Friday, 16 May 2008

A shocking outbreak of honesty

13st 10lb (which could be a lot worse, and may even go down a bit after I have had a shower); zero alcohol yesterday, unsurprisingly; 1,358; Newton-on-the-Moor.

I felt infinitely better this morning, after 7.5 hours of refreshing sleep, and spent a productive hour moving furniture back into my dining room, while listening to the end of the Today programme and Annie Lennox on Desert Island Discs. Luckily I wasn’t doing anything that required a high degree of precision, like brain surgery or sexual intercourse, as I scored several direct hits on other pieces of furniture with the returning chairs. One of these sent the handle from my 1930s sideboard door flying in a way that would surely have given even the All-England croquet champion a brief surge of pride. This allowed me to waste a considerable amount of time finding and retrieving it, locating a tube of superglue, sticking the handle back, then doing the same thing again another three times after it had fallen off; then finding a bottle of superglue remover with a view to unsticking my fingers.

After a brief interlude at my desk pretending to write, then a rather longer one trying to remember where I had put the superglue remover so that I could detach my fingertips from the keys of my laptop, I left in ample time to run a few errands before meeting one of the North East’s top PR practitioners for lunch. Only I hadn’t left ample time at all, I realized as I sat in the car trying to work out how the hell I was going to get to the bank in Rothbury and still be in Newton-on-the-Moor by 12.45. With, of course, the cast iron certainty that the normally well-staffed and remarkably efficient branch would that morning be down to a single cashier with numeracy issues, and that the proprietor of the local penny arcade would have chosen that precise moment to drop by and deposit his last six months’ takings.

So I went to my lunch destination directly, and was most indignant on finding a scruffy little bus occupying most of the car parking spaces outside the pub. I hung around until someone left, then slotted the car into their vacated space with a sense of pride only partially mitigated by the subsequent discovery that there were two huge and completely empty car parks to the side and rear of the establishment.

I had been avoiding the Cook & Barker at Newton-on-the-Moor for the best part of 20 years, ever since I went there for lunch with my then fiancée and found the place full of rampaging children, like a kindergarten next door to a drugs factory that had just suffered a catastrophic explosion in its “uppers” production unit. Unusually, I wasn’t the cause of the trouble. After the fifth or sixth time that some noisome brat had run up to our table and bashed it hard enough to risk upsetting our drinks, my partner politely called across to its parents to enquire whether they’d mind awfully keeping their child under control. And immediately a deathly silence descended as everyone else in the place stopped what they were doing so that they could turn to stare in utter horror at the sociopathic child abusers. It was the only time in my life that I have ever felt like the centrepiece of a Bateman cartoon. I resolved never to return, but then Paul the PR genius suggested it as an alternative to trekking down to the centre of Newcastle, and I thought: why not?

The first thing that struck me was the remarkable change in the age balance of the customer base. True, there was one “special needs” brat of eight or so gurgling pointlessly nearby, but the most striking feature was the long refectory tables in the cavernous back room, where the contents of the elderly bus were doing their best to steer doubtless pre-chewed food into their ancient mouths. I only glanced at them briefly, but it looked like feeding time at a Galapagos tortoise sanctuary. Luckily, there was a table available by the window of the bar, and I occupied a strategic position there until Paul arrived. The menu was impressively original by Northumberland pub standards, not that that is saying much, and Paul’s fresh grilled sardines and liver, bacon and black pudding both looked delicious. My starter of crab and prawn risotto was very good, too, while the subsequent lasagne was undoubtedly home-made rather than from the ubiquitous 3663 frozen foodservice van. My only reservation is that I am enough of my mother’s son to doubt the appropriateness of sticking a huge slice of melon in something billed as a side salad. Most of an avocado pear, yes; I can wear that. But melon? I kept thinking of that indignant Yorkshire couple from The Catherine Tate Show. And their catchphrase: “The dirty bastards!”

It took us some time to get out of the place, as all the geriatrics from the bus filed up to the bar and paid for their meals individually. In the course of this, I overheard perhaps the least appealing chat-up line of all time, as one old bat primped her implausibly golden hair and addressed her male companion with these honeyed words: “I don’t like being a widow much; you have to pay all your own bills.” I suppose at least he knows where he stands; most of the women I have taken out over the years have had precisely the same objective, but haven’t cared to state it quite so explicitly.

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