Friday, June 15, 2007

What Happened that Night in Toronto

A waiter emerged ashen-faced from the swing doors to the kitchen. “The cook”, he said, “the cook!”.
I looked up from my book and hesitated. As an infrequent visitor to Toronto, I was not sure of the etiquette in this situation. The waiter’s white uniform was splashed in blood, but I figured he could have been on the meat-cutting side. I noticed he held a knife, a big butcher’s knife, so clearly he was on the meat-cutting side and nothing unusual was going on. Then my eyes drifted across to the couple at the next table, who were staring at the waiter with open mouths, their forks half way up (his actually, hers was stabbing down).

Perhaps they were also visitors, but either way they certainly considered the situation to be unusual, perhaps even abnormal.

“What about the cook, my good man?” I asked, feeling that someone had to take the initiative.
“He’s gone and sliced up Freddy, that’s what”. The waiter stared across at me as if I should have known that.
“I see”, I said, “and who is the cook?”
“I’m the cook”, he said, and I noticed that this was true, as he was wearing one of those absurd chef’s hats. Certainly he was a cook, whether he was the cook I could not tell.

At this point a large man in a black suit walked rapidly past me and hit the cook in the stomach, quite hard. I watched carefully as he dragged the man back through the swing doors into the kitchen. He re-emerged in a minute and walked up to my table. I sat down so as to minimize the available stomach area, but he seemed more concerned with the state of my meal. When I had assured him that all was well, that in fact the steak had been superb, he smiled in relief, as if that had been his chief concern, and started to move away.

“Ahem”, I said, “could you tell me who Freddy is, or was?”
He stopped and looked back rather crossly. “Freddy was a pig, a real pig”, he said, “but that’s all done now, the main thing is that you enjoyed your steak”.

This seemed reasonable, but something still nagged at me. The couple at the next table were frantically waving for their bill, and I noticed that a good many of the other customers had departed. Could this be some sort of a slaughter house, where Canadians could experience the frission of murder with their meal, but felt it politic to leave very quickly after the main event?

The large man in the black suit was walking slowly across to the till, where the last few diners were rapidly paying up. I still wanted a coffee, and indeed had been hoping for some cheese and a glass of port, so felt disinclined to leave just then. However Freddy’s fate was pertinent, very pertinent. I decided to push my luck just a little bit, and take a peek behind those swing doors.

I could not see Freddy, when I peeked in after tiptoeing across from my table. I could see the cook, on the ground and feeling around for his chef’s hat. There seemed to be an enormous amount of blood around, splashed here and there on the floors and walls, but possibly that was normal in Canadian kitchens. I heard a step behind me and turned round. The large man in the black suit sighed and hit me in the stomach, quite hard.

My memory blurs a little at that point. I do remember feeling glad that I had not had the coffee, cheese and port after all, as those ingredients added to the steak in my stomach would have had far-reaching consequences. As it was I felt decidedly queasy when I pulled myself back together. It was ages since anyone had hit me in the stomach. In fact I could not remember when last that had happened. One gets so soft in middle age.

I was sitting on a wooden bench in a freezer room. It was festooned with frozen carcasses, and it occurred to me that one of them might be Freddy, and indeed that one of them could well be me, soon. This disturbing thought was tracking through my brain when the door opened, letting in the sound of a spirited party underway in the next room. My old friend the large man in the black suit entered.

He walked over and sat down heavily on the bench next to me. “Nothing but parties in this goddam place”, he said, “mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all”, I murmured.
“Every day, day after day, you’d think they would all grow up.” He sighed again. “Not that I mind really, enjoy a good party from time to time, but not everyone can keep it up like they do. Take Ringwalt, for example, a bit like you he is, always wanting to know about Freddy. Stuff Freddy, he’s a real pig.”
“Was”, I corrected.
“Is, was and will be forever”, he snapped.

I did not want to antagonize the man, who was clearly mad. I did though feel that a drink and some convivial company would be just right at this point.
“Why don’t you introduce me to the host?”, I asked, “let’s go have a drink, and forget your woes for a while”.
“Alright, alright”, he said, “just let me finish my smoke, they don’t mind”, waving at the hanging carcasses.

The party was cheerfully warm after the freezer next door. No sign of carcasses or blood, though it did turn out that the host’s name was Freddy. “You got sliced today?” I asked, making small talk after being introduced.
“Get sliced everyday, very good for the heart they say. Have a drink”. Freddy had an unobjectionably but unquestionably porcine appearance. He filled the room with a sort of vast cheerfulness that clearly annoyed the large man in the black suit, who muttered excuses and moved away as soon as he had introduced me.

“I like to get really focused, you know”, said Freddy, “getting sliced helps, it sort of puts in place the priorities, sort of lets you know what’s real, you know what I mean?”.
“Certainly”, I said, “what’s real, that’s important”.
“Have another drink”, he said. The room was swaying to a bouncy number by Bob Dylan, and contained an eclectic collection of partying men and woman, all, I noticed, with slightly porcine features. I began to wonder whether I should look in the mirror.

Freddy drifted off and I found myself talking to a beautiful redhead with only the slightest hint of a snout.
“Delia, darling”, she said, “and you must be some joe.”
“Not everyone’s cup of tea”, I said, “but yes, approximately right, just wandered in for the party.”
“Ha”, she said, “wandered in or beaten in through the swing doors, no doubt.” I admitted this. She winked, “so are all the best”. There was a pause. “So Freddy owns the restaurant does he?”, I asked.
“Oh that’s amusing” she said, “Freddy just uses it to get sliced. Anyway, have you been sliced? Can’t say I recommend it, but I’m old fashioned like that.”

I took this piece of intelligence with me as I moved across to the bar for a re-fill. The cook, now wearing clean clothes, was standing next to the drinks, clutching a hand-held rocket launcher and looking exhausted.

“Tummy OK?” I enquired, as I poured a scotch. He scowled at me, “That’s not funny”, he said, “slicing, punching, cooking, and all this for $15 an hour, now they want blasting, and they’re gonna get it”.
I felt a little concerned at this, as a rocket propelled grenade would be enough to break up the party, and I was just beginning to enjoy myself.
“Why don’t you have a drink”, I invited him, “put down the blasting device just for the moment and consider the extraordinary fact of being alive at this time and place”.
He looked at me in much the same way as one would look at a dog turd, then turned round, lifted his rocket launcher, and fired into the crowd. The back blast just missed me, thank God, but a lot of damage was done to the bar, and most of the bottles were broken.

Luckily the missile missed most of the crowd, finding only Freddy, who disappeared in an ecstatic puff of smoke.

The party was clearly over. I knocked back the remains of my drink and wondered how to thank my host, now that he had been blasted. Everyone was milling around and the party had that confused bustle that happens when the fun is over but no-one quite knows when to leave. My own concern was how to leave, as I was not at all sure how I had got there. I decided to accost the large man in the black suit.
“I want my meal taken care of”, I demanded, “I don’t want to have to pay for it, because it was interrupted, and instead of coffee, cheese and port, I had a punch in the stomach and three free whiskeys”.
He looked at me nervously, “now don’t take it like that” he said, “we try to ensure complete satisfaction, and if everything was not completely satisfactory then certainly the meal is on the house, but you will have to pay for your passage back”.
“Send me the bill”, I snapped, feeling suddenly in charge, and barged through the swing doors to tell a startled roomful of diners that Freddy had been blasted, and that the cook did it.


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