The man came over in shoes and a pinny and took our order. C ordered the ramen; I chose the blackened salmon with kimchi ketchup and sesame rice.
We talked about Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, dramatising the lengths to which we would go just to follow the seductive aromas to the kitchen. I wanted more than anything to make it absolutely clear that I had read Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume.
The man in the shoes and the pinny came over. C took her bowl; I took my plate. The food looked good. I caught C’s eye and she smiled against the lip of her glass. We cheersed telepathically.
I looked down at my sesame rice. Hmm, not that. Edamame beans and winter greens. Nope. Kimchi ketchup. No. Blackened salmon. No. I was confused. I looked at C and then back at my blackened salmon. Definitely the most likely, all things considered. C was preoccupied with taming a slippery rice noodle against her spoon. Not her. My salmon looked as if it were probably dead. I prodded it. It moved. Ah! I prodded it again, and I worked out the correlation.
‘How’s the food?’
Right. That time I definitely heard something. Same voice. No coincidence. C scooping broth. Salmon still dead. Oh, cruel voice on the wind, cricket screech of torment, crash and shudder of drums invisible! From which side of my skull did you originate! Unplaceable umlaut, vacuum-packed verb, parthenogenesick joke! Some fish recuperate, don’t age, don’t die. Maybe this—
‘How’s the food there, guys?’
There was a surfeit of bullshit from this salmon. Mind games, I told myself, it’s doing that thing where a prisoner acquaints their self with their captor — you couldn’t kill me, not me, could you?
‘Hi, guys. How’s the food?’
Still, it was working, this technique. It was dead, this fish. And if I could hear it, hell, if it could talk, then maybe I was… Maybe I was—
‘Mate, how’s the food?’
So this was what death felt like. So the cliché goes: the mind sympathetically flicks through the dog-eared pages of your memory bank before you go — remember that summer? Wasn’t it wonderful? Yelps of excited dogs at dawn, embattled navy and peach between journeyed clouds in the writhing skies… Red wine, naked, and dirt from decking engaging the soles of tired and damp feet; Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, an emollient to the white sexlessness of a pseudo-Bauhaus hotel… Palming the open face of a beech cajon halfway through the reggae four, loose enough to be lazy, but not so loose as to be wrong. Aaah— but no. The Dark Angel was here. The re-incarnated fish, gutted and guillotined, had wriggled back into consciousness like salt-and-pepper id, like a Heironymus Bosch nightmare in which supper scraps and environmental collateral take vengeance in the colosseum of the guilty conscience.
I feel a tug on my shirt and I stare into the wood panelling in denial. Another tug and a:
Surely not. I—no, it cannot be. Must be hallucinating again. No, it-it must be the fish, no human would ever… The reaper had taken hold of me. Danté’s circles flashed around me like neon intestines. In the waiting room of oblivion I saw — it is almost too terrible to say — I saw — forgive me, lord, for this desecration — I saw the-the man, the waiter, squatting — squatting — to my right, head-height, thighs spread, member positioned insistently in the centre, arms folded over his knees, head tilted expectantly to his left like Akela counsels a crying Cub Scout — guys, how’s the food, guys, how’s the food, guys, how’s the food? — I, I don’t know! Please! I don’t know! I haven’t yet tried it, clairvoyant, prophet, friend-of-all-things!
And he touched me, oh, he touched me. The black hand of the unanswerable question. Answer it you must before the palm print materialises on your flesh, for if you do not, it will consume you. The sorcerer’s mark whence ruin is regurgitated — guys, how’s the food? — the droplets of saliva on your tongue transform into stock cubes, papayas, flank steaks, borscht, meringue, lettuce foam. I-I can’t breathe. And still it piles in, brought in troughs by attentive handmaids and pummelled into your windpipe. Choking on a part-chewed Tudor feast, delirious, wanting to throw up, but it’s too damned deadly and delicious. A sulphurous silence, host only to the interrogation — guys, how’s the food? Are you enjoying it? How’s the food? You are enjoying it, aren’t you? Yes? Guys?
I mean, I usually enjoy food like this, and gin-things like this; maybe I could average those past experiences out and make a proposal: if, indeed, good sir, your-your blackened salmon tastes as good as the following examples, then I could truly say, yes, the food which you delivered here on this table, is good, and additionally, I am enjoying it. Thank you for asking. And for your delicate bedside manner.
But he might see, from his excellent vantage point taken up like a frag grenadier, the vulnerability of my soft belly between the buttons of my slightly stretched hems, C’s knees, shins, and toenails — and the salmon, untouched, intact, flush, pink, tectonic over pliant rice, with unmolested cutlery shined by his very investigative fingers. He would know that I was lying, he would know.
I look at my plate. I look at him. The figment of The Alchemist.
Yes, I say. Yes. I think so.