I Wonder If That’s Why Cavemen Cooked Outside

(And Other Stuff I Thought About On A Train)

Life’s been getting too complex for my liking recently. A new job. (A critical boss.) An irritating neighbour. (A lot of noise.) A relative fallen ill. (No one liked her anyway.) A cat-fighting problem. (They’re kittens and they haven’t learned that biting hurts yet.) To get some perspective, and peace, I take off and fight against the rain to get to the station. I ask a stranger to pick a destination out of the blue and I get on the train going to that place. (The stranger looks at me from the platform like I’ve just spray-painted a granny’s face.) The carriage isn’t busy. The quiet encourages me to relax. The young man opposite is reading a book about food. As we set off, he notices that I’m looking at the book and he smiles.

“I run a restaurant overlooking the canal,” he says. “In the city we’re going to. I like food. I like cooking food. I like giving people nice things to eat. I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile if I can just give someone a satisfying meal.” He glances back at the book. “I always wanted to be a chef.”

“It’s good to have a passion,” I say.

“But food isn’t all that matters to me,” he replies, looking up from the book again. “The same way that whatever matters to you won’t be the only thing that matters to you.”

“Quite true.”

“I believe in the power of the mind. Not in a telepathy UFO kind of way.”

We both smile.

“I didn’t think you would,” I say.

He adds, with conviction, “I’ve got a sixth sense about what makes people feel good. I know when someone says they’re happy, but they’re not really happy. I can just . . . tell. Even when I ask if a person liked their meal, I can always tell the ones who felt they had to say it was delicious, but didn’t really think it. Like there was a fault with the food or the service wasn’t tip-top.”

Just now, as we both glance outside of the carriage, at what look like fast-moving city streets, everything is lit by a lovely copper glow from the evening sun. The man who runs the restaurant isn’t reading his food book anymore. He’s smiling, in general. Not in a smug way, not to attract attention, just in a way that tells me he’s content and hopes everyone else is. It’s reassuring that a complete stranger might think about the happiness of other people. And that makes me think, too. I think about my new job and the critical boss and what might be behind their tension. I think about my irritating neighbour and all the noise and what might be driving them to behave like that. I think about the ill relative and how she must feel that people don’t want to go and visit her.

“Do you like cats?” I suddenly ask.

The chef looks at me like I’ve just revealed my bottom to the carriage.

“Cats, as pets,” I explain. “Do you like cats or, maybe dogs?”

“I’ve never had a pet,” he says with what seems like surprise at himself.

“We have two cats – and a cat-fighting problem. They’re kittens and they haven’t learned that biting hurts yet.”

“Biting, in my line of work,” he says with a wry smile, “never hurts unless you forget to remove the bones.”

“Or you drop in some eggshell.”

“Or lick the open tuna can.”

“Or accidentally stick a fork into your tongue.”

He laughs and so do I.

“Usually,” I tell him, “with restaurants, I find it’s that the potatoes are a bit hard or the vegetables are too soft or the bread is stale or the whole lot isn’t warm enough.”

He eyes me. “I’ll make sure of those things.”

“I’m sure you already do. Something tells me you don’t run the kind of restaurant that would serve potato bullets or sloppy carrots or month-old bread.”

We talk for over an hour.

Then he gets up. It’s his stop next. After a quick search in his bag, he hands me a leaflet for his restaurant. I take it with an approving nod. It’s a very impressive-looking establishment and they’re looking for trainee chefs so they can expand. When he’s gone, the carriage is a deeper quiet. There are empty seats on both sides. I reach into my own bag and get out a plastic container filled with honey and mustard chicken salad and start eating it with a sharp, plastic fork. The dressing is slightly too acidic. The lettuce isn’t crispy enough. For desert I eat cranberries because I decided to replace chocolate or ice cream with dried fruit. It’s a case of the big bottom and the small berry. But cranberries are liars. Their combined packet calorie count is closer to that of a cheeseburger. I wince whenever I read the small-print.

“Mind if I sit here?”

A woman about my age, wearing much smarter clothes, has just stepped onto the train. She sees my accepting smile and sits in the seat ahead. She’s talking on a mobile phone about an important strategy. She says the words manage our resource and exit plan which interests me. As long as I look every bit like I’m not listening, I should be able to pick up the entire conversation. My ears prick up, like a cat that’s heard a packet of beef jelly being opened. I gather that resource means people. And manage means let go. And exit plan means how to do it. Hers is a conversation about downsizing, redundancy, streamlining. I find it fascinating because she talks about the people who will have to leave and search for a new job as if they’re components in a system that needs oil. The conversation moves from work to a dilemma that seems to her equally challenging: her attempt to choose the colour of new worktops for a kitchen renovation at home. She likes olive green; her husband hates it. He likes buff; she thinks buff is outdated. When the call ends, I wait a few seconds, but I can’t help myself.

“You could do half buff and half olive green.”

She eyes me like I just threw beef jelly in her face. “They have to be the same all the way around.”

“Sure, I understand. Consistency. Crucial.” I look out of the window. I wonder if all the redundancies packages will be identical. 1984.

She glares at me. “I don’t like seeing people go,” she says.

“I never said you did.”

“But you thought it. I can tell.”

“Managing all that must be stressful, but if you enjoy your job –” And then I see it, too – I see what the chef was talking about – that flicker. It’s like a glint in a marble you can only see in certain lights. She doesn’t enjoy the job. She isn’t really happy.

“Do you like food?” I ask.

She guffaws.

“Stupid question,” I admit. “Do you cook food, properly? I mean are you quite good?”

She stares at me almost offended, then her pride takes over. “Actually, yes. I do cook quite a lot – to relax after work.”

I wait a moment, to pique her interest, then I land the leaflet in her lap. “There are jobs going at a very good place I know, right here. I . . . know the head chef. He’s very open-minded and forward-thinking.” I feel stupid saying it – and I hope no one else is listening – but I add, to help plant the idea in her mind, “He’s got an excellent strategy.”

“Are you suggesting I send all the redundant people there?”

It’s my turn to laugh. “No. I’m suggesting you go there and get a job you enjoy. A job,” I add, glancing out at my stop as the train nears the platform, “that makes you happy. It makes people ill to do jobs they don’t like and I find that sad. I did it once and now I don’t. And it’s much better.”

“What do you do? Are you a chef now or something?”

“Sort of, I guess. If you can imagine the ingredients are words and that I mix them together in a paper bowl.”

She looks at me like I just crushed her new worktops with a mallet, but she grips onto the restaurant leaflet all the same and smooths its surface with her fingertips.

“No,” I say, “I can’t cook too well. One thing I do know about food, though, is that it tastes a hundred times better when it’s seasoned with fresh air.”

I leap off the train, leaving her dumbfounded, but as I pass by her window, I see her reading the leaflet I gave her with interest and I realise, on the way to wherever I’m going next, that I forgot to mention to the chef that another common complaint in restaurants is when a trainee overdoes the salt. But I’m sure he’s got it covered. I’m sure he serves alfresco. In fact, if the rain stops – and maybe even if it doesn’t – I think I’ll go there tonight and eat something delicious and maybe jot down an idea for a little story I’ve been thinking about.

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