Eating Alone

Francis Wyndham

Sometimes, when I am alone in the evenings and feel like giving myself a treat, I go to a little restaurant round the corner called the Star of Bombay. An old newspaper cutting is displayed in its window containing a guarded recommendation by Fay Maschler, but in spite of this the place is nearly always empty. Occasionally a transient figure may appear, swiftly and rather furtively, to carry off a take-away ordered earlier by telephone. Two young Indian waiters in dinner jackets hover apprehensively at the back of the room, while behind and above them, seated on a raised platform, a somewhat older Indian lady regally presides. To an impressionable customer, she can suggest both the motherly authority of Indira Gandhi and the unbridled licence of erotic Hindu art.

The walls are lined by banquettes to accommodate ten tables for four; one further table, seating only two, has been placed near the centre. Its exposed situation gives it a rickety appearance, and when I am invariably and firmly escorted to it by a waiter I often mutinously wonder why I cannot sit, in solitary splendour, at one of the vacant larger tables – but the feeling of awe inspired in me by the lady has hitherto prevented me from voicing the request. I order Vegetable Biryani and a salted Lassi; two Papadams are provided whether I ask for them or not. This meal costs exactly four pounds, to which a service supplement of forty pence is added on the bill.

Once I made the mistake of bringing a book with me, to help pass the time between the ordering of the food and its arrival, which can be as long as twenty minutes. It was Anita Brookner’s novel Look at me. The sight of a man sitting on his own and reading a book must have struck the lady as in some way peculiar and worthy of investigation, for she descended from her dais and gracefully approached the little table. ‘I see you are very, very deep in that book,’ she said, giggling gently. ‘I expect it must be a very nice book. I am very interested in books myself, you see. Let me see what it is called!’ She took it from my grasp and inspected it closely. ‘Look at me! I think that is a very funny title. I expect it is a very funny book. And I expect you are very fond of reading.’ She returned it to me and, chuckling to herself, went back to her seat.

For some time after this, as soon as I entered the Star of Bombay, the lady would come down from her vantage-point into the well of the room to greet me. ‘Ah, here is the nice man who is so fond of reading! How are you getting on with Look at me? Have you finished it yet? Does it have a happy ending? Why did you not bring a book with you tonight?’ I had almost decided to try and find an alternative restaurant (though I knew there could not be another so near and so good and so cheap) when she at last lost interest in my reading habits and left me alone. I too must have forgotten the incident, for one night, obeying an impulse to dine at the Star of Bombay, I thoughtlessly snatched up a paperback before setting out. As I neared the dimly-lit façade, with the inviting credit-card symbols surrounding the ragged and by now illegible newspaper cutting in the window, I suddenly remembered that my book was a novel by Anne Tyler called Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

The lady must never see this. I managed to conceal it under my coat until, while settling myself at the table, I slipped it onto the chair and sat down on top of it. An uneasy sense of subterfuge must have made me more than normally clumsy, for as I executed this manoeuvre I also knocked over the slender glass vase which stood beside an ashtray on the paper tablecloth. It rolled to the edge, spilling a little water as it did so, then fell to the floor, decapitating the single tulip that it had nurtured but suffering no injury itself. This minor accident might have passed unnoticed in a busy restaurant; at the Star of Bombay, it caused a commotion. The waiters fussed about my table, solemn and solicitous; the lady paid me a brief visit, to convey a message of concern, amusement and forgiveness. I squirmed in my seat, inadvertently ruffling the pages of the clandestine paperback beneath me.

Having given my regular order, I prepared to sit out the waiting period in an enjoyable reverie. But the street door opened, and two men made a noisy and dramatic entrance. The elder was over sixty, unusually large, with thick white hair and a round, clean-shaven face. His companion was about ten years younger and almost as powerfully built, with a bald head and a dark beard. Their massive physiques were augmented by their bulky clothing: I had a confused impression of woollen shirts, knitted ties, tweed jackets, flannel and corduroy trousers, cardigans, pullovers, sweaters, parkas, anoraks, mufflers and capacious fur-trimmed overcoats.

The elder man stood for a while by the door surveying the room and raising his hands in a kind of blessing. ‘Perfect. Lovely. Yes. Exactly right. Brilliant idea.’ One of the waiters gingerly approached him. ‘A very good evening to you, sir,’ said the white-haired man. ‘Could you possibly oblige us with a table for two? You can? Oh, how lovely. Most courteous of you. My friend and I are exceedingly beholden to you. This evening, you see, is in the nature of a special occasion ... Most kind. No, if it’s all the same to you, sir, I think we might find ourselves more comfortable at this one.’ To my horror, he had picked the table nearest to mine.

The process of partially undressing and then deliberately installing themselves at this table took a very long time; while it was going on, the younger man repeated my own mishap, and upset the vase and the tulip at his elbow. ‘I hate people who never knock things over,’ boomed his companion. ‘Can’t abide ’em. They’re so boring. I can’t stand boredom, never could. Life’s too short.’ The waiter retrieved the vase from the floor and replaced it, with its battered flower, on the table. ‘Oh, I say, sir, that’s uncommonly civil of you. Now, sir, if you’d be so good as to give us a little time to ponder the bill of fare, we’ll be ready to place our orders in a minute or two. But hold hard – drink. Manfred, what say you?’

‘Oh, lager’s favourite with me when I’m eating Indian,’ said his friend.

‘Then lager it shall be. Two lagers, please, my dear fellow.’

‘Two pints of lager,’ confirmed the waiter.

‘No, no ... half-pints, half-pints. There’s something rather crude about a pint glass, don’t you find?’ He looked vaguely round the room, as if expecting applause, and then his gaze confronted mine. ‘Pray tell me, sir, will you be requiring your ashtray? No? Sensible man – wish I had your strength of mind. That’s really very handsome of you,’ he went on, accepting it from my hands, ‘very handsome of you indeed.’

The white-haired man ceremoniously positioned the ashtray beside him and then leant across and gave Manfred an affectionate pinch on his bearded cheek. ‘I say, my dear fellow, this is a lovely reunion. Queer, isn’t it, the way a bundle of banknotes can make all the difference to an occasion?’

‘You’re looking much fitter than last time,’ said Manfred. ‘I scarcely knew you. Lost a lot of weight.’

‘I don’t eat, you see. That’s the secret of losing weight. Well, I eat – but not like I used to do once upon a time.’

‘I really mean it. You look years younger.’

The waiter brought their drinks, and they turned to study the menu. The older man now assumed a joke Indian accent, of the kind popularised by Peter Sellers in the early 1960s. ‘Well I never, they have Bangladeshi Fruit Salad, that is very nice indeed.’ In his normal voice, he continued: ‘Right – well, we will most certainly sample your King Prawn Curry, for a start.’

‘As a starter, sir?’

‘No, no, not as a starter – for a start.’

‘How many, sir?’

‘Two. And I seem to remember finding the Rogan Josh rather tasty, so bring us two of that as well, if you would. Now, Manfred, dear fellow, what’s the word on Meat Dopiaza?’

‘Or perhaps Meat Korma Shah,’ mused Manfred.

‘I’m with you. We’ll have two Dopiazas and two Korma Shahs. Oh, and we’ll be wanting some Nan and Chapatis ... ’

‘How many, sir?’

‘Let’s say, four Nan and six Chapatis. Then we needn’t bother you again by asking for more. And that runny stuff – Raita – two go’s of that, if you please. And what would an Indian meal be without my old friend Bhindi Bhaji?’

‘Any rice, sir?’

‘By all means. Two lots of Pilau Rice. Don’t go away just yet, my dear fellow ... I also want you to bring us some Sag Bhaji. Got that? Two Bhindi Bhajis and two Sag Bhajis. Plus a double portion of Vegetable Biryani – must have a vegetable dish or we might get scurvy! And now, would you say that that was enough for us? Remember, this is a celebration.’

I expected the waiter to tell him that they had ordered much too much, but he kept silent. In a low voice, Manfred said: ‘Tikka.’

‘Chicken? My dear fellow, of course.’

‘Chicken Tikka,’ said the waiter. ‘How many?’

‘Two. Two. Beautiful. I’m mightily in your debt, sir. My compliments to the chef, and tell him that’s all we need – short of a phone call from your wife, eh, Manfred?’ The white-haired man let out a roar of laughter.

It was impossible for me not to hear his monologue after this, but I did my best, by an effort of concentration, to avoid understanding its import. Nonetheless, a few phrases penetrated every defence and lodged in my consciousness. ‘And the next thing I knew, there were torches shining in my eyes – nasty sensation, torchlight in your eyes. I don’t recommend it – hadn’t the foggiest notion where I was – middle of the night, but I didn’t seem to be at home in bed – there were three of them – policemen, you see, that’s what they were – are you squatting here or what, one of them wanted to know – I said, my good sir, you’ll kindly watch your language when you’re addressing me – didn’t seem to mind – oh, they were all very good to me – I think what they thought was, we’re all in the same boat really, it’s just that he’s gone one way and we’ve gone another – yes, I think that’s what they must have felt.’

At about this point, one of the waiters brought my Vegetable Biryani and salted Lassi while the other produced two enormous helpings of Chicken Tikka for my neighbours.

‘How good of you, sir. Most kind. Oh, this looks lovely. I must say, I haven’t the foggiest recollection of ordering it, but no matter.’

Manfred muttered something.

‘Of course – it was your bright idea. Brilliant. I say, this is a lovely reunion.’

‘I didn’t realise it was going to be such a lot,’ said Manfred.

The lady herself now came to their table, bearing two outsize dishes piled high with some steaming substance which I could not identify. The talkative man fell silent at the sight of them; he began to look a little worried. I knew that I would never be able to bear the embarrassment of witnessing his embarrassment when the rest of their gargantuan dinner arrived. I asked for my bill, and gobbled as much of my food as I could swallow until it came. I did not have the exact sum so I placed a five-pound note on the saucer (leaving a princely gratuity of sixty pence) and made my escape – just in time, for as I reached the exit I was aware of a procession of curries approaching the table of Manfred and his friend.

Hurrying home, I was almost at the corner of the street where I lived when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, to find one of the waiters from the Star of Bombay behind me. ‘Excuse me, sir, but I think you forgot something,’ he said, handing me Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.