My cousin Tom and I walked along Wood Street towards the Indian restaurant, ‘Delights of Delhi’. It was a typical English day in autumn: damp air, grey clouds, the streets of Swindon grey and greasy after rain.
“Been to an Indian restaurant before?” Tom asked, looking down on me as I walked at his side.
He was a head taller than I, he had the kindly air of an elder taking a youngster under his wing, and what really impressed me was that Tom was nineteen years old – and had dated girls!
“It’s a lot better than bangers and mash.” He smiled as he said this, and looked knowing.
“It’s also a test of your manliness. The hot curry I mean. Vindaloo.”
I was only fifteen. I’d attempted to kiss Betty, a tall blonde with cherubic lips. This was after soccer practice. But it hadn’t worked out. She had laughed, said I was too young for her. Now I had a chance to prove I really was a man. All I had to do was sit down in a restaurant, order the hot curry, and insert it into my mouth. Easy! Not like lunging at Betty with my lips puckered up – and missing.
We arrived at the restaurant. My cousin explained to me that Delhi was an actual place, the capital of India. I didn’t know that. There was so much I didn’t know. But then I was years younger than Tom, whom I revered as the fount of worldly experience, particularly on this momentous day.
He opened the front door. I followed. The inside of the restaurant had a strange, pungent aroma I’d never smelled before.
“That’s curry,” Tom said, noticing me wrinkling my nose.
He led the way past square tables covered in white tablecloths. Each table had four chairs. The chairs and tables were all identical. Tom chose a table next to the window, which was draped with a gauze curtain that allowed us to watch the traffic and people walking in Wood Street, but prevented them from seeing us. I appreciated the atmosphere of secrecy. It seemed to me suitable to the occasion.
We sat down, and I became conscious of tinkling music, rather like small bells ringing in the distance, accompanied by a twanging stringed instrument, and a woman chanting in a soft voice. Things were getting better and better. I looked over my shoulder to see where the music was coming from.
My cousin laughed under his breath, and said: “It’s piped.”
“Oh,” I said, unable to prevent myself from blushing at my own naiveté.
The truth was I had hoped to see a beautiful girl in a sari sitting cross-legged on a dais, watching me with almond shaped eyes made fascinating with mascara, and a little frightening too, though I’d never admit it to anyone, specially not to Tom.
A waiter, dressed in a white coat and black trousers, brought us the menu.. I’d never seen an Indian before, not close up anyway, and I tried not to stare at him.
My cousin with a world-weary expression on his face, as befitted a man who had dined often in an Indian restaurant and dated girls, pushed the menu aside, and said:
“I’ll start with the Bombay Duck.”
“Bombay Duck?” Even though the waiter had a very dark complexion, it was easy to see he was taken aback by my cousin’s order.
“Yes,” Tom said.
The Bombay Duck was served. It didn’t look like any bird I’d ever seen. Just brown strips. Tom used his fingers to pick up a strip and put it into his mouth. I saw his eyes screw up tight, and his mouth twisted sideways. He took a gulp of water.
“Have some,” he said, pushing the plate towards me.
“No thanks, I’ll wait for the Vindaloo.”
“If you daren’t eat those things, you’ll never be man enough for the Vindaloo.”
He was paying, so by rights I should have done what he said, but I stuck to my guns.
“Thanks all the same, I’ll wait.”
I got the feeling he didn’t approve of my attitude.
At last, two steaming plates of curry on rice arrived. The meat piled up in the middle of each plate gave off a strong smell of spices, and the meat itself glistened in a red sauce.
“Now we’ll see what you’re made of,” Tom said, jutting his jaw forward and staring at me in a challenging manner.
I plunged my spoon into the middle of the Vindaloo, and carried it to my mouth. The burning sensation on my tongue was so intense it left me breathless, and my vision became blurred by the tears springing to my eyes.
My cousin watched me.
“Well?” he asked.
I took a few seconds to overcome the sensation of suffocating.
“Good,” I managed to say. My voice was hoarse. I wanted to reach for the jug of water, but I stopped myself.
This was the moment. I was determined to pass the test, and prove myself a real man.