Today I found myself in a client office of a run down west midlands town near Birmingham. As the pangs of lunchtime hunger take hold I take to the High Street. My rationale? It won’t be as bad as all that.
A worker in the office asked what time I was staying until? Before I answer he says “get out before four o’clock.” He doesn’t say why.
After perusing the delights of Wilkinson – 5 paintbrushes for £2 – I settle upon Wino’s café for lunch. (That’s one letter astray from it’s actual name, yet rather closer to reality.) The reason for this choice is that belief that local businesses should be supported, culinary gems are oft overlooked and you’re not really getting a flavour of a town by feeding in an identikit eatery.
On this occasion only the latter holds up to scrutiny.
Call me a snarky puppy if you like – although they are an amazing band – but I have just had the most depressing, soulless lunchtime experience. When Europeans, Americans et al complain about British food these days, I get all uppity and defend some of the amazing scoff we churn out (privileged as I am to have savoured it). However, if they’d have eaten here as their sample I’d be throwing myself under a bus in sympathy.
Above the counter are those hi-vis starburst cards with legends including “Soup, Bread & Butter (Asst Varieties) £1.99” and “Tins of Pop 95p”. Behind the counter is a worker who, on first acquaintance, appears to have melted. Nope, just a lot of miles on the clock. On closer inspection I become alarmed that she was in the last throes of dying right in front of me. Surely not? Hidden cameras? A spoof? She’s not moving… Momentarily I become convinced it was a low budget science-fiction scene where those around me are trapped in some evil slo-mo hell. A panicky glance out to the street proved that time, at least outside this weird new dimension, is passing normally.
She breathes again.
The glacial movement, then tortured process of mishearing, re-asking, eventually taking an order and writing it down. The asking for the money then crawling to the till then coming back with the change then going back to the till then taking the written order and asking if there was “pie” “yes chicken” “is that awlroight?” Yes it is” then handing over the order slip.
It was all I could do not to SCREAM.
In time, I am left standing with my scrap of paper with the number 10 on it. I didn’t ask for a till receipt: now I can’t face it.
I select the least sticky table and sit. I blend in by carefully arranging my Wilko bounty in a display of visible camouflage and drool quietly with my mouth half open staring into space. I survey fellow diners. A startling collection of teen Mums and trolley dragging blue-rinsers. The radio plays a mix of bland pop and grating static. My head throbs.
Time passes. I am a little closer to death.
Then a member of staff of indeterminate gender/age yet considerable girth – replete with a bemusing food-preparers hairnet – arrives with an oval plate groaning with pie, chips and gravy. With effort I straighten the tines of my cheap fork. I dig in to the steaming repast and am rewarded with the most rapid case of indigestion in the developed world. I expect I have gone a funny colour. I consider a “tin of pop” and then realise I’d be dead by the time she got to the fridge and back.
I ride it out. Time passes. Nobody notices. I slowly eat some more.
I get up, collect my Wilko bags and leave, never to return.
We are very lucky in this country in so many ways. In addition, I consider myself lucky I don’t live here.
Epilogue: The cafe is for sale for £37k. Don't buy it. No, wait: do. Then immediately shut it down.