The Last Dinner

Wikimedia image: The Last Supper, by Henry Holiday, 1909.  Panel in St. Chad's Church, Kirkby.

I discovered this, which I wrote in 2008 at the same time as the events described in China (I believe on that day)....

2007: what happened that year, to resolve, to get over, is going to take my life.

2008 Zhanjiang China
‘If you try to become famous from this, they will kill you,’ Chicken-bones said in the car as he drove back to my apartment on the last night we had dinner. He said it calmly, as though mentioning a forecast for rain or telling the time. The phrase should have upset me but it didn’t.

I was used to being interviewed in the car, especially on the way home. It was in the car that the most valuable information was sought, where my reactions to ideas or events were tested, and where I learnt most about the progress of this. Sometimes I must confess I only went to dinner for the ride home, to see what was up.

It was difficult to be angry with Chicken-bones. He was no more than a messenger, he looked after all the foreigners in Zhanjiang, to be sure they didn’t get into trouble, and it seemed he was a messenger for all sides to boot: in the car the harshest comments were made, at dinner things were motherly and particularly pro-China, and between the two, as we walked in and out of a restaurant, in the doorway and across the car park, he’d sometimes throw little comments my way I’ve always believed his truest feelings, for those comments were designed to help or contradicted the official line, and spies always talk most freely on the street or when moving, the surveillance weak spot. He admitted freely that his ethics were so-so and seemed to have no problem with the hidden agenda that must have formed a good deal of his human relationships.

Apart from being the messenger he was scrawny, how I’d come up with his name. It fit not because of his stature but because of his self-image, as from time to time he’d waffle on about how much stronger he was than he looked, how clever the Chinese were or how he was expert in bed. ‘The best lovers have imperfect eyesight and go bald in the end,’ he’d once told me, explaining the symptoms of high levels of testosterone, symptoms from which, coincidentally, he suffered. In my mind, the self-aggrandisement made his arms shrivel until they were so slim they risked being accidentally snapped off by a passing waiter and lost in the small jar of toothpicks compulsory on any Chinese restaurant table; it made him lose centimetres in height and he started a good foot below me; and it made his wispy hair recede further still from a decent cut. Sometimes as I looked across the table it seemed his suit, usually in elephant grey, was still on its coat hanger. I don’t suppose it would take much to kill me, I knew, but the chance of Chicken-bones leading the charge had to be zero. In his own right he could arouse no fear or loathing, or indeed any emotion at all with any strength to it. He was simply Chicken-bones.

The restaurants we frequented, his choice, were a vast fair of activity. Village girls in short-skirt waitress uniforms and immaculate hairdos rushed back and forth like Disneyland attendants, for as little as $100 per month, working ten to twelve hour days with just one day off. Others pushed trolleys stacked with little plates of food, the doughy balls the Chinese call bread, bony meat dishes or the rubbery brown and black discs of sickly sweet desserts. Older waitresses in serious suits paraded by, checking their apprentices and wielding special authority such as placing orders for fish dishes which must have varied day to day. Their salaries could rise to as much as $300 per month. There was the clash of crockery and rumble of conversation for applause, morning, noon and night.

That day he ordered chicken and fish rather than the usual dishes of eggplant beef and garlic pork. I usually stuck with those two because I liked them, and to avoid the minimum ten minute discussion between Chicken-bones and the waitress a change in order would have necessitated, for things to be perfect. I sometimes wondered if the phrase ‘Can I have?’ in Cantonese didn’t run on for several minutes. With the ordering done, and thankfully he’d taken the initiative to change dishes that last evening without consulting me, he looked seriously in my direction and said, ‘well this is it, the last dinner.’

The way he said it, I knew it meant something. As we washed our chopsticks and crockery with the first pour of tea, as is customary in China, he spelt it out because I hadn’t caught his meaning. ‘It’s a famous painting,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I laughed, ‘that’s right. Da Vinci’s The Last Dinner’.

‘In the painting,’ he said, ‘which one is Judas?’ It was a comment designed to shock me and, as messenger, I’m not even sure Chicken-bones understood. It was a comment from about two years earlier, when I was living in Nicaragua. It didn’t shock.

I’d stayed in Granada, Nicaragua for about five months waiting for Julie to finish work and arrive from Australia, so we could travel around the world together, and I was living in one of the grand old Spanish villas typical of the oldest city in Latin America. The house had two fine courtyards, a green parrot, two turtles and a lazy cat. It belonged to a delightful elderly Nicaraguan couple who’d taken to renting out rooms to fund their retirement. The husband was absolutely insistent his guests walk in the shade as they made their way along the street, and he used to stand in the front doorway calling ‘La sombre! La sombre!’, pointing to the shady side of the street in earnest, until you crossed over in compliance. ‘The shade! The Shade!’ The wife wove intricate culinary masterpieces with the help of a servant or two, beans and beef, salad, vegetables and fruit as you’ve never known them before, included in the rent.

The meals were so delicious I used to be disappointed if ever I were asked to eat out, and only did so begrudgingly. Sometimes I’d search for an excuse so I could eat at home instead. I was happy in those days as life was simple. I’d started out English teaching, what I did in China too, but after a few weeks I’d decided Nicaragua was cheap enough to devote myself to writing the book on South America instead, particularly as the teaching salary wasn’t even covering my expenses. I had no laptop so I used to go to internet cafes around town and do my best to write something worthwhile between power-shortages, in the matchbox-sized booths allotted to each machine that left my knees with bruises.

Over the dining table in the villa was a picture, The Last Dinner according to Chicken-bones, one of the many crucifixes, Virgin portraits and religious paintings that demarcated the domestic territory as very catholic indeed, decorations that reminded me a little of my grandmother’s house. There were others staying there, up to eight or so in the various bedrooms strung out around both courtyards, a constant stream of people from beyond Nicaragua’s borders, mostly Americans who needed to learn Spanish. In the day they’d attend their courses, and of course be home for dinner. One of them was Christine.

From New York state, Christine was a good few years younger than I, still in her early twenties and with a spectacular English vocabulary that made me want to give up writing each time we spoke. We got into the habit of pursuing obtuse and finicky philosophical discussions about any subject that came to us; some of the time we were serious but much was for fun. I remember in particular the lengthy discussions concerning the fundamental existentialist questions elaborated in Shakira’s song ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, repeatedly played on MTV at the time. We would speak until we couldn’t for laughter.

Christine was good looking, with curled brown locks that tumbled like a dryer beyond her shoulders. Natural curls like those were a rarity amongst Nicaraguan girls, and her light brown hair was considered blond by the Latino boys, both attributes making her extremely popular. She did charity work at a local orphanage as well as taught English. Intelligent, caring and attractive, it was a pleasant surprise to find she had flaws, or at least one: she’d make the occasional faux pas or slip up in her speech, and with her vocabulary consistently intimidating, I took great delight in those occasions. Sometimes I invented them, which she didn’t mind because against my will we’d become friends: actually it was her and I only, at least in the months I lived there, that our hosts the Nicaraguan couple had taken to calling their son and daughter.

One morning at breakfast she came to the table where I was already seated and looking at the painting behind me, said ‘Which one is J...?’ She stumbled slightly on the word, and I started laughing. ‘Which one is Jesus?’ I suggested, completing her sentence. It prompted a lengthy discussion, the pros and cons of each figure in the painting, in turn considered in relation to what features of a Messiah they had.

‘Do you think he might be the one in the middle, that everyone is looking at?’ I asked eventually.

‘Too obvious,’ Christine said, ‘Da Vinci was a Master and he would have been more subtle.’

Ultimately we’d agreed as the most likely candidate the plump fellow on the far right of the picture, who in our version of the painting wore a pink cape. We agreed to ask the other housemates, in a serious tone, and have a kind of vote, mostly to see their reaction at the stupidity of the question, to see how long it took for them to realise we were joking. Which one is Jesus?

What Christine had been meaning to say, before I’d completed her sentence for her, is ‘which one is Judas?’ Now it was being repeated, on the other side of the world after two years, by Chicken-bones the atheist, who barely would have known who Judas was and certainly didn’t care.

I knew I’d written something about Nicaragua in e-mails so it didn’t surprise the phrase should turn up later. The Australian authorities had taken significant interest in what I wrote.  My writing was never sufficiently conservative for their policing minds.

In fact it was quite pleasant Chicken-bones mentioned it because it reminded me of the good food lazy days of Nicaragua.

Later I would think about it more: as was usual multiple interpretations came to me. Was I supposed to be Judas, which would make sense if I was talking to a Christian fundamentalist, as had happened in Australia during 2007?  Or was Judas around me, a symbol of betrayal by one of the two principle branches of inquiry in China, the most likely sources, through either Chicken-bones or the girl? I didn’t appreciate an analogy that would place me as Jesus, but from a Machiavellian standpoint it made sense and I was already worried about it; that as I would be leaving China soon an attempt might be made, the several references to death aside, to frame me for something, as the Australian authorities had for rather many years seemed rather keen on doing. Was it the last dinner for that reason?

At dinner though, I didn’t think it over greatly, and by mid 2008 such things didn’t stress me anymore, as they had done a year earlier. Chicken-bones and I talked instead about religion in general terms and I told him what I thought: that the essence of the Christian religion is love and tolerance, what I liked about it but not always how it is preached. For Chicken-bones all religion was backward superstition, no more: his in-the-restaurant point of view.

The death threat in the car on the way home was preceded by three other notable statements. As we crossed the bridge over the small manmade lake that featured in the local park, Chicken-bones said ‘Australia’s security is not your concern,’ and halfway up the hill, before the death threat he’d said ‘the Australian government doesn’t support you,’ and a little further on, ‘if you go back to Australia it will be the same’. None of the comments made me flinch; as I said I got used to such things in 2007 and more particularly, they sounded like the last desperate cries of a child stamping around to get attention. The comments and not Chicken-bones did though make me angry.

To the first I’d replied, ‘Australia’s security is everybody’s business and what happens if there was ever some horrific terrorist attack in Australia. How could I just say, ‘yeah I knew ASIO was crap but I didn’t do anything about it.’ When it comes to terrorist attacks they have hardly a hope in hell of preventing one. To the second comment, about government support, I said, ‘well they’re going to wish they had,’ which was pure bluff and in any case I ultimately was a bit past caring: the Rudd government was at least immeasurably better than its Howard predecessor and since the election my life had become liveable again. To the third comment, that if I returned to Australia I would face more of the torture of 2007, I stayed silent.

When Chicken-bones gave the final warning, ‘if you try to be famous from this, they will kill you,’ it made me angrier still. I told him how I wished I’d stop being told to be a coward, that the world has enough cowards in it. I thought to add ‘and half of them seem to work for ASIO’, but I controlled the urge.

I thought, ‘and what the hell is this exactly?’ The investigation had been referred to as this before, when I was told the authorities had decided to leave my parents out of this. This was a many-year cock-up of monumental proportion that had nearly cost me my life a few times. This was born not of my actions but of the prejudices and shortcomings of others, taxpayer funded, by a lack of imagination and unaccountable policing. This was a future for the world of war and division and more of the simplistic nationalism that proved so deadly last century. This was racism and bigotry. It has never been fame I cared for. I never asked for this. My goal now is far simpler: I don’t think as human beings we should accept corruption or anything less than full human rights. And as an Australian I don’t think my country benefits from an unaccountable secret police agency.

And so I write.

But the world is not only about security or freedom of expression of course.  There are also random travel tales, cool people and well, english-by-association...

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