“I’m being sued by the Catholic Church again,” Laverne announced in the midst of reorganising her purse. “I have no words for that.” “How unlike you,” she mused. “Hold on, I thought you were working on a piece about the East African Lion,” I suddenly remembered. “Turns out all they do is sleep. My son can do that.” “Have you ever been to Africa? I haven’t.” “Yeah, with my sister for her fortieth. We went on safari in Malawi.” “So is that where …“ “… my people come from?” Laverne zipped her purse and placed it on the chair next to her. “Couldn’t tell you; the furthest back I’ve been able to trace our roots is to The Shirelles.” “Ha, ha. Very funny. I was actually going to ask if that’s where your sister went with the Peace Corps.” “Oops, sorry,” she giggled. “No, that was Mozambique.” “I’d like to ask you another question though: when you were there, did you feel any connection to it?”
“Funny you should ask that,” she became more pensive. “I expected to feel ‘African’ from the moment I arrived but the whole time we were there I felt like just another tourist. People are people wherever you go so we had that in common. Culturally, however, I struggled to make a connection and that bothered me. I think maybe we’ve been gone too long.” “I felt the same when I met my Scottish relatives for the first time,” I concurred. “We shared the same name, same sense of humour and some even looked like me but culturally we were raised in two very different worlds.” “Not even close!” Laverne screamed with laughter. “Honestly, are you kidding me with that? Your parents emigrated using their Air Miles!”
“But their journey to The New World was horrific. First, they ran out of headphones and then they gave my mum’s gluten-free meal to someone else,” I explained. “Anyway, cut me some slack – you’re my only ethnic friend.” “Hey, I’m your only friend. I’ve got more in common with those lions than I do with you.” “How so?” “They don’t like to cook either.” “And we have our connection!” “Okay, but back to this business with the Church,” Laverne lowered her voice. “It’s over a certain someone I told you about at Christmas.” “Is this the same someone with the thing?” “Yup.” “And are you telling me they’ve now found the thing?” “Oh yeah, they found it alright,” she confirmed. “Was it on him?” “No, up him.” “Whoa!” I leaned back in my chair. “And the monkey?” “Still missing,” she arched an eyebrow.
I love secrets and Laverne knows plenty. A freelance journalist, she moved to the UK from Seattle over thirty years ago after meeting and marrying Elliot, a sound engineer at the BBC. The three of us first met at The Pu Pu Pot, our local Chinese restaurant, after she’d overheard my accent. “I need some human conversation during our stay on this island! I need someone who doesn’t talk about Bobby Charlton in his sleep!” she blubbered into her chop suey. “Who’s Robby Carlson?” I asked. “Exactly!” she cried. “And do you know where I can score some Fruit Loops because the last people to eat porridge were the Vikings.” That was twenty years ago.
Tonight we were out for our weekly meal at The Pu Pu Pot but without Elliot, who begged off to attend a Bolton Wanderers match. “What’s the viral load of the Szechuan Chicken today?” Laverne asked. “Slightly elevated I’m afraid, so I’d be happy to pee on it for you. We Chinese believe that urine possesses magical properties,” our waitress took her on. “Is that like chlorinated chicken?” I asked. “Well, if you’d prefer you can bring in a pet and we’ll cook that for you,” she smiled, sweetly. “We’re gonna need a few more minutes,” Laverne smiled right back at her. Just then, the kitchen doors swung open to reveal a tiny, sinewy man lifting the lid off a huge cauldron. As he did so, he stepped back to avoid the rush of steam. “What’s that for?” I asked. “We’ll be cooking shrimp in it once we take the shirts out,” our waitress stated matter-of-factly. “Would you excuse me for just one moment? I need to inform on my neighbours.” “She’s good,” Laverne nodded her approval, as she watched the diminutive figure disappear behind the bar. “Is she still in med school?” “Fourth year.” “She’ll have them in stitches.”
At one point during the evening Laverne made a visit to the Ladies’. While she was gone, a young woman breezed into the restaurant and joined a waiting friend at a table nearby. Tall, elegant and stylishly attired, she quickly attracted the attention of other diners. “I’m back,” Laverne announced, resuming her seat. “They have the nicest hand lotion here.” “Uh huh,” I replied, looking past her at the young woman. “What’s up with you?” she shot me a quizzical look. “It’s what’s behind you.” “What’s behind me?” “A girl walked in while you were gone and she’s got to be a model. She’s absolutely stunning. Definitely a model.” “On a scale of 1 to 10?” Laverne asked. “Ten.” “Hair?” “Lustrous.” “Make-up?” “None.” “Height?” “NBA.” “She’s got to have a flaw, everyone has a flaw.” “If she does, I can’t see it.” “Maybe it’s hidden,” she chewed on her bottom lip. “Slug feet?” “Killer farts.” “Fifty bucks says she uses disconnect as a noun.” “Another fifty says she has plans to name her first daughter Chandelier.” “Hmm… not even a split end?” Laverne wasn’t having it. “Turn around and see for yourself if you don’t believe me.” “Have I taught you nothing?” she reached for her purse. “Watch and learn, my friend… okay, which shoulder?” “Left.” She took out her compact and opened it, angling the mirror until she caught sight of her quarry over her left shoulder. At that same moment, the young woman put on her reading glasses and picked up a menu. Closing the compact with a snap, Laverne chuckled to herself, then leaned across the table and whispered, “Four-Eyes.”
“I think my dry cleaner’s been wearing my clothes at weekends,” Laverne announced. “How do you know?” “Last night she posted a picture of herself in a dress identical to one I dropped off two days ago.” “How’d she look in it?” I asked tentatively. “Fabulous.” “Bitch.” “Exactly.” “Want me to cut her?” “We’ll swing by on the way home. On Saturdays, the old man leaves around noon so she’ll be on her own,” she gave it some thought, “but right now I need something to eat.”
We’d journeyed into Manchester for lunch due to a lockdown in our own town. Nacho Daddy was a tapas bar in the student quarter where, upon entry, all diners were required to sign in and leave a contact phone number. Reaching for the clipboard Laverne hesitated, her hand hovering over the sign-in sheet. Upon reflection, she dropped a business card and ordered me not to touch anything. “Him over there,” she gestured towards a table of businessmen as we sat down, “the fat one. He was the last person to touch the pen.” “How do you know?” I was intrigued. “Because his food hasn’t arrived yet and the ink was smudged.” “Are you saying he licked the sign-in sheet?” “I’m saying fat people sweat more than normal people.” “Normal people?” I balked. “Sure. Ever stood behind one waiting to buy an ice cream?” “Babies are born fat and they’re normal.” “Some babies are born fat; the greedy ones. The rest of us come out as nature intended. All I’m saying is, he was the last person to touch that pen and there isn’t enough hand sanitizer in the world-” “-you should have been a spy.” “How do you know I’m not?” she countered, now scrutinizing the cutlery. “For all you know I might be in the Secret Service.” “Which would mean that’s not a real watch.” “Well spotted, my friend. This gizmo’s actually a teeny, tiny voting machine.” “And the brooch?” “Emergency filler for Melania.” “There’s not much of it,” I queried. “Slovenians are notoriously small-boned.” “Hey, you said Melania. I thought spies used code names while working in the field.” “She goes by Lady Penelope because she starts every day with a bowl of Ferrero Roche cereal. Pure class.” “And what’s his code name?” “This month he’s Mr Whippy.” “And last month?” “The Mean Tangerine. He lets me choose them.” “I love it. Got any survival tips?” “Stay low and move fast. Oh, and stop chatting to strangers; it unnerves them,” Laverne chided. “Have you seen a waiter anywhere?” “Right here,” a young man appeared. “What may I get you to drink?” “Dark rum and Coke, please,” Laverne ordered. “Excuse me, but are you Portuguese?” “I’m impressed,” he lit up. “Yes, I’m from Lisbon.” “I’ve been to Lisbon. It’s beautiful.” “I grew up there but my parents retired to The Algarve.”
“Can’t blame them. I wouldn’t want Madonna for a neighbour either,” I winced. “Crotchless panties flapping away on a clothes line just over the fence? No thank you.” “The devil’s bunting,” Laverne’s eyes narrowed. “You weren’t warned about that in Fatima.” “No, we weren’t,” our waiter laughed. “I did see her coming out of City Hall once. She looked straight at me.” “Well, you be very careful because you’re just her type,” Laverne warned. “And while we’re on the subject: why are Iberian men so good looking anyway?” “Because our mothers are all beautiful,” the waiter replied. “Aww…” Laverne melted. “I’ll bet you go to church as well, don’t you?” “St Joseph’s. I’ll bring your drinks over in a minute.” “He seems like a nice guy,” I decided, watching as he made his way over to the bar. “And that’s exactly what gets an agent killed on his first day. You’re too trusting.” “What should I do?” “I’ll taste-test your food before you eat it,” Laverne insisted. “The last time you did that I hardly had any dessert left.” “Rice pudding’s tricky. There’s a whole chapter on it.” “So what are you going to do about your dry cleaner then?” I returned to matters. “Mess with her head. I’m going to start dropping off dresses which are a size too small for me, but before I do I’ll change the labels.” “Why bother going to all that trouble with the labels if she won’t be able to fit into them?” “Because she’ll think she’s putting on weight and she won’t know why.” “Whoa!” I sucked in my breath at the evil genius of it. “Most guys would just throw a punch and that would be the end of it.” “Now where’s the fun in that?” Laverne purred. “Wouldn’t you rather watch your enemy slowly go mad?” “Hey, would you ever mess with my head?” “You’re not a Size 10.” “Neither are you but answer the question.” “What do you think?” she raised an eyebrow. “I think you’re smart but I’m smart too.” “Are you sure?” “Yep,” I was adamant. “So then, let me put this to you: have you ever ordered a dessert you know I don’t like?” Damn.
Several years ago while travelling around Ukraine I entered the only shop in a remote village to buy a couple of cold drinks. Placing my purchases on the counter, the elderly shopkeeper tallied my bill on an abacus then pushed it toward me. Not entirely up to speed on ancient counting tools which predate our own numeral system, I played it safe and handed him the equivalent of $5 in Ukrainian money. This, apparently, posed a problem and he asked if I had anything smaller. I replied, regrettably, that I did not. Thinking on it, he disappeared into the back before returning with a duckling which he duly handed over as my change.
The problem with holiday brochures is that they rarely cover an abacus/duck scenario. The pictures in them are enticing but the language is, at best, euphemistic and at worst, a flat out lie. And while it’s true that every situation can’t be covered, a bit of a heads-up regarding waterfowl as legal tender would go a long way for novices like moi.
Here then, is a list of terms from holiday brochures with their true meanings:
in-flight meal: UN ration with complimentary poppadom
in-flight entertainment: the sequel to the remake of the original, only this one’s set in the future where everyone can fly and stuff
short transfer to hotel: bring earplugs
car rental: how are you at changing a tire?
bus service: you may be seated next to a goat in labour
local delicacies: if we can catch it, we’ll cook it
chef’s special: cake with a fly on top
all-inclusive resort: venture off the property and odds are you’ll be kidnapped
in-house entertainment: an old man who takes out his artificial eye for the kids
cultural sensitivities: lose the Trump hat
conservative: lose the rainbow flag beach towel
stunning wildlife: pack an anti-venom kit
365 days of sunshine: no redheads
steeped in history: if they ask, tell them you’re Canadian
friendly locals: the waiter has just asked if he can marry your daughter
vibrant nightlife: gunfire
local amenities: you’re sharing a well with two other villages
stunning scenery: ignore the oil refinery
exotic spices: stick to ketchup
unspoiled wilderness: don’t go in unarmed
tranquil setting: abandoned due to an ebola outbreak
health clinic: the vet will see you now
museum exhibits: those artefacts our country forgot to cart off when we left sharpish 150 years ago
Went out with friends for Christmas Eve lunch at The Pu Pu Pot. Everyone was a regular, except for Steve, who stopped eating Chinese food after watching a Channel 4 documentary on bats. Whilst perusing the menu, Laverne casually asked if anyone had ever tried shirako.
“Sounds Japanese, not Chinese,” I said.
“The Japanese call it shirako, you’re right,” she confirmed, “but it’s popular throughout Asia.”
“What is it?” Steve asked, trying to locate it on the menu.
“It’s an exotic delicacy. Most foreigners won’t touch it.”
Laverne was up to something.
“It’s the raw male genitalia of fish which still contains the seminal fluid and all the sperm sacs. It’ll be called something different in Chinese.”
Steve turned gray.
“They liken it to runny cream cheese,” she continued, breezily.
“Another time, guys,” Steve muttered, grabbing his coat.
Although we pleaded with him to stay, he’d heard enough.
“Never really liked him,” Laverne remarked to no one in particular, as she motioned for the waiter. “Are we ordering starters?”
“Poor Steve, but at least now he won’t have to try shirako,” Alison giggled.
“They don’t serve it here. Never have,” Laverne reassured everyone. “Anyway, it’s an acquired taste.”