Monday, 21 February 2011

The British Restaurant

Jennospot 16  The British Restaurant

Durin' the war, we 'ad ter put up wiv a lot o' fings wot weren't too good. One of 'em was the British Restaurant. Anovver one o' course were moi friend Peter St John, but Oi couldn't do much about 'im: still Oi did troi. Any'ow we 'ad one of these famous British Restaurants in town near us, an' one day Peter's lodger from the Women's Land Army, took 'im there ‘cos 'is 'oly aunt ‘ad said as ‘ow it were a good place ter eat. This is wot Peter wrote about it in "Gang Spies" wot 'ee's just finished:

‘I've never been to a restaurant,’ I said to Megan. In my imagination, I conjured up the images I'd seen in films where smartly-dressed people sit at elegant tables in a luxurious room. How grand to eat a delicious meal in such refined surroundings. Dinner time couldn't come too soon for me, but it seemed to take ages before we set off for the restaurant.
Megan parked the hearse in a dingy back street.
‘Are we going to walk the rest of the way?’ I asked.
‘I don't think it's far. Your aunt told me it was near here.’
Megan led me through a gateway into a scruffy yard. A row of smelly rubbish bins stood against the wall near a door. Opposite the door was a queue of people. We joined them.
‘What's this?’ I asked, surprised.
‘It's the queue for the restaurant,’ replied Megan. ‘Your aunt warned me we might have to stand in line.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘It's early yet, but we shouldn't have to wait long.’
I hadn't expected to have to wait at the entrance. The image in my head included a man dressed in bow tie and tails, who opened the door to us, bowed low, and led us to a table.
‘The British Restaurant must be very popular,’ I said.
‘Not many restaurants are still open, because of the war,’ replied Megan. ‘Food is rationed.’
The door opened. The queue moved slowly forward. We found ourselves in a draughty corridor along which we shuffled until we were standing before a plain wooden table. Megan handed over some money. In exchange, we each received a round coloured token. At an adjacent table we took a brown bakelite tray, a plate, and a knife and fork. The plate was wet.
We moved with the queue into a large echoing space like a gymnasium. Long tables, with benches on either side stretched the length of the hall. They were covered with grimy oilcloths. I wrinkled my nose. The place stank of boiled cabbage.
We arrived at a counter, where steam writhed out of large containers to lose itself among the girders of the ceiling. We handed over our tokens. A piece of greasy meat was plonked on my plate, followed by a dollop of mashed potatoes and a ladle-full of squishy cabbage.
‘Gravy, Ducky?’ asked the woman behind the counter.
I nodded, and my meat received a ladleful of gravy. Gobs of grey stuff floated in it.
‘D'you want water Love?’ asked a large, pink-cheeked lady.
‘Yes please,’ I said.
She placed a smeary glass of water on my tray.
‘Follow me,’ said Megan. ‘We'll find a place. There's plenty of room at the moment.’
We sat side by side at one of the long tables. I stared, head down at the grotty oil-cloth. Several nauseous stains stared sickeningly back. I eyed my repulsive, grey, greasy meat in its nest of meagre, mushy vegetables. I smelled the foetid cabbage. My eyes filled with tears.
‘What the matter, Peter?’ asked Megan. ‘You're not eating.’
I took the fork and prodded the meat. The fork had something disgusting encrusted between the tines. I retched. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
Megan put an arm over my shoulders. I looked up at her.
‘Sorry Megan, I'm not hungry. You eat. I'll wait till you've finished.’
‘I'm not hungry either,’ she said. ‘Let's get out of here.’
She led me to the door. The air outside smelled sweet. I drew in deep breaths of it.
‘Feeling better now?’ asked Megan.
‘Much better,’ I said.
She took out her purse and looked into it.
‘Sufficiently better for a lemonade?’
‘Oh, yes please.’
‘And a bun?’
I gave Megan a hug.
‘Your appetite's coming back, I think.’
My eyes filled with tears again, but this time I felt quite different.
‘You might even be able to find room for a cream cake.’
‘Yes please, Megan.’
‘Let's see if we can find a café.’

("Gang Spies" Chapter 19)

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