Unusually today, I had lunch at a pavement cafe, alone, and enjoyed every mouthful.
The food was splendid, reasonably priced and I was so busy enjoying it that it wasn’t until near the end of the meal that I realised I had.
Over the years, I have learned to do all sorts of things alone. I don’t have any difficulty entering a room alone, appearing in public alone, though I am ambivalent about being ill alone. You may want to be left alone but you want to know somebody cares.
But with regard to the lunch – I have never been any good at eating alone in public.
When I came to London from Middlesbrough on my 17th birthday, opportunities for eating out had comprised fish and chips with my parents in the car at Stokesley and probably three Chinese meals, two with my mother. I could just about handle coffee or a drink, but I was evasive about eating out with anybody. The group of friends I made drank in the pub and in those far off days of luncheon vouchers, four or five of us saved them all week and then met for a blowout lunch at The Stockpot. All women, I could manage that.
I was so terrified by the first meal in a French restaurant that I forgot all my French, ate soup and an omelette, and threw the whole experience away. I couldn’t look at the waiter; I hoped devoutly he wasn’t looking at me. It was so embarrassing that I felt as if I had blinkers on and could only see what was directly in front of me. I remember everything about it and it was agony, to be avoided. I used to meet for what we called “late dates” i.e. eat first and drink later, or simply lie and say, I had already eaten thank you. I don’t know where this came from.
Always perfectly happy to eat a home, in friends’ homes or on picnics, I have never had anything resembling an eating disorder as I understand it but sitting down in any kind of eating establishment produced a lock across the back of my throat reinforced by another lower down, across the stomach.
I was saved from much difficulty in my early relationships because none of us had any money to spend on eating out and then along came a job that required me to take clients to lunch. I had to do it to keep the job I loved. So I did. I honestly believe this helped. In the beginning I pushed my food round the plate to the manner born but in time, I ate a bit. And then you have more or less beaten the fear into submission – you eat a bit more every time. Until I had to eat with someone I was keen on, when the whole thing reprised and I went back to playing at “not very hungry”. This continued until I was in my early thirties when I beat it by marrying a man I loved who liked to eat out. So for twenty years, we ate in a variety of restaurants large and small, glamorous and otherwise, and I assumed that “that was then and this is now”.
When the marriage ended, I thought I was older and wiser and it would be fine. And in many ways, I was. But it wasn’t fine.
Eating out alone makes me feel conspicuous. Even in the quietest corner and masked by a book, I feel I am disturbing the harmony of the place, that there is something discordant in me that means that I am not whatever it is that would make me acceptable. I don’t eat out alone much but I do when I can because I feel that the ills of 50 years ago have no business in my life. Part of the problem is that I am naturally gregarious so I long to share the experience but I am working my way past that whenever I can.
Last year, I swept into a place, tempted by feta and honey on hazelnut bread and my first ever glass of Temperanillo rose, which made me so happy I could have skated round the restaurant. A spendthrift as soon as I am remotely intoxicated, I promptly bought a book I didn’t need.
So today was not an exam. More like course work and presume it will stay part of course work until I can say “Eat out alone? Of course.”