The laminated menu said that it had been open since 1986. The 18th of December to be exact. It seems a strange date to open up an Italian restaurant in a North Yorkshire seaside town, but maybe that’s how they did think back in the mid-eighties, in the time of excess. Back then even this tired old town was still popular, in the days before cheap and dirty flights to the European mainland. Now, people can fly to Italy itself and eat at authentic restaurants rather than take the train over to this town. Rather, both of those options than driving along the A64, that ridiculous road, that’s a journey not worth contemplating even at the best of times.
I flex the menu in my hand so that it’s nearly a cylinder and then let it pop back into its original shape, that of a large rectangle. The others at the table awkwardly glance in my direction. They must have chosen because they sit patiently waiting while I’m still deciding what I want. They don’t look pleased. I smile and return to concentrating on the menu. 1986, this place is in its thirties just like me, and like me, it’s racing towards its forties. I can see them ahead of me menacingly. No way I can avoid it – the mid-life crisis. What age does that kick in? I suspect it may already be underway.
I push it out of my mind and return to the menu. My eyes rest on those horrible digits once again. 1986. Thirty-four years ago. It seems like a good long stint for a restaurant to be around. They have survived quite a lot in that time, a couple of recessions, a few wars, the decline of the rest of the town into a shell of its former self.
I risk the wrath of the rest of the table and has a quick glance around the room. I’m momentarily disorientated when I see my own reflection in the mirror on the wall. In fact, now that I think about it, the whole of the room has a mirror stretched around the periphery. Why is that? To make it look bigger, possibly? It must be. Here and there, I can see a few random artefacts hanging from the ceiling or pinned to the doors and walls. Stereotypical nonsense from Italy, most likely bought from a market stall in town. Faded plastic grapes or olives so old that the colour has bleached from the plastic despite it not being exposed to the sunlight for its whole existence.
I hear a low tut. It pulls me away from my vague thoughts on the decor. Someone at the table has made the sound. Clearly, they want me to make a decision. I return to the menu once again. My eyes quickly pass along the list of foods. I can see a few contenders, but my eyes slowly but surely find that date again. 1986, always 1986. It’ll be 1986 forever in here. This thought crystallises in my mind. 1986, forever.
What happened in 1986? I consider myself a bit of a history buff. My forehead creases while I rummage around my memory. I know that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released that’s for sure. Possible that the now-defunct Soviet Union launched something into space but also that the Chernobyl disaster happened. A good and bad year for Russia then. How many Italian restaurants do they have in Russia? Undoubtedly, one or two in every town like here in England. Its something I’ll have to look up when I get a chance.
There is some more movement at the table, bringing my attention back to the menu and the task at hand. I need to pick some food and quickly. I’ve been deciding for a long time, but how long? I’m not even sure now. Judging from the status of the drinks around the table, a decent amount of time has passed. It should be easy to make a decision. There’s not much choice in reality. An Italian restaurant is always going to provide one of two things, pizza and pasta, those family favourites, pizza and pasta. Pasta and pizza. Funny words now that I come to think about it. Something else I may need to look up later on.
Back to the menu. Carbonara, Napolitano, Bolognese, Arrabiata, all the old classics. They sit before me, tempting me into choosing them. All four of these would be a great choice, of course. Filling as well. No need to get pizza as someone will order the tomato garlic bread for starters anyway. It is practically a pizza in its own right. Must be some kind of copyright issue that prevents it from being called a pizza? Hold on that doesn’t make any sense. Surely there are not copyright infringements for pizza? I tap my lip to think about it, a nasty habit, which produces a glare from someone else at the table. I lower my head back down to look at the plastic menu once again.
The laminated surface is starting to become slightly slick in my grasp. My hands must be sweating. I slowly lower my right hand and give my palms a rub on my jeans then equally as slow return them to holding the menu. I then repeat the process with my left hand. There’s nothing I can do about the dampness of the menu at the moment. Maybe if I can grab some tissue, I can give it a quick rub. I quickly scan the table. There! I can see it right in the centre. The tissue holder, the painfully bright artificial lights are reflecting off the shining metal. I dearly want to grab one of those white tissues and give the menu a quick once over. I slowly start to move my hand towards it. I can feel the eyes of the rest of the table glaring at me, but it needs to be cleaned.
Suddenly a waitress appears at the table. She wears an all-black shirt like the rest of the staff. She has tattoo’s up and down her arms and black fingernail polish. She smiles at everyone seated at the table with bright red lips. “Is everyone ready to order?” The question is asked innocently, but it’s met with stony silence from the table. One by one, they each turn and look at me. The waitress seems confused and nervously looks towards me along with the others. I try to speak, but the sound gets caught in my throat, prompting me to let out a little cough. I place my hand over my mouth and cough some more. Seeing that this is my chance, I quickly grab a few tissues from the holder, leaving a few on the menu in the process, and use the rest to wipe my mouth.
I clear my throat and try again. This time the words come. “Not just yet. Can I have a few more minutes?” There is an audible groan from the rest of the table, but no one says anything and the waitress departs in confusion. I quickly grab a few of the tissues and give the menu a quick wipe. Now that it’s been dried, I lift it and return to the choices. This time I go straight to the pizza list. Margherita, Fungi, Pepperoni, the usual cast of characters. I’m almost certain I’ll have pasta, but there’s no shame in looking. I quickly read through the list, but once again, my eyes rest on that date.
- What is it about that number that seems to send a pang of nervousness down into the pit of my stomach? There is something about that date that fills me with dread. Is it the date itself? Or is it just the actual numbers? No, it’s not the numbers. 1986 has an agreeable ring to it, nothing wrong with those. I chuckle to myself at the thought which draws a “hhmpf” from someone at the table. I straighten my face and return to the menu. Pasta, it has to be, no doubt about it. I place a finger on the spot, carbonara, and raise my head. The rest of the table react excitedly as I scan around the room looking for the waitress, but she seems to have disappeared. In fact, now that I come to look, there are no waiters or waitresses anywhere.
Before I have any time to wonder about the situation, the lights suddenly dim. Outside of the square room, I can hear a noise, a faint singing. As it approaches, it becomes louder until it solidifies into a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Sure enough, all the waiters and waitresses for that section appear from the other room. One of them, our table’s waitress, carries a cake with a sparkler wedged into its centre. The procession makes its way towards another table where the occupants have also joined in the song. The cake is laid in front of the small wide-eyed and blonde-haired child who smiles and blows out the sparkler.
Everyone begins to clap, including me when I realise the whole room is. The lights are returned to their painful strength, and then the procession quickly disintegrates. Our waitress departs with the rest into the other room before I can get her attention. She did not seem to notice my raised hand, which is where it remains now. The rest of the table peer at the raised limb as though it is a strange new beast until I carefully and slowly let it fall back towards the table.
Those around the table fix me with their cold eyes once again. I quickly pick up the menu and lift it obscuring them from view. Almost immediately, I see the date. 1986. That really is a long time for a restaurant to be open. How many times have I been here in that time? How many family occasions, how many birthdays, how many christenings? Many of my most cherished moments growing up in this town must have been spent in celebration within these very walls. I and many others have spent countless hours within this restaurant. Many more will do the same. For how many years? Who knows? It may never end. When all of civilisation has long gone, this very establishment will continue serving pasta and pizza, bringing out cakes for the birthdays of small children and pouring watered down beer into cold clear glasses.
Suddenly a head looms and appears by my side. How long have I been staring at the menu? I blink and focus on the head. It’s our waitress again. “Sir, have you made a decision?” She smiles, uncertainly. I nod once firmly to show I’m serious and place the menu back on the table. “Carbonara.” The waitress smiles. For some reason, she seems relieved. The rest of the table also looks relieved. I’m sure I can hear someone mutter “finally” under their breath, but I’m not sure who. The waitress goes to slide the menu from the table, but I keep my hands rested on it, preventing her from taking it. She glances down at the menu and my hands and then back up to my face. “Sir, can I take the menu?” I look her in the eye and shake my head once so that she knows I mean to hold onto it for now. A look of anger appears on her face, then fades just as quickly and she leaves me to it.
The rest of the table break down into smaller groups who talk amongst themselves. There is seven at the table so they can easily talk in groups of two, which leaves me to my own devices. At first, I try to listen in on the conversation but quickly become bored. It centres around the usual mainstream nonsense that I have absolutely no interest in. Inane drivel that I cannot comprehend.
I take another quick scan of the room. By the steps, I can see a map of Italy. It too is faded and frayed at the edges. For some reason, whoever created the map has put various dishes in different areas across the surface. It must be where the dish is from. Or at least how the dish is supposed to be. Everyone knows that Italian food actually tastes different in Italy. Of course, I don’t know that myself! Someone told me a long time ago. I can’t remember why.
A short time passes, and the food arrives. The occupants of the table quickly tuck into their food. They must be hungry. While I slowly pick at my food. They babble away while I chew. Carbonara was a poor choice. The food tastes bland. In fact, worse than bland, I can’t taste a thing. It’s as though I’m chewing nothing. The food seems to vanish inside my mouth. I begin to panic. Why can’t I taste it? What’s wrong with me? I begin to put more of the food in my mouth in frustration. Still, there is no taste. I shovel it in until my mouth is full, but I still can’t taste a thing. Dropping my knife and fork on the table, I begin to shove and cram the food into my mouth with my hands until my cheeks feel taut.
Suddenly, silence descends, not just at the table but in the whole room. I look up from my plate with my mouth full to a room of faces with wide, confused eyes. With difficulty, I slowly chew the food in my mouth until I can muster enough to swallow. The food slides down my throat so slowly that it feels like it’s stuck, but it gives and slips into my stomach. My face must be covered in the food, but I don’t care. I still can’t taste anything. In my panic, I try and stand, but the lights are dimmed once more. I freeze where I’m sat. From behind me, I can hear the sounds of “Happy Birthday” being sung. A quick scan of the room reveals that the waiters and waitress are gone.
I remain perfectly still as the staff approach. Those at the table slowly and reluctantly begin to clap their hands in unison to the song. Every one of those at the table looks directly at me and my chin. There must be food there, but before I can wipe it away. I see a light out of the corner of my eye. It’s from a sparkler. It’s wedged into a cake. The waitress is once again carrying the cake with the rest of the staff. They all dutifully sing the birthday song but can’t hide the nervous look on their faces as they walk towards me. The cake glides through the air and is placed directly in front of me, and on the menu, I note with some annoyance.
No one moves or says a word for a moment. I look at the sparkling light. 1986. Of course, the year I was born. I remember now. That is why we are here. It’s my birthday. I was born in 1986, the same year as the restaurant was founded. How could I forget that? Recovering slightly, I take in a great lung full of air and then blow at the end of the sparkler. It goes out immediately, but the motion of my head has sent some of the food from my face. It flies through the air and splatters the cake. There is not much of it, but I can see a few pieces of pasta and bacon resting on the icing.
Disgusted with myself, I don’t wait for anyone to react. I quickly get to my feet and stride away from the table. I can hear a few raised voices behind me as I promptly race out of the restaurant and away into the chilly east coast evening. I only stop when I’m a good few metres away and look back. I can see the sign swinging in the breeze. At the bottom, I can see that date again. That terrible date. I shake my head and turn to walk the other way. I vow to never return to that place. Well, at least not until next year anyway.