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Chokos, Draino and Survival
In 1952 my parents divorced and my mother was awarded custody of my brother and me. We lived in East Brisbane, Australia. My brother was ten years old and I was eight. Post divorce, our mother introduced a series of economies to make ends meet. Straightaway she cut down on our food and drink. Our meagre supply of one pint of milk per day was totally inadequate for our growth. Fortuitously the Queensland Government’s Free Milk Scheme was functioning while I was in primary school. The nuns noticed how thin I had become, and had me drink up any leftover milk. Sometimes when the milk was left out in the sun on a hot day it went off and was difficult to consume. Nonetheless, it was a much-needed source of calcium.
When we arrived home after school we were forbidden to help ourselves to anything stored in the refrigerator. Sometimes we secretly siphoned off small amounts from the pineapple and tomato juice tins to add to the tepid tap water for extra taste. Our mother appeared none the wiser.
Meantime we were increasingly restricted in the food we ate. The peeling of beans and the shelling of peas were delayed until Mother returned home because she knew we would be tempted to eat them during preparation. She told us that eating raw peas and beans would give us worms. Not put off, we surreptitiously sneaked some. No sign of worms! After I was caught out chewing a handful of peas I was instructed to whistle while processing them.
We were forbidden to pick any of our home-grown crops of tomatoes, sweet corn, parsley and carrots. One exception was an extremely healthy choko vine that grew by our side fence. It regularly produced prolific crops of such proportion that we were overwhelmed by its abundance. With this vegetable, an exception was made and our plates were piled high with the unappetising food. My brother and I were united in hating its taste and texture. There was no let-up in supply; the more the pear-shaped marrow we picked, the more productive was its yield. That vile vegetable produced crops all year round!
Mother delighted in having such a fertile vine growing on our property. During its preparation for dinner I invariably pricked my fingers on its thorny skin. Next, was the disgustingly sticky process of slicing its slimy, pale-green flesh into portions. When the chokos were placed in the aluminium, triangular baskets of the pressure cooker and the machine switched on, the contents ‘metamorphed’ into grey mush. Tablespoons of the slop — unadorned with any sauce or butter to disguise the taste — were splattered onto our plates. Inwardly we groaned. My brother and I shuddered at the thought we would be saddled with eating chokos every night for the rest of our lives.
He and I decided it was high time for the choko vine to die. But how could we cause its death, with seemingly no interference? If we cut it at the roots, the plant would certainly perish, but our crime would be obvious. There must be another way.
‘Let’s pour Draino on its roots. We’ll dilute it a bit and pour it round its trunk’, decreed my brother. I thought his idea brilliant and was eager to help. By digging small holes around its base I facilitated the absorption of the toxic mixture Malcolm poured into the wells. We watered the mixture in; replanted the undergrowth and waited patiently for the vine to wither. Unaffected by the ‘treatment’ that stubborn vine continued to supply us with plentiful produce hanging from its stems. In the meantime, our mother — blissfully ignorant of our dastardly deed — continued to collect its produce and cook it for the evening meal. Malcolm and I just about gagged while eating that vegetable because we believed its flesh was contaminated with caustic soda and might be the death of us!
‘It needs another dose,’ my brother grimly stated. Eventually the second dose proved lethal. Yet it took some weeks before the vine showed signs of dying. I have to admit it was a heroic plant, pumping out produce even when it had shrivelled up into a gnarled, scrawny eyesore. Our mother was most puzzled about its demise and asked me whether I was watering the plant, being aware of our distaste for it.
‘Oh yes. Every day after school I hose it – just like I do with the other plants,’ I replied, not batting an eyelid. Finally, withered and shrunken, the vine collapsed. Our irate mother ripped out the plant and threw it into the compost bin. Afterwards we overheard our Mother grumbling to our neighbour ‘about the high price in the shops for something anyone can grow in their backyard’. And she was right, too, because a Sydney woman reported to The Age in 2005 how shocked she was to discover when checking her docket, she had paid $5 for a supermarket choko.
We never told Mother of our role in the demise of the vine, nor of our fear that we might have poisoned ourselves in the process. But here we are still alive and well despite the poisonous chemical we absorbed from the choko vine. As for our mother, she lived to the ripe old age of ninety-five years. It makes me wonder whether a bit of caustic soda added to her longevity.