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Spoiled Goods

I know him when I see him. Straightaway when he comes in. All bellows all night all wide arms around the table inspecting the wine list through spectacles, makes his choice, demonstrably. Teased by wife and sons and daughters laugh and eyes roll affectionate or exasperated. He has a good time yes he does. He has all the courses on offer, they must do the same. He knows how to act. A bottle, the house, it's drinkable, another two bottles, the house. Generosity here and here and there, to family all around him. Eyes roll round the table: extra bread, yes, cleaning the plate, yes. Such gusto! Such appetite! Everyone agrees. A single espresso. A lot of attention. A birthday. An anniversary. A get together. A celebration and unbidden I light candles and stick them in the cake and sing, as we are bidden. He hadn’t said but I noticed and lit candles and sang and as brittle birthday flames lick their faces golden for a moment and make them shine, I almost believe it. Bonhomie rolls on and on and on until glasses empty, coffee dregs dry in the bottoms of white cups leaving rings of brown like sedimented history, soiled napkins scatter, we wait and wait and after a flourish of his wrist I set down the bill. Not huge for this place but big enough: they ate everything on the menu, it was a birthday, or an anniversary. He snatches the slip of paper into his orbit and shields it shields them, takes a private look and only he knows it's service not included. He waves a card, a summons to me, or anyone who will come to him, quickly now. Our special evening ebbs. He wants to pay right away. I bring the machine, all smiles but my smiles could be anyone’s or an enemy’s now. It has been all smiles direct in the eye all night long willing me to serve him to love him by force of eye contact and casual orders because he's no mean uptight fusspot he knows how to behave but still, I run here and there and back again and the effect is the same when this dinner table magician works his hand-me-down magic. But now it breaks, it's broken, the line of sight crackles and disappears. But still, when it comes to it I imitate his secrecy: he knows I know they mustn't know and that's what casts the spell. Family busy themselves and look away humbled by such generosity such power such charm such magnanimity the definition of it, busy and gathering coats they are not watching now, when the handheld payment device displays the words Gratuity? Discretion itself I look away like he does. Was it me or was it him who made this feel shameful? He fumbles and squints, baffled by the machine he has used a thousand times and I apologise for its stupid complexity and he hands it back like spoiled goods without looking at me because he cannot look at me now. I look at the receipt, wondering what it has been worth, my skills my smiles, the licked plates I made disappear. Thank you so much I say brightly, bright woman I am still and I was all night but still no service given or half of what he knows it should be, but still, smiles. As I gather coats and bags, wives or daughters might take me aside and tell me how special it all was, or forgetfully huddle into the night. He is coat on, eyes down, towards the door, family thanking him; my jaw aches.

Large Party


Darling are you single? Your smile is too good for you not to be single.  Look at you! 

Hand reaching arm stretching towards the waiter’s waist and she’s the manager too, but she’s just so cute he can’t believe it. I step into her wake to answer his call but he’s already leering oh there’s more of you! lucky me; his head tilts back on its bony hinge so he can look me up and then down from his chair his eye line is naturally at my breast and ultimately he should look up to speak to me, but he doesn't. The whole table is deafeningly loud I might lose my mind and yet they are also blood-curdlingly silent as he grasps at waists and does his lines again and again with lessening effect like an addict or a poor actor. They are a party of twelve and as I march past biceps flexed with stacks of plates of gnawed bones, spat out cartilage and drying patches of gravy they become twelve angry babies yawping, heads swung back and mouths open. But they are also utterly unlike babies because they do at least have language. They do at least have words and voices and after all these years of feeding themselves and booking tables using the telephone and now tapping plastic to pay in the most advanced manner like any civilized adult, they can’t speak when they really should. You really should speak to your friend. I give them a stony look hoping they'll take me for Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo (such ideas get me through the night).    Later he picks up cake with fingers, though picking is too precise a verb for this paw-like action. His fingers puncture the shining surface of the cake like skin and crumbs cascade down from the cut edge to leave little oily spots down his white shirt, each one a smeared window into his soul. On the other hand, the two large men at the other end of the table do eat from plates and use spoons but have eyes that find their polestar on my ass as I sweep past, sightline pivoting from left to right and then recalibrating as the manager walks by; they really don’t know where they’re going, dizzy-headed chaps! 


There are moments when I become Houdini without smoke and mirrors. I contort my body into absurd shapes trying not to breathe or smell or touch clothes or body or break or really to have a body at all when bending around the moving, living, paying obstacles so that I can snatch plates and glasses and anything dirty away from, for example ~ a man who surprises his friends by arguing in favour of nationalising the railways, his friend who surprises no one by defending the privatisation of the railways, the woman who complained that I did not seem eager enough to please her, a famous and really very charming actor who at turns wants and does not want me to notice his fame ~ smoothly and without being perceived. Obviously, the worst is bending down, grunting to pick up a dropped teaspoon or knife or fork while holding a stack of plates. A complex performance with the added pressure of being the most visible person on earth. Crack of the knees, straining desperately towards the object like Michelangelo's fresco of God and Adam, never quite touching. 

Sometimes when doing this I think: Are the men looking at my ass as I bend down and do they think it’s too big or too small; does someone find me embarrassing; does doubling up my body make me look lumpy and unattractive; will my shame be noticed; have I crossed over into the no-woman’s land of the abject by carrying dirty plates covered in the food that was uneaten? Leftover food is abhorrent because it is the messy evidence of a failure to seduce; slid from appetising to nauseating. The uneaten is evidence of so much, too. The tendency to deduce is cruel and significant if there's the time to look at anything and if there is time, I am probably bored enough to indulge in it. What remains is replete with the idiosyncrasies of every eater. Neuroses, appetites, health concerns, histories and objects of disgust are on show. They didn’t want it inside their mouth; they didn't want it in their body. Untouched capers, fat, potatoes, everything green, crème fraîche, vegetables. Feeling full is not an objective sensation and deciding what is permitted is no more 'natural' than anything else about embodied existence.

That which remains should disappear in silence. But here I am, putting on a show by picking up a dirty spoon covered in a mixture of cream and saliva from their dessert, carrying plates covered in remains and I feel like my body is covered in it too, plastered with everything unwanted and saliva. The fallen spoon has become a truly tacky deus ex machina that delivers me not from hell but to hell by developing the power to swivel necks and summon eyes, perhaps even a cheer or a round of applause. I can try to disappear from sight but I am a car crash and they are slow moving traffic glued to my distorted, sweating, reddening body and I can’t run away.

Rebecca May Johnson

Rebecca May Johnson is a writer, creative practitioner and cook living in London. She recently finished a PhD about a radical German reworking of Homer’s Odyssey at University College London. Rebecca writes poetry about classical figures, food and gender, and co-runs ‘Sitting Room’, a series of readings and events in people’s houses and public spaces. As a creative practitioner, Rebecca makes artworks and gives performances that engage with the interrelatedness of food, the body, language and memory. She is working on a narrative non-fiction book about food, gender and generosity, represented by David Higham associates. She was shortlisted for the 2016 YBFs (Young British Foodies) writing prize for her piece about cooking with the kids on the council estate she lived on in South London in 2015.