Monday, March 9, 2009

The Grove, Balham

Sunday 1st February 2009

The Bitter: £45 for 2 roast beef dinners and a bottle of house red

The Sweet: A nice-looking Young’s pub with kindly staff

2. The Bitter End

A bit of background for you…

For the past year and a half, until the 1st of March, I lived with a writer. He’s a fantastic talent, and a kind and generous man. His writing style can be strange to the un-initiated; somewhat outré and wicked, but he has a natural flow that makes me green with envy. He’s too secretive about his work, but suffice to say I have every faith that he’ll be very successful at what he does.

We met two years ago. In my first post I mentioned the joining of a London social networking site, and he was the site’s editor. I joined on the recommendation of a friend of mine, with whom I worked on a short story magazine, which we were trying to promote at the time. My writer approached me for a quick interview about the magazine for the site, and after a few informal emails, and the piece went live, attempted to ask me out to something literary.

At the time, I was reeling from a particularly heartbreaking encounter with a wildly unsuitable older man. I didn’t accept the first invitation, but after having had my interest stirred, I messaged to apologise for not having made the first event, offering him the opportunity to invite me to something else. Which he did. We met on a clear February evening at the BFI and hit it off immediately. One drink turned into several, which turned into a goodnight kiss and the promise of further dalliances. Fairly soon we were inseparable, and after a heady (yes, whirlwind!) four months, we were living together.

Another 12 months, and he asked me to marry him, on my 26th birthday, in the most beautiful setting I could have imagined – at the end of an alfresco dinner in the cloistered courtyard of a 16th century French chateau.

My family were staying nearby, at the home of a family friend, and the following morning I couldn’t stay in bed; so excited was I to break the news. We rushed back to tell them everything and met with a distinctly lukewarm reception. I had thought my mother, aunt, uncle and cousins would have been ecstatic. But they reacted with ill-concealed caution. It was as if they didn’t expect things to work out. Maybe no one ever does. But they weren’t hiding their feelings as well as most of us are trained to.

They turned out to be right, in the end, anyway. We lasted 23 months. Our change was sudden, but we both knew what was happening. It’s strange: I’ve been in relationships that didn’t mean as much to me, that didn’t have the potential to affect my life on such a grand scale, that I fought harder to save. Why? I think we both wanted to spare one another the massive, crippling heartbreak. We meant too much to one another. Dragging out an inevitable decline wouldn’t have done either of us any favours. We’ll always genuinely care for one another; I still feel that acutely, a month later, in a different continent, as I travel for work.

I know what you’re thinking. Where the hell does The Grove pub in Balham come into all this?

He and I had often talked about writing, namely, how I wanted to do more of it, but had a lot of trouble ever finishing anything. He, on the other hand, could happily sit in his pants all day, tapping away on the keyboard, until I got home from work. Some days he would forget to eat, so engrossed in his work was he. I'm incapable of that kind of dedication, as a natural procrastinator, and I'd pretty much have to be suffering with a month-long bout of gastroenteritis to forget to eat. But he was full of ideas for me to get writing again, regularly. He saw how much I liked to post reviews of things, basically anywhere we went and ate, or slept, or enjoyed something. I'd started to keep little notes on what we'd eaten, and tried to remember what wine we drank, and how much it all came to, and I'd post reviews almost as soon as we got home. It became a bit of fun, but I really enjoyed knowing that people were reading them. He had a few ideas for me to translate this enthusiasm into something a bit more substantial. The one that stuck, and the one that has inspired me to start blogging, was this: write a novel... in the form of reviews.

That might sound a bit odd, but writing in manageable little pieces like that really appealed to me. The past few months have been full of memorable visits to London sights and eateries. And now, all the notes I've taken seem poignant and like they need to be documented, somehow, in a way that makes sense of the earth-shattering change that has befallen us.

So I've decided to give that concept a go. Yes, it may seem like I'm being a bit flippant and reviewing the relationship, but I'm honestly not. And he knows that. But it's only a fitting tribute to the idea he gave me that I try firstly to sum up our trip to The Grove pub, in Balham, where my most recent life-changing event took place.

It was unusual, to say the least. Our meal was a pretty excruciating affair, with streaming tears, noses, and plenty of hand and tissue-wringing. I hardly noticed the food: unheard of. Here's what I can recall.

I remember the portions were generous – they seemed massive at the time, and the prospect of finishing the meal was daunting. The beef was good quality – pink in the centre, a little chewy, but flavoursome nonetheless. Roast potatoes were stodgy and still had their skins on – something I’m not a fan of – but the other vegetables were fresh and not overcooked. Our bottle of house red was really quite lovely. This meal would have been idyllic on a freezing Sunday afternoon, and the ambience in the pub was good, with a mixture of families with children, young couples, and groups of friends patronising. I don’t remember much else about the place. I know the waiter serving us felt decidedly awkward, but dealt with this quite well, considering he would have noticed tears cruising down my cheeks each time he brought anything or took anything away from the table. I must have seemed bipolar.

I suppose other people must have realized what was going on, but at our table at the back of the dining area, we carried on trying to make the outing work at least as an exercise in gastronomy, trying to swallow back tears and lumps of cold beef.

There was nothing terrible about the pub at all, but it will remain fixed in my mind as a place loaded with negative connotations. It was here, halfway through a meal that had gone cold because of the pregnant pauses in our conversation, that we decided to give up the ghost, and those terrible final words rang out: “I guess that’s that, then”.

This was February 1st, the day the snow started to fall in London; snow that would disable the city and give nearly 7 million people a day off at home. As we left, I looked up and remember thinking that the weather was symbolic. It was proof of huge change befalling us, of a new and frosty beginning; a period of strange hibernation. The streets of South London were blanketed in white and insulated overnight, in preparation for the chaos that was to ensue.

Chaos, change, a gradual thawing out - these things continue.

But Spring is on the way.