Pork belly so sumptuous it took me back to my first beanbag experience. Volcanic layers of buttery fat and melting meat, not a hint of pig pen or cortisol so often the final note in a porky concerto. The shy tang of apple sauce teardrops – a searching final kiss (and there will come the day of your final kiss, your final hug, the final time you look someone in the eye, so make the most of it). The gravy was surplus; nothing dry needed smuggled down my throat. Sour compressed apple tried to sulk in the corner, but couldn’t help a smile. Joy.
Sitting in The Duisdale Hotel on the Isle of Skye I ate the best meal of my life. It was also the day I met Shia LaBeouf.
The green stuff, second course, watercress silky soup concoction. French sounding name I’ve forgotten. A little boiling cauldron, intense algae green with steam billowing; the green of a boggy on a white shirt. Hidden among the slippery was a slow cooked hens egg the consistency of frogspawn. The yolk exploded when forked; orange ribbons fizzled into the swamp. The fiasco tasted of little but theatre prevailed
I had been working in Skye and stopped at The Duisdale for grub. The large white house was plain with pleasant gardens and sea views. Through the door was a palace of hushed luxury and hypnotic jazz; tables made of old wood, chairs lined with extinct animals, non-plastic flowers in vases – this was not the place to get a burger. I thought it best to slither out and find a chippy. A suited lady caught me mid-slither.
‘Good evening Sir, will you be dining with us?’
Unwashed, unshirted, I couldn’t. Before doing anything fancy I need time to get into character, to visualise money in the bank and tweed in the wardrobe – it had been months since I’d rehearsed my haughty laugh. But I was cornered; my coat was ceremoniously removed and a bottle of £5 mineral water placed in front of me before you could say sweat marks.
When out of place and anxious I sometimes pretend to be someone else. Someone who wouldn’t be out of place.
Who goes to fancy restaurants in scruffy clothes? Shia LaBeouf. The uncomfort left and I could breathe. Hollywood baby.
The main course was halibut flanked by fried and boiled potatoes – opulence – with a whisper of salt and a caress of buttery garlic. My father is Irish and my mother is Scottish. So naturally my mother racially abused me growing up. Especially when I wouldn’t eat potatoes: ‘your lot wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for spuds’, ‘there’s no such thing as an anti-tattie Paddy’ and less printable rejoinders.
Shia had a difficult childhood as well. Whereas my mum was a xenophobic potato pusher, his father was a war veteran sex pest felon with a drug problem. Little coincidences like that made the role a good fit.
Intrigued by the unusual broccoli, I stopped the waiter as he walked by to find out more:
‘Apologies sir, that is asparagus.’
The fish was fresh white basking upon a chaise lounge of celeriac risotto. There was wine in the sauce, and for the first time I understood why. It worked. This wasn’t the sloppings of a middle-aged divorcee drowning the spag bol in bottom shelf gut rot. This was a surgical incision of grapey goodness into the deep cut of good taste.
A silk-scarfed old lady at another table caught my ear:
‘I don’t trust pigs, something about their skin.’ said a strong Northern accent.
‘And another thing, not eating curry doesn’t make me prejudiced.’
Her companion snorted.
The Scottish Mainland came into view through the little window; over Loch Hourn rose Ladhar Bheinn and Sgùrr nan Eugallt mountains. Seabirds dipped and rose, a little skiff bobbed. Had Shia ever been here? Maybe this was his first time.
Shia LaBeouf is one of his generation’s greatest actors. He is electric to watch, the intensity, the burning valleys behind the eyes. He knocked a tooth out to play Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan in ‘Fury’, he knocked out Tom Hardy on the set of ‘Lawless’, he knocked back acid for ‘Charlie Countryman’. Even his name – literal translation: God is Salvation The Beef – he was chosen. But personal problems have plagued him – drink, drugs etcetera.
So in true Shia tradition, I was going to go method.
I began with a good sulk over the halibut, then downed my orange cordial in one. Veloute, that’s the name of the green soup. How wonderful, the best meal of my life and I was learning French.
A posh family sat down at the table next to me. The daughter had brought home a long-haired Aussie lad from her gap year. The shirt he wore looked good. Aussie started telling a story, Daughter gazed at him, Mother and Father politely smiled:
‘See, in the outback, if you want to stop your milk from curdling, there’s only one way to do it.’
Father sighed. Aussie continued.
‘You put a frog in it.’
‘Don’t you love that Mummy? Isn’t that the best you’ve heard? Isn’t Stevsie the best?’
‘Yes Bumpkin, wonderful.’
‘You can call me Stinger mam.’
Stinger then slapped his thigh and laughed. Father jumped.
Pudding. The pudding was dark chocolate fondant with chocolate crumbs, torched syrup and citrus blood orange sorbet – name could be snappier. For the sake of art, I took a picture of the dish and put it on Instagram. Shia felt dirty.
Shia’s career has been punctuated by outstanding performances and strange episodes. In 2013 he had a run of plagiarism, beginning with his directorial debut HowardCantour.com which was a rip-off of Daniel Clowes comic Justin M. Damiano. Once caught, The Beef apologised over Twitter with a string of plagiarised sorry notes from various sources. Folk didn’t like that. Then Shia declaimed his stardom with the repeated mantra:
‘I am not famous anymore.’
Folk didn’t like that either.
A wealthy Californian couple two tables away returned their main course:
‘It looks beautiful, but we’re already full.’ said the tanned woman wearing sunglasses and pastel colours.
‘Yeah, sorry bud, but we’ve been grazing all day. Good effort though.’ said the tanned man wearing sunglasses and pastel colours.
‘Yeah, great effort.’
‘Maybe give it back for the staff bud? We barely touched it.’
The waiter bowed and departed with the dishes. The lady lowered her sunglasses.
‘You didn’t need to say that Jarold, of course the staff will eat it – you know what they say about the Scots…’
‘Tight as a clam?’
‘Tight as a clam.’
They each raised an eyebrow.
‘All this talk about clams Janet,’ said Jarold. ‘How about we skip pudding and check out the bed?’
Jarold’s raised eyebrow twitched. Janet ignored him and talked about her cousin’s beach house.
Pudding. The pudding was beautiful etcetera. As the joy sludge touched my lips, silk-scarfed old lady piped up:
‘I don’t trust eggs.’
They were on the Veloute. A French word. She didn’t trust her neighbour either:
‘The daft cow voted for independence… doesn’t care one jot about my pension.’
Pudding. Nice sugary brown thing.
‘See, if you’ve got a good hunting doggo…’ Stinger was telling another story:
‘…it’ll grab the boar by it’s goolies…’
Mother and Daughter swooned. Father choked on a carrot.
Pudding, bugger, nearly gone. It was little more than a skidmark.
‘Janet, we came on this trip to rekindle something… I don’t want to hear anymore about Boozer’s beach house.’
‘But it’s such a nice house.’
‘It is a nice house. But I’m fifty three..’
‘Sixty one.’ corrected Janet.
‘You know that’s not my biological age.’
Pudding. The last gulp had been shovelled, the bowl licked clean, the pang of melancholy panged. Like pudding, all good things must come to an end. And always too soon. You barely leave school and then you’re an old man – everyone you have ever loved will die, and in a hundred years every one of us will be gone and forgotten, our bodies little more than vessels to turn stardust into fertiliser. I usually skip pudding.
A tall man walked in carrying two bottles of water like they had slighted him. A lady floated in behind him in a cloud of fluffy hair.
‘If I had wanted bottled water, I would have prefaced water with bottled. Five pounds. Five pounds.’ His voice was very low – when he spoke it gave me a funny feeling around my tailbone.
I had finished my meal, the courses had been eaten, the table was cleared.
‘Would you like anything else sir?’
As much as The Beef had shunned fame, he was still doing alright financially. Shia wanted the petit fours. He didn’t know what they were, but he wanted them.
‘I would like a jug of Earl Grey tea and the petit fours.’
‘Do you mean Petit Fours sir?’
My face throbbed. The rest of the room went silent, shirts rustled as necks turned. Stinger grimaced in solidarity.
Shia was having none of it:
‘I meant petit fours. And there better be four of them.’