The fire breaks out before you taste the soup.
Like most disasters, it starts off as something innocuous: the sight of the much feted chef, pink finger-nailed like a baby, toque askew, storming out of the kitchen and sprinting for the exit. The waiters, bow-tied and slick-haired, follow him, taking quick steps instead of running, impeccable manners to the last. This display bemuses you, makes you wonder if this is a common sight here; a hint of melodrama to go with the Michelin stars.
That’s when you see the smoke billowing out of the double doors of the kitchen. It makes its way to your table and overpowers the gentle smokiness your soup is supposed to be infused with. A hint of smoke, the menu said. You get a lungful.
There is a scramble for the exit as men and women push each other out of the way, half-chewed morsels of food dribbling down their chins. You hear screams and scattered refrains of prayers half-remembered from childhood. You are young and dexterous so you dodge the hurtling bodies, duck underneath a flying elbow, tiptoe past the velvety curtains and make it to the landing outside.
Then the lights go out.
Visible in the sudden darkness is the fire, inching closer like the breath of hellhounds. It makes you push the people in front of you but the crowd on the landing is immovable. You remember the torch in the pocket of your parka. You take it out, flick the tiny switch and understand why the chef and the waiters made a run for it. The staircase is narrow, a bottleneck, a twisted metal bridge that can only accommodate a single person at a time.
The faces of your fellow patrons are illuminated as they look around to see the source of this light. They look like people in the throes of enlightenment, being shown the path to their survival. A semblance of order takes hold and they start walking down. You smile at your own quick thinking and move to join the line. A hand grips your forearm.
‘No, you wait.’
You move the light to this person’s face. Old lady. Half-moon glasses, severe hair swept up like a burst of cotton candy, a clutch of pearls around a delicate neck.
‘Shine the light down there! Let those people see the staircase!’
You obey her because she speaks in a voice that is used to being obeyed.
‘Listen to her, young man,’ Someone else says. ‘Stay there until everyone gets out.’
‘What about me?’ You ask, but the person is gone, making a beeline for the staircase that is visible only because you are standing there in the path of the approaching fire with a torch in your hand.
‘I need to go!’
‘Don’t we all?’ The old woman whispers in your ear. She smells of pickles and strawberries. It is enough to make you squirm in her claws.
‘Hush, boy. Quit twitching like a rabbit and stay still. Wait with me. We’ll bring up the rear.’
She squeezes your arm. The parka starts melting on your body like hot wax from a candle.
‘I don’t want to die!’
‘I’m not suicidal either, my dear.’
This is wit so dry you’re afraid the fire will sniff out the two of you.
‘Talk to me, dear. Why were you eating alone? I saw you sitting there by your lonesome self. Shame to come to a place like this and dine alone, you know.’
There’s more smoke now, swirling eddies of it that engulf you and make you light-headed. You think, foolishly, that she’s a sphinx, that she will let you go if you answer.
‘It’s my birthday.’
‘A celebration, eh? What are you, an electrician?’
She hoots with mad laughter.
‘That explains the torch now, doesn’t it? Is this is your first time here?’
‘I’ve been coming here since the place started. Do you know how many times it has caught fire before?’
Her breath is hot on your face, or perhaps it’s not her breath but the heat of the blaze behind her.
‘A dozen times! You saw that chef. He ran away like he’s been doing it his whole life. Do you know why?’
‘Because he has been doing it his whole life, that’s why.’
She cackles again. Something acrid stings your nose. Burning wires. You should be running but you have a question of your own now. When you speak, you sound like a person who has spent a lifetime smoking cigarettes.
‘Why do you come back?’
She leans in even closer and you know, even if you can’t see, that she’s winking at you.
‘The food is excellent. Don’t you think so?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t get the chance before…’
‘That’s a shame. But don’t worry. There will always be a next time.’
‘Not if we die now.’
‘We’re not going to die, sonny. Stay calm. I’ve been in this place before when it has caught fire and I’m still alive, aren’t I?’
A loud crash from the dining hall makes you jump; with your feet off the landing, it’s like being thrust into the middle of a cloud.
‘Let’s go, please! I think everyone is gone.’
You peer into the darkness beside you with leaking eyes. All you see is a wall of smoke with the fire licking its edges, itching to get to you.
You hear her laughter again, mirthless, teasing, coming from a level below, its owner already halfway down the stairs.
Ajay Patri is a writer and lawyer from Bangalore, India. His work has appeared in Eunoia Review, Spelk, Cleaver Magazine, Every Day Fiction, among others.
–Art by Milton G. (Paradise Found)