Alice in The Looking Glass.
I was so looking forward to that meal. We had been apart for three months when he met me at the airport, a few days before Christmas. It was cold and windy . Always dark and ill lit; we used to call the arrivals hall the rabbit hole. Like Alice, whenever I landed I felt I was entering into another world. The corrugated iron roofs over the airport arrivals shed were rattling in tune to English channel weather; It was a bit dark and draughty but with all that it seemed somehow milder than the angry climate I had just left behind in Northern Ireland.,
And there he was. My own white rabbit. My middle of the night phone call lover.My plans for the future creature.
“I’ve booked The Looking Glass for Wednesday night.” He had to shout to be heard over the rattling. I smiled shyly; it was a new restaurant, I’d never been but heard it was expensive.
This would be our Christmas treat and I needed a whole afternoon of preparation. The white rabbit was at work during the day but I had his sports car, I’d meet him at the restaurant and he would drive us home.
It was cramped and untidy in his warren of small rooms. Grubby didn’t really begin to describe it but I was looking forward to a different future.
All day, so busy, ‘Oh Dear, ‘Oh Dear I shall be late ‘I gasped, quite getting into the whole wonderland thing. Nails, hair, shower, make up, new blue floaty chiffon dress. I know the dress sounds unlikely now but at the back end of the seventies it really was the height of fashion.
Satisfying myself in his own looking glass I could see I had that Alice appearance. Long blond hair tucked behind my ears, neat, small, tidy rather than sexy.Oh goodness, is there a red Queen to challenge?
I had to check under the tree one last time. No sign of anything, not even the very smallest of jewellery boxes. A small flutter of excitement rose under the blue chiffon. Maybe it as so small (ring like?) that it would be presented to me at a romantic moment. Maybe tonight at dinner? Closing the door, battling the wind to reach the car and confidently starting the motor of the e-type I drove fast and a mite carelessly along the seafront towards the elegant Looking Glass restaurant, dominating the esplanade, in the wealthy genteel town of St Helier.
Pulling into the car park a bit early I was surprised to see my love sitting in an unfamiliar car with one of the women from the TV station where he worked as a journalist. Everyone has their uses though, she with the nose and curly hair reminded me of the Duchess with the baby. I wondered whether she sneezed a lot and dodged flying fire irons. Still it was good that she gave him a lift in this inhospitable weather, and now we had time for a pre-dinner drink, maybe in a snug at the bar. Just us.
Heavy rain fell in great gusts, whipping litter across the car park. The wind made the light fabric of my dress swirl around my knees as I clambered, ungracefully, out of the car. Clicking open my flimsy umbrella, I headed straight towards the magnificent double glass doors of the restaurant at the side of the hotel.
Shivering, I waited in the foyer, giving the already sleeply doorman my umbrella. Was he the Dormouse?
White Rabbit was only a few minutes after me and without referring to his waistcoat announced that we should to go straight in.
I did feel like Alice stepping into another land although this was not at all the same as the rabbit hole at the airport. Momentarily dazzled by the bright lights from overhead chandeliers, we were ushered into the dining room. Walls covered by mirrors from gold carpeted floor to artexed ceiling. Very popular. Very chic.Smart little tables, scattered across the room unseasonably like springtime daffodils.
We followed a narrow hipped waiter to our table, which he presented to us with a flourish ,as though he had just found it, or caught it at sea and hauled it back especially for us.
“Lovely, thank you”
“Enjoy your evening Madam, Sir”
Looking at the candles I suddenly heard my inner voice, my Alice voice scold me
’It might end you know, in my going out altogether, like a candle . I wonder what I should be like then?’
Pulling out my chair ostentatiously I heard the waiters voice” Can I help you Madam?”
“Curiouser and curiouser” I remarked quietly once the waiter had fussed out of earshot.
I can still manage to sit down unaided.
Anyway, why were you in the car with the Duchess?
Are you mad, who’s the Duchess?
Just a large ugly character in Alice in Wonderland. She had a baby. Does that woman have a baby?
Hazel? No, teenagers. Nothing to do with you anyway.
Well maybe she plays croquet?
Yes, she does actually, rather well in fact.
I was surprised he knew so much about her and very glad that the tables were just far enough away from one another to assure an element of privacy. I didn’t want anyone to hear me tonight, I was beginning to thing I might become overwrought. The tables themselves were circular , graciously laid with an elegant sufficiency of silver, glassware( not really crystal, more cut glass, but still the image…), napkins, a candle and, of course, it being Christmas and all, a small vase of holly sprayed gold and accentuated by a few tiny red baubles.
“Can I offer you a pre- dinner drink sir?”
To my eyes the waiter looked even more bizarre. Flapping and flouncing around, I daren’t think what character he resembled, fish footman perhaps?
“Two G&Ts please”
Now we could move on to the main business of the menu.
I was longing to start our conversation, just to have him look at me and for us to celebrate being together. Here. Anywhere .After so long.
Menu first though. Stiff beige parchment accentuated by a red tassel led me to expect a smart meal. Gin and Tonics had arrived without my noticing and I was trying to decide between mussels or prawns( in garlic and white wine or cocktail? Hmm cocktail maybe better, don’t want smelly breath at this stage), when I glanced up to find him looking at me more than he was looking at the menu. More heart flutter, this could be a good sign.
“ Are you warm enough in that blue thing? It is December and you look like an advert for a summer picnic”
Maybe not so good, and it drove me back to being Alice again, always too big or too small. I wished for a potion labelled ‘Drink Me’. In fact tiny, almost invisible, would be my choice.
“Just thinking about the menu really, prawn cocktail and then I think Dover sole. No dessert.”
“Waiter, our order please, it’s been a long day. One mussels, one prawn cocktail, two Dover soles and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc”
We both looked nervously around the room. Gentle diners, all gently conversing, or gently enjoying overhearing other’s conversing. Well dressed, immaculately dressed actually but none of them in unseasonably light chiffon. I felt really awkward.
‘Can you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?’
At last he got it. He was well read and a good sense of humour, well irony anyway
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to’
Before I could conjure up something clever and course changing, our starters had arrived. They came with that flourish that seemed to suggest ‘my goodness, look, at this I’ve painted the white rose red. Clever me, you will be pleased’
Wine poured and a faint waft of wine and garlic crossed the table.
‘I’ve something we need to talk about’
Was this it? I chewed a mouthful of the soft fishy prawns and began to dig into the shredded lettuce, trying to act all casual.
‘I think you like it where you are .You should stay in Northern Ireland. Good idea.’
‘No I didn’t, not really. Anyway, I’m coming back here. ‘
Then a random, desperate thought struck me as I pushed away the cut glass not crystal goblet containing the remains of the just soggy prawn cocktail. This was a bad dream, I’d wake up soon.
We stopped for a minute as a waitress whisked the plates away. She was less dramatic in her exit than the waiter had been in his arrival flourish. Maybe it was the reminder that women and dirty dishes would never command the cache of a flourishing fish- footman waiter.
That’s what triggered my final descent into Alice madness.
‘The Cook threw irons at the Duchess and the baby became a pig.’
There was quite an awkward pause at our table as the flourishing began again and I was conscious of the other diners nearby, still gently conversing, quietly laughing even, but nervously glancing in our direction.
I spun the stem of my wineglass between my palms and looked up, questioningly. He didn’t meet my enquiry but looked relieved when the Dover Soles arrived.
Poor things, they looked so surprised. Untouched and rapidly cooling, mine lay before me. On visible eye which looked up in surprise. A floundered fish, steeped in butter sauce and accompanied by about two peas.
Their one eye staring out of the side of their head almost as though they were about to flip off the plate and back to that grey sea outside. Only you’re supposed to think about them being reared and caught in a sunny sea. I think it makes you feel better about eating them if you think they came from a happier place.
‘Reeling and writhing at the bottom of the sea’
‘ Mock turtle I think. Must have lived like these strange creatures.’
The mock turtles, if that is what they were, were swimming now in a sea of melted butter and capers and tiny potatoes. My appetite began to come back, maybe the wine helped.
Cold crisp wine in a fancy glass, not crystal, just cut. It worked felt smaller but more in control.
Slipping deliciously down my constricted throat it eased the pain. One more tries with the heavy sliver cutlery and the skin of the sole was broken. My sole is broken, is his?
Looking across, his lay bare to teh bone.Nearly finished, only the remains to tidy up now. I poke reluctantly under the skin and pull out a fleshy piece, speared on the tines of my fork and wobble it slowly into my mouth. Delicate faint flavour, resonant of other celebratory events, – feasts, holidays and meals taken out of doors. No celebration this time, all fallen apart just likes the fish in front of me. I pick idly at the capes. That eh word for it, Is this our caper? A bitter nugget of a fruit, more valued as a giver of flavour than a thing of substance. Yet once we were a thing of substance, maybe no more.
I lay down the clumsy eating irons…
‘You should stay there.’
An electric current cut across the table.
‘But what about us? I love you white Rabbit, I just want to be with you.’
‘I can’t be tied down. And I think you are completely mad. I don’t understand a word you say, all this white rabbit nonsense. I need to be free, you need to be free. But Christmas is OK, we can stay together and do Christmas and then on Boxing Day…’
By now tears were doing what tears do, and so was my nose. I pushed the poor sole away and bowed my head in my hands.
‘Please, take me home. Just like Alice, I must be mad to come here. I won’t stay and finish this.’
Heads were turning at the neighbouring tables. Disappointed by the unfestive fracas which we were causing in this wonderland restaurant. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. If only I could wake up like Alice and find it had all been a dream.