'When I grow up I want to be a kid'
The moment that I knew for sure we were heading upstream without a paddle was when the Ponce started to provide an impromptu and ever so slightly patronising cookery class to the confused and possibly frightened Filipino waiter. Actually, he wasn’t even a waiter, certainly not our waitress (more of her later); he was probably a busboy, and as this restaurant was connected to a cookery school, he was most likely a trainee bus boy. I looked at the Ponce in profile opposite me and could see even from that angle his eyes gleaming with evangelical zeal and I could hear the cutting down of the syllables, snip snip snip, as he clipped them, steadily warming to his theme.
‘Could you please ask them in the kitchen… kitchen? Yes? You got that bit? Ok, good. Ask them to do the pasta…. al….. dente…… please. Do you know what I mean? Al dente?’
The busboy may have shrugged slightly and when I say slightly I mean it. The tiniest shift in demeanour to indicate his lack of understanding as tiny as one single pulse in the vein on the inside of a wrist. Otherwise he retained his classic ‘oriental inscrutability’ that always transmits to us westerners as sullenness, full-on stupidity or unwillingness to co-operate. His face was totally static, a couple of beads of sweat on his forehead, an immobile and smart figure in his head to toe black outfit and apron, only his eyes moving, only the eyes saying,
‘What do you want from me? Stop asking me questions! I don’t know what you want. I don’t even know what you are,’ in the face of this little pierced, tattoed, Italian devil with his pistacho green sunglasses on the top of his head, his expressive hands and his intense eyes under thick, black eyebrows.
‘Al dente.’ repeated the Ponce, with a sigh.
‘That means that if it says on the packet to cook it for ten minutes, you cook it for eight. Then you take it out. Any kitchen can do it, it’s not difficult. Just ask them please. Then the pasta is not too soft, you see? I don’t want it Spanish style.’ He pulled a face, a grimace to illustrate his disgust. A small line as faint as a pencil-stroke appeared in between the busboy’s eyes.
‘Al dente. You put the pasta in the water…’ here he mimed throwing pasta into boiling water ‘….. and when it’s still a bit hard but cooked, before it turns to mush….’ Here he mimed picking up the pan and removing it from the heat, ‘….you take it out. Cookery school stuff, you ought to be able to manage it even in this restaurant.’
The busboy was dismissed with a turn of the head and he fled, his apron tails flapping behind him.
‘It’ll be a fucking miracle if they get it right.’ the Ponce confided, smiling at me serenely, sipping his wine, then topping up my glass for me. ‘I’m not eating it if it comes out like mush.’
‘I know you’re not.’ I replied, shifting my bottom to get comfortable on the plush leather bank seating. Above us an enormous lampshade hovered like a hooped skirt or a UFO waiting to abduct us.
‘Oh God, now we’re screwed.’ I thought. ‘Now we’re well and truly screwed. How could I not see this coming?’ I downed half of the glass of wine he had just poured me, smiled back at him, and sat and waited for Pastageddon…. any minute now.
My mind flitted back to one evening last Summer at the Turkish kebab shop round the corner from my house, staffed by Kurds, most of them related to each other, and one grinning pirate in particular: the poster boy who graced all the photographic menus, pointing at plates of hummus, kebabs, falafel and rolled vine leaves, turning back to smile seductively at the camera. Handsome and stocky, his luscious black hair always pulled back in a pony tail, a permanent bandana topping his head. He would stand in the doorway, feet firmly apart, muscular arms crossed, or hands on hips, and hail half of the barrio as they passed. We had become almost-friends, after a few months of my living a couple of houses up. In that Eastern way he used to invite me to join him for a glass of mint tea and a chat when he had time. It had become a little ritual of ours, the smiling, the coy glances, the stilted conversation, calling each other ‘guapa’ and ‘guapo’ (gorgeous). His kurdish brothers also always greeted me warmly when I passed the cafe. There was a group of six or seven of us who had gone in to eat and after our four euro kebabs I remember the Ponce, who was in a foul mood for some reason, began to harangue one of the brothers.
‘When I ask for mayonnaise, I mean mayonnaise, not this horrible yellow stuff full of garlic. If I want garlic I’ll order it, I mean, I know this is Spain, but this stuff…. what is it? What is that? It’s not mayonnaise, is it? It’s not even ali-oli. Do you know how to make mayonnaise? You need eggs, right? Then you put…..’
‘Ah, here it comes.’ declared the Ponce, referring to the pasta rather than our waitress who was a rather thick-waisted and broad shouldered lady who spoke in a high soft voice that was obviously affected, and who had clearly not always been a lady. She had initially brought us both menus in English, and the Ponce had queried this decision and asked for them in Spanish. Which is a fair point when you get translations like ‘Hind of leg in roast oven‘, but she had stiffened at his request and smiled ingratiatingly with one of those smiles that suggested she was imagining us raped and abandoned by a highway. Then I had thought, mentally rubbing my hands together ‘Oh, this is going to be fun, the Ponce versus a tranny Filipino waitress with attitude.’ But in fact it wasn’t going to be fun, not at all. Not until hindsight made it hilarious.
‘Your pasta.’ she lisped, depositing a plate in the middle of the table between us. As a starter we were going to share a plate of penne with seafood. I looked at the plate, looked at the Ponce’s face, and started to wither inside. He pushed a fork into one slithery piece of pasta and bit into it, ordering me to,
‘Try it. Go on.’
I did. He was right. This was like a 70s macaroni cheese, overcooked and baked to within an inch of its life, making the texture viscous and slimey, like eating sections of snotty, chopped-up entrails.
‘That’s going back.’ he said, his fork falling with a determined ‘clink’ onto the table by his plate. ‘Unless you….’
‘No, no.’ I murmured, ‘you’re right, it’s gross. They obviously didn’t get the message on time. I don’t want it either.’
‘Excuse me. Excuse me!’ Our waitress appeared by the side of our table, her teeth clenched in a rictus smile.
‘Er, excuse me, I asked for this al dente and it isn’t. We can’t eat this, it’s really overcooked. Could you send it back please and ask them to make it al dente?’
‘Certainly, no problem.’ she replied, her tone suggesting that it very much was one.
‘By the way, this is how this pasta dish is served here. The pasta is pre-prepared.’
‘I can see that.’ replied my companion, ‘but could you ask them in the kitchen to do a portion al dente for us, please? I don’t want my pasta pre-prepared and microwaved to Hell, not when I’m paying for it.’
‘No problem, I’ll ask them to do it again. But you didn’t tell me when I took your order. Let me take that…’ She took the plate.
‘But I did ask the other waiter.’ pointed out the Ponce.
‘Yes.’ she replied, ‘but you didn’t ask me when you ordered it. He doesn’t speak much Spanish, he’s the busboy, not the waiter.’
‘I didn’t know that-‘
‘You should ask me. I’m your waitress. And you can ask me in English as well, because I understand you better in English.’ With that she turned and strode away, bearing the offending pasta dish before her.
‘Stroppy cow!’ said the Ponce, topping up our glasses again and lighting a cigarette. ‘Who does she think she is, talking to me like that?’
I think then he must have caught my frightened rabbit expression, and said,
‘Oh… yeah, hang on, you hate me right now, don’t you?’
‘No…’ I lied.
‘I know, I know, you’re English, and you hate this kind of thing, but sometimes you have to complain. And she should be more polite, I’m the customer. Would you have eaten it? Did you think that pasta dish was all right?’
I shook my head.
He was right. The problem is, just as in life, in her way and in her eyes she was also right and in my way I was right as well. Truth, opinion, conviction, putting aside absolute truth, all these things are mostly subjective. Sometimes I wish I only saw things my way rather than in some twisted cubist fashion, from every possible angle and then some. It would make things so much easier.
In the way some people go for a run, or carry out retail therapy to let off steam, the Ponce’s favourite way to release tension is to bait incompetent restaurant staff. Sometimes I wonder if he shouldn’t have trained as a restaurant critic rather than as a chef. I had to sit back and let him, today of all days; it was understandable that he would be a little tense. But I couldn’t help myself.
‘You know, I don’t understand why you ordered pasta if you know they’re not going to cook it right.’ I commented.
‘Because I fancy eating pasta today.’ he replied simply.
‘Yeah, but Italians never like Italian food outside Italy, so why bother ordering it? Why not order something they can cook here, you’re fighting a bit of a losing battle, aren’t you?’
‘It is a cookery school. I thought they might have half a clue.’
‘I think you just enjoy complaining.’
‘You should see me in restaurants in Italy.’
‘Well, at least they understand the concepts there, they know what you’re trying to say.’
He sighed morosely, and said,
‘All I want is a nice meal today. It’s not much to ask, is it? I am paying! I feel like a condemned man for God’s sake. Just one nice meal before tomorrow morning and they shove a bloody great tube up …. ah, here we go, what is it now, I wonder…..’
Priscilla was back, just behind his chair, standing with her hands clasped sternly before her like Torquemada about to pass sentence. They were large hands for a Filipino ‘lady’, veins running over the backs of them like rivulets of rain down a window pane.
‘There’s no pasta left.’ she announced, with evident satisfaction.
‘Sorry?’ The Ponce’s eyebrows rose quizzically, he hunched down in his chair and bared his teeth in an incredulous smile, a little bit like a dog or a fox does when cornered.
‘There’s no pasta.’
‘What, none at all?!’ He looked at me across the table and I rolled my eyes like a startled horse, partly in fear. This multi-cultural web of wind-ups was beginning to hurt my finely-tuned sensitivities now. A picky Italian chef in a black and dangerous mood, ordering Italian food that would never be good enough anyway in a Spanish restaurant, served by a Filipino transexual. And here I was, caught in the cross-fire, glaringly English in my deeply ingrained distaste for conflict and ‘causing a scene’, dreading the inevitable hissy fit. I knew the Ponce was already reigning himself in to accommodate me. Otherwise there’d have been feathers flying by now.
‘No. There’s none left.’ said our waitress, with a twitch of the mouth that could have been a smile.
‘I suggest you order another dish from the menu but not pasta. Anything else.’ Her face was like a stone, silent and unyielding, with rough, open pores.
Having worked as a waitress myself I already knew the strategic conversation she’d had in the kitchen, ending with the Filipino version of ‘- and tell table four to go fuck himself!’ from the chef. I have also seen enough ‘fly on the wall’ restaurant documentaries to know that we were probably lucky not to get the pasta, as after this performance it may well have come plus a garnish of secret snot, spit, floor fluff, well, you name it.
‘I see. So all the pasta has been pre-cooked to mush, every last bit of it. Is that because they are incapable of cooking it al dente in this kitchen? Too diffiicult for them? Did they miss that bit out in cookery school, then?’ asked the Ponce.
I slumped a little on my slippery bank seat, looking up to the open mouth of the lampshade. Please beam me up. I noticed the ceiling was painted black, a very unusual colour for a restaurant ceiling. Candles flickered around us, light glinted off glassware. Had we not been arguing like this, the atmopshere would, in fact, have been very congenial.
‘Listen,’ hissed our waitress, shoving the menu at him as if swotting a wasp off a windowsill, ‘That’s the way we serve the pasta dishes here. If I know that’s how it’s served here and if I don’t like it that way then I don’t order it. And if I want pasta al dente, a special way or something, I cook it the way I like it at home.’
As she spoke she was glancing from one of us to the other, knowing that she could appeal to me and receive a hypocritical cringe and a smile, while her eyes filled with cold fury as she observed the Ponce. I had the fleeting thought that perhaps she would have been less prickly had she known the Ponce was a gay brother, but then, how was she to know that? He was hardly your typical queen, more of a raver/punk/freak. For all she knew, I was his Sugar Mummy and he was some spoilt little straight rent boy, which may have enraged her even further. She had stood back a couple of paces and had one hand on her hip. The other, now empty of the menu, was beginning to turn on its wrist as she spoke. Any minute now she was about to wiggle her head from side to side and purse her lips, snapping her fingers in his face. Or tell him to talk to the hand. Her meticulously pencilled eyebrows were already arched and ready for battle.
‘Ok, I’ll order something else then, shall I? I mean, after all, I’m only paying for it. I’m a trained chef, you see, sorry, Love, I just like things to be done right. And that’s not right.’
As she sneered and swivelled to leave, the Ponce muttered after her retreating back,
‘Drop the attitude, uptight ladyboy….. If you can’t be civil with people as a waitress I think you’re working in the wrong place. Go and get yourself a job dancing on the bar at el Boite or Black and White. Or even better, get yourself down to casa de campo, I’m sure you could make a few bob there, and you don’t even have to smile. Rude bitch…
Despite or maybe because of my churning embarrassment I snorted with laughter. Black and White. A vision of Hell far scarier than any Bosch triptych. I had been there one night when the Contessa was visiting, with a mutual friend Carlitos, after downing various bottles of wine at home and dancing around the living room to Eartha Kitt. How we ended up there I don’t know, but we made our way down the glittery stairs and round the dance floor then through a thick curtain, following Carlitos, who navigated the place like a sniffer dog following a scent. I thought he was taking us into the dark room and held back, but he pulled me through the curtain after him. It was just the downstairs bar. We propped up the bar for a while, drinking and laughing, glancing around at the television screens showing sweaty pornography, until suddenly on the counter beside the Contessa’s elegant hand there appeared a dizzyingly high silver street-walker’s stilettoe, filled with a gnarled foot with bright crimson toenails. I will never forget the way the Contessa pulled away his hand as if from the jaws of a snapping dog, looking up fearfully at the apparition behind him which reared up from nowhere, reminding me of a slow motion version of the scene where the original Alien spreads its arms wide and is glimpsed for the first time. Venus emerging from the waves she was not. What followed the shoe and the foot was a figure as sinewy as a butcher’s dog, dressed in a bikini top and obscenely short and tight denim hotpants. As she gyrated above us I couldn’t help glancing at the boob job. Like two ill-matched grapefruits shoved underneath cling-film, the curved tops as defined as a clown’s eyebrows. And then beneath a mat of permed hair the shape was replicated in her arched, pencilled eyebrows, accentuating acne-speckled features so frozen by Botox they were about as expressive as a cupboard door. When reminded of this later, la Contessa admitted he had snatched his hand away so quickly and fearfully because he had been wearing his diamond ring, and apart from the fear of having his hand crushed by the approaching stiletto, it had also crossed his mind in a fleeting second, in a moment of panic, that an incoming drag queen might want to snatch and steal the diamond for herself.
We’re leaving.’ declared the Ponce.
‘Oh God, oh please don’t start shouting, I can’t stand it, this is so embarrassing…’
‘Who’s shouting?’ he replied, with a grin. ‘We are leaving, though. Let’s go and eat somewhere else. I’m not having any more of this. Excuse me!-‘
This time the bus boy reappeared; possibly our waitress was in a back room somewhere having a pep talk and a tooth guard fitted, her brow mopped with a towel, ready for round two. The Ponce mimed a scribbled bill and very quickly it appeared.
‘Drink up!’ he said cheerfully, indicating the half carafe of white wine which was to accompany our pasta, and the half carafe of red which was to go with our steaks which would now never appear. He glanced at the bill, and called the bus boy back.
‘Could you take the bread off this bill please? We didn’t have any bread. We didn’t order any and we didn’t eat it.’
Less than ten minutes later we walked unsteadily up the stairs, holding on to each other, the Ponce calling over his shoulder a cheery,
‘Hasta luego!’ at our waitress, who replied with a wordless glance as sour as mouldy yoghurt. I cringed and walked faster. It wasn’t possible to get out of the place fast enough. As we emerged into blinding sunlight, the Ponce threw back his shoulders, drew a deep breath and declared,
‘Do you know, that was just the ticket! I feel so much better than I did earlier. Let’s go and get something proper to eat, there’s the Gallego restaurant I went to with Tito round the corner. Great steaks. Well, we’ve had our ‘starter’, let’s go for the main, shall we? Incredible. I feel good as new. Just what the doctor ordered.’
He was a changed man. The black mood brought on by his imminent hospital visit had lifted and hunger had been replaced by the thrill of the chase and a sense of righteousness. I was glad he’d recharged his batteries, but in some vampiric way, that had only been possible by sucking me dry and leaving me weak with embarrassment at the public shame and inconvenience caused. It had also involved frightening a semi-literate busboy to death, and igniting the wrath of our transsexual waitress.
‘This,’ I thought, ‘this is the Brave New World we have created. Welcome to multi-culturalism’. And it was only then that I started laughing, on the way to the Gallego.