Anna was born in Birmingham and has worked as an English teacher in Spain, Bolivia and Slovakia. She graduated from the University of East Anglia with a MA in Creative Writing. She now lives in Croydon with her husband and son and works as a freelance tutor. Her short story "Number Four" appeared in the Spring edition of Mslexia this year. She is currently working on a Middle Grade fantasy adventure novel.
Esme stared down at the pool of muddy curry in front of her, shot through with veins of lucozade-orange fat. Across from her, Joel picked up his fork, stuck it in a cube of beef and lifted it with a smile. She raised a spoonful to her lips and inhaled with determination.
She could have suggested they go elsewhere. But the only places open now were local kebab shops, with their steady, rotating cylinders of reconstituted beef on skewers. The smell alone was enough to draw bile up to her throat, even without the sticky plastic table coverings and splashes of ancient ketchup on the counter.
A little boy swung round the long red pillar a few feet from her, waving his free hand round and yelling out to his parents.
The couple looked up and smiled with fuggy indulgence before resuming their meals. Like all the other diners at Charred Chops, they were surrounded by plates, a little jagged cityscape of food on each one. Esme wondered briefly why they had brought a child out this late at night, but she was too weary to engage in her usual cathartic internal diatribe.
Her eyes returned to her curry. She felt her appetite sag beneath the weight of the pre-emptory heartburn.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, getting up. “I think I’m going to have to get something else instead.”
Back at the buffet, there were plenty of other options. Charred Chops served a bewildering array of bastardised international cuisines: Indian, Chinese, Thai. If she liked, she could even mine the tower of penne that dominated the “Italian section” – all stuck together in intricate combinations, like coral under the microscope.
She tentatively approached the salad bar. The wilted leaves lay in bowls, dripping with lurid dressings. She grabbed a pair of tongs and dumped a large pile onto her plate.
Back at the table, Joel stopped mid-mouthful and raised his eyebrows.
“Ten hours of non-stop work and all you want is rabbit food?” he scoffed.
“I guess that I’ve broken through the hunger barrier.”
Joel leaned back in his chair.
“You’re eating a meal, Esme, not running a marathon. There are no barriers to be broken.”
Esme dug her fork into a few salad leaves and began to chew mechanically.
“Do you know what my mum used to say about people who don’t enjoy their food?” he said.
She looked down.
“She said,” he continued, “that they can never dance well, because they don’t have enough soul.”
Esme stared at Joel. Just past forty, he nurtured the look of a biker-cum-metalhead: blond hair forming ski-ramps on his shoulders, tattoos a wistful, faded ceramic blue on his flabby arms. He had the peaches-on-ivory colouring of twee Renaissance cherubs, a curious pairing with the heavy metal t-shirts and torn jeans he favoured. He was one of a handful of graphic designers at the firm who were considered indispensable enough to come dressed to work precisely as they pleased.
She was impressed with how quickly he was getting through his tasks for their project, an e-learning tutorial for a large American firm that needed to get its employees up to speed with the latest money-laundering legislation. But on a personal level, Joel was irritating: the human equivalent of a jumper that looks nice and cosy at first sight, but turns out to be scratchy as hell when you put it on.
She put down her fork and breathed out.
“I’ve always had a poor appetite,” she explained, loathing her own placatory tone. “My father used to say that men would never like me if I turned into one of those skeletal girls who could barely shoulder the weight of their titchy handbags. If I hadn’t finished my meal, he’d make me sit at the table after my brother and sister had already eaten every last bit and gone. Even if I was gagging.”
Joel burped approvingly.
“Good, old-fashioned discipline, that. You need to keep your strength up, Esme,” he chided, wagging a finger at her. “You do realise we’ve got to be in the office at 7am for that meeting, right?”
“Doubt I’ll get much sleep now, anyway. I’m just going to the loo.”
Joel began to scrape his plate of its last smears of curry.
“I’ll be ready to blast by the time you’re back.”
Ready to blast…? Another irritating thing about Joel: his apparent penchant for creating his own, often impenetrable, slang.
On her way to the toilet, she nearly collided with another woman. Esme could not help noticing what was on her plate. She had gone for one of the puddings – a layered sponge in tiny squares with neat pink icing, but with a huge dollop of what looked like sweet and sour sauce on it. The woman shoved past her, an odd look of vacant concentration on her face.
What was it about the punters in this place? She and Joel had come here after work for three weeks solid and every evening it was the same. She knew these all-you-can-eat buffets brought out the pigs in people, but she wouldn’t be quite so disturbed if she could see a real glint of rapaciousness in their eyes. No, it was the blankness that got to her, the kind you see on the faces of choirboys between one song and the next.
Another strange thing about Charred Chops was that everybody seemed to be ordering on a tab. She had not seen even one person pay by cash or card. Perhaps they went somewhere out the back and regurgitated the food, the cashier patiently extracting it from their gaping maws so it could be mashed up into burgers the following day.
The thought made her gag, and she hurried to the bathroom.
Sitting in the loo, staring up at the line of lights embedded in the ceiling, she realised a place like this would be an excellent setting for a horror movie. It had it all: dim lighting, seedy furnishing, zombie-like regulars. The customers would let themselves be slowly fattened up, to eventually be taken to the room upstairs and have it all sucked out of them. Great slugs of grey, glistening fat, ready to be served up as meat portions for the next Charred Chops buffet, along with a side of withered human soul.
Again, she gagged, but managed to suppress the urge to vomit. She got up quickly, pulling up her underwear and trousers.
She leaned over the basin, arms wide apart, chest heaving. She looked up at the mirror, at her prematurely drawn face, the dimples in her cheeks deep as scars. Worst of all, the eyes. They were almost exactly the same as her father’s, an empty blue. She could still remember his gaze as her shoulders slumped over the remnants of a meal.
“Eat it, you stupid little cow. That’s all you’ve got to do – open your mouth, shovel it in and chew.”
That really was all that eating was to Esme. There was no gleeful anticipation, no savouring of aroma or texture. The delight of the gourmand was a mystery to her.
She might as well have been a paper shredder, joylessly humming its way through invoices, occasionally spitting out a crumpled one.
Row 1: “Chaaap 1″ and “Chaaap 2″. Row 2: “Chaaap 3″ and “Chaaap 4″. Row 3: “Chaaap 5″ and “Chaaap 6″.
Back in the restaurant, she saw Joel leaning back in his chair, patting his stomach, the plate scraped clean in front of him. She was about to return to their table, but then noticed that the dessert section was still open.
There was a chocolate fountain, surrounded by trays of sweets. She wound her way towards it, found a kebab stick, and began to impale marshmallows on it. Once she’d popped on as many as she could, she dipped it into the chocolate sauce, watching the brown goo drip onto the floury globules. After she was done, she scattered jellybeans all over the plate.
Triumphantly, she returned to Joel, who was just about to put his coat on.
“Take your time…,” he mumbled.
“Sorry, but I just had to go and get you some dessert.”
He frowned and shook his head rapidly.
“I’m full, Esme.”
She set the plate down in front of him and crossed her arms.
“You need to keep your strength up.”
He pinched the loose skin above his nose and sighed.
“Now you’re just being weird. You need some sleep.”
Esme crossed her arms and rested them on the table, exactly the sort of thing that would have earned her a slap from her father.
She noticed the Charred Chops logo on the paper-serving mats, a pair of fat lips grinning lasciviously, a tongue resting on the lower lip.
Joel was dabbing around his mouth with a napkin, a strangely fuddy-duddy habit for a man his age. Her father had done the same thing, folding the cloth neatly after each and every contact with his lips, eyeing his children for any signs of “piggery”.
Table manners are just our way of disguising the fact that we’re big, sweaty animals slavering over our viands, she thought. You might as well just take the wretched napkin and wipe the grease and crumbs off your face like the honest-to-god beast that you are.
She pushed the plate closer to Joel.
Her voice was low, but stripped of all its customary softness.