by Justin Fenech
“I’ve never had someone break down crying on me before.”
“It’s alright sweetheart.”
The room was dark and the darkness red. It smelt of jasmine but the taste you got on your mouth was that of stale cigarettes. Maggie was sat on the edge of the bed beside the chef. She was still naked. Her body fit smugly into the darkness, though she wasn’t dark, not as dark as the Thais, the chef had thought upon seeing her, the way she sat on the bed she looked like a snaking question mark doubting the darkness.
She asked the chef if he was alright. His crying had subsided now. There are as many possibilities as there are men, she thought. Are you alright? I’m fine I’m fine – I’m really sorry about this, not my finest hour.
“What’s the matter though?” The chef was awakened from his vale-of-tears stupor by her accent; a schizophrenic concoction of Asian and Australian. It was charming but at times unbearably sweet like the smell of cooked butter.
“I’m remembering when I was a boy.” He began, trying to talk like a man. He was certainly built like a man, Maggie thought. He was old, yes, in his sixties maybe, has grey hairs on his chest and a fine shaved head. But he’s slim, his biceps well-defined, and his skin is smooth; she’s been with men half his age with more wrinkles than he has on his testicles. His testicles… she was trying not to look at them now, just as one tries not to look straight into the sun.
“What about it?” She asked now with a hint of frustration like a hint of fruitiness in a fruity wine.
When I was a boy, back in Malta. He struggled through his tears. I’m Maltese you see, my parents came out to Australia when I was nine. I remember my dad and I swimming on this rocky beach. Oh it’s just beautiful, old colonial villas lined the street behind you and in front of you is the most beautiful city on earth, Valletta. You should see it Maggie, it’s like a limestone whale. My dad and I would go there every day in summer. He was real athletic he was, he was a chef like me. Like I am now. We would dive in together, then I’d climb on his shoulders and he’d throw me off. We’d race, even though he was scared of getting cramps, but he didn’t care, we almost swum it all the way to Valletta.
Isn’t it just? Then we’d go back up for a breather, he’d have a beer and I’d have a ftira – that’s like a sandwich but with this real tough Maltese bread full of capers and olives. Then he’d take a knife out of his cooler and we’d go looking for sea-urchins, diving in the shallows, between the rocks, and plucking them out of their little enclave – they’re tough bastards they are, have you ever tried it?
“No, we didn’t swim a lot in Vietnam.”
Shame, love. He said now somehow more composed yet dazed, so dazed Maggie was beginning to think he was on something. The thought of it scared her. She’d had her share of violent men before. Then we’d go back up, put all the sea-urchins in a bucket of sea water and my dad would begin plucking them out of their shell with the knife. At first I didn’t want to try them, come on, he said, if they kill you you’ll die happy, believe me. And he was right. My God they taste just like the sea! He laughed.
“Feeling better?” Maggie asked now with a pinch of impatience in her voice.
“Yeah, I guess. I’m really sorry about this love.”
“You want to try again?”
“Might as well, get my money’s worth eh.”
They tried again, but the chef wasn’t paying attention to her body. Only once, when he thrust himself inside her and felt her wetness. It reminded him of diving into the sea.
The water in Ta’ Xbiex was translucent at eight in the morning. The sun was rising from behind the giant dome protruding out of Valletta. The chef has just dived in. It was cold, it was always cold first thing in the morning. But he enjoyed feeling like a bird. He could turn, dive, jump, float, flip – the water gave him wings. Truly. When he dived, eyes red and wide open, he saw a patchwork of anemones waving on the rocky surface, and the horizon beyond a hazy, happy blue like an ethereal screen. Climbing back up, his ears popping, he felt his body entirely weightless. It was the most exciting thing he had ever felt. And he dived back in over and over again just to feel once more those seconds of floating perfection.
Time to go up so we dry off, his dad told him. Reluctantly, but not unhappy since he knew they’d come again tomorrow, he would climb up the rocks, put a towel around him, and sit on the water’s edge. Whilst his dad packed everything up and finished his last morning beer he would stare, mesmerised, at the water lapping against the different-coloured rocks. He would think and ask child-like questions, what makes the waves move, where does wind come from, and if the water is blue because of the sky, why is the sky blue? He noticed the colours of the rocks; some black, some grey, some an amber brown. The brown rocks seemed to be the weakest for they were the most eroded. Some of them were under the water level and he remembered now, suddenly, what he used to call them: beehives in the water. That’s what the eroded rock looked like, pitted like a beehive.
“Just like a beehive.”
“Sorry Maggie.” The chef apologised and stopped again.
He sat on the edge of the bed again but this time he wasn’t crying. Maggie stayed on her back a few minutes, huffing, thinking about charging him extra.
“I’m sorry about this. I’ll pay you extra for wasting your time.”
Bingo, Maggie thought. I can afford it, the chef told her. No shit, she said to herself.
I couldn’t always. He sighed as she sat next to him, arms and legs crossed so she looked like a tangle of knotted ropes. Is that right? She asked surprised. Too right, when I was small we had nothing. My dad worked as a cook in a small restaurant and my mother was on benefits. Why’d you think we went swimming every day – it was free, wasn’t it?
That’s awful. I don’t think it is, Maggie. Those were the best years of my life. He started going weak again. We had almost nothing. There was nothing to be had in Malta back then. But what I wouldn’t give, just wouldn’t give to have those days back. You’re doing alright now, aren’t you? For what it’s fucking worth. I’ve got my own restaurant in Melbourne and it’s making me a killing; and I’m killing back, believe me love, when you’re raised like I was, you know how to enjoy your money. I can tell, Maggie looked at herself then winked at him. But it’s not worth a damn thing. You’re dead wrong there, love.
I miss Malta. I miss its sea, the rocks, the sea-urchins. Why don’t you go back for a holiday there? I haven’t been there since we left almost fifty years ago now. So it’s high-time you went! See some family. I don’t know anyone back there, everyone’s died. My mother used to keep in touch with them, but she’s passed on as well now. And your dad? He died a few years back. Heart-attack. I’m sorry. So am I.
The chef looked at Maggie and saw she was getting impatient. “I’ll stop wasting your time, love.” He got up and went for his clothes. What do I owe you? You don’t have to rush. You’re not interested, I’ll be on my way. I am interested, actually. Come on, sit down a while longer. She patted the bed and the chef, looking quizzical, sat down. It’s not every day you get to do a good thing for someone in this job. You do a good thing all the time. It doesn’t feel like it, she sighed. But anyway, tell me more about Malta. I know some people in Melbourne who are Maltese but they don’t talk much about it.
He told her everything he knows about Malta and all the while she noticed him growing happier, more at ease. She thinks she knows why. She tells him: it’s not every day you get to unload with a prostitute, is it? She smiled. Shut up – don’t say a word, I realise how that sounds, she held out a hand and laughed. He laughed too. Too bloody right, this is something to write home about. It’s something to tell your kids about, she laughed. He stopped laughing. He didn’t have any kids, she realised. She changed the subject. He didn’t want to. I’ve got no one, he thought. Then out loud, he said, you’re the only person I’ve ever told any of this to. Some piece of work I am, right?
Stop wallowing in the past, Maggie slapped him jokingly on the shoulder. Listen, when you were a kid playing with your dad you never once in a million years thought you were making lifelong memories, right? If you want to find happiness, look right under your nose, mate. She said now sounding more Australian than Asian. You can’t recapture the past, but you can make new memories, can’t you? It’s all we can bloody well do.
She spoke passionately and the chef didn’t want to say anything to contradict her. It would be like turning a Shakespearean sonnet into a rap song. He left it at that.
“I best be heading off love. But thank you, thank you so much for your words, your patience, and all that.” He got dressed and she walked with him to the door, covered in a black satin robe. Half-covered, that is.
As they stood by the door they kissed on the cheeks and whispered a fond bye-bye as she pulled the door to.
He walked out of the apartment block and back into the sunny Melbourne day. He stopped suddenly, as if he were about to have a heart-attack. That made him think. Think bad thoughts. My dad was only a few years older than I am now when he died. That’s what I wanted to tell Maggie but just couldn’t. When you’ve got more years behind you than you have ahead of you, you don’t have the will to make new memories. What’s the point? Memories are made to be remembered, not snuffed out as soon as they are conceived.
No, memories are pointless now. And even if I made any, who would I share them with? I’ve got no family, no kids, no wife… all I’ve got is a bored prostitute. No, it’s pointless. I’ll have to stick to what I’ve got now. The memories I have now, that’s it, that’s all I’ve got. But they fucking hurt. I know in life we’re always living in the past, always looking back. But when you look back and all you see is a trail of death, starting from your home country, to the sea, to your father, to your mother and ultimately and finally to you… I don’t know how I can bear it.
In the streets of Saigon a girl waits to cross the road. The motor-cycles, rickshaws and vans rush past like a grey waterfall. She waits. She’s on her own but she remembers what her mother told her. Go gradually, inch by inch, like when your brother plays soldiers. She goes across the first lane and almost bumps into a bicycle going past. She stops halfway and the traffic zooms around her, her jet-black hair bops to and fro and she’s smiling in the middle of the carnage. The last few lanes now, the traffic’s going slow, go go, weaving behind and in front of bikes and cars like a snake through the grass, she gets to the other side, to the market, and now is the easy part. She has to remember her way through the labyrinthine market. But it’s alright, she knows it like the back of her tiny hand. She goes past vendors selling soups and seafood, men and women in conical hats selling bits of meat, crafts and everything under the rising sun. She’s hungry and she can’t wait, can’t wait, she goes faster, she begins to run, weaving this time in and around people’s legs, they’re not angry, they all know her, and the tourists find her charming, better a happily running child then, you know, the napalm.
She finally makes it to her mother’s stall. Her mother is sat on the floor around a large pot. She greets her, already looking tired in her conical hat; she’d been there since six in the morning. The girl never hears her going out. Can I have some can I have some? The girl begs and bops in front of the pot. Her mother sternly yields and she begins pouring her out a bowl. The girl takes the bowl eagerly and sits with it on the unpaved floor. She was happy then, eating her mother’s beef pho at her mother’s side. It’s the best thing you can eat, full of fresh beef, oxtail, ginger, bean sprouts and noodles and god-and-mummy knows what else.
As long as the girl has her pho and her mother, she’s ecstatically happy. And she knows now that she will never be happy unless she can find her mother and have pho with her. But she never will, her mother sold her off because the pho wasn’t making her enough money, she sold her off to some men when she turned fourteen and she’s been living in Australia since. She would never be happy again because even if she were to find her mother again she hates her too much to eat pho peacefully at her side now.
But at least today you did some good. You helped out a nice old man. At least, you’re doing some good. I just wish he’d bothered to ask me about my childhood.