Dumplings. I absolutely love them. Little parcels of joy that slip off your chopsticks before tumbling like an Olympic springboard champion head first into a bowl of soy sauce. But unlike an Olympic springboard champion, there’s no avoiding the splash and the resulting soy sauce souvenir on your work shirt. For me, they’re the ideal take away meal, which is why I decided to order myself some last Friday night.
It was just after seven o’clock; kinda late by my standards, when I called to place my order. To save time, I said I’d be in to pick them up, rather than run the risk that some hapless delivery driver would be ambling aimlessly looking for my house because the number lacks sufficient illumination. But dumplings take no time at all to cook. I’d be home again before I knew it, so I reasoned. They say pride comes before a fall. In my case, it was an intoxicating blend of confidence and hunger.
The first clue was when I rang the landline and it went through to message bank. Perhaps more significantly, the message bank made no mention of the restaurant, but was one of those automatic messages that simply advised I had reached a ‘private number’. This gave me no confidence at all and I decided to use the mobile instead. Someone answered. Better still, they showed real interest in my order, repeating it back to me so that I could be confident that it had been received in full. ‘It will be about twenty five to thirty minutes’.
These words rang in my ears. I should probably have regarded that as some kind of warning or, possibly, a sign that I should get a new phone as I’m semi-confident that having words ring in your ears is not normal. Thirty minutes was longer than I expected. But I did a quick calculation and reasoned that I’d have dinner on the table by a quarter to eight. Not ideal, but I’d forget all about it the moment I started eating. I explained to my guests that I’d need to disappear for a few minutes. I was, so I explained, keen not to keep the restaurant people waiting.
In retrospect, the signs were obvious. When I got to the restaurant, there were other people waiting to pick up their orders. Without exception, they looked absolutely and utterly miserable. Some appeared to be downright agitated. Clearly, this was a place of great unhappiness. I looked up and noticed that hanging above the cash register was a sign that read ‘Abandon hope al ye who enter here.’ I should have left then.
But, optimistic fool that I am, I enquired about my order. I was informed that they were waiting on a couple more dishes, which gave me the very real impression that my meal would be ready in a matter of moments and that I’d soon be clutching my take-away bag, swanning past the gathered hoards of the downtrodden who were gathered in the doorway. I would feel a little sorry for them, but not much.
I paid and began waiting. And waiting. And waiting. The person whose job it was to collate the takeaway orders seemed to be having a terrible time of it. She looked incredibly confused and, from time to time, she called over somebody else to stare deeply into a docket as though they were trying to solve a riddle. It was like watching an episode of ‘Survivor’ when, after starving them for weeks, they make the contestants solve a puzzle and some of them end up staring at their fingers as if they’re never seen their own hand before.
As a rule, you know you’re in trouble when the staff avoid making eye contact with you. This meant they were failing to manage the growing crowd of restless and, by this stage, incredibly hungry people waiting in the doorway. It was ages since any meal had been completed at all. I raised my hand to my chin to ponder what on earth could be going wrong when I discovered that I had grown a full beard whilst waiting. I’m not talking about a little bit of stubble, but the kind of growth that would see me get a full time job as a roadie with ZZ Top. In a mix of boredom and desperation, I began to plat my new beard.
A lady who’d arrived before me asked for her money back. They refused, claiming that her meal, much like Christmas and the apocalypse, was coming. When it arrived a few moments later, she didn’t appeared relieved. More broken. I texted my guests who had wondered how far I’d travelled to get dinner. When I told them I was just around the corner, they were shocked. As time dragged on, I began to bargain with myself. Specifically, I began to convince myself that this was not, as I feared, a really late dinner but could now be considered an early breakfast.
When my meal was finally ready, the person giving it to me said ‘sorry’. I panicked, unsure of whether he was apologizing for the colossal one hour fifteen minute wait or for the food itself. Like others, I was tempted to let him know what I really thought but, instead, took my food, began crying and offered to help out in the kitchen, as they clearly needed all the help they could get. I hope they were just having a bad night. I know I certainly was. Ultimately, I can’t stay mad at dumplings. And my first shift in the kitchen was a great success. Until we try again.