A Meal to Remember
They sit in their usual booth at the back, away from the usual distractions of the busy restaurant. The robust leather supports them as it always has. The familiar tablecloth, victim to countless spills over the decades, always returns as if like new.
“Can you remember why we’re here, Teddy?” the old woman asks.
“What’s that, Janet?” the elderly man opposite says, slightly dejected.
She squeezes his hand delicately and with a careful tone mastered only through frequency she replies,
“It’s Jean, Teddy.”
“A little bit later please.”
“Are you enjoying your lunch, handsome?”
Her words wash over him like surf on shore.
Teddy neglects a half cider, too sweet for her taste. She continues to order his usual even though it disturbs his drugs. She thinks, at this stage, tradition is more important. A battered fish, crisped and golden and glistening with the juice of a lemon, lies atop a bed of thick chips. This rests in front of him for the same reason. Tradition. However, his face is uninterested; his attentions absent and distracted.
Jean picks at the remains of a Caesar salad; saving the anchovies for last with a swift sip of a warm and waning white wine spritzer.
She looks at him with a reverence so deep it makes her pale eyes glisten.
He’s younger than her; still, she’s losing him a little more every day.
A young couple sit on barstools. They peruse a cocktail menu in charade as they rewrite the histories of other patrons.
“...yes, and he’s a former bodybuilder turned geography teacher…” he says,
Bitters, bourbon, a twist of orange on ice.
‘...who finds love in the quiet librarian with a wild side. Perfect!” she says with a smile.
Vermouth, vodka, a skewered olive.
He looks up at her over the menu, eyes such a golden brown they seem to glow.
“How about these two?” he says, nodding to another couple at a square table. He fidgets with a watch strap distractedly.
Bitters, rye whiskey and sweet vermouth drown a single cherry.
“Which?” she places a hand over the strap and he drops the menu. As they both enact the pickup they sneak glances at the couple he intended.
“Oh. Definitely a date.” she adds.
“Naturally. No siblings or colleagues play footsie like that. But, what’s their story?”
Their hands touch over the gilded menu and linger a little longer than most.
“She’s older than him. Yes. But he likes to act older,” she offers inquisitively.
“He’s not used to the finery, a tradesman. Rough hands, warm heart.”
“He’s used his main cutlery for the entree,” she says, smiling and nodding along,
“She’s more refined, yet with a playful side. Maybe a teacher, a child's nurse or–”
“An actress. No. An artist. She takes special care of her hands.”
“In his first tailored suit for a special occasion, a birthday, a promotion?”
“Maybe a proposal,” she says, confidently,
They both note the open bottle, the attire, his obvious nerves and fidgeting palms.
“It could be, you know,” he replies, convinced.
“It could just be the prawns though,” she muses, puffing out her cheeks.
He laughs too loud and too hard and they turn back to the bar.
He fastens the strap with a final fidget and flashes a grin from one side of his mouth.
“Right then, what are we having?” she says, releases her own shining smile in response then catches a bartender's attention.
“Can you remember when we were that young?” The woman at the square table asks. She nods her head ever so slightly towards the young couple at the bar.
“Don’t look!” she adds as he turns without subtly.
The man opposite laughs. It is the same laugh she remembers from their early days, when she used to tell bad jokes just to see if he would laugh anyway. He would.
“Feels like yesterday,” he says.
“It does, doesn’t it?” A spark blazes in her eyes and she reaches for his hand amongst the tableware. Their entree plates practically wiped clean, spotted with crumbs. Their cutlery both put together, his shorter than hers. His hand is clammy and he hopes she doesn’t notice. She does but hunches forward on her elbows anyway. One foot caresses ever so slightly past his ankle with a measured confidence.
“You know, I think this is our table.” She thinks aloud.
“Is it? I didn’t notice.”
“No, no. I’m sure it is, remember, you were all ‘this table is perfectly located as it’s close enough to the kitchen, the toilet and the bar without any annoying smells, noises or accidents’, don’t tell me you don’t remember that fiasco.”
“Huh, you really won’t let me forget that one will you. Top up?”
She gestures for more. “How could I forget, that’s when I knew I’d fallen in love with you.” They smile at each other over the shimmering candlelight. His hands shaking slightly as he refills the glasses.
“You seem a little tense. Are you feeling okay, handsome?”
He rolls his shoulders in mock unwinding.
“Yep, I feel fine. Probably just those prawns.” he says, reaching for her hand again, a grin forming at a corner.
His hands knocks a water glass and it wobbles on its base before settling like a dropped coin. Its contents slosh and roll like a sea at storm. They release their held breath and laugh as the tension recedes like the tides. She tucks a strand of hair behind an ear. He pulls his mouth into the smile she loves. The basket bread stales all the while. In the background, the usual babble of patrons surround them but the ring in his pocket calls louder than anything else in the room.
She spies their waiter narrowly avoid a small child who runs chaotically between tables. She sits back; he senses the approaching meals and stacks their plates out of convenience. Muscle memory from a past job. Her father's words echo in her ears; the measure of a man is marked by how he treats the staff.
“Are we all finished- oh, thank you very much, sir. The chicken?”
“Please. Can we order a bottle of your best recommendation?” he says assuredly, eyes aglow.
“Certainly, sir. And the fish for you, madam.”
She nods and notices him become immediately jealous of her own plate.
“Can I help you?” she smiles,
“Actually, there was something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
A small child rounds another lap trailing shards of chips held too tight.
The tableware shakes the familiar chime of glass near a subway.
“Katy! Katy, please can you get back here and finish your peas!” Her father singsongs with practiced tact. There is only giggling in reply.
The mother at the round table is holding a twin in each hand by the backs of their dungarees, each heading in opposite directions. She shoots her husband a look that says, ‘don’t blame me, this was your idea’.
Katy’s father scoops her up as she completes the course and chips scatter like the first fallen apples of the season. They land beneath the table, safe and sound, until closing time. Placed between both parents Katy sighs at the prospect of more peas, and then falls immediately to sleep.
“Well. Someone’s going to be up again in the night,” the mother says, handing him a wriggling twin across the table,
“I did last nights shift so…” he intentionally does not finish his sentence.
“Parenting doesn't work like that, you know.”
“Play you for it?” He holds up his fist as the recognisable Rock.
“What is it, best of three?” he adds, pinching a chip from Katy’s plate.
She smiles, shaking her head incredulously,
“It was best of seven and you lost. You can’t double down again.”
“Triple down?” He ekes out.
“You gambled for the whole week, mister. Anyway, you don’t need more beauty sleep when you’re already this handsome.”
The basket butter melts in its foil cocoon. His heart melts along with it. He smiles the same way she fell in love with all those years ago. As he wipes snot from the twins nose with a napkin she thinks, maybe this was a good idea after all.
“Madam, flattery will get you anywhere.” He joins his knife and fork, all finished. His entree cutlery remains untouched. A woman shrieks in the background and applause washes over them. They politely participate without acknowledging why.
“I certainly hope so”, she says, her own eyes ablaze as she sips a wine soda.
He pops a lemon seed from the wedge and drops the squeezed fruit into his cola. A half jacket of batter lies scraped of innards on his plate. The mushy peas diminished and receiving a further mushing from the twin that idles on his knee. An opening bottle interrupts the usual babble.
“Enough of that, you little scamp,” he whispers and delicately guides the small pudgy hand away. She smiles to herself as she watches them play, bobbing the twin on her own knee. She finishes the last of what once was a delicately arranged crab risotto, now nothing more than chive stalks. Through the babble a glass smashes. The twins pause then immediately begin to cry.
Jean observes all the patrons from the booth. Teddy is holding her hand absently, barely squeezing back at all. Her plate now cold and cleared away, dessert soon to arrive. To one side Teddy’s lunch lies well attempted but Jean keeps the chips for him just in case. Not to her surprise, the scenes she has spent overlooking seem to play out all over again, though the details are never the same.
“...former bodybuilder turned history teacher...finds love in the quiet equestrian with a wild side...”
A hand fidgets with a handkerchief.
A glass of wine is knocked but does not spill.
A handful of carrots is held too tight and falls to the floor.
Jean shakes the confusion loose.
“This isn’t right.” She thinks aloud.
Opposite, Teddy stares off into the distance.
“Try another station, Julie?” he muses, absent-mindedly.
Through the background babble a male laugh erupts from the bar.
“Eat a little bit more of your lunch, will you, Teddy,” she says, a hint of impatience in her tone. He’s had the same meal for decades, and although she’s tried almost all of his favourite things she thinks the taste of tradition will bring him back, if only for a time.
The ice cream sundae they usually share sits between them, two spoons, one side fuller than the other. Teddy never had a tooth for sweets but when shared with her he would often make an exception. He disturbs his leftover chips, now long cold. Picking up, putting down, moving them between his fingers. He was always a fidget. Jean has seen him remember how to eat a thousand times. It was at first a strange sensation, watching him first pick up food, forget, remember and forget all over again. This time though, something seems to stick. The chip remains in his grip, and remains so all the way to his lip. This isn’t out of the norm, she thinks, put food in front of him and he will eventually make a go of it. Instead of taking another though, he seems to forget and remember all over again. And, while still chewing, takes the spoon from the melting ice cream. It’s a generous heap to anyone’s standards, replete with sprinkles and shards of flaked chocolate, and accepts the contents into his own food-filled mouth. The two food groups merging in a moment of, what Jean would describe as, unholy matrimony.
She reaches for his hand with both of hers; her pale eyes now clear as glass.
“Don’t do that you silly bugger,” she says, playful but tired.
Teddy puts the spoon down confidently, a chime of metal on glass.
“Eh? Jean, what are you talking about?”
She releases his hand in shock. Teddy swallows without question.
“Mm. Delicious. You feelin’ alright tonight, Jeany? You’re as white as this ice cream!”
“Teddy…?” she whispers,
“Are your eyes alright, duck? Or are you expecting somebody else?” he chuckles,
“My sweet?” he replies with swift intelligence, refilling her water glass and taking her hand over the table.
“Remember when we brought Kate here?” she asks, doing her best to sound casual about it,
“Kate and the grandkids? What was that, last summer?”
“No. Not then, the very first time?”
He looks off into the distance but this time there’s a spark in his eyes.
“With the twins, yes? Now I remember, weren’t we somewhere over...?” he starts first excitedly but trails off as he regards the round table.
“Huh. Looks just like us over there.”
“It does, doesn’t it” Jean says, without looking.
“She dropped those green beans all over the place, didn’t she. Messy scamp, that certainly didn’t change.” he says with an air of nostalgia.
Green beans. Jean thinks to herself.
“Called ‘em green worms, if I recall.” he continues,
Her smile wide but with lips so tight for fear of spilling the lump in her throat.
“What is going on here exactly, Jeany?” Teddy asks with a measured tone.
His eyes continue to burn gold.
“I’m not sure, Teddy. Just thinking is all.” She says distractedly and with tears welling above her cheeks.
Through the babble a woman shrieks enthusiastically,
“Yes! I will, I will!” There is a hubbub, a man embraces her. A ripple of applause washes up against the booth. They acknowledge it as if addressing a passing car.
“It was a beautiful engagement wasn’t it, Jean? Right here, fifty-four years ago.”
She laughs with joy as the tears fall. Nodding excitedly. Gripping his hands across the table and relieved to feel him squeeze back. In the background a bottle is opened.
Teddy laughs as he wipes a tear from his own cheek.
“I’ll never forget how much I was shaking, so much I knocked the water-”
A glass smashes as the animated couple simmer into their seats. There are scattered hoorahs and a waiter draws a line to their table.
Teddy glances into the crowds but dismisses it almost immediately.
“I knocked my cider didn’t I, but that one didn’t spill. It didn’t spill. The water jug wasn’t so lucky though, what a state.” He claps the table at the thought, smiling to himself.
She thinks. Cider. It was Teddy’s cider.
“We’ve spent our whole lives here, eh. From that first date.” Teddy muses,
She nods with a heavy heart. A baby cry rises through the babble.
“We played that game.” she adds, tears abound.
“I dropped my glasses. Ha, still so clumsy.”
Her face doesn’t register and he notices,
“No? I was cleaning ‘em and you made a move to take ‘em from me but I dropped…”
Not a watch at all. Glasses.
She laughs to herself and squeezes his hand.
He squeezes back.