the golden leaf
The woman and her associate smile at you, of course, as you approach their upright desk – under the ebony archway, with its inlaid ivory throughout. Mammoth tusks you are told later, delivered to China in their hundreds for the ivory carvers. There is one on a pedestal inside, an entire tusk carved with a descending procession of elephants and tigers, dragons and women in carriages and on foot. One hundred and eighty two women with black hair and delicate ears. Rosebud mouths.
A chain is suspended between two elephants; you are allowed to blow on it only softly, because the chain moves. All the links are carved from an ivory rib.
They seat you at the worst table, of course, the one by by the entrance, and they approve of a husband who takes the worst chair from his wife. A small man in the plain brown uniform of a table-server attends to the unfolding of the serviettes and their placement. Thank you. Every other diner in the room can look now on and appraise their visitor’s demeanour, because that is what we are in this room – and at times they look delighted at the comic confoundment that appears on our faces when we are asked to choose from the menu. I ask the brown uniform what a degustation is in cantonese and we receive the first natural smile of the day, he is amused and takes his smile to the trolly where he prepares a meal for another table.
And no to tea, and yes to that rare Californian riesling, almost sweet, with a Pacific fizz. Thank you.
There are four people at the best table. One man is dressed in a white suit and open shirt, he has rings on both his hands and his black hair is swept back slick. Sitting opposite him are his lawyer and accountant, next to them his assistant. Two women and one man. He is talking to all of them and nobody dares object to the anger in his tone; the ranting abuse of a wealthy man who pays them all to work their trades for his betterment and then to listen to his public dissatisfaction with what they have done, so far.
The lawyer does not look up from his notes, his assistant waits for an angry glance, and the accountant bears the entire cannonade. The slick black hair is rude and overbearing, his noise is distracting, he dresses like Andy Lau will when he’s sixty and drinking a bottle of whisky a day.
The food sings it way in, and down. Nothing can be left and the riesling lasts the entire two hours, and by now we have befriended all the men; there is this Australian way they enjoy, provided it is given dead-pan and at the right time. If we could speak their language we would play cards tonight.
Samuel attended, the manager, and it was him I asked if I could take a photo, ‘ Of course,’ he said.
‘Of everyone if possible. Do you think?’
He was already calling the staff over, and I caught the eye of an older friend from another day so he came over as well. So we all gathered by the mirror, and from there I commanded them all to smile.
It had been a very good day.