Test from God

Paul entered the back room with fury I could not only see on his face but also hear it, a sound of a swarm of angry bees, only more homogenous, more ominous. The dull hum of his anger morphed with the clamor of restless customers demanding their orders in the front of the shop. I turned the peeling machine off and took out a handful of potatoes not larger than golf balls. They were perfectly round. Paul looked at me, then at potatoes in my hands, then again at me. The small brown eyes behind square glasses radiated a mixture of disgust and disbelief I remembered seeing somewhere far in my childhood.

– “Jesus Christ, Refik! Jesus fucking Christ!”

He grabbed another sack from the pile and emptied it into the machine while I stood there looking at the miniature potatoes in my hands. They reminded me of those my mother would throw in the oven with half a chicken, drenched in sunflower oil and a good pinch of salt. Her trick was to add a splash of cream some ten minutes before they are done. Cream would blend with potato scraps and chicken fat into delicious sauce she’d let me scoop up with soft insides of homemade bread. Home. I wondered what my friends were doing right now back home. It was early autumn, they are probably hanging out at the bank of Sana, there is probably a bottle of cheap wine and a guitar, Emir would bring the guitar, he always does, water is green and inviting, Grbo is in the thick of it with his stale jokes, girls are laughing anyway, they always do even though the jokes are fucking awful, Grbo has a gift of some sort. I wonder if they mention me ever.

– “I know what you are,” Paul’s voice brought me back to the damp behind of a fish and chips shop at 439 Mt Eden Road. “I finally understand.”

bonzopic

I never imagined my first paid job would involve peeling potatoes. But then, I also never imagined my country would disappear. I doubt my childhood friends Nećko, Muha, Damir Danicin could ever imagine they’d all be killed within the first several weeks of the summer of 1992. Nor could such powers of imagination be ascribed to my neighbour Latif whose narrow chest would get shredded into bloody pulp as he looked out the window of his house by a volley of 7,65mm caliber bullets released from a meticulously cleaned and oiled AK 47 machinegun issued by the local Yugoslav Army HQ to my other neighbour Milutin who fired at Latif’s house as he drove past in a blue VW with a bunch of fellow Serb paramilitaries on the way to pillage a nearby Muslim neighborhood one warm, fragrant July evening. My uncle Hasan and his son Amir could not in their wildest dreams imagine they’d be taken to a concentration camp, a real concentration camp like those we watched in movies about Holocaust, where they would be tortured and viciously beaten for months, often in front of each other, made to watch while the other was smashed into unconsciousness, torturers intent on crushing their souls along with their bodies. It never occurred to me that the entire family from my father’s side that lived in Prijedor, some thirty adults and children, would end up living together like one big, quarrelsome tribe on precisely the other end of the world, in Papatoetoe and Otara, South Auckland, New Zealand. Indeed, early nineties were years in which many a Bosnian saw unimaginable turn into mercilessly, overwhelmingly inevitable.

It was overwhelmingly inevitable I would ultimately have to get out of the family construction business into which I was forcibly recruited by my father hours after my mother and I arrived from Yugoslavia. I did not mind the work, on the contrary, I had a certain talent for digging ditches and schlepping timber around building sites, but I just could not stand constant fighting with my father.

My father’s love for me was, as with every true Bosnian man of that generation, present in the unsaid. His disdain for my political views, on the other hand, was very vocal. Our rows seem to rage for days on end. The argument would usually start with long, sullen silences at breakfast, pierced here and there by declarations of disbelief at what I had turned into directed to my mother or one of my uncles. It would continue during the work day as we’d shout at each other over the rumble of the concrete mixer, angrily throwing shovels of soot into its gaping mouth between sentences. And it would usually culminate in the evening, as we’d sit for dinner after a hard day’s work, our fuses shortened by exhaustion and dirt. Sometimes it would get so violently loud that the shouting would attract genuine concern of Eve, our next door neighbor, a lovely former nurse from Norfolk in her eighties, who’d wait for a pause in the screaming match to shuffle over, purportedly to return a plate on which mother previously piled up pies and cakes as a sort of insurance that Eve would come back to make sure my father and I would be embarrassed into quieting and acting as if it was all a touch louder but still jovial discussion, nothing more, that’s usual in Bosnian households, you know, here have a seat, Eve, would you like a coffee, or a cake, no thank you, I’ll just have a cup of tea, but you can pack the cake, I’ll take it home, so, Esma, how are you settling in? In the aftermath of Eve’s question that contained her name, mother would look pleadingly, first at her then at me, frozen in the vacuum of language incompatibilities. I would labouriously translate for them in short, mutilated sentences which picked through the meaning of what was said as if through wreckage of thoughts that crashed to the barren plain of my comprehension. She say good, aha, aha, she say big rain no good, yes, maybe no… I would try to seamlessly fade out from my role as Eve and Esma would continue to speak, each in her tongue, with much arm-waving and nodding, but also, it seemed, greater mutual understanding than when I was “translating”. As their chatter dispersed the toxic fumes of our vicious quarrel that still hung in the corners of the living room, Šefik would withdraw to his recliner in front of the TV, a mug of instant coffee he called kivska kafa (coffee of the Kiwi) in hand, sinking deeper into the quicksand of anger towards his son, sipping furiously, envious of the happy people winning appliances and trips to Fiji on „The Price Is Right“.

Our fights revolved around a single issue: my insistence that Yugoslavia was an ideal worthy of defending to the point of imposing a military occupation of Slovenia and Croatia, the two republics which declared independence and were intent on secession. He raged against my blindness to see how the break up of Yugoslavia was driven by Milošević and Serb nationalists, which have taken over the Yugoslav People’s Army. I raged against having to be in New Zealand, against having to leave my friends and my life in Bosnia, against having to listen to him every day now after years of him being away. He raged against my naivety and disobedience. But most of all he raged against his powerlessness to convince me that cataclysmic evil was slouching towards our hometown, our family, the roots we left there. He raged against losing his anchor. Later, as the beast was devouring all that I knew about who I was and where I was going, together with scores of people I had shared my life with, I would acknowledge my blindness. But not before we would come to the precipice, a fault line we reached holding the opposite ends of a sand sifting rake, preparing material for bricklayers who were to come and put an outer wall of red facade brick around a newly build three-bedroom in Wintere Rd 42. It was a particularly bad day, the news had reached us about Yugoslav Army shelling Dubrovnik, he asked me if I finally see what is happening, what more did I need, or something like that. We were rhythmically pulling the rake in opposite directions, fine sand seeping through the mash and forming a pristine small dune underneath. I replied something about inevitability of pretty things getting destroyed in a war, and who started it all with their separatism, and… He threw his end of the rake, seething. I don’t remember his exact words, something to the effect that he did not want me in the house if I was to ever repeat a thing like that. Then he stormed off, spiting and swearing down the street. I was holding my end of the rake, thinking how the dune of fine sand was now spoiled with the unsifted soot that fell out of the rake when father threw it. Now we’ll have to do it all again.

The next day I enrolled in an English language class at Manukau Polytechnic. Two days later I called Mihret, a cousin who’d come to New Zealand with my father four years earlier, worked with him and my uncles for a while on construction and then got himself a well-paid job cleaning fish in Simunovich Company, down in the harbor. Before emigrating to New Zealand, Mihret lived in Belgrade and designed parachutes. Now he could fillet a five-kilo snapper in under a minute. Later that week he called me back to say his friend had just bought this old fish and chips shop and needed someone part time.

Part time work was going to delay my plans of moving out of my parents’ house, but I had to reconcile with the difficult truth: I was anything but desirable employee material. New to New Zealand and its ways, my English still nascent, I had no real skills to speak off. I compensated with a surplus of motive.

Paul Brom was a son of a Dutch immigrant, a well-read and incredibly driven fellow, determined to make good money in turning an old chippy into a trendy burger bar that would serve the up and coming hipsterei of Mt Eden and surrounding areas. The shop he bought was a small hole-in-the-wall fish mongers nestled between a flower shop and a vacuum cleaner dealership on the lower end of Mt Eden Village, a lovely stretch of colonial store fronts dating back to early 1900s. The shop fittings told the story of its history. A coat of arms on the cast-iron toilet flush tank testified about the beginnings: it was made in 1912 by Huxley and Sons of Wellington. The narrow glass shop windows were still framed in the original kauri wood painted white, large walk-in fridge was built in the 60s, about the time the shop was fitted with huge, stainless steel deep fryers which rapidly turned fresh, transparent vegetable oil into amber liquid that gave lightly battered pieces of snapper and chunkily cut chips that irresistible taste of childhood and an impending heart failure.

The two deep fryers were laid out along the wall to the left of entrance, merging on the front end with a counter covered with wrapping paper laid on top of a thick stack of obligatory newspaper – apparently newspaper keeps fish and chips from going too soggy too quickly – and a small glass refrigerator where fish, fresh oysters, mussels and paua fritters were laid out on display. At the other end of the same wall, in a corner  opposite one of the standing fridges with frozen fishcakes and hotdogs, next to the door which led to the kitchen and the back room where bags of potatoes were stored around a huge metal sink fitted with massive cast iron taps, was a small grill, slightly bigger than an LP. The hot plate was walled off on three sides by a tin barrier some 15 centimeters tall to prevent the fat and juices from splattering the wall, while to the right a cluster of shiny metal bowls displayed colorful foundational ingredients like chopped up lettuce, tomato chutney with diced onions, shredded cheese, fresh tomatoes, pineapple, and beetroot. Meat patties were in the standing fridge and buns in a cupboard below the grill. That was my new workstation.

On my first day I arrived more than an hour early, my new friend from the English class, Saminda Silva from Colombo, whose father made a fortune selling smoked fish, dropped me off and wished me good luck. I was endlessly hopeful and equally as hopeless at anything related to constructing impressive, gorgeous burgers designed by Paul, which towered at between 15 and 25 centimeters tall, depending on the combination of ingredients. Paul’s philosophy of a great burger centered on adding a heap of cheddar melted on the grill until fine reddish crust would form and cheese would fold into a letter-like shape to top whatever choice of ingredients. That and the fact that at no point in time – from the moment the order was made to the burger sliding into its paper bag – was the chef allowed to touch any of the toppings or the finished burger with his fingers. Everything had to be done with spatulas and tongs. When Paul showed me how a simple burger was made and asked me to make one for myself so he could assess my coordination and spatula-handlings skills, I proceeded to freeze up and make a series of messy blunders as if I had crab claws for hands. Imagine Edward Scissorhands behind a grill with metal tongs in each of his “hands”.

Paul’s commitment to his friendship with Mihret was too strong to fire me on the spot, but I was immediately demoted to the vacant position of a chef assistant/dishwasher/potato peeler. Paul was to take on everything, from manning the fryers to making burgers to taking money, while I was to ensure the fresh supplies of fish, ingredients for burgers, and, crucially, freshly peeled, cut and washed potato chips, were flowing from the back room to the stations in the front.

My pride, bloodied by the demotion, was dressed and bandaged with the 30 dollars I made for three hours of “work” on the first night. So I took to my new duties with the same mixture of eagerness, dedication and anxiety. Washing huge plastic bowls covered in hardened fish batter was simple enough, as was replacing containers with fresh fish when Paul yelled out over the chatter of customers “more snapper” or “more tarakihi” at the top of his lungs (I did lock myself inside the walk-in fridge once or twice, having to call for Paul to save me, but I didn’t think that was a deal-breaker), or cutting lettuce and tomatoes, or making sure the bowls were always replenished, and I was slowly but steadily getting the hang of it. Potato peeling, now that was a different story.

The potato peeler was a rudimentary but effective machine: a portly cast iron barrel was set over a thick round slice of black granite with rough surface connected to a makeshift motor which powered its circular motion. It worked so that you empty a sack of potatoes into the barrel and as they bounce of the rotating rough stone bottom, the friction removes their skin (a small hose was connected through the side of the barrel so that water would immediately wash away the peel to a side container and the peeled potatoes would be ready for cutting and washing). Simple, right. Except that you needed to keep them in the barrel for exactly the right amount of time to get the job done. Leave them in half a minute too long and a sack of potatoes would reduce to a bowlful of small spuds as the stone would quickly erode the flash once it was done with the skin. Take them out too early and they would still have all those black “eyes” you would have to remove with a knife, which took forever. Let’s just say that I found it difficult to get the timing right.

At first Paul exercised tremendous patience to try and relax me into not standing over the barrel and peering inside throughout the process to make sure I get them out at the exact right time. After all, there were other things to do. Each time I would get it right a feeling of immense relief would wash over me and I would excitedly empty the potatoes into the cutting machine and then into the large sinks filled with fresh water, from which I would take out two large scoopfuls and leave them to dry until Paul yelled for them to be brought to the front to fry for customers or use to cool the frying oil as the thermometer on one of the fryers was shot. But I didn’t get it right too often as I would usually take them out too early and spend precious minutes cutting the leftover skin and “eyes” out with a small knife. Such time wasting could not be tolerated, especially not on a busy night, which was every night except Monday, when I did not work, so Paul pushed me to leave them in a bit longer. Which I did, to their demise. Initially, Paul pretended it did not matter when I would deliver not more than two scoops of what was left of a sack and tried to be encouraging. The more he pushed the more nervous I got. My anxiety started evolving into dread. I dreaded the darkness of the back room and its damp floors and the whizzing of the electric motor of the peeler and the thud of potatoes bouncing off the rough granite and cast iron barrel and spatulas and customers and their g’day, mate! greetings and waking up in this strange land. Fridays were the worst.

I had no classes on Friday and my father had a day off, so we’d spend an awkward day of avoiding each other before I left to work. This Friday Paul offered me more hours than usual. It was our busiest night anyway, but this Monday was a holiday, Waitangi Day, so Friday night kicked off a long weekend. A crowd of neighbours, young professionals, families with tired children, teenagers with munchies, most of them intent on getting pissed to celebrate the end of the working week, descended on the shop to pick up takeaways. The word of our burgers and fresh fish had spread as far as Ponsonby and Mt Abert, and a throng of customers spilling onto the pavement would continue to besiege the place long into the night. I came in early to cut heaps of lettuce, onion, and tomato, fill the two sinks with chips and whip up three or four large bowls of batter.

When the onslaught began, Paul flew between the fryers, the grill and the till like a man possessed, making sure every order is dispatched as quickly as possible, while I kept the bowls full and clean and supplies of chips and fish streaming from the kitchen. It felt good when it all clicked like this, it all made sense, background sounds muted, I could only hear Paul’s sharp calls. As I brought out a new tray heaped with fresh, pinkish fillets of snapper, he looked at me while wrapping someone’s huge order of battered sausages and potato fritters, his bushy mustache spreading into a smile, and mouthed good job! I hurried back, high on adrenaline, and started sorting through the mountain of dishes piled up high above the kitchen sink when Paul yelled out chips!! I shut the water off and ran into the back room, grabbed two empty scoops and plunged them into the sink where the chips were supposed to be. Water absorbed the sound of metal scrapping against metal when the heavy mash-wire scoop hit the bottom of the sink. It emerged from the water with a sorry catch: there were only a few scraps of chips in it. The sink was empty. The feeling of dread started flooding into my stomach again. How the fuck did I forget to cut more chips? I turned the peeler on and a threw a sack of potatoes in it. A couple missed the mouth of the barrel and bounced off together into a dark corner beneath the sink. Chips!! Paul yelled out again. I walked to the kitchen door so he could see me and tried to get his attention. Minute I said under my breath. He was busy scooping pieces of burned out batter from the fryer. Paul. He turned around. Where is chips, man? Minute, I said. He did not hear me, a man with a boy of three or four sleeping in his arms was in his ear. I stood there, not sure what to do, wanting to explain that it will be a few minutes by the time I peel and cut and wash the chips, when I remembered that the machine, the fucking unforgiving machine, was on. I ran back and turned it off. What was a sackful of potatoes was now a handful of golf balls merrily bouncing off the black stone. I could not help but think how beautiful they were in their atom-like movement. I don’t know how long I stood there like that.

Paul entered the back room with fury I could not only see on his face but also hear, like a sound of a swarm of angry bees, only more homogenous, more ominous. The dull hum of his anger morphed with the clamor of restless customers shouting for their orders or chatting away in the front of the shop. I took out the two handfuls of potatoes from the machine. They were perfectly round. Paul looked at me, then at potatoes in my hands, then again at me. The small brown eyes behind square glasses radiated a mixture of disgust and disbelief I remembered seeing somewhere far in my childhood.

– “Jesus Christ, Refik! Jesus fucking Christ!”

He grabbed another bag from the pile and emptied it into the machine while I stood there looking at the potatoes in my hands. They reminded me of those my mother would throw in the oven with half a chicken, oiled and heavily salted. Her trick was to add a splash of cream some ten minutes before the meal is done. The cream would blend with potato scraps and chicken fat into a delicious sauce she’d let me scoop up with soft insides of homemade bread. Home. I wondered what my friends were doing right now back in Prijedor, it was early autumn, probably hanging out at the bank of the Sana river, there must be a bottle of cheap wine and guitar, Emir would bring the guitar, he always does, water is green and inviting, Grbo with his stale jokes, girls are laughing anyway, they always do even though the jokes are fucking awful, Grbo has that gift. I wonder if they mention me ever.

– “I know what you are,” Paul’s voice brought me back to the damp backroom at 439 Mt Eden Road. He was looking at me from the door frame, wiping his hands on the apron. “I finally understand.”

I was not sure if I understood him properly or what he meant if I did. Nor did I know what I was. Perhaps he really knows.

– “You are a test, my test. God sent you to tempt me. That is what this is, a temptation, no two ways about it. No fucking two ways about it.” He pushed his glasses up his nose, turned around and plunged into the mayhem that awaited in the front.

The crowd grew louder as he appeared, protests, angry voices demanding their money back when he announced chips will be some ten minutes away. The machine whizzed and potatoes bounced. I took them out a bit too early, there was no time to clean the black bits, just cut and wash. The night ended up being the most successful in the short history of what was to become “Bonzo Burgers,” one of the hippest, most popular burger bars in that part of Auckland. I stayed on, helping Paul with renovations, fitting a new, huge grill and pristine white tiles on all walls, ultimately mastering the art of making a perfect burger. We became a team so in tune with each other that we started performing burger bar versions of exhibitions I’d seen in “Cocktail.” People would actually come to watch us flip stuff around with spatulas and throw piping hot fried oysters across the bar to the other one to catch them in a paper bag behind his back. I would continue working part-time at the joint throughout the next several years, regardless of my day jobs or studies. Paul had passed the God’s test.

But that Friday night, as I was walking to the bus stop past Mt Eden storefronts and the old cinema that showed only Bollywood films, a seed of awareness stirred in me, an awareness that I could not fully fathom right there and then. I felt, more than understood, that what I knew, the life I lived naturally, without extra effort, without having to learn new, strange ways in order to fit in, without having to pretend and assume the best available role, the life rooted in my childhood memories and dreams, the life of a single track, was over. I would never again be just a boy from Puharska. Now I was also a test of this strange man’s patience and faith. A test from God. That night, right there by the ancient potatoe peeling machine in Mt Eden, my one track of life permanently split in two. As I climbed the bus to Papatoetoe, I was no longer just Refik. I was also an immigrant.

It was quite late by the time I got home. Šefik was reading in his recliner, mother long asleep. He would never admit he was waiting for me, although he had to work tomorrow. I set down on the couch next to him.

– “Any news from back home,” I asked, staring at my feet.

– “You know the news, nothing new. Poor people, they will suffer the most, mark my words.” He closed the book. “How was work?”

– “Good, it was good, I enjoy it very much, learning a lot. I made 50 dollars.” My eyes welled up with tears as I held out the crumpled notes in my hand.

– “Good. That’s good.” He caught my eye, quickly looked away and cleared his throat. “Fuck it, I am making kivska. Do you want one?”

– “Yes, dad, I’ll have one with you.” I put the money in my pocket, wiped my eyes with a sleeve, leaned back on the couch and closed my eyes. I could hear my father filling the kettle with water and looking for mugs in the cupboard above the stove.

 

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