed at on a school trip to Normandy when I was about twelve.
None of the other kids would eat the French food. Some of them cried. They lived on bread the whole week as far as I could tell (and complained about that too – too much chewing I suppose). There was just me and Jessica. I hardly knew Jessica otherwise, and she sat the other side of the dining room with Donna and Matilda. Donna and Matilda complained louder than anyone about the food, about the beds, about pretty much everything that trip, but me and Jessica lapped it up, in silent fellowship (for there was no way we could actually get up and speak to each other under the circumstances) over the bounty of all this, well, foreignness. Our eyes met the second morning over our chocolat chaud. I could see by the way her eyelids fluttered over the brim of her cup that we understood each other. It was magical. Never would we settle for Ovaltine again. And the croissants! We grinned openly at each other across the room with flaky crumbs in our teeth as havoc broke out and children shed real tears for their coco-pops.
But I did talk to her later on that trip, and when we were back at school too. I can’t remember what we said, but I do remember that it wasn’t at all difficult. I wonder what happened to Jessica? I have no idea. And why was I actually besotted with stupid Donna? It seems inexplicable now.
Anyway Harry came past as I was eating and asked me what was wrong with British food? He stood with his knuckles on my table and leaned over me, like a badly shaved, pink gorilla. I moved my plate slightly, aware that he tended to spit when he talked. He noticed the movement and leaned closer. I could see the broken veins in his cheeks. In the seconds this encounter took I couldn’t help thinking that if this was the best face his life had had to offer, what the hell had the rest been like?
‘Hey?’ he said, leaning even closer.
‘What?’ I said, leaning back.
‘All this namby-pamby foreign crap. Don’t fucking deserve to... I said “What’s wrong with some good old British, or English I should say, roast beef?”’ and he pointed to the food counter and grabbed me under the arm, tried to lift me up. I twisted and stayed sat down, defiant anger at last coming to the surface. He turned and glared at me. ‘Fucking ponce’ he said and shoved my plate from me, getting his his fingers in the gravy in the process.
For a moment he stood there, with his hand raised, looking at the gravy, his lip curled in disgust, like it was vomit rather than food on his fingers. ‘Give me that’ he said indicating a serviette. I took my time handing it to him, looking into his face the whole time. I think my expression was of cool surprise. I hope so. I wanted him to understand that it was him that was bizarre, not me. I managed to keep calm anyway.
After he’d gone I went up and got a fresh plate of the casserole, although I didn’t feel much like eating. I knew I hadn’t won. He’d just get worse.
After he’s gone I find myself thinking some more about that trip to France and Jessica and the rest of it. I really miss her. Isn’t that weird? It’s been years now and I have absolutely no idea what happened to her. She turned up by chance once when I was at the shops and was very chatty and it still didn’t occur to me until later that she maybe liked me. I can’t believe how dense I was. I suppose it just didn’t seem very likely – she being really lovely and everything, and me being, well, me. God, I was stupid. I remember when I got back from that trip I was really full of it, or so my mum said anyway – really ‘difficult’ apparently.
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