‘Of course you have to knead bread Jeff,’ shouted Sandra. ‘Don’t be stupid all your life.’
I hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversations taking place over the dinner table. Partly because they were all about food and drink, neither of which I wanted to talk about. 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 as though it was the only thing worth eating.
Jeff was the only one I liked and I didn’t even know him. But I knew his type. Trying to be invisible in the hope everyone would forget he was there. Forcing a smile now and then to show he was listening, only chipping into the conversation when absolutely necessary.
I knew what he was going through. I felt the same every time my sister Lilly invited me over. In the vain hope that I might hook up with her best friend, Isabel, who by her own admission was on the lookout for a husband.
‘I’m looking for man with money and taste,’ she’d declared halfway through the ensalada de gambas.
I only came along because she was 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 Isabel?’ she would then complain half drunk 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?’
I’d then remind her I was in fact gay. Only for her to insist 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.
Jeff was Sandra’s new boyfriend. That was all I knew about him. 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 every time I saw her, as though her men were on hire from an agency.
Jeff wasn’t the agency type though. For one he looked human. And secondly he looked bored out 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, when the bread incident took place. Greg had been explaining to Jeff about his new fandangled bread machine he’d bought from California, which 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 faux pas. A misplaced sentence that shattered Greg Peels’ smug gadget-infested world into a million pieces. ‘You don’t need to knead bread at all,’ Jeff had calmly said as though asking for the salt.
It was meant to be a joke. But nobody got it. Certainly not Greg Peels, who looked like he’d been stabbed in the stomach with a fork, he looked so deflated. And certainly not Sandra, who’d attempted to defuse the situation by humiliating her boyfriend.
Jeff pretended to laugh it off and went back to his gambas. But I knew Jeff was absolutely livid. 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 violently 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.
The room went silent. Even the supermarket jazz on the stereo had gone miraculously quiet. 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 first 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 round the room.
‘I can’t remember having such an awful evening. I mean really awful.’
A sharp inhalation.
‘Oh, you think I’m joking,’ he continued.
A slight murmur. Somebody let out a snigger.
‘OK, let’s get down to it,’ he said as though starting some incredibly boring seminar. ‘For starters – no pun intended – the food looked good, but tasted 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. No freshness about it. It tastes OK, but it’s not real. There’s no labour, no intensity behind it. No thought or guile. Produced for presentation purposes only. Like plastic fruit in a window display.’
I looked round the room. Nobody was sure whether Jeff was being real or sarcastic. Or was just incredibly pissed.
But he continued. ‘It’s like your lives. 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?’
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 a u-bend. 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. But that’s 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. ‘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. But I’d never seen someone so calmly publicly destroy nine other people in a room before. I couldn’t imagine a dictator or a mafia boss doing something as bold as what Jeff had done. I was immensely proud of him. And 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.
Then he corrected himself. ‘Was.’
‘I suspect so.’
‘I didn’t mean to be rude. You’re Lilly’s brother. 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 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 cooking and 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.’
I laughed. ‘Me too.’
‘But I mean the bread,’ I continued. ‘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.’
‘You’re a chef aren’t you?’ I enthused. ‘You must be.’
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.
‘You OK?’ I asked.
‘Yeh,’ he said. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Sorry to pry, it’s not my business.’
Jeff shrugged. ‘It’s OK. Just one thing though. 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.
‘No. You don’t,’ I replied.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Fucking hate chefs.’ And with that he walked off up the street and I never saw him again.
Copyright Philip Ogley 2019