Timing is everything. A restaurant at half-past five in the afternoon is a sadder place than a restaurant at eight o’clock at night. It is a sadder place than a nightclub at two in the morning. It is sadder even than a nightclub at eleven o’clock at night, its closest spiritual relation.
When my bus drops me off in town at the end of the day my walk takes me away from the train station and down Queen Victoria Street, the beautiful red brick buildings on either side glowing in the afternoon sun. I am with Mikey, chatting away, because it’s been rare to share a bus ride home with him lately. I am enjoying it, but at the same time I know he wouldn’t come to the pub with me for a quick pint in the sunshine, so I think better of asking him. His phone rings, his girlfriend calling after her first day in a new job, waiting for her train to arrive and carry her back home. I hear just enough of what he is saying to figure out two things – that it all went well, and that their version of this conversation is almost the same as a similar conversation I had with Kelly only a few months ago. It is spring, a time for changes and new things.
We part company outside the handsome Victorian façade of the grand department store and go our separate ways. My route home takes me past Prezzo, the Italian restaurant on the corner, and I see the couples inside, a smattering of them dotted across the tables but always near the window, on display to passers-by. They look doughy and uncomfortable, picking at pizzas and pushing forkfuls around their plates. Sometimes one will look out, as if scanning the horizon for an excuse to leave. A couple of the bland, neutral tables have bundles of shopping bags propped against one dark wooden leg – from sensible clothing stores, mostly.
The restaurant thinks having couples in the window will draw people in, persuade others to do likewise but it’s a disastrous piece of advertising. There is no evidence of talking or even of interaction – no gesturing, no waving, no eye contact. They have their heads down and they plough through their food as if the most important thing is getting to the end. I wonder if there are other things they are getting to the end of, too. Worst of all, they betray the promise of excitement every restaurant implicitly makes just by existing at all; as I go past, they look as if they envy me more than I could ever envy them.
Why are they so sad? What makes people eat at that time, when most people are still closing laptops, getting their coats and heading to the car park or the train station? I figure that I am just condemning what I don’t understand, and that perhaps they just have different priorities. Maybe they are awkward first dates, people dipping their toes back in after a difficult divorce, or meetings between friends for the first time in a long time – though there is little sign of the familiarity that would convince me of the latter. Perhaps they have a parent looking after the kids at home and this is a precious window for an experience they’ve almost forgotten to have.
It’s not just couples in the restaurant – there are a couple of isolated pockets of friends, groups of more than two talking and shrugging, laughing and passing round garlic bread, ladies who lunch running late. But my eye is drawn to the couples, though their eyes do not seem drawn to one another.
I used to eat at Prezzo, and I liked it there. It was a good place to go for something quick to eat and they did a mean line in pizzas. Kelly and I had quick quiet suppers there and the occasional big birthday bash, raucous around a long table. I used to like their crab cakes with a citrus mayonnaise, I remember that. Then one day, a day like this, my route home from work took me along the side of the restaurant and I saw people unloading a delivery of supplies from the back of a van. A cardboard box on the kerb, destined for the freezer, had “CRAB CAKES” on it in thick black writing and I felt like I’d been had.
Now I go to Pepe Sale across town, where they roll out fresh pasta every day and Marco can show you wild mushrooms in a basket and tell you exactly where they come from. When I go there I eat late, because that’s my preference, and the couples at the other tables always seem to be having almost as much fun as I am.
Some things are meant to be fresh - every time, all the time - fresh there and then. They aren’t supposed to be frozen and reheated, because when you do that they are never the same. They’re a facsimile of the real thing, but they’re not the real thing and we cheat ourselves when we try to pretend that they are. Maybe it’s okay before you realise that but once the penny drops, as it did the day I saw that cardboard box on the kerb, you can never go back. It briefly crosses my mind to ask myself whether the couples on the restaurant know that - and what else they are trying to reheat that has been frozen for far too long - but then I decide that as long as I understand, it doesn’t matter.