It was dark and, yes, I’d had a few jars, but really, there was no obvious sign that this was a restaurant. In fact, I’m not even certain that there was a sign at all. There was a great heavy black door, with an enormous brass knocker, but no light shone from the windows – if this was the right place, it appeared, to all intents and purposes, to be closed. But Carrie, our leader, had more faith and rapped on the door with a confidence that comes of experience; she’d been before and knew the score. In best horror film tradition, the door eased open a few inches (“with a creak” might be stretching things) and a woman, suspicious, looked out. There was a brief discussion as Carrie established our credentials and then an uncomfortable pause as we were given the once over; after an age she gave her assent and in we trooped. There was a kitchen on the left where a second woman, in t-shirt and grey joggers, puffing away on a fag as she cooked, was looking us up and down – I don’t remember being made to feel particularly welcome. But this was a fleeting impression; my attention was on the main room that lay in front.
It was everything we’d been promised. The light was low, literally, lamps suspended just a few feet above the tables, each sitting in a soft pool of light like islands in the darkness; Hopper would have made hay here. The clientele seemed to consist entirely of couples who, regardless of how innocent their assignations may have been, were made furtive by the discreet light. In short, they all looked like they were up to no good and the sexual tension hung heavy in the air. We were led through to the room beyond, similarly dark with a jumble of furniture in the distant murk and one long table lit by a pair of candelabra. There were perhaps a dozen of us, all a bit wide eyed and giggly at the nonsense of it all, and we spoke in hushed voices as we compared notes about what we had seen. As our eyes became accustomed to the light, it became apparent that there was more to the room than the table. It was as if we were in the Old Curiosity Shop. My memory is hazy when it comes to the detail; ornaments? A bust on a plinthe? A Doric column? Possibly, but either way, the bric-a-brac was piled high – it was fabulous.
As we took in the surroundings, I had been absentmindedly fiddling with the chess set in front of me on the table, and it was a while before I realised that each of the pieces was a beautifully rendered representation of a sexual act. Pornographic chess – who knew! Satyrs and fawns, sybaritic centaurs and nubile youths, all fantastically endowed and vigorously engaged in all manners of fornicating, writhing and humping – right before my very eyes. I didn’t know where to look. Actually, I did – I was a relative innocent and I’d never seen the like, and it was tremendous. The walls proved similarly educational; works of erotic art festooned the place. My head spinning, it was something of a relief when the food came.
The woman who had opened the door to us (maitre d’ or waitress wouldn’t do her justice – she had a distinctly proprietorial air) came through and offered us the choice of lamb or duck. That was it and that is what we got. A huge slab of meat (which was, frankly, delicious) with a token spoonful of boiled veg that looked and tasted suspiciously like it had come out of a tin. There was even less choice when it came to the drinks – she simply turned up with half a dozen bottles of red. I know nothing of wine, but it was clear even to me that this was seriously good stuff. Red walls, red meat and red wine: it all flowed, and the rest of the evening descended into a blur.
A few things stand out from the befuddled memories. From time to time, couples were taken through our room to a door that led to who knows where. Were there more tables, or was something more nefarious going on? Was this where the furtive diners went after their meat and wine, or was my boozy imagination and the Bohemian atmosphere getting the better of me?
Behind our table, away in the gloaming, was a high backed wicker chair which curved out forwards at the front, providing a canopy of sorts for the sitter. We must have been in situ for several hours when I was astonished to see that there was somebody sitting there in the shadow. An elderly woman had been there the whole time, watching and listening. I said hello and, wordlessly, she nodded back. She was still there when we left, and this time smiled back as we said our goodbyes and headed out into the night.
Photograph by kind permission of MaryAnn Johanson, which I found on her venerable film site www.flickfilosopher.com, now in it’s 24th year!
I was both pleased (because it proves that I didn’t just make this stuff up) and disappointed (it has better anecdotes), to find a corroborating account of the mythical Gasworks.