Saturday at Ambrosia

Monday Musing

[Asok Pillai]

Ambrosia restaurant, Laitumkhrah, Shillong. 1991.

Having ordered coffee and pastries, Vicky and I were sitting at a table, smoking cigarettes. I’d borrowed that day’s issue of the North East Times from the manager and was solving the crossword puzzle.

Vicky said, “See those dames near the windows?”

I lifted my gaze and scanned the room. There was a young couple at the table behind Vicky, and on the far side to my left, a couple of tables away, were two non-tribal girls having tea at a window table.

“Probably from St Mary’s,” I observed. It wasn’t unusual to find girls from St Mary’s College at Ambrosia at that time of the morning.

“Let’s ask them to join us,” Vicky said.

“Who’s going to do the asking?” I said. I thought he was joking.

“I will,” he said.

“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror?”

“You wanna bet?” Vicky challenged me.

“All right, let’s have it,” I said. “If they join us, I’ll foot the bill.”

When the waiter arrived with the order, Vicky asked him to get a piece of paper for him. The waiter brought a used receipt, blank on one side. Vicky put it on the table and borrowed my pen. He then wrote something on the slip of paper, hiding it from my line of sight with his free hand. He folded up the paper, and told the waiter to give it to the girls.

I looked on with rising trepidation as the waiter made his way between the tables. I saw him handing the note to the girls, at which point I looked away, bracing for the worst. “What the (bleep!) have you done, Vicky!’ I said through gritted teeth, not taking my eyes off my coffee cup.

I stole a glance at Vicky and I was surprised to see that he was looking in the direction of the girls and nodding, with a lopsided smile on his lips. I followed his gaze. Now the girls were smiling at him, and the waiter was returning with a smile on his face.

I had to admit I was impressed. I, too, smiled. “Man, that’s really cool!” I said, sotto voce, regarding Vicky’s crooked personality in a whole new light.

“You don’t know half of it, brother,” he said. Then he rose slowly from his chair, tipped me a nod, and was on his way towards the girls, just as the manager beckoned the waiter to the reception desk.

I waited at the table, my heart beating like drums at the prospect of a date with… I looked in their direction… the shorter one, I decided. They were both beautiful, but the shorter one was better-looking, to be honest.

In a few moments Vicky was ushering the girls towards our table from the left: and I saw the manager making his way in our direction from the right. I had no way of knowing that another aspect of Vicky’s personality disorder was about to be revealed.

I forget the manager’s name; he was a thin, decent chap, I’d guess in his early twenties. He had a passing familiarity with us – the hellos and the how-de-dos. But right then, coming towards us, turning his hips this way and that as he negotiated around the reception desk and a table, the manager had a strange look on his face. It wasn’t friendly. He was tipped out in a loose-fitting green suit. His face was beet red.

The manager reached the table just as Vicky and the girls had seated themselves. He came to a halt at Vicky’s side, flicked back the lapels of his suit jacket, and put his hands on his hips.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked.

We were surprised, naturally.

 “What’s wrong?” asked Vicky.

 “You’re not supposed to use the waiter to pass letters,” he said. “You’re not allowed to do that here.”

“Excuse me, one moment!” The tall, dusky girl spoke up all of a sudden, showing her palm to the manager, as if to halt him where he was. “How dare you speak like that! What’s wrong with this note?” She produced the slip of paper and handed it to him.

The manager took the note, read it, and his bluster flew out of the windows. He apologized profusely. “I’m – I’m very sorry, ma’am. I didn’t know. I mean, we don’t usually allow such activity-“

Vicky cut in suavely. “That will be all, I think,” he said. “We accept you apology. Now, will you send someone to take our orders?”

Deflated, the manager left the note on the table and slunk away. There was a moment of suspended animation as Vicky and I looked at each other, but I plucked the chit a split second before his palm slammed against the tabletop.

He gave the girls an awkward smile.

I would be exaggerating if I said I was taken aback by what he’d written on the back of that receipt. But it did present the insight that Vicky’s psychological makeup was perhaps more complicated than previously assumed. Of course, going strictly by his demeanour of conformity, along with associated social traits, it could be argued that he was not, at least by the existing medical standards, a case fit for psychiatric evaluation; but he was going down that road – that much even I could tell.

He’d written: You remind me so much of my late sister. Would you accept me as your brother? – Malcolm Phillips.

Well, Vicky’s sister, bless her, was very much alive and in the pink of health. And a guy called Malcolm Phillips actually existed in Shillong at the time. He had gained some sort of celebrity in the city because of his apparent resemblance to the Hollywood actor Tom Cruise. I’d never seen the guy myself, but I’d heard about him. I had no idea how far Vicky had slipped into his fantasy. He was happy imagining that he resembled a guy who resembled a third person.

I didn’t make any joke out of the chit, but I did look up at Vicky and wonder at his craziness.

Vicky introduced the girls to their other ‘brother’ – me – and said the treat was mine because “it’s his birthday today.” I was so furious while shaking their hands that I was able to catch only one of the girls’ names – Rita, the tall one, as it happened. I wasn’t really smiling, merely showing my teeth, wishing the earth would part and swallow the three of them whole.

I had guessed correctly that the girls went to St Mary’s. I was seated between Rita on my left and Vicky on my right, and the short girl was seated across the table from me. They got into a conversation about Vicky’s nonexistent interests like modelling, pumping iron, listening to music, reading, poetry… as far as I was concerned, the conversation wasn’t making any progress in any direction. I switched them off and returned to the crossword puzzle.

Somewhere down the line, Rita turned to me and asked why I was so quiet. “You’re so introverted,” she said.

“Some people say that,” I replied, seeing that she was trying to indulge me. She was a dusky Punjabi beauty, and somehow I felt a warm connection with her, despite the equation of our assumed relationship.

“I’ve read that those who speak the least have the most to say.” Rita smiled.

“You should meet me when I’m drunk,” I offered equably.

“You drink?”

“Only after sunset.”

 “What about Malcolm?”

“Who? – Oh yes, Malcolm… Now, Malcolm here doesn’t drink” – Rita gave Vicky an adoring smile – “on 29 February,” I completed. “He has a superstition about leap years.”

“What?” she gasped. “You mean-?”

“I do mean.”

“He’s joking!” Vicky jumped in quickly. “He enjoys pulling my leg. I don’t drink,” he lied, and slapped my shoulder – “Funny guy!” – the look on his face pleading No, don’t, please don’t… for a few critical seconds.

I could’ve resumed rubbing his nose in it – god knew I wanted to – but what purpose would it have served to act either dumb or smart in that company? It was a fiasco, and it wasn’t as if I was going to see those girls again once I stepped outside that restaurant, anyway. I decided not to rain on his parade.

After we’d had coffee and pastries, I turned to Vicky and said, “We have a job to do.” It was the best excuse to end the date.

He picked it up immediately. “Yes, of course! Girls, I’m really sorry, but I have a meeting at the Pinewood Hotel. So…” He shrugged, and shook his head slowly, looking helpless.

The girls said it was OK, they were happy for their brother moving on in life – some words to that effect, anyhow; I wasn’t paying attention. My mind was on the bill. As we rose to leave, so did the girls. They had to get back to class.

While I was paying the manager, Rita asked: “You’re going with Malcolm?”

“I have to,” I said; “just in case he gets mobbed.”

She backed up a little and studied my face to see if I was serious or joking. I winked.

She smiled.

And, in that moment, all seemed well with the world. (The foregoing is an excerpt from a memoir in the works.)