Have you ever tried Queen of Sheba soul cake? It’s a rich chocolate cake with rich chocolate sauce, and its named after the Queen of Sheba (obviously) who was a queen in the bible and maybe also a queen in real life. But also maybe not.
I first tried this queen of cakes on my birthday, when a guy named Anaru made it for me. This was my first time in his apartment, and as he handed me the cake (on a yellow plate with green chickens painted on it) his thumb brushed my hand, my cheeks flushed red, and I was grateful for the five or so days of stubble on my face. The apartment was a one bedroom with a tiny balcony overlooking the tracks near Ashfield station. With the sliding door closed you could hear the trains clacking up and down the tracks, and with it open you could hear the announcements for trains going to Liverpool, and North Sydney, and Leppington. And if you poked your face out the little window in the bathroom, you could smell the lamb frying at the kebab shop, and see the dozen or so red towels billowing in the breeze on the line out the back of the brothel.
“How’s the cake?” he asked.
“Are you sure?”
“No, I’m lying.”
“You don’t have to like it.”
“I love it. Look.”
I forked a massive bite into my mouth and munched with exaggerated enthusiasm.
“My Mum used to make it for me.”
“Um, didn’t she die last year?”
“You didn’t kill her.”
Anaru popped the last bite of cake into his mouth and stared at a stain on the grey carpet. A shadow passed over his face. I was about to ask if he was okay, but then I thought maybe he needed a quiet moment. But maybe that was me letting myself off the hook for not showing empathy to a man who made me the special cake his dead mother used to make him. So instead of asking the question I should have asked, I asked a very dull and innocuous question.
“You going home for Christmas?”
“Nah, every Kiwi in Sydney goes back, so they jack up the prices.”
“Cool,” I said.
Then I wished I didn’t always say such dumb and pointless things. And then I said:
“I’d love to go there.”
“Where? The boring town I’m from?”
He stacked my plate on top of his and then he took the plates into the kitchen. He came back carrying his laptop, which he put on the table in front of me then sat in the chair next to mine. “Check this out,” he said. He opened Google Maps and typed in: ‘Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand.’ A map of a seaside town appeared. He clicked on street-view, and we found ourselves standing on a road next to a sign that said, ‘Welcome to Kororareka Russell!’ Using the arrow on the screen, he clicked us up the road and into town, stopping next to an old wooden church. He hesitated for a second, his finger hovering over the mousepad, then he moved us into the cemetery, stopping near a grave with a stone cross about ten foot tall. “That’s the grave of Tamati Waka Nene,” he said, “the famous Ngapuhi chief. He was related to Hongi Hika. You know about Hika?” I shook my head. “He went to England in about 1820, where he was a real hit. The nobles gave him all sorts of gifts and he had an audience with King George, who gave him a suit of armour. On the way back he stopped off in Sydney, where he traded the gifts for muskets, which he used on his enemies back home. Apparently, he wore the suit of armour in battle, which totally buzzed people out.”
With the cursor and the arrows on the screen, he walked us around the back of the church, to a small stone grave with moss growing across the top. “This is Mum,” he said. I tried to read the epitaph, but he walked us to a seat under some trees and spun us in a circle, so it felt like we were sitting on the seat looking at her grave. “I come here sometimes. To hang out with her.” He slid the cursor to the top of the screen, and we looked up into the branches. The leaves glitched, as if blown by a digital wind. Another shadow, darker than the last, passed over his face. “But I bailed on her, man. I bailed on my Mum and I–” He glanced at me. “Sorry is this too morbid?” I shook my head. “I feel like I might be oversharing,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Clicking on the arrows, he marched us down the street, through a small park, then a little way along the waterfront. We stopped outside a two storey restaurant painted white and grey, with a sign that said, ‘The Gables, built in 1847,’ hanging on rusty hinges over the door. As he spoke, he swivelled us in a circle, so we saw the calm water, and the wharf, and the families on the pebble beach – their blurred faces frozen in time – then back to the restaurant. “Mum worked in here, as a waitress. This was before I was born. She was a real heartbreaker back then, apparently. She told me how she dated this kitchenhand, and when she broke it off, he drunk a cask of wine, stole his father’s yacht and crashed it into the rocks. After that she was with some artist who lived in a caravan in the bush. But one day this dude was sitting on the toilet, and he called out to her to go get him some smokes. She took his wallet to the shop and never went back.”
He clicked us down the waterfront, past a café and a souvenir shop, and parked cars with their number plates smudged out. In front of a general store made from what looked like sheets of yellow corrugated iron, he clicked on the arrow that took us down the wharf. It was weird, I could almost feel the warm cracked texture of the wooden boards under my feet. At the end of the wharf, we stopped next to what must have been a large crane or weigh station. “At about six o’clock every night, all the game-fishing boats came in here to weigh whatever they’d caught – mako sharks and black marlin and giant bluefin tuna. As a kid I was pretty into the whole situation, and if I ate my dinner with no hassles, Mum brought me down here to watch. It was the coolest and the saddest thing to me, watching these massive beautiful creatures get hoisted up by their tails. Their razor-sharp teeth, blood dripping from the tips of their swords, dead eyes the size of my head. I can still smell the fish guts mixed with diesel fumes from the boat engines. I remember one night they brought in a massive hammerhead shark, but when they tried to get it off the back of the boat, it spun around and sunk its teeth into the deckhand. So the bastards drove the boat about fifty metres away from the wharf and blasted the poor thing with a shotgun.”
“Where did you guys live?” I asked.
“Over the hill at Long Beach. In this little cottage.”
“Can I see it?”
“I don’t really go there.”
“I can show you the beach if you want. It’s pretty good.”
With the arrows on the screen and the click of the mouse as our guide, he took us through the town and up a road that wound its way over a hill. But he veered off the road and skidded to the bottom of a gorge. And when he tried to click us out, we kept slipping back into the pixelated bushes. “When I was about ten, Mum got obsessed with exercise,” he said, trying to scrabble us up the bank to the road. “She got up at dawn every day and made me Weet-Bix and Milo. Then she sat me on the couch with my bowl and my mug, and made me watch her do push ups and sit ups, and burpees and star jumps and all sorts. She needed an audience I guess, and when she was done she made me feel her biceps. I wrote her measurements in a little notebook every day.”
Finally we made it over the hill, and saw a long and wild beach stretched out before us, white waves frozen as they crashed onto the golden sand. He clicked us down the road, stopping next to a giant fig tree, and a young girl suspended in the act of swinging her leg over the back of a dappled grey horse. “Mum ran up and down this beach every morning. And every afternoon. And sometimes every night too. I heard her slipping out the door as I lay in bed. I think she knew she was losing it, and she was trying to run away from the cliff that was catching up to her or whatever. The pony club girls rode their horses along the beach too, and Mum always tried to race them. Crazy right? The horses just cantered away, snorting and laughing and kicking saltwater into her face. And the pony club girls called her a freak and a crazy witch and stuff, but who don’t pony club girls look down on?”
He clicked us further down the beach.
Then he turned around and clicked us back up the hill.
Then he stopped.
“Alright I’ll show you. But if I get upset it’s your fault.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and he looked at me. And the look told me I had done the right thing by touching him and not saying one of the dumb things I usually said. The arrows on the screen took us to the end of the beach, where the road stopped and the rocks stretched around the point. Set back from the road, in a tangled grove of fern trees, sat a tiny cottage. White paint peeled from the walls, at least two of the front windows were cracked. “It was nicer when we lived here,” he said. “Looks like it’s abandoned now. My room was around the back. And every day when I got home from school, she came running out that front door with a big smile and a packet of biscuits. We ate them sitting on the step, and she asked about everything that went down in my day. But after I…” He closed his eyes. I put my arm around him. “After I bailed on her she filled the whole house with junk. And rubbish. She hoarded everything – old newspapers, jars of olives, broken umbrellas, dead plants, busted radios, TVs and DVD players. She wouldn’t throw anything away. Or she couldn’t. I don’t know. Crazy shit. It looked like she’d emptied rubbish bins on the carpet every day for three years. Just boots, old phones, tattered books, cracked vases, tools, belts, old socks, dirty pots, sacks of flour, rotten pasta. It stunk. Rats everywhere. Possums dying. The works.”
He clicked us through the knee-high grass on the front lawn, right up to a dark and dusty window. “They told me she died in here. In the kitchen. It was in the morning. I reckon she got a yoghurt from the fridge, looked out this window at the waves, and boom. Heart attack. She fell back and died on the floor with a spoon in one hand and a pot of bloody yoghurt in the other. After they took her body away, and I went in to clean the place up, I couldn’t stop staring at the spot on the floor where she died. It was filthy, man. Thick with black grime. Mould everywhere. She wasn’t even washing her dishes, just dumping the plates in boxes with bits of cheese and god knows what stuck to them. Queen of Sheba soul cake maybe. And when she ran out of plates, she went to the second-hand shop to buy more. Then she ate off those and dumped them in a box. That was probably the last thing she saw before she died. A box of plates covered in rotting food. And not me. She didn’t see me because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there to hold her hand.”
He pulled us back from the house and down the street. As he closed the computer, I was sure I saw a wave unfreeze and crash on the beach. And then we were back in his Ashfield apartment. For a second we sat in silence. I looked at his face, and saw that his eyelashes were wet and shiny with tears. I heard the short bursts of air going in and out of his nose. As I pulled his body close to mine, the trains rumbled by outside.