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Relationship

My wedding anniversary reminds me of an unmentionable sadness: lost restaurants | Zoe Williams


‘How do you celebrate your wedding anniversary in a lockdown?” my Mr was ruminating. I think the question is weird. The lockdown doesn’t really make any difference, since we wouldn’t have invited anyone anyway. Valentine’s Day, sure: I want to see other couples, dressed fancy, not really talking because the romantic pressure has power-hosed all the content out of their brains. On 9 May, I am only aware of us, who got married. Well, us and another couple who really like R Kelly.

I know they liked R Kelly because the council did a Wednesday afternoon special – weddings for less than 50 quid – the only downside being that everyone had to have the same music as the people who went first. I am saying that to make you think: “Ah, they were so skint, it must have been 25 years ago,” but it was 2018 and we were both skint for a whole load of reasons, including the fact that getting divorced is really expensive.

This time last year, we went to a fantastic restaurant in a shipping container in south London. Every time a waiter came over, my Mr said: “New potatoes and ox heart, please – it’s our wedding anniversary!” and the waiter would go: “Ah, how many years?” expecting the answer “25”, just to hear this triumphant: “One!” like we were characters in a Magnetic Fields song who were astonished to have stuck this long at anything when we couldn’t even keep a house plant alive.

I am more sensitive about how it looks, because I am the older partner. “You’re a year older, it’s a rounding error,” said my Mr on a Zoom call we were making to a friend the other day. “Is it only a year?” said the friend. “I thought you were much older; I thought you were one of those leopards.” She meant cougar and I am not Zooming her again.

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“Next time people ask, you have to pretend it’s our silver anniversary,” I said. “No more lies,” he replied. “You already say the children are twins when they’re actually step-siblings.” “I can’t help it, I’m very conventional.” “I think conventional is when you slavishly meet society’s expectations. Building a web of deceit to pretend you met them is actually quite unconventional.” Obscurely, I took this as a compliment. Romance is weird like that.

The restaurant, incidentally, did so well that they closed the shipping container and were about to open in a permanent building, with foundations and everything. God knows what will happen now. This fills me with deep melancholy, and not only because I may never taste the ox heart again (don’t @ me on Twitter, vegetarians, it was delicious. Besides, eating offal is, ethically, a waste-management thing, clearing up after the people who ate the real meat).

Restaurants are one of the unmentionable tragedies of the virus. In ascending order of what is sad in a cancelled world, it goes: small businesses, football, the Olympics and – sat at the top, nobody knows why – garden centres. Restaurants, associated with affluence and pleasure, had it coming. In a vague, biblical way, they are the symbol of the complacent world that brought all this about. It is terribly unjust, because the affluence and pleasure was mainly on the part of the punters; at the business end, it was more wafer-thin margins and backbreakingly hard work. Puritanism dressed up as social conscience is the part of the crisis I least enjoy (and I am including home-schooling).

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Given my sudden, almost patriotic, passion for the hospitality industry, it would have made sense for us to celebrate with a fancy takeaway, but that felt symbolic in all the wrong ways – to be inside your house, but outsourcing the job of making food.

So he decided to recreate a Chinese restaurant himself, with the plan steadily building in complication to include aubergines and water chestnuts fashioned into tiny burgers, 26 courses in all. My anxiety was that, when one person is making 26 courses that each need sichuan peppercorns deep-fried in a slightly different way, the other person doesn’t get enough attention. So I took one course off him, which involved wonton wrappers. Then I had to make the odyssey from one Chinese supermarket to another over several days, because if you think it is only flour and yeast that people are stockpiling, well, that is very monocultural.

In the middle of all this, rumours began to circulate that restrictions would soon be lifted to include unlimited outdoor excursions; then, immediately, fresh rumours that the government was freaking out that people would overinterpret their new freedom.

When we are being barraged with inconsistent information from unknown sources, these are exactly the conditions that might lead the police to interpret the rules in their own way, and start haranguing a person because wonton wrappers are inessential. I figured I would just say: “It’s my anniversary.” “Perfect,” said my Mr. “‘Sorry, officer. I am on the urgent business of my cotton anniversary.’” “I won’t say that, I’ll say we walked down the aisle to R Kelly and let him do the maths.” “That’s not maths, that’s deliberate obfuscation.” “Potato, potaaaato.”

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