The China Kitchen: Chapter One

In front of my face a hand hovered. Wrinkled and lined with cracked and split fingernails, it was also dirty with the kind of filth that can only be described as ‘caked-on’.

How long I’d been crumpled behind the ‘China Kitchen’ bins, in a mess of boxes and overflowing black bin bags, was hard to tell, especially as I didn’t even know who I was anymore.

The hand brought its own problems with it. It brought the danger of others. People like this man. People who might have known me, and who might have wanted to cause me harm. Though, of course, the person may have also wanted to help me. He may have been reaching out to me with love in his heart and nothing but empathy in his reach. Still, my heart hammered in my chest. This was real fear, because I knew that when that hand neared my hair it wasn’t for reasons of empathy that his fingers were approaching me. Perhaps I knew it because of the pincer movement of those grasping digits, but I think it was more the expression on the man’s face which emerged out of the darkness, unattached from its accompanying limbs. The expression plus the noise that emerged from that weasel-like toothless visage. It was the noise of grunting, choking swine, emerging from a stinking, pointy-nosed specimen of feeble masculinity. I was sweating with fear and could barely see straight.

‘Give us your ring,’ he croaked, between wheezes.

‘And give us your necklace.’

My hand immediately rose to my neck. I couldn’t lose the gold sovereign, though I wasn’t sure precisely why. There was no reason in the whole of the world that I would just hand it over to that repulsive man.

‘No,’ I croaked, my voice low and deep.

‘Yes,’ he insisted, and his blackened finger reached down to stroke my stubbled chin. I cringed and pulled back as much as I was able. The man cackled breathily, and his gasps brought about a long, deep coughing spell. The force of his body’s spasms pushed the revolting man backwards towards the other side of the alleyway. I took my chance and stumbled to my feet, while he was still wiping his eyes of moisture and calming his overactive lungs.

I seemed to be physically unharmed, and fully dressed. I wasn’t in pain, and didn’t feel as if I’d been attacked, but I just didn’t know why I was there, what was my name, and how to get home. Judging by my clothing which was smart and brightly coloured, though somewhat stained and creased from my time behind the bins, I wasn’t a person of the streets. Unlike that wizened old man who glared at my newly upright form, who took in my clothing and scanned my height and build, and who clearly realised his own attack was pointless. I was twice his height, almost, and more than twice his breadth.

He growled a mouthful of obscenities in my direction and trudged towards the warm spot I’d just vacated, and as he mouthed his final ‘Arrogant ponce’ at me, a sliver of a memory began to return. Yes, that was it. I knew how I’d ended up in the alley behind the ‘China Kitchen’ bins, but I almost wished I’d forgotten forever.

It was the word ‘ponce’ that did it for me. Yes, I was a man who benefitted from the on-the-back work of street girls, and gradually the gaudily made-up faces of Crystal, Ellie and Jools wafted into my consciousness. My girls. Crystal, blonde and cute, with a drug habit that hasn’t yet spoiled her looks, and the tiniest feet I’ve ever seen on a grown adult. I’ve seen a fair few too, being in my line of business. I remembered Ellie and Jools, twin sisters who’d gone on the game owing to both parents abdicating all responsibility for their upkeep as soon as they turned 13. I did enjoy the company of those two. Such sweet girls, and Jools had pretty much the best sense of humour of any person in my employ. God, she should have been a stand-up comic. And Ellie, darling Ellie, could drink like a fish and hold it. She was a laugh and a half too.

With pounding head, I walked to the restaurant’s kitchen door. I didn’t knock as I knew I didn’t need to. It was my place. They were my girls, and here – the cook with the machete knife, he was mine too. Sam, the head chef, noticed my arrival and stared at me with an expression I couldn’t quite evaluate.

‘Mr Filey. Don. What’s happened?’ He began to walk towards me then realised he was still holding his knife. He replaced it on the counter top and grabbed my hand. As the knife clattered and glinted on the counter top, the other kitchen staff froze and stared in my direction, vacant-faced, like sheep on a windy night.

‘Good God, Don, you look terrible,’ said Sam.

‘I don’t know where I am.’

Sam dug around in the pocket of my overcoat and drew out an empty bottle. Vodka. I knew I’d bought it earlier that day, and suddenly I realised that the stinky man in the alley behind MY restaurant who wanted to steal MY jewellery, was nothing but a figment of MY soused imagination.

‘You’ve gotta stop drinking, Don. You’ve gotta stop drinking. Now, mate, now.’

I nodded with effort and patted Sam on the upper arm. The noise within the kitchen seemed to return, and the previously staring staff reanimated themselves. A path was cleared for me, as I trudged to the stairwell, then up towards my office. Never again, I thought. Never again.

I virtually fell onto my chair and rested my head on my mahogany desk. I looked towards my hands, and knew. Just knew that the hands I’d seen reaching for me in the alley had been my own.

Sam was right. I needed to stop drinking. I also needed to liberate my girls. Let them have their own lives. Manage my proper business again. Get organised. Take back control.

I fished in my zippered jacket pocket, found my secret key, and unlocked my largest desk drawer. The contents were as I expected. As they always were. A bottle of White Star vodka; a densely filled note book, a canvas bag that I knew contained £85,000 in £50 notes, my new passport purchased from Sly Larry only last month… And, of course, my untraceable revolver. It was down to me, and me alone, what happened next.

I unscrewed the vodka cap.