I recognised him with a gulp of dread. It was The Man Who Ate Death.
You may remember him. Fifteen years ago I told you how I was waitressing at the Corpus Meum Templum Est when he walked in, sat down and ordered bacon, fried bread and coffee with caffeine.
Several customers left immediately, their hands over their mouths. When he smeared the fried bread with butter, a woman fainted. But it wasn't until he sat back, belched and lit a cigarette that the fatal stampede happened.
A lot of mineral water has passed under the bridge since then. I've got my own place now, the Naturophagist. Of course, the poor old Corpus was hit badly by the scandal and was dead within the year.
And I presumed that the same was true of The Man Who Ate Death. Indeed, I once tried to find out where he was buried, to ensure that I wasn't sourcing organics from anywhere near his grave.
Yet now here he was again, still inexplicably breathing. I nudged Jamie. He looked up from the tofu-grater and took in the ravaged features, the jowls like tripe, the belly that had never seen a gym.
"Jesus," he said.
"No," I said, "The Man Who Ate Death."
Jamie wasn't the only one staring. One woman had frozen with a cup of hot water halfway to her open mouth.
The brute was oblivious, of course. He lowered himself with a grunt on to a chair. I feared for its legs. He glanced at the menu then at me. "Where's the steak?" he said, just like that. I pointed at the little asterisked box at the foot of page 2.
"What!" he exclaimed, "What! Oh very well, have it your way. Bring me a 'consent form special', medium rare."
"I'm afraid it's not that simple, sir," I said. "But the good news is that the lifestyle counsellor is free to see you right away. It shouldn't take long to issue the consent form. So if you'd just follow me, sir. Unless, that is, you'd care to choose from the Health is Happiness section of the menu."
He sighed the sigh of a weary man. "Take me to your counsellor," he said, laying both hands on the table and heaving himself up.
Jenny's a whizz. I've seen her turn lifestyles around in two minutes and all without getting off her exercycle. As I ushered The Man Who Ate Death into her office and shut the door, I pictured the scene. Jenny would look at him with those Princess Diana eyes of hers which pierce to the soul, and in that gentle voice she'd say how worried she was for his wellbeing.
Were there some psychological issues contributing to his poor diet? If so, she knew of a splendid little man in Medlar Ave.
This was normally enough to get them crumbling. For those who held out, Jenny would read chapter and verse from the 2012 study into red meat consumption, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Perhaps you saw it. It's terrifying. By the time Jenny reaches the paragraph explaining how a daily serving of a mere 85 grams of red meat leads to a 13 per cent increase in mortality rate, the poor buggers are on their knees and begging for a reduced-fat salad with a side of omega 3 anti- oxidants.
The first inkling I got that things weren't quite running to form was when a voice boomed from behind the closed door.
"You damned impudent woman," it said.
The whirr of Jenny's exercycle ceased. Everyone in the restaurant was staring at the door of her office. It opened. The Man Who Ate Death emerged, clutching his consent form.
"Right," he bellowed, "That's that bit of nonsense out of the way. Now get cooking." I did what I could, ranging screens around the man's table before I brought him his hateful plate, handing out masks to staff and customers, as required by health and safety regulations, but I knew it was no good. People found reasons to leave.
Ten minutes later, he licked the last smidgen of grease from the plate, sat back, belched and pronounced that he felt 13 per cent better for that. But he was talking to an empty room. The last patron had long since fled.
And they haven't come back, even though I've had the whole place industrially disinfected.
So next time you're in town, do drop in for a bite. We'd appreciate the custom, and the Naturophagist is easy to find. On Fad St, off Timor Mortis.
- © Fairfax NZ News