Being a sensitive soul (no, really), I was struck by my old mucker Nick Lezard’s plaint about his Thanksgiving predicament in his column in the issue before last. If you’ll recall, he said that his parents were too old to stand around in the kitchen cooking a turkey et cetera (the et cetera are the trimmings), then there was a palpable half-beat pause in the prose before he supplied an ironic afterthought: “Come to think of it, so am I.” Hearkening to his catarrhal wheeze against this dual-generational dying of the light, and wanting to do a bit more for him than just chortling at his misfortune week after week, I arranged to descend on the Hovel with some care cigarettes: I’ve given up and am de-accessioning one of the finest tobacco stashes still in private hands. Anyway, I thought we might have a sort of freelancers’ Christmas party together; usually I just stand by myself in the corner of my writing room, chug on a bottle of crap white wine while shouting at the wall, then masturbate under the desk. When I wake up a couple of hours later I swear I’ll never do it again – but perhaps if I did it with poor Tiny Nick (or so I unreasoned), I might feel more wholesomely festive.
I had an ulterior motive as well: I can’t be alone among regular readers of Nick’s column in finding his portrayal of the Hovel slightly implausible; this, despite knowing him personally for twenty years and having witnessed his complete inadequacy in the face of the most routine household tasks (apart from cooking). Trust me, he is indeed completely boracic – the last pot he was pissing in has long since appeared in the window of Cash Converters by the Edgware Road – but the Gormenghast-inflected portrait of his gaff, complete with rats, filth, cobwebs and indigent ne’er-do-wells, has always struck me as a little de trop. I had to find out for myself whether it was really that bad, and perform a public service by either exploding the myth or confirming the reality. Anyway, the day before I was due to chip up, Nick emailed suggesting he feed me.
Such largesse! There were further exchanges about my high-class food intolerances before he settled on the idea of doing pork belly. Then, approximately three hours before I was due to arrive, he texted saying perhaps it would be better if I ate before I came. Narked – but still sensitive – I texted back asking if he was broke, but the reply came: “No more than usual, it’s just that I’ve had a rather large and bibulous lunch at the Gay Hussar . . . however, there are leftovers available.” This mollified me: despite his inability to put on his own underpants (the problem occurs when he’s lifted the first leg up; forgetting he’s done so, he’ll often raise it a second time, fall heavily, and spend hours unconscious before he’s discovered) Nick is a superb cook and his leftovers would be anyone else’s culinary triumph.
From without in the chilly night, the Hovel – which is a maisonette above a shop – looked cosy; I could see lamplight and books ranged on shelves. Mein host appeared pretty chipper as well when he answered the door. He led me up tip-tilted stairs past a half-landing piled high with old wine boxes; on the scruffy carpet pile lay dust-devils the size of tumbleweeds, while the walls and doors were covered with bilious textured wallpaper of a kind I’d last seen in a B&B in Bideford circa 1974. In the kitchen there was a lot of lino, some of it on the floor, and a shelf of greasy jars and sticky bottles full of desiccated crap. Somewhere in there, I was convinced, would be a small canister of arrowroot that no one had ever opened. But the sink and cooker, though old, appeared serviceable – and there were good smells wafting from the oven. Nick took a pot of boiling rice off the hob; I held the strainer and we drained it together.
Then, just before he was about to dump the rice in the casserole with the lamb I reminded him again about my vampirism: “You’re absolutely sure there’s no garlic in that lamb?”
“Well,” he conceded, “I probably used a clove or so when I was cooking it, but it’ll have long since deliquesced by now.”
“Um, Nick, that’s still some garlic. And anyway, let’s get real: no one cooks lamb with just one clove, now, do they?” He admitted that this was surpassing unlikely, and I – being, as I think I’ve remarked, sensitive to a fault – made light of it, saying: “That’s all right, I’ll just have some rice.”
So we sat in the Hovel’s front room at a table strewn with books and papers; Nick had a glass of wine, I had a plate of rice. It was pretty good rice, actually, and I savoured it as I looked about at the broken-backed furniture and the huge collection of valetudinarian “holiday” booze bottles some former flatmate had piled up in the nook by the book-filled fireplace. After supper I went upstairs for a piss. In the bathroom the bath had been turned into some sort of art installation: knock-kneed drying racks were arranged in it and draped with dog-eared fitted sheets. And I saw, lurking in the otherwise empty cabinet over the sink, a medieval box of Alka-Seltzer and thought: “I should be so lucky.”