January 2014

  • Patrick Allington

I recently ate lunch at Halo, a hip place in the big-time city where I live when I’m not travelling. I disapprove of Halo.

The chef is a man-about-town with permanent one-centimetre stubble and a $700 haircut. He writes a cliché-fattened blog called ‘Meat is Murda’. He stakes out farms and sets pigs free, accompanied by a camera crew.

But last week my neighbour, dear Mrs B, asked me to take her to Halo.

‘My grandson is one of those people,’ she said, ‘so I suppose I should see what it’s all about’.

‘Those people?’

‘A vegetarian. That’s the expression, isn’t it?’

I’ve been a virtuous neighbour to Mrs B since Mr B (who I may or may not have secretly met twice a week for what he liked to call cooking lessons) collapsed and died while eating a saveloy nestled in white bread. Mrs B still agonises over that saveloy.

‘Do you think I cooked it long enough, dear?’ she often asks me.

For the record — I was there, I saw the whole thing — she boiled it for 20 minutes, long after the casing blistered. How many weeks or months it had been in the fridge beforehand, I cannot say.

I agreed to Mrs B’s request to eat at Halo because for years I’ve dragged her to restaurants all over the city, and various other cities too, despite her bung hip. And because she accepts with good grace my public recounting of our culinary adventures. Her tastes reside resolutely in the bland, the safe. As I wrote in one recent column, Mrs B chose the Calzone Rustico because the waiter agreed that it was an almost exact replica of a meat pie. When the Calzone came she cut it down the middle. ‘That’s how My Husband always ate a pie.’ But her surgery exposed a mass of anchovies, delicate things that, it seemed to Mrs B, writhed about like worms. With forbearance, she ate one fifth before declaring herself full, although she managed a banana nut sundae for dessert.

I pay little heed to restaurant décor, and here is why: arriving at Halo, Mrs B was heartened by the starched tablecloths, the gleaming silverware and the impeccablygroomed young man in the bow-tie who took her coat and then escorted her, at a pace her hip rejoiced in, to a window table. I tagged along, sniffing the peppermint air suspiciously.

My name is Martin. I’m honoured to serve you today. Would you ladies care for a prelunch drink?’

‘Martin: what a lovely name,’ Mrs B said.

‘Tell me, are Fluffy Ducks banned here?’ I asked.

Martin laughed for far too long.

I held up my water glass. ‘Have you checked this for amoeba?’

He avoided baring his teeth. I gave him 7.5 out of 10 for professionalism (he lost 2.5 marks for his clip-on bow-tie).

‘Tell me, dear,’ Mrs B said, ‘are you one of those men?’

Martin didn’t even blink. ‘I’ll be back to take your order shortly, ladies.’

Half of Halo’s menu was pretentious understatement: Basic Tomato Pizza, Rustic Quiche, Ye Oldieworldie Vegetable Soup. The other half was mock meat: Imitation Spaghetti Bolognese, Potato Garlic Snails and worse. The fact that soybeans can be made to resemble beef or pork or lobster — or the surface of Mars — is no reason to actually do it. Geneticists don’t create apple trees that bear rotten fruit just because they can.

Martin returned, wearing a worried look. Clearly, somebody had recognised me.

Buck up,’ I said. ‘How bad can it be.’

‘You tell me,’ Martin said.

I warmed to him. Almost.

‘What’s on the Basic Tomato Pizza?’ Mrs B asked.

‘Rare-grade tomatoes, single-site olive oil, sea salt, shards of freeze-dried basil —’

‘Basil? Oh dear.’

‘I could ask chef to go easy on the basil.’

Mrs B nodded. ‘You’re much politer than my Tarquin.’

‘And for you?’ Martin asked me.

‘Do you recommend the De-Boned Mock Quail filled with Forcemeat?

‘Well, it is chef’s signature dish … but perhaps you would be more at ease with the Collage of Vegetable Pâtés.’

‘Forcemeat?’ Mrs B said. ‘That sounds dangerous.’

‘He means it’s stuffed. I cannot resist, Martin: bring me falsity wrapped up in falsity.’

The pizza, when it finally came, was edible. The tomatoes hinted at vine-ripening. The base was doughy but not disastrous. The olive oil was not quite tainted. As Martin had promised, basil was near-absent, which was a pity. When I took a bite (the rule is that I pay and Mrs B shares) I detected crushed capers. Martin denied it, which was odd because it was the only thing that gave the dish life.

The not-quail arrived even later than the pizza. Martin had obviously been out notcatching- it-and-killing it. Its shape was loosely birdlike but the ‘skin’ had peeled back, revealing coffee-coloured flesh that quivered in the white light. I glanced it with my fork and forcemeat paste vomited free. I took a bite. The outer ‘flesh’ slipped down my throat like the custard that it was. I chewed and chewed the forcemeat. What choice did I have?

‘Nobody speak,’ I commanded the whole restaurant. Because I’ve been on the telly, everybody obeyed. I chewed into the silence, identifying breadcrumbs, onion, apple and over-tasted pecans but struggling to identify various other ingredients.

Mrs B broke my concentration. Hunched over the soggy remnants of her pizza, clutching a glass of lipsticked Sauvignon Blanc, she began to weep.

‘We had such high hopes for him.’


‘Tarquin. … And to think, he’s so tall. What a waste.’

Martin arrived to comfort Mrs B. As they hugged, a chunk of forcemeat broke free from the roof of my mouth. I swallowed it and let out a low moan … and then pushed my plate away a little too forcefully. It shattered on the floor. The mock quail spread out like an inkblot.

Martin summoned the chef, who arrived dressed like an angel, a fluffy cloud atop his head.

‘Is everything satisfactory?’ the chef asked in his surgically implanted Californian- Parisian accent. He wiggled his hips for emphasis.

Perfectly,’ I replied. ‘I apologise for damaging your plate.’

‘It’s not an heirloom. But surely you will need a replacement quail?’

‘Definitely not. But would you tell me your forcemeat recipe?’

‘I must decline. Professional confidentiality. But can I offer you and your lovely companion complementary glasses of port?’

‘I must regretfully decline. I pay my way.’

‘But of course,’ he said, bowing and retreating. Coward.

‘Martin,’ I said, ‘please bring me a tall glass of your crispest lager. And a cheese platter.’

The poor lad sprinted to the kitchen and back. I drank the beer in two easy gulps and demanded another.

‘Get some food into your tummy, dear,’ Mrs B said.

I cut a thick piece of cheddar, cadged a bread roll from an adjacent table in exchange for my autograph, and shoved the cheese inside the roll. Mrs B reached out towards my arm.

‘Stop,’ she said. ‘You forgot butter.’

I bit down hard. I’ve never seen Mrs B look so sad.


This is a short fiction piece by Patrick Allington.




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