HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

DEEP-ENDDINING

Deep End Dining

It is pyrotechnic dining, eating on a tightrope, fish as a circus stunt, no net. See chef Motoyuki Akahori bow, his serious smile, a flash of bleached teeth. Notice the imperceptible twitch of his wrist that sends the fugu hiki spinning up behind his back, high, higher, sharp, pointed, descending in a tumbling, glittering tornado, till he snatches the knife handle out of the air and the flinching diners remember how to breathe. See the fish on the marble slab, bloated, scaleless, still pulsing, grunting. For the torafugu – the tiger blowfish – it’s a toss-up. Is it death by a thousand cuts or death by letting the oxygen in? And for the diners?

  • * *

Perdita isn’t thinking about fugu fish.
She is preparing sashimi for her husband, Adam. It may be the last meal they will ever eat together, but she hopelessly, proactively wishes for a new beginning. It may be too late. She knows this, but she does not let herself believe it.
Perdita is using her grandmother’s boning knife, a sliver of silver worked against a carborundum stone over the years into a thin smile. On a wooden board that will forever smell of fish she’s laid out pale farmed salmon cutlets, purple meaty tuna, and sea bass, flaky, grey, stuck with needle-bones.
She cuts the fish. She fans the raw slices immaculately on a flat square tray. She remembers. She remembers being eighteen, their first real date (they’d slept together twice, but she hadn’t met his friends). She remembers a window like an endless waterfall of black glass. They studied themselves in it, her in a beaded vest, 501s, cheap Indian jewellery, Adam behind her, stooping slightly, setting his head on top of hers so she looked like a strange two-headed creature. She remembers the downward pressure of his chin on her skull, the painful pleasure of it.
She’d never been inside a Japanese restaurant. The shoes in their cubby-holes at the entrance, the low tables, mats and cushions, the shininess of gold and black lacquer, the square precision of it all was marvellous to her, exotic. The other guests in their dining pit were old university friends of Adam’s. One was a camp gay man, another a Chinese physicist. The women – Erica, Beryl, Pauline, Ursula – seemed hard, sophisticated, knowing. They wore short skirts that rode up as they squatted, serious chunky earrings, thick bands of eyeliner, toenails painted blue or brown.
As to Perdita, she was to be the entertainment, of a sort. Adam displayed her wonder, her naďveté and youth with a flourish. She was perfectly capable of wielding chopsticks, but for him she pretended helplessness, so he would snake a strong arm around her back, insinuate it against her breast and manipulate her hand with his, raising it to her mouth. He fed her morsels of raw fish smeared with eye-watering horseradish. He wiped her mouth with her napkin in her hand, in his. He was her Geppetto. He tipped hot shots of saké into her. And for him she became soft, silly, ignorant.
Perdita wonders if Adam remembers this, or whether he’d say, “but I’ve been to so many restaurants. How am I expected to remember one night?” or “I can’t believe how poorly educated you were – you pronounced Nietzsche Night-chee and thought the Kyoto treaty was a Japanese dessert. I was embarrassed by you” or (with a weary sigh), “Yes, I remember. That fluffy act was attractive … when you were eighteen.”
But still, this night, she prepares sushi for him. The room is almost ready, the candles yet unlit. Perdita lays out six limp grey prawns by the stove top. She pours a golden pan of oil, sifts cornflour and baking powder for the tempura batter.
She washes her hands at the sink, raises them to her face. The smell of fish lingers and sticks.

  • * *

A deadly dose of fugu tetrodotoxin can dance on the head of a pin, a hundred thousand times more potent than cocaine, a thousand times more lethal than cyanide.
So chef Motoyuki Akahori coolly evaluates his audience, at their waiting horseshoe table.
Neophytes! He dismisses a groom and his supporters out for a prenuptial dare, swaying slightly. The pair of pale American reporters twitching for the notepads in their back pockets hold more interest – how strange men are that they would rather face death than die of embarrassment. And the not-so-young businessman with the exquisite companion – see how she has turned her bowl over, placed an elegant hand on top. See the man turn it back, capture her hand in both of his, look into her face, long and deep.
It is the fat Buddha-man with the greedy eyes who concerns him. One such gourmand once did the rounds of every fugu restaurant in Tokyo in a single afternoon. Luckily Motoyuki Akahori was not the last to serve him.
See the chef’s fingers flex and stretch. They dance to the silent keening of the fish.
Let the chef wait. Let him concentrate, calculate the exact titration of poison that will gift his guests a faint tingling of the lips, a dry mouth, a heightened, mellow euphoria.
For without that buzz, fugu flesh is pale, bland, subtle as the fragrance of spring rain dripping upon a stone.

  • * *

There was nothing subtle in the way Perdita discovered about the affair.
It was a simple mistake, answering Adam’s mobile while he was in the shower. The unsubtlety lay in the calculated pause of the caller after Perdita’s “Hello”, the deliberate, husky “Adam darling, is that you?” when it so patently wasn’t.
Ursula.
Intellectual Ursula with the cap of severe black hair, the parrot nose, her faint feral grubbiness covered up by heavy perfume – Tendre Poison – which gave Perdita a headache.
“But Ursula’s so unattractive,” she said to Adam. “I can’t believe you like her.”
“Who said anything about liking?”
Perdita does not, cannot understand. She knows herself capable in her working life – “a safe pair of hands”, one who “gets things done”. So why, in this most important, intimate area of her existence, does she try so hard, yet stumble every time? Why do those safe hands turn to butterfingers when she tries to hold her man?
Three weeks is a long time sleeping on a sofa with a wooden strut that digs into your back. Three weeks is perilously close to the cliff top where punishment falls into habit. Any longer, and the punisher may become the punished, while the punished walks away.
So today Perdita has decided to forgive Adam.
She broke their morning silence. “Will you be home on time tonight?”
“London Transport willing, I suppose so. Do you care?”
She expects him at seven twenty-five.
At a quarter past seven Perdita runs a bath – not hot enough to flush or sting. She adds sweet almond oil, a splash of Allure. She piles her hair up off her shoulders. She fastens heavy knots of gold in her ears. She used to love his look of concentration as he fumbled with clumsy thumbs, trying to remove the butterflies, trying not to hurt her, his massage of her reddened lobes. “Used to” … that most final of marital tenses.
At twenty past seven she undresses. There’s scented soap, a chair and soft towels by the side of the bath. She turns off the light in the hall, leaves the bathroom door ajar. When she squints through the crack she can see a line of golden light stretching across the floor to the front door of the flat.
Then Perdita climbs into the water and waits. It’s not three weeks, three months, more like three years since Adam last soaped her back. She misses the surreptitious slipping of his hands on wet oiled flesh, around, between. She feels infinitely, languorously alive.
But Adam doesn’t come. Still he doesn’t come. Perdita begins to shrivel and to chill.
She dries herself. She dresses in new black lace underwear, underwired, lifting the slight droop of her breasts. She wears a shiny black kimono robe patterned with dragons. She doesn’t put her hair up Geisha-style, with crossed chopsticks. That would be too much.
At twenty-five past nine she hears a clatter of dropped keys at the door.

  • * *

In the green murk of the restaurant tank, two torafugu circle endlessly, suspiciously. Their mouths are sewn shut with ugly zigzags of black thread. Otherwise one would slash at another with needle teeth, and both, attacker and attacked, would perish in the tainted water.
See that intrepid diner tap on the glass with his chopstick. Watch the nearer fish twitch, flex, swallow, swell, pump itself to four times the size – a tiger-blimp with cold black eyes and straining lips. See its companion cower at the transformation.
Earlier there were three.
Chef Motoyuki Akahori has chosen his fish with care. He has evaluated its age, speed, aggression, its state of sexual arousal. A fugu chef must train for seven intensive years to obtain his licence; many fail under the pressure. One miscalculation, one slip of a razor hiki, and the bridegroom, the reporters, the lovers and the gourmet would be paralysed, asphyxiated, dead (or in a death-like coma.)
With a squeeze and a waft of his knife he must temper the flesh with exactitude – less than a taste, less than a scent, merely a breath of venom. But first he must make his fish safe by removing the toxin sacs.
The poison of the fugu fish is stored in the sexual organs, male and female, and a little in the skin. But its true potency lies in the liver.

  • * *

Adam has taken in drink on his circuitous journey home. It is obvious in the care with which he moves and speaks, the slight foxing of his eyes.
“You’re late,” Perdita can’t help saying.
“So?” Adam looks down at her. “I didn’t realise I was that late. You’re ready for bed?” And, just like that, the tawdry glamour-spell of the kimono fades. It’s only a dressing gown. Perdita opens the fridge door; it cools the sudden heat of her face. There’s a slim green bottle of Pinot Gris chilling as an aperitif, fresh and lemony.
She offers Adam the bottle. But he has already dropped a couple of ice-cubes into a heavy cut glass, and poured three deep fingers of scotch.
“I need to get out of this suit,” he says, and heads for the bedroom, glass in hand. “I’m not too bothered about dinner. I had a sandwich at the station.”
Perdita goes into the lounge. Slowly, automatically, she removes the clingfilm from the sashimi, from the sushi rice, moulded and tied like little gifts on the smoked glass coffee table. She pours dark pools of teriyaki and soy into shallow bowls. She adds green coils of fiery wasabi, piquant flakes of ginger.
There is no better company than Adam when he’s interested. Perdita has prepared a list of suitable topics in case the conversation flags: small anecdotes, self-deprecatory incidents, questions to forestall his boredom. She revises them silently in her mind.
She settles the arrangement of the flowers, plumps two floor cushions. She pours steaming water into an ice bucket and sets the saké to warm.
Then Perdita lights the candles. They are banked around the room, nightlights in saucers and ashtrays, taller candles in glasses, in candlesticks and vases, on plates and trays. She lights them with a taper, starting at the back, and as she bends, she loops her long hair away from the flames with her hand.

  • * *

Watch the virtuosity of chef Motoyuki Akahori. His knifework is blinding in its speed and dexterity.
The last grunt of the fish is silenced in a single disembowelling slash. The diners cannot see how expertly he skins and fillets, scrapes and discards. The silver blade works faster than their eyes can follow.
See the evenness of the slices, as knife and flesh fly together in the air. See them fall into an intricate, ironic pattern of petals – a chrysanthemum, the flower of death – slices thin as cigarette papers, so fine that the picture on the plate can be read through them.
And if the chef is very skilled and very quick (as this one is), the flesh will yet retain a muscle memory, and the pearlescent slivers will twitch and lift upon the plate.
A garnish of limesprouts, purple hanaho petals and grated radish wreaths the centre – bright flowers on a cold grey grave.
How can one not trust such craft and care, such artistry?
Chef Motoyuki Akori bows to the bridegroom, to the American reporters, the lovers and the gastronome. “Enjoy,” he says.

  • * *

Perdita looks up from lighting the last tea-light.
Adam is standing in the doorway, absurdly young in his mild confusion, his light evening stubble. He’s wearing a blue polo shirt and jeans. The golden hair on his arms glints in the candlelight. She longs to smooth it flat, to hold his hand against her cheek.
Perdita comes close, and he touches her under the chin, lifts her face to him. It’s going to be all right, she suddenly knows. It’s all good. It will work.
“What’s all this, then?” he asks quietly. He gestures at her, at the room. “All this … stuff?” “Don’t you remember?”
“Not like this.”
Perdita stands beside him in the doorway. Her magic room of seduction, of apology, of commemoration has turned into a horrendous embarrassment. She wishes herself away.
She sees it now through his eyes, the banks of votive candles in their mismatched pots, overblown chrysanthemums bleeding crimson petals onto the carpet, vigil seats. And in the centre the dark rectangular coffin, crowded with funeral meats, with unguents in bowls, with dead white flakes and green wasabi worms, waiting hopelessly for the visit of the sin-eater.
She looks at Adam. She is suddenly conscious of her half-nakedness, the opened gown, her white breasts offered on the black lace shelves of her bra. She pulls her robe closed and clutches at it with both hands.
Adam places his palms together and bows lightly. “Ah, so.” He looks at her. He looks at the room, at the tomb-table.
There is a flash of white teeth as his thin lips curl an elegant smile.
“Ah, so,” he says, and bows again. “Cold fish.”