ReadingRoom

Short story: Butter Chicken, by Serie Barford

"Will our ills be cured? Will our feet carry us? For how long?": a be-kind story set in Henderson by West Auckland writer Serie Barford.

I learned to drive a tractor when I was a kid feeding out hay with my cousins on a dairy farm down the line. I drive everything like a tractor, including my rusty 1993 Nissan Terrano. It leaks, shudders when driven faster than 80 kilometres an hour, doesn’t park easily in the city and has blind spots. The radio sort of works. Sometimes. I haven’t used the tape deck for years. I keep the Nissan because it belonged to my late partner and I can’t afford to upgrade. At least I know what’s broken and what’s been fixed. Better the devil you know .....

Credit cards and bank loans rewired my electrically unsafe house, reimbursed the leak detector and plumber who sorted out months of insane water bills, installed a new toilet, paid for surgery in a private hospital when the public hospital waiting list threatened my life, and splurged on shoes with heels I won’t wear down if the ‘Big C’ doesn’t go away. Now I’m eyeing repairs for a leaky shower, rotten floorboards and a concrete tiled roof that’s been left to its own devices for over sixty years, just in case I outsmart this disease and live long enough to fall through the floor or get knocked out by a collapsed ceiling.

I realise I’m well off. Privileged. Lucky. Most days I wake up grateful because I actually woke up, have family, friends, a home, a job and food to last the week. So I admit to feeling shocked when a homeless man begging for his supper took pity on me today.

I’d been grocery shopping in my local mall. It’s run down and losing customers to bigger and brighter complexes. Major clothing brands have relocated. Cheap dollar shops and manicure stations reeking of chemicals abound. Even a well established pharmacy has moved out. The rent is exorbitant for retailers in this depressed part of town.

I was loading groceries into my waka when a dazed young man with missing teeth and a pronounced limp crashed out of bushes bordering the carpark, stood over me and asked for money.  

Sorry,” I replied. “I use Eftpos. Don’t carry cash.”

He held out his hand. “Lend me your card.”

“No way!”

"I’ll go to an Eftpos machine with you.” Nah. How about I get you a meal? Whatever you like.”

Butter Chicken?”

Where do we get it?”

He pointed toward the main street.  I nodded. “Let’s go.”

“You’ll walk with me?”

“Yup.”

*

I generally treat strangers well. It’s both a habit and an insurance policy. I grew up in a three generation household that adopted people for life if they had nowhere to go on Christmas Day and were smart enough to voraciously compliment the cook. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” my grandmother used to say. “For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

That’s how I ended up with a runaway living at my place a few years ago. He was escaping his P-manufacturing father, truancy officers and Social Welfare. Nice kid. Polite and grateful for things my own kids took for granted. One of his father’s associates eventually tracked him down, injured my dog, broke into my house and tried to wring information out of me.

“He’s not here!” I screamed, ducking and running for the kitchen door when the lout attempted to slug me with his fist.

I keep a knife in the herb barrel outside my back door and had no intention of being taken hostage or spilling the beans. I’m old school. Was carrying a pocket knife with a pressed linen and lace handkerchief in my top pocket before I could read a chapter book on my own. That’s what Brownies did back in the day. I was leader of the Gnomes. Brown Owl taught us to be prepared. One never knew when a knife or hanky would come in handy.

The young henchman soon ran off, screaming “You’re a fucken crazy, dangerous bitch!” 

I replanted the knife between basil and oregano then visited my neighbours, demanding to know why they hadn’t rushed over when they heard the commotion. I forgave them  when it became apparent that no one had realised what was happening. One neighbour had been vacuumming, another was plugged into headphones, one family hadn’t been home at the time and my closest neighbour thought I was arguing with my partner.

“We don’t scream at each other,” I informed her. “We drink wine and sulk.”

*

Now I live alone in a decluttered house. A surgeon wielding a scalpel skilfully attacked carcinogenic intruders that breached my defences, reshaped my silhouette and stitched me up water tight and ready for chemotherapy. I’ve finally been brought me to my knees. I can’t eat because everything tastes like metal, my tongue is dead and my digestive tract is writhing like an injured worm. I can barely sip water and keep it down.

We walked slowly down the road. Two halting figures. One full of sores and limping, the other bald and dragging feet weighted by fatigue.

How’s the chemo going?

“It’s pretty disgusting.”

We laughed.

“How’s things for you?”       

My life’s better than yours.” I detected pity. Stopped walking and stared at him, a scrawny youth in filthy combat gear, hungry, drugged up and sleeping rough but truly grateful he wasn’t me. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Auē!”

I wondered if he was an angel in disguise and had discerned something about me that I didn’t already know. Perhaps an invisible expiry date scribbled across my widow’s peak. Or aneurysms shifting like lithospheric plates, poised and ready to rupture my exposed fontanelle. Maybe even the fate of my loved ones.

"Are you matakite?”   

“Nah.”

“You can tell me. Sometimes I have the second sight. It comes and goes. It’s in both sides of the family.”

He looked at me sideways and grinned. “Freaky.”

Anyone watching would have thought we were well acquainted but we were in a zone established by rapport, the recognition of a stranger’s suffering, the acknowledgement of another person on this planet defiantly flipping the birdie without knowing what tomorrow will bring. Will it be hollower and harder than today? Will our ills be cured? Will our feet carry us? For how long?

*

There are days when I believe in medicine, miracles and remission. I’ve cultivated what doctors call a ‘positive attitude.’ Eschew an illness identity. Yet there are other days when my future feels as intact as Humpty Dumpty after his ignominious fall from a castle’s parapet.

I glanced at my companion. “What do you know about cancer?”

Shsssssh. Don’t go there.”

We hobbled past a plaque declaring the town was founded in 1844.

“One of my grandmother’s was born in the 1800’s,” I said. “In 1897, at Karamea, down the South Island. She was child number thirteen.”

She must be really old.”

She’s dead!”

Ngai Tahu?”

“Ngati Scot and Ngati Shetland. I’ve got a picture of the old family croft they left behind in Lerwick.”

“What’s a croft?”

“A stone house.”

Posh?”

Um, pretty basic really.”

What about your other grandmother?”

“She’s passed too.”

What kinda house did she grow up in?"

“A thatched one. A fale in Samoa.”

He laughed. “Really?” I could see him looking for traces of my Polynesian heritage. Zoning in on my pale skin and blue eyes.

“I used to have big frizzy hair. Before chemo. What about you? Your whanau?”

“They’re the reason you’re buying me Butter Chicken.”

*

We limped over the bridge, past vacant buildings, bolts of fia fia fabric, a barber shop warning anyone who can read that a 24 hour CCTV system is operating, a Thai takeaway and an eatery promising tasty Indo Chinese, Fijian & Indian cuisine.

“Prawn Malabari, Paneer Koliwada, Chicken Lollipop, Goan Fish Curry, Bombay Aloo, Fiji Style Roti, Chopsuey, Chowmein. Oooooh! Sounds tasty. Is this the place?”

Keep walking.”

*

We hadn’t walked far but I was already tiring. There were memorial headstone shops on either side of the road, both of them promising easy payment plans and free shipping to Pacific Islands. I’ve already bought my burial plot. I’ll be facing east with a nice view of the ocean. I haven’t sorted a headstone yet. Don’t want to tempt fate.

My companion turned into a doorway and walked through a dimly lit room full of tables toward a man who warily asked, “Two for Butter Chicken with rice today?”

Just one for my friend,” I replied. “And anything else he feels like.”

I’ll have a drink and some naan bread too.”

“Good. Eat up my friend.”

He smiled. "You feeling crook?”

“A bit. I’ll head home. Sorry I can’t join you. The food looks great.”

“No worries. Take care. You look like shit.”

I laughed. “You too!”

I hugged him goodbye and just for a moment, I was back on my uncle’s farm, cutting open hay bales, pocketing the twine and locking eyes with sentient beings who deserved so much more than what I was dishing out to them.

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