WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Chopsticks

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by Janet Goodall

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

A pair of chopsticks appeared in Harry’s kitchen overnight. He first noticed them when he took out the metal slice for turning his breakfast bacon. There they were in the blue and white china jar labeled ‘Utensils’, nestling between a wooden spoon and the garlic crusher which he never used. They were a creamy colour with wavy red lines, a pair of chopsticks held together with a twisted white tie.

They certainly hadn’t been there the previous evening when he had made a late night cheese and pickle sandwich to mop up the excess lager he had downed with Ralph and Chalky in the snug at the King’s Head. So where had they come from? Harry was certainly no deep thinker and tended to take life as it came. Nevertheless he was somewhat mystified and made a point of mentioning the matter to his daughter Rhona when she came in, as she did once or twice a week, to change his sheets and tidy the place up a bit. To Rhona’s way of thinking it was indifference rather than incompetence that prevented Harry from keeping the flat clean himself or from cooking properly balanced meals. His dependence on fry ups and take-aways worried her. Since his wife Barbara’s death nearly a year ago he seemed to have lost the ability, or was it the inclination, to so much as peel a vegetable or pick up a duster. She was afraid he was just letting things go.

“Chopsticks don’t appear by themselves,” said Rhona firmly. “You must have bought them somewhere and just forgotten about it.”

“Why on earth would I buy chopsticks?” replied Harry, “I don’t know how to use them and I certainly don’t know how to cook that weird Chinese food.”

“Then they probably came free with a Chinese take-away,” Rhona was determined to find him a logical explanation.

“I’ve never in my life bought a Chinese take-away ,” countered Harry, “I always go for fish and chips or a nice hot curry.”

Rhona replaced the swing bin liner and heaved the full one into the dustbin. She picked up her handbag and with a final plump of the sofa cushions and a peck on Harry’s cheek left him to ponder the mystery alone. Not that Harry pondered for long, not when there was racing from Wincanton to watch. He turned to the racing pages in his newspaper and settled down in front of the television with a wedge of strong cheddar and two pork pies to keep him company.

That evening in the King’s Head, happily into his third pint, he raised the subject of the chopsticks with his two friends. Chalky had a simple explanation.

“Someone obviously left them in one of your trolleys and you just picked them up and forgot all about it.” Harry had a weekend job collecting up trolleys in the car park at the local supermarket – six hours on Saturday and four on Sunday . The extra money enabled him to meet up with Ralph and Chalky at the Kings Head two or three times a week to down a few pints and indulge in a packet of pork scratchings.. Besides, it gave him something to do and the opportunity for a bit of gossip – he had to admit he was not thrilled with too much of his own company.

Harry shook his head.

“Why would I bother picking up chopsticks. Now, if they’d left a bottle of Bells behind, that would have been a different matter.” He smiled at the attractive prospect.

Ralph had a moment of inspiration. “Perhaps it’s one of them poltergeist things,” he suggested “A lost and lonely oriental spirit trying to contact you and make friends.”

The three of them doubled up with laughter at the thought and ordered another pint all round.

It must have been about a week later when the noodles made their appearance. Again it was breakfast time and Harry was frying up a few sausages. When he went to the utensils jar to fetch his slice, there was a packet leaning up against it – a fairly large, transparent packet with a swirly orange and green label bearing the words ‘Medium Egg Noodles – create delicious stir fry meals in minutes.’ He stared at it suspiciously, poked it gingerly with a finger then lifted it up cautiously. ‘Quick, easy, versatile.’ he read out aloud. ‘Makes a nutritious alternative to rice.’ Harry sat down heavily and wondered if this could be his first encounter with the onset of senility. The smell of burning sausages brought him back to life and as he made them into a thick sandwich with a generous dollop of brown sauce he pondered on whether or not it would be wise to acquaint Rhoda with this latest phenomenen.

In fact she remarked on the packet herself before he even had a chance to mention it.

“I’m glad to see you’re coming around to this Chinese style of cooking.” she said as she sprayed and wiped down the kitchen worktops. “Good idea. Much healthier than all those fatty fry ups you seem to live on these days. And trying out something different will give you a nice new interest.”

Harry pulled a face behind her back but judged it prudent to say nothing. Nor did he mention this latest materialization to his two friends. Something told him it would only lead to his being the butt of endless jokes. He succeeded in doing what he was very good at doing– putting the matter right out of his mind and concentrating on enjoying his pint. But as soon as he got back home that night he made a point of going through into the kitchen to check that there were no new, unsolicited packages lurking by his utensils jar.

Next morning he was surprised to find himself quite disappointed that the worktop was resolutely clear of unexpected offerings. He wondered whether he should have a word with the people in the flat above him about the strange happenings in his kitchen, to find out whether any uninvited items had appeared up there. Then he remembered that the flat had changed hands a couple of months ago when old Mr & Mrs Forest had found the stairs too much for them to cope with. He hadn’t yet met the new occupants and felt it might put him in an unfavourable light should he introduce himself with such an outlandish story. They might well believe they had come to live above a madman.

The following day was a Saturday, one of Harry’s trolley collecting afternoons. It was hot, tiring work with only a brief tea break, so when he had completed his duties at six o clock in the evening he decided to call in for some reviving fish and chips on his way home. There was a long queue of increasingly restless customers and Ted, the proprietor, seemed rushed off his feet.

“I’ll give you a hand, Ted,” Harry offered and for the next couple of hours he was busy shovelling chips, brandishing salt and vinegar and making neat newspaper packages while Ted coped with the more hazardous task of frying.

“Thanks Harry” Ted said when the rush had at last subsided. “Have a double portion of cod and chips with my compliments.” Harry bore the hot, greasy parcel home and went straight into the kitchen to warm a plate and collect a knife and fork,. There on the worktop was a small red and black sachet bearing the legend “Szechuan spicy tomato sauce.” He picked it up. It felt strangely liquid and the contents moved fluidly inside the brightly coloured pouch. Harry felt out of his depth but at the same time intrigued and as he munched his fish and chips he began to seriously wonder what this newfangled food would taste like.

Harry began to hatch an idea. After his four hour trolley collecting stint at the supermarket on Sunday morning was over he called in at Ted’s on the way home. Sunday lunch time trade was always sparse and Ted was just closing up. They went through to the back, sat down and opened a couple of cans.

“Ted, I could do with your help” said Harry, always one for the direct approach. “I’ve decided I’d like to have a try at this Chinese stir fry sort of food.”

Ted looked at him blankly. “No good asking me” he replied. “I’m a straight forward fish and chips fryer. Don’t have no truck with these strange foreign ways. Anyway, what brought this on all of a sudden?”

“Can’t really explain” said Harry “It’s something I just want to do. Thanks anyway Ted.” He ambled back to his flat disappointed that his first foray into the new venture had ended in failure.

Harry had a lie in on Monday morning after his trolley collecting exertions of the weekend and in the afternoon, fortified by two fried eggs, beans and chips, took the bus over to Rhoda’s for a cup of tea. He stayed for a slice of fruit cake and a joke with the grandchildren when they came out of school then took the bus back, arriving home around 5 o’clock. As he entered the front door he was met with a heady assortment of rich and unrecognised aromas. Harry sniffed appreciatively. The kitchen door was shut and as he tentatively pushed it open he was greeted with more mysterious but deliciously fragrant odours. A small slim figure in dark trousers and scarlet shirt was bent industriously over his cooker, working away feverishly with a metal instrument in either hand, lifting and tossing a flurry of vegetables in a wide shiny pan.

“What the hell is going on?” Harry gazed round in bewilderment at an array of small white dishes, each heaped with unfamiliar foodstuff. The figure turned and pushed back a strand of shiny black hair from her heat flushed face. Warm brown eyes looked smilingly into his.

“Hallo Harry. You’ve timed it just right.” She opened the fridge and handed him a cold beer. “Go through and sit down. Supper’s nearly ready.”

Obediently he stumbled through to the dining room. The table was laid with a crisp white cloth and at each place lay a small white bowl with a blue dragon design, together with a curved white china spoon. Beside that rested a pair of chopsticks.

“We’ll start with wonton soup, then we have spring rolls, prawn chow mein and sweet and sour pork with stir fried vegetables and noodles of course.” She beamed at him as she carried in the steaming dishes of food. Harry leaned back and sipped his beer. Whatever was happening to him it felt good.

“I don’t understand…” he began. “Did Ted send you?”

She smiled, she did a lot of smiling and shook her head. “I have big confession. I see you are lonely man who eats too much bad food so I show you my food, bit by bit to get your interest.”

He glanced upwards and raised his eyebrows. She nodded. “Yes. I live in upstairs flat now”

She came over and stood close to him, picked up the chopsticks and placed them in his nerveless fingers. He was conscious of a warm, feminine fragrance and the soft touch of her silk shirt against his bare arm as she bent forward. Her smiling brown eyes gazed at him tenderly and his limbs turned to jelly. Her slim fingers closed over his.

“Now I teach you to use chopsticks,” she said.

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