A few years ago on a sultry afternoon, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother at her flat in Queenstown. We were remembering departed family members and friends from times long past over a pot of Chinese "oolong" tea. The fragrance of the black tea rose before us in little wisps of hot, curling streamers.
My mother (now in her eighties) had retired from teaching in her late-fifties to be the full-time carer for my father when his Alzheimer's worsened. During the last years of his life, Dad's decline also made it difficult to control his diabetes. His vision disintegrated, along with the rest of his physical and mental state. In the 14 years since Dad's passing, Mum has lived alone for most of this time. In recent years, she has consented to the services of a domestic helper, though she still refuses to move in with my older sister, preferring her independence.
As we sipped at the steaming tea, Mum told me that she had some vivid dreams about Dad in the months soon after he passed away. Sometimes, she would also feel his presence very strongly around the flat. Once in a while, she would catch unexpected whiffs of his scent, something that was uniquely Dad; the salt and muskiness of light perspiration and stale cigarette smoke.
Mum also received a few strange calls in the months following the funeral. There would be no one answering on the line, but she had the distinct impression there was someone listening on the other side. Fearing that she was being stalked by would-be thieves, we advised her to change her phone number and only give the new number out to close family and friends, or essential contacts like her doctor.
But there was one particular incident that really unsettled her. It concerned - of all things - a mandarin orange peel.
The Queenstown flat had a long galley kitchen and the bench top at the time was of brown, textured melamine and the cabinets were a light-coloured pine. Mum liked to have fresh fruit and would keep a bowl of oranges or bananas on the kitchen bench top.
One morning, she woke to find a discarded mandarin orange peel sitting on the kitchen bench top. It was perfectly peeled in a long unbroken strip and neatly arranged back into the rounded shape of an orange. She was sure it hadn't been there when she went to bed.
She had no memory of peeling a mandarin, let alone eating it. There was no sign that anyone had broken in past the outer security gate and the deadlock on the front door. Besides, what burglar would stay long enough to carefully peel and eat a fruit, and then not take anything else of value?
It was such an innocuous thing, that mysterious orange peel. After showing it to my Aunt Rose (not her real name), Mum found the sight of it so unnerving that she threw it straight down the garbage chute, which was located under the kitchen sink.
I discussed this incident with Aunt Rose when I heard about it. She thought that my mother may have taken a sleeping tablet or something else that night, woke up half-asleep and then peeled and eaten the mandarin herself. But when I tried bringing up this possibility, Mum was very adamant she didn't take any such medication that night and on the occasions she did, she only took half a tablet anyway. Mum was certain she wasn't imagining the whole incident.
Furthermore, she pointed out that in our family, only my father had the steady hands required to methodically peel the delicate rind of a small mandarin without breaking it. My sisters and I have all tried at various times to challenge Dad at this and none of us ever succeeded in getting a continuous length of orange peel. Mum never had the patience to even try; she would simply break away bits of the rind until she got to the orange segments inside.
So even if Mum had somehow peeled and eaten the fruit in her sleep, how could she manage to keep the peel intact when she couldn't even do that awake?
Who really made the perfect orange peel?