The Devil's Dish Served Six Different Ways (chapters 1 & 2)
As soon as he entered the house Akil knew something was wrong. His father's jacket was on the chair in the kitchen and that wasn't usual. Akil was always the first to arrive home, not his father. School finished at three thirty and it was a ten minute walk along Woodstock Road to the shared house with its grimy threadbare carpet. Akil’s father, who worked in a factory five miles away, usually arrived an hour or so later. So why was his jacket draped over a chair in the kitchen ?
After checking for post Akil ran upstairs and deposited his school bag. The bedroom door was unlocked and his father’s work clothes had been placed on one of the two single beds.
"Akil ? Is that you ?"
It was his father's voice coming from the tiny bathroom. Was his father ill ?
"Yes, father. I'm going to the kitchen to cook."
"I'll be down in a minute. I want to talk."
The pots and pans that Akil cooked with were stored in a locked cupboard marked Akil and Hamzah. Three other people shared the house – an old man who placed his false teeth in a tumbler of water whenever he ate; a Portugese man who worked at night; and an Indian man who lived in the downstairs room that didn’t have a window. He too worked at night, in a petrol station, and usually ventured into the kitchen before he left at 5pm. "Why always you who do the cooking, Akil ?" he would say, leading Akil to shrug: "Because I'm the best" whereupon the Indian man would laugh and pat Akil on his head.
Akil began to wash the rice and trim the vegetables. He was the best at cooking because his father had never had any reason to prepare food. Akil’s mother and sister, when they were alive, were the ones who oversaw the family meals. They spent hours together quietly going about their work, comparing different spices and boning cuts of meat. But since Akil and Hamzah fled to England it was customary for him to prepare the evening meal. If he didn't cook neither of them would eat. Akil didn't mind cooking but he'd rather be doing something else - playing World of Warcraft for example. But the times when he could do whatever he wanted were long past. His mother and sister were dead and neither would cook again. Life was different. And there was nothing Akil or his father could do about it.
Hamzah hurried down the stairs, freshly showered and wearing his green dressing gown. He was a short, stocky man with thinning hair and a moustache. He looked invigorated and had used a plentiful amount of eau de cologne.
"I have some news" he said and indicated that his son should sit at the faded pine kitchen table opposite him. "How long have we been in England, Akil ? Can you remember ?"
"Yes father. Five years."
"And in all those years I have done my best, wouldn't you say ? I have provided a roof over our heads and food for our stomachs. Isn't that right ?"
Akil nodded. Something must be very wrong for his father to talk this way.
"We are integrated you and I. You are getting good grades at school and I have done well in my job. Even Mr Bristow, my line manager, says that I am a good and conscientious worker - somebody he can trust. This is our place now. Perhaps one day, God willing, you will return to our homeland but me, I will never return. And let me tell you that a day doesn’t pass without me yearning for your mother and sister. You know that don’t you ?”
“But our lives must be lived. What’s done is done. Fate has been cruel but we must endure, isn’t that right ?”
Hamzah took hold of Akil’s hand and Akil trembled as he did so, fearing that some grave news was about to be imparted. “Akil - I have a lady-friend. A very nice lady-friend. And I would like you to meet her. Do you object to such a thing ?"
Akil, thankful that his father hadn’t told him something much worse, shook his head.
"That's good. You understand these things. You are a man now. When I was twelve years old your grandfather sent me out to work. But you are clever. You're going to make me proud, I know it. Now, let me leave you to carry on with your cooking. We'll talk some more about this development in our lives. It is a development that will have consequences for us both. Things are about to change, my boy, change for the better."
The following week Hamzah’s lady-friend came to the house. The preparations for her visit had been meticulous. As soon as he returned home from the factory Hamzah had put on bright yellow rubber gloves and cleaned their bedroom. Then he knocked on the old man’s door and asked that the kitchen be off-limits for the next two hours. Finally he went into the shower for a very long time before drenching himself in a new scent bought specially for the occasion. Akil meanwhile had been presented with a bag of fresh ingredients that his father had collected from the market. “Make a nice dinner for her” he said “a dinner like we used to eat in our homeland. But not too spicy, mind. We don’t want to scare her away, do we ?”
She arrived at 6pm. She was bigger than Akil expected. Her arms were muscular and her fingers were chubby – not long and slender like Akil’s mother’s fingers. Her clothes were strange too. She wore a thin white jacket and matching skirt, even though it was cold and misty outside, as well as high heels that made her taller than Akil’s father. She introduced herself and gave Akil a bar of chocolate. Her name was Dorothy – “like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz” she said. Hamzah laughed at this – laughed rather too loudly Akil thought. “Hello Dorothy – welcome to our home” Akil said, exactly as his father had told him. In their homeland it was customary for a person to bow as a mark of respect when meeting somebody new. But Akil decided he wasn’t going to bow. He shook Dorothy’s hand and returned to the stove.
They sat and ate at the faded pine kitchen table. Dorothy enjoyed Akil’s cooking very much even though it was slightly too hot for her taste prompting Hamzah, with much theatricality, to fetch a jug of iced tap water. Dorothy told Akil about her daughter, who was older and doing her GCSEs, and said they’d ‘get on like a house on fire’ which Akil thought was the worst possible way for two people to get on together. After dinner Dorothy and Hamzah went upstairs and sat in the bedroom while Akil washed the dishes. As he did so the old man came in to the kitchen to make tea. “Did your father’s lady-friend enjoy your meal ?” he asked. Akil nodded. “She is bigger than my mother and has fair hair. My mother was a slim lady with dark hair who wore silk clothes. She never wore high heels to make herself tall. Nor did my sister.” The old man didn’t respond. He stood waiting for the kettle to boil before filling his tea mug and returning to his room.
Dorothy left at eight o’clock. She shouted goodbye to Akil from the front door but his reply was muted. When she’d left Hamzah walked in to the kitchen and congratulated his son on an excellent dinner. “Dorothy wants us to go on a trip with her during the Christmas holiday” he said “to visit her family. They live in the south-western part of England, next to the sea. Do you like Dorothy ?” he asked and Akil felt compelled to say yes so as not to disappoint his father. “I knew you would like her. She likes you very much. She thinks you are a good, polite boy. These are exciting times for us – exciting times.” And with that his father went upstairs to watch the ten o’clock news.
Go to chapters 3 & 4: