There are too many salads at M&S.
Indeed, I defy anyone to go into a (large) M&S and pick a sandwich and/or salad without questioning whether chief Marc Bolland has gone completely nuts.
“Ok, ok, quit harassing me Steve [Rowe, executive director, food]!” Marc cries at board meetings. “If you really want to add another five salads, and offer the consumer even more choice, we will do it!”
Well Marc, let me fill you in with my stress over fillings.
It’s Monday. As per usual, I’ve forgotten my packed lunch, and I’m pressed for time. I hurry along the road, into M&S, down the escalator and am confronted with a massive wall of salads in plastic pots.
There are the big, mayonnaise-y type salads, the always dry-looking tuna nicoise salads, some crazy new wholefood superfood nutty salad, and most of them come with pomegranate. There are hundreds more I can’t mention here.
Ok, one step at a time. I like to work by process of elimination to narrow my choice and thereby translate my efficiency in the office to being efficient in M&S.
- I instantly dismiss the layered three cheese “salad”.
- It’s not too hard to move past the old honey chicken and mustard pasta salad, or that deceptively tiny sundried tomato and feta cheese pasta salad. Here today, still here tomorrow. I think they’ve been there since about 2006 and I’m over it.
- Falafel! I never buy it – too much humus, too little of anything else – but for some reason it will always be a possibility.
I step back to survey the selection once more, while those around me tut in irritation. Yes, I took a plunge, I made a mistake – and now I am paying for my idiocy.
Oh, get out of my way, office person, with your stupid shopping basket with one apple in it. You have too much time on your hands.
It is like an overcrowded aquarium in here. We are moving slowly together, all fascinated by the shiny and strange sea of plastic, all wanting to touch and sniff, before being battered by an onslaught of equally hungry tourists.
No, scrap the aquarium. This is like a conveyor belt or a ski lift – you battle to hop on, but once you are on, you have no choice but to travel another circuit before reaching the Waldorf salad.
I am irritated now. It’s taken me almost ten minutes to get here, it will take almost ten minutes to get back, and I’ve not even eaten a crumb yet. I’ve wasted a third of my precious lunch hour with these shopping basket nincompoops, who are even worse than me at choosing a meal.
Time to concentrate and get the hell out of here, I think, as I’m forcefully nudged round to the next aisle.
I manage to pick up a new salad in each hand – one is buckwheat, goat cheese, blueberry and quinoa. The other is quinoa, beetroot, feta cheese and buckwheat.
THEY ARE THE SAME SALADS!!
My vision is blurring and my mind is whirring as I play spot the difference. I am wasting my life analysing salads, and I would much rather have a bagel.
The office worker with the apple in his basket is back. He looks like he’s concentrating very hard through his glasses, in a rush to get back, with, ideally, a salad.
We are all in a mild state of panic and regret. Marc Bolland, look what you have done to us.
I leave the shop, sustainable tuna sandwich in hand, and feel very disappointed with life, with myself, and with the lingering temptation to dash back in for a cookie.
Adventurer, free thinker, party animal, crafty. Treehugger. Princess. Poet. Professional. Music Snob. Nightowl. Animal Lover. Beach Bum. Gamer. Hedonist. Maker. Intellectual. Yuppee. Yogi. Tattood.
All interesting choices.
As I scroll down the long, long list of options to ‘describe myself’ on a dating website – let’s call it “plenty of crabs in the capital” – I discover the list is severely limited.
There is nothing on here about cynicism, sarcasm, brutal honesty, self-loathing or scrubs up nicely. Kind of amusing, vaguely talented, does alright for herself when she puts her mind to it. Eats too much cheese.
Sum yourself up in one word.
Bookworm. Brogrammer. Chef.
Party animal versus wallflower. Hmm. Depends how drunk I am, how good looking the boys are, whether I remembered my sleeping bag.
It’s never one word, though, is it? Even at corporate icebreaker events, they give you at least three words. Five words makes a sentence, complete with verb. You can show off, then.
What about this: “coffee snob”.
I press “submit” and “save changes” to my profile.
Perfect. It makes me sound like I’m too good for this online stuff. It makes me sound haughty, like I have an angular chin, and morals, and that I read the Daily Telegraph.
It makes me sound like I’m a yuppie-wannabe and I use hashtags – only in an ironic way, of course. I might be in the lower tax bracket but I have aspirations. I eat at stylish chain restaurants, like Bill’s and Wahacas.
I look down at my polystyrene Costa Coffee cup. The white plastic is stained from my dribbling.
Oh dear. I’m not fooling anyone. I pick up my soya latte and slurp continuously.
You see, there is no word here to sum me up. Yes, I am unique! I am!
I have hugged a tree, but only once, when I got a Groupon voucher for a combat class and that was how we relaxed at the end. I’d love to describe myself a starving artist but I definitely have a bit of spare beef. And despite being extremely picky, I’m not a vegetarian.
The coffee is cold. But I still drink, determined to digest my £2.35 worth. If I saved £2.35 every day, I could go to Vietnam for three months and discover myself properly, because I only half-discovered myself after that long weekend in Leeds.
I need to get this right. Otherwise I’ll never go on a date ever again. Apparently ‘everyone’ is on here, and thankfully I’ve bumped into no one.
I wonder how they’ve described themselves?
My coffee breath is rank. The alpro soya milk is curdling in my stomach. I’m kind of nervous, and my hand shakes.
I decide against “coffee snob”; I scroll down, I press ‘rock star’.
It shows I have a sense of humour.
It’s a funny thing, when there are a group of twenty somethings in a living room, debating whether or not to go out. Like, out out. Not just out.
If you go out, you will probably regret it as it could well be rubbish. If you don’t go, you will feel old. If you decide to go but then back out, you’re a loser. But if you say you won’t go and change your mind at the last minute, you are the true hero.
I don’t have the energy to go out. In fact, I’m going out out less and less. I start shaking if I don’t eat every four hours, sometimes I hold onto the banister when I go upstairs, and I often feel like I’ve gone to the moon when I’ve had an espresso.
Every time I catch my reflection in the dark window opposite me in the tube, I get a shock at the haggard white face looking back at me. When I stand still on the moving escalator, I spot the “Tired of being tired?” advert and start to nod vigorously.
I kind of wish I had a doctor’s note for this. It might give me a more plausible excuse to not go to the pub. Or even worse, clubbing.
I don’t have FOMO – the fear of missing out. I have FOMOO8HS – fear of missing out on 8 hours sleep.
But I don’t want to tell this to the group of assembled youths. They still think I’m one of them, and we’re trying to have a nice time.
If it had been just for a quick diet coke I might have joined. I tell the group this.
“If we were just going for one diet coke I might have joined you,” I say.
“Diet coke has a lot of carcinogenics,” says Bill.
Bill is the glue of this group in some ways, with bright red hair, a passion for milky drinks and a feisty spirit on the badminton court. Bill has no qualms with not going out. He plays to his strengths and bows humbly in the face of his weaknesses.
“A normal coke, then,” I say.
Laura, the cool cousin who has just jetted in from Oz, has a work visa for the next two years and is definitely going out. Out all the way. I feel old next to her with my carcinogenic coke.
“I’m much betta,” she says. “I’m on a second wind. Let’s go out now, before I lose my second wind and before I stop feeling betta.”
I look at the clock. 10.30pm. Bloody hell.
Calm down, there’s still a solid eight hours left, if you can hop into bed, I tell myself. And we’ve had such a nice day, with the boat trip, the blankets, the fireworks and the cheese smorgasbord.
I’m pretty sure there’s still a healthy chunk of cambozola in the fridge.
“Can’t we just quit when we’re ahead?” I whisper. The quest for constant self-fulfillment is useless and degrading.
Jimbo is another youth in the group. He is much taller and broader than Bill, and he is going out out. The problem is he is sharing a room with Bill.
Bill sidles up to Jimbo, with an-almost-nervous air about him.
“Can you try not to be loud when you come back?” he asks.
Jimbo shrugs. “I’ll try, man.”
“I mean,” Bill continues. “Can you not switch the light on?”
Jimbo laughs. “I have to switch the light on to find my stuff.”
“You can lay out your stuff on your bed before you go out, then,” Bill says.
The image of Jimbo laying out his tartan PJs, washcloth and toothbrush on the bed doesn’t quite sit right.
Jimbo laughs heartily and slaps Bill’s shoulder. But Bill doesn’t laugh.
“You just need to wash your face and brush your teeth, right?” persists Bill.
“Oh fuck off, you’re annoying me now,” says Jimbo. “What I’m going to do, Bill, is I’m going to take off my clothes and slowly, gently spoon you.”
“I think that’s enough of that,” says Bill. “Good night everyone.”
Bill leaves, turning off the hall light as he goes.
Madeleine has also loped off to her quarters with jet lag due to a return flight from Asia. My train here only lasted 50 minutes or so from London, so no get-out clause for me there.
Hmm. I’m pretty sure there is also a hunk of smoked applewood cheddar on that smorgasbord. And some oatcakes on the counter. I know where the cutlery drawer is now, as the weekend is drawing to a close and I’ve got pretty comfortable in Richard’s parents home.
Richard starts talking about getting a round of Jaeger bombs and red bull – “I’ve never felt betta,” piped up Laura – and I start to feel palpitations, thinking of my last experience with a Jaeger bomb.
FOMOO8HS is really kicking in. We could end up talking about something and sit here for at least another hour. I know what Tim and John are like on the subject of the subtle influence of neo-Nazism in children’s song lyrics and the Golden Dawn party. Laura would be on her sixth wind before they got out the door.
Plus, I haven’t been at all productive this weekend therefore I should not go out. I’ve barely read a chapter of my book. I didn’t even finish the date page in the Guardian weekend magazine.
“Night, kids,” I say hastily, jumping up. I get head rush and sit back down for a second.
I head upstairs, past the kitchen, with a cheeky slice of brie in my fist, undiscovered.
“You kids have fun,” I call down the stairs.
My nightgown and cap, face cloth and toothbrush are neatly laid out on my bed.
I finish the Guardian date page. He ranks her 7.5 and would “gladly see her again”. She ranks him 6 and would maybe “bump into him as friends”.
Life can be cruel.
I hear the door slam and the troupe of youths pass under Bill’s window, cooing like wood pigeons and giggling. Bill lies determinedly in the dark, wearing his ear plugs.
It’s 10.50 pm. I smile to myself. Bill and I have won. FOMOO8HS will not defeat us for another night.
You envisaged a kind of calm, peaceful four and a half hour coach journey back to London after a weekend trip in Leeds. You are prepared for the trip with your green M&S bag containing a sandwich, salad (yes, both) and various choccie treats – along with a big, rustling broadsheet and a sneaky packet of Quavers.
Or at least, for the first thirty miles.
A young innocent male approaches the back of the bus, steps gingerly over my bag of treats and smiles down at me for a moment, before slipping into the toilet. What a nice chap. How pleasant we all are to each other on this coach.
I go back to munching, chumping, reading the food supplement and commenting to my friend beside me. I’m very happy and it’s all lovely jubbly.
Oh, what’s this? A cheesecake recipe. Oh, yummy. Maybe I should try this out later…
I fall asleep for a minute or two – the bus is like a warm lullaby, safely rolling me back to the south, where there are more planes than stars and where the light pollution means we don’t wonder about the wider universe.
I wake up to find yet another man budging my bag of choccies to get the toilet.
“There’s someone in there,” I tell him.
He smiles, shrugs, and sits back down.
“How odd,” I said. “That other man is still in the toilet.”
I look at the clock and realise I’ve been dozing and jerking my head up and down for a good thirty minutes.
He’s been in the toilet thirty minutes?
I suppress a small giggle. Maybe he had a curry. Or a hangover.
The smile fades when I realise I am sitting at the very back of the bus, in close proximity of the toilet door, and any unpleasant smell radiating from it would put me off my choccy-woccies.
My friend is now reading the paper’s educational supplement and I get back to studying the cheesecake recipe.
But, somehow, I can’t concentrate. I keep reading the same lines over and over – two lemons, lemon zest, half-tub of macaroni: wait, what, macaroni?
Focus, stupid. It says mascarpone.
Two lemons, lemon zest, vanilla essence—
Why hasn’t that man come out the toilet?
“Very odd,” I say to my friend next to me. “That that man hasn’t come out the toilet.”
The Indian man in front of me overhears and turns round.
“Is someone in the toilet?” he asks.
“Yes, someone has been in there for thirty minutes now.” I said.
He looks slightly worried.
At this point, a girl with purple hair comes up the aisle. Again, my bag of choc-tactics has to be moved aside.
“There’s someone in there,” I told her. “They’ve been in there well over thirty minutes. I have no idea what’s going on.”
The girl with purple hair approaches the door cautiously, and knocks. Nothing. She knocks twice more. No response.
The Indian man in the row in front looks over his shoulder again.
“Was it a male or a female?” he says.
Something in the air has changed. We all know it.
“A male,” I reply gravely.
The woman with purple hair marches straight down the aisle to tell the driver, and returns holding what looks like a coin.
“The driver told me to “just open it, love!”,” she says.
My friend is giggling nervously behind her education supplement. The man who had tried to get in the toilet is turned in his seat. The Indian man is visibly nervous.
The girl with the purple hair looks helpless with the coin in her hand. I know what she’s thinking. If she’s going down, we’re all going down with her. The A1 motorway will be our final resting place.
She bravely jams the coin in the lock and starts to twist.
The words on my cheesecake recipe are blurred and confused: macaroni, vanilla of lemon zest, rind of gelatine…
My friend is stuffing a fist in her mouth to stifle another nervous giggle. The Indian man has unbuckled his seat belt and is ready to jump out the emergency exit.
My heart is racing. I am actually scared and wishing I’m not opposite the toilet. If he has a gun, I’m a direct target. If we keep the door shut, surely we’re more likely to survive?
It was a male. In the toilet. He’s locked himself in the toilet! He’s a toilet bombe—
The door opens.
“Oh,” she says. “There’s no one in there.”
My heart slows a fraction, and my sweaty hands gripping the cheesecake recipe relax. I ignore the accusing look from the original man who had tried to get in the toilet and the girl with purple hair.
But the Indian’ man’s eyes are still wide.
“Is there a window in there?” he asks.
I can now clearly see the “terrorist” reading the Guardian near the front of the bus. The red “locked” sign on the door was faulty and just needed jiggling.
As the coach grumbles and lurches into Victoria station that evening, I can’t help but reflect how we’d not only undergone a journey from Leeds to London, but a metaphorical journey of discovery – discovering how melodrama can reach unprecedented levels.
There are doubtless countless times in a person’s life when said person will realise their degree is useless.
For me, the latest question of self-worth posed itself at London zoo, when trying to pronounce the word “penguin”.
FYI: it’s “pingouin” in French. It’s all muffled vowels, and accents, and requires the human mouth to take on an odd and unnatural shape. Besides, I went to Durham University and we learnt things about Molière and… erm, other famous French writers, and they never mentioned penguins.
At the zoo, I was in the company of a person who spoke fluent French, and who could pronounce “pingouin” just fine.
As we approached the ticket booth, we were hustled in the queue by a smiley zoo employee teenager, armed with a camera.
“Take a picture time!” she said. We huddled together and grimaced against the cold, but cheered up on the thought that this could be included in the ticket price.
“Now pretend you’re tigers,” the teenager cried, throwing up her hands like claws. “Grrr!”
I was mortified.
“No,” I said.
“Rrrr.” The person beside me who spoke French had at least tried to feign enthusiasm. Maybe “rrr” is like “grrr” in French. Maybe he would rather speak in French?
We went straight for the most exciting part – the tiger cage.
“Les tigres,” I said to him, just to clarify. We walked around the entire enclosure, peering into every corner. But there were no tigers. “Pas de tigres,” I explained.
The person who spoke French nodded, comprehending.
I felt happy. This has to continue, I thought. We are bonding over random animal vocab.
London zoo is a funny world, in the middle of Regent’s Park. There are tigers (sometimes) and lions and very miserable-looking gorillas, but the free-flying pigeons and tree-climbing squirrels caused almost the same level of delight.
(Note: always say “again”, as it implies you already know it but just need a reminder).
Ah, not such an easy one.
“Aykeeroy…,” I tried. Unperturbed by his doubtful expression, I skipped over to Penguin Beach.
“Les penguins,” I said, on a mission to impress.
“Pingouin,” he corrected.
“Pangoo,” I nodded happily.
Penguin Beach was a frosty harbour – a few tiny, tufty birds waddled over to the fence and pressed their stomachs up against it. I had seen some YouTube videos of “ticklish penguins” the previous day. I decided these birds were more like prisoners asking to be rescued rather than asking to be tickled.
“I’ve learnt so much this afternoon,” I told the person who spoke French. “Aykeeroy, pingoo—“
“Actually,” he said, shuffling awkwardly. “It’s not really “pingouin”. In France people don’t really use that word.”
“Oh,” I said.
My degree is useless. I am qualified in nothing. Unless, of course, you want to talk about Molière or, erm, other famous French writers.
What could I do? Maybe a French accent.
“Oh, zat is… unfortunate,” I tried. “So what ze French call pengoo?”
Penguin Beach had fallen eerily silent. A few birds belly flopped into the pool; others waddled around, for no purpose. An irritated zoo guard shouted at the only other visitor present to stop “winding up” a penguin. Maybe she was tickling it. Or wanted to take it home.
The other penguins stared at us and we back at them; I thought maybe we should have visited Vauxhall City Farm instead.
We moved on. As we saw there were sadly no giraffes –or “giraffes” in French – (maybe they had shot them and fed them to Les Big Cats?), we headed for the exit.
“That was… très amusant,” I said. One last ditch attempt.
“Tu veux prendre un café?” he asked me. There, he had obliged me. There was my reward, my validation. I got a 2:1, you know.
I nodded and off we went au café to have un café.
Calls will cost 50 p per minute / I’m going to kill your daughter. It’s all the same, if you don’t speak Arabic. A parent hearing this whilst trying to get through to their offspring on holiday in Marrakesh can result in said parent having a near emotional breakdown.
As my plane landed at Gatwick on Friday evening, I checked my phone and saw four new voicemails from Dad. Four messages! Typical, I thought, if he can’t get hold of me straight away—
The first voicemail was cheerful enough: “It’s 2 o’clock on Wednesday 4th December,” he chirped. “Can you call me back?”
The second, with a more pressing tone: “Call me back, please? It’s 3.15 on Thursday 5th December.”
The third, quivering: “It’s now 4 o’clock on Friday the 6th – of December. Where are you? Call me now please.”
The fourth and final message as I walked down the plane steps, every word emphasized and menacing: “Rachael-I-am-dead-sick-worried-about-YOU. Call me as soon as you get this. It’s six o’clock on Friday the 6th of December!”
A text from mum followed: “Are you ok? Dad thinks you’ve been kidnapped by Arabs, but I told him you were on holiday.”
It turns out my dad had phoned me to ask, again, what I wanted for Christmas, and was shocked to hear a female Arab voice speaking unintelligible and, most likely, unthinkable things. He panicked.
Calls to this number may cost more than your usual tariff.
“She has my daughter hostage in the Moroccan desert!”
Please check rates with your normal phone provider.
“I have three days to pay up otherwise they will send her into the white slave trade!”
If you wish to leave a message, please wait for the beep.
“Please God, NO!”
I phoned dad as soon as I was in the taxi.
“Dad, it’s me,” I said. “It’s seven thirty, Friday the 7th of December. What on earth is going on?”
“Rachael, thank God!” he said.
I should probably point out that my dad does not have prejudices, although sometimes against the Scots (me and my sister) and occasionally, against customer services at Clydesdale Bank. What he does like with a great enthusiasm is Jon Snow, Cathy Newman, Krishnan Guru-Murthy – the whole Channel 4 News team – and Vince Cable. But, with surprising accuracy after a childhood spent in the Middle East, he can pinpoint a North African accent.
“Honestly, my heart skipped a beat when I heard that voice,” he said. “I’ve aged ten years! I had to phone your mother during her book group.”
“You phoned mum in the middle of her book group to tell her, without asking her where I was, that I had been kidnapped by Arabs,” I said. “Isn’t that a tad melodramatic?”
“Best to get straight to the point,” he said.
“I was on holiday,” I reasoned. “I’m sure I told you I was in Morocco with friends!”
“Rachael, for the sake of me – for the sake of your mother, please, just tell us where you are,” he begged. “You don’t need to tell me who you’re with or what you’re up to: frankly I’m not interested.”
“So you’re not interested in my life, you just want to be assured at all times that I’ve not been kidnapped by Arabs.”
“Correct. So how was your holiday?”
Parents sometimes have a strange way of expressing their concern.
I called dad last night, just for a chat.
“Rachael!” he cried. “How odd! I was just thinking about you!”
“You always say that,” I said. “But you never call me.”
“That isn’t true! So,” he bulldozed past a potentially emotional moment. “How are you? And what do you want for your birthday?”
“It’s two months away. I don’t know. How about cash in an envelope, like last year?”
“You think this is funny, but don’t you go writing about it on your blog,” dad warned me. “People will read it, think you have some rich dad, take you hostage and ask for ransom. And they’d probably kill you, whether or not I paid up.”
“Whether or not?!”
“Rachael, this happens all the time. In Venezuela, they’ll kidnap you for 500 dollars.”
“We’re not in Venezuela.”
“Well, just don’t go writing about me on your blog.”
“Do you really think I have nothing better to do than write about you all the time? Do you think that I call you deliberately to get material? Anyway, I never write your name, they wouldn’t know it was you.”
“There are very few Revesz’s in the UK. All they have to do is Google your name to find my name, thinking you have some rich dad stuffing cash into envelopes—“
“So what do you want for your birthday?”
“I’m not sure, It’s two months away. Let me think about it.”
“What do you want for your Christmas?”
“And that is three months away. What do you want for your Christmas?”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Ok, how about we exchange wads of cash? I can meet you down the docks at midnight before I hop on my return flight to South America.”
“Now, you listen to me, don’t you go writing about me on your blog.”
“I won’t. I write about plenty of other things, you know.”
“Now, what’s your address?” I could hear him chewing a pen.
“I’m writing it down on this envelope.”
“Good idea. I can send my hug over by return receipt.”
“I don’t want anything, I told you,” he huffed.
“What, even a letter from Margaret, head of customer services at Lidl, congratulating you for being their most loyal customer three years in a row?”
“No!” he cried. “Not again! I know it’s you. You think I’m stupid? There wasn’t even a Lidl logo on the letterhead.”
There was a silence, while we paused and reflected. He chewed his pen a bit more.
Finally he said: “Don’t go writing about me on your blog.”
“Ok, I promise.”
“I mean it Rachael!” he shouted. “Stop making me into a caricature!”
There was a pause.
“And don’t go to Venezuela,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”