In Brixton, there is a Japanese restaurant on Coldharbour Lane that you only go to if you don’t make it to Fujiyama. I don’t know why it’s not as popular as Fujiyama. It’s closer to the tube station. Its muzak is no more awful than the Jamiroquai they insist on playing at its equally mediocre counterpart. Its food is by no means terrible as long as you don’t order anything remotely Chinese or Thai from the afterthought menu at the back of the folder. At the end of the dinner, you get teeth-breaking mints and at Christmas they give you tacky wicker calendars with badly drawn pink and yellow animals on them. To say I don’t look forward to their tacky wicker calendars every year would be a bald-faced lie. They’re usually from three years ago and are totally fucking useless. I like to hang them in my toilet as if they are a Picasso and I am John Lennon.1
But there are other reasons people go to this restaurant, barring the drunken use of the customer toilet in a critical moment post-tube, when the hundred yards to Fujiyama seems like five thousand miles and an embarrassing trouser incident away.
The restaurant boasts a holding pen at the entrance to the place. You know the kind of thing I mean and if there’s a name for it I’d like to know it. The outer door from the street that opens onto a square of space just big enough for the sweep of the door. It’s carpeted with four Tetris’d welcome mats. There is just enough room enough for two people if they’ve already been introduced but not enough for three. It is most definitely an awkward size if your plan is to open the second door into the restaurant, which it is. The walls are glass from about hip-height up and stop diners from freezing their tits off if they happen to be sitting at the table to the right of the door in winter. I have sat there and I have felt the cold, unwelcome effects of four drunkards trying to cram into the space, rendering the holding pen useless as the doors gape open and we all reach for our cardigans.
To the left of this pen there is a Table. It doesn’t look special: it’s round, black and polished like all the other tables in the joint. It’s in a small, warm, table-sized cul-de-sac. If it were a faux-Irish pub, they’d probably call it the Snug. Over the years, I have sat at nearly every table in this restaurant whose name I can’t even remember. Each time, and I mean every time, I have seen horrifying events taking place in that corner on the left of the door where the wind can’t reach and the people are never disturbed by the waiters or customers edging past on their way to the toilets. (PAY CUSTOMER ONLY, says the handwritten sign sellotaped to the window). The table, I imagine, must feel somewhat cut off from the rest of the place, which is, one presumes, why it’s used for what it’s used for.
Every time I have been there, hunched over a bowl of chicken ramen (top notch, I recommend it), I have witnessed a break-up. All kinds of break-ups: from the hideous, soul-wrenching, wailing kind to the “Oh, that’s fine. Are you eating that?” end of a relationship. I have seen the touching of the forearm, the eyebrows angled up in the middle and sliding down the sides of the face in horror or sympathy depending on which side of the table you’re on. I have mourned the abandoned starters and untouched dinners (they usually get it done early on in the piece but for some inexplicable reason always stay for dessert even though they aren’t – it must be said – very good). Then there are tears. Oh, so many tears. I once saw a guy end it with his girlfriend and as she covered her eyes with her hands he reached over and stole one of her ebi gyoza. It was gone before she looked up and the crime went unnoticed.
I doubt people go into the place with this as their plan. Does the table hold magical, mind-clarifying properties, where people see a wrong in their lives and try to right it over their yaki soba? (Also good, I’d give them a 3 out of 4). Do the staff see beyond the polite smiles of newly arrived diners, glimpse a deep well of unhappiness and seat them accordingly? I believe it must the latter.
Arriving one night with my boyfriend, we were greeted by a waitress. Not our usual one (a middle-aged Japanese lady with a plait of long grey hair) but a nonplussed thing of about sixteen. “Table for two, please.” She looked at us and directed us to The Table, the closest unoccupied seat to where we were standing. It glared back at us, a black howling abyss in the corner of the Japanese restaurant. I saw an obviously local couple at another table look up with a start, their chopsticks paused aloft. I made a faltering step towards The Table. My boyfriend bit his lip.
Our usual waitress came running from the kitchen, her plait almost horizontal in her wake. “Sit here!” she said, and pulled a chair out, inviting me to sit down at a table close to the bar. If she had leaned down and whispered, “Not yet,” I would not have been surprised in the slightest.
1Now let’s assume that everything I think is a universally shared experience. There are things in your head that were always there: you can’t remember when they arrived and you probably never invited them in. This is one of those. I have believed this thing about John Lennon for my entire time on this earth, or at least whatever part of that involved knowing who John Lennon and Pablo Picasso were. I only learnt that it never fucking happened yesterday. In defiance I am leaving this stupid line in the hopes of planting some bogus seed so that one day, I can point at the internet and say “There. There, see? I told you I was right.”