2: Good food

Madison drew in her sketch book while she waited for her mother outside the policeman’s office. She had a set of coloured pencils she carried everywhere, so the book was filled with bright and vivid cartoons of their family and her dreams. The latest masterpiece showed her with Dad picking vegetables for dinner in their garden, while Mum swam in the sea, living the island life. The sketchbook wrapped her away from the world into one of her own, one she was happy to be lost in.

She was so focused on her art she didn’t hear her mother shouting in the other room, didn’t notice the slamming of doors and didn’t see Blake storm out in a whirl of fury. It was only when her arm was grabbed and Madison was wrenched off the bench she realised they were leaving. Madison scrabbled to pick up the blue pencil dropped on the ground before she was pulled out the door, she needed it for the ocean.

Outside, the easy laid-back roll of Port Vila high street exploded around them in a cacophony of garish colour and noise. It was a stinking hot one again, with the air broiling nicely as it approached midday. Madison hastily packed her book and pencil case back into her rucksack, while Blake looked around unsure where to storm next. This wasn’t like her, Mum normally always knew what to do and where to go.

Madison did not understand distress, she saw only an opportunity to visit one of her favourite places on the island, the market. She pulled at Blake to guide her across the road, and incredibly enough her mother allowed herself to be led.

The market was where the islanders sold their wares, brightly coloured fruit and vegetables they grew in their gardens, or picked from the trees, alien roots dug from the ground, dishes they cooked in their pots and served on palm frond plates. Baskets filled with coconuts, mangoes and bananas. Food with exotic names like taro, yams, plantains and breadfruit. Food that Mum and Dad didn’t allow her to eat, so Madison could only daydream of their taste.

She was sure it must be better than the boring hot dogs and burgers served to the holidaying children poolside at the hotel. That was all the visitors seemed to gorge, as nobody had much interest in the local diet. Many scorned it as peasant food, likely poisonous, fish tainted with mercury, meat crawling with flies, unfit for first world stomachs.

Madison pulled her mother over to a table of of laplap, Vanuatu’s legendary national dish. Chicken legs sitting on a bed of white coconut dough, wrapped in leaves. They smelt funky, weird and fantastic. “Mum, can I try one of…”

Blake nodded without fuss, handing money over to the smiling woman behind the stall blankly. Madison couldn’t believe her luck. Whatever the policeman had told her mother was definitely working in her favour. She was plonked down on a concrete bench in the park next to the market.

“Stay here,” said Blake, and marched off to talk to the boatmen on the dock that lined the park. Perhaps she was planning a trip like one of the ones Dad was always taking, thought Madison. She happily munched into the laplap, and her smile widened even more.

It really was unlike anything she had ever tasted before. Meaty and sweet, but also salty and sour at the same time, with a fruity whiff of coconut ground into the chewy dough. So new, so different, so much better than the stale hotdogs that left your stomach empty no matter how many you ate. The turis’ didn’t know what they were missing. The islanders ate so well, that must be why they smiled so much. Madison wished she was an islander and not a turis.

Her day was already going so well Madison wondered if she’d see Yans in the park. Yans was an islander who walked around with a green lizard perched on top of his head, skull kept safe from the reptile’s claws by a frizzy pomade of hair. He was paid by the visitors to have his photo taken, or even more to let them hold the lizard, which he called Smolwan Yans.

As it was all going so easy Madison wondered if she should ask Mum for more market food. However, before she could take another mouthful the leaf pouch was grabbed out of her hands. She gulped and looked up. “Enough of that,” said Blake, walked over to a nearby bin and threw the laplap into it.

That was the end of that. Blake walked tall again, regal with her head high. She looked down at her daughter and motioned her towards a young smiling Ni-Van woman, dressed like everyone else in the island uniform of T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.

“Madison, say hello to Neri,” said Blake. “She’s going to help us find your father.”



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