"Where I come from is a little village in Nepal," Kendra replied in broken English, smiling politely to the customer. Furtively, she avoids his glance. The lobby is in mayhem with customers waiting to be seated, some shouting and others wearing tight, bristly expressions. Somewhere, a tray of drinking glasses shatters to the floor.
"You don't look Indian, " the customer's tone is thick.
"Erm, kinda," she gives another nervous smile, tapping the computer. "Your table's ready, forgive the wait." The lobby now becomes a tsunami of noise. There are two queues of would-be diners. Another girl, Nicki, is dealing with the second queue, frowning in concentration whilst signing customers in. She doesn't glance at Kendra.
"Say, where you from ?" a rotund couple are next. The man is leering; she notices a film of sweat on his red cheeks. Still, it's a hot night.
The man leers again but the woman is cold. " Our table should've been ready by now."
"Table 10 please and enjoy your meal," Kendra smiles, realizing she could have given a better response.
"Another one from a banana boat," the woman curses under breath. Kendra does not quite understand the insult but senses it. The sound is sharp, like the ache in Kendra's shoulders. Still, she smiles - another fake smile. Fifteen more customers are waiting.
The kitchen is small. Too small for a restaurant of this size. Steam and noise everywhere. The heat in here makes it a sauna and the extractor fan is broke; both kitchen windows are opened wide up to their hinges. Order chits are piling, like chicks loitering on a power line. In the middle of the kitchen is a giant table, stacked with plates, dairies and sacks of produce. It is where O Keefe is, the owner.
His bulldog stare is fixated on a trainee chef. The boy shies away, in chef's whites that are too big for him, humpy shoulders stooping in fear. O'Keefe's eyes sit unevenly as a slap is delivered to the trainee with O'keefe not forgetting to threaten the pasta section. “Laddie !” he calls to them, " Let that boil over and you go in it.”
The boy's expression crumbles. Kendra sends him a warning glance not to show weakness but O'keefe is already going beserk; “you fuckin' little monkey. Want to run away, hey! That's right; hold the cucumber and chop. There's no silvers poon here ...” Fixedly, he watches, blinking away beads of sweat that drip freely into the salad - the same salad people will eat or pick through. It is then he glances at Kendra. "What you want ? "
"There is a problem. We're overbooked." Furtively, she glances at the boy to keep chopping the cucumber.
"Over booked ? "
"Fuck," O'keefe spits. His thick fingers coil around the rolling pin, an old scar snaking across his forearm, widening at the wrist. " Ring the agency."
"One more thing... Tell 'em no more Indians."
The till section where customers settle their bill resembles a mosaic made up of coloured glass. It is quiet now only Malandra is eyeing the till. Kendra notices this and he laughs out as a kind of protest. “Oh, come on yaar." The rouse is simple. Every time a customer pays their bill in cash, some of the notes find their way into his pocket. “What?” he scowls as if has sucked a lemon. There is the smell of pickled gherkins about him.
“Look, what do you get? You get zilch... You add a little bit extra onto their bills but sometimes the bastards check the bill.”
“... If O'Keefe catches you,” Kendra says in Hindi, not finishing the sentence. “Like me, you're an illegal."
" And you are too! How old are you; twenty one ? You have given up,” he replies not unlike a rebellious teenager. At the same time he glances at the mirror, not forgetting to check his cropped hair which he cuts himself. It's thick more on one side than the other. “Should pay more... Worse than a chowkidar (extortionist.) They pay zilch and we buy it.” He speaks but doesn't stay still, moving to the rhythm of music that isn't there.
"Vaa...nt to be my gurrl friend ?" he jokes with a thick Indian accent. "Listen yaar, enjoy yourself more."
Kendra looks away, noticing the large man with the cherry-red cheeks and his wife are laughing out too loudly. The sound of them is aggressive. The woman is pointing at the wine bottle in front of him.
“Look,” Malandra leans closely, his bony fingers tapping her arm. “...Playing straight won't get you anywhere.” He shakes his head, as if she has disagreed with him.
Only the bullish voice dominates; cherry red is now threatening other customers. Murmuring, they look away apprehensively. He picks up on this and thrusts back his shoulders, the white T shirt pulling tightly over his protruding stomach.
“Stop it, Jez...” his wife makes an effort to sound girlish.
“I don't care ...”
The waiter there, a young man with thick rimmed spectacles, glances for help. "He's drunk," he whispers to Kendra as she comes to their table.
It is then wife that looks up and down. - sharply. Dimply patches of flesh shake as she leans forward and carefully whispers something in her husband's ear. The man glances up, becoming redder. He feigns annoyance but the leer is there. “Erm," he begins, as if this wasn't really his idea. "There's somthin' wrong with her drink.”
The woman's eyes flash in indignation. “Didn't you hear that!” she says, her voice cutting through the air like a leather belt. “Can't you speak the language?”
For a second Kendra gives her the harshest of glances then smiles politely, as if remembering her station. Still, she wonders what would happen if she were to bring her fist down onto the table smashing their plates and drinking glasses into pieces.
"Well..." the woman glances. "Freshen up my drink and make sure you put some tonic in because you didn't last time... They do it on purpose,” she adds with a harsh kind of laughter, eyes rolling back to her husband.
Marcus is behind the wine bar, tall with blue eyes lazily watching everything. “Typical,” he says, as if commenting on the weather. “... . Why didn't you tell her to do one.”
“Where is O'Keefe ?”
"Dunno, ” he replies, tossing a fresh glass into his hand. His dark curls are bright against the light and he squints momentarily, scratching his stubble “I hate saying it but you're too subservient. What do they teach you back in India?
"What's the difference ..." For the briefest moment, his glance turns hard. and he avoids the tonic dispenser.
“She said tonic... ”
“How about this...” he says, retrieving a darkened bottle from underneath the counter. He adds a few drops to the drink in practised fashion. “Nasty fat bitch,” his brilliant blue eyes flash. “...Tell her to shove that down her throat.”
Table eight isn't so far away. Gleaming with plates, cutlery and glasses. It is Mallandra's spot when he's not required at the till. He is laughing and joking with two girlish diners. Deftly, leaning to the left, he places steaming dishes of food and sauces in front of them. One of the them mouths 'phone number' and hands him a small piece of paper which he pockets. He says something and they laugh again as if they've known each other for years. It is an illusion but it does not matter. Kendra knows that because of the shiny look in his eyes. And as she steals another moment to watch, it occurs to her the past is the only thing she really has. He seems to understand the rules, she thinks to herself. How come he is not homesick?
Outside, the night air is cool against her cheeks, calming her. The night watches everything she thinks and is pure. The same wherever you are, and beautifully vast. The din of pots and pans in the kitchen is behind her, a million miles away. She can hear the distant murmur of cars. A horn tooting somewhere. There is a breeze, gentle and persuasive and she shuts tight her eyes, hard. Thinking, yet not thinking. Only there is the sound of someone weeping.
It is Nicki, her silhouette against the lights of the kitchen, her face in shadow. She notices Kendra and quickly wipes her cheeks, glancing away with red-rimmed eyes. Kendra is hesitant but walks to her.
“What do you want...?” she sniffs, a wisp of hair lank over her brow. Then she smiles, a smile of self-loathing, one that Kendra has seen before. Not unlike those poor village girls who are sold to Karigaars. “I suppose you think I'm pathetic, don't you?”
Kendra slips her a cotton handkerchief but Nicki glances away,
“Look, sorry... You'd best leave me alone.”
“What is wrong ?” kendra's tone is neutral.
The younger girl blows into the handkerchief. “Nothing - nothing’s wrong, why should it be?” She is proud but the tears shimmer in her eyes. "Okay, if you want to know... I'm in trouble and I don't have a clue what to do. Everything's... everything's too fucking unfair.” It is then Kendra realises the rumours about her and O'Keefe are true. Another silence and she blinks away tears.
“Can't anyone help?”
Nicki stares fixedly at something that isn't there.” I'm on my own. My whole fucking life. No... No one can help. I don't want help...” She glances back at the kitchen, eyes shiny and belligerent. “I have to end up in this sodding place...” She is only young though the lines around her eyes are aged.
“Isn't there anyone? Home...?”
“Home...?” she glances squarely at Kendra. “... Home's the fucking reason I'm here!” It is a rage: a rage that she has kept inside her what seems centuries. Still, it dissipates into the air like the fumes of some cauldron and smouldering to a crumb.
There is silence before Kendra speaks. " My village in Nepal is poor, but still, we find a way. Worry is only a sign that you are aware of something. There is still hope."
"Is that the reason for you being here?" There was a hint of sarcasm in it.
"I hope to return," Kendra nodded with doubt in her voice, as if contending with something she wasn't ready to talk about.
"Only not yet?"
Another pause. One of those silences the mind fills with its thoughts.
"We'd best get inside," Nicki shrugs before glancing sharply at the ground, spotting something. "What's that?"
Kendra glances too, and frowns, in awe. It is a glimmer in the dark: a shiny bowl, more a mini bowl with decorations on it. She retrieves it carefully." It's a charm. In my village they say if you find one of these it means good luck."
"It means 'what?' "
"A blessing. I have only ever seen it once, in school."
"I thought it was a dessert bowl or something," Nicki's gaze is fixed.
"Here," Kendra hands it to her. "You're the one that spotted it."
"You mean we," said Nicki.
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