I’M holding the menu in my hands. It’s worn and wine-stained and smells like a library book. At the top is the date in smudged, watery ink; leaky edges fading, numbers clinging, losing their grip.
I didn’t notice you at first. Lost in the labyrinth of those rooms, I stood spellbound. Colours like toast and honey, walls dripping with stories and scenes, oozing memories of lovers and friends, husbands and wives, celebrations, devastations. Under my feet, a maze of mosaic with paths worn bare by the hordes who’d been before. Large windows veiled the frost outside, opaque in a screen of steam; firelight flicking shadows on whitewash. Amid the chaos and clatter of cutlery, elbow room was for a lucky few. The food sucked at my senses, held my gaze hostage from one plate to the next: enormous mounds of snails, swollen and shimmering, glittered with garlic; stacks of fried frogs whose legs had leapt their last. Langoustine and foie gras; rabbit braised with truffle — this was the place of my dreams.
I drank too much, talked too much, didn’t notice you at first. My eyes followed an iron pot bubbling with coqau-vin, and in a corner of the kaleidoscope you appeared: a lone, flinty-grey flicker in my untarnished golden globe. And I wondered, even then, how you could ever hope to eat it all. I talked, drank, got back to my lunch. But you stayed on my mind, a tiny black ant tickling my skin, punctuating my thoughts with sharp, selfish nips.
I judged you to be as old as my father — maybe 60, no more than 65, but with years etched hard, a concertina of creases, graphs of laughter and regret. Eyes sunken and sallow, skin yellowed, not gold like the room but more green, almost grey, and mottled, like a tired old grapefruit. Your deformed ear, buckled and bruised, held my morbid fascination. I looked away, slightly ruffled, substantially repulsed.
The whole roast duck made me think there’d been a mistake. But you took it, and thanked her, never raising your gaze. Her smile was sympathetic. Olives like sage salt barrels strewn over a tanned duck crust, the flesh underneath leaking oily nectar on to the plate. I watched as you took a forkful to your mouth, eyes closed, not a movement too many.
Afillet of sole buried in beurre blanc, set down as she studied your table: six plates, each piled high, barely touched. Her question wasn’t spoken, but you answered it without affect. ‘‘It’s perfect,’’ you whispered, your voice husky and dry.
I watched you then, lost track of conversation, abandoned my excitement. I watched your movements, slow and deliberate; your expression sober; pulling me out of my sanctuary, back to the reality of a cold, grey day. I saw the bloated bumps, the bruises branding your arm like spilled purple paint; skin sores and scars, a topography of tor- ment. You sipped at your water; you had no wine. I should have poured you some of mine, but instead I stared, tracing your dents and disfigurements, wondering how you’d come here, and where were the people who loved you?
To me you were old, and so different to me: your sombre resignation; the pathetic scene of a last lonely lunch.
It’s been 20 years since I scrawled that date, and it’s only now I realise: your lunch at Allard was no different to mine. We were wringing the last drop from that magical place, possessed by the fear of not seeing it again. I close the menu, bump it back to its dusty, derelict coffer. Still the numbers cling. This is an edited extract from Dining Alone: Stories from the Table for One, edited by Barbara Santich (Wakefield Press, $24.95).