Food for thought

Two elderly women at Yo Sushi. They’ve both made an effort for their lunch date today. The English woman is dressed conservatively compared to the American, although she might not think so herself. She wears a navy lambs-wool sweater and heart-shaped diamante earrings, striped wide-legged trousers and plimsolls. Her skin is paper white. The American is snazzy, in glittery knitwear and blue eye-shadow. Her white blouse shows off a California tan and her eyes sparkle. The English woman has been here before; the American has not.

‘You take it from the conveyor belt,’ the English woman tells her friend, ‘or you can look through the menu, but frankly, there is so much information. Life is too short.’

‘Ah,’ says the American, watching the dishes glide past.

‘It’s colour-coded. The cheapest are the blues.’

‘I see,’ says the American. She brightens up: ‘Would you look at that,’ and points to a yellow dish that has two brown slug-like packages sweating beneath a clear domed plastic lid. ‘Do you think it’s alive?’ She crinkles her nose.

The English woman, stony faced, watches it pass by, then refers to the menu. ‘If you want to learn about them look in here.’ She opens its pages and absentmindedly flicks through. ‘Although the type is so small. Why’d they make the type so small? You can try anything,’ she adds.

The American lunges for a dish and attempts to grab it, almost elbowing the one beside it. She has it in her hands, but the lid has slipped off and is threatening to pull a shrimp nigiri off the plate with it. She holds the dish with shaky hands, not daring to move.

‘That’s a grey one,’ says the English woman. ‘That costs £5.’

‘Oh.’ The American glances at her friend, before dropping it back on the belt.

‘I don’t think you’re supposed to put it back once you’ve touched it,’ says the English woman.

The American lets out a girlish giggle as she watches the dish, its domed lid now lopsided, rumble away.

‘I like that one,’ the English woman says pointing to a blue dish of strings of fluorescent green seaweed on the parallel belt, heading in the other direction. ‘Would you like it?’

‘I won’t know ’til I try it.’

‘Shall I get it?’ The English woman holds out her hands at the ready.

‘Get it for yourself and I’ll have a taste.’

The English woman grabs the dish with success and places it at her station. ‘Look there’s another one. Shall I get that one for you?’

‘Oh, I won’t eat a whole one,’ the American says, eyeing the dish that the English woman has claimed for herself. ‘I’ll only have one or two mouthfuls. A little entrée.’ She does a flourish with her fingers.

The English woman looks down and hesitates before pushing her dish of green seaweed towards her friend. ‘I suppose.’

The American tries again – a plate of salmon sashimi – and is successful this time. ‘I did it!’ She punches the air. With a rush of confidence, she goes for a plate of pallid noodles.

‘There’s no need to take them all at once,’ the English woman says with repressed panic. ‘You can get your own water. Would you like water?’ She directs her friend to the water glasses. ‘You can help yourself,’ she says, pointing to the fountain.

‘Oh my goodness,’ says the American at the thought of another challenge. She attempts to fill her glass, embarrassed when she doesn’t realise you have to hold down the lever to hold the flow of water. ‘It’s a lot to take in,’ she says.

They both inspect the three dishes between them and the American woman says, ‘Shall we have a taste?’

The English woman holds back while her friend tucks in. ‘It’s good,’ the American says with her mouth full. ‘You try.’

The English woman uses her chopsticks with care.

‘Quite difficult to eat it and be graceful, eh?’ says the American.

‘Indeed,’ says the English woman.

Once they’ve both tucked in, the American asks about her friend’s health.

‘It’s the itching,’ she says. ‘It started in March. Once it was so bad I had to phone the ambulance at three in the morning.’

‘The doctors,’ says the American,’ they know too much.’

‘They told me to stop everything, even my vitamins.’

‘You shouldn’t listen to them–’

‘I was so worn out, I could barely make it to the shops.’

‘You know I once woke up and I couldn’t feel my arm? I couldn’t even lift my shopping bags. I went to the doctor and she gave me a prescription for steroids and then I went to a Christmas party and met two people who’d experienced the exact same thing. They said one day it was there, and the next it was gone. I came off the drugs and I was absolutely fine.’

The English woman pauses and rests her chopsticks on the table. ‘Some days I wake up and I’m surprised to be alive,’ she says quietly.

They both fall silent, their shared dishes between them, their eyes on the gliding circular plates, their minds on other things. The American nods and tucks into a piece of sashimi. ‘You know, this is all right,’ she says, ‘if I ate this all the time I might live forever.’

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