An extract from Barrie Sherwood’s new novel, The Macanese Pro-Wrestler’s Cookbook, published by Penguin on 17 November 2021.
Lunch service: total drag. It had been weeks since we’d had a full house, and this was more than partly my fault. I have to admit that while I was dreaming of a future as a celebrity chef, I was getting a little indolente around the Mar Azul. Letting things go, if I ever really had them in hand. As I said, when Mãe and Pai passed away, I gave up wrestling and came home to Macau to keep the restaurant going. I felt it was something I should do, and by then my knees were shot anyway. But my initial enthusiasm for learning on the job somehow never seemed to translate into savoir faire. Cooking is one thing, but running a restaurant? That’s something else.
By 2 p.m., the place was almost empty. I was leaning on the cash register and reminiscing about California and Donna, making an elaborate pretence of going through the day’s numbers if Stanley or one of the waiters came by. Manny and his lunch-date were at one of the window tables. From time to time, I’d glance over at them. The nyonya was a thirty-something in black slacks and a cream blouse, who only picked at a salad. I caught the occasional snippet of conversation and I could tell she was local from her mix of sharp Cantonese and silky Portuguese. I could almost have believed they were on a date date—however unlikely that would be for Manny—but the vibe of their conversation was too intense. This nyonya was all business, explaining something complex, her fingernails making visible imprints on the tablecloth whenever she made a point.
Jing Jing interrupted my surveillance. (She may be my titi-dinha and I miss her dearly, but I don’t mind saying that she used to break my balls.) She came into the dining room, still in her red and white checked apron, Chesterfield hanging from her lip, waving a chit in my face. I took a glance, signed it, put it with the other chits held by a clothes-peg in the drawer, and went looking for Spanish brandy down in the cellar. All I found were empty boxes.
Stanley came down the creaking stairs for a case of Sagres, but there was none of that either. I told him to make do with Tsingtao and asked if we had any more brandy.
He shook his head, picked up a case of Tsingtao and headed back up the stairs without even looking at me. ‘Order brandy, have brandy,’ he said. ‘Don’t order brandy—’
‘Thank you, Confucius. Just add a case of Fundador to tomorrow’s order, will you?’ I followed him back up, found a bottle of cheap liu-pun in the patio bar, and took it to the kitchen.
Jing Jing’s upper lip curled when she saw it. She practically ripped the cigarette out of her mouth. ‘What in hell is that? That’s not Fundador.’
‘That’s not even brandy,’ she snarled.
‘We only use Fundador for the dishes, Zeke. How many times—’
‘Like anyone can tell when it’s on fire?’
She turned away, cussing and shaking her head. Anywhere else, she’d be your favourite auntie, spoiling you rotten with her patience and treats, but in the kitchen, she was a witch—nasty and magical.
‘Titi please, I’ll have more tomorrow. Come on. The cooks can make do for one night, no?’
She muttered something about standards, and never suffering as much, and how making do was not a viable way of life. She snatched the bottle from me. ‘You make do choosing your wife too? And what about the extractor hood? And the low-boys? When are you getting someone to fix them? All I got now is the walk-in.’
‘I’ll repair them myself.’
‘Aiya! Like your car? When are you going to start pulling it together? Cannot agak-agak everything!’
When I crept back to the dining room, I was surprised to find it empty. Manny and the nyonya were gone. It was unlike Manny to leave without handshakes all around, effusive praise for Jing Jing in the kitchen, a patient word about current affairs with Ah Kwong. I remember going to the window but there was no one in the garden; the lawn, the gravel path, the bench beneath the frangipani, all were empty. On their table were two untouched bebinca de leite in pools of caramel. No bill, no cash. But beneath one of the napkins, there was a car key, the chunky black and chrome fob for Manny’s Peugeot.
At the patio bar, Stanley was slicing fruit for sangria.
‘Stanley, has Manny left already?’
He nodded towards the front. ‘Just went out.’
I walked through the almost empty front room. The only person left in there was Ah Kwong, my most loyal customer. He was a retired banker and an old friend of my mother’s, maybe even an old flame, I’m not sure, and don’t want to be. Five days a week, his maid walked him over to the Mar Azul from his house on the point. Always dressed in tweeds, he sat at one of the tables in the front room, poring over the newspapers that had suddenly become an obsession when he had an aneurism a couple years before. Perhaps, he’s still sitting there now. I sure hope so.
‘Macau loses to Hong Kong in badminton,’ he told me. ‘Gaming revenue up this month. New private hospital to begin construction.’
‘Thanks, Ah Kwong,’ I said, and squeezed his shoulder as I went past.
Beyond the front door, it was bright May sunshine and low clouds out there over the Pearl River Delta. I ducked under the banana leaves sawing at one another in the wind and went through the gate. Up ahead, I could see Manny walking down the parking lot beneath the casuarina trees, on his way to his white sedan.
‘Eh, Manny!’ I started jogging after him, then slowed down to a walk. Like I said, my knees.
‘Manny!’ I called again.
He heard me and turned around. I held up the fob for his Peugeot. ‘You won’t get far without this.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Too much on my mind,’ he said as I approached. ‘I just came out to get my phone.’ He went to the driver’s side door. ‘Pop the lock, will you?’
I pointed the fob at his pristine white car and pressed the button.