Dinner with the new neighbours

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The Independent Culture
IT DIDN'T occur to me that my life would suddenly be full of violence - that, from this moment on, I would be seeing a lot more blood, vomit, police cars and girls weeping, holding on to each other for comfort in shop doorways. I didn't think I'd get used to the sight of grown men, sometimes quite smartly dressed, taking their trousers down and running out into the middle of the road, waving their arms around, trying to stop the traffic, to climb on to the bonnets of moving cars; I wasn't expecting all that wild manic pleasure, all those poor sad bastards. No, I didn't think much about it at all. I just thought: oh, great, I'm moving down the road from a kebab shop.

I should have known, shouldn't I, that the things I'd seen in kebab shops before were not simply isolated incidents. I should have seen there was a pattern: to do with anger and boredom and inarticulacy; and a lot to do with the licensing laws in this country.

I had been into a kebab shop a couple of weeks before, very late at night, and jumped straight out, because the only person in there was an old man, standing in the middle of the floor, crying, shaking his head around, blood running out of his nose and mouth and dropping in an arc around his feet. No service - no sign of anybody behind the counter. Just a line of shish kebabs on skewers, a Tupperware tub of hummus, a glistening, rotating cone of reconstituted meat, and a sad wounded old man baying with pain. Snapshot: a kebab shop in Hackney at two in the morning.

Earlier, of course, is worse. By 2am, the area around a kebab shop often looks like the site of a recent throwing up and litter-dropping contest - and that all takes place in a short time, between 11.30pm, when the first drunks arrive, and 12.30am, when they're all fought out, all shouted out - when they crawl home, licking their wounds.

Imagine a scientific experiment in which you dragged several different groups of English drunks away from their source of alcohol, suddenly, and jammed them together in a hot room, to watch food being barbecued, slowly and with almost supernatural patience, by Turks in greasy aprons. Pretty soon, something must crack. Everybody's drunk, standing around this tight space, dying for something to happen, for the evening not to end. Think: you've sunk nine pints of lager, and you're wearing a gold necklace and a pastel polo-shirt, and your dog-slow brain is just beginning to realise that all there is left to do is buy your kebab, eat your kebab, and go to sleep. Unless . . . unless you start to do something about it.

And the people on the other side of the counter move around slowly, like tortoises, each movement expert, practised. For a man at the peak of a lager drunk, this is pretty aggravating. This is not: 'Big Mac? Thank you sir. Fries? Yes? Here you are, sir.' This is people going through the endless loops of kebab preparation, moving like robots, like clockwork. Bending down, taking a piece of pitta bread from the packet, gently tossing the bread on the griddle. And then walking over to the sweating spit of doner-material, picking up a long, curved, sharpened knife, cutting 15 identical slices of the meat compound, picking the meat compound up with a special implement, taking the lid off one of the aluminium containers, dropping the lamb stuff in, placing the implement back in exactly the same spot, at the same angle.

In the doorway, a tattooed guy, waiting for his large doner with 'plenty, fuck, yeah,' of chilli sauce, has got sick of watching this, has drifted away, about to enter the synergistic zone of drunken violence. He's giving the finger to another tattooed guy, with that stupid- slow abandon, the true dim-bulb bravery of the very drunk.

The noises are changing, turning; a sense of foreboding is seeping into the place like mist. Something - something not boring, something unlike going back home and grunting down on to your bed - is about to happen. But the man behind the counter carries on, using his precise movements. Outside, some cars have drawn up, and - oh, no - each man carries a little gilt statuette of a footballer kicking a ball. The two tattooed men are squaring up to each other, just outside the doorway.

Now, the man behind the counter turns - his internal clock tells him it's the right moment to pick up the slice of pitta bread and turn it on the griddle. Then he walks two paces to the Tupperware tubs, in which are, in this order, sliced onions, shredded lettuce, sliced white cabbage, sliced tomatoes, quarters of lemon. He touches the Tupperware tubs and straightens them up. Then he picks up a sharp knife, takes the piece of pitta off the griddle, and slices it with a single, expert movement.

And then his eyes flick, quickly, to the side - it's not his business - and then quickly back to the pitta bread, which he places in a white greaseproof bag, and takes over to the aluminium tubs full of the meat mixture he has sliced earlier. Outside, one of the tattooed men is on the ground, lying still: moments later, still unconscious, he will be surrounded by white-faced men in puce and mauve polo shirts, talking to the police; his aggressor will be sitting on the kerb, head in hands, blubbing like a child.

'Chilli sauce, sir?'

'A little.'

He moves to one of the aluminium tubs, spoons out some sauce. Do I like doner kebabs? Only if I know who the donor is. It's a silly joke, but it tells us something about our attitude to kebabs, which is: they're a bit grubby; a bit of a drunken indulgence. Who knows what's in them?

'Open or wrapped?'

The old choice. 'Open.' How can you save a kebab for later? A kebab is something you have in the heat of the moment. I pick my way through the anguished knot of people on the pavement. And walk home; these days, it takes me two minutes.-