Dinner and a Show
A leering figure skulks out of the void. His hair clings to his skull and his dark eyes bear into my soul as he extends a bony hand, introducing himself as Giuseppe. A self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, he is the proud waiter, chef and owner of the slimy kitchen I find myself in. A scruffy terrier appears at his ankles. “This is Karl,” he coughs, before retreating back into the darkness.
After a long day traversing the backstreets of Thailand, I’m desperate for sustenance. A less-than-pleasant experience with local street food the night before left a literal sour taste in my mouth, and the only thing my tastebuds and intestines are craving is a hearty western meal. Thankfully, I’ve stumbled upon this hole in the wall, decorated by a torn banner promising “The best Italian food in Southern Thailand”. How can you argue with that?
Well, it’s 7:30pm on a Friday night I am the only customer in sight. The menu is so sparse that only three meals are on offer, and one of them is Pad Thai. The décor is minimalist chic, i.e. three picnic benches and peeling tangerine wall paint. The smell of decay lingers ominously, as if something (or someone) met their end here decades ago.
“This restaurant has been in my family for over 50 years,” Giuseppe says with a smile that shows off all three of his teeth. That explains the smell, I think as my mind conjures up visions of skeletal bodies being shoved underneath the sauce-stained carpet.
My head tells me to forage for food elsewhere, but my stomach protests (as does my wallet). Reluctantly, I tuck myself in to a plastic tablecloth covered bench.
Just as I am skimming the menu, two men with dark hair and even darker features sweep inside, clad in leather jackets incompatible with the Thai humidity. The outline of guns bulge in their pockets, and tattoos decorate their clenched fists.
Their heavily-lidded eyes glance in my direction, and I instantly recoil in my chair, not daring to return their gaze. Jabbing stubby fingers in the direction of the kitchen, they mutter to Giuseppe in thick Russian accents about “coming back at 11pm tonight”, before retreating into a table across the room.
“Anything to drink?” Giuseppe returns and circles the table like a vulture its prey, acting as if two potential members of the Mafia hadn’t walked in.
“Uh, just a bottle of Sprite thanks”, I stammer.
He grins sheepishly and shakes his head. “Sorry, no Sprite left.”
“A bottle of water then?”
He shakes his head again. “We had a big lunch sitting today. All out.”
Beer? Coke? Juice? Vodka straight from the bottle? I throw out suggestions of every liquid substance I could think of, all of which were met with the same response. All out.
What was this lunch sitting? I wonder. The feeding of the 5000?
Just as I am coming to terms with my impending dehydration, Giuseppe grabs his wallet and disappears into the night. “It’s okay, I get you Sprite!” he calls over his shoulder as he sprints in the direction of a fluorescent 7/11. I gulp, and glance at the Russians in the corner, deep in hushed conversation. Karl lifts his head and opens one eye lazily. Guess it’s you or me now, bud.
Left with only the likely rabid dog for company, I become increasingly aware of how suspicious my surroundings truly are. The kitchen appears unused and devoid of ingredients. In fact, the whole place looks untouched. There’s no cash register, and the rotting wooden bench in the corner is hardly a front counter.
I can see it now. Police raiding the place, seizing thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs. I’ll be arrested as an accessory to the crime, the innocent girl playing the “I’m just here to eat dinner” card. Thrown into a prison deep in the bowels of Thailand. Brilliant.
“And to eat?”
Giuseppe returns and snaps me back to reality, bottle of Sprite in hand. I feel oddly relieved to see his face.
Hastily, I order the first item on the menu: a vegetarian calzone, a seemingly safe bet. He nods and seeps back into the kitchen, once again leaving me with Karl as my social crutch.
The minutes crawl by, until finally Giuseppe reappears. He presents me with a soggy pastry on a paper plate. “Thanks,” I stammer, slicing it open to find an abundance of indistinct vegetables swimming in grey sludge.
Not even my hunger can mask the offensive taste. Half-eating, half-gagging, I force a grimacing smile as Giuseppe watches me from the kitchen. I’m guessing this is the first time he’s been required to play Michelin-star chef.
Suddenly, the Russian men stand, and call out to Giuseppe. I feel three sets of eyes fall on me as Giuseppe emerges from the kitchen and shakes both of their hands. Either they’ve just sealed a drug deal, or agreed to kill me. Or both.
“Karl! Come here!” Giuseppe calls as Karl lifts his head and ambles over. He reaches down and places a wad of Thai Baht into his mouth, before Karl slips out into the night. Great. So Karl is in on this. I feel a knot growing in my stomach, and it’s not just from the food. Every sensible bone in my body tells me to leave – even the dog is organising his own deals.
I lower my head even further, desperate to disappear. My attempts are futile, as once again Giuseppe approaches. Taking my plate out from underneath my raised fork, he ushers me to my feet.
“You go now. Or you buy,” he growls, and points in the direction of the kitchen. “You leave or you buy,” he repeats, tension rising in his voice. “You should not be here.” The men glare at me, their hands clenched in their pockets. My face flushes with adrenalin as realisation hits – I’ve unknowingly encroached upon a serious drug deal.
“I’ll go now, it’s okay, I’ll go,” I splutter. Frantically gathering myself, I fumble for some money in my wallet. I thrust the first bunch of notes my fingers find into Giuseppe’s open palm, leaving what was likely a hefty tip, before exiting as quickly as my trembling legs would carry me. I breathe a sigh of relief as I’m swept into the safety of the throngs of people parading down the dusty street.
There’s your feel-good deed for the day – supporting the struggling underground drug rings in Thailand. How charitable. Good work Sarah.
Cover by Shanny Lea