Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'All that remains for Matthew's loved ones is to sit back and wait for the first, inevitable row'
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The Independent Online

Lined up on a kitchen surface, as if waiting inspection by the Relish Regiment's sergeant major, are 12 pristine jars of Patak's chilli pickle. This is because Matthew is preparing for his annual Tandoori Chicken Diet.

I knew that a TCD was imminent because recently I found him contemplating his navel. Foolishly, I asked what he was doing. "I'm cleaning the spark plugs on this 1967 Aston Martin Lagonda," he said, a little sharply. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm attempting to gauge the extent of my obesity."

Even more foolishly, I asked if he had considered using scales and he gave me his "are-you-genuinely-certifiable-or-are-you-just-trying-to-irritate-me?" look and then shrieked: "Scales? Scales? How can I possibly get on the scales? If I went on the scales, the shock would send me to bed for a week. I cannot go on the scales until I am under 13 stone."

"And how will you know when you are under 13 stone unless you have been on the scales?" I asked.

"Oh I'll know," said Matthew. "Don't you worry about that. I'll know. And it will be sooner than you think."

What happens with the TCD is this: Matthew will eat nothing but a small cherry tomato for lunch, along with five, possibly six, if he is very peckish, sunflower seeds and one prune. He will drink water throughout the day and a glass of V8 juice at tea-time. Then at 6pm he will pick up the phone and order clay-baked tandoori chicken breasts from a local restaurant that delivers.

There have been times when he has kept himself on the TCD for so long that I have been worried he might turn tandoori-coloured. Eight years ago, after two months on the diet, he flew to Australia and at 11pm that night the doorbell went. I put my head out of an upstairs window to hear a frantic young Bangladeshi shouting: "Where is Matthew? We are extremely worried. He has not phoned for his breasts."

And always the diet starts in the same way - with the clearing of kitchen space to allow for the jars of whichever accompanying pickle is in vogue. Some years he has gone for lime, from 2001 to 2004 he stuck to aubergine, and for the past two years it has been chilli.

And here we are again. All that remains for Matthew's loved ones to do now is sit back and wait for the first, inevitable row with whichever purveyor of tandoori has been selected to provide this year's chicken.

The first row has taken place. It happened within an hour of the first order being made. "I've fallen out with Aziz," reported Matthew, more in sorrow than in anger, when Louis and I arrived home to find a brown paper bag by the front door. One of Matthew's rules is that if a tandoori isn't up to the mark, it must be returned. A phone call is made registering the complaint and the bag is placed by the door awaiting collection. "What was wrong?" I asked. "Greasy?"

"No," said Matthew. "It was dry. In fact, it was burnt." He looked very miserable. This was a bad start to this year's TCD and the parade of as yet unopened chilli pickle jars glinting on the kitchen surface were not helping.

"Who have you ordered from instead?" I asked. "No one," he said. "I've fallen out with all the others over the years. Aziz really was my last hope."

"What about the Kathmandu Inn?" said Louis, sitting next to his father and taking hold of his hand to comfort him. "No good, I'm afraid," said Matthew. "Lovely chaps but we fell out in October over that shamefully overcooked brinjal bhaji. No, I can't call them."

"The Star of India," I offered. "Two hours to deliver a chicken jalfrezi in August. Terrible shouting match ensued." He was almost tearful at the memory.

"Taj Mahal?" said Louis. "Which one?" countered Matthew. "Acton or Hammersmith?" "Acton," said Louis.

"They used stale oil for the poppadoms last time." "OK then, Hammersmith," said Louis. "They charged an extra £2 for the mint sauce."

And so it went on. Long silences interrupted by Louis or I shouting "Akash?!" or "Pyasa?!" or "Panahar?! Finally I could see that I had no choice but to invoke a name from Matthew's dim and distant past. "Isn't it time you called the Ajanta?" I said.

Neither of us can remember how Matthew and the Ajanta, his stalwart Indian restaurant from 1988 to 1998, were rent asunder - something to do with over-salted okra, possibly.

"Do you really think I could phone them after all this time?" he asked, colouring with excitement. "Yes!" cried Louis and I. "Go on. Just make that call."

And so he did. He was on the phone for 35 minutes. "Yes, my son is nearly 10 now. Of course, of course you remember him as a baby. Goodness, is it really that long. And how's Rahila. No, she's never 20..."

When he'd finished and I asked how it had gone, he said: "They were so overjoyed to hear from me that if they weren't such good Hindus, they'd be slaughtering the fatted calf at this very moment."

Forty minutes later, the food arrived. Matthew removed the top from the carton and pressed his index finger into a chicken breast. "Perfect," he cried. "Now where's the... well would you bloody believe it: they've forgotten the mint sauce." Instinctively, he headed for the phone but then he turned. "Nah," he said. "Not tonight. I'll let them off tonight."