I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of four and the early years were difficult to say the least.
The Yellow Pimpled Monster.
The white souls of my green flash trainers scrape along the stone floor as I drag my feet. It’s cold but I feel hot, and as I try to hold my dinner tray flat, my stomach churns. School trips always make me anxious, not because I have to share a room with Beverley the bully, but because breakfast is the only meal of the day I can eat.
It’s the seventies, I’m eight, and a vegetarian. I’m the only one in the school, the only one in my family, and the only vegetarian in the village. Sandwiches at parties are a no-go area, I’m never invited for tea, and the inside of MacDonald’s is a mystery.
I was four when I stated categorically that I wouldn’t eat anything that belonged in a farmyard. Out went beef, pork, and chicken, and in came chips and… chips. My parents fooled me for a while with tinned meatballs but I soon cottoned on. A year or so later I gave up fish because they had eyes.
I shuffle down the queue whilst fighting the welling tears. A blotchy-faced chef passes me a pork dinner. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ I mumble to the floor. Fish pie appears under my nose and as I stutter, ‘I don’t eat fish either,’ my cheeks burn.
‘What do you eat?’ The chef scowls at me as he taps a metal spoon on the metal counter. The ding-ding noise vibrates down my spine as I shrug and tighten my grip on the tray. I’m an eight-year-old vegetarian who doesn’t like vegetables.
With a growl, he turns sharply, removes a corn-on-the-cob from a boiling over pan, and chucks a plate at me. ‘Here. That’s my tea, but you can have it.’
My heart falters as my head screams, I don’t like corn-on-the-cob. I open my mouth to protest but a teacher pulls me out of the queue with the offending vegetable on my not-so-flat tray.
I plonk myself down at the nearest table and glare at the corn as if it’s going to jump up and bite my nose.
The teacher leans over my shoulder. ‘Eat it,’ he mutters.
I wipe away a tear. ‘Don’t like it.’
‘Be polite and eat it,’ he says nodding at the chef.
It’s slimy to the touch and squeaks on my teeth as I take a tiny bite. I drop it like a hot coal and look at the floor, my teacher’s brogues, anything that isn’t the yellow pimpled monster.
As the dining hall empties, I fiddle with my fork and wish that I could vanish like Paul Daniel’s assistant. My teacher, with a loud sigh and a low expletive, gestures towards the door. I bolt, crashing into the table and bouncing off the doorframe.
Not for the first time, I go hungry that night.