Food for Thought
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Whoever first coins the phrase ‘loveable rogue’ clearly has Lester Mulrooney in mind. Actually, more rogue than loveable, but let’s not split hairs.
Lester sells wallpaper, lots of it. Floral prints, boys’ bedroom racing cars, ponies for the girls, stripes for the lounge. All of it is end-of-line stock, remaindered or somehow damaged. Obtained, sometimes for nothing, from the mill. His ex-house-removers-lorry is piled high with the stuff and he tours the South and Midlands, selling seconds and damaged rolls to gullible bargain hunters. From Kettering to Kidderminster, Basildon to Bath, he will book a church hall and stuff flyers though letter boxes promising home décor bargains but delivering disappointment. By the time Mrs Jones discovers that two of her rolls are badly faded or double printed, Lester is 200 miles down the road, misleading Mrs Smith.
I know Lester because I have a room in a small house in Highgate which he owns. There’s me, Lester and Disney Dave. Short, red-haired Dave, a film-studies student with an India-rubber face he can twist into any expression. He has earned the nickname for his impressions of Donald Duck. Dave studies for a few weeks, then takes a couple of days off to get money for the rent by joining Lester who is already cheating his way round the smaller towns of Britain.
I always know when the pair of them are back from a selling spree. The dark blue lorry is probably parked somewhere near, but if I don’t see it before I come in the front door, I must be careful not to trip over the cash box left open on the stairs. It is overflowing with more money than I have ever seen in a bank.
I am not yet twenty and have come to live in London for my first job since leaving college. I have only been here a few months and answered an ad in the paper to get the room. Lester doesn’t know me from a three-legged donkey but for some reason, he doesn’t think I would ever touch his money. He’s right but I have no idea how he knows.
He is a large man, with pale skin, straight black hair and heavy black-frame glasses, worn well down on his nose. His black overcoat open, he bounds downstairs as I come in and he greets me warmly. ‘How’s life, my man? If you are around on Sunday, come and have lunch at Angelo’s,’ and he’s out though the door and onto the street. The gust of air from the closing door wafts paper money from the cash box onto the stairs themselves.
You get no prizes for guessing that Trattoria D’Angelo in Soho is an Italian restaurant. I find it eventually, halfway along a street where every third door opens to a restaurant. Greek, Italian, even Hungarian. Anything but British.
It is three steps up from the road to Angelo’s six-panel wood front door with a small bottle-glass window in the centre of it. It looks very shut.
I ring the bell. Wait and ring again. Eventually elderly Angelo, short and stout, with long, unkempt, greasy grey-yellow hair, which not quite matches his apron, comes to the door, opens it a crack and tells me: ‘We shut’. A brusque bad-tempered go away.
‘I’m here for Lester,’ I say loudly as the door is closing. But I am somewhat hesitant now. Have I understood the invitation?
‘Aah, Lester. Issa-differenta-matta.’ Gruff now transformed into purring pussycat.
The door opens in a wide welcome and, Angelo leading the way, we immediately descend to a large cellar room, filled by a single long table that can seat more than twenty. Wine bottles galore. It is my first time here. No one knows me or how I come to be invited and I recognise no-one. No Lester, no Disney Dave. Nervously, I plump for an empty chair near one end, next to a girl with a thin blouse, a flyaway skirt and a broad smile, who pours me a generous amount of the dark wine into a large glass. ‘I’m Kirsty,’ she says with an Australian accent.
I tell her my name in return, and ask, ‘How do you know Lester?’ I might as well have asked her the Swahili for ‘Good morning’. She’s never heard of him.
‘I’m here with Graeme,’ she says. ‘He’ll be along in a minute.’
We chat about nothing much for a few minutes and I think I am doing just dandy until a stocky man arrives and stands next to me with a stare as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss. ‘This is Graeme,’ Kirsty says, lightly. ‘He’ll want to sit here.’ I scoop up my glass and shuffle further down the table. I don’t dare ask him how he knows Lester.
It is now getting on for three and at last, food arrives to soak up all the wine being drunk. Angelo is feeding the thousands. Dishes of succulent meat, rich with luxuriant Mediterranean sauces; bowls of steaming, naked pasta cooked to perfection. Swathes of caprese salad, thick with tomato, mozzarella, fresh basil and green-yellow olive oil. Chunks of sourdough bread torn from a loaf. More meat, more, more. And of course, wine. Thick, so dark it is almost black in this low-light cellar setting.
We toast Lester, who has not arrived, and stories, ripe to become myths, abound. Through the mid-afternoon, a few more people arrive but still not our host. And no one leaves. The estate agent next to me tells me about his troubles with his wife who is a teacher, and adds, ‘You are probably too young to understand, mate. Just don’t ever get married.’
As the food is consumed and the wine continues to flow, the noise in the cellar rises. Quieter, more reserved guests have now dropped their guard and I pick up disjointed snippets of other confessions. Alan the architect, is there with his ‘assistant’, Noel, from south of the river, who tells me I am sweet. All have stories to recount, some of them about our absent host. Quite a few people only know each other from earlier feasts in the same cellar.
I feel an outsider, ill at ease among the much more inebriated, alone where others are in pairs or groups. Kirsty is unobtainable.
It is almost evening when I leave, one of the first, the autumn light already almost gone. As I follow Angelo back up the stairs to the entrance, I ask him, nervously, what I owe for my share? Am I going to have to pay a fortune I do not have for the wine excesses of the others? Angelo looks back at me through his watery, drooping grey eyes. Why haven’t I understood? The whole feast is being paid for by Lester. Whether he is there or not. They’ll settle up with each other sometime.
I conjure up the vision of Lester offering uncounted handfuls of paper money from his cash box to settle an un-itemised bill.
And now I am lying flat on my bed back in my small room in our shared house, and I feel distinctly uncomfortable. I have eaten and drunk too much. And I have dined off ill-gotten gains.
Lester’s invitation is there almost every other Sunday but I never go again.
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