Sunscreen may be the first thing you smell, but sea salt is the first thing you taste. Standing on the top my balcony, overlooking the ocean you take one big breath in and you’ll taste the sea on the tip of your tongue.
I’ve lived away from my house for most of my life. Our family home sits at the top of a cliff on Mermaid Avenue in a seaside suburb in Sydney. The only way to describe it is that it’s paradise. When I land back home in Australia, I always have the same ritual. After the 24 hour flight from London and after the unfurling of limbs, my Mum takes me home via the slower scenic route.
It’s all about the first look. The glimpses of the ocean that I can catch from the car windows. They start slowly like little flickers of blue between the houses and then just before we turn onto my street, there she is. The ocean, the bay and rock pools I grew up on and all that salty sea air that is waiting to push itself into my polluted London lungs.
Last time I went home, the house was all but empty. With my parents living overseas, half the contents of our home was sitting in a house by the Rhine in Germany. With no drivers license and an aversion to getting on any form of Sydney public transport once it’s over 30 degrees outside, I walked 25 minutes uphill to the fish shop.
The walk was worth it for the brown paper wrapped huge prawns I left with inside a plastic bag filled with ice. Big green tiger prawns, prawns that you don’t see outside the southern hemisphere. As I walked home the ice dripped in the sun, soaking my leather sandals with every step as the heat beat down on me.
This wasn’t just going to be a meal for me. I was cooking for my Ming, my cat. Ming is my mirror in life, my little cat from Singapore that I miss every time I hear a bell ring or a cat purr. Ming has been my baby since I was ten. I was first handed her when she was a three-week-old kitten my mother had found left for dead in a plastic bag at the wet markets in Singapore during the SARS outbreak. I dripped water into her mouth and fed her the best things I could find.
Her fur constantly damp with my teenage tears, she knew about all the bullies and all the boys. And still, now, things feel real again when I can whisper them to her and tell her how I’ve changed in our years apart since I left for London at 18. She’s been there for it all and knows things that no one else has ever heard. The things she has given me, I give back to her in food. A slight cat, her appetite knows no bounds.
A strange cat, my Ming eats anything. From a long line of market dwelling street cats, she happily gnaws her way through plastic bags to get to a roast chicken inside and shreds paper bags to chew the corners of fresh baguettes. At 12 when we left Singapore and moved her to Sydney, I knew how much she missed the humid rain and sleeping under our mango tree and chasing the tropical butterflies that filled the air. So I as a bored and curious child left her out bowls of coconut milk to sip thinking it might remind her of the tropics she was from.
I’ve seen her lick at the lid of a jar of curry paste and we share pancakes and bacon and every Christmas Ming has her own plate of ham, turkey, and stuffing to suffice her dealing with a house full of children for one day. A tiny cat, she eats with curiosity, and a ferocious fear like it’s all about to be taken away. But after watching her lick her paws in the sun, she’s the perfect vision of contentment. I love watching her belly swell before she curls up like a little Russian hat and falls asleep.
So, after not coming home back to Sydney for a year, I knew I had to make Ming something special to make up for it. Chilli and garlic barbecued prawns to be shared with the love of my childhood in the garden of my family home. She sat on top of the kitchen bench watching me while I tossed the prawns in chopped red chili, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil. I heated up the charcoal on the barbecue outside and grilled them till they were charred and blackened.
The chili was strong and hot, and the olive oil dripped through onto the charcoal and hissed. Once done, I squeezed over more lemon and put them on a plate that balanced on my chest while my legs were stretched out on the table in the Sydney sunshine. With Ming sitting next to me, I peeled off each shrimps shell and made her up her own plate of prawn heads, legs, and tails.
My hands looked like I had been digging for diamonds. Ming didn’t care about the shambles of this scene. I ate each prawn one by one, with a sip of very cold white wine between each bite as Ming crunched her way through the plate of shells. Breaking through their brains, licking her lips after eating their little black eyes. She loved the chili, she loved the garlic. At the end when all our prawns were gone, I washed up and Ming and I lay out on the hot tiles and napped in the sun.
All that was left of the scene was an empty wine glass and two ladies sleeping. Both not as young or as foolish as when they first came into each other’s lives, but still the same under the Sydney sun very full with a lifetime of love.