PROOF OF THE PUDDING
The Napoleonic saying has it that “An army marches on its stomach.”
That being the case, I was honour bound to mutiny!
My elderly inamorata ET* had a bizarre range of hang-ups around alimentary issues.
Afflicted with, ahem, a mid-life inability to recognise that my pin-up was in fact an elderly anorectic – think Jeremy Corbyn crossed with St Jerome – I also entirely failed to realise that this fifties raver was as morbidly obsessed with the idea of the ‘body beautiful’ as any teenage babe.
On our caravanning holidays, practically the first thing we did – having extracted every last particle of pleasure from pegs, awnings, septic tanks and sanitary blocks – was head into the nearest village for a foodie tour. By this I mean that I was frogmarched round each and every eaterie and required to wait, ogling the diners cosily ensconced within like some sad caroller begging for figgy pudding, while ET earnestly scanned the front door menu with a view to determining whether said establishment was worthy of our custom. This process frequently took upward of fifteen minutes due not only to ET’s vegetarian scruples (of which more anon) but due to the greedy obsession with food which was the flip side of his anorexia and which – in a bizarre process of transference which would have given psychiatrists at the Maudsley a field day – he attributed to the fact that he was dating a Beryl Cook chubster (me)! Stepping out with ET for a lunchtime reconnoitre was thus like entering a hall of mirrors whereby every glassed-in restaurant menu helpfully offered confirmation that I was a Lard Bucket. Actually, being extremely short-sighted, I could only stand there with my mouth watering as ET rolled the description of each dish around his mouth like a contestant from Man versus Food. I shudder to think how deeply weird we must have looked when, after a quarter of an hour’s ‘virtual eating’, we took our custom elsewhere. Or rather, we didn’t, because the whole business would begin again a couple of doors down like some sort of gastronomic Groundhog Day! By the time we had repeated this exercise several times, we would have managed to “miss lunch”, at which point we would adjourn to some grotty tea shop or other where I would order a cappuccino and ET would snarf an ice-cream of pornographic proportions – just to keep me company, you understand, and not because he really wanted it. No siree! Working on the principle of deferred gratification, my penny-pinching anorexic Romeo would then decide which chophouse would host our late-night romantic meal for two. I could only hope and pray there would be a change of shift as I didn’t fancy being clocked by a snooty maitre d’ as one half of the shifty Steptoe and Son double act from the afternoon.
The evening’s fine dining experience followed a prescribed pattern from which no deviation was ever permitted. The spread had to start with Bread and Olives – no matter what the nature of the cuisine to follow. This was an article of faith, and woe betide the hapless waiter who attempted to curtail the ritual or commit the offence of bringing this curtain raiser at the same time as the Starter Proper. As regarded Starter and Main Course, I was not on any account permitted to order the same dish as my beloved. The official reason for this was the need for us to experience “variety”. The reality was that I would generally be expected to make a maidenly show of toying with my grub so that he could scoff both his appetizer and my own. Variety was the spice of life alright.
Ideally, I should order a side of pommes frites and as starchy a meal as possible. Bland, beige food put ET in high good humour. Forget oysters, bangers and mash were his aphrodisiac of choice! Naturellement, I was expected to declare myself ‘overfaced’ early in the proceedings so that surplus carbs could be siphoned off my plate and onto his. When it came to puddings, same pack drill: order some nursery stodge (supplemented by ice cream) and then peck at it like a wren so that it could in due course be hoovered up by the gannet opposite me. Ditto with the cheese and petit fours. Throughout, I was cast as a female equivalent of the Merry Monarch into whose insatiable maw whole banquets vanished without trace. Trencherwoman in Excelsis, that was me!
ET often said that he was happy to dispense with food entirely but he loved an “occasion”, hence the endless trouble to ensure that everything was perfect. In reality, his endless quest for youthful rocker chic was the root cause of a starve-binge cycle which entirely failed in its objective to reincarnate him as Iggy Pop of the Pennines. He had been a fat child in an era of Teddy Boy dandyism. The trauma resulting from regular disparagement by local Fonzies left deep scars. Less Happy Days and more the Valley of Humiliation.
ET, as I have said, was a vegetarian. This was not due to any high-minded concern for animal welfare or for health reasons. He “didn’t like the texture of meat in his mouth – too slimy” – with the exception of burgers, meat pies and sausages where the offending article was minced or reconstituted. (Geddit? No, me neither.) He had a hatred verging on the pathological for the presence of certain foods in our love nest, regularly sniffing the air like a demented bloodhound and accusing me of secreting “dead hen” or “dead pig” on the premises. Actually, it was a case of Guilty as Charged. My carnivorous cravings sometimes got the better of me, to the point where I would occasionally take advantage of the beloved’s absence and nip out to the shops for a succulent cooked chicken or some spare ribs. Time being of the essence (parole for good behaviour did not come around all that often), I would have left Linford Christie standing so lightning swift was my sprint to the local butcher and back. Then there was the challenge of gobbling my feast, smuggling tell-tale giblets and other incriminating evidence out to the communal bins and whizzing around with whatever air-freshener was best calculated to conceal the blowout. The potential shame of being unmasked gave me wings. I got the whole thing down to a fine art – fifteen minutes flat on one memorable occasion when I had just sneaked my contraband safely home only to receive a text from Lancashire’s answer to Inspector Javert telling me that he was on his way back to the love shack. I paid the price for my perfidy later that night with galloping diarrhoea in a scene reminiscent of those verses from one of our most celebrated librettists – you know, the ones about each evil liver being “a running river of harmless merriment”.
ET’s peculiar prestidigitation had the effect of making me feel like a sort of female Falstaff. I began to live up (or should I say down?) to his expectations. My sprints to emporia, however dodgy, specialising in cooked meats became more frequent and devious. In particular, I took advantage of a ‘window of opportunity’ every Saturday morning when, prior to going to the gym (oh yes, this seventy-something insisted on a rigorous joint workout at least thrice weekly), I was deposited at the library to change my library books. ET took up position in the car park behind the library. He could be fairly confident that opportunities for illicit re-provisioning were limited due to the fact that from his position in the car park he commanded a view of two ginnels separating the library from the high-street shops on either side. He also possessed an in-built mental stopwatch which was an infallible ready reckoner for measuring the likelihood of “greedy guts” (aka The Famished One) going off piste. Such was my desperation, however, that it made me cunning as any quick-change artiste. I became adept at slamming my Returns down in the library, plucking up any old handful from the New Reads shelves and then heading off out to a forlorn little pie shop which was just two doors away. That is where the real perusal took place as I sighed in ecstasy over the pork pies nestling cheek by jowl with pasties and other strictly forbidden daytime delicacies. It was such a downmarket joint (forgive the pun), that ET never suspected me of playing hooky with the hucksters!
As virtuously as I had entered the right-hand ginnel to access the library, so did I return to our jalopy with a pile of books clutched in one mitt and a couple of meat pies (topped, oh joy of joys, with cranberries, apple sauce or black pudding) secreted moistly in the depths of my shoulder bag. When we arrived at the gym, safe in the ladies’ changing room, I toddled off to a cubicle and gorged myself before whipping into my kit and presenting myself – suspiciously ruddy of cheek before having taken a step on the cross trainer – alongside my grizzled taskmaster. See what I mean about being a quick-change artiste!
Of course, things didn’t always go precisely according to plan. There was the time I accidentally sat down on my shoulder bag in the car thus squashing my hard-won provender and releasing pungent eau de black pudding all over the show (how I got away with that one, I will never know!). Instead of a happy chow down in my favoured cubicle, I was obliged to chisel off the meaty debris and flush it down the loo, crying tears of chagrin at the loss of my booty.
There was also the time when my selection at the New Reads shelves almost proved my undoing. So potent was the allure of Mrs Miggins, that I grabbed two items without checking their titles. These proved to be How to Conquer Impotence and (I kid you not) The Male Menopause. I still feel clammy at the remembrance. Talk about Freudian Slip! I don’t recall how I tefloned my way out of that one, but ET smelt a rat (albeit thankfully not the black pud) and from then insisted on accompanying me into the library and waiting grimly while I made my selection.
Fair enough. The aforementioned librettist also said something about the necessity of punishment fitting the crime!
* ET = My elderly inamorata or Elderly Termagant