Chinese cleaver

Last week I wrote about situations that I’ve encountered that have literary potential.   Today I’d like to focus on one of the characters I’ve met who has made a similarly lasting impression on me.

His name was Moon.  I don’t know if this was his real name, an onomatopoeic approximation of his real name, or a translation of it.  Perhaps he had adopted a simple, monosyllabic appellation because he was fed up with people’s mispronunciation of his real name all of the time.

He was a Chinese chef in the takeaway that I worked in as a student when I returned to Spalding for the holidays.  Unlike Henry Pang, the lithe, diminutive owner of the business (and married to Hilary, a Lincolnshire lass through and through), Moon was massive, tall and broad, with big bones and – no pun intended – a large round moon face.

Other than the shop, he had no home.  He slept on a mattress in the store-room above it.  The premises were situated in one of the eighteenth century terraced buildings in New Road, and perennially dark.  The ground floor of the building was divided into two: the shop at the front; the kitchen behind it.  Moon seemed to spend all of his time in the kitchen or the store-room.  He never went out.  It occurs to me now that he may have been an illegal immigrant.

He never spoke to me and I didn’t know how much English he understood.  He took the orders from a menu that I had marked up.  He never cooked the wrong dishes, but I wondered if he could read what was there or whether Henry had helped him to memorise which items occurred where on the list.

Moon was a dab hand with a cleaver.  The one that he used was massive and rarely out of his sight.  He would take it in his huge fleshy hand and cut mushrooms and chestnuts into exquisite wafer-thin slivers.

Business was brisk at the takeaway on Fridays and Saturdays, but often slack on other days, especially Mondays and Tuesdays.  Then I would sit in the shop from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. with nothing to do but read a book.  Moon would wait in the kitchen.

My friend Mandy, who had taken a year out between school and college and was working in the public library, would sometimes call in for a chat on her way home from work – or on her way to spend an evening in the pub with our other friends.  I was already fascinated by the Jack the Ripper stories and had ordered from the library a book that had just been published about them.  (Here I pause to pay tribute to the tiny library in Henrietta Street, which throughout my school and student years never failed to get for me a book that I requested, however arcane the topic.)  We opened the book at the photographs and shuddered at the picture of Mary Jane Kelly’s intestines draped around the room in which she had died.

Moon appeared, to see who was with me in the shop.  He stood in the doorway for a few moments, clutching his cleaver, before disappearing again into the murk of the kitchen.

Mandy had at least as vivid an imagination as I:  “Never mind Jack the Ripper,” she said as she was leaving, “what about Moon the Ripper?”

I spent the rest of the evening sitting on my stool in trepidation, scared to look at the book any more, hoping that Moon was too busy chopping mushrooms to be entertaining murkier thoughts of the uses to which he might put his cleaver.