On the gradual decaffeination of life’s pleasures

One evening this week, at dinner with a friend, the waitress cleared our plates and asked us whether we’d like desserts. Since we hadn’t been too impressed by the food, we decided to go straight to coffee. And for the first time in my life, I ordered a decaf.

There’s something BC/AD about opting for decaf. The first time you do it, you’re mentally bisecting your life, cutting what is to come adrift from your devil-may-care, stimulant-fuelled past. You’re making a statement, and that statement takes many forms, the most anodyne being, ‘I need to get a good night’s sleep tonight’, with more cynical interpretations including, ‘It may be only 10pm, but I’m already thinking about getting home and going to bed’.

For me, the message was, ‘I’ve reached that age where my body now partly dictates my lifestyle’. Which is a daunting admission that elicited a raised eyebrow from our waitress.

It’s part of growing up – and growing old – this gradual shift to moderation. At 18, I’d wake up on Sunday mornings feeling bright and dewy, despite having gone out the night before. Of course, I’d affect a hangover for form’s sake, but in private I naïvely assumed I was someone whose system just didn’t bow to hangovers. Reality set in with each passing year, and now, within reaching distance of 30, I’ll drink only one glass of wine more than usual at dinner and find myself the victim of a stealth attack hangover that leaves me staggering around, miserable and uncomprehending, for two days. As a result, I’ve learnt to eye all alcohol from a respectful distance.

Similarly, I used to think nothing of taking a cup of tea to bed, or knocking back an espresso – an espresso! – after dinner. Then off I’d trot, expecting no less than eight hours of deep, uninterrupted slumber. These days, that sort of caffeine injection would find me, hours later, lying rigidly in bed, eyes wide and panicked and mind racing, watching in despair as the hands of my clock spin round and round.

I’ve now resigned myself to the next stage of this inevitable journey towards middle age: food no-nos. I used to roll my eyes condescendingly in my mum’s direction when she protested, ‘Ooh no, peppers/chorizo/chilli give me terrible indigestion’. She scans a menu and, however much a dish may tempt her, will still shake her head firmly if it contains any ingredients on her blacklist. For her, the pleasure of the food is simply not worth a sleepless night and she will not go there.

To date, the only times I’ve suffered food-induced insomnia have been as a result of epicurean self-abuse: consuming quantities that no human body can reasonably be expected to take, then keeping an unwilling vigil as my digestive system noisily struggles to process everything. But I can tell that, sooner or later, I’ll be assessing the implications of a creamy korma versus a spicy bhuna, just saying no to anything containing cheese, and (sob!) tossing up whether dessert is a risk worth taking. 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