Friday Fictioneers – The First Time

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

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PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

The First Time

Gerald marvelled at how strong Peter’s legs were, how supple, how beautiful, as he followed him up the steep path.

At the top, he gazed over the plain and exclaimed, “Great view!”

“Even better wi’ a beer. Get t’ bottles out, lad.”

Gerald smiled at him. Trust Peter to be thinking of beer!

They sat down, side by side, almost touching, and opened the bottles. Yeasty bubbles tickled Gerald’s nose as he drank. The warm sun caressed his skin.

His hand crept onto Peter’s. Peter looked earnestly at him. Suddenly, their hearts sang.

For the first time, they kissed.

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In the Keukenhof Gardens

This story is a fictionalised account of an actual experience I had in the Keukenhof Gardens. These gardens are in Holland, close to Amsterdam. They are absolutely magnificent, and are open to the public for eight weeks every year, a ‘must see’ if you’re visiting Amsterdam.  You can read and see more about the gardens here: https://keukenhof.nl/en/discover-the-park/open-2018/

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In the Keukenhof Gardens

Orange, scarlet and golden blooms sing softly beside the dark lake. Silver light reflects peacefully from ripples in the lake’s waters. The scent of thousands of flowers glows in the air.

I walk, slowly, along curved paths. Gravel scrapes under my feet. April sunshine lies warm and weightless across my shoulders. A gentle breeze strokes me, like feathers, like silk, like the tender fingertips of a lover.

Faint and distant music hangs like wood-smoke in the air, tickling, teasing, and I follow. The tuneless tune allures, rousing me, and I follow. The tone becomes harsher. There are others on the path. Still I follow.

The path broadens, the music loud now, raucous dance-music on a mechanical organ rasping out the joys and sorrows of the world. People talk, laugh, shout, and the dance sweeps up their voices into harmonious dissonance. It booms in my head like brass and tinkles like crystalline snowflakes.

All the emotion in all the world shrills through those organ pipes, crashes with those cymbals, the drum beats driving the dance before me and after me. I sing beside the deep waters; I dance beside the orange and scarlet blooms. Silver tears ripple silently down my cheeks as I see my part in the dance – and rejoice that it holds so much of the gold of love.

What Pegman Saw – Behind the Scenes

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is Treasure Cay, Abaco, Bahamas. I struggled with this…

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Behind the scenes

Clive wake me ‘bout 5 o’clock wi’ coffee, before he go to work. He a good husband.

I get ever’ting ready in the main room, den I wake Momma, take care a her needs and wheel her through.

“You be good, Momma,” I say.

I c’llect my cleanin’ kit from the office, an’ ask Queenie whether I can miss this Sat’day for a frien’s weddin’.

“You cleanin’ Miz Mitchell’s place two o’clock Sat’day. Ask her.”

I hurry through cleanin’ the em’ty condos so’s I get to Miz Mitchell’s before she go out.

“Let me see. That’s the Rawson gal getting married, yeah?”

I nod.

“I’m afraid I need you here. We’re having a dinner party, and the place must be spotless.”

Nothin’ I can say; I can’t go.

Midday. Momma need care, and dinner.

The house is quiet. Momma’s still.

“Momma?”

I touch her. She col’.

“Oh, Momma, no!”

The Greater Good – long version

The Greater Good – long version

Sometimes I find that a flash fiction prompt leads me to a story that needs to be expanded. This is one of those occasions. Including the notes, this story weighs in at about 1000 words.

Notes

In 1968, the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was steadily liberalising. The leaders of the Soviet Union saw this as a serious threat and on 21 August 1968 200,000 troops, mostly Russian, invaded Czechoslovakia.

There was considerable non-violent resistance. On 16 January 1969 Jan Palach went to Wenceslas Square and burned himself alive in protest at the Soviet occupation. On 25 February 1969 Jan Zajic did likewise. It is believed that there were others whose deaths were concealed by the Soviet authorities.

It is likely that Jan Palach’s sacrifice was a catalyst contributing to the eventual fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

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Photo is of the Jan Palach memorial in Wenceslas Square, Prague, courtesy of Pixabay

The Greater Good – long version

April 1969, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

The audience arrived in ones and twos at the Restaurace u Tomáše, as though they were merely passing a casual Friday evening. They bought coffee or beer and slipped discreetly into the back room, a room whose wooden panels were stained with nicotine.

You never knew who was watching, who was taking notes.

Andrej knew everyone in the smoke-filled room and shook hands with each as he led his lover Irena to the last vacant seat.

The speaker for the evening mounted an improvised rostrum. He spoke of Russian aggression, the dismissal of academics and the imprisonment of those who protested. He spoke of torture. His audience started to murmur. Then the speaker pulled out a pistol. He held it high.

“This is what the Russians will listen to! When we, the Czech people, take up arms, we will never be defeated! The free peoples of the world will march to stand with us.”

There was a growl of approval. The speaker placed his forefinger on his lips. “Ssshh! Who knows who is listening?” He allowed indignation to flood his face. “Should we Czechs have to creep and hide in terror for being patriots? I say – NEVER! Who is with me?”

Irena held tightly on to Andrej’s hand as a dozen young men scrambled forward to pledge themselves to the armed struggle.

“No, Andrej, no! He’s wrong! Fighting them won’t work.” She grasped him roughly by his jacket, and stared earnestly into his face. “Jan Palach knew killing Russians was no good. That’s why he burned himself in Wenceslas Square. I beg you, don’t dishonour the beacon of hope he gave us.”

“Irena, dearest. I must join the struggle.”

“Andrej! No! You mustn’t kill!”

“How can I do otherwise? I‘m not a coward.”

They stared at each other. Andrej made a move to shake off Irena’s grasp, but she held firm.

“If you take up arms, I shall follow Jan Palach.”

Andrej froze.

“No!” His horror rapidly changed to anger. “That’s emotional blackmail!”

“I am not a coward either, Andrej.”

Slowly she unwound her fingers from his jacket. He stood still, looking intently at her. For fully thirty heartbeats they were motionless, then Andrej turned and walked to the rostrum.

Irena crossed herself. “Mary, Mother of God, guide me,” she murmured.

A match flared as the man in front of her lit a cigarette, and Irena’s face went ashen.

*       *       *

The next week was busy for both of them. They both had preparations to make.

They saw each other, of course; they were, after all, lovers. They fought over the choices they’d made at the meeting. Bitter words were spoken. Eventually they talked no longer of what was to come, only of their shared past, hugging the twilight of memory since the dawn of the future was denied them.

Irena spent many hours with her mother.

“You seem sad, kočička.”

“I’m alright, mami.” Irena tried to smile, but only succeeded in looking sadder. Her mother raised an eyebrow. Irena sighed.

“I missed a period; well, two actually.”

Irena’s mother laid a sympathetic hand on her daughter’s shoulder. She’d heard Irena retching in the morning for several days now.

“Things have been difficult with Andrej, haven’t they?”

Irena nodded, and a tear trickled down her left cheek.

“I’m so afraid for him, mami.”

Her mother was silent for a few seconds; she had guessed something of Andrej’s purpose. Then she said, “Sometimes men have to fight, Irena. Your dad fought the Germans before you were born. And I’m glad he did; he was a hero.”

“But this is different, mami.”

Irena’s mother resumed her work in the kitchen.

“We’ll take you to the doctor this afternoon and make sure everything’s going well. In the meantime, you could peel some potatoes rather than moping.”

*       *       *

The doorbell rang while Andrej was squashing the last of his kit into a rucksack. He wanted everything as ready as possible for his departure next day.

“Andrej! Irena’s here!” His mother’s voice held a sharp note of concern. Andrej ran down the stairs.

Irena stood pasty-faced and swaying in the dimly lit hall. Andrej moved to embrace her but she edged away.

A great fear swept through Andrej.

“No! You mustn’t do it!”

Irena shook her head.

“No, it’s not that. I’ve just come from the doctor.”

She swallowed hard.

“I’m carrying your child.”

Andrej reeled.

“What?”

“I’m pregnant. The baby’s yours.”

Andrej crossed himself. He sat down abruptly on the stairs.

“I’m sorry, Andrej. Now I know about the baby, I can’t – do what I said I would. Can you forgive me for being weak?”

“Forgive you? There’s nothing to forgive. Of course you must put our child first.”

“Andrej? If you think it’s right, you must fight.”

“Do you think I should put the baby first?”

“I know you’re not a coward, Andrej.” She slipped her hand into his.

“Oh, God, I love you so much, Irena. I hated the idea of leaving you. I won’t leave my child without a father.”

“We’ll still protest, Andrej?”

“Yes, but without violence.”

They kissed gently. The first smile for days blossomed on Irena’s face.

“Shall we go and tell my mother?” asked Andrej, beaming.

The meaning of life

Today’s story is an excerpt from the draft of my novel “Mrs Nightingale’s Song”, slightly edited to ensure that it makes a standalone short story. It’s about 2,000 words, and takes about 15 minutes to read. I would be very grateful for any comments! (PS please don’t think the novel is about religion, because it isn’t!)

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The Meaning of Life

The church was gothic, not unpleasing in silhouette, the tower thrusting heavenwards above the town. Immediately inside the gate a notice board proclaimed that this was the Parish Church of St Luke, Rector Reverend James Malton (Cantab.).

As she entered the churchyard, Liz Nightingale noted approvingly that the board gleamed with freshly renewed paint, that the grass was neat and properly edged, and that the path to the south door was free of moss and weeds. Her spirits rose further as she heard cheerful, if amateurish, music from inside the building. She didn’t recognize the melody – it was one of those new pop hymns with guitars – but the enthusiasm of the singers struck a chord in her.

The misgivings she had felt about coming to church receded. She wasn’t going to have to defend her stance as a non-believer (well, that had been her position since she was a teenager, hadn’t it?). She was here to discover whether the teachings of the church could shed any light on the mystery of her life and death (‘because I am going to die soon,’ she reminded herself, and that in turn reminded her that the mystery was not so much her imminent end as the astonishing fact that she was alive and suddenly, desperately, wanted to understand why). She pulled off her gloves decisively, put them into her shoulder bag, and walked through the porch into the back of the church.

The woman who greeted her was charmingly plump, and in her forties. Liz noted that she wore a warm smile, a neat knitted top with a plain skirt, and flip-flops on her feet, and was immediately disposed to like her.

“Good morning. Welcome to St Luke’s. I’m Sue. This is your first time here, I think?”

Liz smiled back. “It’s certainly a long time since I last came. The Reverend Overbeck was the Vicar. It must be, oh, fifteen years ago, I suppose.”

“We’ve changed quite a lot since then. I hope you like it?”

Mrs Nightingale looked approvingly down the nave. “It’s the chairs,” she said. “They’re so much better than those old, dark pews. It looks much lighter – and more friendly.”

Sue looked pleased. “I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine, so you’ve got someone to sit next to,” she said. And so Liz spent the service sitting next to Diane, Sue’s friend. Liz had taught Diane’s children it turned out, and she listened with interest to their progress. She was particularly pleased to hear that Matthew, whom she remembered as diligent but uninspired, was now leading a project team at CERN. Her congratulations and good wishes were heartfelt.

The Rector was a big man (a rugby player surmised Liz, correctly as it happened), and there was something quiet about him – not the furtive, faint shuffle of stealth, but a peaceful sense of being (like a great tree, she imagined). His speaking voice was beautiful. The church had a sound system, but he didn’t need it; his resonant baritone was clear in the furthest corners of the building. When he mounted the steps of the pulpit, Mrs Nightingale settled herself comfortably. ‘Even if the sermon is tosh, the sound of that voice will be a treat,’ she thought, and then admonished herself. How could she expect to make sense of the sermon, much less her life’s purpose, if she was just going to wallow in sensation?

And, in fact, the sermon was an excellent exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, each facet in turn being gently burnished and then illuminated for the congregation. The Pharisee was presented as a man whose sense of vocation to a high calling blinded him to the urgent needs of the world. The Levite was a man who couldn’t see the moral imperative to help an injured man because of the blinkers of human convention. “How understandable,” said the Rector, of both men. “How human. How forgivable. And yet, here they are, held up to us as a warning – almost an eternal ‘naming and shaming’. Our sins of omission have consequences not just for those around us, but for us too.”

He moved on to consider the innkeeper, the ‘forgotten character’ as he described him. “When he left, the Samaritan paid some money to the innkeeper, not just for the care already given to the injured man, but for care into the future. And with it, he gave a promise that if the bill came to more than he had left, he would settle it on his return. It’s clear that we are meant to understand that the innkeeper was prepared to accept this – an open-ended commitment to take care of the victim. And that says two things. Firstly, the innkeeper was trusting, he had faith, and because of that he was prepared to take on a task that he probably wouldn’t otherwise have tackled. And secondly, the Samaritan was trustworthy; his words, actions and demeanour had convinced the innkeeper that any debt would be honoured.

Well, as we all know, Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan; and I propose to you that we can all play the part of the innkeeper. By trusting in Jesus we are empowered to do good, that is to say, we can do something to heal the hurts of those around us. We don’t need to feel a vocation; that can even get in the way, as it did for the Pharisee. We don’t need book-learning and consecration like the Levite; again, that may sometimes be an obstacle. All we need is trust, and the willingness to care for those who come to us in our normal, everyday, humdrum lives.”

Mrs Nightingale looked narrowly at the Reverend James Malton MA (Cantab.). Did he find simplicity elusive, she wondered? Did he fear that his knowledge of theology made him less able to help others? Maybe not. It had been a simple message, simply delivered. But what did it say about her own efforts? Were they any less valid for her lack of faith, indeed, her active opposition to everything superstitious? Why was she now looking to religion for answers? Was she subconsciously hoping to be reassured of life after death? ‘Bunkum!’ she thought, but immediately the contradiction came that, whether or not organized religion was bunkum, the Christian tradition represented two thousand years of largely humane thought, and might reasonably be expected to shed some light on the mystery of life. “You’re just a woolly liberal, Liz,” she muttered to herself, as she rose to keep silence while the rest of the congregation recited the creed.

“I wonder whether I could come and ask your advice about something, Rector?” enquired Liz Nightingale, as she shook hands after the service.

“I’d be pleased to see you; although I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you advice about anything.” The little smile accompanying the words gave them a humorous emphasis, but Liz sensed that, actually, he was in earnest. She appreciated, too, that he had been tactful enough not to suggest a home visit, thereby patronising her as elderly. “Is it an urgent matter, or will it wait until Wednesday? – if that suits you, of course.”

Liz calculated quickly. The cycles of weakness that seemed to characterize her condition came about every ten days, and lasted for about two days, so her next bout was due on – let me see – Friday. “Thank you, Rector, that’s most kind of you.”

Concerned. “I could talk to you sooner, if that would help?”

“No, Wednesday will be fine. I appreciate your seeing me so quickly.”

“Shall we say two o’clock, then?”

Mrs Nightingale nodded firmly. “Two o’clock will be ideal. Thank you.” She made her escape quickly. Making the appointment to discuss her mortality had been a little like arranging to talk to Death himself. ‘I hope that I’ll be brave enough to examine everything that’s troubling me when Wednesday comes,’ she thought.

*       *       *       *       *

Just before two o’clock on Wednesday, Liz Nightingale hesitated on the Vicarage doorstep. She felt – frightened. Of course, as soon as she realized this she shook herself mentally. “This will never do!” she exclaimed, and rang the bell firmly.

She accepted coffee and a biscuit and made small talk as she gathered her courage. James Malton smiled, nodded, and sipped at his own drink, watching her gradually relax.

“Your grandson, Oliver, sounds great fun. He must be quite significant in your life?”

If fifty years of amateur dramatics had taught Liz anything, it was how to pick up a cue.

“Ah, yes, well, significance. How astute of you, Rector.” Liz was silent a moment. “You see,” she said, “I’m not a believer – quite the reverse – but I felt that two thousand years of Christian thinking probably had some profound things to say about the human condition. And I’m puzzled, Rector. You see, my doctor tells me I shall die quite soon. Now, I’m not puzzled that I’m going to die – that seems entirely natural. Everything wears out, so why should I be any different? No, what puzzles me is why I’m alive. It just seems so unlikely, somehow, that I can consciously appreciate my own existence. The world is such a beautiful place.”

The rector paused for a moment, and then asked, “I suppose, as you’re an avowed non-believer, that neither the beauty of the world nor the unlikelihood of your conscious existence, persuade you of the existence of a creator God?”

“I don’t see how a creator answers the question. If he exists, where did he come from? If the answer is just that he exists, then why shouldn’t the universe just exist?”

“I could suggest that He might explain consciousness in a way that the physical universe doesn’t appear to, but I don’t think you’d accept that. Besides, it wouldn’t be very honest of me, as I’m aware of work being done to explore possible physical causes of consciousness.”

The rector smiled at Mrs Nightingale. “You’ve asked a big question, but is it the right question? To put it bluntly, do you have the time to even begin to make a small contribution towards its solution?”

Liz stared rather blankly at him. He waited, silent, still, alive. Then she laughed. “I’m trying to duck the issue, aren’t I? I don’t want to lose the world. I don’t want extinction – but as I can’t avoid it, I’d like to find some sort of assurance that my life has had some sort of meaning.”

“Now that’s a question which does fall within my sphere of professional competence. I’ll tell you what my faith teaches me, and you can see whether you think it helps.

Our physical universe was created by an intelligence that we call God. Part of His plan in creating the universe was that self-contained, self-aware intelligences should come into being – and, theologically speaking, evolution is a perfectly respectable way for that to happen. These intelligences would share something of His nature, and, ultimately, be able to share in His joy in His creation. He communicated with them, teaching them as much as they could accept at the time, and eventually He caused a great mystery to happen. He, Himself, came to live with His created beings in the form of the man whom we call Jesus Christ.”

Liz, listened in silence, struggling to keep an open mind – but it’s hard to quieten the scepticism of more than sixty years.

The rector continued quietly. “Jesus showed us that it is possible to lead a joyful and fulfilled life no matter what obstacles we face. He participated fully in every aspect of human life, including birth and death.”

Mrs Nightingale couldn’t resist the opportunity. “And sex?” she queried.

The rector laughed out loud with delight. “The bible is silent on that point. Church tradition inclines to celibacy but, you know, that would have been very unusual for a rabbi in first century Judea. Anyway, the bible makes it plain that He knew what human love was like by telling us about His close friendships with people, both men and women.

But I need to come to the point. The key fact of the life of Jesus was that it showed that God wants His creation to be perfected by the actions of his created beings as they follow the example of Jesus.

So our lives have a meaning in that we can align ourselves with the Creator’s purpose.”

“You put it very clearly, rector. Thank you. Unfortunately, the significance hangs on the premise of the omnipotent creator.”

“It does.”

The rector waited for Mrs Nightingale to express even the slightest interest in discovering the truth of his faith. She sat there, thinking, then “What a pity,” she said.

The Reverend James Malton (Cantab.) hid his disappointment as he said farewell to Liz Nightingale; and then wondered whether he was right to have done so.

What Pegman Saw – An Educated Wife

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is the north coast of Finland.

The last indigenous people of Europe, the Sami, live here and in the north of Norway, Sweden and Russia, and have done from time immemorial.

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The Sami flag

An Educated Wife

“I wish you weren’t going to Kautokeino to study, Suoinná.”

Suoinná looked up at fiancé Gábe with a smile. ”Look at Njáveš! Already walking and not one year old!” She held out her hands; her tiny niece took three wobbly steps and sat down. Both girls laughed.

“Let’s not wait to get married; let’s marry next Easter. Then you can be with me as a reindeer herder. My co-operative have agreed to train me as a helicopter pilot to round up our beasts.”

“Oh, Gábe, that’s great news!” Suoinná popped Njáveš into the playpen, and hugged Gábe.

“So – you’ll marry me at Easter?”

Suoinná drew away.

“Gábe, I’m going to study. I shall learn how to share our songs with foreigners to teach them about the Sami people.”

“So – you won’t marry me?”

Suoinná regarded him with exasperation.

“That depends entirely on whether or not you want an educated wife!”

Evergreen Memories – long version

In “What Pegman Saw” last Saturday, I wrote a 150 word story “Evergreen Memories”. Several friends were kind enough to say they wanted to read more about the young couple in the story, so I’ve written a continuation that fills in their past, and hints at their future. It’s about 600 words long.

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Evergreen memories

College Green was our special place, wasn’t it, Peter? We often met here between morning lectures and afternoon practical classes. We sat on the grass and watched the gulls hover, soar, dive, brilliant white against the blue sky. We shared our lunch, our stories, our laughter; especially our laughter. We laughed a lot, at people, at things that happened, but mostly simply for joy at being alive and together.

Then one day you weren’t there. Nor the next day, nor the one after. You weren’t in classes either. You’d never told me your home address or phone number. I asked the University what had happened. “He left us voluntarily,” was all they would tell me. No address, no phone number; I wasn’t part of your family.

I still come and sit here occasionally, and remember, quietly.

A shadow falls on me.

“Annie?” The old man’s voice is tentative, disbelieving.

“Peter!”

We stare at each other, then I laugh and pat the bench beside me. Peter smiles and sits down.

“You can’t imagine how flattered I feel that you recognised me, Peter!”

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw you sitting there. I go this way every few months and I’ve always looked out for you – just in case.”

“How very romantic!”

The young Peter would have recognised my teasing; this Peter looks hurt. I take hold of his hand.

“I don’t live very far away, Peter, and I think of you every time I cross College Green. I like to remember the fun we had together.”

“You wear a ring,” he observes.

“I’m a widow.” A little bit of the sunshine dies; I’d been so happy with Frank.

“I’m sorry. Tactless of me.”

“Would I be equally tactless if I were to ask what happened to you all those years ago?”

“All those years ago. 1972. I had a phone call from my Mum; Dad was seriously ill in hospital. I raced back to London just in time to be with him as he died. He was only young, only thirty-nine. He’d never thought about dying, and he wasn’t insured. Mum had a breakdown.”

He paused. He looked away from me, his face full of pain. I pressed his hand gently.

“I tried to care for her, and find work to pay the bills, but all I could get were menial jobs that wouldn’t even pay the rent. Luckily for us, family stepped in.”

“I understand, Peter. It must have been awful for you. I’m not surprised you didn’t have time to make contact.”

“Well it was very difficult, but the real difficulty was that all my family are South African; Mum only came over to England because she married an Englishman. Before I knew where I was, I was on the plane to Jo’burg. I tried so hard to contact you before I left.”

He shook his head – and then he smiled.

“And before you ask, I’m divorced.”

“So lunch wouldn’t be out of the question then?”

He chuckled.

“I’d forgotten how impulsive you were. It was one of the things I loved about you.”

“Did you love me then, Peter? Did you?”

“Oh, Annie, how can you ask? I doted on you; I adored you; I worshipped the ground under your feet. Here, look – I wasn’t going to show you this, but…”

It was a rich man’s wallet that he pulled out, fine leather holding platinum credit cards – and there, protected by a transparent plastic cover, was a photograph of me, aged twenty, laughing.

“I remember you taking that photograph!” I exclaim with delight.

Peter rises, and, still holding his hand, I rise too.

“Where’s the best place for lunch?” he says.