Some years ago I was sitting in a restaurant about to eat a fine meal. I had that curious feeling which is only associated with being about to eat a fine meal, combining excitement, fear of mild poisoning, satisfaction at spending an absurd amount of money on perishable goods and, of course, hunger. The restaurant had two stars, a sure sign that its wares would please the palate, if not the wallet. The chef could be seen to march in and out of the dining area with pomposity rivalling that of an exiled prince.

I was alone; I always eat alone, for the sort of conversation one has in restaurants is not dissimilar to the pleasantries people exchange in hospitals. There are two main restaurant conversations. The first comes before the first course is served and revolves around the anticipated food, which is a tedious collection of guesses and what I describe as ‘atmospheric comments’. The second is often more sedate and angers me enormously, as it forbids my natural impulse: slumber. When I eat alone, on the other hand, I can put my head down and sleep soundly immediately after the last mouthful is swallowed.

I prefer the restaurants I frequent to be as empty as possible. I am not one of those for whom a lively and vivacious clientele is an attraction. I have a preference for the misunderstood restaurateur whose establishment is woefully neglected by the many, but whose food could charm a Frenchman. Taking the above into consideration, imagine how disgruntled I was when a rival of mine sat at the table opposite me. As soon as he arrived, the exquisite joys of solitude were exiled. I understand that in rural Sweden the bus-etiquette is that if there is only one other passenger, you should sit next to him or her. There is no such etiquette in the restaurants of my country. I do not want acquaintances or strangers near me.

After a while, I noticed that the man was looking at me, staring at me, somehow contemplating my existence. What a cheek, I ruminated, what a bloody cheek. My existence has never been in question, although it is trueto say that from time to time I have personally, quietly wished I were dead. I could not bear to be contemplated in such a fashion, and looked away. I felt a surge of anger; I had lost my appetite.

I made for the sensible option and sat on the other side of my table. I felt sure that by snubbing my observer in this way he would feel compelled to find another source of amusement. For a moment, therefore, my sense of anxiety was placated, but I soon noticed that the blighter had an excellent view of me via an oblong mirror which hung to the left side of the restaurant’s entrance. Added to this, I was aware that if I could see him reflected in my cutlery, he could probably use the same device to spy on me. In order to guard against this, I covered my knife and fork with my napkin. I sought immediately to smother anything that glittered brightly, anything that would or could create an image of me that my observer could use to his advantage.

By now, as I could not see my rival, I felt quite uneasy. What was he doing? The waiter walked over and asked if I needed anything.

‘Poison that man,’ I said, pointing subtly at the man I hated. ‘Poison him now and I will repay you well for it. I know you can do it. You are a waiter.’

The waiter looked surprised for a moment, taken aback by my confidence, but I know how to look at a waiter so that he respects me, and he obliged, producing a small phial of clear liquid from his waistcoat pocket. I tucked into my hors d’oeuvres.

When I had finished my first course I was eager to look around, but I knew I must not. My rival would be suffering by now, maybe dead, although it occurred to me that had he died I would surely know about it. I considered his last moments, his last thoughts. What would they be like? He would surely consider his sudden pain to be the work of age or an untimely rebellion from within his body. Above all, he would not entertain the thought that the perpetrator of such violence was sitting at a nearby table.

I let my curiosity subside and waited for the waiter to clear the remnants of the first part of my meal. I was excited and wanted to stroll around the room, but I sat still. The waiter emerged some moments later. What a Gentleman, I thought, what a well turned-out young man. He had grace, was more than a little good-looking, and wore his work clothes with pride. Few they are, I reflected, who take their work as seriously as this chap. I winked as he came near, but he was too humble to acknowledge it. He merely brushed my table and adjusted my napkin.

When the main course arrived I was ravenously hungry. Roast partridge with a pomegranate reduction, accompanied by pommes de terre sauteés, served in a shoe. The head poked out cheekily, eyes glazed over, beak intact. What a feast. I tucked in greedily.

Some time later, while finishing off the wings, I became aware of a faint glow in my chest. I did not recognise the feeling and continued to eat. I was thoroughly regaled by the incredible fare before me. I raised my glass in silent acknowledgement of the chef: no doubt a rare and poetic soul of the kitchen. Again the waiter passed. I noticed a hint of the eternal in his seemingly everyday waiting attire. The world seemed for a moment to be in complete accord with my soul. Curiously, (in this moment of sublimity) I had even forgotten about my antagonist and the brutal damage that I had probably inflicted upon him. What did it matter anyway?


Now I am nourished by a mixture of water and salts. My mouth is perpetually dry. I feel half-dead. I cannot remember the last time I smiled, nor even what it feels like to smile. The waiter, it seems, had more to him than I gave him credit for. He did not poison my rival as I had instructed, but, guided by his Gentlemanly morality, he poisoned me.

‘On Being Watched’ is one of The Gentleman Stories, a series of tales written collaboratively by Simon Stewart and James Raiher which explore the age- old notion of gentlemanliness. In each short story a problem is raised which is resolved by the appearance of an almost mythic gentleman.

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