A table at the Bombay Blossom on a Friday required a reservation, so Mickey phoned early in the week. The woman who took his reservation sounded disappointed it was for one.
“So, you’d like a table for one on Friday night at eight. Am I right?” Her tone was accusatory.
Tough tits, thought Mickey. He couldn’t afford to take himself, let alone a date, to such an upscale place. But it was the tenth anniversary of his da’s death, and he felt like being a bit wild; and as his da would have appreciated, he was tired of being low-class.
Friday afternoon Mickey knocked on Johnny’s door.
“What?” yelled Johnny.
“What?” yelled Johnny.
“You still got that black suit jacket you picked up a couple weeks ago?”
“I wanna borrow it.”
“I don’t got five bucks.”
Johnny’s door opened a crack, and long blue fingers appeared and curled around the cigarettes. The door closed, then opened again. Johnny’s hand slipped through with the black jacket.
“You got a date or somethin’?” Johnny asked from behind the door.
“No,” Mickey replied.
“Your mother die?”
“She’s been dead a long, long time.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that.” Johnny sounded truly saddened.
At seven Mickey showered and shaved in the bathroom down the hall and whistled “Deep Elem Blues” on his way back to his room. He rolled some Right Guard on his armpits and splashed a little Aqua Velva on his face. He looked all right in his white button-up shirt, shiny blue tie, grey trousers, black shoes (new from the Sally Ann) and Johnny’s black jacket.
He stepped onto West Bogart Street like a man newly saved, Satchmo blowing between his ears, and that was fine. He reached the Bombay Blossom at five minutes to eight and waited till eight to enter. Inside the first door he could see through to the dining room. It was full. He checked his reflection in the glass, spit lightly in his hand, and ran it through his hair. He took a breath and opened the second door.
Ten years before, Mickey had gone to England on a whim after his father died, leaving him four thousand dollars. He took a woman with him to see Arsenal play Liverpool, where his old man was from, the city and team about which he never shut up.
“What the fuck,” was Mickey’s reasoning. “Your old man only dies once.”
Lots of fish and chips places, the food wrapped in newspaper, the whole business, but lots of curry take-aways too, and he got to really like the smell and taste of the stuff. The football match was great, though Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-1. The woman turned out to be a cunt.
But the Bombay Blossom was high-class. It smelled of sandalwood and cardamom and orange. The woman who approached wore a golden gown adorned with specks of silver. The red dot on her high forehead matched the polish on her toes. Mickey stood erect, a newspaper he’d found outside folded importantly under his arm.
“Mr. Michael Flagon,” he said. “Reservation for one.”
She opened a black leather binder and scanned it with her dark eyes. She looked up and smiled. “Yes, Mr. Flagon. Please.”
He followed close behind her and noticed she smelled like roses. They passed tables of four and six and eight and twelve a long way to the very back, to a corner that marked the passage to the kitchen and the washrooms. She motioned to a table with two chairs.
“I hope this will be all right, Mr. Flagon. We are extremely busy on Fridays.”
“I’m not one to complain,” he assured her.
“The waiter will be with you shortly with our specials and the menu. Would you like something to drink?”
“Yeah, I’ll have a very cold Indian beer. What have you got?”
“We have Kingfisher, Kalyani Black Label and Haywards.”
“I’ll have the Kingfisher.” Mickey hoped it would taste okay.
She came back with the bottle and a tall chilled glass on a tray. She held the neck of the bottle with the fingertips of one hand and the bottom of the bottle in the palm of the other. She poured slowly, delicately.
Lord God, thought Mickey. I’m gettin’ a boner.
The beer tasted good. Mickey didn’t know the food. He couldn’t make out the small-print English explanations without his reading glasses, and the photographs of each dish didn’t help much. In Liverpool, it was stagger in, demand a medium curry to go, and stagger out. He didn’t want to embarrass himself. The grandfatherly waiter in dark, loose-fitting clothes, hair white as a mountain summit, who brought the menu and placed a linen napkin on his lap, asked if he required assistance. He said no.
When the waiter returned, Mickey pointed with feigned authority to one appetizer, one dish of seafood and one dish of lamb. He did not attempt pronunciation.
“And rice and pappadum, sir?”
“You’d like rice and pappadum, sir?”
“Of course,” said Mickey.
While he waited for his food, Mickey tried to look at ease reading his newspaper alone. He’d have preferred to be unnoticed, but that was impossible. A parade of waiters to and from the kitchen, and patrons to and from the washrooms, marched past him like a line of ants, looking warily at him. A party of twelve sat close by, raising hell with their laughs and uproar. But he had chosen to be here on a Friday night, and the meal placed in front of him would compensate for this momentary awkwardness.
The food came soon and was presented in covered shining silver bowls. His waiter removed the covers with a certain solemnity and announced each dish. Mickey relished the display with his eyes and nostrils.
“Oh my,” he said.
The old waiter looked pleased.
“Some soy sauce for my rice and that should do it,” said Mickey.
The waiter did not respond but he did not turn away. Mickey understood, though he sort of did not. “That’s okay. Could you bring me another beer?”
He snapped off a piece of pappadum, which he’d seen a man at the table of twelve do. A spicy potato chip; he liked it. He tried a forkful of rice and it was tasteless without soy sauce, so he put some rice on a piece of pappadum, and that was good. He decided to eat from the bowls one at a time to avoid mixing flavours, and put the dinner plate aside. He figured he’d like the lamb best, and it was a meat he hadn’t had for a long time, so he’d save it for last.
The appetizer appeared to be chickpeas, perhaps roasted over open flame; bits of their skin were charcoal black and dark brown. Mickey smelled smoke on them. He tasted cinnamon, lemon and brown sugar. He closed his eyes as he chewed and, wanting the taste to linger, he did not take a swallow of beer until he finished them all.
His seafood was a stew of pink and white flesh amidst thinly sliced radishes and broccoli florets in beautifully cream-coloured and peppery coconut milk. He mixed in some rice and savoured each mouthful as he would a long note from a saxophone in an empty room.
Mickey finished off another beer and called out for one more. The lamb was cut in cubes and sat in a thick red sauce. He put his nose up close and felt his nostril hairs quiver.
“Mmm,” he said.
He put the last of the rice into the sauce and stirred, then stabbed two cubes of lamb with his fork and put them in his mouth. Mickey’s eyes shot wider than Moses’s parting of the Red Sea. His tongue blistered like an eel on a desert tarmac. His nose ran like water from a torpedoed dam. He couldn’t speak. He reached for his glass of beer like a man in an angry ocean reaching for a life raft.
Jesus Christ, he thought. Howie-Meeker-Howard-Cosell-Mother-Teresa-Margaret-Trudeau-motherfucker-Davey-Keon-holy-shit, that’s hot!
He guzzled his beer and belched and looked about. The party of twelve chattered, eating desserts and drinking liqueurs. No one noticed his near implosion. He ordered two more beers and stared down his lamb and rice. A bite. A gulp. A bite. A gulp. Tonight he wouldn’t be denied.
As the party of twelve prepared to leave, women checking purses, men mussing children’s hair in play, Mickey asked his waiter for the check. He looked at it and nodded and smiled at the old man and told him he was very good at his job. He handed him a ten-dollar bill. “Not the way things are done,” Mickey said, “but I wanted to be sure you get it.”
When the party of twelve stood, Mickey stood and fell in behind them. Halfway to the front of the Bombay Blossom, he angled past four lagging children. Three-quarters of the way he was smack in the middle of eight clucking adults, their breath ripe with the smell of liquor and curry. Three men stopped at the front to settle the group’s bill, while the rest carried on out the doors, Mickey amongst them.
Crossing the street quickly to get into an alley and down along the river, he took the footpath to the bridge, not caring if his shoes and trousers got a little muddy. He hummed “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” as he walked. Across the bridge lay West Bogart Street and his rooming house and a dozen others like it.
He took the stairs in twos, the black suit jacket slung over his shoulder. He knocked on Johnny’s door.
“Johnny, I got your jacket.”
“It’s Mickey. I got your jacket.”
The doorknob turned. Johnny’s thin hand appeared, and behind the hand was darkness.
“Where ya been to anyways?” Johnny asked. His voice was gruff with sleep.
“You know at the mission, those red plastic trays and the paper napkin we carry up to get our food and carry back to scrape off when we’re done?”
“Tonight I got served, Johnny.”
“Well, that’s all right then, that’s all right,” said Johnny, pulling his hand and jacket back and into better dreams.