I thought it was a dream, because I hadn't seen a mahogany staircase in a restaurant for twenty years, or maybe I just hadn't been to one. The staircase led up into complete darkness, until my eyes got used to it. I reached a landing, turned and kept going. At the top of the stairs it was still dark enough to trip over the brass strips at the edges of the axminster that led into the vast room. The carpet seemed to have tones of burgundy and deep violet, but who could tell in that light? It looked like the cover of The Zombies 1968 psychedelic album 'Odessey and Oracle', but it might have been forest green. I looked around. Inset into the north and west walls of the room were four giant tin soldiers, standing sentinel like armour suits in a medieval castle. I thought I had stumbled into a Victorian-era children's nursery at midnight, and had shrunk. The east wall was in almost full darkness, but voices and the flash of light on glass gave it away as a bar. Figures kept emerging like wraiths. Some of them carried trays. The trays bore drinks. In the cool darkness, tables were set in different formations, and one long table had a king's throne at one end and a chair with angel's wings at the other. Round green candles like little globes of the world sat on the tables, slowly melting down from their ice-caps.
The whole effect was completely bizarre. The street I had left a minute earlier was a 35-degree-celsius oven, the westering sun paint-stripping the buildings on the east side of the street.
I had pushed open a massive door and gone into a cool blackness that paled to a dim hallway, off which were two rooms of scattered tables and chairs, a bar at one side, and a door at the far end that led to a beer garden. Then I had seen the staircase and ascended into the place of the mahogany chairs and the axminster and the big tin soldiers.
Someone beckoned and I was shown to the long table with the throne and the angel chair. Three vacant chairs remained, and the someone pointed to one, and I sat in it. The table was already laden with appetisers/entrees/amuse bouches/crudites or whatever they are calling them this year; the kind of thing you eat when you are waiting for something to eat. Platters held long, thin breakable portions of grilled ciabatta that were piled up high like abandoned railway sleepers, and which could be broken and used as edible cutlery to scoop up the tapenades that were lined up alongside the ciabatta platters like docking satellites. Other platters held thinly-sliced prosciutto and other smallgoods rolled up into tiny flutes that you could hook with an end of ciabatta shard, and there were pots of dried olives and pickled vegetables. Someone, a waitress, appeared out of the darkness and placed a very cold and very large glass in front of me and disappeared. I didn't see her again for half an hour. She must have known we had a lot of talking to do before we wanted to eat again. We talked. We talked about history. The half hour passed. Then the waitress appeared again carrying a stack of black folders. I emerged out of the fog of the early twentieth century and reached for the folders, thinking she was bringing source material out of some archive. But they were menus.
Another half an hour went by. The she inquired if anyone wanted to eat anything. They did, and pointed to the archive/menus. I chose something and promptly forgot what it was. It didn't matter. You wouldn't starve, and there were still plenty of ciabatta battleships. I broke one and hooked some kind of red matter that tasted of a cross between how the Coral Sea brine would smell from a timber schooner at 8 a.m. on a summer morning, and a seafood beach barbecue at midnight. I think it was tarama. I finished the stick. We kept talking. Then we were back to the present and the tables were cleared of the appetiser wreckage and old glasses, and dinner arrived.
Shortly afterwards, someone asked me how was the crab; and I said good, suddenly remembering I had pointed to tagliatelle with crab and asparagus and sugar peas. It was the sea again. It even looked like the sea, or one of those diorama things we used to make at school: crabs snapping their way through asparagus seaweed and waves of ribbon pasta. Not that I could see it; the place was still lit only by green globes that had now burned down to their tropics of cancer. While talking about history I had been mesmerised by their wax oozing down like lava and pooling in the plates under the melting globes.
Someone opposite me at the table had a kind of international chicken parmigiana with taleggio and soppressa with hand cut chips that looked like the morning's work of a woodcutter. Someone else had ordered the $72 rib eye on the bone, a deep purple hatchet of meat with a side of fries rising over it like a pine forest on a mountain and some vegetables in the lee of the bone, all on a plate the size of a butcher's chopping block. I wondered if the waitress had a sprained wrist. They probably had OH&S warnings in the kitchen. Where was the kitchen? The waitresses had seemed to appear from nowhere, and it occurred to me that I hadn't heard the characteristic banging of swing doors, let alone the searing roar of a chef flinging steaks on the grill.
No-one wanted dessert.
Later, I went down the mahogany stairway, holding the rail in the dim light like a climber descending the Corno Grande at midnight. Outside, the heat hit me like a runaway train.
84 Sydney Rd
Well, I remember yesterday
Just drifting slowly through a crowded street
With neon darkness shimmering through the haze
A sea of faces rippling in the heat