Have you ever been on a diet?
I know, ridiculous, of course you have…
I mean, even if it isn’t for weight loss, sometimes there are things you can’t eat or other things you are compelled to eat. So we all know the feeling of having to avoid certain foods, and eat others we don’t like, because it’s good for us.
Remember that feeling of reluctance you might have for, say, liver or kale or smoked eel (the last is my personal hate) and forget for a second the melting desire you have for Reblochon, or hollandaise sauce, or boiled eggs with buttery soldiers.
And then go to a Japanese restaurant. Wield your chopsticks there for a second, and hold that thought.
Now I’m British. Despite being raised on ground gristle (or perhaps because of it) I like Japanese food now and again. I even love it and look forward to it, dream of it on occasion. But essentially I’m a Brit, raised on the notion of having everything I like – meat, two veg, maybe a bit of salad – arranged together on the same dish. I’m a one plate, main meal kind of woman.
When it comes to love, I have the same model. I’m a one-man, get more or less everything from a single relationship woman. I want a partner; a husband; the love of my life. Someone who’s funny, supportive, solid, exciting and helpful – a meat and potatoes man; rare fillet steak with a dollop of zingy horseradish, maybe a serving of rich béarnaise with potatoes dauphinoise or parmentier and a sensible, good-for-you green vegetable. A man who can put up shelves, help with my taxes, discuss the Congolese Civil War, soothe my worries, rub my back and bang me senseless more than twice a week. A person whose personality will compliment mine, and who will be my one and only. In short – like the old Barry White song – ‘my everything’.
Yeah, but it’s a lot easier to buy a microwave dinner than it is to get true love on a plate. I can cook up the perfect meal whenever, and chose whatever I fancy, but I can’t find that single, do-it-all-for-me man. The one I had let me think I was funny by laughing at my jokes and so I didn’t realize he was about as humorous as a Tory Conference. Nor could he do anything remotely ‘handy’, and the banging was more of a whimper. Nevertheless he could explain the failure of the Euro, massage my cares, my shoulders and my ego and carry heavy luggage. He was as close to a balanced relationship diet as I’ve ever had and though, of course, I longed, occasionally for mustard and sauce, apparently so did he. Eventually he forked off to be the main course in someone else’s life, leaving me plateless.
And the table of conjugal feasts has since remained resoundingly bare.
So now I’m back in the Japanese restaurant. The lovely Jorlando on my left and Vee, oh she who must be obeyed, opposite, and we’ve ordered the set lunch. Jorlando is young, tweedy, handsome (I think if I may so say without sounding like I’m about to shop at the Toyboy Warehouse which, I would not consider -even for the equivalent of a McDonald's – very, very fast). He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s bearded. He’s ginger. He’s Posh. He got his first suit aged 13 for school at Aquascutum, where apparently “Sir didn’t have very much room in the seat”. He is, you see, called Sir. He has a best friend called Inigo (who of course does not come from Souf’ Landan and wear his trousers round the cusp of his arse, nor does Jorlando, whose ‘twill slacks’ are firmly belted two inches under his arms).
The meal arrives. It’s in a little lacquered box. With compartments. None seems significantly larger than any of the others. In one there are two breaded prawns with little feathery tails poking poignantly out at the end – pigs in blankets, Japanese style. In another there’s a cloud of shredded white radish bearing two slabs of tuna, painful like a bruise, and another two of fleshy salmon. In a smaller one there are five slivers of what I think at first are lemon slices, but on closer inspection are half moons of pickled turnip. There’s a slightly larger rectangle with four different kinds of sushi, each on an oval of rice, and one wide mouth stuffed with salmon which the bowing waitress tells us is an Arctic roll, though confusingly, it’s hot. And delicious. Another tiny tray holds three pieces of chicken teriyaki, yet another has two cucumber maki rolls, and the last in the north-west corner has a slice of orange, melon, apple and a single little, rather squashed, raspberry.
We are poised, chopsticks at the ready – the rounded slippery Japanese ones harder to manage than their Chinese take-away wooden sisters. The waitress also brings us some pickled ginger and a dollop of wasabi, and a bowl of miso soup.
We sip, we slurp, we dip and dab, a mouthful of radish here, a slice of raw fish, then a nibble of prawn, a bit of chicken, more radish, a maki roll, a wincing shudder after a particularly strong hit of wasabi, a swallow of soothing broth. And listening to Jorlando talk wittily about the art world, and Vee’s sharp and pointed retorts which make me laugh out loud, it occurs to me that maybe I have the wrong model for relationships. Maybe I should be less British about it.
Maybe instead of one man who’s all that; later in life when all the best men are either dead or married to someone else; you have compromise and compartmentalize. And substitue and borrow. So the one who bangs in nails may not be the one who bangs you. And the one who makes you laugh may be the guy, old enough to be your son in tweed who sits opposite you at the office, or indeed, the girl who dispenses advice with sternness. The soother of worries and listener to problems might also be the person who also explains the intricacies of the Arab Spring who four years sprung himself from your marriage but remains your friend, or it might be a woman you pay £50 an hour to be professionally sympathetic, or even the man you pay £50 an hour who also cuts your hair. And is gay.
At this stage in life when I can’t find just one man who can satisfy my relationship hunger, I need to forget the whole idea of having love on a plate and have it neatly set out in a Bento Box instead. A little bit of sex, a little bit of friendship, a little bit of companionship.
But then there’s that sad, forlorn, crushed little raspberry sitting there on top of the fruit slices - this dear thrill seekers is the pay-off, the Japanese money shot - that and a mint by the cash register - and tr as I might its just doesn't flood me with hope, excitement or delight.
And so there I am muttering smoked eel to myself. I’m back to pushing cabbage round my plate because it’s good for me, but I still can’t be totally convinced that it’s gorgeous even if it is cavolo nero with garlic and pancetta, and choosing the salad instead of the fries with the omelette in Ciao Bella when I’d rather have the spag in a bag but I say non grazie because I'm dieting and avoiding carbs. I'm fully aware that I ought to want to eat my five a day but frankly, oh god, I still want a packet of hobnobs. Yeah, I know, I know – the Bento Box makes perfect relationship sense. I should be delighted with my companionable old slipper friend, banging boyfriend and my empathetic ex; my office-mate repartee and friendly handyman, but…
Ach, I still yearn for that Sunday roast, with all the trimmings. Heck I’d even settle for the Marks & Spencer main course and vegetable, £10 and a full dinner for two; the one thing I'm not.