On the Eurostar I sat in the baby carriage. This is my perversion: having survived the growth of my own four, I get a creepy thrill being in situations where I don’t have to parent, but can just watch the mess and the mayhem. Anyway, the two trim French couples seated by me had three kids between them, a baby and two older boys, all infuriatingly well-behaved. The adults drank champagne from plastic flutes and joked about a toastie they’d got from the buffet which was grouted to its greasy wrapping by melted, solidified cheese. I sat there, observing their bonhomie and lifting morsels of hard Manchego and oatcake to the tightly puckered anus of my mouth.
On the Métro I looked enviously at a couple of homeless people who were passing a bottle of red between them – envying their inebriation if not their destitution. I considered buying a white chocolate Twix from a vending machine, but I didn’t have €2 to hand, and besides I’d decided on a virtuously low-calorie evening. Food, I thought as I mounted the steps at the Cadet stop, who needs it? Well, the Roma woman propped against the wall opposite the Folies Bergère, for starters. Baby at her rumpled breast, paper cup in outstretched hand, she was clearly just waiting hungrily in this most inauspicious begging location for François Hollande to turn her to his electoral advantage.
The room at the Mercure Monty Opéra was beastly hot and priced at 100 white chocolate Twixes; there was space in it only for a double bed and a minibar the size of a shoebox. In the minibar there were a couple of Cokes, a pathetic little flagon of Scotch and a squat cylinder of Pringles. I shook the Pringles and the sound was as of dirt pattering on to the lid of a coffin. I consulted the tariff – they were priced at three Twixes! Six fucking euros! Never before in the history of snacking, I thought, had so much been charged for so little moreishness.
But I was hungry – there was no denying it, standing there in my cerement pants and nibbling on one of those cinnamon biscuits the size of a fingernail that come wedged in beside the sugar sachets on complimentary tea trays the wide world over. There was nothing for it – I would have to venture out. It was 1am by then, and the Roma woman and her baby had been removed to some place of greater peril. On the Boulevard Montmartre there were still late-night strollers, and smokers standing outside bars; the staff were only just beginning to stack the tables at the Café Méditerranée. I stood looking in through the open hatch of the kebab bar. More than almost any other fast-food joint, the kebab bar seems to excel at assimilation, gathering into itself the sweetmeats of its host country and regurgitating them in new and vomitous forms. Did I really want to eat the disturbing chimera I could see being concocted before my very eyes, a crêpe with shish meat and salad wrapped into it? Well . . . yes, I very much did, but I adjured myself: how can you . . . with your issues?
Instead I ordered a crêpe jambon, oeuf et fromage, and watched enthralled as the kebab man poured the batter on to the circular griddle, waited a minute, then cracked an egg on to the fast-firming surface; waited a few more then sprinkled the grated cheese, added a couple of fatty ham slices, asked me if I’d like salad, before finally wielding spatula and fingers to fold the whole improbability into a tightly wrapped bouquet.
You know how it is when you eat something just knowing it’s going to make you feel sick; worse than that, when you begin eating the sick-making food already nauseous, yet munch on just the same? Lying in bed back in the hot box, I bit into one end of the creepy crêpe, cursing myself for a fool – and at once a jet of hot gleet shot from the other end on to the sheets. Did I stop, dear reader? No, I did not. I wolfed the creepy crêpe down, and d’you know what, I think it was probably the best meal I’ve had all year. Indeed, the only thing that could’ve made it more piquant would’ve been for a well-behaved French child to be sitting in the corner watching me make a pig of myself.
Next issue: Madness of Crowds