By Jay RAYNER
It is two days before my father’s funeral, and I am sitting in a railway arch just south of Tower Bridge, staring at a salt beef sandwich the size of my head.
Des Rayner loved a good salt beef sandwich, and I like to think he would have approved of this one: the thick slices of pink meat the colour of a baby’s cheek, the smear of mustard that will make you sniff, the rye bread keeping it all in order. We each of us have our ways of saying goodbye to those we have loved, and this is one of mine.
Unlike his son, Des was not interested in the variety of the table, and every greedy man needs someone like that in their lives. He wasn’t so much disdainful of my appetites as bemused. It was useful for a long speech of mine on the joys of, say, the latest faux rustic French paysanne bistro to be met with the “and?” of a raised eyebrow. Des was always there to remind me that there are actually more important things in life than lunch.
But then the simple pleasures would come along – well-made fish and chips, good chocolate, this salt beef sandwich – and he would be in there with the best of them. When someone dies it’s easy to imbue almost anything with significance, but I do think this sandwich passes the test.
Though he was in no way religious it links him to a kind of Jewish community now all but lost. He was born in 1928, the same year as Mickey Mouse and talking pictures, amid the last gasp of Hackney’s Jewish East End. He was born long ago enough to remember an uncle from the old country, who spoke only Yiddish, and laughed at the punchlines to jokes my dad couldn’t hope to understand. It was an Ashkenazi community with the smell of chicken fat in its hair.
Des travelled far from those beginnings, a serious schlep by taxi to the cherry-blossomed suburbs of north-west London. I do not idealise him: he had so many neuroses he must have bought them wholesale. But it drove me nuts that he never quite understood the scale of his achievements, for achievements they were.
He took the opportunity of free higher education earned in national service to train as an actor, and worked with both Tony Quayle at Stratford, and Tony Hancock on TV. He was a fashion PR, my mother’s manager, and most importantly a superb artist, whose work was still being exhibited in the West End just months before his death. And yet through all this he never forgot where he had started. He still had a taste for a good salt beef sandwich.
He was admitted to hospital in February and was quickly complaining about the food. It actually wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t what he needed. So I came here to Monty’s Deli in this south London railway arch and asked for the makings: the salt beef, the bread, the mustard.
I took it to hospital, a food flat pack waiting to be assembled, but it never came out of the bag. He didn’t want it. In truth, he didn’t want to be here any more. He’d done an extraordinary job of living on for three years after my mother’s death and now he’d had enough. No bloody sandwich was going to do the job. But now that he’s gone, it’s exactly what does it for me. It doesn’t cure me of grief. And it certainly doesn’t bring Des back. But God knows, it helps.
© Jay Rayner/Guardian News & Media Ltd.