I watched a man attempt to eat a hot chip in a cafe. He’d slicked back hair and wore a suit and, after collecting the bowl at the counter, sauntered to a corner table where he picked up one of the chips, unaware of the steam billowing, and bit down. They say there’s a one-tenth of a second delay between the accident and consciousness actually registering pain but the lapse dragged to a few seconds as if the gravity required extra processing. When the brunt befell, he jolted, causing his arm to knock the chips to the floor and the chair to screech against the linoleum floor as he covered mouth with hand following with heavy out-breaths and muffled high pitched yelps. Once the initial pain abated, his dilated pupils scanned the dining room, presumably, to see if the sudden movements had attracted an audience. Maybe that was the reason he abstained from spitting the fry back out. His respectable table manners couldn’t let a well-bred man expectorate sloppy potato mash in a café full of onlookers.
A few perturbed by the disrupted ambience deadpanned the victim and returned to their affairs. The rest of us stopped eating and conversations and anxiously waited, for we, the more compassionate audience, knew by the exposed veins in the man’s neck that the chip at some point would have to come out.
As a child I’d visit my grandparents in Claremont from Denmark, the town on the coastal fringe of the Great Southern, not the Nordic country. The town was a haven for the nonconformists who’d lived their formative years in the conservative, urban gentry and decided to finally grow out their hair—everywhere—and get in touch with their inner earth child, unrestrained and free from Victorian sensibilities.
I remember one busy Saturday in the township my little brother sitting on the tiles in the middle of my parents’ cafe, naked, fondling his erection. Amazed and proud at the growth, he proceeded to parade from table to table, flaunting his member.
“Look. Look how big my penis is,” he’d say, pulling on their shirt, to which I’d shrink behind the nearest pot plant. But, to my amazement, the local diners would put down their forkful of eggs, toast and side of sausage and laugh.
“Wow, Zak,” they said, ruffling his hair, like that was a perfectly normal thing for a child of 4—my brother says he gets older by the month each time I recount—to do in a cafe.
So when my brother and I sat at the Claremont dinner table with carefully arranged cloths, placemats and napkins, and adorned with candles and flowers, a clash of eating styles ensued.
“Tuck your arms in, fork with the left, don’t talk when you chew, no elbows on the table, stop poking your brother with the fork,” my nana would instruct.
“Why?” I summoned the courage to ask, looking up at my towering papa.
He looked down with utmost jurisdiction. “Because that’s just the way it is.”
Those words followed me through childhood, Catholic high school and to this day. I learnt the importance of those words, of acknowledging tradition, of meeting unspoken expectations, to blend into workplaces and hordes, effortlessly, without a sound. Now at 24, I’ve accumulated a backlog of thousands of instructions of how to study, work, honour thy mother and father and thy friends, properly clean the toilet, pour a glass of wine, and act when I’ve abandoned dinner plans with the girlfriend to drink with mates and she says “it’s fine.” But when I find myself at a new dinner table, or in an unfamiliar situation, a flood of decrees emerge. Back straight, arms back, act more relaxed, ask more questions, stop looking at the dog licking his crutch, stop saying ‘like’, swirl the wine before sipping, fork in the left, fork in the left! The inundation feels like an army of filters censoring impulses, editing and dictating for sensibility. Thankfully, I’m known to have a drawn out, monotonal voice accompanied by subtle and sedated body movements, which gives the air of being relaxed.
“You’re so chilled out,” they say while my brain is quietly in overdrive, performing a meticulous audit.
In my first 10 minutes at a news office as a cadet journalist—as the routine inundation peaked—I heard the editor slam the computer and bawl.
“You fucking stupid machine. Bloody piece of worthless bloody shit.” A number of expletives followed. The editor’s top button was undone and hair messed and he continued to thump the keypad in an attempt to fix the frozen screen. I watched in awe. He was so unapologetically angry and because no one was in the crossfire, I saw how harmless the tantrum was and wondered how many people, like myself, would’ve squashed that impulse into a jar and tried to cap a lid on. Hold it in and get a tumour, a peer once said.
The man, after a long while, regurgitated the chip into a napkin. We pretended to look the other way as he turned around with rosy cheeks to see if he’d been lucky enough to be spared an audience. The man slouched, defeated, as a number of diners laughed and whispered looking in his direction. He’d failed his dining duties. Although an honest and small mistake, I empathised with his rosy cheeks and, on my way to the door, thought to pass and reassure the man. “Hot chips, ey? Bloody things. Don’t worry. Happens to the best of us.”
But before I got to him, the man bent down, scooped the chips off the floor into the bowl and, to the amazement of all of us in the café, picked up a chip and took another bite.