THE MEAL I did not
eat comprised chicken fried with onions and a few cashew nuts tinged unevenly
with soy sauce. This occupied two-thirds of the plate, the remaining 120-degree
segment taken up by white rice. Someone behind the curtain dividing dining area
and kitchen had perhaps measured this with a protractor. The plate sat between
cuprous spoon and fork because my then wife and I were, by any glancing
judgment, not chopsticks people. To the fork’s left a bread plate was
surmounted by four small isosceles triangles of white bread, so smothered in
margarine that the only foreseeable purpose to which the faux bronze butter
knife could be put was to engineer its removal.
“Triangular,” I commented.
“I don’t know why you chose Chinese,” complained my
wife. “Have you ever liked a Chinese meal in your life?”
The meal that my then wife did not eat was the Chef’s
Special, Mongolian Lamb. I’m guessing it was about as Mongolian as my wife was,
with her fourth-generation Australian whine. Her fried rice certainly appeared
to be rice, but considering the quantity of oil still adhering to it in little
beads one might have been confused as to whether the frying process had already
taken place, or whether the table was a stop-off point on the way to the pan.
“Yes, I have.” I was feeling combative – she brought
that out in me – even though she was almost certainly correct. I thought I
could recall three other meals in different restaurants in towns along the Hume
Highway, which despite being the main route between Melbourne and Sydney and
about 550 miles long, was in those days mostly a single lane in each direction
and was not famous for its cuisine. I could not recall enjoying any. My
memories of the three meals, if there were indeed three, had fused together
into a glutinous compound of rice, cornflour and a pale orange-brown substance
that was almost certainly not dilute tea.
“Name one Chinese restaurant on Earth where you’ve
enjoyed a single mouthful.” The problem with my wife, as I knew at some level
from the moment we became engaged, was that she could never disengage. At that
time nor could I. Her hissing attracted a look or two from the other patrons –
a couple at the table next to us and another couple across the room, early diners
hoping to clock up a few more miles before checking into the next
cardboard-walled, substandard motel (if heading south) or arriving home (if on
the same northerly trajectory as we were).
“That one in Gundagai was good,” I said. “What was it
called? The Lantern or something.”
“Rubbish,” she whispered, as loudly as possible.
“You don’t have to eat it,” I said. “We could leave
everything and walk across to the pub. The pub looks fine. Just the way you
like it. Solid as Australia. Regular as the public service. I read the menu
She poked at a small strip of lamb with the tip of her
spoon. In any ethnic restaurant it was our practice to doubt the provenance and
more particularly the species of the meat. This dated to a tour-group holiday
three years earlier, in which we had spent a short time in the company of a
meat inspector from Darwin.
“What do you think this is?” she asked, in a tone that
could almost have suggested a riddle.
“Meat,” I said.
“Aren’t we all?”
The problem with my ex-wife was bluntness and
aggressive passivity that would make a cliff seem friendly, from top or bottom.
And stubbornness. She sat there without eating and without rising.
Problems, problems. The problem with me, according to
my wife, her family and her allies, was indolence. The problem with indolence
was that it had resulted in my lacking employment, a condition that limited my
capacity to spend my money on her because all the money we possessed (by
process of elimination of the non-earner) was hers.
“Would you like me to shout you a pub dinner too? And
after that maybe some Italian? If that doesn’t work, who knows what we could
find: Greek? Fijian? Icelandic?” asked my wife. “We could order and abandon
meals at every restaurant in town. I’ll just phone my parents and ask for an
advance on my inheritance.”
I’d heard this once or twice before and bit my lip
rather than suggest that if one were actually to kill her parents there would
be no need for a forward payment. I guessed she would not find this funny. My
wife’s parents were not appropriate material for jokes. Her father made clear
his dislike of me each time we met, and not so subtly. The employment section
of the paper was always open on the table. Lately I had noticed a further
downgrade, in that the Casual Work section was now highlighted. He had an
My wife’s mother simply ignored me, or addressed me
through her daughter: “Would he like a cup of coffee? Did he sleep badly?”
hypothesis came to me that my wife had deliberately brought her parents into
the conversation to ensure I lost my appetite completely. I studied the food
and concluded that it made no difference.
“So eat up then,” I said, “and stop complaining.”
Among the clumped rice and drying chicken on my plate
the cashews glistered like cartoon smiles in the weak lantern light. It was all
about as appetising as the thought of our lives together stretching into the
A family of four entered the restaurant with a
tinkling of the bells tied to the back of the door. The children were already
bemoaning the food. I could hear the older one rasping away, “Why do we have to
have Chinese Australian food? Why can’t we just
have Australian Australian food?”
The mother was responding with gritted-teeth though
ineffective patience: “It means they’ve got Chinese and
Australian food both.”
Wait ’til they saw it! Mu-um,
this is neither. This isn’t food at all. My sour face must have brought
the waiter, who had directed the newcomers to a table well away from us and
nearer to another couple, still waiting for their meals and now wearing
“Everything okay?” the waiter asked.
My wife had already started calling him Peter, as he
was labelled in black Dymo tape.
“Fine thanks,” I said, despite that being not the
“To be honest not so good, Peter,” said my wife.
Peter stopped. “The lamb?”
“The lamb’s foul and the chicken, well at least I
didn’t order the chicken,” she said, “but he is much, much worse.”
“He?” She’d done it perfectly: poor Peter was stuck
between the impulse to turn round and attend and that to run away. The sight
brought to life a memory of university, where I’d limped my way through a term
of Jean-Paul Sartre’s thinking before dropping out (if shallow limping is
conceivable). Sartre had been inspired to characterise the waiter-qua-waiter as
the epitome of living in bad faith: role-playing obsequiousness, exaggerated
formality, ostentation. Observing Peter’s response to my wife’s faux honesty, I
doubted Sartre had been musing on these most human behaviours in a Chinese
restaurant. The fluent nastiness with which my wife had pinned this waiter: it
was quite brilliant (brilliant, that is, other than using me as the lever for
her trap) and Peter’s face lost its waiterish composure immediately.
“Yes,” she continued. “He’s lazy, rude and he never
learns from his errors and misjudgments.”
“Stop it,” I told her. “This is unnecessary. Don’t pay
any attention to her, waiter.”
“I’m very sorry to you both. One moment please.” Peter
turned and almost ran behind the tasselled curtain. I wasn’t sure where he’d
scooted off to – to resign, effective immediately? Out back to reattach his
waiter’s persona? Back to his books to compose a quick critique of
“That wasn’t very nice of you,” I said. “You’ve upset
“Ha! It’s always nice to introduce a little honest
intercourse here and there.”
“No. It’s not always nice at all. Let’s just go. I’m
going,” I told her. “You coming with me?”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree on this. I’m not
finished eating yet,” she said, picking up her fork and prodding a single tine
half-heartedly at the lamb.
“You haven’t started.”
I hadn’t moved either. We had one car parked outside
and 120 miles to our destination. I could have left her there, abandoned with
nothing to sustain her but coloured cornflour; or I could have dropped the keys
on the table, stormed out and caught a train to somewhere, picturing myself
with the cold glass of the carriage windows and the stink of steel friction, an
olfactory undertone to the cigarette smoke. I could have ended our marriage
there and then, a thought that recurred occasionally during our years together
after that moment. If only I had left her back then in 1968, in that Chinese
restaurant, what a life I would have lived! But at that moment I did not have
the foresight or the purposefulness and I did not move.
Peter returned with a thin perspiring man in a stained
“This is Alfred,” said Peter. “You tell him what you
want. He’s the boss.”
“He tells me you’re not happy,” said Alfred. “How can
I help you?”
“It’s all okay,” I said (diner-qua-diner).
“Look at this lamb,” said my wife, sawing rapidly and
ineffectively at it with the side of her spoon. “Very tough.”
“Bring the lady a knife,” said Alfred, as though he
were compelled to speak commandingly. Peter, who had been half-hovering,
half-hiding behind Alfred, looked relieved to be sent away from us again. He
disappeared into the kitchen.
“And look at him,” she said, pointing at me with her
spoon tip. “He’s my husband, you know, and just look at him.”
I feared she would say more, describe the shame I
brought to her family or list my various failures and shortcomings, but Alfred
didn’t give her the chance.
“He, I cannot help you with,” he said.
A guest at the next table chose that moment to wave
his own spoon. “Excuse me, excuse me. When you have a moment, mate. This soup
is not hot.”
“You shouldn’t have ordered vichyssoise, old-timer,”
commented my wife for my benefit, sotto voce. After her non-specific venting
about me to Alfred my wife seemed to settle into a quieter bitterness. The man
and woman at the other table were not in fact old. They were about our age, and
my wife must have forgotten that we had also aged. Alfred had taken up one of
the soup bowls and was holding it with both hands cupped, presumably to assess
Peter meanwhile was
negotiating unsuccessfully with the newcomers. The two children had already
crossed the room once more and stood at the door.
“Let’s go, let’s
go,” called the larger of the two, who might have been six or seven. The
smaller one, who was at most three years old, turned it into a chant, “Le-et’s
go! Le-et’s go,” until the father pulled open the door with some more tinkling
and an exaggerated apologetic wave, and they were gone.
Alfred was still holding the small soup bowl. I turned
halfway round to look at the neighbours’ meals. The soup must have been a side
dish because there was also a plate in front of each of them and a tub of rice.
They had no bread and butter. Had they asked for authentic food? If so, it
looked disappointing. The meals the couple weren’t eating were something like
prawns with carrots and beans for her and a brown gelatinous gloop that I took
to be beef with black bean sauce. They had been given both Western cutlery and
The woman was holding a single chopstick. I must have
fixed on this more intently than I was aware of because she stopped picking at
a carrot with it and stared straight back at me.
“Why don’t you take a damned photograph. It’ll last
longer,” she muttered.
“No damned camera,” I said.
“Shhh,” said my wife, which was a bit rich considering
her contribution to our enjoyment of the evening up to that point.
“Too late,” I told her. The man stood up. He was about
my height though perhaps chunkier, broad in that manner that makes it difficult
to tell whether he was strong or just fat.
“Listen here,” he commenced, wagging a thick finger in
“Siddown, boofhead,” I said.
“Please,” said Alfred. “Gentlemen.”
“You keep a civil tongue, mate. I won’t have you
talking to my wife,” the other man grumbled. His posture was threatening to
bring him forward, but he stayed where he stood and after a further two or
three seconds of gesturing he did as I’d suggested.
“Thank you,” said Alfred. If anything, he was even
sweatier than he had been, positively diaphoretic.
“What a pair of dickheads,” said my wife.
“Yep,” said the carrot eater.
“You’re no better,” said my wife, with exaggerated
emphasis. “You actually started it.”
I estimated the number of additional friends she would
make by the end of our meal at zero. I did not estimate the length of the meal.
The carrot eater swore. My wife gave three claps of
“Listen,” said Alfred. “You must stop these bad
manners or you must leave.”
“Bad manners is the only aspect of this place keeping
us here. Otherwise the attractions are pretty limited,” said carrot eater. I
laughed for the first time that evening.
Alfred scowled briefly, but controlled his expression
and switched to a concerned smile.
Peter returned with a knife for my wife. He crossed to
the family’s abandoned table and removed the tablecloth, making himself
extremely busy away from my wife’s potential speeches. The four plates of food
sat untouched in their places, looking less and less like the photographs in
the restaurant window. The only reason my wife stayed put was that I had
suggested leaving. Perhaps the other couple stayed so as not to appear to yield
the restaurant to us. Interesting how Anglos think of the Chinese as being the
ones obsessed with losing face. For a moment I considered explaining this to
“I will bring you new soup,” Alfred offered the other
couple and, turning to us, still with his fixed smile, “but you, I won’t offer
you anything, the way you make trouble for everyone. You stay or you go, it’s
up to you, but no more arguing.”
He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, inelegantly
took up the soup bowls and exited behind the curtain.
“I wasn’t clear on that. Did that include arguing with
each other?” I asked my wife.
“Scene two,” said my wife. “Later the same evening in
the same bloody restaurant. All are silent.”
“Scene three,” I said, “in which someone spills sweet
and sour sauce and someone else cleans it up.”
“Shut up, will you,” said Carrot, apropos, as they
say, of nothing. Her nuggety husband glared at me, ready to leap to her defence
in case I was tempted to respond.
“You see that?” I said to my wife. “You see that?
That’s a solid relationship.”
“Just ignore them,” said Nugget, taking up his chopsticks
inexpertly. I realised he was no more skilled with chopsticks than I was. He
attempted to pick up a bean but it dropped onto the tablecloth.
My wife exaggeratedly waggled her head childishly and
repeated, “Just ignore them.”
“Why didn’t we get chopsticks?” I whispered.
“And don’t whisper.”
Nugget gave up on the chopsticks and folded his
arms. Alfred, now luminescent with dampness, returned with two soup bowls. The
couple across the room were attempting to attract Alfred’s attention: their
food had not yet arrived. Each had an arm in the air. Alfred set down the soup
on Carrot and Nugget’s table, where the bowls sat steaming and untouched. After
an interminable pause the steam ceased. Peter peered out through the kitchen
doorway every now and then in case something had changed. Perhaps he was hoping
the restaurant would have emptied. We stayed, my wife and I, preparing to
sleep, to lay down our heads amid the dishes and cutlery, our neighbours in
their moods, the lace curtains against the front window shifting with each