Month: March 2017

SHORT STORY: Alapai’s Prophecy

SHORT STORY: Alapai’s Prophecy

By Gabrielle Blondell

Alapai watches the young people enter. It is his first sight of them and he is careful with it. He makes sure to notice the one who holds the shoulders curved forward and defeated. He looks too for the one who holds them high to the ears, defensive. He knows on sight who is dating whom by the way they move together.   They sit as if their race chooses for them. Tongan with Tongan. Maori with Maori. White with white. Samoan with Samoan. Somali with Somali.

“Good morning, students,” Alapai says. “Please settle yourselves.”

He takes a whiteboard marker and writes in large letters on the board, CAROL. When he turns to face his students, some stare quizzically and some are yet to notice. He waits and very slowly the room quietens. Still, he waits, until there is no noise at all, not a voice, a cough, a scrape of a chair leg or clatter of a pencil case against a desktop.

“My name is Alapai Phillip Henare the third,” he says, his voice rising from deep in his chest. “You may call me Sir or Mr Henare. I will call you by your names as I get to know them for that is who you are and no one else.” His gaze travels over each face and then is turned back to the whiteboard. “I want you to meet someone else too,” he says. “I want you to meet Carol.”

Alapai crosses to his desk and leans against its leading edge. “The story of Carol is a long one. It will take all class to tell it to you, but you must listen because there is a question at the end you must answer and this question is the most important ever asked of you, I am sure.”

 

#

“Now I was not always the person who stands before you. I lost my job. I was a bus driver, but I drank too much. I lost my home because I couldn’t pay the bills and I lost my family because I was a worthless man. I would sit outside the fish and chip shop in my town and wait for the end of the day. They were good people. They would put two serves of chips in the fryer and a piece of beautiful white fish and cook for me. I don’t know why, except that perhaps I tell a good story.”

The students do not laugh at his small joke. Itt is too early for that.

“The first time I saw Carol, she was moving along the pavement swivelling her head this way and that. ‘What are you looking for?’ I asked her.

She showed me a small card, while smiling a most beautiful smile. It read, PRESENT THIS FOR A COMPLIMENTARY READING WITH MADAME SAM.

I knew of Madam Sam. Her door was a small black one to the side of the fish and chip shop and from time to time I saw people slipping in and out of that door. I shook my head at the woman. ‘You don’t want to be going to her,’ I said. ‘She knows no more of what will happen in the future than I do.’ I said this then because I didn’t yet know the future could be seen if one was smart enough to do so.”

Alapai waits as any storyteller would. He waits for his students to stop looking at each other with their surprised faces. He looks down at his crossed ankles, at his shoes. He will polish them this evening, making them like new. Ahh, but back to the story now.

“I could see Carol was embarrassed over the seeking out of Madam Sam. ‘It was a birthday present,’ she said. ‘My friends bought it for me.’

‘Well they should have bought you some chocolates or a new hat,’ I said for I liked her and I wished her well.

‘I am Carol,’ she said, extending her hand.

‘Alapai,’ I said. ‘Are you married, Carol?’ I asked her, taking her hand and showing her to the black door.

‘Yes I am,” she said, smiling her beautiful smile.

‘Are you happily married?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘George is a good man.’

‘I am both happy and sad to hear that,’ I said, making Carol laugh before she slipped through the door at Madam Sam’s.

 

I saw Carol one week later. ‘Hello, Carol,’ I called to her.

‘Hello Alapai,’ she said, smiling again.

‘You are back to see Madam Sam?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘There is something that she said that I can’t get out of my mind.’

I did not ask because it was not my business to.

 

It was two weeks later when I saw her again. I almost didn’t recognise her. She was not the same lady. Her head was down, her shoulders rounded. No beautiful smile. ‘Hello Carol,’ I said. ‘How are things with you?’

‘They are not good, Alapai. Not good at all,’ she said, shaking her head.

‘I am so sorry to hear that,’ I said. ‘Can I help?’

‘No’ she said, staring at the pavement between us. ‘I fear there is little that can be done and I must go for my appointment with Madame Sam.’ Carol slipped through the door to Madam Sam’s before I could say goodbye.

I waited outside the fish and chip shop until almost closing as was my habit. It was not within me to make a nuisance of myself as some of the others would do. They would go in brashly and beg for a fillet of fish when paying customers were there. They would push past people at the counter when their requests were refused. I waited until the sun was almost gone before I stepped into the shop. Larry was at the counter polishing the stainless steel surface to a perfect shine.

‘You have the cleanest countertop in all of Booyung,’ I said.”

Alapai pauses in his story and picks out a student in the front row. “It does not hurt to be kind, I think,” he says to her. “There can never be too much kindness in the world.”

The young woman frowns at him.

Alapai continues.

“Larry grins at my compliment even though I know he is not quick to smile. ‘You are the happiest homeless man I have ever met,’ he said to me, taking a piece of fish from the display fridge and coating it in rich batter.

I knew this fish was for me and so yes, I was at that moment the happiest homeless person in Booyung, if not the world.

I watched carefully as Larry coated one side and then the other and how expertly he did this, but the best was coming. As part of his ritual of fish cooking, he would lift the fish fillet high above the deep-fryer, holding it by the tip of its tail and then lowering it smoothly until the thickest and juiciest end sizzled in the oil. Only at the last moment did he release the tail, just in time to save his fingers from the hot oil. I admired his technique and I did not tire of watching him. This, as much as the fish, had become the best part of my day.

On this particular day though, Larry paused. I could tell something surprising had occurred to him. He looked at me keenly then, as if sizing me up for the first time. My fish lay drowning in the batter.

‘Would you like a job, Alapai?’ he said.

I was so astonished, I could not speak. I stared open-mouthed at him like a grouper,” Alapai says, opening and closing his mouth like a big fish. The young woman in the front row laughs at him.

“I pulled myself together. I couldn’t afford to stand there gaping for much longer. ‘Yes,’ I said.   ‘I want the job.’

Larry gave me a nod, picked up my fish with a flick which sent excess batter back into the bowl and raised it high for the fryer before lowering it into the hot oil.   ‘I need someone for the afternoon shift to do the cleaning and you are here every day anyway,’ he said.

I was. Indeed I was. ‘I will do a great job for you Larry. I will polish everything until it gleams,’ I said.

Larry leaned across the counter and looked me squarely in the eye. ‘If you steal from me, I’ll deep fry you.'”

Alapai students laugh at this. Alapai knows they are imagining Larry dunking his big body into the oil.

“I didn’t quaver. I showed no fear. ‘You will do what you must,’ I said to Larry.

So that is how I came by my first job in a long while. I was there two weeks when the bakery in the centre of town was broken into. Larry offered me a small cot in the back room.

‘A caretaker would be good,’ he said. ‘You look like you can handle yourself.’

Sitting on that little cot on the first night of my residency, I am not ashamed to say I cried. I cried for all the good things in the world. A miracle had occurred.

It was probably a month later when I saw Carol again. Larry had left for the day and I was restocking the fridges. I was piling in the cans of cola when I saw Carol pass the front window. ‘Carol,’ I called to to her. She stopped in the street, but she didn’t turn around.

I stepped outside and approached her. As I drew closer, I could see she was crying. ‘What is wrong, Carol?” I asked. ‘Where is your beautiful smile.’

‘Everything is wrong, Alapai,’ she snuffled into her handkerchief. ‘Everything.’

‘Come in for a moment,’ I said. ‘I have a job at the fish and chip shop now. I stay there at nights as caretaker. Come in and tell me your problem.’

I could tell Carol was happy for me, even though she was so sad for herself.

‘Come,’ I urged her.

Inside the shop, I made sure Carol was comfortable on a stool looking out into the street. I fetched her one of the cold colas from deep in the fridge and took a seat beside her. ‘What is your trouble?’ I asked.

For a while, Carol said nothing and I waited. Finally, she drew in a sharp breath, as if coming back to life, and said, ‘My marriage is over.’ Carol put her hands to her face, as if she had uttered the unutterable.

I patted her softly on the shoulder. ‘But you once told me you had a good marriage to George, I think.’

Carol nodded, still crying. ‘I did. I really did.’

‘If you thought you did, then you did,’ I said for this was true. True of me, true of Carol, true of everyone.

‘Who was the one to tell you it was not so good?’ I asked.

Carol drew her hands away from her face. ‘It was Madame Sam,’ she said, looking out into the street. ‘That first time I came to see her she told me there would be problems in my marriage; that I should be very vigilant because there were things I didn’t know about my husband.’

‘So what happened?’ I asked.”

In Alapai’s classroom, there is not a sound. The students lean forward over their desks and he feels their need to know in the air around them.

“So what happened?” asks the frowning girl in the front row.

Alapai looks down at the floor, as if to remember, what is already at the forefront of his mind and then he continues:

“Carol said, ‘I noticed George was coming home late more often than I remembered. There were phone calls he didn’t’ want me to hear. I found payments on our credit card which he refused to explain. And then…..’

Carol began to cry again. I moved closer and took her hands in mine. ‘And then?’

‘I followed him one night after he had left his work and before he was halfway there, it came to me that I knew where he was going. I hoped not. With all my heart I hoped not, but still we drew closer. Finally, he pulled up at the curb outside my best friend’s house. Isabelle’s,” Carol said. It came out like a lament, a cry for the dead. She let go of my hands and was holding her handkerchief scrunched into the centre of her forehead.

‘He went into the house,’ Carol said. ‘I waited, but when he didn’t come out in half an hour, I left. I couldn’t bear it any longer. That night I confronted George. I told him that I knew he was seeing Isabelle.’

‘And what did he say?” I asked.

‘He told me it wasn’t true. He had stopped by to help Isabelle with the lock on her back door. He said she was very afraid someone would get into her house.’

‘What did you say to that?’ I asked her.

‘I didn’t believe him. All I could see in my mind’s eye was Isabelle and George together. I asked him about the credit card too.’

‘And what did he say?’ I asked.

‘He said he was planning a birthday party for me, my fortieth birthday and he wanted it to be a surprise. I didn’t believe him. I was convinced he was spending the money on Isabelle. I told him he needed to leave.’

‘So he went?”

“Yes. George packed a bag and left that night.’

Carol sobbed harder into her handkerchief. There was such grief in this woman that I felt a tear make its way down my face. It was my single sympathetic tear.

‘Have you spoken to Isabelle?’ I asked her.

She nodded. ‘I went over to Isabelle’s a few days later. My anger had grown so big, I wanted to yell at her.’

‘And what did you find?” I asked her.

‘I found George,’ she said. ‘He had moved in.’

‘Nooo, it can’t be,” I said for my shock was very great indeed.

Carol shook her head sadly. ‘Yes, its true,’ she said. ‘He’s not there as her lover, he said. He is there because Isabelle was good enough to give him a room where he could stay.’

I took one of Carol’s hands away from her forehead and patted it. ‘I see,” I said. ‘I see.’

‘But what do you see, Alapai?’ she asked.

‘You have made a mistake, Carol,’ I told her.

Carol drew into herself in shame. ‘It’s true, I have,” she said. ‘I have lost my best friend and my husband and I cannot bear it.’

‘Someone has told you your story and you believed it,’ I said.

Carol looked straight into my eyes and nodded. ‘Madame Sam.’

‘Madame Sam,” I agreed. ‘But you must throw out Madame Sam’s opinion altogether. You must have your own opinion of George and of Isabelle and of your own good self.’

‘You are right, Alapai!” she said.

“Of course I am. I am Alapai, the best cleaner and caretaker of a fish shop there ever was!” I said to her because I wanted to see her beautiful smile again.

#

Alapai stops his story here. It is always better, he finds, to leave a hanging thread. They stare at him waiting for him to finish. The girl’s frown grows deeper in the front row. He waits.

It erupts out of her as if she cannot wait another moment.   “So did Carol and George get back together?” she asks for all of them.

“Of course. Carol knows who she is now. She listens to George, who knows who he is and to Isabelle who also knows her own mind,” Alapai says.

The girl nods seriously.

But immediately there is unrest from the rear of the classroom. “That is a stupid story. Carol was stupid, so why would you tell us this story?”

The young man who asks is tall and well-formed. Alapai has seen him on the running track and knows he is fast. He sighs theatrically and says, “I tell you this story because we must, all of us, tell our own story. We must because there are plenty of people, who will be happy to tell it for us. They will be happy to tell you who you can be and who you can’t be. They will say you are part of this group and that this group is no good at doing the thing you want to do. They will tie you up in knots until you cannot move. All of these people are no better than Madame Sam.”

The young man nods.

“What is your name,” Alapai asks him.

“I am Jonathon,” he says.

“And what do you want to be Jonathon?”

The young man draws himself up to his considerable height. “I want to be a great athlete.”

Alapai nods.

“And you? What is your name?” Alapai asks the girl in the front row.

“I’m Jean,” she says.

“And what do you want to be?”

Jean frowns again and Alapai knows already this is her serious and considerate face.

“I want to be a photographer,” she says.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because a picture is worth a thousand words,” Jean says, as if she has coined the saying herself.

Alapai nods. He nods to Jean and to Jonathon. He nods to the class as a whole. “And so,” he says finally pushing himself away from the edge of his desk, “we have come to our very important question. I ask you, who are you really in that hidden part of yourself and what will your future be? And I promise you if you don’t answer this question someone else less qualified than you will.”

 

 © 2017 Gabrielle Blondell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell
Telling it True:  Sandy Floors and Phantom Plants

Telling it True: Sandy Floors and Phantom Plants

I approach it gingerly as though I’m not looking, but I am.  I always look.  I have been looking at this place my entire life. I pull into the driveway and park beside a mini-skip.  It is bashed in on one side where I imagine someone has backed into it.  I hate the skip.  It reminds me we are selling our family home, my sister and I.  We are being practical, grownups, now our are parents are gone.  It is up to us to be wise.  You see, if we sell we will be more financially secure.  If we don’t, we will need to spend a lot to keep the old place going, a great chunk of what we have.  So, it’s sensible.
As I walk up the ramp and across the crazy slate tiles to the front door, there is a murmur coming from my heart.  It is as if the place and heart are calling to each other.  I key in the code to open the door on a panel attached where a lock once was.  We had the panel installed when my parents became so security-conscious, Seal Team Six couldn’t penetrate.  A code supplied to the local police, fire station and ambulance solved the problem of a potential rescue, not that it ever came to that.
I open the door and I walk across the flowered carpet, straight through, as I always do, to the side of the house which faces the river.  It is the river, along with the house, which filled my childhood to the point that I, writer that I am, cannot imagine an alternative.  The boats, the sand, Mum yelling at us because of the sand we accidentally brought into the house gave the floorboards a good scouring; hence the flowered carpet.  Mum was sick of us not washing our feet at the tap outside.  She had the carpet laid, not the flowered one in the beginning.  It was a green shag pile first, I think and by the time that was too worn to be chic, it was so heavy with sand it had to be cut into small pieces to be removed.  The flowered one came next.
I slide the heavy wood and glass door open.  It catches now on its runners.  I think it has something to do with the tracks it runs along and possibly the sand too.  Just before I go out, I check the grandfather clock which stands against the wall beside the door.  My ex-husband and I bought my father this clock for his seventieth birthday and he loved it.  I knew things were getting too much for him when he reached ninety-five and Mum was gone, but I really knew it when he started to forget to wind the clock.  That was when I got the nurses to come and check on him a couple of times a week.
I was regularly staying with him too, but he was a handful because he wouldn’t leave the house for a nursing home, not in a thousand years.  He was also active for his age.  Too active and ever so slightly awkward, from birth you understand.  This was not an ageing thing.  Mercurochrome was the thing he used, when he ‘barked’ his shin.  He’d run after us with this weird two-tone red-green mix when we hurt ourselves and, if he caught us, whatever injury we had would look far more serious after he’d been dabbing at it.  Still, when he got very old, his skin became thin and the ‘barking’ of the shin was more problematic.  It was not unusual for me to open the door to find the kitchen like a crime scene after Dad knocked himself on the open door of the dishwasher.  I would follow the bloodtrail and find him sitting up in bed reading the newspaper without a clue.
He took to a using a walking stick when he was ninety-five, a gnarled bit of wood my mother found on their travels out west and made him varnish.  It looked like Gandalf’s staff. Wherever we went, people admired it and he would say different versions of, “My wife Maggie was a magpie.  She couldn’t’ go past a thing we found in the bush, if she liked it enough.”  It was true.  Mum was of that era where you picked up the shells off the reefs up north, if you thought they might make a good lamp or ashtray (gasp) and where, if you liked the look of a plant in a garden or a national park (gasp, gasp), there was no harm in taking a cutting.  I remember Mum on walks around the neighbourhood with her small garden shears in her back pocket.  When a resort was built down the end of the road, Mum and my godmother would slip down, similarly armed, and strategically attack the many varieties of hibiscus.
I walk out onto the verandah.  I am careful from habit, even though my reason for being so is long gone.  One of Mum’s favourite pot plants, a big-leafed ornamental thing, used to stand in its pot by the door.  “Be careful of the plant.  Watch the plant,” she’d say, as we rushed past, and we would swivel our hips to avoid it.  It occurs to me as I pass the phantom plant, this might be why both my sister and I are quick on our feet.
Now, I can see the river, with our jetty jutting into it.  It’s not one of those floating pontoons people go for these days, but a proper jetty, so old the oysters have over-colonised the pylons with their version of high-rise apartments.  The boat is gone, though.  It no longer hangs alongside the jetty, floating so high at high tide it is difficult to board, and so low at low tide it is almost, but not quite, on the bottom.  It has been gone a good ten to fifteen years.  It went before Mum died and so was the first loss of my childhood.  I cried bitterly, tipped upside down in the sea locker reaching for the old lifejackets when we cleared it for sale.  If I try only a little, I can smell it now, the diesel and the salt of us two weeks aboard at Christmas time and not looking to go home soon.  I would sit on the roof above the wheelhouse as we steamed toward the bay filled with a sense of Huckleberry Finn adventure and I would sit in the same position on the way back wishing something would happen to prevent our return.  I’d be brown as a berry and unused to proper clothes.
I have come this time for the outside table.  I can’t seem to come for everything at once.  The table is made from a large trunk of a tree and topped with a table top tiled by my mother.  Need I say, Mum made Dad haul the tree trunk out of the river after it floated down in the ’74 flood? Probably not.  We manoeuvre the table down around the side of the house and hoist it onto the truck.  I’ll place it under a large tree in my paddock at home.  I can see it there, not too far from the creek, which floods in its own right.  It is a mirroring, of sorts.
I return through the house, straight through the hall, past the clock, through the big glass door, past the phantom plant and onto the verandah.  I wonder how many more times I will do this.  Not many more, I think.  I will have to come back for the grandfather clock, I know.  I stare at the bare earth on the lawn where the table stood and I wonder how does one leave a place like this?  All I can say is its a process.
Posted by Gabrielle Blondell in Freedom, Love, Telling it True