Table for one

The column Dining out alone in Melbourne, Howard Jacobson feels a little sorry for himself, until he meets someone with even more problems on his plate

For reasons that need not trouble your compassion I have been dining out solus this last week. As a result of which I now understand what women mean when they speak of the humiliations of hitting the town unaccompanied. Yes, people look at you strangely. Half in pity, half in fear. Be seen dining solus and it is assumed you are some sort of sexual outcast, a trollop, a molester, an onanist, at the very best a bottomlessly sad human being who is unable to find love.

The strange thing is that it is not only other people who think this, you think it yourself. I am eating alone - I must be a pervert.

But you would still prefer this fact to be kept a secret. So you search for premises in which you can eat unnoticed. Never mind the food, all that matters now is the size and configuration of the eating-place. Too much space is no good, for you dare not dine alone in the middle of a barn. But a cosy intimacy won't do either. Find yourself without a companion at a tenebrous table on which a flickering candle burns and your heart will break with self-pity.

This search for a well-balanced inconspicuousness can take up the whole evening. As the last of the late-night restaurants lower their shutters you catch sight of your reflection in the window of a taxi-cab which refuses to stop for you - a red-eyed, green-toothed, prowling beast with hair growing where it shouldn't. And now they know for sure you are an onanist.

I descend upon Lygon Street, Carlton, one of Melbourne's busiest eating boulevards. The night is almost as sticky as I am, so the restaurants spill out festively onto the pavements and roads. A small table in the gutter is what I am after. With the single proviso that I can get wine by the glass, for a man alone at a table in the gutter with a whole bottle of wine to himself is a sad sight indeed.

What I'd forgotten was that Carlton's Italian restaurants have men out the front touting for business, Roman style. This is precisely what someone in my position does not want. "Dining alone tonight, signore?" they call out as I scuttle past. My neck concertinas into my shoulders. "Never mind," one of them says, blocking my progress with his stomach. "Eat with us anyway. I have just the table for you."

He does, too. Not quite in the gutter but at the very edge of the heaving pavement, where I can see the life but the life cannot really see me. Perfect. Eating is a nightly carnival in Melbourne and positioned here I can at least feel I am not excluded from the procession.

I should eat fish, which is good here. But fish is for two, I always think. A bone thing. Just as pizza is too obviously for one. So I order a spaghetti marinara by way of compromise, and a glass of Chianti in memory of all the straw bottles I bought for girls to make table-lamps with in the days when I never ate alone.

Minutes after my Chianti arrives a second solitary gentleman is seated at the table next to mine. It feels deliberate, as though the waiters have engineered this proximity as a sort of social experiment, much as they put recalcitrant pandas together in zoos.

The second gentleman is as sad as I am, but I am careful not to acknowledge him for fear he may be sad in a different way. I note his well-pressed short-sleeved shirt, his boyish blue-grey haircut, the beaten silver ring on his marriage finger, and the precise way he cuts up his champignons. Without any warning or preamble he turns to a woman at a nearby table and says, "I love your diamonds. I love the way they catch the light."

So I am right. He is sad in a different way.

We eat in silence, uncomfortably aware of each other. A very tall waiter with a very small head collect our plates. "Yum, yum, yum, yum?" he asks my double. To me he says, "How was that?"

Neither of us replies.

"In Sydney," my double suddenly bursts out, "they tout for sex. In Melbourne they spruik for food."

"Well in Melbourne food is sex," I say.

He ponders that, then, inserting his ring-finger into the fist which is his other hand, he says, "I don't think I like it."

He orders another glass of Shiraz from the unmannerly waiter. I ask for a second Chianti. He tells me that he is in Melbourne for a conference, that he is a mathematician and a lawyer, that his soft skin and brown eyes belie his age - "Look at them!" he orders me - and that his brother always introduces him with the words, "This is David, he's got five degrees and all he thinks about is sex."

Solitary eaters, I think. Every word of what they say about us is true.

The waiter is back with our wine. "Are you circumcised?" David asks him.

The waiter's sang-froid goes up in smoke. Serves you right for "Yum, yum, yum, yum?" I think. He starts to blurt out something about the interesting people he meets in his job, but David isn't listening. "I'm just a slut," he says to no one in particular.

Once the waiter is gone again, David asks me, "Do you want him?"

"I wouldn't know what to do with him," I laugh, wondering how I can bring mention of my wife into the conversation. I may look sad but I have a wife. Wife. You read me?

But by now he is bored anyway. I watch him totter off into the night (to find a prostitute, he tells me), his hands in his pockets, his little blue-grey bullet head bravely erect, a man not ashamed of being out on his own

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