Thursday, 2 February 2012

Table For One at the Unfolding Lotus

Len kissed his wife on the forehead as she lay half-asleep. Time for him to pretend to go down the yard for extra hours on the night shift, just as he had every Tuesday for the past month. He closed the door softly, left the house and got in his car. There, he could see his breath as he checked his wallet for the third time that night for the card. ‘The Unfolding Lotus Restaurant – Urbiqui Cuisine’, it read, followed by the address and, written in blue biro, ‘Tue’. There was no phone number for reservations, only a line drawing of a lotus flower, its petals opening to receive the sun that hung overhead, somewhere off the border of the card.

Len had no real idea from what part of the world Urbiqui cuisine originated. He had a vague sense of it being somewhat Asian, but not quite, although there were many hot spices used. Maybe slightly Mediterranean. A lot of the dishes he had so far eaten had involved lamb, which put him in mind of Greek food, but then, that did not seem right either. For some reason, he thought of Africa - North Africa anyway. Islam, but the Islam of the Moors, whirling dervishes, and brilliant white domed houses blazing in the sun.

Parking his car on a single yellow line, and hoping that he would be home before the restrictions came back into place the following morning, Len got out and crossed the street, near silent now save for the sound of sirens in the distance and that of cats fighting behind a wall. Just an hour ago, the takeaways and restaurants that lined either side would have still been taking customers, but now even they had closed. The echo of rubbish bags being dumped into a steel bin travelled down the street as evidence; when it had faded, only Len’s footsteps could be heard as he took a left into an alleyway, and then a further left into a sub-alley that seemed to serve no purpose but to lead to a single, unlit door. Here, where no casual clientele would ever think to look, was the Unfolding Lotus.

There was a sign, just about visible in the gloom: possibly pink with the name and lotus logo embossed, but little else. The Unfolding Lotus had no window. The door and the unlit sign were the totality of its presence to the outside world. Len knew first from hearsay, and later experience, that if someone were to come across that door before one o’clock in the morning it would almost certainly not open, and no sign of activity would be seen through its frosted glass panel. But come that hour, the door would be unlocked, and entry would become at least a possibility. It would not be possible, however, for them to step one foot inside before the Maître d’ would appear, effectively blocking all further progress into the impossibly confined space they would find themselves in. Then, at that moment, if they could show the Maître d’ their card, with the appropriate day of the week inscribed upon it, they would be led down a flight of candle-lit stairs to the restaurant below. If, however, no card could be produced, then they would be politely informed that the restaurant was fully booked for that evening, and also on any conceivable future occasion, and they would have little choice but to leave.

Len’s card had been given to him by a colleague whose last day in the security cabin had turned into a drunken and somewhat melancholy affair. Their work relationship had been for the most part cordial but distanced, save for a shared enjoyment of pornographic magazines, both tolerating each other’s undisguised masturbation in the early hours of the morning. It had awkwardly transformed into something more personal at the end, however, and both had realised their lives would now be that much lonelier. He had told Len about the Unfolding Lotus then: about its ways, and its magnificent secret, so desirable that it would drive men beyond their perceived limits of dedication, endurance and basic morality. Elusive to some, but obtainable to those who persevered; awarded at a moment that could not be guessed at, only yearned for. It was in pursuit of this secret that Len had followed the Maître d’ down the stairs, through an arch, where a curtain was held back for him each time by the one other waiter, and into the restaurant, every Tuesday night for the past month.

Len waited to be seated as the junior waiter readied a table. He had no need to ask for a table for one, as that was all they had. Twelve or thirteen tables for one, all arranged so that no occupant could face comfortably that of another. That night, seven of the tables were taken. It was dark - too dark but, nevertheless, and as ever, the clientele looked to Len to be similar to him. In their forties or fifties, overweight, some of them morbidly so; balding, pale, or beetroot red; none looking particularly well.

The table was ready. Len was led over. There he took his seat and was handed the menu. He struggled to study it in the weak candlelight; not that it mattered, as he did not know what anything on it was. Even the things he had ordered previously no longer seemed to be available. Some familiar ingredients were listed, such as lamb, beef, spinach or beans, but what was to be done to them in the preparation and the cooking always remained a mystery. He had in the past asked what certain things were, but the reply from the waiter was so vague, and his dialect so thick, he was always left none the wiser.

There was no chance of help from the other diners. The rules of the Unfolding Lotus were learnt from observation, and one of the very first things Len had realised was that no member of the clientele ever talked to another. Not even when they knew each other, as in the case of Len and his former colleague who sat not far away from him that night. They may exchange glances of sympathy or disapproval, but that was the only form of exchange or peer tutoring that took place. In this way, Len had discovered that at the Unfolding Lotus, if in serious pursuit of the secret, then one must order the minimum of three courses, along with side orders, and must absolutely clear the plate. Even fat could not be cut off and pushed to the side: it must be eaten, however hard it was to chew and force down one’s throat.

Len made his order at random, and while waiting for the starter, he stared at the curtains at the far end of the room, opposite the much smaller curtain through which he had entered. They were black, save for the lotus logo, imprinted in gold and spanning both curtains, divided directly in the centre. None of the diners had ever seen behind this curtain, although the Maître d’ had been observed sliding through them once or twice, but he was careful to reveal nothing. It was not said, but it was understood by all, that the secret was kept behind it.

That night, Len ate a starter thick with cheese and savoury pastries, side dishes of very hot chutneys by the jarful, a main course of innumerable fatty lamb slices and what appeared to be leaves, and for afters some type of flat sticky tart that was of such unbearable sweetness he could feel it trying to escape back out of his body through his nose. When he left, he was sick in the alleyway. He was not the only one. As he made his way back to his car in the early morning light, he had to jump over several puddles of vomit left by other diners of the night.

He did not get to see the secret that time. He was not surprised. He understood that it took time to earn the right to see it. But last week, somebody had. Somehow, they had passed the mysterious test, and as they were licking away the last drippings of their pudding from the bowl, a lotus flower had been brought over to their table on a silver tray and placed in front of them by the Maître d’, who then slapped the man’s back and shook his hand. The man was not seen to leave. In the early hours of that morning, after the last, less privileged diner had left, it was understood that he would have been shown the secret.

Len’s wife was still asleep when he crept into bed. His digestive process demanded that he sleep, but his overfull stomach kept him awake with pain. He broke wind so much that his sphincter hurt. Flatulence was a common problem once one had visited the Unfolding Lotus. The restaurant itself existed in a perpetual fog of gas as patrons broke wind freely. It took a while not to notice it, but soon a diner would also be participating in this rudeness without apology. Perhaps in response to the loud and continued leakage that morning (although she remained silent on the matter, as she always did), his wife woke up earlier than normal and got out of bed. Len pretended to sleep.

He went back to the Unfolding Lotus the week after, and the week after that. Len was getting larger. His belt buckle needed to be threaded in the next hole along, then the next one, and soon, as he went back, week after week, first his shirts, then his trousers, then his pants, all had to be replaced. The replacements in turn had to be replaced as his visits continued. He stopped measuring his endeavour in weeks and started in months. Until it had been a year. Then, more than a year. By the time he reached his second anniversary he had stopped counting at all. Impatient desire was gradually replaced by Zen-like resignation. He was now nearly twice the size as he had been when it had all began.

He never missed a week. He avoided all holidays, and interest in much else in life dissipated. He and his wife drifted. The coded warnings of a concerned neighbour, their suspicions aroused by the sudden increase of female orgasms seeping through the walls, and the discovery by Len of a hardened drop of semen on the bed-sheets he knew not to be his, did not overly bother him. He forgot his grown-up daughter’s birthday, said sorry, and did not dwell upon it. He became too fat to sit comfortably in the chair in the security cabin, and too out of breath to patrol the yard adequately. He was sacked, receiving a meagre redundancy payment, but it was of no real concern to him as the food at the Unfolding Lotus was free.

It was five and a half months into his third year of attendance when Len was finally handed the lotus. His former work colleague had been presented with his some time before, an event that had dissolved his sense of calm entirely for months, but that did not matter now. As the Maître d’ slapped his back and shook his hand, elation ran through his blubbery body. For the first time in years, since well before the Unfolding Lotus had entered his life, Len smiled broadly. His teeth were shining in the candlelight as he waited for the other diners to finish. Eat up! he said to them with his eyes, Can’t you see they’ve handed me the lotus? Elation turned to anticipation and even angst as he waited. What if the secret was not all that it was said to be, and it did not come up to expectations? Or what if this were only stage one, and further tasks were demanded of him before he could see it? And if he could not meet these new demands, what then? Expulsion? By the time the last customer slurped up his last drop of pudding, Len was feeling faint, his vision breaking up into tiny dots.

He asked for a glass of water. The junior waiter provided him with one. This was the first glass he had drunk there. No water to wash down the salty food. That was another rule of the Unfolding Lotus. Then, without saying a word, the waiter blew out all the candles, save one he used to light his way to the smaller curtain through which he departed, and Len found himself in utter darkness. He could hear his heart thumping in his ears. As his eyes adjusted, he was sure he could see a faint glow emerging from behind the larger curtains. In fact, he thought he could see the shape of the lotus on them, mysteriously illuminated. The curtains parted. All seemed black for an instant. His eyes adjusted again. Now he could see a form: a figure. A woman. Dim light was coming from somewhere, just enough for him to see her outline. He could see her hair, her hips, her arms. She was dancing. Yes, music, he could hear it now: strange, familiar in some way, but not Indian, not Greek, but something, from somewhere. Urbiqui.

The dancer waved her arms to the left and to the right. Her hips shook with tiny, fast movements, only perceivable with concentration. He could see the sheen of her skin now. Her hair was long, dark, thick, curled. She was tall, towering almost. Her body was curved, full. Her arms were bare, and her legs emerged out of some thin, billowing material. As he realised that he could see her breasts through the same thin covering, and that they were beautiful, and that she was slowly, so slowly, getting closer, Len felt an erection in his elasticated trousers, his first for a long while.

He began to make out her face. A long, thin hooked nose between two flashing green eyes. The moisture on her lips glistened. He could see that her skin was olive, like that of the Maître d’ and the waiter. Her arms were down by her side now. Her dance was a strange, ancient, exotic shimmy that brought her closer and closer, through the maze of tables, until she was just six foot or so away from his. Aside from the thin fabric, she was naked, he could see. Her gaze was fixed on him continuously, and as the distance between them narrowed, her covering gently fell to the ground. Now she was just three foot, two foot, a foot away, and Len could smell her, the smell he faintly remembered from years ago, of a woman ready for sex. He pulled down his elasticated trousers and unbuttoned his enormous pants. His penis stood upright, waiting, just waiting for her to lower herself down onto it.

She was nearly upon him. She placed one hand on his shoulder and caressed his face with the other. Still dancing, still shimmying, she placed her long, oh so long legs either side of Len’s own thick trunks. He reached out and felt her breasts, the nipples long and hard. She let out a gasp as they flowed through his hands, and as he summoned the strength to pull himself forward and kiss them, he could feel her pubic hair brush against the tip of his penis.

And then he felt a pain in his left arm. A sudden, awful pain. Now it was in his chest. In his throat, his jaw, his teeth. He looked up at her with terror in his eyes, trying to speak, but unable. He could not breathe. In that moment, a sense of clarity descended upon him, and for a brief second, all seemed right and as it should be. That moment passed, and all he could see was the secret, staring dispassionately down upon him, past her long, thin, hooked nose, with her flashing, green, beautiful eyes, as he died.

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