A notice went up on Katy's school window last week, basically saying that if any child wanted to try out school dinners, put your name down and pick a date. It seemed a strangely formal way of doing things, but as Katy had been banging on about having lunch like her friends, I put her name down and promptly forgot about it. Well up until two days before the grand event, and another notice went up. This one explained that the parents had to pay for their own dinners, and could we sort that out at the Reception.
Whoa, wait a minute, I've been conned. I never signed up for this, did I? I went back to the original notice and read all the way to the bottom this time. God damned small print "We feel this will be a good way for parents to experience the quality of food we provide your children". I felt the blood drain from my face, I distractedly waved goodbye to Katy, and trudged back to the car. I sat there for a few moments, quietly contemplating my fate, before letting out a scream of frustration that made poor forgotten Mate cry.
They couldn't make me eat it surely? It has taken me over 25 years to get over my own school dinners, and I'm still not sure my system is 100% free of it. I swear I did a burp the other day that had remnants of the Oxtail slop I ate when I was eight. No way was I going to risk it again, not in this lifetime. I don't care what anyone says, I'm going to put my foot down, point blank refuse to get involved in this insanity.
"You are going and that's the end of the subject. You are not letting our daughter down."
My fate was sealed. Foiled by Catholic guilt and a stern voice, and I'm not even Catholic, or a listener, or brave it seems. That left me the whole weekend to mope and sulk, and prepare my stomach for the long battle ahead. I stocked up with Andrews, indigestion tablets, chewing gum and Jack Daniels. I was nothing if not prepared.
When you are 2 days from payday (or housekeeping for me, heaven forbid someone actually pays me for my 24/7 job) two days last an eternity, but with its usual comical cosmic timekeeping, Monday lunchtime sped around. I arranged for the Mother in law to watch Mate, who with knife twisting irony, complained that the lunch I left him was not sufficient. I bit my tongue (probably the only decent thing I would eat today) and calmly explained that a ham sarnie, apple, raisins, yogurt, and cup of milk normally kept him happy. After she gave me a look that made me feel like a stranger to my own son, I shrugged and left them to it. Handy to know there was a fate worse than death after all.
As I sat in the car outside the school, I gathered my thoughts, summoned up my courage, and made the sign of the cross. I heard a shout of "Dead man walking" as I approached the reception. Fricking caretaker thinks he's so funny. I told him to get his bucket of sawdust ready, that wiped the smile off his face. After explaining to the receptionist what I was there for, I was then given a visitors tag to wear like the world's worst back stage pass. I can only blame the next conversation on my nerves, and my insistence on attempting humour to settle myself.
Receptionist: Will you being having one course or two?
Me : You mean like appetizers and entrées, ha ha?
Receptionist: No. Dinner and dessert.
Me : You're kidding right? Who in their right minds would eat a school dessert? The Art Department used to use the left over semolina and jam as building products at my school, ha ha.
Receptionist: One course or two?
Me : (very sheepishly) Just dinner please.
I had to sit and wait until the lunchtime bell went, all the while feeling her stare burning a hole in the top of my hung low head. I literally jumped out of my seat when it eventually rung, and went through to the dinner hall at speed. I spotted Katy waiting with her friends in the queue, and she gave me the biggest 'That's my Dad smile' when I went and joined them. I don't get that smile at pick up time, suddenly this was all seeming worth it. Katy made the introductions, and I attempted to win her friends over with my world renowned kid's humour. Getting their names wrong on purpose failed, funny noises failed, even my sarcastic remarks died a death.
I guess I forgot that my sense of humour is an acquired taste. Katy is quite used to it by now, and actually gets irony. I realised this one night when I was getting them both ready for bed. Little Miss Independent was putting her own PJ's on whilst I changed Mate's nappy. She happened to say "I love my little brother, he is the most cleverest brother in the whole wide world." That comment was still hanging in the air in a speech bubble, when Mate pulled himself and let out a yelp. I turned to Katy and remarked "Yeah, your brother is so clever he pulled his own willy so hard he made himself cry." Katy literally fell off the bed laughing, and continued to laugh for five whole minutes. I was so proud (well a mixture of pride and worry that Mate may well pull it off next time).
I remained silent until we reached the front of the queue, happy to let the kids chatter around me, nervously eyeing the ever nearing serving hatch. Today's choice was apparently chicken sausages, mash, baked beans and veg or salad. Pineapple and ice cream, or yogurt for dessert. We collected our food and I stumbled to the nearest table, blinded by what was the whitest mash, in fact the whitest anything I had seen in my life.
I'm not sure I can describe the meal with any real justice. Looking back, I think I may have done what any traumatised person does. Push the memory deep down into that part of you where you bury all your deep dark secrets, and other plain nasty things. Things like walking in on your parents at it, or the time you drove your bike into a wall and ended up with five stitches in your head. Actually I think that last memory may have been knocked out of my head, that whole day's a blur to be honest.
I am of the opinion that giving four year old children, who are just learning how to use a knife and fork properly, rubber sausages to eat is downright cruel. Funny to watch, but cruel. Once my pupils had contracted to the size of pinholes, I was able to attempt the mash. Somehow these cooks had defied the laws of physics and had created solid foam. They had also defied the laws of cooking, and created something totally and completely without taste. I may knock them, but it must take a certain amount of skill to achieve both those things. Not a useful skill, but a skill nonetheless.
A passing Dinner Lady happened to notice the face I was pulling, and remarked that it probably needed salt. My retort of "that and a bottle of Gin" did not go down well. No sense of humour these people, although judging by the lovely polite children (where's my sarcasm font) I was sitting opposite, it's hardly a wonder. The two angelic (that does mean odious right?) girls in question, had demanded that Alpha Mums son was in 'their' seat, and he had to move. Sensing an opportunity to score some brownie points with his Mum, I said he could come and sit next to me. They then actually had the audacity to tell me you are not allowed to change seats. Having been on the end of three disgusted stares myself that day, I tried to give my own in response. This was interrupted by Katy begging me not to blow off in front of her friends. Apparently my authoritative look is much like my breaking wind look.
Katy being the human dustbin that she is, soon polished off her dinner, and wanted to go out and play. This was obviously my cue to leave, which I grabbed with both hands. I said my goodbyes and took our trays to the front. I received my last look of shame when I had to scrape my hardly touched dinner into the bins. This one was actually accompanied with a quite audible tut tut from the Dinner Lady.
I was instantly transported back to my childhood, and instinctively hung my head again. Looking down and looking at my big adult shoes reminded me that I was no longer a child, no longer answerable to the hair-netted Hitlers. I turned to slay her asunder with my rapier sharp wit, strike a blow for all children everywhere. I turned, stood tall and proud, held eye contact, and mumbled a "Sorry" as I turned tail and sped out of the hall. Some things will never change.