The Critic by Sala Choudhury

Ahmed looked at the battered sign above the shop window. His pride and joy, the first restaurant in the road to have neon lights. But these days not all the lights worked, his once prized possession now read “TANDOO BATI HOSE”. He put his key in the door and opened the rickety door, a waft of stale curry greeted him. He trudged through the rotting carpet and set his keys down on the bar. Ahmed was a man on the edge, he was about to lose everything if he couldn’t turn his ailing business around. More modern restaurants had popped up around him and slowly his clientele had moved on, leaving him to feed off the scraps they left him, his business losing money faster than the customers deserting him. But tonight was going to be different. Tonight was going to be the start of the rest of his life. Ahmed had called in his last favour, managing to get the local rag to send out their chief food critic to review his cuisine tonight. One good review by the Daily News and the customers would be flocking back to Ahmed’s restaurant.
The staff had arrived early as instructed, none of them happy to have been burdened in such a way. The kitchen staff, consisted of the head chef Malik, the tandoori chef Ali and the Polish kitchen porter Bartek. The front of house was made up of Ahmed’s son Altab and his lay about friend Khaled. Between them, the workforce showed an excellent resilience to anything that could be construed as work, often they were the cause of Ahmed’s regular migraines. Tonight was going to be different he told himself as he popped a pill in his mouth, this one to keep his blood pressure in check. “Right you goons” he bellowed, “tonight is a very important night for this restaurant. You could say it’s the most important night of this business’s existence. Today we will show this town, that we are the best curry house on this road”. In return he was faced with a set of blank faces. “Listen” Ahmed continued, “this is our big chance tonight. Everything has to be perfect. The food critic will be arriving sometime between 7 and 8 so we need to be ready to give him the best service we can. I want the whole place spotless, not a speck of dust anywhere”. The team shuffled off half heartedly as Ahmed took another tablet before heading off to inspect the toilets.
At 5pm Ahmed scouted his surroundings, everything was gleaming, a smile spread across his face, today everything was going to be alright. In the kitchen, Malik and Ali were already at each other’s throats. “Cut the onions finer otherwise they’ll make the gravy lumpy” shouted Malik. Ali ignored him and continued cutting the onions in his own way. This annoyed Malik, he called over Bartek and shared his woes with the Pole. A shame Bartek didn’t understand a word. Back in the front, Ahmed paced around dishing out the odd slap to his lackadaisical wait staff. His patience was wearing thin and his nerves were getting the better of him. The minutes ticked by but no customers came, Ahmed headed outside and scanned the street, the other restaurants seemed to be heaving with punters. If the critic arrived now he would see the place deserted which would paint a grim picture of his premises. He had a plan. He grabbed Bartek from the kitchen and took off his apron. “You my boy are going to pretend to be a customer, add some atmosphere to the place” he sat Bartek down on one of the chairs and thrust a menu at him.
Bartek sat at his table for over an hour picking at his cold onion bhaji, he’d been ordered to make it last until some other guests had arrived, yet there were none. It suited Bartek anyway, he couldn’t really stomach Indian food, especially after seeing how it was made by Malik and Ali.
Suddenly the door swung open, two scruffy looking men entered, Ahmed looked them up and down, they certainly weren’t food critics, they looked more like football hooligans. Ahmed instructed his son to seat them in the corner out of the way. Within minutes of their arrival a smartly dressed man appeared at the doorway. A copy of the Daily News under his arm, the man surveyed the scene with interest. Ahmed darted toward his VIP customer and laid on the charm, taking his coat and leading him to the best table. Menus appeared at the table immediately and drink orders were already being taken. He headed for the kitchen to warn his chefs only to find Malik holding Ali by the neck snarling obscenities at him. “Stop, stop, stop” Ahmed shouted as he squeezed himself between the two warring curry house heavyweights. “You’re going to ruin everything. The critic is here and we have to be at our best, not fighting amongst ourselves. If you mess this up, you are both out of a job” said an exasperated Ahmed. The chefs looked at each other disapprovingly before shuffling off to carry on with their jobs.
Altab came in with the orders from the two ruffians. He was shaking his head. “Those two idiots are asking so many questions. Doing my head in” he said.
“Oh just ignore the fools, get the food to them and get them out of the door” said Ahmed peeking through the kitchen door window to check to see if the critic was still there. The critic was kitted out in expensive looking suit and looked very much the connoisseur.

The critic made his order and Ahmed bustled in to the kitchen with the ticket held to his chest like a winning lottery ticket. “Right, one onion bhaji starter, one chicken tikka biriani and a mushroom bhaji side order. Make sure this order is perfect” ordered Ahmed. “Ali you start the onion bhajee, let me finish off the other tables mains” said Malik. Ahmed over heard and intervened. “No, Malik you start the VIP order, here give me the pan, let me sort this hooligans out, they are so drunk they probably won’t notice the difference” and with that Ahmed took over the pan and splashed some sauce and stirred it for a second before adding as many spices as he could find at hand before clumsily pouring it on to a plate. He then left the plate on the preparation area, one of the biggest sins a chef could ever commit, but tonight was too important for Ahmed to waste his precious time on a couple of yobs.

The two hooligans had finished their mains as the critic was served his starters. With any luck they would be gone soon thought Ahmed as he popped another pill. In the kitchen things had taken a turn for the worse. Bartek had finished his meal and snuck back in when no one was looking. But now he found himself in the middle of Ali and Malik both waving their knives at each other. “I told you to cut the onions thinner you uneducated fool” Malik shouted at his nemesis.
“I cut them how I want you village idiot” retorted Ali. Both men squared up to each other, their knives dangerously close. Just as it looked like things would come to a head Khaled walked in to save the day. “Yo yo yo, chill boys, what’s up with the tension? Listen I got an idea yeah, why don’t we have a little competition. Let’s see who can cut the most onions in 30 seconds” he said. The two enemies looked at each other.
“No problem” said a snarling Ali.
“Let me put the Biriani on and then I’m going to show this idiot how an onion is cut” shouted Malik. Khaled called Altab in the kitchen to start proceedings. Malik insisted on starting. He got his large knife out and wiped it clean with a filthy cloth. He spat out some of the beetle nut he had been chewing and started peeling his onion frantically. Once Khaled gave him the go ahead he started chopping furiously. One down, it wasn’t long before the second was cut in to perfect small pieces as he started his third, Ali began to worry.

Ahmed was just about to start a discussion on property prices in the area when he heard an almighty howl come from the kitchen. He excused himself from the critics table and headed for the kitchen, someone was going to get hurt tonight. Unfortunately for Ahmed, someone had already been hurt, it was Malik, he’d sliced off the top of his finger. The others stood around gobsmacked as Malik screamed in pain, blood projecting from his finger covering the kitchen. Ahmed had to take control of the situation. “Right Khaled, take Malik to the hospital, take hurry up before the man dies. Make sure you use the back door. Bartek, clean this blood up now. Altab get rid of those hooligans and then give the critic another glass of wine on the house. Ali start the mushroom bhaji, I’ll finish the biriani”.

Ahmed took the onions, some blood still on them and tossed them in to a pan. He then began to stir the pan carefully adding spices and left them to simmer. “Ali, finish the biriani off” he said. He then straightened his tie and headed back out to the dining room. Altab was busy clearing the other table and the critic was happily sipping on his wine. Ahmed fiddled around behind the bar before the bell on the counter rang to tell him that the main course was ready. He rushed in to the kitchen, scooped the dishes up and placed them on the trolley and glided out of the door. The aroma from the biriani smelt wonderful and looked even better. Not wanting to out stay his welcome he wished the critic an enjoyable meal and then retreated back to the kitchen.

“Good job Ali” he said to his tandoori chef, he’d stepped up at the time of need and he deserved some praise. Altab walked in with the phone in his hand. “Dad, it’s Khaled, the doctors are asking if we know where the top of Malik’s finger is, they might be able to sew it back on”. Ahmed looked around the kitchen, he couldn’t see anything. “Tell Khaled we will call him back” said Ahmed as he started to scout the area around him. “Where was Malik standing when it happened” he asked.
“Over there at that counter, he was cutting the onions” said Ali.
“Which onions?” asked Ahmed, hoping they weren’t the ones he’d put in the biriani.
“The onions you put in the biriani” replied Ali. There was silence.
“Oh shit” yelped Ahmed and all three headed for the dining room.

The critic looked up at the huddle of figures at the doorway before taking another spoonful of briani. Suddenly he stopped chewing, his face went blue, he was trying to cough but nothing was coming out. “He’s choking” cried Ahmed as they all rushed toward him. Ahmed tried to take charge of the situation again. He pulled the critic out of his chair and grabbed him around the waist, he attempted the Heimlich maneuver but his foot slipped and the two fell crashing to the floor, the critics head bouncing off the table in the process. “Oh my god he’s dead” screamed Ali. Ahmed go to his feet, the critic lay prone on the floor. Altab started to panic. “He’d dead. He’s dead. Dad you killed him. Dad you killed him” cried the boy almost in tears.

Ahmed straightened himself up. “Right Ali, bring the car round the back. Altab close the shop and turn the lights off” said Ahmed.
“But Dad you just killed him. We have to call the police”
“Shut up you fool. He’s not dead, he’s unconscious. We’ll just take his body dump it in the woods somewhere and when he comes to in the morning he won’t have a clue what happened. If the cops come we’ll tell them he ate and left and we don’t know what happened to him” Ahmed said not quite believing the words coming out of his mouth. But these were truly desperate times and desperate measures were needed. He looked across at Altab who looked equally unconvinced. “Grab one of his legs” ordered Ahmed, he then took the other and the two dragged the comatose body through the kitchen to the back door where Ali had parked the car. The three men then hoisted the rather heavy critic in to the boot of the car and slammed it shut.

Suddenly Bartek appeared at the back of the door clutching his stomach. He didn’t suspect a thing thought Ahmed catching a whiff of whatever had died in the toilet . “You look ill Bartek. Please take the night off. We’ll see you tomorrow”. Bartek looked shocked but he wasn’t going to waste this opportunity to go home and get pissed, he was out the door like a shot. As Bartek’s slender frame vanished in to the night Ahmed jumped in the car and revved the engine, Ali and Altab joined him once the premises were locked. He swung the car out on to the main road only to hit the breaks hard as a drunk walked out in front of him, the car inches from colliding with him. Ahmed beeped his horn furiously as the drunk steadied himself on the car bonnet. Ahmed recognized the scrote, it was the hooligan from earlier in the night, he jumped out of the car and headed toward him. The drunk recognized Ahmed and gave him a smile before letting out a burp. “Alright mate” he slurred. Ahmed was in no mood for niceties.
“Get off my car” he shouted.
“No worries mate” said the drunk as he moved off. “Nice food by the way”
“Whatever” said Ahmed with a touch of disdain as he headed back to the car.
“You’ll definitely be getting a top review in tomorrow’s edition” shouted the drunk as he stumbled toward the pavement. Ahmed froze in his tracks. He ran back to the drunk.
“Are you telling me you’re the critic from the Daily News? He asked.
“Yes mate. Good job, loved the food” he slurred before staggering off to take a leak in the doorway of the local bookies.

Ahmed was shocked. His mind was racing, he was delighted, all was not lost, the critic loved the food. He was going to get a decent write up, this night had turned out to be better than expected. Suddenly a thud from the boot of his car broke him away from his thoughts. If the drunk was the critic, then who was in his boot?