“Cancer has long fingers”: a love story set in Dunedin
Polack – who was not Polish – did not like what he saw in the mirror. A slight hunching of the upper back had become more pronounced; his hair had thinned on the crown. His face had a used up, abandoned look as though it was a delinquent child left in the supermarket by a heartless parent anxious to effect a getaway to a more tropical country.
Down in Dunedin where black ice had stalled the city; delighted children slewed down snowy streets on flattened grocery cartons, the coloratura of their shrieks dazzling the silence. Rumours of swine flu hung over the country like a miasma in a Hammer horror film. Polack had a dumb faith in the flu shots he took every April. His head had not been fogged for several years, nor his chest bothered by cold air. A band of steady pressure sprawled across his groin like a dull octopus. As he lurched to the bathroom, Polack’s bladder urged him to urinate; the fluid was tardy. A series of slow sporadic trickles, cruelly mimicked the stammer he had had as a child. Outside, the grass, stiffened by frost, crunched underfoot as he examined the cold vacuum of the letterbox. The fake consolation of junk mail affirmed that he was not worth being written to. He was partnerless. And while he yearned for a companion, part of his psyche insisted he was too fixed in his ways to make room for someone new. Too old.
His long time friend O’Driscoll, whose hair remained suspiciously black, was an enthusiastic proponent of on-line dating. The notion did not appeal to Polack who still relished spontaneous encounters on buses or in supermarkets. “You’re so antiquated, Polack,” O’Driscoll growled . Polack wondered how his friend knew about his secret nickname. Drunken admission probably. He was always saying things to O’Driscoll that he should have kept to himself. From time to time, they quarrelled and Polack would vow to himself he would never see O’Driscoll again but the stocky man would turn up with a bottle of Johnny Walker as though nothing had happened and their friendship would resume.
Time to go shopping, a task Polack had never enjoyed. He was not an enthusiastic bargain hunter like Amy, his long dead wife, who had killed herself and their young child in her bargain hunter’s car. Inside, the supermarket was like the New York subway that Polack had never visited except in movies.
The past decade had seen a steady growth of Asian faces, predominantly Chinese. With the help of O’Driscoll’s analysis, Polack was able to recognise Thai and Filipino features.
Polack trolleyed instant coffee, Earl Grey tea, butter, eggs (their ample protein now back in favour), Vogel’s bread (condemned by Amy as too expensive), fajitas (at the end of their short season), mandarin oranges, Chorizo sausages, six slices of ham, bacon, Tasman camembert, onions, broccoli, bananas, carrots and Lemonade Quencher. A moil of nostalgia coiled for his Uncle Bernie who had worn a lemon squeezer hat when he came back from the war. Whatever had happened to it? Had Amy thrown it out? She hated things that were tattered though made an exception for her grandmother’s crimson and peacock-green silk scarf said to have been swathed provocatively around her milky loins for World War One cabaret dancing …
Polack realised he was staring vacantly at some baked beans on special. Why not buy two? Amy would have bought six. Beside him, a short Asian woman gazed up at the beans prompting Polack, with his superior height, to seize and hand her one. “Can we have two?” a shrill fluting voice asked in a New Zealand accent.” One enough Amy,” said the woman. Amy. The familiar name jolted Polack. “I want three,” urged the childish voice which emanated from a small piquant face that time would confidently convert to beauty. The mother had a face of classic Thai sensuality with full lips, strongly arched eyebrows and large brown eyes. “Does your daughter like baked beans?” “She like anything in tins,” smiled the mother. “Like white Christmas for her.” Now how would a young Thai mother know about White Christmas?. “Are you married?” Amy asked, causing her mother to laugh in embarrassment. “Once upon a time,” said Polack.
Polack said goodbye and Amy waved, her tiny hand a brown flag. As he joined the express queue, Polack told himself he should have made more effort to continue the conversation.
Of course he told O’Driscoll all about the encounter. His friend listened in critical silence. “You know what you’ve done?” said O’Driscoll solemnly. “You’ve let opportunity slip through your fingers.”
“I’m not looking for any opportunity,” countered Polack.
“So you’re a corpse already,” said O’Driscoll in a silky yet hectoring tone. “And speaking of death, how’s your PSA reading?”
Polack liked to goad O’Driscoll with feigned ignorance. The Irishman, who had a knack for arcane fact, unleashed an abundance of stories about various uncles who had succumbed to prostate cancer. “And don’t forget Frank Zappa,” his friend reiterated, “dead at 52.”
“So I’ll never see her again?” Polack mused aloud.
“Not necessarily. She’s a mother and mothers have routines. She might shop at the same time every week.”
The skies were blue and clear, the ground metallic with frost. Polack, who had once enjoyed the cold, felt its blade between his ribs. His breath plumed in the hallway of his uninsulated villa. To save on heaters, he clutched a hot water bottle, which unlike a living body, quickly lost its warmth and became cold rubber. He thought about holding Amy, the small Thai child, not his dead wife, her brown eyes looking up at him with childish love. The unnamed mother seemed more remote. He hadn’t held a woman for some time.
A screaming outside ribbed his spine. A thump on the door. Polack seized his baseball bat, strode to the door, yanked it open. A partially deflated soccer ball lay on the grass verge, black and red on frozen white. Laying aside his weapon, Polack picked up the ball and walked to the gate.
“Baked bean man!” shrilled a small voice.
Amy, the screamer, reached out her hands for the ball.
“Too big for you,” mumbled Polack.
“You too big,” she cried, her eyes raking Polack’s face like small brown searchlights. “My mummy say you tall as elephant.”
“Where do you live?” asked Polack.
“Up there,” she pointed up the road.
“I’ll walk you home,” Polack said.
After Polack had grabbed his Lenin-style cap to hide his accelerating baldness, they set off into the steaming-cold morning. Amy looked warm in her purple-ribbed turtle neck sweater and red jump suit.
She led him to a middle flat of three, only six houses distance from his own villa. Her mother smiled at him warmly. “You like some noodles?”
“Anything hot,” said Polack taking in the bareness of the furnishings. “My name is Paul.”
She said her name was Jasmine. Without her shoes, she was even shorter, making Polack feel freakishly tall. Nonetheless, her relaxed manner made him comfortable. Though he sensed there wasn’t much need for conversation, he asked how long she been in New Zealand? Did she like it here? – was it too cold? From the highly feminised appearance of the flat, he intuited no masculine presence; he should ask for the toilet to take a quick look in the bedrooms to be sure. “You married – once upon a time?” she asked looking at him with a directness that was somehow intimate and yet held him at a polite distance. “Widower,” he said. “My wife died some years ago,” he added, when she seemed unsure of the word.
“Are you sad?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“I had husband. He no good. Always gamble. Gone now.”
“Better to be single than with the wrong person.”
Amy had switched on the television where a tiger was charging into a shallow lake in quest of a deer. She cheered when the tiger reached its prey.
Remembering often given advice from departed Amy – not to overstay his welcome – he rose to his feet..
“Toothache,” he said. He used this excuse every day now. Yet it was true, his gums were twinging.
“I like your teeth Mister Paul,” Jasmine said showing hers in a bright dazzle.
“I’d swap them for yours any time.”
Polack daringly considered the notion of giving her the lightest of kisses on the cheek. Not in front of Amy. He extended his hand, Jasmine took it, her fingers startlingly soft.
Polack thanked her for the noodles which he had not enjoyed, and strode slowly to the door. “Would you and Amy like to come to my place for some meatloaf?”
“What is meatloaf, bean man?” shouted Amy.
“This is your loaf,” said Polack pointing to his own head. “You use the meat of your head to make meatloaf.” Amy laughed as he had intended, “It’s made of mince,” he told Jasmine. “How about Saturday?”
“Saturday have to work,” she replied.
Though Polack didn’t like doctors, he went for a blood test. They could tell everything from blood now: diabetes, kidney disease, HIV. “The rectal examination is the best part,” O’Driscoll told him with a smirk. He had told his friend about his groin aches but not noodles with Jasmine.
“Eighteen,” the doctor said. “Is that bad?” asked Polack. “It’s higher than it should be for a man your age,” said the doctor looking over the top of his glasses. “You should do a biopsy.”
“What if I do nothing?”
“There’s a good chance nothing will happen. But I can’t guarantee that. However, it is best to keep in mind that prostate cancer needs to be caught early for the best result.”
Polack said he would think about it. Doctors were so gloomy these days. Riven with caution. His mind resolutely returned to meatloaf. A browse of the Edmonds cookbook yielded Shepherd’s pie, though no meatloaf. Later, he encountered a remainder book sale near the food hall beneath the cinema complex that had a Thai cookbook on special. He found a recipe for a Chilli sauce meatloaf which included water chestnuts, garlic and chilli sauce. He had a trial run on the Thursday; to his amazement the dish was edible.
She was 20 minutes late. She mumbled an apology – her sister had called to say their mother had taken a turn for the worse. Polack expressed sympathy and daringly put his hand on her shoulder – their first touch, a second long, no more. There was Amy – he can hear her name now without flinching – bouncing up and down like a human ball of rubber and what did he have to entertain her? Nothing. No computer or video games. Well, there was the television, an old Sony with lurid colours. And then he remembered a jigsaw – cold cardboard that do not warmly glow. He showed her the completed picture of a tiger in mid stalk. The television had greater attraction. His fingers had lightly rushed he forehead; it felt warm.
His ace in the hole was the fireplace. Amy delighted in the naked living flames.
Jasmine was very interested in his meatloaf. To sweeten it, he had added chunks of pineapple. And especially for Amy he placed whole cherries onto the glaze. Yes, the meal was a success, the fire a triumph – only the jigsaw was a failure.
Just as the meal was triumphantly consumed, there was a knock at the door. It was, could only be, O’Driscoll clutching an already half-emptied bottle of whiskey. His friend’s eyes lit up at the sight of Jasmine smiling from the armchair beside the fire.”Ah, what a cosy scene,” he breathed. “Mrs Polack, I presume,” he said, extending his large hand.
“What is Polack?” asked Amy.
O’Driscoll uttered some nonsense Polack’s grandparents perishing in the Warsaw ghetto, but Polack and his resourceful mother had escaped from German tanks and flamethrowers by crawling through the sewers, then hiding in a disused crypt in the cemetery, emerging every night to survive on berries, wild mushrooms and cooked rats (“and meatloaf,” added Polack) before being smuggled out in a laundry basket … “Is true, Polack?” she asked when O’Driscoll paused to take a swig of his liquor. “I was born in Auckland, not Warsaw. My father was Irish, my name’s Paul, not Polack.”
But Amy cottoned onto the new name and began repeating it to the fire.
Abruptly, Jasmine stood up and said, “I know you want talk to your friend.”
She and Amy moved to the door. “Hey,” called “O’Driscoll, “if I talked out of turn … I’m sorry. Paul is a good man. Honest as the day is long.”
“I know,” said Jasmine.
Polack saw them to the door. The presence of O’Driscoll muted the warmth of his
farewell. After they left, O’Driscoll looked at Polack wryly. “You sly devil,” said O’Driscoll, shaking his head in mock admiration. ‘”Behind my back. You say to me ‘So l’ll never see her again?’” he laughed derisively. “And here you are – a cosy little family. I didn’t know you could cook, Polack.”
“I just bumped into them,” said Polack “You know how it is. Don’t read too much into it.”
“I’m not sure you’re telling me the whole truth, Paullie. How’s your autopsy?”
“You mean biopsy, right? I’ve done nothing. I’m watchfully waiting.”
“Don’t wait too long,”said O’Driscoll. “Cancer has long fingers.”
He passed over the whiskey.
He waited three days then he called. “Polack!” Amy cried his persistent name. Inside, Jasmine was moving rocks in the aquarium.
He sat down on the seventies style couch, angling his bony elbow on its thin wooden arm rests. A thin ray of dust-filled sunlight landed on his thigh, blatant warmth, minus human content. The brown crook of her arm was as removed as a black hole
“I see Drisco at the supermarket,” Jasmine said. “He say he love shopping! He shop till he drop!” The truth was the Irishman lived on takeaways. He must have gone to the supermarket – to shop for Jasmine.
“And he loves to love,” said Polack, with a touch of acid.
“Driso cannot love now.”
“Cannot?” echoed Polack sceptically.
“Has operation. No love now.”
It wasn’t so surprising that O’Driscoll had lied. He had lied about his hair and those teeth – how come they were so white? Pride was the motor. Polack was tough on himself though vanity was not his main failing. Now he had the advantage of secret knowledge. The poor bastard was impotent. Probably incontinent as well. And that might be his lot as well. Cancer was devious. How had O’Driscoll described it? Cancer has long fingers.
He watched O’Driscoll’s short meaty fingers close around the whiskey bottle.
“Driscoll … we’ve been friends a good while, have we not?”
O’Driscoll shot him one of his sardonic looks as if to say, what are you driving at? Polack let the silence between them settle and extend.
“Polack,” said O’Driscoll pulling at his ear as it to check it’s hearing abilities, “if you’re going to ask me if I’ll take a bullet for you, the answer’s no – I’ll only take one for myself.”
“Friends should be honest with one another, should they not?”
“Only if it’s advisable for them not to be.” O’Driscoll laughed dryly.
Polack asked if his hair was honest.
“Would you care to give it a tug?”
“It’s as black as the ace of spades and you’ll never see fifty again.”
“Are you going to ask me about my teeth as well?” Driscoll gave a flashy grin.
“Jasmine tells me you’re an ace shopper.”
“And she tells me, you’re an ace cook.” O’Driscoll took a pull on his whiskey. “You might be interested to know she’s a hooker.”
Polack said he wasn’t that concerned.
“We might be able to work out an arrangement,” O’Driscoll filled Polack’s glass. “You supply the meat loaf and I supply the meat.”
Polack went into mild convulsion. “That’s what I like about you, Driscoll. Your delicacy and tact. So you’re moved from the supermarket to the bed in one swift stride. Going back for seconds?”
“She told me you were impotent.”
O’Driscoll’s turn to laugh. “She did, did she? Seems like she’s got us both tied up in knots. That’s the hooker style.”
“Driscoll – is it true?”
“Yeah, it’s true,” Driscoll admitted
“So why didn’t you tell me?”
O’Driscoll took his time answering. He took another drink, he looked at the ceiling. “I guess … I didn’t want to clutter up our friendship with rubbish … like cancer of the prostate.”
“You implied you were a rival for her affection.”
“Just the devil in me,” said O’Driscoll with a dry smile. “She’s all yours, mate. You know what’s the most intimate thing between a man and a woman?”
“You tell me, Driscoll – you’re the expert, remember?”
“When she starts wearing your clothes. The day she pulls one of your jumpers over her head that’s when you know she’s yours. I never feel so close to a woman – closer even than when making love.”
Polack had reached an age when he thought he could never get warm ‒like Amy’ s forehead. Stubbornly, he refused to light the fire before five o’clock. Old age closed in when the fire was lit all day and half of it spent dozing beside its sleepy warmth.
Four o’clock. Polack felt colder at this hour than at other times of the day. As he axed the kindling – his grip of the tomahawk still steady he thought about the two Amys – his dead wife and the small Thai girl. He felt Jasmine settle in his mind. He would invite her over again and for the first time in his life make noodles and maybe he would reach out and touch her hand.
Next week’s short story is by Patea writer Airana Ngarewa.