I was on my own on a flight to Madrid reading pizza recipes. These were not just ordinary pizzas; they were pizzas assembled to resemble great works of modern art. Masterpizzas, if you will. There was “homage to Rothko” with rectangles of Parma ham forming luminous oil-slicked blocks of colour, which I suppose did make you think a little of Rothko’s glowing canvasses. (I am not making this up.) There was a Jackson Pollock pizza strewn with luxury ingredients of the world such as pistachios and pomegranate seeds. You could only imagine in what state its preparation had left the poor kitchen. The Picasso offering – a tribute to “Le Guitariste” – had a certain charm, I thought, and a genuine sense of the picture. “Cut slices along the scallions for graphic presentation,” the instructions read. The Kandinsky version seemed to me a bit of a red herring though. Squash, Brussels sprouts and sausage? It did not seem right somehow. You cannot, in life, let the tail wag the dog.
I imagined a ghastly mother and father trying to get their children to appreciate these artists through the medium of pizza. I wondered what the next step on this questionable ladder would be. Replacing your fruit bowl with a dish of cherries, a dish of peaches and a piece of crumpled linen to conjure Cézanne? I remember an acquaintance describing a placid-looking woman we saw in the street once as angry, and when I questioned what she meant exactly it became clear that the adjective she had intended to communicate was “Ingres-y.” It is a slippery slope.
I was going to Madrid to do an interview early the following day, and knowing no one there had accustomed myself to the idea of a Sad Dinner Alone. I was looking forward to it. “Dinner for one please, James,” I was almost humming. I could not decide whether this meal should be an ostentatiously pathetic sandwich taken in the room as a sort of warning against the dangers of I don’t know what, or something more festive involving a lace dress and a tablecloth.
On to the internet I went, and typed my dilemma to friends, a vague cry for help I suppose, and before 10 minutes were up a pal’s Spanish brother-in-law was offered up to take me out: “A very, very handsome Spanish actor.” I was told to expect him at the main entrance of a hotel on the Gran Vía at 8.45pm. How exciting! I thought. How tiring! I also thought. Could I tell our mutual connection to ask him if I could please be treated like a favourite grandma? Pride forbade such a request.
At the appointed hour we met, and he asked me, “Do you like to go somewhere very, very ancient and antique or do you like to go somewhere quite now and different?”
What a question! Was it a trick, like the caskets in The Merchant of Venice? “I just love everything,” I spurted out. “Whatever you think would be best, or … or … wisest.” Wisest? Really?
As we walked I glimpsed myself now and then in the odd shop window, and I couldn’t help thinking that the light in Madrid really does not suit my complexion. After a mile or two we got to the old-fashioned place and ordered meat, ham and fish. There was not a single vegetable on the menu.
My companion told me he was working in a care home for the elderly. He was in charge of their entertainment schedule. He had started a choir. It was going on the radio next week. You can imagine how much this was music to my ears. His grandmother had had four sisters, he said. He had always loved the company and the humour of older people. He told me of a play he had written, a comedy about a boy who grew up very, very close to his mother, only realising when he was in his thirties that although she was a great person, she was not perfect, not a “supergirl”. A famous Spanish actress was currently reading the mother part. He would play the part of the young man.
I told him how close I had been to my mother growing up, perhaps too close, how when we lay down next to each other her knees created a little zigzag-shaped alcove into which the zigzag my knees made fit perfectly. We sat and enjoyed some profound fellow feeling, me and this stranger.
Suddenly a woman at the bar started to cry and shout. Her bag had been stolen and with it her passport, all her money, her cards – everything. The spell was broken. I went back to the hotel and dreamt of a surrealist-style pizza based on this strange and wonderful evening: a piece of salami for my head, my eyes olives.
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