It was the simple action of chopping a carrot in thin strips – ‘julienne,’ that kept her father close. It was in the meticulous execution of a recipe, in the contemplation of the sheen and tone on an aubergine that he redeemed himself, quietly, one coq a vin, one filet mignon at a time.
Sarah asks her butcher for pork medallions, he says he’s got something really special for her ‘raised in the West Country’ – he points out the glorious marbling in the crimson depths of the raw tender flesh. He shows her how dark liquid just oozes out of it if pressed ever so lightly ‘Fresh, Bloody just how we like it,’ he grins. Tonight at the restaurant she will be serving a feast of flesh.
She had had another dream and her father was in it. He was bloody, wrapped in bandages from head to toe. She didn’t know why. She wanted to help him, she tried but there was no way to. He was too far gone. She had woken up feeling intensely disturbed. She wondered all day what it meant, and why he never appeared in her dreams unless he was disfigured, distorted or in pain.
She hasn’t seen him in 22 years and before that she has met him twice. The rest of her memories are from the initial four years of her life when he was still with them. She has no happy memories of him, the only positive images she has are of him talking about food or preparing food like when she was seven years old and he came to visit with his new wife and little daughter.
He invited them all for dinner to the fancy hotel he was staying at. He ordered something called fee-lay min-yon she remembered wondering what it was, having never heard anything so strange. In her home, food was a simple affair, mostly cooked by her Grandmother. Shephard’s Pie. Stew and Yorkshire Pudding.
Her child’s curiousity was piqued. He talked about the fee-lay min-yon for quite a while, extolling its merits to the company at the table. He was a mesmerizing one-man show. When it arrived she cast sneaky glances at his plate, too intimidated by this mystery man who had come to visit, who was apparently her father, to exhibit too much direct interest.
It seemed a very boring, flat, grayish looking piece of meat with some saucey thing on it. She felt utterly disappointed but he said it was wonderful between every loving mouthful. She was not to see him for another nine years after that.
As she sat at the kitchen table, hopeful, he opened the refrigerator. His wife was not around which made this a rare moment when perhaps they would have a conversation with some meaning; a conversation she may be able to carry in her memory. Perhaps he would tell her how sorry he was that he left them when she was four years old or possibly how he thought of her always.
He closed the refrigerator door. He had a jar dwarfed by his large frame in his hands. He took the lid off and she could make out small pieces of something unidentifiable – pink, purple, bruised. He gingerly inserted a finger into the jar and pulled out his precious quarry. He held it out in front of his face for a moment with a passionate gleam in his eyes before he popped it into his mouth. She saw to her shock a few tendrils resembling tentacles hanging on his lips, their suction cups visible before it all disappeared into the cavern of his mouth.
‘Delicious! Pickled Octopus. You have some! You have to!’ he turned his attention onto her, oblivious to the horror on her face at the spectacle of his carnivorous self. ‘No thank you. I’ve told you. I’m vegetarian’.
He snorted derisively. ‘Is this what your mother has taught you?’ ‘No, I just don’t like meat of any kind – and especially not a…baby..Octopus’ she winced, barely able to get the words out without gagging. He launched into a lengthy speech about how his precious jar was not just ‘octopus’ but rare baby (insert name) octopus, culled only in (insert month) by Maori fishermen in (insert remote location) and then pickled for (insert specific length of time) in (insert ingredient) at the finest gourmet shop in Auckland, New Zealand. Thereby, believing he was instilling in her at this very late juncture, the values of epicurean pursuits; a gift to her, because certainly in his own eyes, he was a gift also, to humanity.
Thankfully, he was so moved by his own love for the finer things that he did not attempt to force the gangly cephalopods onto her. She shifted slowly away from the table and scurried away to a safer corner of his house.
She has a slim selection of memories from her childhood, her proper childhood. She remembers her father often clad only in a towel. He would be yelling and growling, his face contorted. Growling in a towel. Apparently, he reached into her mother’s sewing kit for something and got bitten – by a scorpion. They lived in, Peshawar, dry and hot, known to have scorpions, and snakes. He had been in excruciating pain. She imagines she saw the scorpion, but wonders how that could have been. He had thought he had been pricked by a needle, but it had turned out to be this land crustacean-type deal. He shrieked.
She remembers standing in the living room with her mother. Her mother is looking at x-rays of her father’s hands. Sarah asks her ‘Will Daddy be okay?’ Her mother replies, ‘I don’t care if he is,’ with a great deal of bitterness in her voice. She doesn’t remember anything else. Just a dark space, like a cut-out removed from its background.
An envelope arrived that day adorned with stamps and markings indicating that it was from very, very far away. Her mother told her later that over the years, a few things had come in the post for her from her father. She hadn’t given them to her. ‘I didn’t want you to have any contact with him’.
For some reason, her mother let her have this envelope. There was a birthday card in it wishing her a happy 8th birthday (she was 7), signed in an almost illegible hand - Love Daddy. She would stare at the words for years afterwards, trying to get some clue from them as to who the man who had written them was. She waited for them to tell her something, but they never gave away anything, just that the man who wrote them was perhaps someone in a hurry or possibly never learnt to write.
The clipping was what troubled her. It was a newspaper article with his name splashed across the front, and a large colour photo of him in a chef’s jacket, his hair black and curly as she knew it to be. He was leaning over a work surface chopping an assortment of vegetables with a little girl. The little girl was also wearing a small chef’s jacket, and she had on a black and white chequered bandana. She would never forget that bandana. This was his new daughter.
He looked industrious, energetic, full of promise and hope. The article talked of his culinary prowess and his skills as a successful restauranteer. Apparently, he owned a few. As a child, she was unable to understand what she felt when she saw that photo of him and his daughter, but she remembered the sensation – it was a blankness. She noticed something very odd. They called him Chef Billy. Billy Murelli. That wasn’t his name; but there it was in black and white print. He had a new name and a new family. There was no-one to ask about this. Her mother would snarl.
Right out of college, having graduated in photography, multi-media production and film, she had a burning desire - to be a waitress. It was impossible in Pakistan. Waitressing was not an opportunity available to women, and living in America she learnt the way.
All her American friends had worked as teenagers still in school, they were expected to. They were in fact expected to get jobs at the first opportunity they got. This was the Way. She assumed she was lucky that she did not have to do that growing up, but she didn’t mind the idea. The promise of independence was exciting. She was drawn to the romance of being a waitress. She was also drawn inexplicably to the idea of working in a restaurant.
She told her mother, ‘Everyone who graduates from college has to work as a waitress here, it’s practically a rite of passage!’ Living in a small town after graduating, her choices were not many or varied. Low-cost dining was the prevailing order of things; diners, cafes, neither of which afforded many opportunities for tips or refined clientele – but she didn’t know that. She didn’t know much about working in a restaurant.
Paradise Inn it was; a motor lodge with an attached restaurant that fancied itself as up market. She got the job and was expected to wear a standard issue white shirt with a black bow-tie, regulation shoes, and a little black apron. It was quite thrilling.
Paradise Inn was constantly besiged by coach-loads of old folks on tour through the scenic beauty of New England. This was not-so thrilling. It meant being inundated by more people than the restaurant could handle and working double-time.
Leaf Peepers! I am so sick of these Leaf Peepers! Tammy the single mom and veteran waitress would say referring to the activity of these people of coming to view the golds, russets and reds of the Autumn foliage. The most disgusting thing to serve in Paradise was a cream-coloured gloopy semi-liquid with hints of pink things and things with shells floating under the surface; Clam Chowder.
This the elderly Leaf-peepers ordered in abundance. The smell of it was revolting. As she would roll out bowl after bowl, the glamour of the job slowly disappeared. Every now and then she would see Billy.
Billy was the owner of the restaurant and Inn. He wasn’t always around. Sometimes in the evening he would be dressed in a smart dark green shirt and a gold chain. He would hang around the bar area being jolly, talking to customers. Billy was the one who hired her. He had a brusque no-nonsense attitude; a man of a few words.
On the day she interviewed at the Paradise Inn, he had been wearing his white Chef’s jacket, chequered trousers, an apron and a wipe cloth slung over his shoulder. Standing in the dimly-lit, musky bar with its dark old wood and deer heads on the wall, he had asked her: So you ever been a waitress before? She had worked in the college café, snack bar and kitchens all through college. Ok then you can start Wednesday. And that was it. As she walked out of the inn, she pondered on the fact that his name was Billy.
Are you my father Billy? Will I be a waitress in my father’s restaurant?
She would scrape her hair back into a neat chignon, and wear a little bit of black eyeliner and a touch of pink lipstick. The little old ladies seemed to love her. Oh you look like Audrey Hepburn dear they would say gleefully.
I am Audrey Hepburn working in my father Billy’s restaurant.
It was entirely unpleasant back in the kitchens though. The Chef “ Chuck” was a very large pear-shaped hillbilly with a mullet always wearing a baseball cap. The panache of Billy at the front was nowhere visible in the back. It was like a slave-ship, with the taskmaster cracking his whip – in this case Chuck. He made her very uncomfortable, and she did her best to minimize her interaction. A pop song had come out it went A little bit of Jessica on my mind, A little bit of Monica blah blah blah, A little bit of ….
Unfortunately, they had waitresses by two or three of those names working in the restaurant. That summer that was all Chuck sang every time any of the waitresses came into the kitchen. The job didn’t last long. She had to say goodbye to Billy and move on.
She was sitting at the dining table again, her father was behind the counter messing about in the kitchen. Today I’m going to make Calamari! She nodded her head. She had not seen much of her father on this trip, which had not panned out to be what she had hoped for. For example: a time of firsts i.e. her first meeting with her father since she was 7. The first time she had even visited him in his new home and new life. The first time she had travelled so far – from Pakistan all the way to Australia – and alone.
However, his wife seemed to have taken it upon herself to check all the boxes of a stereotypical ‘stepmother,’ figure, and so was heinous. Instead of taking her out and showing her around, they seemed to not really care that she was there at all. So she hung around their beautiful house while they were at work and school. Once in a while they would drop her off at the local mall where she could spend the day.
She ignored him when he talked of the Calamari because he knew she was mostly vegetarian. She had never even seen it before. It looked odd so shiny and white like bathroom fittings. It was hard to imagine it was ever divested with life. She had no desire to eat it.
When he made the honey Chicken she had eaten it, and she had had to concede it was the most mind-blowing chicken she had ever tasted. He had spread it out like a sheet, coated it and cooked it and for the rest of her life she would be trying to find that taste again.
She heard the pan sizzling, as she turned another page. She glanced over at him, all frenzied with his hair thick, black and curly standing atop his head wearing one of his customary silk shirts. He seemed completely focused.
He came over to the table and slammed a bowl down in front of her.
Here. Eat this! She looked up his dark, towering figure and saw that he was completely serious.
No way am I eating that! I told you I don’t this stuff…
I don’t care, he said.
I’m not eating it!
You have to eat it. He insisted.
You can’t force me to eat this she said.
Then he pulled the I’m-your-father line which she could not believe he had the nerve to do. She was 16 and had never lived with him a day in her life, and told him as much. He had not been around and there was no way he could start insisting on ‘fixing’ what he saw as mistakes in her upbringing now. But he was a little intimidating, and for some reason decided not to back down. She had to taste it.
She picked up a slimy, white ring of Calamari with her finger from the bowl. He sat next to here literally pouring piece after piece into his mouth with gusto. He looked to her like an invading barbarian conqueror. As the Calamari hit her tongue, she gagged. It was the most unpleasant sensation she could imagine. It tasted of absolutely nothing, except the epitome of slipperiness. She stuggled to swallow it, but her gullet was not co-operating. She felt the bile rising and the Calamari came out as she hastily brought her hand to her mouth. He was just watching her slowly chewing his food. She gave him the dirtiest look she could muster and ran out of the kitchen.
He told her not to tell anyone that she was visiting from Pakistan. Say you’re from my Turkish wife, he said matter-of factly. People are very racist here. Sarah found herself puzzled at this. He also refused to speak Urdu with her. His face would go blank, as if he did not understand what she was saying, but he understood. It was in his eyes. Speak English, he said after she tried a few times.
She only did it because she thought it could be something they would share, but he was not the man for it. If anyone asks you my name is Billy Murelli and I am of Italian descent. When he came out with this she was completely floored. What do you mean?
Well I’m pretty sure we must have Italian blood somewhere, people always ask me if I am Italian.
In her mid- 20’s, no longer a wayward college student of whom emotional instability is expected – when she was well past the age where fucking up is de rigeur, when she had taken control of albeit, a few aspects of her life, she became aware of a feeling or more accurately a lack of feeling. This sense came over her often; she knew she was living, ostensibly breathing but taking no joy in anything made her feel less than alive.
After all the men, the drugs, the laughter and forgetting, the destructive aspirations, all the murderous intentions towards herself, the mayhem wreaked of her own mind it was just her, empty.
For most of her life, her body had seemed irrelevant to her. She had no awareness of it. After college, she encountered a condition whereby she couldn’t feed herself. Her mind would draw a blank. In college, despite the less-than- tempting food served in the dining halls, it was at the very least, taken care of. Now she had no idea what to do, as if she had regressed to being an infant unable to sustain herself.
She would starve herself. Unable to decide what to eat, unable to function as a human being, she would wind up in a kind of self-perpetuating paralysis. Getting weaker from hunger, she would then be completely unable to think straight or have the energy to go out and seek food. Her boyfriend would be gone all day and he would come home to find her mute, numb and bewildered.
It was impossible to sustain this disorder. It could only lead to bad things, and she knew this. Death was one thing, but there were many stops along the way that this take her. She attempted to get to the bottom of it, but found herself wholly in the dark, unable to understand her body’s resistance to sustenance and her mind’s decision to boycott existence. So it became a matter of ignoring it and pretending it wasn’t there, by not allowing herself get to the point of no return. The only way to do this was to eat; not ‘think’ about eating or what to eat, but just to put the first thing available into her mouth, chew and swallow.
She was at a yard sale when her eyes fell on an old 1970’s Kenwood food mixer. It seemed to invoke limitless possibilities so she picked it up for three dollars. She tried to pinpoint what it was she actually remembered enjoying eating. Someone told her lentils were really easy to make. She liked lentils. She looked up recipes. She tried to make lentils and just leave it in the fridge.
Hummus was easy to eat; she supposed she liked it just fine, but it was expensive to buy small tubs of. She looked up recipes and used the old Kenwood mixer. Breaking the homogenous paste that was hummus down into its components, then going out and purchasing them individually – tahini, some garlic, chickpeas – felt oddly satisfying.
Watching everything then become homogenous, as the blades of the mixer wore them down into a liquefied form was exciting. It tasted like nothing she had ever tasted before. After the hummus, she embarked on a culinary journey. She got cookbooks and experimented with her own version of falafels, inviting her friends over for ‘falafel parties’ where the idea was to load up on condiments of your own choosing. She made lemon drop soup, quiche from scratch and pan-fried filet steaks for her boyfriend.
It was like her father was never closer.
Sara had heard her father was ‘somewhere in London or the Netherlands’. That was the only information she had had about him in years, and it stayed permanently swirling in the mist in her head; an errant piece of knowledge that could mean everything to someone, but meant nothing to her. And yet it was all she had, so she held onto it.
She moved to London eventually from her college town in the U.S.A. She imagined she could run into her father at anytime. He could be walking down Goodge Street and there she would be face-to-face with him. And then what? She had no notions beyond this; she didn’t even know if the thought of running into him was something she was happy about. It just haunted her.
About a year after Sara had re-located, she was looking for a flat and saw a listing in the paper that said 2 bedroom, Finsbury Park. Must Be Seen. Call Billy. Immediately that part of her mind that created these fantasies started buzzing. She knew he had dabbled in property in Australia. This could be him. Billy wasn’t a common name as such.
‘Allo? Hi I’m inquring about the property in Finsbury Park? The 2 bedroom?
Aoo Yeah that’s already gone Ahm afraid.
It was the darndest thing. His accent was Australian. She tried to keep him on the phone as long as possible as her heart thumped inanely in her chest. It was him! It had to be him! She hung up the phone and stared and it. She schemed for days as to how she could meet this Billy even though the flat was gone.
She never shared these scenarios she created with anyone. This was a private madness that took her over every so often. She never rang Billy back but always looked over her shoulder when walking the streets of London in case she saw him, anywhere.
Very green walls. A jarring pistachio green. The room is not spacious or open. The ceiling seems low. They were living together as a family at the time in a small-town where he was working as a Banquet Manager in the big hotel there.
Her mother used to stay up at night sewing clothes for her dolls. She said she couldn’t sleep back then. That was when she saw a thick, black snake winding its way around his white sneakers. She screamed. Sara was three at the time, still sleeping in a cot. She couldn’t possibly remember any of this.
But she did. She remembered her father, chasing the snake through the room with the green walls. She was in her cot. His face was angry. She remembered her father cutting the head of the snake off. That was the only way to kill them.
She remembers for as long as they lived there thick droplets of blood stained the concrete floor of the green room. They never came off.
The only way she ever liked eating avocados was with lashings of lemon squeezed over it, ample salt and copious pepper. The green flesh speckled with the black and white granules comforted her. It was a taste she could always be sure of. It was odd, she thought that she never met anyone else who ate it like that or even enjoyed it when she insisted they taste it.
It was at the same table where the Calamari incident took place that she was introduced to them at the age of 16. ‘Have you had Avocados?’ ‘No,’ she replied having never even seen one. Her father looked incredulous.
He reached for the fruit bowl and extracted a green object the shape of a Russian nesting doll, and cut it in half. His hands, large and spade-like, made quick work of the lemons as he squeezed them over the avocado. He handed her the plate after peppering and salting, ‘This is the only way to eat them,’ he said.
It was the best thing she had eaten since she coming to visit him. Sixteen years later, eating avocados was a bizarre ritual. As if by doing so, she was invoking the one positive memory she had of him, the one thing he had ever given her. Every time she ate one, it was like she was putting another stitch on the massive hole she had been trying to darn her whole life, left by his absence.
Leading up to her 30’s, Sara becomes obsessed with television shows about cooking food, eating food or restaurants. In America it was Iron Chef, in London it was Gordon Ramsay and Come Dine With Me. Watching Gordon Ramsay, she imagines her father watching it too. They watch it together. They laugh together, marveling at the force of nature that is Ramsay. She is aware of how much like her father he is; loud, persuasive, aggressive, foul-tempered - passionate.
Other times, something inside her watches silently. Gordon Ramsay is her father. In one of the episodes, there is a chef named Luigi that GR has come to help. Sara wonders if ‘Luigi’ really is Luigi or is he a guy who decided he was Italian and gave himself an Italian name.
Gordon Ramsay asks him what the hell he has done to the Calamari. It’s a fucking disaster.
Gordon Ramsay says to Luigi: ‘I don’t believe you are the same young maestro I met from 30 years ago – you’ve lost your sparkle!’ She wonders if her father too has lost his sparkle from the article so long ago when his hair was thick, black and curly, his features finely carved.
Luigi terrorizes his employees: ‘Why the fuck you gotta answer back? Just give me the fucking mushrooms!’ Luigi is a ticking bomb just like Billy (Murelli). Now Luigi is her father.
Luigi’s arrogance is monumental, he says to Gordon Ramsay: ‘I’ve worked with more chefs in my 30 years than you. I’ll pit my food against you anytime’.
Sara watches Gordon Ramsey interviewing Luigi’s Italian staff and family – her imaginary father’s imaginary Italian family. The closest thing that there is to a young woman like Sara in the family, is a middle-aged Italian lady, possibly a cousin. They cook together, they live together, they eat together, they war together. ‘Likeafamily’, shouts Luigi, his fingers expressing his emotions as they waggle wildly about.
Sara becomes Alana, the middle-aged cousin. She is yelling. ‘We may be family, but I am sick of you Luigi’. Gordon Ramsay. Wants all of them to shut the fuck up. Luigi. Storms out in a huff. Snakes. Octopi emerging from Gordon Ramsay’s mouth. A scorpion attached to each finger. There she is, there’s Sara. Sara in a cot. She’s gnawing on something, as she drools. It’s a pure marble white, but rubbery and smooth. Her little gums dig eagerly into its flesh, as it bounces back with resilience. Seeking comfort. Her mouth needs soothing. Little white dots appear on the rim of her gums. An eruption.
Teeth. Bite. White flesh.
She wakes up on the couch, the distinct taste of Calamari in her mouth.
SASCHA AURORA AKHTAR, is a trans-race, multi-dimensional, sub rosa poeto/story-bot. She was patented in Pakistan. Had upgrades in pre- 9/11 U.S.A. Was released onto shelves in the U.K.Her roboto-poetics have been widely anthologised and translated into Armenian, Portuguese, Galician, Russian, Dutch and Polish. Anthologies include Cathecism: Poems for Pussy Riot (2012) andOut of Everywhere (Reality Street, 2015). She has also been part of poetry protests – Against Rape (Peony Moon, 2014), Solidarity Park Poetry – Poems for the Turkish resistance (Ed. 2013). Her most recent collection is 199 Japanese Names for Japanese Trees (Shearsman, 2016). Her fiction has appeared in STORGY, Tears In The Fence and BlazeVox. She is currently working on a book of translations for Oxford University Press due to be published in 2019.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.