I have power over fruits. Well, most people do but the difference is I’m aware of it. It’s a reckless kind of power. I know it when I walk up to a fruit shelf teeming with abashed oranges, blushing bananas, gregarious pawpaws, some deceptively meek peppers, grungy pineapples, embittered lemons and overly-confident apples. I approach them in the knowledge that the power of choice lies solely in my hands, not theirs. That their wants and needs are irrelevant.
So I will always start with avocados which are always the dullest looking fruits, stripped of any personality, bland in their countenance. The ripe ones look weak, the raw ones are completely devoid of any allure. I poke the hearts of a few, if they squeal, I poke them again and whisper, ‘Don’t ever show the weakness of your heart because it gets you eaten.’ I will lob a few fortunate or unfortunate ones into the basket while the imported oranges in the next row avert their gaze, pretending they aren’t looking at me. Imported oranges are the slay-queens of fruits. They are full of hubris and a false sense of grandeur. And it’s our fault, really. We propagated this neo-colonialist behavior. I normally just pass them by with nary a side-glance at their flushed, overdone cheeks. For me it’s a protest of colour, this choice, not to be associated with imported oranges. But this act lacks legs to stand on because soon, I will be standing next to a woman with a sallow look, bent over, inspecting the imported lemons. Phoniness, really because on one hand I wring my nose at the imported oranges but on the other, I pick the imported lemons. I’m guilty of bourgeois pretense. However, in my defence, my reason is that local lemons sometimes break your heart. They lack the juice of life. They also require a lot of energy to squeeze and honestly who has the time? Local lemons have led a life of sourness, so they like to transfer that to you. I have my own baggage, I don’t buy fruit to add onto my woes.
Then I will be picking pawpaws. Pawpaws are one of the most honest fruits you will ever find; because they often show you who they really are. A pawpaw will hardly ever pretend to be someone they aren’t. They don’t engage in false advertising. I like pawpaws. In my next life, I might come back as a pawpaw. I don’t like perfect pawpaws, though, I prefer the bruised type. They have more character. They have lived a life of friction and they have emerged victorious at the shelf, proudly wearing their scars, already assured of their place in the food chain. Clean healthy-looking pawpaws nauseate me.
Often in my mind, when I go about the business of picking these fruits, I’m a chef. An unhappy chef. I like the idea of an unhappy chef rather than a happy chef. A pudgy, round-faced unhappy chef with bad premolars, in love with cooking but also dissatisfied with the monotony of his job. A chef who secretly wants to walk away from the drudgery of the kitchen but is afraid to because perhaps he won’t find something else he is truly good at. He probably lives alone with a cat who followed him home one day and he didn’t have the heart to shoo it away. So it stayed and now they live together in the silent crater of his life. But he’s a great chef; cantankerous, moody, volatile but very imaginative. A chef who doesn’t know how to slowly count down from 50 when his goat is got. He is known to hurl bread at his staff. Or red pepper. He scorns the younger chefs who read recipe books. He hates people. Especially people who buy food expensively and eat it over three hours. Laughing over wine like gnomes.
Often when there is a table of VVIP, she will be asked by the owner of the restaurant, to go to the table and give some pep-talk about the food. He hates such moments. He hates wealthy people. He hates having to explain his food to wealthy people who have paid 15K for a plate. But he will sigh and wipe his hands on a soiled towel and walk out of the kitchen with a constipated look, whereupon he will stand stiff like a royal sentry and tell the gathering at the table in a moany voice, ‘Welcome to The Middle Finger seafood restaurant. My name is Nani, I’m the executive chef and I hope you are all enjoying the experience so far. What you are having now is the….” then he will try very hard not to explain the food while banishing all thoughts of cracking a crab against the nearest shiny dome. Once done he will quickly recede into the safety of his kitchen and then lean against the counter and catch his breath. That’s the kind of chef I imagine to be as I pick the fruits. And ironically, this time, by the vegetables, I will be at my happiest, most vulnerable. If you stand next to me, you might hear me turn over a pawpaw or a mango in my hand and mumble words of great endearment: “look at you, you are a great mango, a nearly perfect mango, you will make a good salad.” Or, “with all the skulduggery and greed of the world, you are the kind of green pepper that will save humanity…you and that onion staring back at me with big eyes.” I will see these fruits as my tribe and the ones I pick will be the ones that were destined to make culinary magic with me.
So anyway, it was at the moment when I was turning over an apple in my hand when my phone rang. I fished it from my back pocket and stared at the caller. It was a lady I had interviewed for this week’s article.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hi, Biko, can you talk?”
“It’s just me and an apple.”
There was a pause. She sounded confused. I was too now. I thought she’d ask, “Did I interrupt something?” then we’d laugh about that. But my joke went to the desperate wasteland where jokes go to die in the dark gloom of their failure.
“Can you call me later when you can talk?” She eventually asked, confident that she didn’t want to get dragged into whatever fruity affair I was immersed in. I said sure, I will give you a ding when done here. But then I forgot to call her back because I was blessed with the brain of a hamster. An hour later, after I had washed the fruits and put them away to drip and dry out she called again. “Sorry, I was going to call you in not so long,” I said goofily.
“That’s OK,” she sounded like she was climbing a flight of stairs. Her breathing was uneven. Or maybe she was in the middle of a yoga pose. Or cleaning an old chimney. “Listen, about the story. Have you written it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s Monday. It’s going up tomorrow.”
“Oh God,” she groaned.
“What’s wrong?” I asked even though I pretty much knew what was coming.
“I..I’m so sorry, but I don’t know if I want to put that part of my life out there.”
I get this all the time. Cold feet. They give an interview and then they go home and as they remove their clothes to jump in the shower, they suddenly think; oh shit, what did I do? Why did I tell him all those things? It will piss off my family, I will be excommunicated, a pariah. Nobody will ever talk to me again. I’m done for. I need to call Biko and tell him it was all a mistake, but it’s 9pm, it’s late, he is probably bathing in a river, or basking in darkness. I will text him after my shower.
Often, what they need is reassurance. I will tell them not to worry, their identity is safe, nobody, apart from their closest friends and family will know it’s them and so what? It’s their story, their truth, there might be a bit of murmuring in the family WhatsApp group for a few days, a few people might leave but it will all quiet down because the price of fuel is up and people have their own problems.
“It’s going to be just fine,” I told her, “this is your truth. Remember what you said after we met, that you feel free? This is freedom and freedom is complicated and uncomfortable and most often we have to pay its price. Freedom is never free. But next month at this time you will look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. Life moves on pretty quickly.”
“I know, I know, I know all this but you don’t understand,” she paused, “it’s just that when my husband finds out it’s me, he might punish me, he might not even let me see the kids again. He is powerful, he knows judges.”
“Yeah. Plus I’m still in love with him, sort of, despite of, you know, everything and there is a chance of reconciliation. I also don’t want to scar my children with that story, if they ever read it.”
“Okay. I still think you should do it.” I said weakly, selfishly. I was now not fighting for her story but fighting the frustration of having to waste eight hours on the story and the prospect of having to find a filler. It’s someone’s prerogative to tell their story and also to change their mind at any point before publishing, but it’s annoying as hell. Throws a spanner in the works.
“Well, that sucks. But I understand,” I said, hoping that I sounded like Desmond Tutu, someone wise and centered and with worldly wisdom.
“Aki, I’m sorry about this,” she said.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. This is an occupational hazard.”
“Aki I feel bad. Like I wasted your time. So what are you going to do?”
“I will probably just eat an apple,” I said sadly.
She laughed. “Is that your comfort food?”
So there you have it. Our story for this week went down the tube.
But listen. I’m looking for one of those men or women of the cloth who talk to dying people at the hospital. Those who give the departing final rights. Do you know anyone? Or a priest with a child. Or someone with a priest’s child. If that’s not forthcoming, then just any story that is compelling. A unique story.
Ping me with a small synopsis of your story at [email protected] Otherwise, as the younger folk now say, “Stay Taliban” [whatever that means].
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