Ross, Deborah

SO, off to the Ivy…. Ha, ha! Ho, ho! Caught you out there, didn’t I? You thought I was going to get straight down to it. No mad preamble. No slagging off Vanessa Feltz. No update on the not smoking. I’ll just go to a restaurant, write something thrillingly wise about the role of the courgette as an economic indicator in post-industrial societies, just to show that even though you think you can do this job, you can’t because, unlike me, you’re not sufficiently qualified and have never studied at the internationally respected LSC (London School of Courgette), and then we’ll all go home. The end. Finito. Well, fat chance, frankly. And fat Vanessa, too, of course. And fat me, now fm not smoking. Ah! The not smoking. Well, I don’t think fm quite as irritable. Indeed, I’ve gone from revving my engine at all pensioners on pedestrian crossings to just clipping the odd three or four. I even took recently one old lady all the way to Enfield when her artificial hip got caught on my front grille; but it was OK, she said, because she wanted to go to Enfield anyway, and has awful trouble getting on and off buses. I went around with quite a warm glow inside after that. It really is good to help people sometimes, isn’t it?

So, anyway, no, not off to the Ivy. I’ve never been to the Ivy, actually, although I would like to. I’ve heard it is great for celebrity-spotting. I’ve heard it’s like Hello! with catering. I like celebrity-spotting. I once missed my stop on the Tube because Gareth Hunt was in the same carriage, and I was utterly and deliriously transfixed. I’ve since been told that this, actually, makes me a totally crap celebrity-spotter. That Gareth Hunt isn’t worth ending up in Cockfosters for. But I don’t care. I used to love the way he shook those beans. I wish he’d shaken courgettes, then I could have done my PhD on him.

Instead, I went to Ashmount Junior School in Islington to have a school dinner. This is the state primary which my eightyear-old son attends. He is doing very well there. `How old will I be in 1914?’ he asked just the other day. And people complain about state education! Anyway, I wanted to try the dinners there because, for ages now, my son’s been campaigning to have packed lunches instead. This begins, usually, first thing in the morning with: `The spaghetti is like Play-Doh. The biscuits are broken. The custard is all lumpy. The pizza is always burnt. The mash has nits in. It does. It does. Sam saw them! They were crawling on his plate! I am starving all day.’ However, by the evening he has thankfully run out of energy and just pitifully whimpers, `Oh, please, mummy. Please, please, please, please, please, please, please.’ This can be very annoying, especially if I’m trying very hard to finish an essay on, say, the courgette as a repressive symbol in 19th-century women’s fiction. I don’t think I’ll have more children. Indeed, I’ve even decided that in the unlikely instance I should ever wish to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet again, I’ll just put little clogs on the cat.

Thus far, I’ve strenuously resisted the packed-lunch thing. I do so like a child to have a hot, nutritional meal at midday, don’t you? Ha, ha! Ho, ho! Caught you out again! It’s because I can’t be arsed, frankly. All that business of having to have things in. You know, bread and ham and crisps and Ribena and Cheeze bunkers and Cheeze Dippers and Cheeze Strings and all the other cheese things with zeds in, and pretty much anything else you can think of, apart from actual cheese. And when would I make them? The mornings? Impossible. They are fraught enough as it is. Shoes? Shoes? How should I know where they are? Teeth! Teeth! Do them NOW! And the evenings? No way. I mean, I run to a pretty tight telly schedule as it is. For example, Thursdays would be totally out of the question, because it’s Animal Hospital then Changing Rooms then ER and then Sex in the City. I could, I suppose, sacrifice Sex in the City. Except that, on second thoughts, I couldn’t. I know. I know. It’s rubbish. It’s half an hour of boring, shag– obsessed old scrubbers. But, hey, when you’ve been studying hard all day at the LSC, you need something to relax in front of.

I go to have my school dinner on what, apparently, is a bad day. They’re shortstaffed. Indeed, I am introduced to the head dinner lady, who wears a most fetching paper hat, and hopes I’m going to give the dinner a bloody bad review. Why? `Because then I might get more help. I’m meant to have seven helpers, but I’ve only got three and the lunatic!’ (The lunatic? Don’t ask. I didn’t.) Dinner is served in the hall, from one of those big stainless-steel trolley thingies you get in hospitals. The plates are paper plates. This has something to do with the staff shortage. They’re usually, I’m told, made of that nice melamine you get on aeroplanes.

The choice, today, is spaghetti bolognese, some kind of unidentifiable frittery thing, and the vegetarian option, which is something made out of pastry and looks rather like a blown-up cow’s hoof. The accompanying veg is sweetcorn. Or sweetcorn. Or sweetcorn. Which is a shame because, as I think I’ve already mentioned, my own particular speciality is the courgette. The puddings are toffee mousse, apple crumble, chocolate pudding and custard. I choose the spaghetti and the apple crumble. I don’t choose the custard. I’ve had a honor of custard ever since I was made to eat it at school and vomited spectacularly all over Mr Baum’s shoes. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but they were suede.

I take my meal to a table. No one comes to sit with me. I’m upset by this because, more than anything, I would like to talk Pokemon and swap a few shineys. I then see my son in the dinner queue. I hadn’t told him I was coming. I wave. I mouth yumyum! and scrumptious! and rub my tummy in greedy anticipation. He is so happy to see me he colours bright red and takes his own food to the table furthest away. I ask him later if I’m an embarrassing mother. `Yes,’ he says. Why? `Because you just are.’ Next time I think I’ll turn up in pop socks and Dr Scholls. . . . That’ll show him embarrassing.

But the food? Which costs L1.15 a day, which is almost as much as a really good sandwich from Pret a Manger. Well, the crumble is fine. But the spaghetti? The bolognese is less bolognese and more mutton floating loosely in water; and the spaghetti itself has indeed congealed into something very Play-Doh. Also, the portions are tiny. `See? See?,’ says my son when I later go to pick him up. Then, hopefully, its, `Well? Well?’ A lot of things go through my head. The studies which link nutrition and brain development. His assertion that he’s too hungry to concentrate in the afternoons. Animal Hospital. Changing Rooms. Sex in the City. ER. I don’t think Carter has yet fully recovered from the stabbing, do you? I’m still rather hoping that Doug will come back for Nurse Hathaway and the twins. `Darling, it was delicious,’ I say. `I don’t know what you are complaining about.’

Ashmount Junior School, Ashmount Road, Hornsey Lane, London N19. Lunch daily during term-time at L1.15 a head. Reservations unnecessary, and, perhaps, unwise.

Copyright Spectator Jun 3, 2000

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