‘Guys…’ As always, Leanne’s cheeks fill with blood before her mouth fills with words. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’
But her voice hasn’t a hope of surviving this salt-and-fake-laughter-rimmed concept-bar hell; Minty and Bella are still shouting into each others’ ears re: is the barman hairy hot or hairy gross? Suze is still rolling her roll-up whilst staring at her iPhone.
More nothing. And now her forehead is burning up. Her forehead. Always a bad sign.
She downs the last of her Margarita — which really wasn’t worth trekking to the depths of north east London for, but never mind — and slams her glass against the table.
All six pairs of eyes are on her; her forehead will be not only red but shiny.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ says Minty, who swears as much as possible to offset anyone and everyone’s preconceptions induced by her name, ‘What is it?’
‘I think I’m done with brunch.’
They’ve been friends since the first term of their first year of University. They’ve shared two houses, a flat, many holiday apartments and many, many toilet cubicles. Never have they all stayed silent for this long.
Laughter erupts from Minty’s nostrils. ’It’s a joke. The brunch queen’s idea of a joke!’
‘I always said her sense of humour would develop one day,’ says Bella.
‘Nah,’ says Suze. ‘She’s serious. Check out the forehead.’
Cheeks. Forehead. Now her neck and her nose. Her eyes scramble for a trap door. But this is an ex-shipping container; there is no trap-door.
‘Of course she’s not joking!’ Minty throws a slightly-too-hard-to-be-friendly arm-punch. ‘At least, she better not be, or what will I brag about? Whenever I meet someone who says they ate at this great place, recommended by that blogger, that Brunch Queen girl, you know? I’m like, yes I know… I bloody created her! When I invited her for her first ever brunch… She didn’t know what brunch was!’
The others laugh as if they haven’t heard this story a hundred times before.
Minty continues: ’When I explained, she said, oh, you mean a fry-up? Or … a continental breakfast?’
‘Of course, she’s come a long way now, haven’t you hun?’
‘I read a blog that said she was the ninth coolest blogger in London…’
‘Exactly, and we wouldn’t want her to throw all that away, would we?’
They stare at her, expecting the shrug-mumble-shy-smile-head-tilt combo which is the scripted end of this scene. But she can’t do it. She doesn’t know why, but she just can’t do it anymore. ‘I’m going home.’
‘But what if you run out of things to say?’ is her father’s response when she confesses she’s gone part-time at the agency so she could work on the blog.
The Dad-specific ball of anger immediately forms in Leanne’s belly: it’s both too hot and too cold and it feels a lot like her worst fear: the deep-fried-from-frozen hash browns they’d serve in the one and only cafe her parents would ‘treat’ her to as a kid.
‘I hate to say it,’ says Mum, ‘But he might be right. I mean, if you were writing — ’
‘It’s not writing,’ Dad interrupts, ‘It’s blogging.’
‘Isn’t it the same thing?’
Dad raises his bushy eyebrows; Mum sighs. ‘Very well then… If you were blogging about God, or world poverty, or — ’
‘Philosophy,’ Dad cuts in.
‘See, he does have some good ideas. You did study it for three whole years after all — ’
‘A far more fertile topic for a blog than the brunch.’
Her parents break into the fit of beaming and hand-on-knee wiping, which come about every time they reached an agreement in this perpetually tropical conservatory.
‘You don’t get it,’ Leanne says. ‘You don’t even try to get it. I’m finally doing something I love — ’
‘I don’t have to sit here and listen to this in my very own conservatory thankyouverymuch,’ Dad slides out of his leather recliner and shuffles into the house like the grumpy old man he now is.
She waits some more.
Then Mum pats her hand — once, twice, three times. ‘He loves you, you know that?’
Leanne tries not to notice the dismantling of the anger-ball brought on by these words.
‘And I love you, too. We only want you to get the most out of your life.’
Whenever Mum says this, Leanne thinks back to those Sunday mornings when she was forced to wring out wet jumpers over the sink. ‘What’s the point if you’re going to hang them up anyway?’ She’d complain. ‘Hanging, my dear, isn’t half as effective as squeezing.’ Well, she still wasn’t convinced.
‘I love you, too,’ Leanne says, glad she can at least stick to this script.
‘Of course you do.’ Mum stands up. ‘Now, won’t you come and help me with the trifle?’
‘Don’t tell me you’ve gone off it?’
‘Not at all.’
As she follows Mum into the kitchen, she knows she’ll get through the trifle-making. She’ll get through the eating of her Mum’s trademark shrivelled roast and, eventually, the trifle. She will even get through the awkward questions:
‘So have you found that special man yet?’ ‘Are you saving for a deposit?’ ‘Do you pay into a pension scheme?’ And the even more awkward silences that follow her answers: no, no and no. She will get through all this by playing with the new blog idea brought to dazzling and unexpected life by her Mum’s utterance of that rather embarrassing word, ’trifle.’
A Trifle Brunch
As I have long been arguing on this ’ere blog, brunch is a many-layered beast: it has a jammy heart, a greasy underbelly and a hairy metaphysical outer coat. Whether or not you agree, you’ll no doubt have experienced the pangs of brunch menu paralysis: sweet or savoury? Eggs or pancakes? Fritter? Homemade crumpets? Toast? Organic or sourdough or gluten free? And what with all this breakfast burrito business? Such moral quandaries are a thing of brunch past, with my new recipe for — wait for it, wait for it — brunch trifle.
Within four hours of uploading and tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming this post and its accompanying recipe and food porny photos, it has been Liked, Retweeted, hearted and favourited hundreds of times. Two cafes referring to themselves as ‘boutique taste outlets’ have emailed to ask whether they could include the brunch trifle on their new tasting menu — with a fee and full accreditation to her, of course. There is even a request for a supper club: I know brunch is pretty much the antithesis of supper but I thought it would be funny and ironic yeah?
There was a time, not so long ago, when every new RT or media or collaboration request filled her with a joy which was better and far more overwhelming than any of Minty or Bella’s descriptions of falling in love. At work, and at the expense of the corporate social media accounts she’s paid to ‘manage,’ she’d tweet so much from her @BrunchQueen account that her phone battery would invariably die by three o’ clock.
And now her phone is ringing, it’s that journo from Nosh: London’s No.1 Foodie Mag, hadn’t she almost fainted when they first offered her the column and now look, her heart is sinking even further into whatever it is that her heart sinks into when she gets a call from a pissed-off client at work.
‘Hi, hun.’ Since when did she become someone who calls everyone ‘hun’?
‘Leanne,’ says the journo. ‘Love the trifle piece. And as you know the column’s been getting ever so many hits. We just had a truffle-searcher pull a feature and we wondered whether you’d like to do something instead?’
No. No, no, no, no.
‘Maybe the evolution of the brunch trifle?’
Tell the foodies about her parents’ steaming conservatory? The sweaty leather seats? No thanks. ‘I’ve got a few other ideas.’
‘Whatever you think—I trust you. So long as it’s in my Inbox by nine tomorrow morning.’
‘Is that OK?’
Seconds after hanging up, she flops onto her bed.
She’s only been part-time for five weeks and already she’s into the habit of waking up whenever her body feels like it—10am on a good day; 11.45am the rest of the time—checking her Facebook and Twitter and Instagram until she actually begins to vibrate with guilt, at which point she’ll open a new sentence and tap out a series of whimsical ideas, only to be overcome with exhaustion and make the perilously short return journey from desk to bed. A few hours later, she’ll wake up, shower, drag her feet around Brockwell park, by which point it’ll be five o’ clock, and she’ll be so relieved to have made it through another day, she’ll say yes to whatever promotional and social requests her phone may or may not be buzzing with.
But today won’t be one of those days; it can’t be.
She drags herself back to the computer.
But what is there left to say?
‘You know I hate it when peeps cancel at the last minute,’ Minty whines down her ear, when she pulls out of their—admittedly pre-planned—dinner date. Why she can’t just send her a passive-agressive text like everyone else, Leanne doesn’t know, but she wishes she would.
‘Spencer was sooo excited to meet you.’
Spencer is Minty’s new boyfriend; so far, Leanne has only met him via Minty’s mouth and the smudged screen of her iPhone.
‘I know, hun,’ says Leanne, again with the hun, who is this woman who calls everyone hun and how did she break into Leanne’s mouth? ‘But I’ve got this deadline and I’ve not written two words.’ Other things she hasn’t done today include wash, eat and get dressed, but she doesn’t tell Minty any of this.
‘Oh yes, I forget you’re an important media luvvy now.’
‘I am not a luvvy!’
‘Whatever, babe. I’m sure Spencer will understand. He loves your blog, after all—he says it’s cute.’
Before Leanne can defend herself against the accusation of cuteness, the line goes dead.
How I fell for Brunch
Growing up in the suburb of a suburb of a suburb of a town that was really just a suburb with an old church, ‘brunch’ was a word so foreign, I hadn’t heard of it. At home, breakfast was a hurried bowl of cornflakes or burnt toast (white, pre-sliced, of course). On Special Occasions, it was a festival of refined carbs, tinned meats and paper doilies in what everyone referred to as the ‘post cafe’ (although, aside from the doilies, I can’t for the life of me imagine why).
When I first moved to London, I was in a perpetual state of shock: so much stuff! So many people! So much money disappearing on so little! So many hours spent narrowing dodging death by suffocation in strangers’ armpits on the tube!
Brunch changed all that—or rather, brunch at Brixton’s Railway Cafe. It had just opened, though now it is so popular you have to queue from the ungodly hour of eight am to be in with a chance of a seat. Hurrying to my nearest Sainsbury’s Local for some milk in the rain, its glowing, steamed-up windows awakened in me some long-forgotten hunger for home. And so I stepped in. Two hours later, I emerged with a full belly, a fuller heart and—most importantly and for the first time since attempting to live as an adult in London—a clear mind. When your weekend starts with a plate of hot, delicious food, cooked, dare I say it, with care, love and yes, even art; when the same could be said of the aesthetics; when the flat white is so good it’s round and there are free papers to boot, your two job-free days lounge before you, a horizon of unending possibilities. Never mind if you are too satisfied to do much more with your day; the important thing is the belief, however fleeting but nevertheless intoxicating, that you might.
‘You didn’t even fucking mention me!’ Minty corners her on the stairs. Minty works for a digital agency two floors above Leanne’s PR agency. For a time, they met everyday for lunch, and it’s only now, staring at Minty’s glittered jelly shoes, that Leanne realises this time is long since over.
‘Minty, I had less than twenty four hours to write that article.’
But this isn’t the real reason: the real reason is that yes, Minty was the first one to introduce her to brunch (along with a lot of other things) in what she now recognises as a decidedly mediocre chain French restaurant in Oxford. Yes, she was amazed. Yes, she ate and ate. Yes, she dragged Minty back there as often as her essay schedule and student loan balance would allow. But her real conversion to brunch came on that soggy Saturday morning, two months into her post-Oxford supposedly-real life, when Minty was off on some family sailing romp and she faced the prospect of two days in a city of seven million people, alone—an experience brunch taught her to survive and, eventually, embrace.
‘Of course,’ the editor said, after she emailed it over eight minutes before the deadline, ‘It’s not really about brunch, it’s about you. But there’s no time to change anything. It will do.’
‘Oh, boo-hoo,’ says Minty. And she breezes on up to her office.
‘Minty! How about we get lunch? There’s that new bahn-mi place?’
‘I’ve got a meeting,’ says Minty, already walking away. ‘Other people have commitments too, you know.’
Leanne takes a few more steps towards her own office. Reflexively, she stops and checks her phone: two more Likes on Facebook, 18 new followers on Twitter. 11 RTs and 2 DMs. Two more steps. But still nothing: no change in her heart.
‘She’s just jealous,’ says Suze, rolling up only seconds after their yoga class, during which they were tutted at on four separate occasions. ‘Isn’t that obvious?’
‘But I’ve been a total bitch.’
‘You haven’t, but…’ Suze drags on her roll-up and frowns. ‘Ok, don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t feel this about you but it’s something some people have said …’
‘There’s the feeling that you’re holding something back.’
‘Holding back what?’
Suze laughs. ‘That’s the thing. We don’t know.’
The friend anger-ball clogs up her throat: it’s floppier than the Dad one, but just as sticky—more like soggy and heavily peanut buttered toast; it will roll around her body for days, sticking to different organs and limbs, for Suze’s words are the truth, for which Leanne perhaps has a mild intolerance.
sayhello@thebrunchappchap: hi there, I’m enamoured with your blog and think you would make a beyond perfect ambassador with our brand…
firstname.lastname@example.org: Lili, can’t believe I’m actually emailing you. Will you PLEASE apologise for that BS on the stairs the other day so I can forgive you/say I’m the one who should be apologising and then you can forgive me and so finally we can carry on being friends? Minty x
Tanya@TimeOut: Hi Leanne, didn’t get your column yet? Probably got eaten up by my inbox but if you could just wing it over asap that would be great! K x
Tanya@TimeOut: Leanne? Did you get my call? Really need that column! *sorrynotsorry face* Tx
New Message, MattPR: Leanne, I know this is yr Madame Brunch email or whatever but will you PLEASE GET OVER THAT STOMACH FLU AND GET BACK IN THE OFFICE IT’S TOO BORING. Also, people are getting bitchy. But I’m guessing the flu’s the genuine article or else you’d be brunching etc.
Voicemail: Darling, it’s me? I think this is recording? Your father would like to speak to you and I—no, what is it? No, I turned it off, at least, I think it did… Oh well you try for a change!
New Message, Suze: Lee, have you fallen into some kind of brunch black hole? Went to yoga and everyone else was actually doing it and I felt like a total idiot not-doing it without you not-doing it besides me.
‘Are you sure this is her flat?’
‘Of course it’s hers! You’re probably not using the microphone correctly… LEANNE, HELLO!’
She stumbles across the floordrobe to door which separates her flat from the rest of the world.
‘She’s not there.’
‘Of course she’s there. She’s not anywhere else…’
Yes, these are her parents, gurning at the entry-phone camera. Yes, these are their voices, their real live voices. And yes, this is her hand, buzzing them up, and here are their footsteps, their coughs and sighs, their knuckles wrapping on her real live door. For this week-or-maybe-more-long moment of lying in bed, ignoring her phone whilst waiting for her body to start wanting brunch, work, friends, parents, yoga, and all the other things you’re meant to want, she’s stopped believing that such a world could be hers: a world of hands, feet, faces and doors. But —
Her Mum claps two veiny hands over her mouth. Her Dad blinks and blinks.
Hand still on the latch, Leanne knows there’s something she ought to do to move this moment into the next; the problem is, she can’t remember what that is.
‘Well,’ says her Dad. ‘Are you going to let us in?’
But Leanne doesn’t move; she doesn’t want to; all she wants is for her parents to stand here, look at her like she is some worrisome but interesting part of life, forever.
‘You don’t look well,’ Mum says, plucking vest tops and pants and various impractical playsuits off the floor so as to clear a path to the only soft and sit-able surface: the bed.
‘Of course she’s not well,’ Dad snaps. ‘She’s had the stomach flu. She hasn’t even blogged for ten and a half days.’
‘You read my blog?’ says Leanne. Her voice sounds muffled and watery, as if she were talking to them from a Skype window, from the grubby and pinking screen of an about-to-conk-out laptop.
‘Well…’ He flushes in jagged purple clumps: cheeks, chin, forehead. So this is where she gets it. ‘I don’t know what half of it means but it does make me chuckle.’
Leanne is too exhausted to suppress what the you’re-not-cool-enough voice in her head says is a seriously sad grin.
‘The place you went the first time, the one you wrote about in your last blog,’ Mum says, patting the pile of clothes she has somehow folded and stacked up on her lap, ‘Can you take us there? We, well,’ she plants the clothes into Leanne’s hands and stands up, ‘I want to see it.’
I want. Leanne stares at her Mum until she’s sure these words did indeed come out of her mouth.
‘Jesus Christ, she wasn’t lying about the stomach flu—look at her!’
Heads, even shoulders, pop above Macs all around the office.
‘You never know, maybe she got onto paleo brunch!’
‘Or the 5:2. Have you been on the 5:2?’
‘Debra: shut up about the 5:2! We all know you’ve done the 5:2!’
Leanne shuffles around the centre of the office, smiling, fake-laughing, shrugging—making what she hopes are the appropriate replies to this, her real life inbox.
It’s not long before she’s eyebrow-deep in her email inbox; when the others ask if she’ll join them to check out that new burrito place round the corner, she shakes her head, pointing to the pack of rice cakes and rubbing her stomach.
‘Poor thing, it really must’ve been a bad flu.’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘Terrible.’
But when the others have gone, and she’s alone with the Macs and the instant hot water tap, she lets out a melodramatic sigh. What a relief to be back doing the thing she used to hate, doing only to find that woven into the tedium is something like joy.
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know it’s me.’
Leanne continues down the stairs, as if she hasn’t heard this voice, as if she doesn’t recognise it as Minty’s, as if she hadn’t known, upon hearing the muffled thud of rubber soles above her, exactly who those ridiculous jelly shoes belonged to. She’s survived a whole day at work; Minty and the blog and yoga and her other friends she plans to gradually reintroduce over a few weeks.
‘Christ, it doesn’t suit you, being so thin!’
‘Bad…’ What words to stick to this thing that’s happened(ing?) to her? And with what brand of glue? ‘Flu. Really bad stomach flu.’
‘God. Well get some more brunch into you and pronto.’
After that brunch with her parents, when their raptures over the possibility of ordering duck eggs, and over the sausage meat from a farm not twenty yards from the village her father grew up in, what are the chances, she truly is done with it.
‘No more brunch. Not for me. Ever.’
Minty sucks in her lips as if to keep from laughing. ‘Right, I can see you’re taking this seriously.’ She slinks her arm into Leanne’s and yanks her out into the after-work twilight. ‘But it’s not like you actually have to eat it—everyone knows the real foodies only ever taste.’
‘No. I’m not going to blog about it anymore.’
‘Okaaaay…’ says Minty, yanking her, once again, away from the office.
‘You don’t mind?’
‘Why would I mind? And what would it matter if I did? It’s your blog, after all.’
As they near Farringdon, buses hum. A cyclist shouts at a lorry-driver. A barista chucks a bin liner out of a Nero doorway and sighs. But the bus doesn’t crash. The lorry-driver doesn’t roll down his window or beep or swerve into the cyclist. Life stews on as usual.
‘I thought, like, you’d all think I was boring if I didn’t have the blog.’
‘Babe.’ Minty stops walking and grabs Leanne’s arms. Commuters are swarming around their bodies, eyes narrowed at this human-shaped delay to the moment they open their front doors. ‘No one cares whether you blog about brunch or about other things or about nothing. I mean, we care, but it doesn’t matter, not really. What matters, is, you know, you.’ Minty is frowning so intensely, her eyebrows look ready to jump off her head. A strange noise comes out of Leanne’s mouth, then another and another: she’s laughing.
‘Your eyebrows.’ And she mimes, with her finger, Minty’s eyebrow antics. And Minty laughs. And a warmth spreads through her body which tells her it’s good, being out in the world, inviting another human right up into the living room of your mind, even if only for a moment.
‘Where we going?’ Minty asks.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You’re walking like you’ve got somewhere in mind.’
In Leanne’s mind is her new blog title: The Queen of Brunch and Other Things.
But Minty doesn’t need to know about this, not yet.
‘Nowhere in mind,’ she says, pulling her friend towards her until their hips bump. ‘But I’ll tell you something. I’m hungry. Ravenous.’
Clare Sita Fisher writes fiction, both long and short. Her debut novel ALL THE GOOD THINGS will be published by Viking, Penguin UK in 2017. Born in 1987 in Tooting, south London, she now live in Leeds, and her heart is firmly torn between the two cities. You can see more of her work here: https://claresitafisher.com/