‘Of course you have to knead bread, Jeff!’ screamed Sandra. ‘Don’t be stupid all your life.’
I hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversation taking place over the dinner table. Partly because they were all about food and drink, neither of which interested me. It was the same every time I came, the same people droning on about en croûte this, au gratin that. Frothing at the mouth as they forced foie gras down their fatty gullets.
It sounded more like a farmyard each time I came with all the quacking, fawning and guffawing going on. Jeff was the only one I liked, and I didn’t even know him. But I knew his type. Forcing a smile every now and then to show he was listening. Or occasionally chipping into the conversation to remind people he was there.
I knew what he was going through. I felt the same every time my sister Lilly invited me over to one of her foodie soirees, in the vain hope I might hook up with her best friend, Isabelle.
‘I’m looking for a man with money and taste,’ Isabelle had declared halfway through the ensalada de gambas, marie rose sauce dripping from her mouth like blood. The thick waxy makeup she wore had the lustre of yacht varnish, and gave her face a veneered sheen, like a mannequin stuck on a stool, wound up and let go. Talk talk talk talk talk!
I only came along because of my sister. Loyally supporting her quest for culinary recognition among her foodie friends. Turning up every few months with a crate of champagne and a bag of fresh prawns on the condition I could leave after the dessert.
‘But how about Isabelle?’ she would often complain when I made a dash for the door after the chocolate torte. ‘She likes you so much. Why don’t you stay a bit longer, have a drink, get to know each other?’
It was at this point that I reminded her I was in fact gay. Only for her to insist that it was just a phase I was going through, which I’d eventually grow out of. I’d then have to reassure her it wasn’t a phase as I was nearly 46, not 16. Then I’d say my goodbyes and walk home wondering what planet my dear little sister lived on these days.
But back to Jeff.
Jeff was Sandra’s new boyfriend. Sandra being one of Lilly’s closest friends. Two months ago at the last dinner party, she’d been with someone else. John, perhaps? Two months before that, another guy. Sammy, maybe? In fact now I thought about it, she seemed to have a different man at every dinner party, as though her men were on hire from an agency.
Jeff wasn’t agency type though. For one he looked human. And secondly he looked bored out of his mind. Which was probably why he kept looking at the door, wondering how long this nightmare would go on for.
He’d been talking to Greg Peels, a graphic designer from Brighton, who had been explaining to Jeff about his new fandangled bread machine he’d bought from California. A swanky gadget that used a series of tongs and paddles to fold and knead the bread so as to create a perfectly crafted artisan loaf.
It was at this point that Jeff made his ‘no need to knead’ faux pas, shattering Greg Peels’ world into a million pieces. It was meant to be a joke of course. But nobody got it. Certainly not Greg Peels, who looked like he’d been stabbed in the stomach with a fork. And certainly not Sandra, who’d attempted to defuse the situation by humiliating her boyfriend.
Jeff was absolutely livid I could tell. Fuming behind his ensalada like a red-hot ember, and I was pretty sure he was about to walk out at any minute. Instead, he did something else. Something so unexpected, I still think about it to this day.
He stood up and forcefully clinked his glass with his knife. Everybody stopped talking immediately. Even Sandra, who’d spent most of the evening chewing the ear off a deep-sea diver, who luckily for him, was practically deaf after a diving accident in the North Sea.
The room fell silent. Even the supermarket jazz on the stereo had miraculously turned itself off. Everybody was wide eyed in anticipation. He’s going to propose was on everybody’s lips. He’s going to pop the question in front of her friends. What a man!
Not a chance in hell, I thought. If Jeff proposes to Sandra, I’ll step in and marry her myself. I was that confident. This wasn’t going to be a proposal, this was going to be a demolition. Something I’d been waiting for at events like these for years, and now the show was about to start. And I had a front row seat.
‘I’d just like to thank Lilly for inviting us to dinner tonight,’ Jeff began. Everybody smiled. ‘But that’s as far as the gratitude goes.’
A mild titter went around the room.
‘I can’t remember having such an awful evening. I mean really awful.’
A slight murmur. Someone let out a snigger.
‘Oh, you think I’m joking,’ he continued.
A sharp inhalation.
‘OK, let’s get down to it,’ he said as though starting some incredibly boring seminar. ‘For starters — no pun intended — the food looks good, but tastes like wrapping paper. I mean, where did you buy it from Lilly, I mean really? Homemade food, my arse. Pre-packed from an upmarket delicatessen is my bet. You can tell by the gelatine they put in it to keep it firm. And the sugar they pour into it to hide the bland taste of the crappy ingredients they’ve used. No freshness about it at all. I mean yeah, it tastes OK, it’s perfectly palatable when sloshed down with a load of cheap booze. But it’s not real. There’s no labour, no intensity, no passion behind it. No thought or guile. No care, for want of a better word. Produced for presentation purposes only. Like plastic fruit in a window display.’
I looked round the room. Nobody was sure whether Jeff was being serious, sarcastic, or was just incredibly pissed.
He continued. ‘It’s like yourselves. Like Sandra here. She looks good, great presentation, nice tits, hair, makeup and so forth. But is she nice? You heard her. “Don’t be stupid all your life” she said to me. That’s nice, isn’t it? From your girlfriend as well. And I suppose you all thought I was standing up to ask her to marry me. I mean, come on. Seriously?’ he laughed. ‘Do you really think I’m that crazy?’
This was brilliant I thought. What a guy!
Sandra’s eyes looked as though they were about to fall out of their sockets and roll under the table. ‘I clocked you all the moment I walked in,’ Jeff continued. ‘You think you’re all in control of your lives. The job, the house, the wife, the boyfriend, the car, the phone, the posh food, the nice clothes. When really, you’re just turds floating in the U-bend of the toilet. And the thing is, you know it. Just like the food. It’s totally tasteless, but you go on eating it because it looks nice and you don’t want to offend anybody. I’m sorry people. Sorry Lilly. I mean, it’s nothing personal if you must know. I’m just telling it how it is. The truth.’
He paused. Everybody was waiting for more I could tell. Perhaps they were enjoying it. Like me. ‘That’s all I’ve got to say,’ Jeff finally said.
There was a groan I was sure. The show was over.
‘Now I’ll leave.’
And with that he started heading towards the door.
I felt like applauding, asking for an encore. I’d seen many people lose their temper and say the wrong things many times in my personal and professional life. Big huge ape-like tantrums that rolled on for hours, even days. Lovers tiffs flying out of control like sea spray, then crashing against the side of the sea wall in a great thunderous whack. But I’d never seen anything like this. I couldn’t even imagine a dictator or a mafia boss doing something as bold as what Jeff had done. I was immensely proud of him. And as I said, I didn’t even know him.
Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. So I quickly followed Jeff out onto the street and left the rest to ponder the wreckage of their lives.
‘Wow,’ I said to him once we were outside the front door. ‘That was some performance. I’m Lilly’s brother by the way, I don’t think we were properly introduced,’ I said shaking his hand.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘I’m Jeff, Sandra’s boyfriend.’
‘I gathered that,’ I replied smirking.
Then he corrected himself. ‘Was.’
‘I suspect so.’
‘I didn’t mean to be rude. To Lilly. I’m sorry. But it just came out. I’m not sure what happened. I just couldn’t stand it any longer.’
I burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry Jeff. You were brilliant, best thing I’ve seen and heard in years. Should have recorded it, would have been priceless. A modern day antique. Worth millions.’
He smiled, but he didn’t look particularly happy.
‘Jeff, you said it how it is. She’s my sister I know, and she’s a bit fucked up with all the foodie thing. You told the truth and you can’t hate yourself for telling the truth.’
‘I suppose,’ he accepted. ‘Thank your sister for inviting me anyway. For what it’s worth.’
‘She’ll be OK, it might knock a bit of sense into her. You meant it though, didn’t you? What you said.’
He nodded. ‘Yeh, all of it. I fucking hate prawn cocktail.’
‘But I mean the bread,’ I pressed. ‘That you don’t need to knead it.’
‘Oh yeah. Everybody thinks you have to knead it. But you don’t. Just mix it in a bowl and leave it. For a day, or even two, the longer the better. It’s called patience. People don’t have it these days. Especially when it comes to cooking.’
‘So you’re a chef then?’ I enthused.
He looked at me funnily. His head tilted to one side. For a minute I wasn’t sure whether he was looking at me or at something behind me.
‘Not that it’s any of my business of course,’ I went on hoping I hadn’t offended him.
‘Can I ask you a question?’ he asked.
‘Do I look like a chef?’
I wasn’t sure what to say. What does a chef look like? Some are fat. Some are thin. Jeff wasn’t really either. He had a slight paunch, but so did I. In fact, come to think of it, Jeff would be a pretty hard guy to describe to anyone. He looked like me. A regular guy. Neither one thing nor the other.
‘No. You don’t,’ I finally replied.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘I fucking hate chefs.’
And with that he walked off up the street and I never saw him again.