Friday, 12 November 2010

England, my England

Scene: Small Essex retirement home, a comfortable, friendly and well-run place where the staff are such saintly stars that I wouldn't mind putting my name down in due course. My son Nibus and I are visiting.

In the main day room there's a new resident, an elderly man with a gift for Herculean coughings, hawkings and phlegmings. Two or three places down an elderly lady, the only resident with a mild dementia, occasionally utters wild fortissimo shrieks and moans. It's one of the periods of the day when the television is on. (The residents' committee, partly guided by our visitee, has banned continual television.)

Mr Hawker is at full throttle. Mona is in mid-season form. So far their utterances have been separate. Suddenly for an instant they coincide, a simultaneous massive viscous rumbling and eerie banshee howl, a sort of transcendental geriatric coition. At that moment there's a burst of enthusiastic and prolonged cheering and applause from the television. Nibus and I daren't look each other in the eye...

...we eat that night in a little restaurant specialising in Tex-Mex cuisine. We've been there before, just often enough to know the staff, mostly stunning Essex blondes of which S. the chef/proprietor seems to have an unending supply, by their first names. I've nearly finished my fajita and Nibus his Big Beef Bummer when S. comes and sits next to us.

For no clear reason he tells us about the time when during a deep-sea dive he had been seriously alarmed by a presence his limited field of vision and the semi-opacity of the water prevented him from identifying exactly. The presence followed him continually, keeping just out of sight. At last he caught a glimpse of a single eye, staring balefully, as though it was trying to give him the evil eye. (I wonder. A distant memory comes to me, something legendary about looking into the eye of a whale and seeing certain visions of a higher truth.) At length the fish revealed itself. It was a cod, a big bugger, the chef/proprietor says. Nibus and I have more eye-to-eye trouble. S. punctuates his sentences with 'yeh', like David Brent in The Office.

Why is he telling us this? A possible answer is that he's deliberately engaging customers in conversation in order to escape some menial washing-up task that he's left to his wife in the kitchen.

We order dessert. Nibus chooses a Lemon Lush, a gooey confection consisting of a viscous glob of lemon curd nestling in vanilla ice-cream, surrounded by whipped cream. I ask, as always when I go out, for strawberry ice-cream. When it arrives I see it has been expressly, and suggestively, sculpted to resemble - well, there's a Russian cigarette set at an angle of about 60ยบ between two pink globes. The waitress excuses herself: it's nothing to do with her, she says, she's a pure girl, unspoiled and untainted. So it's come like that from the kitchen. By what right...

...oh, never mind. We don't get to England very often. We should relish these authentic glimpses of the Old Country more.

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