A Table for One, Please


Shroff and Levine

It was many moons ago that I had said those words for the very first time. What had then been a herculean quest, of walking into the Odeon cinema on the corner of New Street, had my young voice quivering at the moment of getting popcorn, my knees cold as I sat facing the screen in the dark. I no longer recall the film, yet I vividly remember the thudding pace of my heartbeat charging and changing in those 90 mins. I had mustered a sense of independence in solitude, and coming out of the physical and metaphorical darkness, an emancipation in these words: “A table for one, please”. I am not the first. Many women have written and staked their claim on this sequestration and in my resonance, I affirm and dance to this silent tune that plays over and over again. 

There is a stark difference between eating, as I am now, toast and honey, on the floor of my bedroom, lit by a London-summer sun beam, in my pyjamas with my laptop on my lap, and eating in public. This privacy allows me to act in a way that I simply would not in a restaurant, cafe, bar or on a bench. Being in my ‘pj’s’ for one, but also the casual choices with what and how I am eating. Crumbs spilling onto my chest, me not politely shooing them away, rather wiping my hands on my thigh as some honey has stuck to my fingertips. I am the queen in my parlour eating bread and honey!

This action shows, somehow, my lack of care for my personal time. I can eat and write, why stop to fuel? I can fuel and press on. Time is important, deadlines are the priority, I am a woman and we are famous for multi-tasking – just look at me go. I am, at this moment, both King and Queen:

The King was in his counting house, counting out his money, the Queen was in her parlour, eating bread and honey….

But take this act of dining on one’s own beyond the domestic space. To dine on one’s own in public! It’s become something different, it is performative, it is somehow for others, and it is not something everyone (and sometimes even I would feel able to do.

We asked our Moms if they had ever eaten alone in public. One responded with a resolute “no, why would you?”, while the other answered “no, but I would”. Feeling like you could and  actually doing it are very different things. I would need a certain confidence and self-assurance, and a want to spend that time with myself as my main companion. This is hard as sometimes you are the last person you want for company  trust me, I don’t always want to converse with my judgmental inner monologue. It is not everyday that a certain playfulness shows up as my partner-in-crime.

And as women, whether alone or accompanied by good and bad shoulder-angels, I know I will be looked at and understand that I will be confronted with the  question: ‘for one?’ A question carrying the weight of societal baggage that is certainly not any angel’s bequest.

Why is she alone? Is she an outcast?  Does she have no friends? Where are her children?

I am not the confident man eating alone, or the one who works so hard this is all the time he gets to himself so he feels happy ordering an expensive glass of wine with his steak. I am not the man who knows this space was built and designed for him and is used to being asked what he wants and how he wants it.

No; I am a woman. A woman who is venturing into a world on her own, unchaperoned and independent. I remember an ex boyfriend revealing once that he ‘felt sorry’ for an elderly lady sitting and eating alone. He implied she was one for us to pity. But why? She looked content not putting on a face or trying to impress. The mask fully slipped. Perhaps unlikely to also dust crumbs from her chest. She was bold, abandoned, and at peace. 

And so, I dine alone, the world does not quite know what to do with me. It stares. It whispers. I feel those eyes on the back of my neck.

For the last few days, a cloud has hung over my head. This heavy, grey, shapeless mass whose weight equals that of a duvet, under which I pretend to no longer exist. It has been a little over a month that I have had this table for one. Perhaps, such an overwhelming sense of inadequacy was boosted by the condition of being alone, perhaps it was induced by pending work, or could it have been triggered by my inability to read more than a few pages at a time? Of this I cannot be sure, but what is certain is my urgent requirement to blow off the fluff. So I go for a walk.

And just as the whispers take on their own narratives and stories are created for this lone woman, I too am writing on my own — about myself and those I encounter. As if taking advice from Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, we women are fashioning a space for ourselves to create our own fictions. We exist because we do this act. And our imaginations are ignited because we have gifted ourselves this publicly solitary time. 

It is not entirely solitary, because there are the small interactions of asking for the table, ordering, nodding thank you when you’ve finished. But mostly you are alone. And in that isolation our daydreams manifest into realities, we are allowed to be whoever we want to be in that moment: a femme fatale, a spy, a woman at peace, an author, an artist, a whiff of mystery…

And within this action, we mentally cleanse ourselves. We confront issues through new eyes, we sit differently using our bodies in new ways, we caress our hair, our hands, our thighs, in different ways. We are no longer that former self, we are ‘othered’ by choice.  And that other can be whoever we want them to be, it is powerful and it is unusual. Though it is difficult to get to this euphoric moment of release, of opening up to the new and of discovering oneself, when reached, this moment can be magical.

As this heatwave persists, I pick up a large red umbrella from its corner and plant it over the silver table, amongst the grape vines on the kitchen terrace. I crack the ice tray into a tall iced tea glass, light my cigarette, and settle under the red shade of the parasol on this table for one.

With headphones softly sounding Zakir Hussain and Dave Holland, hearkening back to a concert that I recently heard at Casino Basel, I pick up the book I’m about to finish reading. It is a disappointing verse, taking longer than I anticipated; nonetheless, it is a style of anxious writing that I aspire to. An hour passes: my glass and book are both emptied, yet I am not. I pick up another book and return to my singular table. The red of the book cover is amplified under the rosy shade and my gaze through pink sunglasses. I stare at this arrangement…

Splendid I sit in Matisse’s painting, in his L’Atelier Rouge! I had first seen an image of this painting in a plate stack at the college library some 20 years ago. It had blown me away then, reassuring my faith in drawing from observation. It would be five years later, through an unresolved, emotionally clouded blur, that I would see the painting in its home, at MOMA. Now in my own Rouge, it comes once again as an encouraging reminder. 17 years have had me travel a long way to this table.

Note: All images courtesy of Vishwa Shroff.

About the Authors

Vishwa Shroff is a visual artist. Her practice is rooted in drawing, with a proclivity towards architectural forms that serve as points for contemplation on our relationship with the material world. Her works explore the narratives of lived experience that lay embedded within surfaces. Shroff trained at The Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, Baroda and Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (UK). She has had eight solo exhibitions and has participated in various artist residencies and group exhibitions. Shroff is the co-director of SqW:Lab and is represented by TARQ.

Charlie Levine is an independent curator working between London and Mumbai. She obtained an MA in Critical and Contextual Art Practices from Birmingham City University (2006). Her key positions include Director, Institute of Curiosity & Curating; Co-Director and Co-Founder of SqW:Lab, an international fellowship for creatives; and Curator of St. Pancras Wires, a new public art project in St. Pancras Station.