“Look, no queue. Here will do. We haven’t been here for ages, and it’s always nice.”
“Yes, great. Don’t want to spend half my lunch hour queuing. Though I think it’s changed management.”
“Oh well, let’s try the new version.”
Halfway down the busy London market street the Chinese restaurant Third Lady stood door wide open and almost empty. Gone were the days when the stream of passing humanity had diverted its steps into the premises, piling the steaming plates high, and you had to queue for 20 minutes to get anywhere near it. The small tables were still there, for they were screwed to the ground, but the thin, busy Chinese family who had run the place before had gone, no one knew where, and the appetising buffet had vanished with them, like fairy food. Now the place was run by Third Lady, or so she was known, after the restaurant. Of middle age and almost smothered in a blue overall, she was just over four feet tall with bulky, rounded, donkey shoulders and round brown anxious eyes. Laura and Julia, entering, towered over her.
“Come in, come in. Good value! Good value! Come in, come in.”
Third Lady stood guard over a small counter: niggardly chicken nuggets in a coating of soggy orange grease; hard, brown spare ribs; meagre flaps of carrot and cabbage splayed limply; biscuity prawn toast, spring rolls baked so dry as to be inedible. Gone were the days of deep tins brimming with sweet and sour sauce and the ladle free to all, the lush seaweed like a crisp green forest, the duck generously scattered with back beans, the broccoli and mushrooms and beansprouts, the tender pork and chunks of pineapple, the three kinds of rice.
The two women hovered over the choices on offer, both with faint moues of distaste.
“Can you smell something here?”
“Kind of horsey.”
“That’s the water chestnuts.”
“You try the set menu?” said Third Lady. “Choice of three courses and a drink, only £7.95. Includes a starter.”
“Sure you’re happy to go here?”
“Well, we’re here now. And I’ve got to be back quite sharply. I’ve got a meeting at 2pm… I’d be happy just with rice and some sweet and sour pork. That’s only £5.”
“They don’t have the pork any more.”
“What, no sweet and sour pork? Call themselves a Chinese?”
Third Lady was regarding them with anxiety. “Try it. Set menu good value!”
“I’m not sure I can eat that much.”
“Choice of three!”
“Oh, all right.”
“Rice or noodles?”
Laura and Julia took their heavy plates to a table. At a gesture from a waiter, they helped themselves to cans of Coke from the chiller. Another waiter was spraying and cleaning the walls, bit by bit, round the entire restaurant, in a world of his own, oblivious to the lunch hour and the few customers.
“Smell of spray doesn’t exactly enhance the cuisine.”
“No. Seems to make it the place quite chilly as well.”
And indeed it was as if the young man were spraying some kind of chill onto the walls. The women ate on, dismally.
“I think we’ll need a doggy bag for all this.”
“It used to be so brilliant here!”
“Yes, I used to come at least once a fortnight. It was delish!”
“Just popping to the loo.”
That too had not moved, at the back of the restaurant to the left, adjacent to the serving hatch. But when Laura went to wash her hands, she saw that the tiles holding the mirror had split, giving a slight crack looking onto the kitchen. And there was Third Lady, patting flour into cakes and rolling them in sesame seeds, and taking a batch of cooked ones from the oven. Her look of anxiety had gone and she was crooning and laughing to herself. “Good value! Good value!”
At a small kitchen table of white formica sat three wretched-looking Chinese men. In their ragged clothes and splitting shoes, they seemed to be in the last throes of exhaustion. With a satisfied nod, Third Lady placed the plate of little cakes in the middle of the table and they began to eat, avidly.
Third Lady stood watching them, as if waiting for something to happen. Through the crack in the wall, Laura watched also, unable to tear herself away. Then – surely not – but each man seemed to make a kind of nosedive, bending forward with back arched. Arms seemed to grow longer and to touch the floor and from each side of the head ears grew upward steadily, while dark museaus pointed forward. It was like watching a traffic accident in slow motion.
“Donkeys!” gasped Laura in horror.
There was no doubt about it. Third Lady was putting rope halters round each coarse, furry neck, and leading them out of the back door into the yard.
“You’ve been ages.” Julia was still picking valiantly at the rice.
“Julia. Don’t eat any more. Pick up your bag and walk slowly out in front of me. Do as I say.”
“Well, I’m happy to call it a day here.”
“Quick. Before she comes out again.”
But Third Lady was standing by the front door as they swept out, bowing in her blue overall.
“Thank you very much, come again soon! Remember, good value!”
“Oh, that’s the creepiest place!” said Laura.
Julia stopped in the busy street and looked at her.
“What happened? Did you see them chopping up kittens in the kitchen?”
“I was in the loo and there was a gap - ”
But it was too impossible, she could not tell. “I just feel rather sick,” she ended lamely.
“Well, I’m not surprised! So much for the new management. What a shame the old restaurant’s gone. I wonder where they went?”
“Oh God,” said Laura. “I think I know. That awful woman turned them into -”
“What, they’re in the chop suey, are they?”
“Can we stop talking about it, please. - Do you feel all right, Julia?”
“Well, we’ve got this far down the street and nothing’s happened yet. Don’t worry, Laura. I think maybe you should just ease up on the work a bit. You’ve been working quite hard lately, haven’t you?”
“Too right! It’s been manic!”
They regarded each other with some of the same anxiety with which Third Lady had regarded them. Then, linking arms, they carried on walking down the street.