Fine Wine

Stefan Mohamed: Reservation

Stefan Mohamed is an author, performing poet and freelance editor.

He graduated from Kingston University in 2010 with a first-class degree in creative writing, and later that year won the inaugural Sony Reader Award (part of the Dylan Thomas Prize) for his debut novel Bitter Sixteen, which was also a Times Book of the Week.

Bitter Sixteen and its two sequels Ace of Spiders and Stanly’s Ghost were published by Salt Publishing between 2015 and 2017, with standalone novel Falling Leaves following in 2018. Stefan’s new poetry pamphlet The Marketplace of Ideas was published in 2021 by Stewed Rhubarb.

He was hailed by the Guardian in 2018 as one of the Fresh Voices: 50 writers you should read now.

Stefan won this year’s Sansom Award, which runs alongside of the main Bristol Short Story Prize, for Bristol-based writers with his story, Reservation.

 

Reservation, by Stefan Mohamed

The text finally arrived.

It had been six months since he’d first heard about the restaurant. Five months since he’d found out its name. Three and a half months since he’d found the phone number and sent his details in order to join the queue.

And now, at last, he had his reservation. Tonight. 8pm. The implication was very much take it or leave it.

He spent three hours deciding what to wear. He wanted to dress well, even though he was dining alone.

He always dined alone.

He always dressed well.

He walked, leaving plenty of time so he could take it slow. He didn’t want to sweat through his good shirt. He still didn’t feel comfortable taking a taxi or public transport.

He hadn’t been able to find out any more information about the place. Donum, it was called. It had no web presence, presumably because it had been operating illegally, flouting lockdown regulations. The only reason he’d even found out about it was because of his connections. Quite a network, the lone diners. Anything quirky, strange, off the beaten track, they were there, although everybody who had managed to wangle a reservation to this place had been frustratingly vague about their own experiences. Nobody would even tell him what sort of menu it was.

All they would say was that he had to go.

None of this was normal.

It was very exciting.

The place wasn’t on Google Maps. He received a second text at 7pm – directions, and a curt instruction to memorise them. He was glad he had a near-photographic memory, because the text deleted itself after five minutes. He hadn’t even known such a thing was possible.

If the whole thing was a practical joke, it was an extremely elaborate one.

As night crawled in above, he navigated the labyrinth of back alleys, visualising the map in his head. Once or twice he panicked, thinking he had misremembered the route, but finally he found a black door with Donum printed on it in neat, unobtrusive silver lettering. He knocked.

The young woman who answered was tall and well dressed, full penguin suit, transparent plastic mask over her face. He fumbled in his pocket for his own mask. A year and a half of this nonsense and he still wasn’t used to wearing the damn thing.

‘Good evening,’ said the waitress. She had the least accent he had ever heard. Totally neutral, as though she’d been taught to speak by an algorithm. She could have been from literally anywhere.

He smiled nervously and said hello.

The waitress turned and walked inside, and he followed. Down a candlelit corridor, up some candlelit stairs, through two sets of doors and into a large, windowless room. There was very little in the way of decoration. More candles. A few pictures that were so bland and generic he seemed to forget them during the act of looking.

There was only one table, with one place set, along with a jug of water and a tall glass.

He sat.

‘Welcome to Donum,’ said the waitress. ‘Your starter will be ready soon. I will bring your drink.’

His instinct, of course, was to query this. He hadn’t ordered anything. But he’d had enough time to anticipate this reservation that he knew to stay quiet and go with it.

A secret restaurant you booked months in advance, with a single table and no other diners?

Of course you wouldn’t order your own food. What nonsense. How gauche. How plebeian!

He thanked the waitress, she nodded and left, and he poured himself a glass of water. It was startlingly cold and fresh. Perfectly pure, almost bracing. As though the jug was a portal to the earth itself. He felt as though he had never drunk water like it.

This boded well.

A few minutes later, the waitress brought a silver tray bearing a single glass of red wine. What luck. Red wine would have been his first choice. He took it, making a point of sniffing admiringly. He knew a little about wine, though not as much as he liked to let on, but much of the fun of being a lone diner derived from playing the part.

The waitress looked neither impressed nor unimpressed. She just nodded and left.

He sipped the wine. It was delicious. Rich. Was that cherry and chocolate he could taste in there? He was trying to train himself to detect notes.

He sat and looked around the room. He wished there was more to look at. He didn’t write restaurant reviews, but if he did, he would have listed this as a negative. Especially for a solo diner. Usually he liked to observe his fellow diners, listen in on conversations while making it look like he wasn’t. He never took out his phone in a restaurant. He liked to just sit and breathe in the ambience. And there was so little to breathe in here. It wasn’t even unpleasant, it was just… non.

His mouth was starting to get used to the wine now, and it suddenly occurred to him that it tasted familiar.

Yes, he was pretty sure it did.

And that thought… about the phone…

He felt the firing of some distant connection, synapses sparking as they tried to reach one another, and frowned into his wine, thinking. The candlelight cast soft shadows on the walls, a relaxing flicker. The rhythm helped him to think.

Everyone’s too terrified of being alone. They have to take their phones out.

He felt a lump in his throat and his hand shook a little, causing a few drops of wine to escape the glass and stain the immaculate white tablecloth.

They have to take their phones out.

She had said that. On their second date. She had come back from the toilet, seen him nervously looking at his phone. Gently mocked him. Pointed to other people waiting for their own dates to return from the toilet or the bar, frantically texting and scrolling, just to have something, anything to do.

Everyone’s too terrified of being alone.

How long had it been since he had thought of her?

He took a sip of wine, hoping it would steady him, but of course now he knew where he had tasted it before. And as much as the taste, maybe more than the taste, he remembered the sound of his own stupid thoughts. Wow, that’s good! At that point in his dining life, the most he could have claimed to know about wine was that there was cheap plonk, and posh stuff.

And that… this… was posh stuff.

He could hear his stupid voice as well. Wow, that’s good!

And her smiling and saying I know, with that cheeky flash in her eyes. That mischievous tap of the tongue on her lower lip.

He had to put his glass down. Which was stupid. It wasn’t as though it had been a particularly seismic moment in the relationship. It was, what? Second date? He thought this casually, as though trying to fool someone, which was also stupid. Who was there to fool? Why was he trying to put on a brave face inside his own head?

And of course it was the second date. It was the second date, and the first time that he had considered saying I love you. Though of course, he hadn’t actually said it. He had known enough to keep quiet. He hadn’t wanted to scare her away. And saying I love you on the second date… well. It was freak behaviour, wasn’t it?

But he’d thought it. Somewhere between the first and last sip of that wine, he had thought it.

And-

‘Is the wine to your satisfaction?’

He jumped. He hadn’t even heard the waitress come back. She was like a fucking ghost. He smiled and said that everything was fine.

‘Excellent. Your starter will be with you soon.’

He picked up his glass again. Part of him wanted to down it, wash away this unfortunate coincidence, drown the bitter memory of that date and everything that had come after, but he steeled himself. He had waited months for this evening. He wasn’t going to let himself sabotage it.

Focus on the wine. Focus on the fact that it was delicious, and that he was happy to be drinking it, not what it happened to remind him of.

She was gone, and that was all there was to it.

He made himself smile. Took another sip.

Damn, it was good wine.

He had enjoyed plenty of solitude over the past year, and plenty of good wine, so sitting here drinking good wine alone wasn’t on the face of it such a novelty. But it was different, because he was out. He was out in the world. He was doing something he liked, somewhere new.

He finished his glass and smiled as he heard the waitress approaching. He asked if he could have some more.

‘Of course, I’ll bring the bottle.’

He opened his mouth to thank her, but before he could, she placed a small dish on the table in front of him.

The words died in his throat.

He frowned at the plate.

He frowned at her.

He asked her what was going on.

‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ she said, with an entirely meaningless smile. ‘It’s your starter.’

He didn’t know what to say.

‘I’ll get your wine.’ She drifted away again.

He looked down at the starter. Small curls of well done steak, arranged on a dollop of creamy mashed potato and garnished with herbs.

His memory didn’t need any jogging. He could see this, in his mind’s eye. He could already taste it before he put it in his mouth.

Angrily, he speared a piece of the meat and placed it in his mouth. He let it rest against his tongue before chewing.

Damn it. Damn it. First the wine, now this? He’d eaten this before! This exact starter. The work Christmas do, two years ago. Lunch, then drinks that turned rapidly awkward, then even more rapidly horrifying.

Then the next day, those fatal words that no employee ever wants to hear from their boss. Can I have a word.

He ate some more of the starter. It was the same. He remembered eating it, remembered marvelling at how good it was, the only person at a table full of philistines who had any appreciation of decent food. The others had politely agreed – at least, those who weren’t too busy chatting to notice him speaking.

He remembered thinking what’s wrong with you? The cut of meat, the balance of flavours. It was perfect.

And it was perfect again tonight.

The waitress returned and placed the bottle of wine on the table. ‘Here you are.’

He asked who the chef was. The waitress said that they didn’t give out the personal details of staff members. He asked if the chef had ever worked at The Spring Lamb. The waitress said she didn’t know. She asked if there was a problem with the starter.

He didn’t know what to say. What could he say? There wasn’t a problem, really, was there? It was immaculate. It just so happened to remind him of an extremely shitty experience.

So he said no, and thank you, and the waitress left.

Frowning, he poured himself some more wine. Was it a coincidence? First the wine, and now this? He supposed it could be. It had to be.

Unless… maybe it was some sort of gimmick? You booked a place, then they looked at your social media, at the accounts of everyone you knew. Retraced your culinary steps, found places you’d eaten at before. Everywhere immediately logged you in when you arrived these days, didn’t they, whether you wanted them to or not? You entered a restaurant, your phone silently, traitorously buzzed, and your dietary preferences were immortalised on some server at GCHQ.

Clearly this restaurant had found a way to access that data.

He’d had a Facebook account when he went on that second date. He’d had it when he went for that work Christmas lunch. That’s what had happened. They’d stolen his data so they could prepare his meal.

He had been feeling angry, but suddenly he found himself chuckling. It was a hell of a gimmick, if he was right. Such extensive and complicated research, so much preparation. No wonder it took so long to get a table. Presumably they had to contact the other venues to find out what you had eaten and how it was cooked, if that was even possible. Were there records of stuff like that?

There had to be. He wasn’t the type to upload pictures of his meals, or his wine.

He shook his head. The how didn’t matter, ultimately. It was a gimmick. Dodgy, possibly illegal, arguably immoral. But new. And that was what he craved.

He ate the rest of the starter, relishing the opportunity to enjoy it again. It wasn’t as though he would ever go back to The Spring Lamb. Too expensive, for a start.

And too awkward, considering how everything turned out.

This was like a second chance, in a way. He could enjoy it, but without the associations of the physical space.

In a way, it was as though he had won.

He finished the starter, savouring the last mouthful, then sat back and poured some more wine. What a strange sensation! The satisfaction of the food, the thrill of the taste, the sting of the memories. If only they’d known what a hornet’s nest they would stir up in his brain when they put this menu together.

If his crazy theory was true, that was.

God the wine was good. He drank another glass a little bit too quickly, and poured some more water to compensate. At least water was just water.

Presently the waitress returned, and he apologised for being rude before. It had simply caught him by surprise, the familiar food. But he understood now, he told her, with a conspiratorial wink. The waitress smiled her non-committal smile again, took his plate and said that his main course would be with him soon.

He thanked her and drank more wine. He couldn’t wait to see what the main course was. He was starting to see why nobody wanted to divulge any details about this place. Would have completely ruined the fun if he’d known the punchline going in.

He couldn’t help but wish he knew how it all worked, though. Surely the place couldn’t possibly make any money, operating like this? One table? So much research and admin to do for each diner…

Maybe it was some mad, rich culinary hobbyist with nothing to do. A Heston Blumenthal for the Instagram generation.

A sneaky part of him wondered about writing an actual review for a change. The Guardian would eat this up, no pun intended, he smirked to himself. That Heston Blumenthal line was quite good as well.

He chuckled, and hiccuped.

He felt a little tipsy.

What an evening.

A little while later, the waitress reappeared. She swapped his cutlery around, told him that the main course was imminent and teleported away, the way she did. He was on fire with curiosity by now. He felt giddy. This was what he had been missing for the last year. Spontaneity, excitement! Feeling special.

Honestly, that had been the worst thing. For the last year, he’d felt just like every other miserable fucker. Cooped up inside, pathetic and scared and useless.

Not that he hadn’t often felt that way, even before all this horror kicked off. But with full access to the world, it was far easier to forget about it.

He smiled and sipped some more wine. Now he was back. Back in the world. And who cared about a few bitter memories? Ultimately, that job had been crap and he’d hated everyone there.

And she… well. Of course he missed her.

But-

The waitress put a plate down in front of him, and he froze.

For a second, maybe longer, maybe forever, he was no longer in the room.

He was in the old kitchen, with the old Rayburn chugging away. The embroidery and china figurines on the shelves. The battered old table, carved roughly, with care.

His mother placing his plate-

Something spasmed in his face and he shook his head, fighting it, fighting tears, fighting the sudden trembling in his arms and chest. He looked from the food to the waitress and back again. She stood there, waiting politely for him to speak.

His voice was low. His eyes were cloudy.

He asked what was happening.

‘Roast dinner,’ said the waitress. ‘Chicken, beef. Roast potatoes, Yorkshire-’

He knew what it was. Of course he did. Of course he did! He knew every item on that fucking plate. He knew how it was cooked, he knew how every single molecule was going to taste, he knew the pattern on the plate.

He wanted to know how they knew.

The waitress considered the question. Then she shrugged and said, blandly, ‘Does it really matter?’

He had no idea what to say. The waitress hovered for a moment, but once she was satisfied that he had nothing more to add, she smiled and nodded and disappeared again.

He looked at the food.

How.

He had never taken pictures. He hadn’t even had social media the last time he’d eaten…

Oh God.

Was this… was it that one? The last one?

Not that he’d have been able to tell. She had cooked it the same way every Sunday, without fail, for years. Everything, the same. Same time. Same timings. Same plates. For years.

Ever since…

His hand trembled as he reached for the water. He poured some, drank it down almost violently, like he was trying to cause himself some pain on the way down.

And now he realised something else.

He had tasted water this pure, hadn’t he. Of course he had. On holiday in Wales, cupped messily into his mouth with his own hands, from bubbling mountain springs. He remembered the feeling. Like he was tasting real water for the first time.

And that holiday…

The last family holiday before Dad…

He had to stop himself from hurling the glass jug across the room.

And the last…

He wouldn’t have known. You never knew, did you? Of course you didn’t know, not when you were eating it. It was just another one, wasn’t it? Another Sunday roast. There was nothing particularly special about it. It only became special after the fact.

Hands trembling, he cut a slice of beef and put it in his mouth. He nearly choked. It was the same. It was how she cooked it. Somehow…

How had they done this?

Why had they done this?

He wanted to shout for the waitress. He wanted to turn the table over. Scream and scream and scream and then find the chef and force their face down into every hot greasy pan until they told him what the game was. Then he would tell everyone. He’d get them shut down. They couldn’t do this. This was wrong.

But even as he raged, he couldn’t stop himself from eating some more. The potatoes. Christ. Crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. They were perfect. Just like she used to cook them.

He ate, and he laughed, and he cried. Every mouthful was a hurricane of memory, eruptions of taste that sent shockwaves through him, unearthing feelings he’d thought he had buried forever. In the soft herbal embrace of the stuffing were details about the kitchen wallpaper that he’d forgotten. The carrots crunched in time with the clock that was never quite right. The gravy warmed him like the heat of the Rayburn, comforting him when he came in soaking wet and freezing.

He wanted to devour it all in seconds, but at the same time he didn’t. He wanted, needed, to savour it. Every mouthful was precious. Treasure. Like diving into a photo album and somehow, through some impossible conduit, arriving back in that kitchen. Sitting and eating together. On surly days and friendly days, windy days, sunny days. Stubbornly refusing to think about her hands, getting thinner and paler.

He sobbed and laughed and ate.

By the time he’d finished, he felt as though he had run a marathon. He drank the rest of the water. In its cold and its purity, he could feel the rain as he and his father ran across the field towards their rented cottage, shouting and laughing. One of the few unambiguously joyful memories they had together.

He…

‘Was everything satisfactory?’

He stared at the waitress. He didn’t know what to say.

‘Would you like a rest before dessert?’

Christ. Dessert.

He managed a nod. She took his plate. He sat, full, drained.

Hand shaking, he poured the rest of the wine.

By the time the waitress returned, he felt a little calmer, though none the wiser. The dessert was a small chocolate mousse. It was delicious, almost soothing. But it didn’t remind him of anything.

And if he was being honest, he felt insanely grateful for that fact.

He finished the mousse, trying his best not to think. The waitress took the bowl away, then brought him some coffee. Again, it was just coffee. It didn’t remind him of anything. He drank it, letting it guide him back to earth.

When he asked the waitress for the bill, she raised an eyebrow and said that there wasn’t one. He felt as though he should be surprised, but of course he wasn’t.

Finally, after what felt like years, she led him quietly back the way they’d come. He had hundreds of questions, of course, but he felt as though she might allow him one, if he was lucky.

He stepped outside. The world felt different. He turned and looked at the waitress, who was waiting patiently for him to speak.

He had never had the dessert before, he told her. He didn’t remember it from anywhere.

She seemed surprised. ‘Of course not.’

He nodded, though he didn’t know why.

‘Goodnight.’

And she closed the door.

‘It was a nice service, wasn’t it?’

The young woman blinked, realising she had been staring into space. She smiled and nodded at the old woman. ‘Yes. Well. You know.’

‘Of course, of course.’ The old lady’s face crinkled with sympathy. ‘Happy to say I’ve been to more weddings than funerals in my time. But they never get any easier.’

The young woman nodded again. ‘Thank you for coming.’

‘Of course, dear. I wouldn’t have missed it. I’m glad so many people came.’

‘Yes, we were surprised actually. It’s nice to know people cared about him. He would have been very touched.’

‘Of course.’ The old woman put down her empty coffee cup, squeezed the young woman’s hand and turned to go.

Then she stopped. ‘Oh, I meant to ask, dear. Did you make the chocolate mousses?’

The young woman nodded. ‘Me and Mum.’

‘Ah.’ The old woman smiled. ‘Thank you. They were delicious.’

The End

Main photo by Ben Illis

Read more:

Listen to the latest Bristol24/7 Behind the Headlines podcast:


Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button