The fourth and final in a series of four short stories, inspired by science and written by science communication students at Imperial College.
A retired public health official obsessed with his diet, a professional communicator with poor social skills, an old man left on his own. How does a career make a person? What do we cling to when everything else is lost? This is the bitter-sweet narrative of a reticent, aggrieved, and grieving individual who happens also to be an expert on nutrition.
I have been eating luxury cat food for several weeks now, subsisting on it. Lily’s Kitchen, Natures Menu (sic), Applaws Natural Cat Food, Almo Nature (“recipes contain ingredients fit for human consumption, but not intended for human use for commercial reasons”, the website says). Here’s what’s written on a typical tin: Lily’s Kitchen Organic Chicken Dinner contains 30 percent organic chicken, 15 percent organic beef, 10 percent organic turkey, 10 percent organic pork, organic carrots, organic spirulina, organic dandelion, organic nettles. Nutritionally, I’m better off than I have been in years. I’m an organic-dandelion-and-nettle-supplemented carnivore. I feel lean.
The owner of the corner shop likes to make a joke of it.
“You only buy for cats now” – or similar – he says with a grin, showing teeth like pinto beans. “Don’t forget to feed yourself, Mister!” He laughs but I see the sympathy in his smile.
It is apparently acceptable for him to stand behind a wall of saturated fats, sky-high sugars, and empty calories, and question my food intake. He might as well peddle narcotics, pushing junk on children three times a day. I look too at the shelves of Swiss rolls and tiramisu, cream desserts with a 12-month half-life, and the freezer filled with ready-meals that contain two of my five-a-day and enough salt to preserve a rotting cow. I worked for the Department of Health all my life, I know these things.
I smile politely too – one must – and pay for the cat food.
I’d put Richard off for a month, not even feeling the need to make excuses when he phoned on four consecutive Sunday evenings to suggest we go for dinner at “your favourite place”, though he knows perfectly well I think it a puffed-up steakhouse.
“The wine list is bloody awful here”, I told him once we’d been seated.
“Easy”, he said with almost genuine gentleness. “I’ve wooed you out of the house, out of doing nothing – even if only for tonight – and we’re going to have a pleasant evening. Two gentlemen, mediocre wine, fine dining.” His round and pinkly mottled head looked like an unripe peach. He smiled, humouring me, and squeezed my shoulder.
Richard and I had worked together for 20 years, public health nutritionists, and he liked to think we were good friends. To me, the relationship was more like an arranged marriage, objectively beneficial and pleasing mainly to others. In the end, he’d been closer to T., really, though he’d always childishly ribbed her for being – and me for marrying – a vegetarian. Now a sense of duty forced him to phone, to bring me here, to jolly me out of a bad mood he’d exacerbated in the taxi by telling me my breath smelled like I’d been eating cat food. He’d thought that was hilarious
“And meat for a change,” he said encouragingly. I wasn’t hungry. I looked at the filet mignon on my plate, spattered with a red wine balsamic vinegar jus and cross-hatched by five haricots.
Richard was talking. “This isn’t a fully balanced meal”, I said.
We’d spent months working on the Eatwell Plate, and months on the Food Guide Pyramid years before, inventing ingenious ways to communicate statistical contradictions in nursery-school formats for public consumption. The Eatwell Plate, divided into five sections of essential food groups – appropriately proportioned – looked like a multi-topped pizza and had won the Plain English Award. We’d won a Plain English Award and not used any English.
I left the restaurant while Richard was in the toilet. At home I listened to ‘Eggs and Sausage’ by Tom Waits on repeat, letting the music fill my head with shapes, with circles that I divided and subdivided over and over and over until there was nothing left but new shapes that disappeared when I fixed them with my scientific eye. Richard called once, later, but I had a tin of Applaws in one hand and a fork in the other and didn’t answer.
The day the cleaner confronted me about my new diet, I had forgotten she was coming. I’d told Marta not to bother any more, that there was nothing for her to do now I was on my own, but she seemed not to have understood. She still came twice a week and I still paid her for the trouble. She talked about her children while I pretended to have something to do.
I’d had wine with dinner the night before and hadn’t cleared the tins from the table before shuffling to bed. She called out from the kitchen and stood pointing at the table while I said nothing. It wasn’t any of her business. With hands like slices of bleached white bread she filled a plastic bag with gourmet tins, made a show of tying a knot in the top as if to underline some point, and stamped off to put the bag in the outside bin. I stood with the cats, and watched her agitated activity in silence. When she came back she said she’d be cooking me supper that evening. If it was meat I wanted, she would cook it.
Marta arrived with potatoes already peeled and fried a rump steak, serving it with mash, peas, and Bisto gravy. She apparently meant to cook for me and then watch while I ate, but the whole set-up was awkward enough and I insisted she join me. I made a show of offering half the steak but she wouldn’t take it. She sat in T.’s place at the table and ate potato and peas. Not that there was anything wrong with eating meat, she informed me.
“There’s an ethnical question no doubt”, she said. “The way I see it is we’re all cannibals in the end of the day”. I don’t know where she’s from.
Half my age, she sat in my wife’s chair and mothered me. I looked at the food on my plate and divided it into subsections: meat, starch, vegetables. I’d had my quota of dairy from the Applaws Chicken Dinner with Cheese at lunch. At one point I interrupted her to ask if she’d heard of the Eatwell Plate. I described it in some detail, elaborating on subtleties, then lapsed into silence for a diatribe on the shamefulness of people who wouldn’t look after themselves and of mothers who couldn’t feed their children. Hers would never have bought fried chicken on the way home from school. There was a genial moment in which I recalled Jamie Oliver’s TV tears on being rebuffed by an entire town of obese Americans. “We don’t want to sit around eating lettuce all day. Who made you king?” a local radio man had said.
I breakfasted with the cats this morning, sitting on the floor, their faces in their bowls by my feet. I ate Natures Menu (sic) Chicken and Turkey – 70 percent meat, no grain, but supplemented with a slice of wholemeal toast – and thought about Marta’s overcooked steak as I chewed. I think T. would be happy to know I’d kept the cats on her diet. She’d loved these cats and they eat only the best.
Douglas Heaven is an Imperial College student studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.