Table Manners: Suiting up for Manhood

By Darrel Bristow-Bovey.

For me, manhood meant a place at a table in a restaurant.

When I was very young in Durban my father had a ritual. Once a month on a Monday he would put on a clean white shirt and a tie and a sports jacket and leave the house alone. This was a strange turn of events, because ordinarily my father would never wear a tie or a jacket, and also this was Durban in the 1970s – the only people who wore ties and jackets were waiters and jewel thieves.

He would come home later in the evening, and I would hear his car pull up in the driveway and hear him open the front door and walk through the house, and I can’t remember if I ever asked him where he went in his clean white shirt and his tie and sports jacket, but I know it felt like a tremendous secret, something strange and terrible and not quite fit for the eyes of moms and small kids.

One day when I was nine years old he said, “I think you’re old enough now.”

“Don’t be silly,” said my mom. “He’s too young.”

“He can just watch,” said my father.

Yes, I wanted to shout. I can just watch! Let me just go watch! I didn’t know what it was I’d be watching, but I sensed that there was a world out there waiting for me and I wanted to be a part of it, and I wanted my dad to take me.

That night my dad put on his clean white shirt and his tie and his jacket. I didn’t have a tie or a jacket but I put on my smart clothes, the ones I used to wear sometimes to Sunday School, and we kissed my mom goodbye and she stood in the front door and watched us drive away.

He drove us off the Bluff and then down the highway to the Durban city centre. I remember the lights and the dark sea. I don’t know exactly where we went because I was young and didn’t know directions, and I hadn’t been to the city centre very often. He parked on a dark backstreet and we climbed out of the car and he put his hand on my shoulder and walked me to a restaurant. The restaurant was closed because it was a Monday night, but my father knew the owner and it was open just for him.

A man met us at the door and my father introduced us and he shook my hand very gravely. My father walked through to a table at the back of the restaurant. There was a place setting for one – it was the only place in the restaurant that had been set. My dad took off his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. The man brought him a beer and a glass of water, and my dad drank the water and half the beer and then he nodded that he was ready.

The man went to the kitchen and said something, and a chef came out of the kitchen with a bowl of curry and rice and put it in front of my father. I had already had supper, so I didn’t mind that there was nothing for me. I thought that my father might offer me a spoonful but he didn’t, and he didn’t say anything.

He started to eat, and I saw the sweat stand out on his forehead. He stopped and put down his cutlery and rolled up his sleeves to his elbow and carried on eating. He stopped and finished his glass of beer and the man brought him another. He stopped a third time and loosened the tie around his neck. His face became very red. He mopped at his face with his white napkin. He dabbed at his eyes.

When he had finished and the plate was clean and his shirt was dark with sweat he shook hands with the man and with the chef, and he gave them both money.

“That was a good one,” he told the chef. “That one nearly beat me.”

And they both laughed and the chef said, “Next time I will win!”

And we drove home together and my dad promised that next year I could try a small plate of my own and see if I was grown-up enough to manage it, but between that year and the next year he died, and when I am back in Durban I sometimes find myself driving around downtown to see if I can find that restaurant and to see if the man in the doorway is still there, and his chef, and the curry, and then maybe my dad will finally tell me that I’m grown-up.

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