Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Stove

The Stove On Sunday she cleans the stove. She starts with the cloth she finds by the side of the sink, worn down by frequent scrubbing. She watches as the viscous yellow of the Palmolive seeps into the tired green fibres. Her first attack hardly dents the grease at all. The house is quiet. Wood pigeons chime in the puriri tree outside. A lawnmower roars in the distance, then suddenly cuts out. There are children’s voices coming over the fence, a backyard cricket game in progress. The smell of the first barbeque is already in the air. She’s always liked sitting up here in the kitchen. It wasn’t what you would call a million-dollar view, but there’s something grand about being on top of the ridge, looking down into the valley of houses upon houses with wrinkled rooftops and fussed-over trees. When she was a girl she used to sit by the window on Friday nights, spying on the neighbours through the orange net curtains. They always seemed to be having parties. She would watch the cars as they throbbed along the road, slowing, headlights searching out the street numbers. Sometimes they turned into her driveway by mistake, or used it to turn around, the car tyres swivelling on the loose gravel. She drizzles more of the Palmolive around the elements. Might as well use it neat, it needs a bit more grunt. Pity there wasn’t anything stronger, but she’s done a thorough search of the cupboards already. The golden scum is solid, layered with burnt onions and prawn whiskers and fallen pieces of mushroom over the years. She thinks of herself scrubbing down through the layers of family meals, like some sort of small- time archaeologist. She mustn’t be too much further than 2005 right now, the year of the last big family get together, the year that Auntie Julia had broken her leg while skiing in the South Island. That had been a big deal. “No, don’t come near me!” Auntie Julia, crabby from the lack of sleep while in hospital. “But I was just helping you into bed. Don’t you want to lie down?” Her mother, mild and concerned for once. The accident had shaken the tense rivalry she had with her sister. “Stop treating me like I’m old!” “I’m not treating you like – oh miumiu, I was just trying to be a good host.” “Pah!” And Auntie Julia had wrenched her arm away, not open to social niceties from her older sister, even in her hour of need. That had been the year too that Dai Sook had finally passed away. Her great granduncle had been in a rest home in Henderson for years, ever since his wife had been run over at a pedestrian crossing. After she died it was discovered that the old man had never learnt to cook. Her mother had taken food there for a while, exhausting her repertoire of delicacies. Then, tired of hearing the old man complain about her cooking, she called a family meeting. “But he built that house with his own hands!! It would be a crime to cast him out.” That was Uncle Trevor. He’d helped out on the family garden before it was sold to be subdivided. Uncle Trevor had made a fortune in real estate since then. He and his arty wife and their three perfect piano-playing daughters lived in a large house in Parnell. Mum used to sneer at them. “Oh look, he’s such a gweilo now.” “Well then you go and clean Dai Sook’s pee up from around the toilet then. He’s lost his sense of aim.” Auntie Julia, always the forthright one. “That doesn’t mean he has to lose his sense of dignity!” “Who’s talking about dignity?” Mum cut in. “Look at him, all alone in that big house of his. He can’t even walk up the stairs by himself now. I found him asleep on the sofa in the lounge the other day, covered in old newspapers.” The formerly green cloth is almost completely saturated in grease. She tries to rinse it out under the tap, the water beading over it. Even water shunned the dirt round here. She digs through the old apple box until she finds an empty bread bag, and drops the green cloth into it. She snaps open a new cellophane packet, shakes the bright pink cloths out. It was funny that her mother was so critical of the mess in other people’s houses, when her own was so chaotic. Old celebrity magazines, flattened toothpaste tubes, saved cardboard from the inside of toilet paper rolls, lining the corridors, making miniature CBDs of the rooms. No box that came into the house seemed to go out without doing time lining the corridor like a waiting patient. Each time her parents went to Hong Kong, they’d come back proudly lugging bags and bags of old Chinese newspapers. “We got 33 kilos through this time,” her dad would say, proudly, the sweat standing out along the deep lines on his forehead. The lines were a family legend. It was a favourite party trick of his to pick up objects using only his wrinkle lines. The papers were usually months out of date. She could tell by the pictures, though she couldn’t read what the actual articles said. “What do you want with those?” She knew the papers would end up piled around the toilet and lounge. “You won’t read them anyway.” “Yes we will,” her mother had retorted, “and if you read Chinese properly you could, too.” It always came back to that. It seemed to gall her parents that she was studying languages at University while not knowing much of her so-called traditional tongue. Je ne sais pas. No hablo chino. She’d been born in New Zealand, of course. She’d even been referred to as a banana once or twice, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. The Chinese were like that, folding up their insults as well as their compliments in layers of carefully crafted metaphors, oblique references, sideways glances. How Chinese of her to ignore the comments, swallow her retorts like bitter medicine each time she heard them. If only they knew how Chinese she really was. Somewhere in the garage there were still the old plastic crates containing the wooden blocks that her father had made for her and her siblings. They were lovingly sanded, painted with Chinese characters which had been traced carefully in pencil first. She must go downstairs and look for them before the collectors came. They would be perfect for Tony, he was getting old enough now. She sees the pair of her mum’s holey slippers still lying by the old singlet used as a footrag for the floor. Her feet are cold. Surely no one would mind. She relaxes into the worn down soles, each bump underfoot a mark of its wearer’s walk pattern. She shuffles closer to the sink and wrings out her cloth. She’s finishing off the sides of the stove, wiping the brown soapy water clean, enjoying the gleam of shiny white enamel, when she hears the front door open and a babble of voices burst in. There’s the thump of feet, the slap of shoes being taken off, someone slamming the door shut. Then a voice. “Wendy? Are you up there, Wendy? We saw your car outside.” She walks downstairs, still holding her stained pink cloth, the yellow rubber gloves seeming to glow in the dimming dusk. Her sisters and brother are standing there, with Uncle Trevor, Auntie Julia, and Dad. Dad looks at her, not seeming to see her properly. He’s aged a lot in three days. “I was just cleaning Mum’s stove.” “Whatever for? They’re not going to come to the house after the funeral. We’ve booked a hall with a caterer. You shouldn’t have bothered.” She looks down at herself, the yellow stains running down her faded T shirt, the fat rubber gloves reaching up to her elbows, one size too large as her mother liked to buy them. “I – don’t know. I just wanted to,” she says. “We should throw out that old stove anyway. Buy a better one,” says Uncle Trevor. Auntie Julia frowns. “Why bother? The whole place is a mess anyway, and Big Brother won’t be able to look after the place now he’s alone. I say he should sell up and get a smaller place. Easier for everyone to manage.” “No!” Wendy is unaware that she’s the one that’s spoken, until everyone looks at her. Her brother and sisters look surprised. “No – I mean, I can come and help out.” Dad lifts up his head and looks at her. “Sometimes,” she adds, looking down at her feet to hide the tears that have finally come, pushing their way up from somewhere deep in her belly. As the others push past her, into the house, she realises that she’s still wearing her mother’s shoes. Listener/NZCA Short Story competition winner -"The Stove" by Renee Liang The New Zealand Chinese Association (Auckland Branch) Inc and The Listener wish to congratulate Renee Liang for her winning entry, "The Stove". To read and view the winning entries visit

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