CHAPTER 1 EXTRACT
From whichever way you looked at it Folkestone represented the end. From London, it was the final point on the map before your train went underground and onto the continent. From mainland Europe it was the end of the Euro-zone, the high-speed rail links and the good food.
For Gasmark it was a lobster pot. After a brief spell at Catering College in Kettering he had decided the only way to learn about food was to spend time in the melting pots of Haute Cuisine which, in his fevered imagination meant only one thing: the great kitchens of Paris. So he had arrived in Folkestone en-route to his destiny. An AA Pocket Guide to France, a rucksack full of clothes, cookery books – Delia (of course), a tattered copy of ‘The Galloping Gourmet’ by Graham Kerr, a couple of Jamie Oliver’s plus a handful of self-composed recipes which he believed showed his potential and the set of Sabatier knives secretly ‘liberated’ from the kitchens of the College he had recently departed.
Folkestone was to be the last stop before the big push.
The Great Leap Forwards.
The final grand meal on Blighty before he set sail for the continent. Like the banquets enjoyed by the generals before Waterloo. That was the plan, and like all great plans it was scuppered by fate. A chance meeting with a couple of friendly girls in a seafront nightclub had led to what he thought was going to be a good time. But when he woke up face down in the sand hours later, with what he suspected was a Rohypnol hangover, he discovered he’d lost more than just his dignity. Gone was his wallet, his money, his ferry ticket and, more importantly, his European dream.
So instead of being the beginning Folkestone was, for Gasmark, very much the end. Or at least the beginning of the end, because the longer he remained in the town, with its tantalizing views of Calais on a clear day, the more it began to feel like his dream was deflating like a ruined soufflé. The realisation that Brexit Britain was just an isolationist dead-end that only reinforced the feeling that Britain wasn’t so Great after all.
One McJob led to another and another until he finally managed to talk his way into a kitchen. Well, not so much a kitchen in the static sense, but in the portable sense. He was head chef in a mobile burger van. Only yet again life was cruel. The local businessman who had spotted Gasmark’s culinary potential had, in actual fact, spotted his desperation, and Head Chef actually meant Only Chef and included pretty much everything else too. His only consolation was Sally, the Business graduate who worked the till, made the tea, provided the conversation and kept him sane.
Leaning on the counter he looked out across the English Channel towards the thin grey line on the horizon that was France and wondered, not for the first time, if there was a disillusioned French Anglophile wanna-be chef who wanted nothing more than to work in the kitchens of London, but was stuck in a fast-food van flipping burgers for the guards who worked at Sangatte gazing back across that thin stretch of water.
The piercing cry of a seagull snapped him out of his reverie. For a brief moment he watched the seabird peck at some leftover that had been discarded by one of his more discerning customers before slapping his hand on the counter and frightening the bird off in a great flap of wings.
“Bloody things,” he said to no one in particular.
The smell, the sweet, delicious, guilty smell of onions frying on a hotplate was the key. It wafted hither and thither from the cliff top by the Martello tower and called, like sirens to the faintly hungry. On a good day, with an obliging wind, Gasmark liked to think that the smell of his onions even made it to France.
But whatever the geographical stretch of the aroma, more closely to home it always brought forth customers. Happy roadside gastronomes for whom the simple burger in a bun topped with oily fried onions that had been sprinkled with sugar to caramelize for an instant never failed to be grateful for the feast in a paper napkin that Gasmark brought forth and handed over. If nothing else in his life, he liked to think that he was at least succeeding on one level: fulfilling a basic need.
Of course self-delusion counts for a lot.
“Whaddya call that?” asked the slightly overweight man in dirty jeans and a fading Empire Strikes Back T-Shirt straining over his belly. Gasmark looked up from behind the counter to regard the customer properly for the first time.
“A burger,” he replied.
The Empire shook his head holding the thin bap, limp lettuce and sliver of burger so to give the best impression of something that had long ago given up the ghost.
“You're having a laugh,” he said, slapping the offending offering back down on the counter, “I'm not paying for that.”
Gasmark regarded the pathetic excuse for a burger and realised the awful truth. Slowly, and without disagreement, he reached across to the till, opened it, scooped up the coins that had only just been dropped in and handed them back. The Empire had struck back and won.
The retreating figure wobbled away, counting the change in his paw with stubby, sausage-like fingers and all Gasmark could do was watch and reflect on the depressing metaphor the dissatisfied customer represented for his hopes and dreams.
With plummeting spirits he picked up the burger between his thumb and forefinger and tossed it out of the van whereupon it was immediately swooped on by three hungry seagulls for whom there was always such a thing as a free lunch.