School Day Memories
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We assembled outside the dining room at 6pm. Mr Bowman stood with the evening register, his head drooping, his shoulders hunched in the later hours of the day.
‘Rathbone ?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Palfreyman ?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Harkness ?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Yusa?’ ‘Yes sir.’
Satisfied that no one from our cohort had escaped from the school premises he told us to enter. We walked in single file. The hall quietened and a hundred pairs of eyes followed our progress to the serving table. We each took up a slightly damp wooden tray as well as a knife, fork and spoon, not daring to check whether our cutlery was clean. A cat-call of sorts could be heard from one of the rear dining tables accompanied by assorted giggles.
The evening meal was risotto or cottage pie. The serving ladies, eager to finish service, told us to hurry along and make our choice. Yusa, who didn’t like risotto or cottage pie, asked if he could have a bowl of hot water. The serving lady sighed and shouted loudly towards the kitchen door.
A table for four was available. Many of the other boys in the dining hall – the cohorts that had already eaten – began to drift away. A group of rough fifth formers passed us on their way out. One boy stopped and stretched the outer skin of his eyes with his fingers. ‘Ning Ning! Haw Haw!’ he snarled at Yusa. The rough boys laughed. Mr Bowman blabbered: ‘Hurry along there will you.’
I stabbed my cottage pie with my fork – thick pieces of gristle in a brown gravy sludge. Rathbone said: ‘This is shit.’
‘Don’t take any notice of them Yusa’ said Palfreyman who was eating his cottage pie with relish, as if he’d stumbled upon a gastronomic feast.
Yusa smiled. The bowl of clear hot water sat before him along with a wooden box, decorated with a picture of Mount Fuji, that he’d kept hidden in his rucksack. We watched as he slid open the lid. Inside were chopsticks and assorted ingredients. ‘Neat’ said Rathbone. Yusa smiled again. He added some brown paste to the hot water and stirred in noodles, dried fish, a sliced chilli and some cooked vegetables. He waited until the ingredients settled before picking up the bowl with both hands and taking generous – and loud - slurps of soup.
One of the serving ladies, clearing away leftovers from the hot plate, looked up and shook her head. Yusa bowed: ‘Konichi-wa, serving lady-san.’
‘Hey, Yusa – think you can bring me a box of that stuff tomorrow ?’ I said.
Rathbone and Palfreyman said they’d be interested in a box too.
‘Come to our house and pay money to my sister’ he said. ‘She’ll make it for you.’
‘Deal’ we said.
And that was how I met Hikaru - the great love of my life – and whose eventual deceit left me reeling, as if a rusty nail had been driven into my heart.
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A welcome antidote to the horrific memories of school dinners.
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