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Look what you made me do! (July 2009)
Ray and his mother work together in one kitchen. Not very well.

When I heard about Ray chopping off his thumb with a meat-axe, I could empathise. The end of my index finder twinged in sympathy when I heard the story.

In a busy kitchen, with five cooks, you go through a lot of kitchen towels. Geoff was too cheap to supply enough, so we would always run out of clean cloths about an hour before the service rush started. Then you would start wiping your knife on paper towel, until the paper towel dispenser rattled empty. It got a bit feral after that.

One lunchtime, as the first order came in, I grabbed the breadknife. I was doing some sort of salad dish that needed a series of croutons sliced from a breadstick. The knife was sticky, with fruit residue on the blade. Quickly I rinsed it off and grabbed a paper towel. Pinching the blade between the folded paper and my fingers, I pulled the blade through, a fast drying/wiping process.

But somehow the paper caught on the blade, and dragged the top of my finger over the moving serrated edge. Effortlessly I sliced off the top 3 mm of my finger, and a torrent of blood poured out.

Cursing, I rinsed the bleeding, now flat-topped finger. The dockets starting mounting, the other cooks went into service-mode, and here was me mucking around in the corner. I couldn't get it to stop bleeding, much less wrap it up.

It took two people to bind me, get a condom-like device over the top of the bulky bandage. No stopping, of course, just keep working......

What had I been doing? Oh yes, the salad...the croutons....the knife. I went back to the bench, and grabbed the knife. Stuck to the middle of the blade, pink and healthy-looking, was the top of my finger.

But Ray's story sounded more dramatic than that, and I called in the next day to see him.

Ray had his own restaurant. It wasn't going well, and so he was doing most of the prep by himself, with his mother Rosa helping. But Ray and Rosa argued all the time. For one thing, he worked her hard. Ray was never a generous employer. Even though it was his mother, helping him out, he slave-drove her, and paid her badly. She returned the favour, infuriating him by constantly telling him what to do. Given it was his restaurant, and she was at best an ordinary home-cook, he used to find it really irritating. Not a day went by without them shrieking at each other. Of course, the arrangement was never going to work without friction.

Anyway, this day, Ray was getting a fish stock started. Ray made everything from scratch, so he was working through a box of fish carcases. They were fleshy skeletons, the fillets removed. There were some really big ones in the mix, and he was roughly chopping them to fit the pieces better into the stockpot.

Over in the corner, his Mum was nagging him. "Raymond, you shouldn't be making this fish stock. It's too much work, and it stinks. No one likes your soup, anyway. Make goulash. People love goulash....", and so on.

They were both pretty mercurial, and Ray would bite back, and the arguing would ebb and flow while they worked. The last fish carcase was beauty, its head as big as a man's, and Ray stuck his thumb inside its mouth to hold the skeleton steady on the chopping block.

You can see it coming, of course, but Ray didn't. His mother launched into a long tirade, and Ray, meat-axe upraised, shouted, "Will you just SHUT UP!?", bringing the axe down as he shouted at her.

Actually, what he said was, "Will you SHUT UAAAARRRRRRGH!!!!". In looking away as he shouted at his mother, his aim changed, and he brought the axe down through the fish head, but also through his thumb, severing it at a sharp angle that included his entire fingernail.

To add to the insult, the crushed skull gave him a savage bite in the process.

"Look what you made me do!", he screamed at her, holding up his gushing thumb. He pirouetted on the spot, holding his hand, clearly panicking.

In the corner Rosa participated in the chaos by standing there, swaying from side to side, screaming crazily, arms outstretched, head back.

That's when Martin walked in. It was Martin who told me the story. Encountering these two shrieking, capering lunatics, he was horrified, but kept a clear head. Two doors down was a video-hire store, but the owner, Martin knew, had been a surgeon in Vietnam before arriving here as a refugee.

"Quick," he ordered Ray as soon as Ray showed him the extent of the injury, "Tan's shop!"

Holding his hand in front of him, Ray ran out the door, trailing blood, Martin right behind him.

They made a dramatic entrance into the video store, but Tan, who knew Martin and Ray quite well, was on the ball. Martin winced, and Ray screamed, as Tan unwrapped the greasy towel Ray had wrapped around his thumb, and the blood gushed again. Tan pursed his lips, and rattled off some instructions to his wife, who scampered off. Rapidly he worked to stem the bleeding, but at the same time said to Martin, "Where is the piece? He will need microsurgery."

Martin gaped at him for a second, then took off at a run, back to the restaurant, bursting back into the kitchen.

A neat cook, if not very creative, Rosa had cleaned up the mess, and sniffling piteously, was washing her hands in the sink. Behind her, the spotless bench gleamed.

"Where's the finger!", Martin shouted at her, noticing, in horror, that she had topped up the stock pot and turned on the gas. "Rosa!", he shouted, "Is Ray's finger in here?". The fish stock had started to warm, and was already going through its first blush of cloudiness.

Without thinking, he plunged his arm into the lukewarm brew, and, gagging, felt through the nightmarish soup of jagged bones, eyes, spikes and spines and good old-fashioned, slippery gobs of flesh. Turning to shout at Ray's Mum again, he noticed the rubbish bin next to the bench, and realised that Rosa had simply dumped what Ray had left on the bench into the bin. His sodden sleeve cascading fishy water, he dropped to his knees and scrabbled through the sloppy food scraps.

The thumb was easy to find, still inside the fish's mouth. He grabbed it, wrapped it in a paper towel and ran, and got to the video store just as the ambulance pulled up. Martin handed over his prize, Ray was bundled off, and, amazingly, his thumb was sewn back on.

I wasn't sure how much of this was true, and called in one morning, just before lunch, to see Ray.

He was back at work...no rest for an owner, injured or not...and had this hilariously big bandage wrapped around his finger, as big as an apple. He'd also wrapped waterproof tape around that. He looked like Little Jack Horner.

We chatted, with Rosa interrupting with her comments along the way. Whenever she spoke, Ray would shout at her, and jerked his thumb at her in an insulting gesture. It lost some of its offensive effectiveness by the ridiculousness of the massive bandage.

He was in mid-sentence when he opened the oven to slide in a small platter with a chicken breast on it, and paused, to scream. He shut the oven door, took a deep breath, and continued the conversation.

The heat from the oven, when it hit the raw ends of the damaged nerves in his bandaged thumb, was excruciating. Rosa scoffed at him, accusing him of exaggerating how much it hurt.

"If anyone asks me what happened, I tell them my mother did this to me!", he shouted furiously at her.

"Go ahead," she hissed back. "The only reason a mother would do that to her son is when he plays with himself too much! They will all know you for what you are!!"

I left them to it.
©Ian Buchanan June 2009
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