Thursday, 9 March 2017

When Wandering Hearts Hunger For Home

I cut into a scone with a knife and spread the last of the jam and clotted cream onto the halves. By themselves the scones had little taste, though the faint perfume of butter promised more. So the jam and cream were necessary, and I found myself wishing they gave out more. But I didn't have the heart to ask.

Nor did I have the heart for much else that evening.

I left work for dinner one weekday evening with my head full of mental bramble. I can't remember why I was bummed out, but I knew I didn't want to deal with it sitting in a shiny café with a sculpted plate before me. Something a little more rough-hewn and quotidian was called for.

One evening at a café months earlier, I caught up with a couple of friends and saw one of them off; she was heading to Singapore to work. I liked the salmon, but had no room for the scones, which they told me was good.

Seemed like a good idea.

I stopped ordering pasta dishes since I learnt how to prepare them, as many are simple and don't take much to make. I make exceptions for what's beyond my current skillset, but we all have lazy or sad days.

So I tucked into a spaghetti bolognaise. Some effort went into decorating the plate, but I felt the dried herbs should just go on the dish. I made a bit of a mess when I blew on the pasta to cool it, scattering the herbs onto the table.

Just as I'd expected, its workaday plainness cleared my mental haze somewhat and didn't fill me up completely.

I appreciated that they warmed up the scones, but not only was there not enough cream and jam, the scones were still kind of hard and could only be cut across. Splitting them from the top was difficult; attempts to do that made more crumbs. And without the cream and jam they had little taste and moisture.

Which is probably why it's usually "tea and scones".

Once the food was gone, so was the steel wool of tangled thoughts in my head - until a familiar gloom clawed its way in.

Heartache. Numbness. Loneliness.

From what I could notice, this café opened to some fanfare. The homely décor, welcoming and unpretentious, might have been intended to keep customers around and make them feel at ease. Some places are so done up you're afraid to leave your fingerprints on any polished surface.

And parts of it looked like a converted house. One corner was a seating area you can comfortably have tea at and not realise you are not at home. Handwritten notes and drawings hung on a series of wire racks on the walls, mementoes left behind by patrons past.

The white-tiled counter with cement-hued sides where beverages, scones and pastries were served from dominated the dining area, with cheap-looking thin steel-legged chairs with plastic backs and seats enhancing the DIY diner's vibe. The al fresco seating area outside looked inviting, and more so during daytime.

I'm not fond of crowds, but any social establishment like this was meant to be packed. Looking around, I imagined the chatter and laughter of times when this place was new, the clatter of silverware on plates, the clinking of spoons against cups, and the aroma of coffee. Oh yes, and people. Lots of people.

But I was alone this evening, and the dining room feels cold in more than one way. The motor in the chiller would intermittently kick in, raising a din as it did. Kind of old-fashioned, but I didn't mind.

My attention returned to the notes on the wire racks, which flapped from the draught from the ceiling fan. Each flutter seemed to conjure remnants of what the writers did while they were here; the results were discordant but still painted a discernible picture of this café's heydays.

At this phantom recollection, my heart felt slowly squeezed by a melancholic longing for the writers of these notes to return and, strangely, a burgeoning curiosity about them. Who are you all? How did you learn about this place? What did you have and did you like it? How do you feel about this place and its staff? How often do you come back? Will you return someday?

What would it take to make you return?

A different picture soon unfurled. An empty living room. A single grey-haired figure slumped in a chair, staring longingly on a shelf full of framed photographs. The walls replay events they've witnessed over the years, interrupted by shadows thrown by the occasional ripple of a curtain. In the air, past ghosts of conversations and banter whisper over the hum of a ceiling fan.

The chiller's motor kicked in again, bringing me back to reality. The clutching sensation withdrew from from my heart as I got up, prompting memories of other places afflicted by a similar forlornness.

The silence of a once-vibrant place can be heart-rending, as it tolls for the impending death of a dream.

I couldn't stay any longer.

I walked into the night with even more questions. For those of us who left home to pursue a better life and a place of our own, our birthplace holds a certain allure - that is, to those with more fortunate childhoods. It is where we learnt of the world and how to survive it, an education sustained by the flavours from our mothers' kitchens.

And it is this nurturing sustenance that we return to when life exhausts us, saps us of our wide-eyed wonder, optimism, confidence and courage to face it. Even the stoutest spirits longs for the healing nourishment of home.

However, as those hands age to the point where even stirring a pot is laborious and old recipes fade away from memory for a lack of heirs, we who now dwell far away from home and family resort to surrogates. We take pictures, exhange notes and wax lyrical of this and that, perhaps in a vain attempt to disguise a deeper hunger.

Food, after all, is more than flavour, presentation, and ambience. And the hands that stir the pots we often eat out of these days may not care as much for our welfare, our joy, or our troubles as they toil above their own struggles.

Yes, they fulfil a need, and some of their owners and cooks may be passionate about food and what they do. They strive to do their best against the odds. Over time, we may develop a bond with these places and their people.

But try as it might, a café, bistro or restaurant will never truly be home.

And when the flame in the familial hearth goes out for good, when the hands that fed us from birth go to their final rest, when our surrogates eventually shutter one after another, hungry hearts like mine and those of my fellow wanderers may never get to go home again.


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