The Napkin Folder

1:03 am


We were strolling on a road in South London, conversing at length about where to eat. It was an assorted group of people - a friend, her friend, their old professor and me. Although we hadn’t come to a common consensus in the last three quarters of an hour, we were trudging on with patience, determined to avoid any form of plasticity in our meal that evening.

We arrived at a high street and mumbled our disapproval at a burger chain in the vicinity when the professor mentioned a Thai restaurant that she had been to many years ago. She admitted to having only a vague recollection of the restaurant’s exact location but told us that the street had reminded her of it. She started walking, as though sniffing her way towards this mysterious restaurant.

We followed because we didn’t know what else we could do. She turned into a lane and stopped outside a small two story building with orchid flower pots placed on its window sills. The building stood alone.

‘Ah. Exactly as I remember it’, she said and went inside, without looking at us.

We had to go in after that, no further discussion seemed necessary or welcome.

A waitress guided us to a table in silence. Only when we were seated did I notice that there were other people in the restaurant; the sole proof of this was their physical appearance, for no one seemed to be talking. A fan rotated with a soft hum above our heads muffling the stillness around us even more.

We studied our menus in detail but it was an exercise merely in etiquette as the professor, wide-eyed and compelling in her enthusiasm, had recommendations for each one of us – ‘ I distinctly remember the combination of coriander and red chillies in this dish– you must try it. You would love the satay padang here! Oh and I’m going to order us all some fresh coconut water – their juice is royal. ‘

After we had ordered, the others engaged themselves in a long conversation about language origins.

I was interested by the topic but the atmosphere of the place made it hard for me to concentrate, making my thoughts drift. It was then that I noticed a lady to our right, wearing a long green, high collar dress with her her hair wound up into an intricate knot.

She was surrounded by piles of white, cotton napkins, each of which she was folding in a patient and ceremonious way, into neat, little, half-boats.

I stared at her in as discrete a manner as I could manage – a steady glance from the corner of my eye. Something about her and the single-mindedness that she seemed to channel into a monotonous, repetitive job captivated me. Her face was expressionless and she seemed oblivious of the rest of the restaurant. It was as though with every napkin she folded in her dedicated, meditative way, she made the space around her a little more sacred.

I wanted a picture to commemorate that scene – the Napkin Folder, peaceful in the company of her precious little half-boats.

I took out my camera and clicked. It was a quick photo, a bad one. The light wasn’t right and the colours seemed unnatural, you couldn’t even see the Napkin Folder’s face. So I clicked again. And again. And again; falling into a sort of hypnosis, not even considering the object of my photograph anymore.

‘Excuse me’, said a voice next to me, jolting me out of my trance.

The Napkin Folder was standing next to me, her face still expressionless, without the slightest trace of a smile.

‘Can I please see the picture that you took?,’ she asked in a steady tone that was hard to refuse.

I showed her the last picture I had taken – blurry and amateur, her face still hardly visible.

‘Why do you take a picture of me that way?’ she asked.

Still a little dazed that she had crept up on me, I mumbled a reply. ‘I just wanted the scene. You were just sitting there, see?’ I gestured in the direction of the place again.

‘Yes,’ she paused, ‘but I was in the picture.’

‘Yes, but...’

‘Can you delete it, please?’

‘What? But I didn’t mean any... Yes. Of course, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.’

She didn’t say anything else and just stood waiting for me to delete the picture. She seemed to know that I would have taken more pictures and waited till I had deleted them all.

Then without a word, she returned to her table and began folding her napkins again. She gave me a glance every few minutes.

My companions had watched this exchange in a slightly embarrassed silence - I had unknowingly stirred up the stillness around us. But before we could discuss any further, thankfully, our food arrived and we immersed ourselves in it, me trying to ignore the slightly uncomfortable feeling nudging at my insides – the Napkin Folder had scared me a little.

After we finished, the professor paid the bill, ‘it’s a pleasure...please...I insist...’ and we went outside.

The moment we stepped into the street, I was hit by how noisy it was. My thoughts were still with the Napkin Folder. I had wanted her to think well of me or not at all and instead I had upset her. My friend and her friend were busy exchanging plans for the weekend. A bus came to a halt in front of us. Everything seemed loud and trivial.

I walked ahead of the group for a while, feeling the need to be alone.

‘You know. It’s funny. But she hasn’t changed at all.’ said the professor, walking up beside me.

‘Who hasn’t?’ I asked.

‘That lady who told you off... she was there when I went there twenty years ago with my husband. On that same table. Folding napkins. She hasn’t changed by the slightest margin. No signs of age. She is just exactly as I remember her...’ she trailed off.

I looked at her closely. She seemed as shocked as I was. But I could see she was telling the truth or at least what she thought to be the truth.

‘You must be mistaken. Maybe it was her mother you saw. Or an Aunt. It looked like a family business.

‘No...it was the same person. I recognized her voice. And the way she folded the napkins. It was definitely the same person.’

‘I don’t understand. Are you suggesting she’s some sort of immortal, unchanging God?’

‘Not a God. No. But...’

We walked in silence for a few minutes. There was too much to think about. Then I remembered that the professor had mentioned she had been to the restaurant before with her husband twenty years ago.

‘Was this really only the second time you have been to the restaurant? And after twenty years? How do you remember everything about it? You knew the menu almost by heart!’ I asked the professor.

‘Oh yes. We loved it. I wrote down the names of all my favourite dishes. And the food...exquisite. How could anyone forget the taste of those chillies? Yes, we really wanted to go again but you see, we weren’t able to find it. It doesn’t have a name or an address, didn’t you notice?’

‘Well...I noticed that the street it was on didn’t have a name but surely with maps and GPS...’

‘Nope. Impossible. I’ve already forgotten where it was.’

I started to laugh. This was getting ridiculous.

‘Let’s trace our steps back then. It’ll be right where it was.’

We had walked quite a distance now away from the high street.

‘No, believe me, as much as I would like to, it’s a lost battle. Jeff and I went back to the same road several times. But we could never find the place. But today, I was thinking about it...and voila. Jeff had a theory that you can only find the restaurant if you are looking for it, really and truly desiring eating there.’

‘Right. O-K. And where does the immortal goddess fit in into all this?’

‘I don’t know. I only told you all this because she made you delete those pictures. Did you even look at the pictures you took? Was she in them?’

‘Yeah! Of course...well...you couldn’t really see her face but...’

‘I don’t know. As I saw her today and remembered her from before, and especially when she came up to you... I had a strange idea that maybe she was the restaurant’s guardian. To me, her presence makes the place feel almost holy in a way.’

We were at the tube station and it was time to say goodbye.

I had barely spoken to the other girls. But it was too late now, I kissed them goodbye, I would make up for my anti-social behaviour some other time.

I went back to the same area after a few days. I retraced my steps to the high street. But even after two hours of taking every lane there, I couldn’t find the restaurant. I resolved myself to the idea that perhaps the professor had been right. That and some mysteries are not meant to be solved.

It has been two years since then. The professor moved to the U.S, and my friends and I lost contact with her.

Thinking about it, I would like to find the restaurant again; for selfish reasons – to sit there again by the large windows, eating some great food, drinking fresh coconut water, being uninterested in anyone else around me, at peace...

For such a place to exist – and I know it does exist because I have been there once - and maintain its serenity, in a city teeming with people itching to experiment with cuisine and new experiences, fast moving people up to date with the latest technologies, what else could you do but hire an immortal god, someone who folded napkins and stopped nosy people from taking photographs?

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