Offshore Accounts

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Mr. Joseph Conrad, I hereby declare: I have journeyed to the heart of darkness. Black as soot, black as sin, what I have witnessed overshadows the core of Congo, eclipses the blackness of Mistah Kurtz’ dealings by the river. Darkness, Mr. Conrad, its very hub and heart, resides deep within a decrepit building in East London.

“Keep your hand on my shoulder, that’s right – shuffle along, shuffle along.”

Meet our waiter, Tom, as he guides us to our table. Tom is visually-impaired: he can’t see a speck. But that’s okay – tonight, neither can we. This is Dans le Noir? (no, don’t question that question mark), a high-concept restaurant with just-as-high prices. By suppressing the dominant sense of the sight, each person naturally starts a deep self-questioning, its website bloviated, and my friend Mehek and I ooh-ed and aah-ed at the idea. Eating in pitch darkness, how unique, how inspired! And true to word, as we stumble to our places, we find ourselves profoundly questioning… our very decision to come here.

“Okay girls, big step ahead.”

We each lift a foot and pause, swaying.

“Naw, just messin’,” Tom guffaws. “All level ahead, my lovelies.”

Table, finally. Mehek and I settle into our chairs and darkness settles around us, heavy, palpable. I decide to explore via alternate means. Circular, slightly warm: plate. Chill of steel: cutlery. Soft, woolly: napkin? Intrigued, I prod further. It’s a jacket sleeve, I realize with a sense of impending dread. And there’s an arm inside it.

“Oh, that’s quite all right,” coos the voice belonging to the sleeve. “Verynicetomeetyou. I’m Anna and this is my boyfriend, Max. We’re here on a date.”

“Like a blind date,” I remark, rather pleased with myself.

The voice pauses. “Oh no, we’ve been together ages. We’re actually here to celebrate our second anniversary.”

“No, I meant …” I offer them my heartiest congratulations instead.

Tom the waiter appears with our starters. “Dish number one, for the pret-ty one,” he sings out.

As we both reach for the platter, Mehek’s hand collides with mine. Tom chuckles – infuriating man! – and for the first time that evening, I am grateful for the dark. Crimson-cheeked, we mumble bon appetit and prepare to tuck in.

“That’s my fork,” Mehek whispers (what lies – that fork was mine). I grope about for ‘my’ cutlery, then think it best to give up. If my fingers find themselves up Anna’s sleeve again, things might get a little messy.

So, finger-first, I plunge into the abyss. It sinks into something gooey. My lip curls; I try again. Now, it slides over something cold and slick. I have visions of octopus tentacles, bird brain. I lean down and gingerly give the stuff a sniff. Mashed potatoes and buttered bean sprouts. Thank you, God.

Mains. Mehek and I entertain – or perhaps console – ourselves by guessing the components. The chewy stuff is cheese. That thing that tastes like meat but smells like fish is probably – fish. Those slippery knob-like things could either be sautéed mushrooms or goats’ eyes. Meanwhile, our neighbors have become eerily quiet.

“I think the anniversary celebrations have begun,” murmurs Mehek. Our end of the table wobbles as we shudder collectively. (Of course, it may have wobbled for other reasons…but let’s not go there.)

“How’s the food?” I ask.

“Ask my blouse, it’s had most of it.”

(We-ell, serves her right for stealing my fork.)

Dessert time. On this occasion, there is no trouble with identification: the chocolate swirls softly in our mouths and we lean back in our chairs, placated. Anna and Max have extricated themselves from each other and decide to re-engage us in conversation: she announces with a squeal that she’s dropped a cherry inside her shirt; he asks innocently whether she needs help retrieving it. Mehek and I turn to each other and begin talking loudly, desperately.

***

Weeks later, back in Pakistan, I lie sprawled on a couch watching Masterchef Australia. As Matt Preston places a dainty piece of roast squab on his tongue and begins chewing, eyes heavenward, I decide to toot a little of my own horn. Haute cuisine, I say with hauteur worthy of the Queen of England, an awakening of the senses.

My brother snorts with laughter. “You paid a hundred pounds to eat in the dark? Millions of people in Karachi do that every day!”

Point taken. You put it best, Mr. Conrad: the horror, oh the horror!

The writer is a part of Herald’s editorial team.

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