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oops, an argument (July 2009)
oops, an argument ©Ian Buchanan July 2009
My first meeting with Pati, he brought a body guard. That wasn't so much about me: I hardly knew him. But he was such a crook that there were quite a few people keen to catch up with him to have a bit of a chat, and the body guard was becoming a necessity.

I detested him. He was a slippery character, hard to catch on the phone, impossible to pin down in conversation.

The bodyguard was more for show. In fact he was really just a big man, who normally worked as a cook. Because of his size, (and, to be blunt, his ugliness), he looked the part of paid muscle. No doubt Pati paid him a pittance. Pati had a nice line in importing Indian cooks on a contract. In India the pay rate sounded amazing, but when they got out here and found they were living in a compound in the backblocks of a factory estate, working 18 hours a day with their passports held as a hostage, the gloss wore off quickly.

Pretending to be a bodyguard would be a relief...until something went wrong, of course.

My meeting was about the tandoor oven. Day one of my contract was to be shown the tandoor, and it became my albatross. In all the polished glass and stainless steel, glossy tiles and gleaming fittings of the newly built department store, out in the middle of the food hall was a small island kitchen with a tandoor oven.

Pati was the only one who responded to the tender to supply it. I suspect he actually knew nothing about it and bluffed his way through.

The brief I got was:
1. Pati had been paid in full, in advance
2. The tandoor was rubbish
3. Fix it

The tandoor was rubbish. The inside lining of clay cracked the first time it was fired up. It was hard to clean out. But worst of all, it had been made cheaply. An unforgiveable sin in retail world. The benchtop was an unpolished, easily scratched soft metal top. Already, after two test runs, it was scarred and pocked, with some rusty discolorations. Given he'd been paid for the price of a new car to build this thing, it wasn't good enough.

But he didn't seem interested in solving the problem. Twelve weeks before the store opened I was still chasing him. He missed my calls, didn't show up for appointments. When I went to his last-known address the premises were empty, junkmail rattling around inside.

My persistence paid off, though, after six weeks, and he finally deigned to make an appearance accompanied by Mahmoud the Muscle. Pati fired off orders at Mahmoud, while I stood back and sceptically watched. Awkwardly, in his new suit, Mahmoud started the processing of firing up the oven. This was to demonstrate that the tandoor worked ok, and that the cracks were "normal", which is what Pati was insisting.

As fire started, a deluge of dark smoke poured out of the small oven. I switched on the overhead exhaust and the smoke whistled up the stack. Suddenly the power cut and the exhaust stack rattled to a stop. Instantly the food hall started filling with the heavy, greasy smoke, and within 90 seconds I was explaining myself to a team of fireman. The callout fee was a couple of thousand dollars, my furious manager shouted at me later.

It wasn't me who turned off the power, of course, but that didn't seem to interest him. He was, however, fixated on my "inability" to sort out the tandoor. Pati had disappeared at the first sign of trouble, he and Mahmoud bolting before the exhaust has frictioned down to a standstill.

Weeks went by, the store opening getting closer, day by day. The eyesore of a tandoor greeted me, like a begging leper, every day when I walked in. Every day I would spend an hour at least chasing Pati, listening to some extraordinary explanation as to why he couldn't meet me today, or do anything about the tandoor.

The latest line of reasoning was that the chef we had hired had wrecked the oven. A promising claim to mine, really. Like the tandoor, Julian had been hired by someone else and passed on to me to sort out. I don't believe he wrecked the tandoor, but he was certainly capable of doing that.

One day I noticed a grey-faced woman, her arms folded awkwardly, standing on the shop floor.

"Who's that?", I asked, to be told it was Julian's wife.

"Julian," I went and asked him, "Is that your wife over there?", pointing to her. She was looking at us anxiously.

"Yes, it is".

"Is there something wrong? Why is she here? You're here for another three hours aren't you?"

He answered, "She works at the cafe around the corner. She fell and broke her arm, but they are too busy to take her to hospital. She is waiting for me to take her."

Now before you judge me harshly, because you might think I am a heavy-handed sort of person when I tell you I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and ran him through the door, shouting, "Take her to the bloody doctor, you imbecile!", bear in mind Julian and I had a bit of history.

In his three months of employment he had taken 29 sick days, he had been responsible for three confirmed cases of food poisoning through bad food handling, $100 had disappeared from his register twice and two kitchen staff had complained about him to me. I had had 12 separate formal warning sessions with him and a HR person in attendance, and after every single session the HR person had said "Oh! I forgot! I was supposed to blah blah". We needed three formal warnings, but of the twelve none had counted so far.

The store-opening workload became more and more frantic, and I started clocking up 18 hours days, sleeping at work, becoming exhausted and ill in the process. I lost my voice, two days before the store opening, and could only hoarsely croak. Which was unfortunate, because I had finally got Pati to meet with me about the tandoor.

We stood outside the little cooking island, and croaking, I went through the problems with the tandoor.

Pati listened indifferently. When I had finished, he looked me in the eye.

"What can you do?", he said, contemptuously, "You've paid me already. I don't care what you say anymore. Mahmoud, we are leaving," he curtly said to his attendant.

As I said, I wouldn't want you to think I am like this all the time, but my overwork, his dishonesty and contempt combusted explosively. I grabbed him by his shirt front, and dragged him into the cooking area.

I went through the problems inside the oven, helping him understand the issue by shoving his head inside. He struggled wildly, but I had him by the neck and was perhaps empowered by a sense of outrage that gave me extra strength. Dragging him out, I showed him, close up, and repeatedly, the problems with the bench top. The banging of his forehead kept in time with my diatribe. Mahmoud bolted at the first sign of trouble.

My boss came running over, hearing the commotion. In true Japanese fashion, he exclaimed, ‘Oh dear, an argument", and quietly went away.

Swinging Pati around, I pinned him against the wall, and went through the issues, and what I wanted him to do, punctuating each point by jabbing him in the chest with my finger.

"Ok, Ok, I will fix it," he agreed. Suddenly his eyes darted sideways, and I paused. I looked sideways, too. We froze, in our awkward embrace.

Standing there was a cameraman and someone supervising. They were both grinning, the director gesturing with his hands, "Keep going."

My grip on Pati loosened while I was distracted. He slipped out and was gone.

I looked around for him, then back at the film crew, who, chortling, were packing up. Like a dog chasing two diverging rabbits, I froze. The store marketing manager walked up, beaming, as they scampered off.

"What are they doing?", I gargled.

Sounding like the devil, and perhaps a little ruffled by my exercise, I must have presented a less "nice" image that she was used to, and she answered, slightly less friendly now, "They are just shooting some publicity footage for the opening."

In anguish, I moaned, "They've just filmed me punching up a supplier."

The lights went off, the smile evaporated, and she chased after the film crew.

You would think that would be the last of Pati, but things had a surprising finish.

A day later, one day before the store opened, Pati rang me. Unheard of.

He had an offer I couldn't refuse. There was nothing wrong with the tandoor: He would prove it, by supplying a competent chef to run it for one month. I would pay for the chef. If the oven worked, we were square, and I would admit it was our cook that was the problem.

If the oven didn't work, he would refit it. I winced at the pay rate, knowing the chef would only see 10% of it, Pati would pocket the rest.

But Mahmoud was a pretty good cook, even if he was useless in a fight.
©Ian Buchanan July 2009
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