Bryant Apolonio is an award-winning writer and lawyer currently living on Larrakia Country. He won the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021. His fiction has appeared in places like Liminal, Kill Your Darlings and Overland. He is working on a collection of short stories.
Araw ng Kalayaan 1991, the banner read. It’s a holiday but who’d pick it? There’s no joy in the mob’s foot-drag shuffle. No marching band jouncing along to the national anthem. There’s only the heckle of a thousand waylaid travellers. Only glassy customer service smiles and apologies over the P.A system. Flights delayed, delayed, cancelled. Always skittish around crowds, Arturo told his wife he’d go outside and see if he could learn more about what was happening, to see if anyone could help them. ‘Take Jun with you,’ Gina said flatly – of course she didn’t buy it – but he took his son by the hand all the same. The boy was being a menace again, had inherited his father’s disquiet along with his name. Give him one unsupervised second and he’d launch himself right off into the scrum of legs and sandaled feet.
‘Don’t let go, ‘nak,’ Arturo said as they pried their way through the concourse. Queues shoved up against the service counters like a river delta reaching the coast. All around them, passengers awaited news. They lay on the benches or on the carpet, resting their heads on suitcases and bunched-up clothes. Arturo felt his son’s small hand pulling him towards the windows that faced the tarmac where the planes stood waiting. Jun liked watching them inch forward –chrome and combustion coming to life, carbonating the air with pre-ignition fuel – only to be stopped just as suddenly by some off-screen order, a bark from the radio or the flourish of an air marshal’s wand. The pair emerged on Aquino Avenue where they found street vendors setting up roadside shops. Children – some as young as Jun – weaved between stalls bearing boxes full of snacks. Unruly knockabouts with salesman flair, calling out Quail eggs! duck eggs! peanuts! while local cops watched on listlessly.
Arturo bought the boy a skewer of pollock fish-balls and then he walked over to where the policemen were standing. He waved an amicable hand. ‘Can you tell me what’s going on here? When will they let us fly?’
Both officers had the look of men perpetually affronted: by Turo’s question, by the heat and smog and chaos of the street, by the civilian throng around them, and above all by the administrator who’d exiled them here – here, instead of an air-conditioned card-hall or Pasay brothel – to wait out the end of the world.
‘Where are you headed, pare?’ the younger officer asked. His face shone in the heat.
‘Sydney,’ Arturo said. He had relatives there who’d schemed for years to get them over. They needed diligent workers, one cousin had told Turo and his wife. They needed men with brains. He prophesied food on the table each night and two kids in medical school. That was enough for Gina but Arturo had never been convinced despite each pre-filled pastel form, each interview, each cheque made out to the immigration lawyer with the tease of hair and ruddled neck.
He must’ve had a slackwit look on his face because the police officers’ exasperation suddenly gave way to pity. ‘No, pare,’ said the older cop, clapping a sympathetic paw on his shoulder. ‘Where do you live? Where’s home? No one’s leaving Manila today.’ They had automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Old Yank M16s, possibly seized from the communists, the ordnance you’d expect from a former dictatorship.
On the other side of the street, a homeless man held a sign that read REV 8:8. He was shouting something. The cops watched him for a while, expecting a disturbance, but he wasn’t hassling anybody and the passersby ignored him. In fact, they seemed to barely register his presence. Doom-struck madmen would be a common enough sight in the city by the end of that summer. The older policeman turned back to Arturo. ‘This is just the first blast, sir. A throat clearing. Things will only get worse. You get your family home and keep them there.’
Arturo watched the cops trudge off. Then he looked down at Jun. ‘Now what?’
The crowd had grown much larger in the short time they’d been outside. People were leaving the airport and just sort of standing still, reaching the exit and staring up at the northern sky, uncertain about where they were meant to go from there. There were harried-looking businessmen. There were young people who should have been on holiday. Vivid heaps of luggage resting at their feet. There was a pilot pinching the front of his shirt. A Latin American priest flanked by two nuns in the black habit of the Benedictines. They sat on a wooden bench and prayed the rosary.
Turo crouched down on one knee so he was eye-level with his son. He pointed up at the clouds of ash that advanced like a tired army. ‘You see that, Jun?’
‘It’s a fire,’ said the boy.
Arturo nodded. ‘A fire. Right in the middle of the mountain. An enormous fire that started long ago…’ he went on as if he were beginning a story. But before he could tell it, Junior had already fashioned his own. A treasure hoard in a deep magma chamber. A lone intruder scrabbling to fill his pockets with precious gems. A scarlet beast behind him, rising from its long slumber, with ancient wings outstretched. It was Arturo’s quiet pleasure to watch Jun when he got like this – the drifty look he got, mouth agape, the mop of black hair over his eyes – and he envied the way the boy, like all children, could relocate himself so easily into a world all his own.
‘Let’s find your mother,’ Arturo said.
The priest and the nuns were reciting the Hail Mary. Arturo was not a religious man. He hadn’t been to church in years. He knew that truth lay in numbers and in an understanding of the world’s physical laws. A mountain was an accommodation of stress and pressure. A volcano would telegraph its eruption for weeks and weeks if you knew what to listen for. An earthquake in Tangshan could set another off on the far end of the Eurasian plate. He knew that the land they stood on was temporary, that its coastlines changed shape and its atolls sank into the Pacific and sometimes rose. But looking at the Zambales mountains today, even he found it hard to deny what his countrymen already knew.
A Plinian column, twenty kilometres high, obscured the red palm of sun. Disintegrated pumice and silicon covered the stratosphere like living tissue. It had a terrible life to it, he thought. There was will here and there was portent. How easy it was, today, to believe in a God that punished and judged. And how much it looked like two lobes perched on a spindly stem: a great brain looming over the Philippine islands, solemn and indifferent.
At Amoranto Sports Complex, the tennis courts have been converted to field kitchens. A documentary crew are trying to enter the makeshift morgue. Air Force personnel stand about like construction workers waiting for their foreman to show up. Even from the top of the stands, it’s hard to see how far the lines go. You will get to know this wide-eyed march of the survivors. It’s the story of the next century. The whole place blanketed in the drab olive of army tarp. Pope John Paul II’s condolences over the speakers. He prays for the missing. San Antonio, Patron Saint of Lost Things, please bring them home. Typhoon Yunya’s days from landfall, says a meteorologist, squinting through thick eyeglass lenses. Army geologists watch their monitors with hushed expectancy. A one hertz tremor, rail to rail. A fisherman, bird-boned, sun-pruned, tells the interviewer that he leapt from his canoe and dove underwater and hid there when he first heard the rumble. He swam to shore but his partner was gone. There’s a father who lost his son in a mudslide. A teenage girl who hid in a cave. Their words have a detached and offhand quality, as if they’re reporting things from movies they’d seen – movies that they didn’t particularly like or even found interesting – and could only faintly recollect.
Gina turned away from the television screen and saw that the girl in the Philippine Airlines uniform had slid a receipt across the counter.
‘Did you see that?’ she asked.
‘Ma’am, I’ve upgraded your seats. We’ll contact you as soon as we have a handle on the situation.’
‘They’re talking about a typhoon now. How long do you think it’ll be before the airport’s open again?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t say.’
‘Days? Weeks, do you think?’
‘I understand your concern, ma’am,’ the girl replied. ‘But even if I could help you, I won’t be able to process any of this while we’re on alert. It’s the system, ma’am. None of our planes have clearance.’
Gina studied the skin on the girl’s arms. She had an aggressive eczema there, a violent red that ran up and florentined the left side of her neck. ‘Miss,’ still vainly defiant, ‘We need to be in Sydney by the end of the week. My husband has an interview for a new job. If we had been up in the air three hours ago, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the ash reaching us.’
On TV, a man in a barong stood on a white podium to recite the country’s declaration of independence from the Spanish.
‘Can I talk to my husband?’ she asked. ‘There he is now. Turo!’ His head bobbing in the pedestrian roil, Jun dawdling behind. The girl shrugged, raised her hands as if waiting to catch something. ‘Over here,’ Gina called again as he shouldered towards her.
‘What did you find out?’ she asked him. Jun leaned on a suitcase and sent it reeling across the floor. She swept her foot in a peg-leg motion to wedge it still.
‘I talked to some cops.’
‘Cops,’ she repeated. The PAL lady was already talking to another customer.
‘Don’t be angry,’ he said. He spoke softly, diffidently. That’s how he got. She was inclined to pointed silence.
‘I’m not angry. What did they tell you?’ When he took her by the wrist, she already knew what he’d say.
‘They said the sooner we leave, the better. We’ll work this out at home, Gina.’
She let her hand go limp and he took up the slack. She tried. God knows she did. Just as she was on the cusp of leaving, the earth itself – a bland-faced arbitrator – set down its ruling in Arturo’s favour. She was young when she first saw the world outside the archipelago. It was 1981 and martial law had been lifted, at least on paper, and she was a twenty-one-year old girl who’d coaxed a doting husband into a honeymoon in the Alps. They scrimped and starved the whole way – four-man sleeper carriages, cup noodle dinners and nights in run-down hotels – but she loved it all the same. Odyssey sang in her blood. The girl who crossed the sea saw quilted fields and tall dark pines, peaks wreathed in cloud, roe deer in the wan light of late autumn. She promised herself she would never return to the Philippines and, in a way, she didn’t.
They took a cab down the highway. They passed cement trucks that looked like great insects with churning abdomens. Jeepneys painted with race-car flames, arrogant reds, stained-glass blues, the aerosol softies and Wildstyle of tenement brick. The air shimmered with fuel fumes. Jun pressed his face up to the window so his breath dappled the glass.
‘Listen to the word of God,’ came the voice from the radio. It was Imelda, coming in live from Oahu, where the Marcos family had been living in exile since Ferdinand was ousted in ‘86.
‘These events – earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons – these are not natural events. These are punishments sent by God. He is telling us that my husband must be allowed to return home.’
Marcos had died two years earlier and his body had been kept in Hawaii, propped up on ice with enough rouge on to keep him looking hale. Imelda had been petitioning the government for months to let them come home so she could bury him beside his mother and father in Ilocos Norte.
‘You are punishing the dead,’ she crowed, that familiar whicker. ‘This is God’s punishment. Listen to the word of God.’
Gina’s sister was waiting for them when they returned. ‘You’re back,’ she said, picking her nephew up. She gave him a hard kiss on each cheek as he squirmed to free himself. ‘Jun, you won’t ever leave me again, will you?’ She smiled at Gina and Turo.
‘We’re still going, Ate. We’ve just been delayed.’
Her sister looked at her in a strange and tender way, the way you might look at a child who’s still too young to understand the deeper meaning behind things. ‘Maybe this is a blessing, Gina. Maybe you’re meant to stay.’
‘We’ll be on the next plane out once this is over.’
Gina was dying for a shower, to wash off the day’s sourness. In the bathroom, she filled a pail with boiling water and the steam made the room smell of camphor. A tentative knock and Turo sidled in. He came up to her and held her by the waist. He pressed his cheek on the skin just beneath her neck.
‘I need to know you’re with me, Turo.’
‘I am with you.’
‘You should call your cousin,’ she said. ‘Tell him we’ve been held up. Call the company and ask them if you can postpone your interview.’
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘That’s all you have to say?’ Now she shook herself free of him. ‘It’s not fine, Arturo. Everything’s going to go to hell. Call them. Let them know we’re still coming.’
He nodded but said nothing. Then he left. Gina heard the scritch of housekeys, the rattle of the fly-screen grate. She looked at herself in the mirror and pushed one hand up under her hair, which was going flaxy in parts, perhaps a little grey. She lifted the thick mane of it and inspected the skin around her neck and cheeks, the creases and compressions in the unflattering halogen. Steam had begun to fill the cramped room. It fogged up the mirror’s glass until the walls behind her were obscured, and she could no longer see her body, and then she could no longer see her face.
The old man at the sari-sari store sold flowers, cigarettes and playing cards. He wished his customers a happy Independence Day. Arturo bought a pack of Jackpots, lit one and let it hang out the corner of his mouth, limp, the way he did when he was younger. He had thought that it made him look like a French philosopher or the leading man in a Lino Brocka movie – contemplative, dashing, in spite of the shapeless nose and farmhand’s complexion – and also because his dormmates had told him that it drove a girl named Regina up a wall with ardour.
Arturo shut one eye for the smoke.
‘You hear about Clark, boss?’ the shopkeeper asked and paused like he was about to tell a joke.
‘The military base? They evacuated it.’
‘Ten thousand people. No one left behind.’
Jeep by jeep, down the dirt track the soldiers went with another Asian war story safely tucked into their tins of chew. Another one to zing out over a snifter of bourbon and a crackling fire. (But never retold as often as the others: how could a story about a volcano ever be as moving as the sacrifices their brothers made at Kumsong? as amusing as the one about the three whores in Phnom Penh? or as thrilling as the Huey ride out of fallen Saigon?) They wouldn’t be back.
Arturo wandered over to the edge of the road as the familiar headspin kicked in. He sat down in the gutter. The truth is, he now felt relieved. It was perverse, selfish, but it was like he’d been plucked out of deep water and stood on dry land. He butted the cigarette and rose, patting dust off the seat of his jeans. He stretched his arms up over his head and heard knots of muscle pop. Then he walked back to the store. The old man had his ear up to a transistor radio. ‘Manong,’ Arturo said. ‘Get me one of those international calling cards, too.’
On the way home, he caught Jun shuffling down the street. ‘There you are,’ he said, waiting at the front gate. An insurgent grin on the boy’s face. ‘Ano ba. You’re a mess.’ They climbed the stairs to the front of the house where Jun let his shoes flop by the doormat. Dried mud scattered all over the landing. Arturo could only click his tongue, too tired to rebuke.
‘Go on,’ he said. He touched the boy’s arm, guided him inside. ‘Clean yourself up before you mother sees you.’
Gina came out of the kitchen with a balled-up cloth in her hand that she held pot lids with. Her hair was damp and she’d wrapped it up high in a towel. She wore a robe and her house slippers. He went to her and kissed her on the cheek which smelled like lavender shampoo and the smell mixed with the tobacco stink in his clothes. He could see the soft light of the television in the living room, where his sister-in-law would be watching a televangelist or talent show. He put his hands around Gina’s shoulders and felt her soften. There was a part of him – a childish part he’d stashed away long ago – that made him want to shut his eyes, squeeze them tight, and will it all still. To hitch the passage of time to those memories; to this exact instant where he held her body as close as he could to his own. And another part of him that knew better.
Patrick Arulanandam is a writer and doctor of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, who lives on Wangal country in Sydney. He spends much his time using the NATO phonetic alphabet to spell his surname for people. He was second runner up for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021, and a finalist for the Eric Dark Creative Writing Prize in 2014.
Note: The setting of the story is a boarding house for academically talented children selected from poor families. The basic premise is hinted at but not yet revealed in the extract provided: the children are being slowly trained to become the ‘Seconds’ of various elite members of society. To be a Second is to be raised to emulate the same tastes, attitudes, knowledge and inclinations of your elite foster ‘parent’ – in fact, the idea is to eventually replace that person when they die, and thereby ensure a form of second life for them.
The Seconds of Holroyd House
The scene is well known. A sea of children. First day of seventh grade. Parents huddled close. Ignore the tears, instead see the trembling hands of mother and father. It is always father who disengages first, his fingers slowly unclasped from his child’s sunken shoulder. Mother stays behind – perhaps for another two minutes, or another twenty. Then her grip loosens too and she leaves, as she must, turning from the child. Mother and father drive away.
Ask any of us old Holroyd kids, and you hear some version of that story. Our last day with our first parents.
The day I found out what I was, and therefore who I would become, began just like any other. I woke to the smell of toast, the din of tea, and Julian Macintyre screaming from our matchbox kitchen that it was time to wake up.
Julian: early riser, my first roommate, my best mate in those early years at Holroyd House. I should clear up one matter. Whatever you might have reasonably assumed from his name, Julian Macintyre was almost as brown as me. Skinwise I mean. So it was pretty unusual that we were quartered together. As you may know, the boarding schools for Seconders now have strict rules to prevent kids with foreign-born parents being placed together.
The reason these rules exist depends on who you ask. Some say it was to ward off the mischief we would get up to if we lived with our own kind, so to speak. Others say the rules actually protected us from being bullied: the argument was that moving through the world as a pair of brown kids was more conspicuous than moving through it as an individual brown kid. I’m not sure how true that is, I’m just giving you the theory as I understand it.
How did Julian and I slip through the cracks and live in the same dorm for two whole years, when our parents came from not only the same country (Sri Lanka) but also the same town (Yalpanam)? I have a simple theory. I think Holroyd House just looked at Julian’s name on his parents’ application form and assumed he was another poor white kid, instead of a poor coloured kid. So they assigned him a roommate called Karuna.
Sure, my theory has some holes. For one, our parents had to send the school certified copies of our passports, with colour photographs, as part of the long application process. But I suspect that back then the schools were just much more relaxed than they are now, at least on the racial question. I know it’s fashionable these days to put forward conspiracies to explain such irregularities, but my considered view is that old fashioned human error explains how Julian and I were quartered together.
The school didn’t make any immediate moves to correct the error, either. Yes, it is true that the marshals and prefects gave us funny looks for a while, and we suffered far more random spot checks than other kids. Perhaps someone even filed a formal report – it’s hard to check on that sort of thing so many miles down the road. In the end I reckon they figured that my quiet and reserved nature meant that any major trouble was unlikely. If that was their calculation, the error was in underestimating the other side of the ledger.
When I think of him now, and I think of him often, I find myself remembering a passage from a history book I found in Mr Burgess’ library. It told of how the Roman Emperor Commodus, in a fit of rage, waved the decapitated head of an ostrich at a group of senators at the Colosseum. Most of the senators sat in silence, terrified, but one of them found the scene so ridiculous he had to stuff his mouth with a laurel wreath to stop himself laughing out loud.
You see, the thing about remembering Julian is this: depending on exactly what memory surfaces, he could be the laughter-muffling senator, or he could be the imperious and deranged Commodus. But in the end, right at the end, wasn’t he the ostrich?
Julian was a lesson learned, like the other “free spirits of Holroyd”, to use Mr Benton’s tired phrase. The ones who couldn’t finish their time, for one reason or another.
The day I find out is midwinter and the morning air is so chilled that my ears feel alight. Our textbooks are scattered over the dining table, a mess accumulated by a weekend of cramming. We quiz each other as we nibble at lightly buttered toast.
“Painful?” asks Julian.
“Schmerzlich,” I reply. “Too easy.”
“Das Fenster. I’m not worried about German. I’m worried about Maths.”
“Me too. But look, mate. Realistically, there is no way we are going to master so much trigonometry in forty five minutes,” he says as he checks his watch. “No sense in worrying about it. We are beyond that stage now. Just try to ace the German paper. Stimmt?”
I am worried, though – the kind of free floating worry that drifts towards us when we discover that effort is not always rewarded by outcome, that an absence of talent cannot always be held ransom by grit. This kind of worry bites worst in my first few months at the school, when the endless exams somehow seem both completely arbitrary, but also clearly designed for some higher purpose. When a carryover error on a maths paper seems like it will burrow its way worm-like into all my possible futures.
“Karuna,” Julian says, trying to breach my reverie. “Universe to K-dog. Do we have a signal? Hello Mistah K?”
There is a signal, but it is weak, for my mind is thinking not of the German language but the lanky kid in ninth grade who is known simply as The German, the kid who sneaks from his dorm after curfew and makes his way to the big red gumtree and examines its trunk, etched as it is by hundreds of axe marks.
A stale plan, hatched weeks before, returns to my mind, perhaps more as a fantasy than a real idea.
“The German,” I say.
“That’s right. If we ace German today, maybe it won’t matter if we totally bomb out in the Maths paper. Maybe – ”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean The German. That kid in ninth grade.”
“What about him?”
“Let’s sneak out tonight and meet him at the tree. Let’s ask him what the deal is – why we keep getting slammed with all these tests, day after day. He’s ninth grade – maybe he knows everything. He can tell us why our parents dumped us in this place. He can tell us what happens next. Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to be at least a little prepared?”
For the briefest moment you can actually see the fear in Julian’s face, and the realisation he had been snookered. He is the daredevil of our duo, the prankster; he cannot turn down my proposal without losing face.
But I know he is spooked by the way Holroyd looks late at night, and that big old tree. We all are. And what’s more, like all of us, an important part of Julian does not want to know what awaits us in the years ahead. The part of us that understands that we are stuck here, that our parents are not coming to take us back home. That seventh and eighth grades are a respite before ninth grade, when things start to happen.
The unstated wisdom, passed on through locker room innuendo and schoolyard legend and toilet graffiti, is this: you are better off not knowing certain things until you have to know them.
“Sure,” Julian says. “Tonight. Let’s do it.””
The maths paper is worse than I feared, a nightmare of angles and asymptotes. It is a small mercy that it is over so early in the morning. Numb, I move on to the next lesson, philosophy.
We drift from class to class with rehearsed ease. We have no sense of the deep history of how each subject landed in our curriculum. The high level wrangling that has taken place over decades is all a mystery to us.
It is only much later that I learn that philosophy is not even taught at most Seconding schools. I suppose in retrospect that is obvious. There are very few philosophers around who have the financial means to adopt a Second. But back then we didn’t know that. We were just kids who turned up to the classes on our timetable.
Julian would have told you that the reason I liked philosophy class was because of Chantelle Lane, but that is not quite the whole story. It is at least as true to say this: I liked Chantelle Lane because of philosophy class.
On this particular day, Mr Benton is teaching the pre-Socratics. As is often the case in Benton’s classroom, the discussion meanders to the question of free will, and whether it exists.
“One of the great virtues of Holroyd,” Mr Benton says, “is the opportunity you have to learn from each other, not just from these textbooks.” He pushes away the book on his desk in a gesture of abdication. As though it were a second thought, and not a book he will ask us to learn back to front for an exam in two weeks.
“Take Karuna, for instance,” he says. I freeze, knowing already what was coming next. “Karuna, you are, as we know, a Sri Lankan of Tamil ancestry. The Sri Lankan Tamils are inheritors of a long and proud civilization, with all the cultural and philosophical insights that come with that. Perhaps you could share with the class what attitude the ancient Tamil scholars – the sangam, if I am using the term correctly – held towards the ideas of fate and free will? Perhaps a summary of what the Thirukurral has to say about the matter would be a fine entry point.”
To be fair to Benton, he is not deliberately crucifying me. Benton is a genuinely curious man and he probably thinks he is giving me an opportunity to share my knowledge with the class. The problem is that I do not have this knowledge to share.
“Sir, I don’t think that the Thirukurral actually has much to say on free will or fate. My understanding is that it is more a book of – homely wisdom.”
I have no such understanding, having never read it.
Benton looks puzzled, disarmed. I am worried that if left to his own thoughts for much longer, he will realise that I am a stranger not only to the Thirukurral, but to Tamil literacy in general.
And this is when I am rescued by Chantelle Lane for the first time (I have been rescued by her three times in total).
“Mr Benton, Karuna and I have looked into this before,” she says. “He has a point. From what I understand about Tamil culture, as an outsider of course, the Thirukurral is a highly revered philosophical work, renowned for its structural symmetry and poetry – but it is also a book of homely wisdom. You will find people from all walks of life in Tamil communities quoting it. It is quite different from a Greco-Roman work like, say, On the Nature of Things, which deals directly with the free will issue. Lucretius is certainly mesmerising to the ear in the original Latin, but he is hardly quoted by the average Jo Bloggs on the street now is he?”
This is classic Chantelle at work – a masterful deployment of limited but decisive knowledge (she knows less about Tamil literature than me), guesswork, an appeal to Benton’s innate elitism, and most critically, ending with a reference to a Roman philosopher. Pretty much a guaranteed way to divert Benton’s attention till class dismissed.
Irina Frolova is a Russian-Australian writer who lives with her three children and two fur babies on the Awabakal land in NSW. She has a degree in philology from Moscow City Pedagogical University and is currently studying psychology at Deakin University. Her poetry has appeared in Not Very Quiet, Australian Poetry Collaboration, Baby Teeth Journal, Rochford Street Review, The Blue Nib, The Australian Multilingual Writing Project, and Live Encounters, as well as various anthologies. Irina’s writing speaks to the experience of immigration and a search for belonging. Her first collection of poetry Far and Wild was released by Flying Island Books in January, 2021. You can find Irina on Facebook @irinafrolovapoet.
Vika opened the bedroom window. The street of her small coastal town was empty. All she could hear was the breeze ruffling the treetops and the warble of magpies. Perhaps her neighbours, mainly retirees, were having an afternoon nap. On a different day Vika would welcome this siesta in the suburban carnival of lawn-mowing, whipper-snipping and leaf-blowing. But today the quiet made her hands tremble and her breath stall in her throat.
She unscrewed the fly screen and carefully put it down next to the wall. Then she picked up the first bag from her bed, lifted it over the windowsill and put it on the front lawn. When the second bag was out, she grabbed the cat carrier with Vegemite sitting patiently inside.
‘Thank you for being such a good girl,’ Vika whispered to the cat.
A few minutes later the bags were in the boot, the cat carrier and the kids in the back seats. She had told everyone it was just a trip to the park.
Vika took one last look at the old weatherboard house with the white picket fence and the rose garden. Oh, if these walls could talk. Or write. What stories they would tell: of motherhood, of loneliness, of denial, of lies, of anguish. These walls, covered with small handprints of her three children, stood around her: on the nights she fought sleep with a crying baby in her arms, or fought off panic attacks, the sneaky cowards, just before dawn. These walls stood between them: her in one room, him – in another. Can they stand with her one more time, keep one more secret?
Her eyes paused on the middle window. Was there a shadow behind the lace curtain? Vika was not sure if she believed in ghosts. However, she had come to believe that, perhaps, the house had a ghost – the suburban dream. Her dream. Her happily-ever-after. Would it haunt her for the rest of her life? Maybe so, but for now she had bigger things to worry about.
She put the key in the ignition. Every nerve in her body was buzzing. She remembered the first time she was on a plane. Her skin tingled, as the plane sped up the runway, like a match flashing on the side of the matchbox. The moment the plane was airborne, a steady flame radiated through her. Now, that she was driving away from the family home, it was back.
While the kids played at the park, she made three phone calls. The first one was to the women’s services. She told them that she was out, and a motel room was arranged for the night. Then she called her friend, who offered to take in Vegemite for as long as needed. She paused before making the third call.
There was no answer, so she left a voice mail: ‘We are safe. We are not coming back.’
At the motel, Ash and Violet took one of the double beds, while Vika and Rose shared the other. She told the kids they were having a little holiday, an adventure. The puzzled looks quickly gave way to jumping on the beds and excited squealing. When everyone was finally in their pyjamas, they all squeezed into one bed for story time.
Vika had packed only one book – a compilation of Russian fairy-tales that her mother had sent from home.
‘Ok, which one will it be tonight?’ she looked at the children.
‘Vasilisa The Wise! Baba Yaga! Ivan Tsarevich!’ they yelled over each other in anticipation.
‘You have to agree on one.’
‘You chose last time.’
‘No, you did!’
‘I never get to choose…’
‘How about we let the fairy-tale choose us?’ said Vika mysteriously.
The kids’ mouths fell open: ‘How?’
‘We close our eyes and open the book. We see which fairy-tale it is, and read it’
Two brown heads and one blond head nodded rapidly.
Vika closed her eyes, took a dramatic deep breath and opened the story book. On the left side there was an illustration: a young man dressed in black grasping a feather of an exotic bird. The bird looked like a peacock, with a magnificent long tail and large wings, the colour of fire. In the background, against the night sky stood a tree with golden fruit.
‘Wow…’ the children whispered in unison.
Vika pointed to the title: ‘Oh look: it’s “Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf!” And… It also has Princess Vasilisa.’
‘AND the Firebird too!’ squealed Rose in delight.
Once the children were asleep, Vika looked at her phone: thirty new messages and five missed calls. An icy wave rolled over her. She switched off the phone. One by one, she kissed the three silky heads. Rose was still hugging the book of fairy-tales to her chest. Vika carefully pulled it out of her daughter’s hands and flicked through the pages.
Curled up on the edge of the bed, she closed her eyes. She could see her own mother’s face before her.
The soft voice read to her: ‘and then Vasilisa the Wise said: “Go to sleep. Don’t worry yourself. A morning is wiser than a night.”’
Dasha Maiorova is a Belarus-born writer who lives and works on Dharawal Country in Sydney’s southwest. In 2020 she was runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize, and won the Heroines Women’s Writing Prize for fiction. Her writing has been published in The Big Issue, Voiceworks and Baby Teeth. She writes about books, reading and more at www.dashamaiorova.com
The train will derail.
The Pobedy departed Leningrad’s Moskovsky Station on a summer morning still yawning awake, on the fifteenth of June nineteen-ninety – but it would not arrive in Moscow. It was destined to collide with another train heading in the opposite direction, the inverse journey of its own.
The sun lingered behind swathes of cloud and a girl with her face pressed to the window did not finish her game of counting them. Ahead, at the gradual turn of the tracks, she saw the engine of the Pobedy as it travelled through the pine trees, and the cracked paintwork of the driver’s compartment.
Teaspoons rattling on the tea lady’s cart mimicked the onward chugging of the passenger train and the chatter of school children aboard, returning to country fields in the village pockets on the way to Moscow.
They would never come home.
The girl heard a bird-like shriek. A whistle. Then the brakes, screaming in agony. The Pobedy shuddered. School bags and satchels spilled from ceiling nets. Brakes seizing, the Pobedy continued its slide forward, seeming not to slow at all.
Through the pines, the girl watched as sparks shot from under the other train. The white eye lit up in warning; blinking at its twin once, twice, in disbelief. She whimpered. At the midpoint between the Pobedy and the oncoming train a figure stood unmoving: a man on the tracks, unfazed by the machines’ roaring approach. He glowed white under the glare of the locomotive headlight. His head bowed in mournful reproach. This small girl already knew what it meant to mourn.
Too late, the brakes gained purchase. An explosion bellowed through the carriages, an impact not only of force but sound. The train crumpled inwards. Vapour scorched through the full length of the thirteen passenger cars, obliterating glass from windows.
The carriages settled on their sides, twisted as wooden toys discarded by a child. The dead were silent and the dying held their breaths. Those children still able to scream, screamed. A bar pierced the girl’s thin chest. A new smile was torn beside a mouth that never had cause to smile before.
Spilled, charred limbs crowded Alyona’s thoughts as she waited in a holding area of Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. The corridor bore the resigned shabbiness of an interrogation cell. Discarded customs declarations and incoming passenger cards formed a patchwork on the linoleum. Fluorescent bulbs spat yellow light over the pockmarked ceiling tiles.
Following the flight, it seemed time would remain suspended. Alyona spied a glance at the Soviet clock mounted on the wall across the hallway. An object of functional lines, a face without character.
Hunching on the bench with her suitcase wedged between her knees, Alyona began again to gnaw at her cuticles. Her spare hand strayed to her collar button, then to her hair. She brushed it behind one ear and then back in front again. To appear at-ease and inconspicuous she tried to maintain a slow, steady breath. It was a wasted effort. No matter what she did, Alyona could not hide her face.
A light flashed above the door opposite, indicating that she could finally enter the office. Inside, an immigration clerk peered over the frame of her glasses at Alyona. The officer had eyebrows thin as spiders’ legs and they rose in appraisal of the young woman. Alyona’s photo lay atop the open file on her desk.
She had supplied the passport-sized image months ago. In it, an indignant Alyona stared from under a fringe since grown out. Her hair loose around her cheeks, to cover her marked face. They warned Alyona in the consulate that any mistake in her application, even a photograph too much in shadow, would likely terminate her chances of entering Russia. She still refused to pull back her hair.
That image, that file, had since passed between many examining hands. The paleness of her skin surprised her. The blue-grey gash beside her mouth did not. She appeared older in the photo than she expected.
The clerk indicated the empty chair before the desk and began clacking at her keyboard. She hesitated, her gaze hovering over her monitor. Her glasses glowed with the reflection of the screen, obscuring her expression. She did not look at Alyona but rather through her. In return, Alyona averted her eyes, studying the brutal Cyrillic letters labelling a badge on the desk. She could not decipher and name and title scored there.
The speechless moment dragged on. Alyona’s heartbeat echoed through her body. She wondered if even the clerk could hear it: the drumming of her fear. She refocused her attention on a calendar pinned to the back wall of the clerk’s office. A mountain range. Snow-capped forest glowing against a red sky. Today’s date unmarked, of no significance to the woman who hung it there.
A printer on the desk groaned to life, making Alyona jump. Several pages of dense text spewed from its mouth. The clerk gathered them together and stamped them each with a flourishing emblem. From her position, Alyona distinguished an inverted crown and a pair of hooked anchors. The crest of Saint Petersburg.
“Sign here.” The immigration officer tapped a long fingernail against a blank line at the end of the document. Alyona’s breath quickened. The cryptic letters on the page blurred. She scrawled her signature and pushed the papers back toward the clerk, who stapled them without ceremony.
“Very good. The matter of entry is resolved. It is done.” The officer’s tone intended as a brush-off. She spoke English with a laboured, throaty accent. “A statement of validity will be issued to your designated place of residence. You are required to register with the nearest legal authority within three days, with your host acting as witness. Penalties apply if you do not do so.”
A fresh stack of papers appeared before Alyona. On the second line: her name, typed in that square, formidable language.
“My grandmother is unwell. She cannot leave her apartment,” Alyona stuttered in a tongue grown unfamiliar.
“Oh, you speak Russian.” A raised eyebrow. A fingernail trailed the text of Alyona’s documentation. “I see here, she is on a widow’s pension. Have her sign for you, then. I’ll give you a declaration form.”
Relief and uncertainty in equal measure collapsed like lead through Alyona’s chest. “I am surprised. I was expecting–”
“What did you expect?” The clerk narrowed her eyes. Alyona held that gaze for a second. Beneath the desk, she pressed her nails into her palms.
“Your application took into concern… special circumstances. In truth, I don’t understand it. Your case is the first of this category I’ve come across – and from Australia, of all places. You should be glad for the expedited process. Next year, upon reaching the age of twenty-five, you’d be stamped a ‘stateless person’, with no recourse to enter the country with such ease.”
No. It had not been easy.
The clerk’s authority reminded her of Lena, her guardian. The woman who had so nearly prevented Alyona from coming to Russia. From coming home. Another year, and Alyona could not have returned.
“Thank you,” she said instead.
“The arrivals hall is that way. You should be able to get a taxi to the city without any difficulty at this time of day. Unless someone is meeting you?”
Alyona shook her head, but the clerk had already dismissed her with a vague gesture in the direction of the door. “Welcome to Saint Petersburg.”
Alyona knew she overpaid for the journey. The cab was meterless. She gave the driver an address on a slip of paper, and he quoted a price. That was all he said.
The car wove through a city bearing no resemblance to the Saint Petersburg Alyona had imagined. She was unprepared for a route landmarked by soot-coloured bridges, factories enclosed in barbed-wire fences, and multi-storey complexes glittering with smashed windows. She alternated her attention between watching the dismal passing suburbs and the driver’s hands on the steering wheel. Faded tattoos marked the backs of his fingers. His eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror. Bloodshot and unperturbed by the marks on her face, as though scars by a woman’s mouth were a frequent sight in his world.
He left her at a road heaped with rotted leaves. Concrete slab khrushchyovka apartment blocks towered above her. Each more dismal than its neighbour. If the driver had not flicked a hand in the direction of a particular block, Alyona would never have guessed which of those sixties’ government-constructed buildings was her grandmother’s. The blocks cast bulky shadows over the road, mirroring the rows of yet more disposable Soviet-era khrushchyovkii. Each flat had its own small balcony. Some were cheery with ornate gardens of vines and potted flowers so lush they spilled into neighbours’ territories. Others were stacked with debris.
Alyona could not remember when she last felt so small. Even her lungs tightened, a sensation of her body wanting to close in on itself. She had arrived in Saint Petersburg. She was on the cusp of discovery, of unearthing all that remained of her history, yet she felt no sense of homecoming.
She tried to guess which window in the dirty grey expanse she would soon be looking out of. Her body acted before she made the decision to key the flat number into the intercom – 11. The device crackled to life. An entry buzzer sounded.
As Alyona pushed through the security door, she glimpsed a clutch of wilted sunflowers tethered to hooks on the side of the building. Though weak and bent by early autumnal chill, they were bright flares compared to the darkness within.
A bare bulb spit light in erratic bursts from the ceiling. The rustle of Alyona’s coat and the tread of her boots too loud against the blistered walls. Ahead, a timber block propped open the doors to a graffiti-emblazoned lift. A hand-lettered sign hung from the wood, declaring a hazardous proposition in exclamation marks. Alyona peered through the jagged spiral of stairs stretching six or seven landings above. She estimated flat eleven would be on the fourth floor.
Nowhere else to go except up.
Movement above. Light shimmered on a metal door, opened just for her. As Alyona climbed the final steps of the landing, she saw the figure silhouetted there.
“Irina Alexandrovna?” she asked.
The figure – a woman – shuffled forward. She was very small, and very old. She wore a long cotton dress beneath a pilled cardigan and slippers covered in stains.
“Alyonochka!” The old woman’s voice wavered in the stairway.
Alyona stood awkwardly at the last step. She turned her face down as she dropped the suitcase by her feet. The old woman addressed her again by the diminutive Alyonochka!, her voice made small by weeping. She seemed unable to contain herself.
The old woman placed her hands on either side of Alyona’s arms. She drew Alyona against her bird-like chest in a stilted embrace. Their height difference made it easier for Alyona to turn her face away. She hoped the old woman could not detect the mad beating of her heart. In Alyona’s ears, the thudding smothered all other sound.
“Finally, you’ve come back. You’re home!” Irina Alexandrovna sobbed. Her familiar, bittersweet smell struck Alyona as savagely as a blow. Coarse grey hair tied in a bun with an aroma… salt, sugar, cooked apples.
Sunshine baking dust in a carpeted room. Toys in a wicker basket. Alyona’s child-self reached for a worn doll. The memory was devastation. Alyona clutched back. She gripped the fabric of her grandmother’s cardigan as though to cling tighter to the memory-scent overwhelming her.
Wooden ornaments lined the windowsills of Irina Alexandrovna’s flat. Hand-hewn spoons, rearing bears, wolves arch-backed and howling. Browned tapestries hung on the walls, speckled with flakes of paper crackled from the ceiling. Irina Alexandrovna watched Alyona expectantly, as though wishing for some recognition on her granddaughter’s behalf.
A threadbare sofa designated the sitting room, its centre dominated by an unceremonious pile of books, stacked like chopped wood. Each title stripped of its spine.
Alyona finally spoke, though without directly addressing her grandmother: “You’re a reader…”
Irina Alexandrovna stared at the torn covers. Her expression carried surprise. “I gathered them when I was able to go up and down the stairs. Everyone throws books away nowadays. They throw everything away. No one knows what’s needed until the time comes, but everything can be useful in the end.”
She smiled a distant, unhappy smile. Alyona saw the glimmer of gold-capped molars at the back of her mouth.
“My girl, you must not be used to these things. Here, take off your boots. You must wear these when you’re inside.”
The old woman practically fell to the floor beside Alyona to help pull off her shoes. She presented Alyona with a pair of indoor slippers. They were paper light, with thin rubber soles designed for nothing more than to keep the immediate chill of the bare floor from her feet.
“These are your tapochki. I kept them especially for you. Look – they fit perfectly. I knew you would come.” Her voice turned hoarse. She sank back onto her knees, in a crouch virtually animal. “It hurts to know you will only see me like this.”
A chord snapped in Alyona. She kept it tight within her, that anger at Lena. She could have come earlier, would have – if only she’d known. But Lena kept everything from her, even the existence of this poor, frail woman.
“I came because I’m going to help you. You won’t be alone here anymore.”
Alyona thought she should place her hand on the shivering angle of Irina Alexandrovna’s shoulder. The moment she did so, a terrible jagged rasp came from her lungs. Irina Alexandrovna staggered to her feet. Her next steps took her to the adjoining kitchenette.
Alyona followed her. Words of panic slipped from her lips. “Please – babushka – what’s wrong? Let me – let me help.”
Irina Alexandrovna’s eyes were half-moon crescents of pain. She doubled over, degraded, feeble. Almost the feeblest creature Alyona had ever seen.
In the helpless eyes of the old woman, Alyona saw the eyes of another. She had seen such pain before in her false mother Lena. Lena, staring heavy-lidded at blood spilling from her body, unalarmed but aching. Alyona hadn’t helped her. The sight of pain made her afraid.
Irina Alexandrovna was fumbling with a glass jar containing a small quantity of pills. Alyona took it from her jolting hands.
Her grandmother held up two fingers and Alyona dispensed a pair of circular tablets into her palm. The old woman’s hand quivered so violently she nearly threw the pills clear. Her motions reminiscent of a baby bird, she managed to swallow them. The image made Alyona uneasy. She inspected the pill bottle with its faded label. The text, even to one able to read Russian, was an indecipherable scramble of typewritten characters. She replaced it on a shelf beside a collection of similarly indistinguishable medications.
Irina Alexandrovna slumped onto a stool by the kitchen window. “Is this really what you want? To see an old woman live out her last days? I never wanted to become like this. There is no one left. Except you, my dear Alyonochka. You are the last I have in the world.”
To her own amazement, Alyona reached out again to the old woman. Touch – initiated of her own volition – a rare and unimaginable thing in her former life. She clasped her grandmother’s hand, the fingers gnarled as knots in an ancient tree branch.
In English Alyona told her: “It’s my duty to look after you. You asked Lena for me. All these years, I did not come, because she never told me. I’m here now.”
There was no way Irina Alexandrovna could have understood, but she smiled again, faintly, knowingly. “You have a lovely voice, my kind girl. But I like it better in Russian.”
Alyona sat in the bedroom she would now call her own. She studied its sparse furnishings: the bare wooden desk, the chipboard drawer in cherry veneer, the upholstered chair curdling foam at its seams. She listened to Irina Alexandrovna pottering in the kitchen down the hallway. The clink of plates and cutlery pierced the walls.
Grateful for a moment of reprieve, no longer watched or waited on, she mapped out the apartment in her mind. None of it appeared through familiarity.
A steel door shut away both the stairway and the outside world. A storage alcove for coats and shoes made up the entryway immediately within the flat. Following the entry, the sitting room with its sunken sofa and mutilated books. The doors to two bedrooms, Irina Alexandrovna’s and Alyona’s, framed either side of the lounge. Then there was the kitchen, almost too small for both grandmother and granddaughter to stand within together, and a bathroom dominated by a freestanding tub veined with rust.
No room spoke to Alyona’s memory. She had been there before, according to Lena’s retelling, for a short time in her childhood after her injury. The thought of it made her place a fingertip to the fibrous tissue at her collarbone, as though the scar might make her remember.
The fingers of her other hand pinched the zipper tongue of her unopened suitcase.
Lena warned Alyona she would only find pain and loss in Russia. Alyona refused to trust her: the woman who kept the truth out of reach. In Sydney, as Alyona peeled away layers of fabrication, milling through forged birth certificates and paperwork bonded in red tape, the name of an elderly woman remained. Irina Alexandrovna Stepanova remained. Some of those documents identifying her grandmother’s address remained buried in her luggage, but Alyona could not reveal them. Fragments of a foreign life cluttered the rest – clothes, planning documents, the practical miscellanea of a former Alyona who did not belong here.
Sahib Nazari is a writer of Hazara descent from Afghanistan. He studied creative writing and literature at Griffith University. Other than his mother language Hazaragi, and adopted language English, Sahib is also literate in Dari/Fiarsi and Urdu.
He lived in Pakistan for a few years before moving to Australia in 2005. Sahib voices his words in the form of short-fiction and poetry. He was the runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing in 2020. His other stories have been published in Meridian – The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, Bengaluru Review, TEXT Journal, and Talent Implied – New Writing from Griffith University in 2016, 2017, and 2019.
Tall Darren was twice my height and as hilarious. A true-blue Aussie and the most down to earth person I knew since beginning work on the slaughter-floor. He was so tall that calling him just Darren was enough, but the nickname told him apart from five other Darrens employed in the abattoir. When I first met him, I thought his first name was ‘Tall.’
‘Oi, fucking smoko, mate,’ Tall Darren yelled into my earplugs.. Everyone wore earplugs or earmuff radio headsets like the ones nested around Tall Darren’s neck. Alarmed and oblivious, I ran for the nearest exit, but in the packed washroom I realised he meant something different.
I entered the mess room.
‘Oi, smoko means break not fucking fire,’ Darren announced, and the other butchers joined him in laughter. That’s how Tall Darren and I became friends. He helped me learn Aussie slang like fair dinkum, what it means to chuck a sickie and say fuck for no reason at all.
‘Keep your fuckin’ knives sharp and your fuckin’ eyes open. That’s half of your fucking job done mate.’ His face glowed red, bending over and grinding his blade against a whetstone.
‘But why would I say fuck for no reason at all?’
He straightened his back and took a deep breath. ‘O for fuck sake mate.’
Sleeping mask still on, Mr. Bean drops the ringing alarm clock in a glass of water. Mom laughs which she scarcely did since coming to Australia. With no literacy in English or any other languages, she struggled inside and outside the house. But laughter does not transcend literacy. If it were not a universal language, Rowan Atkinson would need Hazaragi, my mother language, to make Mom laugh. I watch her enjoy the moment, wondering how many Mr. Beans are in the world bringing laughter without talking. I’d seen many who made people cry. Moments later Mr-funny-Bean changes clothes while steering a car with his feet. Mom laughs again and I’m ready to go to work with her smile in my mind.
When I met Kathy three months ago, she was brunette, blond and back again. Today, a pink fringe flirted with her shoulder length brunette hair like Nelly Furtado in Promiscuous. Half the Dubbo girls wanted to be Nelly, copying her dresses and dance moves. like her. We bought beers and walked up to smoke on the balcony of the Amaroo Hotel – the only spot I liked in the place. Kathy dressed promiscuous as always, but she never played me, never pushed an impression. To hide her heartbeats, she downed half her beer in one go. I could barely drink beer, so as always, I topped her schooner. Her glass was always half empty. When it came to drinking, Kathy could skull a barrel of beer in a night. But alcohol didn’t’ explain her loud, silly and aggressive attitude. She was a mess ever since some kids strangled her staffy when she was fourteen. The girl responsible spent a year in a Sydney hospital with multiple fractures to both legs. It took physicians and physios around twelve months to repair the damage. Kathy had repeatedly smashed her with a cricket bat.
‘Hey Matty,’ Kathy called out as Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ Dirty was ripping up the roof. But the music was too damn loud, and the guy didn’t hear anything as he disappeared in the crowd.
‘Matt’s an old mate, I took his virginity in high school.’ She took a puff and blew the smoke to blur up the scene.
‘I thought you didn’t make it to high school,’ I said, eyes fixed, as if talking to my cigarette.
‘Nor did he.’
‘I didn’t either.’
‘You fucking smart ass. Are you still a virgin?’ Dark brown skin wrinkled her forehead.
Tryin’ ta catch me riding dirty bounced off my brain. I blushed. ‘Despite the fact that most Afghan men think with their dicks, yes. I am.’
My first ever job was a real bloody killer. Routine, afternoon shifts, starting midday. Finishing before mid-night meant I missed more sunrises and sunsets in my five years in Dubbo than the eighteen years preceding. I could only cuddle sunlight over the weekends. It was all the same inside the slaughterhouse: meat, blood and shit. Eight-hour shifts with thousands of blood-dripping carcasses hanging upside down, running on a chain one after the other. Seeing animals getting slaughtered was less traumatic a transition compared to seeing people getting butchered in the streets because, as an Afghan, I’d seen enough humans spilling human blood that those blood-dripping, headless carcasses couldn’t disrupt my nightmares.
I bought The Alchemist with my first ever pay from the abattoir job. With no skills and next to nothing schooling qualifications, joining the slaughterhouse was the only choice in an outback town like Dubbo. We weren’t fair dinkum Aussies. Not entitled to government benefits so, like Dad and my two older siblings, I worked to support the family. But deep down I knew it wasn’t for me. This was not the dream.
Tall Darren, skinning knife in right hand, steel in left, pointed in the direction of a round and bouncy bloke who looked like Peter Griffin from Family Guy. ‘Here comes short Darren.’
Walking in holding a can of sugar water in one hand, knife kit in the other, Short Darren greeted us with a ‘fuck off.’ His uniform soaked in sweat. His breaths outpacing his body by the time he settled around the table.
‘His nickname is Human Balloon.’ Tall Darren stroked his knife on the smooth steel.
‘Oi fuck you, Lizard of Oz,’ Short Darren scowled. His rotund face turned pink behind rounded spectacles. ‘My nickname is fat boner. You want some?’
Tall Darren ignored him. ‘And that’s Victoria’s Secret,’ he said, pointing with his knife towards a handsome bloke with a Ned Kelly kind of bush beard who waved his hand from across the table. ‘He’s obsessed with girls named Victoria.’
‘Or beer,’ Short Darren shouted.
‘That’s one piss of a fucking beer mate.’ Tall Darren adjusted his hair net, preparing for the day.
The bush bearded bloke smiled and silently raised his middle finger.
Short Darren asked where Blunt Fuck was. Tall Darren said he was off for the day.
‘You mean off or chuck a sickie off?’ I tested myself.
‘Finally, someone from Afghanistan who’s not a sheep shagger,’ Darren cracked.
‘Is that his nickname?’ Short Darren fired, pointing at me with his sausage fingers.
Darren said, ‘Na, he’s our fucking Baba. Ay Baba?’ He was laughing his lungs out. Only the two of us knew the joke. Short Darren sipped his sugar water, while Victoria’s Secret bushranger ran his blade along one forearm to check if it was sharp enough to shear a sheep.
Tall Darren called me Baba because one day on the floor when the lairage was waiting refill. He asked if I knew any songs I could sing. I started baa baa black sheep except I rhymed, baa baa white sheep have you any wool. No sir, no sir, fuck off you fool. Darren instantly gathered other butchers around to listen. He pointed out that it’s actually baa baa black sheep, not white sheep. But I kept to my version because, I told Darren, we are the black sheep in this case. He started calling me Baba. I explained, in Afghan language and some others between south Asia and the Balkan region, baba means father. He chuckled like a child about to say something cheeky. ‘You mean father, or daddy?’
In a park’s playground, three kids hold a skinny brown girl by the arms. A skinny freckle-faced teenage girl and a fat boy in crew-cut hair are pulling a strap wrapped around an aging staffy’s neck. Bleeding, huffing, dry tongued, lying on its side, the dog tries to bark but there’s no hiss, or sound. Saliva form bubbles. Helpless, the staffy’s eyes pop in and out with each breath. Its legs start trembling, ears vibrate, then the tail stops wiggling. The heart stops pumping air. It finds peace. Breathless but peaceful. Tears run rivers from the brown girl’s eyes; and perhaps revenge too. Then a blackout.
I bet Mom would have been a bright storyteller, had she been educated. Would she have become a teacher, a writer or an alchemist, I often wondered. Once I asked how she felt about illiteracy. She replied, ‘You cannot lose something you never had. I’d feel sorry if I were the only woman in Afghanistan but it’s the whole country.’
Kathy’s uncle often poked his head into her room pretending to see if she was alright, offering her the first joint to smoke when she was just thirteen. Cigarettes followed; she helped herself, taking one out of the pack when her uncle was stoned. Soon enough beer became the beverage of choice. One led to two, two led to trouble, and before she knew, she was smoking like a vacuum and drinking beer like a baby drinks a bottle.
At first, it was her hair. Then all the places not covered by her shirt: arms, neck and shoulders. Then whatever was left out of shorts in the hot and sweaty Dubbo summer: feet, calves, thighs. When it all started, Kathy knew what her uncle was doing but she didn’t bother and cared too little to confront him because she depended on the dope. But she noticed his hands travelled a few inches further every new day. One still-air hot day his fingers unhooked the bra from under her light blue shirt. He spilled half a can of beer down her front until her small bosoms surfaced like the sail of a submarine from a blue sea, nipples erect like radio antennae. She started cursing and punching him, smashing his head with a wooden chair, making him bleed and freaking the fuck out of him. But they always settled things down before her grandma returned home from work in the afternoons.
By that evening Kathy had come up with a plan, to play, to negotiate a term; she’d keep quiet if her uncle drove her around until the day she found Freckles.
We had another Afghan family, that also called Dubbo home, over for dinner. Mom cooked lamb curry, prepared pulao, sorted out salad with the help of my sisters. But the guests seemed reluctant to touch the food for fear that the meat might not have come from a halal shop. This furthered Mom’s frustrations; she took painkillers for her backache, for the stiffness of hour-long food preparations. Afghans can stomach anything but change. They are concerned if the meat is halal but receiving Centrelink benefits while working cash-in-hand is fine. Because God has no problem how money is made as long as meat is blessed.
‘I gave him head.’ Kathy and I were spending another drunken Sunday near the bank of Macquarie River. We often drove up to that spot out of town to get stoned so the coppers and creeps in town didn’t bother us. I was stoned. She was drunk, and stoned.
‘What?’ I said, barely able to stand straight under the sun.
‘My uncle, I gave him head to get him to drive me around to find Freckles.’
‘You are a fucking caveman, aren’t ya? I sucked off his cock.’
I felt more ancient than a caveman for not knowing giving head. Fossilized.
We drove back to town late in the afternoon. Kathy was still spilling beer on her singlet.
‘Wanna go out tonight?’
‘Yeah, I’m dying to get pissed and see you pick a fight with the girlfriends of all the guys you wanna fuck.’
‘We’ll do something different tonight, I promise.’
‘I doubt that.’
She lit a cigarette. ‘You want to fuck me. Isn’t that what you want?’
I pulled the car up behind Amaroo Hotel. ‘Kaths, I just want to know where we stand and where we’re going. I mean when will we stop this get-stoned-get-drunk-as-fuck-catch-up game?’
She squashes the container spilling beer all over. ‘Just fucking drive, will ya?’ she snapped.
‘No. You’re drunk and you’ve no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Let’s go home and talk about it some other day. I need time to think things over.’
A police car slowed down to check on us as it drove by. Kathy dropped her beer-can under her feet. She picked up her bag, and out she jumped, walking towards Amaroo. The coppers didn’t stop, nor did Kathy. I pressed on the gas thinking that sometimes it’s better to remain a caveman on purpose.
Mom’s backache, the symptoms of slaving away as an Afghan housewife all her life, was worsening every day. As if raising seven children wasn’t hard enough, now she was slaving away all over again in Australia. Afghan men don’t change. They only like the idea of change.
Cables rustled about the rusty poles of swings; seats were missing. Birds sang, trees hissed in the hot windy afternoon. In a distance, a girl with freckles and a fat boy with a crew-cut kept hammering something against the solid surface of a basketball court. They took turns smashing it on the ground. Then the fat boy stood up, swung his arm skywards, and it came down, hitting the concrete with a thud. They’d cracked the shell: It was a tortoise.
A moment later, a skinny brown girl is standing over their heads holding a cricket bat firmly in her both hands. She swings the bat without a warning hitting the freckled girl mildly in the forehead as she ducked right in time colliding with the fat boy in turn. The boy makes a run for it but the girl can’t. Slightly concussed, she covers her head and screams. The brown girl made another swing aimed at her legs. She keeps coming harder and faster, with all her vigor and vengeance until cries of the freckled girl overcome the singing birds. Trees hiss. Rusty cables wring about as the brown girl walked away in silence, and tears.
The butchers were sweating and swearing outside the mess-room. Inside, a grave silence creeped all over when I walked in. Blunt Fuck was dead. He’d lost it in a head-on collision with a truck on a November morning. He’d been doing double-shift to save up for the Christmas break. Tall Darren said he owed the bastard a meat pie. His tears wouldn’t stop. That was the only time I’d ever seen him cry.
Autumns were the most surreal spell in Dubbo, when trees said goodbye to leaves, one by one, coloring the streets in red, brown and yellow. Mom walked up and down Macquarie Street, taking photos of the fallen leaves, the naked trees, as she strolled in the cooling breeze. The clown without a mask, Mr. Bean, still cracked her up like cartoons crack up kids. She found peace in her solitude as the communication gap remained hugely unfulfilled. Only Rowan Atkinson filled that void. But she smiled more often since joining TAFE to learn the English language, attending three days a week. She made new friends too because, like laughter, food doesn’t need a language to bring people closer. Food fathoms solidarity just as laughter apprehends love. Like the autumnal trees, Mom too understood that she must let go the timeworn leaves to welcome the new ones.
In my loneliness, I found peace. In my peace, though, there was no loneliness; only a dream. Whenever knives were at work, I told myself that one day, the butchery will be behind me. Whenever silence ruled, I dreamed that one day my dream will realise me because fate didn’t bring me to Australia just to butcher, drink beer, eat kebabs and die. And that sooner or later I’ll hang up my slaughter-gloves, swap whetstone with
One weekend, under the spell of a red and orange outback sunset, I texted Kathy.
‘Virgin no more.’ I pressed send.
‘Let’s catch up,’ her text popped up.
Instead of a textual argument on the old Nokia headset, playing with buttons, I thought it’d be better to fight face to face. Half an hour later, as she got into my car, I tried to kiss her on the cheek.
‘No!’ She eye-balled me and backed away. ‘You slept with a chick.’ She was loud. ‘You’re a fucking cheat.’
‘What the fuck Kathy. Take it easy. We’re not together. We haven’t even kissed despite knowing each other for months.’
‘Fuck you.’ She threw a punch at me.
I caught her fist with both hands. ‘Are you fucking serious? Because from where I see things, it doesn’t look like we’d ever sleep together even if we were the last two people on earth.’
‘If I don’t sleep with you, doesn’t mean I don’t care for you.’ She plucked a cigarette from the pack.
‘If you don’t sleep with me but care for me then you should be happy that I got laid.’
She put out the flame on the lighter. ‘Who’s she? Do I know her?’
‘You’re not making much sense Kathy. You don’t want me, but you also don’t want to see me with another chick. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any virgins waiting for me in the afterlife if I drop dead today. So we must draw a line somewhere. I know that what happened to you, and to your dog, was wrong but you gotta give yourself another chance. You must move on.’
‘It’s not that easy.’ She blew smoke on my face.
I rolled down the window. ‘Maybe. But you can’t just take a friend hostage.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I’m moving on.’
‘Fuck you.’ She took her purse, cigarette pack, and jumped out of my car. ‘Go fuck yourself.’ She slammed the door shut.
From then on, we travelled back in time to become the strangers we still are today.
Anith Mukherjee is an artist based in Sydney. He has a brief publication history.
He is currently studying film at AFTRS. Anith is the 2020 Deborah Cass Prize Winner.
I am full of love
Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing.
– James Baldwin
You wanted to fight for a cause
Then go out and love someone
-Gang Of Youths
On the tram to film school I feel sick from my morning medication. The tram stops and I walk off, Nick Cave songs playing through my headphones. Inside a public toilet I vomit, cough and spit. Kneeling on the cracked tiles I wipe my face with toilet paper. Nick Cave sings in my head, ‘if you’re in Hell what can I say, you probably deserve it anyway.’ Everything is prophecy, signs and symbols. There is no mirror above the sink where I wash my face and I wonder whether my eyes are red. On campus I buy a coffee and sit down. Ryan tells me the morning’s lecture is on Italian Neorealism. Sitting in the lecture theatre, watching clips from La Notte, I fall asleep. Ryan wakes me when the lecture is finished and we walk outside. Indira and Jackie are smoking on the lawn. Jackie offers me a cigarette and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say. Indira asks me what we should make as a documentary for this semester. Let’s do something on brown diaspora, she suggests. I shrug and say I don’t want to make something about being brown just because I’m brown. It’s all they expect of us, I continue, why can’t I make a film about love or trout fishing? Indira laughs. They eat that shit up, she says, besides what do you know about love or trout fishing.
In class Ava shows me her latest short story. I’m thinking of leaving my boyfriend, she says. Good, I reply, then you can date me. Ava rolls her eyes. You wish, she says. The tutor discusses the male gaze in cinema and an argument between Felix and Melissa ensues. Ava shows me another piece of writing. What do you think, she asks. It’s too sad, I reply. Ava scowls and says, fuck I don’t want to only make people sad. My doctor put me on Lexapro, she says idly, I think it’s making me confused. She looks at me and asks what meds I take. Atypical antipsychotics, I say. Sounds intense, she replies. After class Ava and I sit outside on the grass. She lies on her back and closes her eyes. The sun shimmers across her face and causes little specks of glitter under her eyes to sparkle. I lie next to her and look up at the sky. What do you see when you look at the clouds, I ask. Ava opens her eyes. Ice cream, she says.
In the evening I walk to the train station. The sunset sky is pink and blue and orange. The daily procession of fruit bats streak across the horizon. On the train ride home I idly consider whether I have wasted my life. Somewhere along the way it seems that I failed deeply, made some fatal error at a critical juncture. The result being my current life. What do I do now, I ask myself as the train arrives at my stop. At a local falafel joint I buy two slices of pizza and sit waiting for the bus, eating. Grease covers my fingers and above me nocturnal birds screech themselves awake. At home I lie in bed and scroll through pornography on my phone. Bored I decide to microwave my fingernails, to slice off my ear, to drown a kitten. Something has to happen, I think, before I ossify. At midnight I walk the local park track down to the river. The water is still and calm and black. Lying on the soil with my jumper folded beneath my head I fall asleep. In my dream I am a lizard king, I am a rat spider, I am a junkie priest. In the early morning I walk home to visions of a Holy War – chariots and lighting and swords on fire. At home I quickly swallow my meds and brew a coffee. In the yard outside I close my eyes under the sun. Gary walks out and lights a cigarette. He gestures to me and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say.
Patti sits up in my bed and runs a hand through her neon green hair. I take lots of medication, I say. I have a lot of needs, she replies, I’m too horny for this shit. Do you love me, I ask. Don’t ask me that, she says, not now. I stare at my soft brown cock, all limp and lifeless. What kind of man am I, I think. Fuck it, I was never any kind of man at all. I could stop taking my meds, I suggest. Patti shakes her head. I don’t want you to do that, she says, don’t put me in that position. We sit in bed for a while, silent and tense. Patti exhales deeply. I’m going to take a bath, she says finally. The phrase ‘emotionally avoidant’ passes through my head. I search to remember where the phrase comes from. Something I must have read. I read too much, I think, all those useless books.
When I was younger all I wanted was sex. Then everything became about art. Now all I think about is money. I hope Patti doesn’t use up all the hot water, I think to myself. I hope she doesn’t notice that half the light sockets are empty. Some time later Patti walks back into the room, wrapped in a towel. She sits on the edge of the bed and smiles. Baths are so consciousness cleansing, she says. What do you want to do today, Patti asks. I shrug. How about checking out the Gauguin exhibition in the city, she suggests. Wasn’t he some kind of racist, I ask. Patti shrugs. Probably, she says, they all were back then.
We sit in the gallery cafe, each sipping black coffee. When did we stop having conversations, Patti says, when we first met we would have these long sprawling conversations. She watches the strangers in the cafe for a moment, then looks me in the eye. Her eyes are speckled and blue and for a brief moment I am filled with regret. We were getting to know each other, I reply, our brains were fuelled by novelty. Patti furrows her brow. I don’t accept that, she says. Talk to me about something, she says, what’s been on your mind? I shrug and look around. I’m worried I’ll never have any money, I say, I’m worried I’ll never learn how to survive. Patti smiles and twirls a strand of green hair around her index finger. You, me and the rest of us, she says half sarcastically. La génération condamnée, Patti says, Hemingway would be proud.
The gallery is mostly empty and Patti stops to study a self portrait of Gauguin. I look into his hollow oil eyes – deranged and syphilitic and anaesthetised. He went all the way, I think. We stand next to each other, staring at D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. He was beautiful, Patti sighs. He was sick, I reply. He went all the way, I think again, to paint like this you have to relinquish your claim to reality. I feel fear and repulsion and admiration. What is it to be a person with no place, no future, no desire? How do I exit this game, I think, when do I get to wake up.
Inside Patti’s apartment spins a vinyl of Bitches Brew. Patti pours two glasses of red wine and sits next to me on the couch. It’s true, I think, our relationship used to be hyper intellectualised. She’s disappointed in me and I am bored of her. Inertia keeps us connected. This pattern repeats itself endlessly. Somewhere along the way I confused lust for love. Somewhere along the way I forgot to become a person. Patti stands up and begins to dance as Miles Runs The Voodoo Down plays from her vintage Hi-Fi. She sways side to side in the middle of the room, her moonlight skin scattered with rainbow tattoos. It occurs to me that I have no love for her. Love is the missing link between myself and life, I think, a link I have no idea how to repair.
Patti’s naked body presses against mine. I hold her in bed and she is warm underneath the soft cotton blanket. Gently she kisses me on the cheek. You don’t know how to love someone, she whispers into my ear, you don’t know what it means to love. In the morning I put on my clothes and leave the apartment while Patti sleeps. Outside the air is clean and cold. The streets are not yet busy and I walk around until I find a cafe. I try to buy a coffee but my card is rejected. To hell with everything, I think. My phone buzzes with a call from Patti but I don’t pick up. Instead I catch a bus back to my place.
My whole life is a fucking mess, Ava says without affect, I have zero idea how to function in the world. She plays with her hair and sighs. Why can’t you just do nothing with your life, she says, I don’t want to have to do things. Ava and I sit in the school’s foyer, skipping screenwriting class. Marry me, I reply, we’ll move to Paris and write dysfunctional novels. Ava rolls her eyes. You have no money to fly to Paris, she argues back, besides the French are annoying.
After class Ava and I walk to the bar. We both order the house red wine and sit outside, watching the construction of a circus in the field nearby. By evening we are tipsy and when Ava looks at me I feel compelled to hold her and kiss her. Her lips are soft and her spit tastes like cheap wine and cheap tobacco. She places a small hand on my arm and for a moment I feel overwhelmingly lonely. I pull away and Ava smiles slightly before closing her eyes and rubbing her nose. I’m still with Jack, she says, you know that. Jack sucks, I reply, you only stay together because you’re both too afraid to break up with the other. It’s the same between me and Patti, I continue, this way we both have an excuse.
In my room I lie in bed while Ava undresses. She lies next to me and reaches between my legs. With Ava there is no issue and we fuck until our bodies are tired and sore and sweaty. Afterwards Ava wraps her arms around mine and rests her head on my chest. Now we’re both free, she says.
In the morning Ava is gone and I wake up alone. On the pillow next to mine is a handwritten note: ‘Forget last night. I am happy with Jack.’ Above me I notice a dark, damp spot growing on the ceiling. I crumple the note and throw it across the room in the vague direction of my waste basket. It’s 8:30 AM and class starts in an hour. Fuck it, I think, I’d rather do anything else today. But what, I ask myself, what is worth doing? An entire world, a whole life, given to me for nothing -and I have zero interest in any of it. It all adds up to nothing. Samantha ran away to help the environment and faced the evil of fossil fuel capital until she collapsed exhausted, Jesse smoked weed for a hundred years and melted back into the Earth, Rachel lost interest in music and slit her wrists live on 4Chan, Jackson became a lawyer and jumped off his penthouse balcony, Mandy wrote poetry that no one read and cried silently into to the neutral eyes of her twelve rescue cats, Priya joined a hippie cult in the mountains and renounced money for sex, Ashwin stuck a silver needle in his veins and thought he was Coltrane, my father ripped out his own catheter dying from a brain tumour in hospice and blood spurted out his great brown cock enough to drown even his own screams. And here I lie, feeling nothing.
In the bathroom I unwrap an Astra Platinum razor blade. Gently and without malice I run it across the palm of my hand. The lack of pain surprises me. Thin streaks of blood flow down my arm as I hold it up to the light. Good, I think, I still bleed and I am still free. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with the power of my own freedom. Anything can happen now, there are no limits, no boundaries. I exist in a timeless, spaceless vacuum. Today is only another day.
All I want to do is eat shit food and watch pornography and sleep, I tell Sun, why is there no space in culture for my aimlessness? Sun scratches his scraggly black beard. He says nothing, opens his rainbow cloth backpack and reaches inside. He takes out a small brown paper bag and hands it to me. Tonight, he says, if you are ready to leave Hell. At night I pour the contents of the paper bag onto my desk. A handful of dried psilocybin mushrooms fall out. Intense waves of anxiety and anticipation pass through me. Fuck it, I tell myself as I scoop up the dried mushrooms and swallow them in one motion.
I lie naked on the grass in my small backyard and everything feels inevitable. I ruined my life, I think, I wasted it with banal malaise. So begin now, a soft voice replies. I’m a bad person, I think. No, the voice replies, you’re flawed like everyone. I use women, I think, I treat women like shit. So change, the voice replies. No one has ever loved me, I think. Then love first, the voice replies. I am so afraid, I think. That is OK, the voice replies. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel sickly, broken, exhausted, alienated, bored, self-loathing, hateful, lustful, impotent, enraged, transient. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel mirthful, funny, entertained, calm, hungry, warm, healing, motivated, interesting, peaceful, connected, eternal. In this moment I am very young. Violet petals stream through the parted clouds and morph into butterflies – fluttering and free and graceful. With little kisses they relinquish me of the poison in my blood. My lilac skin soft and blossoming. Seized by instinct I run to the bathroom and vomit in the toilet. Blue and purple bile leaks from my gut – little maggots writhing in the liquid. Help me, I cry, please forgive me. I was never supposed to come here, I was never supposed to fall this far. All I ever wanted was a real love, an undying love that would absolve me of this pain and guilt and waste and failure and regret. Great sunflowers bloom from my fingers, my eyes, my chest. Everything is golden and shimmering. Pink tears ooze down my glowing face and when I look into the mirror I am alive.
The morning sun rises as I sit outside, holding a blanket and a jug of fresh orange juice. My neighbour walks outside and unlocks her car. Good morning, she says with a smile, you’re up early. Three years I’ve lived here, I think, and I’ve never noticed my own neighbour, never knew she existed, never even said hello. Good morning, I reply.
Janette Chen is a Chinese-Australian writer from Lidcombe. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and the 2019 winner of the Deborah Cass Prize.
Wall of Men
Every time mum starts the car, Teresa Teng starts singing. Mum’s 80s Chinese pop ballads blare from the stereo as we pull out of the driveway. Mum is driving me to Lidcombe train station so I can trek it to Veina’s house in Turrella. Outside it’s so hot the heat makes the fibro walls our house look wobbly. I put the windows all the way down because we never use the air con. Teresa Teng’s voice drifts down the street from our car. She sounds so sweet even when she’s accusing her lover of lying to her. As we drive, Mum asks me if Veina has a boyfriend yet. Mum’s face looks dry and red from the heat. She has so many red hairs now, which are white hairs dyed with henna she bought from the Arab shops in Auburn. She glances at me as we slow at a red light and turns off the music. Since I finished high school two months ago, Mum has asked me four times already if there will be any boys when I go out.
‘No, Ma,’ I sigh as we start moving again. It was technically true. As far as I knew, Veina is texting a guy called Andre and hanging out with some guy called Jason but she’s never called either of them her boyfriend.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asks in Cantonese.
‘Noooo, Ma,’ I groan. Mum flicks her black eyes at me and then back at the road.
‘I was the same age as you are now when I first got married,’ she says. ‘Your Ba is not my first husband.’
I hold my breath. This is the first time Mum has told me about her first marriage but I already know. I overheard her talking to Dad in the kitchen once about a fortune teller she saw back in Guangzhou when she was 17. ‘He told me I would be married twice and he was right about that,’ I had heard her say. In traffic, we inch past an empty lot of weeds and rubble that is fenced off with a glossy sign advertising new apartment blocks. ‘I was so in love with my first husband,’ Mum says. ‘But one day he started locking doors. He started swearing at me. When he slapped me, I thought it would only be one time.’
My muscles tense up when I imagine Mum being hit. We pass the Korean BBQ restaurants on the turn into the station and Mum parks crookedly in the drop-off zone. She keeps talking, her words spilling out like water. ‘He dragged me across our bedroom and strangled me until I realised that if this man loved me he would kill me with his love.’ I put my hand on Mum’s shoulder. I don’t know what else to do with this information. Mum brings her hand to mine and holds it tightly. ‘I know you’re a smart girl. But just be careful. The man you choose is the life you choose.’
Some dickhead in a white ute blasts his horn and cuts Mum off at the end of the sentence. I grab the plastic bag of cherries I’m bringing to Veina’s and tell Mum that I won’t be home for dinner.
On the train to Turrella, I sit in a three-seater behind a young Nepalese couple. The woman’s head is nestled in the space between the man’s shoulder and his brown ear. I think about how I used to see my parent’s wedding photo all the time as a kid. It was propped on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The man in the photo was my dad. The woman in the photo had skin as pale as the moon. Yi yi, I had called her, which means Auntie. I couldn’t believe it was my mum. This is because in real life, mum’s skin is the colour of wholemeal bread with lots of seeds in it. In real life, her lips are more brown than red. I knew so little about this other life she had before that photo was even taken.
I get off at Central and change platforms for the airport line. I had never heard of the suburb of Turrella until Veina moved there. Veina is my only high school friend who moved out of home immediately after graduating. Now she lives with four housemates and they all share one tiny bathroom. ‘Fun fact: The Streets ice cream factory used to be in Turrella,’ Veina said when she first told me she was moving. I believed the fun fact, I just couldn’t believe she was moving so far from Lidcombe, away from me. The afternoon heat wraps around me like a blanket when I step off the train. I am the only person standing on the platform. The plastic bag of cherries sweats in my hand.
Veina’s house is a long pink rectangle on a concrete block with a brown roof. When I arrive at the house, I’m sweating from my pits. I tap on the window of Veina’s room but when I get to the front door, it’s her housemate Peter who opens it.
‘Hello,’ he nods. Peter’s tiny head at odds with his massive shoulders. He steps back and holds the door for me. The thin white t-shirt he is wearing is stretched out around the collar and the skin around his neck is pale and pink. All I know about Peter is that he’s a backpacker from Slovakia. And he’s a prawn. He has a body good enough to eat and a head you can throw away. I realise Peter’s holding a big plastic rubbish bag and quickly step inside as he steps out.
The front door of the Turrella house opens straight into the living room with all its random old furniture, plus the sleek black chair Veina and I carried straight out of the new food court in Town Hall one time. I take off my sandals at the door. The pale blue tiles are cool beneath my feet but I know they’re dirty. I can see the dust and hair and dried boogers on the floor. The living room extends into the kitchen on the right, both overlooking the backyard where the laundry is still flapping on the lop-sided Hills Hoist.
Veina’s in the kitchen wearing a big faded black t-shirt with her hair is all over the place. She looks as if she only woke up a couple of hours ago and hasn’t gotten changed yet. Her kitchen is made up of custard coloured plastic laminate cupboards and drawers with golden brown trimmings. Veina gets me started on cutting up onions for our dinner: slut spaghetti. We started calling it that in Year 8 Food Tech because boiling pasta is easy. As I’m tossing onions into the hot pan, Veina tells me about the date Peter brought to the house the night before.
‘He was cooking chicken for this tiny Asian chick and was getting her a chair and everything. But it was like, all so he could fuck her,’ Veina says dryly. When she’s not wearing makeup, Veina looks like she’s fourteen but when she opens her mouth, her voice sounds like she’s smoked a pack a day for as long as she’s been alive. Today, Veina has a thick line of black gel eyeliner painted over her eyelids.
As I pour the contents of a jar of pasta sauce into a saucepan, Veina dumps a handful of oregano and the good bits of a green capsicum we found going soft in the fridge. ‘I always see him looking Asian chicks up and down and up and down,’ Veina says.
‘I would be looking him up and down and up and down if I lived here,’ I confess. But then, I imagine making out with him with his big nose sticking into the side of my face. His mouth would be dry and floury and his pale, slippery body would be squirming on top of mine, crushing me under a mattress of muscle. The thought of it makes my throat tighten.
Peter comes into the kitchen wearing only a pair of baggy track pants. The t-shirt he was wearing earlier is gone. I wonder if he just heard what I said and if all this skin is an invitation. I decline by only looking at him above the neck. His face is long and small in proportion to his wide shoulders and thick neck. His nose sticks out like an arrow. But then he goes to grab a Coke from the fridge and the long line of his back smooths and stretches.
‘Time to eat out this slut spaghetti,’ Veina says after putting the final touch: chilli flakes. In addition to being easy, slut spaghetti needs to be hot. Veina uses chopsticks to put the pasta into two bowls for us and we take them to eat outside.
I have one foot out the front door when it sounds like Peter is saying, ‘Hey, Jen, Jen, Jen, come back.’ His voice is deep and nasally. I turn around. Peter is standing right in front of me. His collarbones are at my eye level and they look like small, featherless wings that spread beneath his skin.
‘You forgot this,’ he says and hands me a fork.
‘Thanks,’ I say to the fork and hurry out the door after Veina.
The front yard is a concrete slab with an old single mattress on the floor. I brush off the dirt and dried leaves and sit down on the mattress next to Veina, leaning my back on the pink stucco exterior of the house. The air around us is starting to cool but the wall is warm against my back. Veina hands me a pair of chopsticks and starts slurping at her spaghetti, her head of black hair bobbing over her bowl. I put Peter’s fork on the floor beside the mattress.
A pair of lanky teenage boys walking a St Bernard are the only people out on the empty suburban streets. The long, pale arm holding the leash looks like a noodle stretching with every step the dog takes. Veina swallows her spaghetti and whistles at the boys. One of them turns around to look at us. He has dark eyes and hair and his skin looks warm and buttery. He might be Eurasian or it might just be the way he looks in the sunset.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ I tell her.
‘They’re cute,’ Veina says, holding up her hand in greeting. She turns and grins at me. The liner around her eyes makes them look like black crescents with eyelashes.
‘Don’t worry, I know you’ve got it in you,’ Veina says. ‘You just need to be pushed out of the nest. Then you’ll fly like the skank bird you truly are.’
I roll my eyes and watch the boys walk away. In high school, Veina and I cut out all the pictures of cute boys from university brochures and stuck them on the wall in our Year Twelve common room. ‘So Many Opportunities at University’, the caption read. It was Veina’s idea. We called it the Wall of Men, and it was opposite the Wall of Ramen where we pinned up empty instant noodle packets. During our free periods, Veina smoked out the windows of the spare music rooms and I did maths practice papers next to the Wall of Men. The boys in those pictures all had smooth, white skin and were smiling straight at me.
Veina and I went to Sydney Girls High School, an uppity institution for Asian overachievers. Our school motto was ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’, which is Latin for ‘Homework Always Pays’. It was the motto of my mum and the mums of one thousand black-haired teenage girls pressing textbooks to their chests. The ATAR we got was the life we got. I stared back at the boys on the Wall of Men and wondered if they would still be smiling when I beat the living shit out of them at the HSC.
Now that we finished school, me and Veina are melting into lazy flesh bags in the summer. We move from the dirty mattress when the mosquitoes start to bite. Back in the house, the last light is coming through the kitchen window. I wash the cherries I had brought and inspect them under running water. They’re plump and brown and cold from the fridge. A lot of them are scarred or bruised or overripe. Dad had bought a big box of cherries for ten dollars at Flemington markets and my family has been eating cherries at home every night. I pick out a dodgy one, bite out its open sore and put the rest of the cherry in my mouth. It’s so sweet and so cold.
In the living room, Veina turns on the TV to watch If You Are the One on SBS. It’s starting to get dark now, but no one has bothered to turn on the lights. I join her on the lumpy brown couch. A new male contestant steps out of the single-man cylinder that lowers Chinese bachelors to the stage like a love delivery chute. He’s buff with tanned skin. Beijing Beefcake.
Veina and I give the male contestants a score from one to ten depending on how likely we would go on a date with them. We have different selection criteria to the female contestants date to get married. The women on the show want to know if the man has an apartment, a car and a high-paying job. The men want to know what the women look like without any makeup on. Veina and I heckle the television when the contestants talk that shit, which is every episode. We’re going to get our own apartments, cars and high-paying jobs. We don’t do maths practice papers because we like maths.
On screen, Beijing Beefcake smiles and waves at the audience as he walks out of the man capsule and on to the stage. The fabric of his white shirt strains against his pecs.
The back door opens with the broken flyscreen flapping around and Peter steps inside, hulking a basket of laundry against his bare chest. Veina offers him some cherries and Peter puts down his laundry and slides down the armrest of the couch. Now I’m sandwiched between him and Veina. I shift in my seat so we’re not sitting so close. My body thinks it wants one thing but my mind is in control. Don’t throw away the head for a prawn.
We all watch Beijing Beefcake’s pre-recorded video of his life as a personal trainer. I pick out a handful of super soft cherries with wide, open sores dried into dark scabs. I’m feeling stiff from sitting next to Peter. His abs look like skinless chicken nuggets set into two neat rows. They cuddle and curl against each other as Peter leans forward to spit a pip into the bowl. I look away when something starts buzzing beneath me. It’s Veina’s phone, half submerged in the crumby gap between the sections of the couch, vibrating deeper into the fold. I slip my fingers between the couch cushions and grab the phone.
‘Ugh, sorry,’ Veina says. ‘Mum calls every day to check on me.’ She answers the phone with a, ‘Wei’ as she walks off towards her room.
I move over to where Veina had just been sitting so there’s more space between me and Peter. He sneezes. His hands go from covering his nose to stretching across the back of the couch, bridging the distance I had just created between us. It’s cooling down. He needs to put a shirt on. On If You Are The One, Beijing Beefcake is sitting in his living room in a white singlet. I would give him a 6.8. Maybe 8 if he looked a little less inflated. He could be a 9 if he talked about something besides his muscles.
‘My big muscles give me big responsibilities,’ the yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen translate as Beijing Beefcake nods at me through the television. ‘I swear to the whole nation I would never hit a woman. I can look after her and protect her,’ Beijing Beefcake says. He flexes one bare, bulging brown arm after the other. ‘She can kiss my biceps every day.’
Next to me, Peter shifts in his seat. I hope Veina will come out of her room soon so I don’t have to be alone with Peter. I stuff my mouth with three cherries and sink back into the sofa and stare at the TV. What would it feel like for his strong arms to hold me gently? As I imagine the tenderness of resting my head against his chest, a sharp pain shoots through my mouth. I hold my cheek with my head turned away like I had just been slapped. It feels like someone had cut the right side of my cheek with a pair of scissors. I lean forward and let the contents of my mouth drop into my other hand. The living room lights turn on.
‘Fuck your dad,’ I curse. ‘Oww.’
‘Are you okay?’ Peter says, putting his big, warm hand on my shoulder. It feels heavy there. I look up and see Veina walking across the room.
‘My dad says that when you bite yourself it’s because you’re not eating enough meat,’ she says. ‘Your mouth wants meat in it,’ Veina wiggles her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Ugh, well fuck your dad too,’ I say. I look down at the half-chewed cherries in my open palm. The wet, red flesh glistens like mashed and bloody brains.
Anna Kortschak is an emerging writer who is frequently mobile. She has recently returned to Australia after almost twenty itinerant years in the Americas, Europe and the UK. Anna was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing and winner of the 2019 Spring Nowhere Magazine Travel Writing Competition. Her writing and photos have been published in Nowhere Magazine, The Other Hundred, The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook (3rd Ed.) and various other print and online publications. With a background in visual and performing arts Anna has worked extremely variously but most passionately – a aside from her writing – on a number of community development story-telling projects in Australia and internationally.
Pieces of Nothing
The child is standing alone on the side of the sand pit, humming tunelessly. She shifts her weight from foot to foot. Her gaze is blank and unfocussed. She is not playing a game. She is just standing there waiting for time to move on.
She is alone and being alone makes her hungry. She bites her arm, intently studying the crooked crescent indented in the flesh, livid white and bruise blue. She wants to feel something.
She cannot see inside herself. She believes she has swallowed a stone.
She is a small child. Skinny, ribs visible, blonde wispy hair, eyes wide and surprising black, all pupil. Difficult, they say. A difficult child. Given to sudden rage or tears. Sullen. Lashing out and then fleeing. A secretive child.
There was a girl who hid her heart among stones to keep it safe. She tied her heart to a string but lost hold of the string. When she went to recover it she mistook her heart for a stone, a stone for her heart. Heavy and cold. Hard.
Once lost, what next?
A series of endeavours, all doomed, all heartless.
If I am to write a story it has to start with this child; the girl who has lost her heart. She is not remarkable, she is not especially good or kind. She is just like any child, a little grubby, bony knees and wispy hair. Perhaps she is rather small for her age.
A fairy tale needs a hero but no-one appears to rescue the child from her fate and a series of evils befall the girl. First she loses the power of speech. No-one can hear her speak.
There are others but I (or is it the girl?) cannot see them clearly. There is a mother, a stepfather, a brother. Many others. She is surrounded by these people but she cannot see them and they do not touch her. They are insubstantial, see-through and slippery, ungraspable. Bewitched, I guess. No help there.
I’m talking as if I don’t know these people but I have to confess an interest. Let me try to clarify the situation. My mother. My stepfather. There are brothers and sisters and they are my brothers and sisters. And the circle will widen. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. A veritable host. Even my father will appear, if I wait long enough.
And I, too, have become multiple. I am the storyteller in this tale. And that is fair. Everyone must have their turn to speak. But what to do, then, with the child? She is me, and not me. And she is the greatest unknown. The most difficult of all to discern in the bewildering fog.
I beg you for indulgence as I try to find a way to accommodate this mute child who struggles with silence and nausea, who believes she is poisonous and that everything she touches dies.
As I try to excavate memory I constantly ask myself, what is true? One must, of course, but I find that there is no concrete answer to the question. There is no indisputable truth to be brought into the light of day, no facts that can be matter-of-factly reported from the past which, from the most certain perspective we have, quite simply does not exist.
My stepfather, for example, can say, that never happened. If I’d picked you up by your ear it would have ripped clean off your head. And I will be silenced by his logic and his convincing certainty. Only days later will an image that has always hung dimly suspended in my mind, unaccounted for, pop suddenly to the surface.
(The child picks, for days, at a crusty line of scabs in that soft crease where the skin of the ear attaches to the skin that covers the bony shell of the skull.)
It is unfortunate that it is my step-father that is the first figure to come forward. But there it is.
And here is his refrain:
She was a child, he says. She didn’t understand. She is mistaken.
What is strange is that I cannot remember my mother’s face and that there is no point in time that I can see us together.
But of course nothing is absolute and I must immediately contradict myself.
I do in fact remember that once I spent an afternoon with her on a lake in a small rowing boat. Even so, I have no sense of her, or my own, physical presence on that occasion. I cannot, for example, remember which one of us rowed the boat.
It is only my imagination which creates the picture of a boat moving across the water as the shouts and noise from the shore fade away, hears the creak of the heavy wooden oars moving in the rowlocks, the slap of water against the hull, the quiet rustle of wind in trees and reeds, light playing over a shining expanse of water.
Where does this child live?
What comes to mind are houses full of silence: in memory, always empty. A series of disconnected spaces. Rooms without exit, hallways that lead nowhere, blank windows without vista.
Footsteps on the polished wooden floorboards, darkness, a doorway.
My grandmother’s house, where my mother spent her childhood, was on Castle Street and it seemed to me that the street had been named for the house which was, therefore, a castle. Certainly, it was a house possessed by a sense of grandeur. It pointed to a noble history.
Decades later, it is in England, that I will find my dead grandmother close to me, hovering at my shoulder, or seated on the other side of a table watching me. If she had a message for me then she could not find a way to make it explicit but it is no wonder she came to me there in England. Her faraway garden, in Australia, was a half-acre England of spring bluebells and cherry blossom trees, violets and pansies, clipped lawns and deciduous oak and birch. All England, except for the tree we called the Mother Tree, a box gum, home to giant emperor moth larvae, jewelled, green, and fatter than a child’s finger.
The house and garden were bounded by a cypress hedge, dense and dark, fragrant. It is in the hedge that my brother arrives. The Hedge was capitalised in our minds, as the name of any unexplored continent would be, and we would disappear inside it, my brother and I. Sometimes we emerged scratched and sticky with cypress resin to walk along the neatly clipped upper surface which formed an inviting green pathway but with a misjudged step an unwary child would suddenly vanish again below the smooth surface, plunged back into the harsh twiggy dusty interior, trapped and struggling.
The house, this enchanted castle, is spell-bound. Always silent. No laughter ringing through it. No raised voices, not in anger or in song.
Tick. Tock. Grandfather clock.
Wide hallways with patterned oriental rugs that form maps of unknown territory, a jungle, perhaps, or wide river plains, islands; a mutable terrain inhabited by serpents and mythic creatures, topography to be explored on endless tedious afternoons.
The child is often there, in the care of her grandmother. Can we perhaps catch a glimpse of them together? What is it they are doing?
They are sitting opposite each other at a table, separated by a wide expanse of dark polished wood. The child is labouring at the task she has been set. A peach, rosy and fragrant, sits on a tiny china plate carefully set between a silver knife and fork. The implements would be small and delicate in adult hands but the child clutches the opalescent mother-of-pearl handles clumsily. She must peel and eat the peach without touching its tender flesh with her fingers.
The fruit rolls and slides on the plate as the child struggles to impale it. Once it is secured she works to push the knife point beneath delicate downy skin and strip it from the flesh. Finally, she has a hard won morsel on the slender tines of the fork. She pauses to take a spoonful of sugar from a silver bowl and scatters it across the plate. She dips the scrap of fruit in the crystals and conveys it to her mouth.
Her grandmother watches impassive.
I never saw my mother and my father together. The possibility was inconceivable.
I knew my father was from elsewhere and for a long time it seemed to me that the place he came from must be called The War.
My mother sometimes told people that my paternal grandfather was a Nazi but she did not mean anything in particular by it. She just thought it was something interesting to say. I would not even remember it except that my sister still repeats it, as though it were fact, today. My half-sister. It is not her grandfather she is talking about. She phrases her statement as a question: Your grandfather had a Nazi uniform, didn’t he?
On weekends my brother and I were pushed out the front door onto the veranda where this grandfather, my father’s father, stood waiting. Formal, in pleated trousers, collar and tie, hair smooth and shiny with Brylcreem, he would lean stiffly across the threshold to shake hands with my stepfather standing inside the door.
How do you do? Sunday? Yes, Sunday.
We would climb into my grandfather’s immaculate fawn and white Holden Kingswood and speed away, my brother and I cannoning from one side of the car to the other across the beige vinyl bench-seat as my grandfather cursed the Australian drivers. Blod-ee eedi-yot! You blod-ee eedi-yot!
My paternal grandparent’s house was not silent, but the languages were foreign. Here my brother and I were always collective: the children. Die Kinder sind heir, my nanna would say on the phone to her friends, and we knew she was talking about us.
We went to this house to wait for my father to arrive.
At my grandparent’s house my brother and I were always addressed in English but adult conversation took place above our heads in a babble of other tongues. We knew that the alien words which hummed and roared and wailed in the air of my grandparent’s house were all of The War. The War was all encompassing and without location but there was also a more distant place, never talked about directly, hinted at in picture books and old photos, postcards and the arrival of pale blue airmail envelopes.
Czechoslovakia. The child wrote the strange word, next to her foreign surname, over and over on pieces of paper which she pushed into a tiny glass bottle that was one of the treasures on the mantelpiece in the bedroom in her mother and stepfather’s house. She poked the secret messages through the vessel’s narrow mouth with a pencil and rammed them down. Over and over, until the blue green bottle was packed solid with crushed paper.
A land of castles. Mountains. Woods. Trees, tender in the springtime. Bright streams and sunny meadows. Wild flowers and berries at the edge of the forest on a summer afternoon.
But at night, in her dreams, she wandered a lonely wooded place, bare bony arms of trees raised up to a lowering dark sky, the tenebrous air thick with nightfall and snowfall. Black on black. This was the landscape of her dreams. Snow falling ceaselessly in darkness. Night after night the child trod these woods alone.
The possibility of physically going to this place was nonsensical. There was an unfathomable period of time in which the child’s nanna was absent from her Balwyn home. Months passed, during which occasional postcards with pictures of unknown cities arrived in the mail. The pedestrian images of bridges over rivers and municipal buildings baffled the girl.
Her nanna eventually returned, with gifts; a tiny carved wooden dog and a china Siamese cat. The child studied them minutely for clues and, although they explained nothing, she decided to treasure them. When she was not playing with the cat and dog the child carefully placed them on the mantelpiece next to her talismanic bottle. Soon the cat’s ears were chipped and the dog had lost a paw. The child cherished the little dog, especially, with an all-consuming love. She often carried it with her, in her pocket, until one day it vanished.
She searched in the school yard over and over again and scanned the ground at her feet with every step of the long walk home, through the suburban streets, across the park, along the railway line, over Prospect Hill Road and then finally down the street in which she returned each afternoon to the house where her mother and stepfather lived. Day after day she traversed this route searching for the lost token of the lost place.
The child and her brother sit on either side of their nanna on a low red brick wall at the front of a house in a quiet tree-lined street. They are counting cars.
Which one of you can guess how many cars will pass before your father comes?
Three. Four. Five. Ten. Twelve. Twenty.
If he had arrived he would have tumbled out of some car, wearing no shoes, dirty white moleskin trousers tattered and patched, a soft brown leather jacket with the elbows out. He would have lounged lazily on the square modern couch, nursing a glass of red wine while the table was set. He would have sat wreathed in smoke, grey flaky tubes of ash trembling above the smouldering ember of a filterless cigarette.
And sometime, maybe after lunch, if she had been able to stand close enough to his chair, he might have turned to her and rumpled her hair and called her his beetle, or skinny rabbit.
So, here we are. Here we are with a handful of shards, pretty and sharp. What do they tell us?
As the story-teller, I realise that I am in a privileged position. A privileged position, but one also filled with difficulties and danger. I do not want to abuse my power and I recognise the seductive temptation to overstep the mark. I can see that what I am searching for is a story that will mend all the rents in the fabric of the universe. An impossible task, I know. I know.
I want to hear the child speak.
I have to tread carefully because I have so much more information at my disposal than she did. So much more. But I do promise to try to limit myself to the things that can be vouched for.
What I know for certain is that the child grows up and I know what kind of stories that have been told of her. Listen to some of the names she has been called:
the child / a girl (poison child)
dropper of bombshells (family terrorist)
liar / junkie / whore (the poltergeist)
squatter / criminal (trouble maker)
victim / survivor (the hungry ghost)
a trapeze artist (sweet falling angel / sweet f.a.)
How did she come to know herself differently? Could it be explained like this?
The child was a sleep-walker. She would be found wandering the house at night, rummaging in cupboards. On one occasion she left the house by the front door and ran down the street. But she does not remember these somnambulisms. They have been reported to her.
But the child remembers one incident. She was at her grandmother’s place in the country. A number of other children were there and they were sleeping outdoors in tents. The tents were pitched within the confines of a grassy, long disused, stockyard. There were probably five or six children present – these details do not matter – the older children, no doubt, with the toddlers and babies remaining with the grown ups in the big tin shed. The children must have behaved as children do in such circumstances, telling scary stories, bickering, joking, teasing. I remember none of that. Eventually they all would have slept.
And what the child – who possibly is the same person that I am – can to this day recall is waking to find herself alone under the wide starry sky in the paddock half way down towards the rocky gully. She is standing in her pyjamas, barefoot on frosty ground. She has woken because she is standing on a thistle in the grass. There she is, a child, standing on a dark hillside under the infinite sky and the moment has a startling clarity that she stores carefully inside herself as she makes her way back up the steep slope and climbs the five foot wooden post and paling fence and enters the tent and finds her sleeping bag again amongst the still slumbering children.
She recognises the size of the night. She is not afraid.
Belinda is a part-time lawyer, adminstrative assistant and mother of two young boys. She is completing a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney and has published work on-line, in the Grieve Anthology 2018 and in the University of Sydney Student Anthology 2016. ‘On Becoming One’ was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.
On Becoming One
I am that one.
The one in question.
Red Jordan Arabateau
I – A Chronology of Connection
1821 Anglo-yellows are popping up all over the Empire’s pristine lawn faster than they can be pulled out. It is upsetting to the Britons:
The most rapidly accumulating evil in Bengal is the increase of half-caste children . . . their increase in India is beyond calculation . . . it may justly be apprehended that this tribe may hereafter become too powerful for control . . . what may not in the future time be dreaded from them?(1)
The Empire doesn’t want any part of them. Many anglo-yellows are deemed not to be British subjects.(2)
1857 The Natives don’t like anglo-yellows either. (3) So the anglo-yellows try to merge into the background of the Empire. They emphasise their anglo parts, speaking only English and inflicting names like Nigel on their children (4). They disown their yellow parts by helping the Empire enforce a Dandelion-specific caste system based on degrees of yellow.
1898 Anglo-yellows merge so well that they are nearly invisible. An Empire-commissioned list of Burmese cultural sub-groups makes no mention of them.(5) They are overlooked by both Briton and Native welfare and legal systems.
1925 After a while, the anglo-yellows get some laws but not in relation to labour: the Empire needs someone cheap and white-ish to do its low-grade admin tasks. (6)
1939 Marrying an anglo-yellow is a lot like marrying an orangutan (7) , so anglo-yellows tend to marry each other. In this way, they form a distinct cultural community. When anglo-yellows marry, other anglo-yellows display good Empire-building skills by carefully noting degrees of yellow in the marrying parties.
My really-rather-yellow grandmother marries my hardly-that-yellow grandfather, which is well beyond her station (‘Quite!’).
1940 The anglo-yellows just want to be part of something. Well of course they do, because they’ve fallen in love. They sing little songs to the Empire, praising all things British and pointing out their usefulness. (8) They are always on their best behaviour for the Empire and if anyone comes to hurt it, nobody is quicker than the anglo-yellows to put their bodies in the path. (9) Still, after the war, the Britons go back to Britain and the anglo-yellows are left to scatter across the globe like dandelion seeds.
1950 My grandmother and grandfather waft onto a sausage-shaped island that floats like a turd in the water above another forgotten place.
My grandmother is not a happy woman. She picks at her beautiful rather-yellow face until scabs form. When she’s not picking at her face, she picks at her pale daughter, Wendy.
1952 Wendy picks at her beautiful barely-yellow face until it is scarred and pocked. She’s nervy, cries a lot and can’t settle. All my grandparents’ hopes are in their quite-yellow son, David.
1954 My grandparents just want to be part of something. Preferably something powerful. In Papua New Guinea, they borrow money to send really-quite-yellow David to the whitest Queensland boarding school they can find. Alone in post-war Queensland, Jap-yellow David absorbs pressure until his jaw muscles are deformed by constant clenching. Musculature protrudes from either side of his jaw like wing-nuts.
1969 David marries my mother – a relaxed white woman whose family has been part of Australia for generations. My grandparents just can’t get enough of her.
1970 I am born.
1985 I develop an insatiable urge to pick at my face until it is pocked. Thinking it might be helpful, my mother says, “You’re just like Wendy.” When Wendy commits suicide, I distract myself with intensified face-picking.
1995 Someone has been compiling statistics about face-picking and deformed jaw musculature: ‘Racism Linked to Depression and Anxiety in Youth’(10) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian CALD Communities(11) ; Stigma and Discrimination Associated with Depression(12) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Australia: A Cross Sectional Survey(13) ; Cultural Aspects in Social Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder (14). I wonder if there is any connection.
2000 I am friendly with two girls and we do everything together. One has Chinese heritage, the other is Fijian anglo-yellow. I wonder if there is any connection.
2005 I discover Hanif Kureishi is anglo-yellow and think about how his work resonates with me. I wonder if there is any connection.
2014 I stop picking at my face at around the same time that I start writing. I write to make connections between all the disowned parts of myself.
II – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. From the Latin ‘lacus’ for ‘lake’.
Story 1: Awww. Look at her, e’nt she cute? Belinda at six years old. Blonde hair in a bowl cut juts out at angles from her scalp. Swathe of snot lime-washed across her top lip. Puny chest, white shins covered in bruises. This afternoon, she’s been throwing acorns at the boys next door but now she’s tired. Sitting cross legged on the lounge-room floor, she watches telly in her undies. When the ads come on, she sings a song they’ve learnt at school: ‘Carra Barra Wirra Canna’. It’s a pretty tune and she warbles it exuberantly at the top of her voice:
There’s a lake in South Australia
Little lake with lovely name;
And the stories woven ‘round it;
From the piccaninnies came.
Suddenly, her Dad is there standing before her. “What is that shit you’re singing?” His tone is measured but menacing. She recognises the wretched set of his eyes, the jaw muscle pulsating dangerously and falls silent. She returns her gaze to the television but is watching him from the corner of her eye. He has a habit of lashing out unexpectedly, a clip with his hand or with his blade-sharp tongue. Both equally excoriating.
At school, the kids ask her, “Why is your Dad Chinese?” He is something, Dad, but he’s not Chinese. She doesn’t know much more than that because race is unmentionable in her family. A simple children’s song can set him off.
Now he leaves and she relaxes. Hunched in front of the telly, you might notice that the dome of Belinda’s ribs is like a bell jar. The ‘piccaninnies’ and their lake are sealed in there, along with the race-related stories they might have told. She won’t remember them again until she is an adult and runs across a pile of old school song books at a garage sale. Then she will wonder at the shame and confusion she felt as a child, and at the woven net of silence that she and her Dad are caught up in.
‘Lacuna’. That beautiful word. On one definition, it means ‘space’ or ‘gap’, as in:
The rocket shot off into Outer Lacuna;
You have a lacuna between your front teeth;
There is a lacuna in your family history.
Culture, being an experience that is shared between members of a social group, is usually public. It includes religious beliefs, festivals, stories, arts – all the things that bind people together and give their lives richness and meaning. Culture is something to be celebrated.
But Eurasians under the British Raj were a tiny minority in a multitude of nationals increasingly disaffected with British imperialism. Eurasian ties to the oppressors showed in their very faces and it is no surprise that their exclusion from Indian social and economic life was nearly absolute. In the circumstances, and since many Eurasians were not easily identified as non-white, the thing to do was deny one’s Eurasian identity altogether and align oneself, as far as possible, with the Empire:
“Throughout my life I had asked him why the family was (in India). Were his parents Indian? Did he speak Urdu? Did he have an elephant? He always told me simply, ‘We were an English family who happened to be living in India.”(15)
This strategy was necessary for Eurasians to survive as a culture. Even now in India there remains a vibrant and politically active, though diminishing, Eurasian community. But in my family’s experience, the consequences of silence have been mostly tragic.
Story 2: My grandmother and her sisters were very fond of the school that they boarded at in Moulmein, Burma. It was called St Mathews High School for Girls, and was an Anglican missionary school for Eurasian girls. My grandmother and her sisters were lucky enough to have parents that they stayed with over the school holidays. But it was not uncommon for Eurasian children to be abandoned or removed from their parents and many of my grandmother’s cohorts were orphans.
My grandmother loves to tell us about a time she tried to wear make-up at the school. The nuns told my grandmother, no, you can’t use make-up – there are orphans here and they can’t afford it. There is a faux brightness to the way my grandmother tells this story and she loves re-telling it. With each re-telling, she laughs too sweetly and too insistently. Even as a child, I can sense a discordance in this story that makes me wonder. What is my grandmother is hiding?
III – Straddling the Space
In 2016, in her key-note speech to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Lionel Shriver was critical of the increasing presence of ‘cultural misappropriation’ debates in literature. (16) These arguments, regarding the unauthorised use of cultural knowledge and expressions, arise in relation to writing which deals in identities distinct from the author’s own identity. An example that has been controversial in Shriver’s own work is her use of an elderly African-American character though Shriver herself is white. Shriver’s broad approach to these debates is that there can be no ownership in social identity. To hold otherwise, she says, is impractical and burdensome. Since the most that can occur via identity misuse is a few hurt feelings, Shriver is not sure why the debate exists and wonders if it is a fashionable pose. Shriver argues that the cultural misappropriation debate is flawed at its core since social identity is not a real thing:
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.(18)
Shriver’s 2016 speech is remembered, not just for its content, but for the way she delivered it, donning a cheeky sombrero to underline her arguments about hypersensitivity in Latino cultural debates and comparing herself to a Great White Shark in a sea of earnest community builders. In her reckless approach to wide-spread upset, Shriver reminds me of my favourite iconoclast, Hanif Kureishi, who commenced each morning of filming on the set of My Beautiful Laundrette (19) by getting into a huddle with director Stephen Frears and screaming ‘Filth and Anarchy!”’ repeatedly. Even with the consternation caused by Shriver’s 2016 comments, she hasn’t approached the entrenched controversiality of Kureishi who, it has been suggested, has only narrowly avoided eliciting a fatwa. (20) He is not an Empire Eurasian but a modern Eurasian born and raised in Britain and this culturally-specific heritage is revealed by his notable lack of silence.
But Shriver and Kureishi’s common maverick status is just one of several intersections they seem to share as writers. For instance, when Shriver uses her 2016 speech to rail against the ‘culture police’ who objected to her African-American character, she puts me in mind of the normative provocations frequently posed by Kureish’s identity representations. This was most apparent early in his career when his holistic representations of Asians upset just about everybody – conservative Asian communities, of course, by depicting sexually transgressive Muslims but also progressive Asian commentators by depicting Asians in ways that failed, they thought, to optimize Asian interests: showing Asians in a bad light. (21)
People ask why my Asian characters are bad, and it’s only because villains are more interesting on the whole. I’m very interested in how complex people are. People in films are often divided very quickly. You know early on who’s good and who’s bad. But I’m more interested in how complex we all are.”(22)
Shriver, too, resists treating her minority identities with kid gloves (23) and she might agree with Kureishi who considers that the freedom to depict the whole complexity of a character is as important as Art itself, which “represents freedom of thought – not merely in a political or moral sense – but the freedom of the mind to go where it wishes; to express dangerous wishes.”(24)
The most obvious result of the freedom that Kureishi claims for his characters in bucking identity norms is fun. See Omar in My Beautiful Laundrette allying himself with the best-looking member of the local skin-head gang to establish a successful business and score nookie. Or Karim, in Buddah of Suburbia, consenting to play a humiliating depiction of Mowglie and thereby grounding his acting career, escaping suburbia and scoring a mountain of nookie. Kureishi extends this freeing facility to his Asian characters – such as Karim’s father who shamelessly squeezes himself into the ‘Oriental Mystic’ persona, providing himself with a new income source and, you guessed it, scoring nookie.
But another result of all this opportunism is power:
The [mulatto] kids I knew were not tragic. They were like Karim: pushy, wild, charismatic, street-smart, impudent, often hilarious. Despite their relatively lowly position in the British class system they suspected they were cool, and knew they had talent and brains.(25)
Divested of the constraints of ‘proper’ Asian representations, Kureishi’s characters are free to consider how their internal desires and interests might be met given their oppressive externalities. Their identity lacuna becomes a grab-bag to be dipped into for whichever persona best suits for the time being. English one day, Indian the next.(26)
This shuffling of identity norms can be experienced as subversive but it is key to a powerful Eurasian identity. Of course it is. The almost (27) , the in-between(28) , the space in the Empire’s cultural index. Our mojo was always going to be mutable.
Which leads to a further overlap evident in Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings about writing identity: an awareness of identity as a means of accruing power. Shriver terms this aspect of identity, ‘offendedness as a weapon’. She could be referring to Tracey, an actress in Karim’s acting troupe, who takes advantage of her minority racial status and her cleaning-lady mother to manipulate the white guilt of the rest of the troupe. Her political aptitude helps her to obtain the dramatic representations she wants.(29)
But it is within this particular overlap that Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings on writing identity finally diverge. For Shriver’s 2016 comments on the politicisation of identity, ‘gotcha hypersensitivity’, reveal a blind spot at the precise point of Kureishi’s most essential acuity. The divergence is revealed here in the reckoning that Omar’s alliance with Johnny requires before it may progress:
What were they doing on marches through Lewisham? It was bricks and bottles and Union Jacks. It was immigrants out. It was kill us. People we knew. And it was you. He saw you marching. You saw his face, watching you. Don’t deny it. We were there when you went past . . . Papa hated himself and his job. He was afraid on the streets for me . . . Oh, such failure. Such emptiness. (30)
And again when Karim is forced to face the folly he has committed against himself in yearning for the English rose, Elenor;
My depression and self-hatred, my desire to mutilate myself with broken bottles, and numbness and crying fits, my inability to get out of bed for days and days, the feeling of the world moving in to crush me, went on and on . . .(31)
Also apparent in Karim’s experience of school. Enduring the nick-names Shitface and Curryface is least of his problems. He is also punched and kicked to the ground by his teachers, threatened with chisels to the throat, imprisoned and branded with hot metal: Every day, I considered myself lucky to get home from school without serious injury. (32)
Pain. Shriver doesn’t get it. This is why she acknowledges every type of identity politics but her own; why she resents being asked to consider others’ perspectives; why, to her, identity politics is a ‘tempest in a tea-cup’ of hurt feelings.
Admittedly, Kureishi has an advantage in perceiving identity injuries. First Asian at his Bromley Tech High School, Pakistani Pete to his teachers, squired around Pakistani beating grounds by his skin-head mates, Kureishi speaks openly about intense feelings of shame and loneliness. He has said that the war-zone traumas that Karim endures at high school are autobiographical.
Lived experience is not essential to empathy and pain is not unique to Eurasians. But I hope that any person endeavoring to represent Eurasian identity is capable of seeing Eurasian pain, just as I hope that any writer advocating the free-wheeling adoption of others’ cultural identities, is also capable of seeing pain.
Until then, I might gather my Eurasian parts around me and wield them, as Shriver could have predicted, like weapons. Because my father is just a few years older than Kureishi. Because like Kureishi, my father has a string of ‘firsts’ – first non-white at his elite Queensland boarding school, first non-white in his course at university, first non-white in the Queensland Veterinary Association. Because, after 49 years I still don’t know what that was like for him and the silence feels ominous.
Silence is the flipside of offendedness. And it has, until relatively recently, been the most salient feature of identity writing:
At their best the Eurasians of the novels are as kindhearted as their natural indolence and slovenliness will allow; at their worst they are heartless, vicious, self-seeking, and completely unscrupulous. At a time when racial separateness, symbolizing racial superiority, seemed so necessary for the task of ruling an empire, the Eurasians posed a special kind of threat. The trouble with half-castes, argue the novels, is that they take only the worst qualities of each parent race – the stubbornness and pride of the English, without their courage and principle; the deviousness of the Indians, without their cultivation and dignity.(34)
It is the novelty of identity debates that causes Shriver to suspect fashionable posturing but I hope these debates are not just a passing fad. I feel happy to see Eurasians and others wield their offendedness. Let’s keep it up because I think we’re making something new and interesting, something that might be a useful political implement in the management of in that other political, and potentially cruel, implement – the appropriated identity.
IV – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. 2. A cavity or depression in bone, containing nucleate cells.
Story 3 At the age of about 23, I reach a kind of hiatus in life. At a dead end in my relationship and in my studies, I schlepp around in someone else’s sharehouse and do shift-work. I am on hold until I can save enough money to escape overseas. I brood. I have strange dreams. I come across My Beautiful Laundrette at the local video store. It appears that Omar has also been on hold and knows what to do. I watch it and feel myself start to heal. Parts of myself are being knitted together. I wait until the house is empty and play it and re-play it. Then I play it again. It starts to run through my veins. I am absorbing a story intravenously, like fluid through a drip feed.
As well as referring to a gap or hiatus, ‘lacuna’ is an anatomical term, referring to cavities in the bone that cup its living matter: ‘osteocytes’ or bone cells. On this definition, space is not an absence but a presence of life-giving possibility.
A story can be like that. The delight that spans the abyss of unbelonging (35), the water play across a racial schism(36) . A story can take a lacuna and make it world-cracking, life-changing, art-inspiring.(37) That sort of connectivity can actually save lives:
Kureishi’s “almost” got me. Finally, an acknowledged duality, a nuanced fluidity, a spectrum. I didn’t have to be one or the other, I could be in-between. I could be almost.(38)
Kureishi’s characters were vibrant because the stories he told about their racial ambivalence made something from it – a Eurasian identity. It was enough to lift the writer Shukla out of her suicidality and I wonder whether things might have been different for my aunt (my aunt, my aunt; acerbic, funny, tender-hearted, sad; I remember her slender hands; it is said I have hands like hers) if she had known about these sorts of identities when she was struggling.
Maybe not though. Because she had to deal with, not just the Empire’s identity lacuna, but the one created by her own family.
My grandmother was pleased when the nuns drew a distinction between herself and the Moulmein orphans because she had more in common with the orphans than she cared to admit. Wrenched away from her Native mother, her culture, the language she had spoken as a baby. Sent to school to be re-shaped in the ways of the Empire. Underlying my grandmother’s story was the desire to separate from her orphaned cohort and from the horrifying suspicion that she, like them, was unwanted. A weed thrown onto a garbage heap. One of the Empire’s discards. Her story was not a connection but an attempt at disconnection. It was another type of silence.
All to no avail. Come Independence, my grandmother’s British father would return to his British family and she would be left wheeling across the globe like the orphan she truly was. Nothing between my grandmother and oblivion but the Eurasian family she had married into, itself intent on performing an act of disconnect because she was way too yellow.
There’s a curious glitch in Shriver’s 2016 speech. When she makes her statement that identity doesn’t exist, she does so baldly, without any logical underpinning, and nests the observation amongst unrelated arguments. It stands out in an otherwise flawless stream of witticisms and I don’t think it’s an oversight. I think Shriver is really saying that social identity doesn’t matter. We writers can do what we like with social identity because what difference does it make?
Shriver’s arguments about identity ownership have become pertinent again in relation to another in-betweener (40) – Bruce Pascoe, author of much-lauded work Dark Emu (41) whose genealogical connection to his Bunurong and Yuin identity is too tenuous for some. The connection between genealogy and identity is a central one. But an equally important insight to be gleaned from Pascoe’s case is apparent, not in the case itself, but in the furor surrounding it: community schisms, police investigations, political intervention, advisory board re-shuffles.
Social identity is incredibly important to us. We can expect writers to take care with our social identity because it matters. It matters in the same way as our stories matter. It matters, in fact, in the same way that we ourselves matter because being connected to a larger whole is an essential aspect of what it means to be human.
I have one last story. It is my grandmother’s story but she had no voice for it. I heard it, once only, from my father:
Story 4: Before settling in New Guinea, my grandparents alight briefly in Sydney where they stay with friends at Kirribilli. Each day, my grandmother takes my Dad and his sister to a playground on Kirribilli Bay. While my Dad and his sister play on the swings, my grandmother goes to the water’s edge where there is a low limestone wall separating the Bay from the park.
All around the edges of the strange harbour, sailing skips bob and duck. Diamond wavelets sparkle and recede back into the grey-green water. But before my grandmother, the water is dark and eerie, blackened by kelp which beckons to my grandmother like writhing arms. Come, come, enter our shadowy depths. Join us.
On the swings, my dad and his sister keep their small backs to my grandmother and do not turn around. They know what will happen, and cannot bare the alarming sight. My grandmother puts her knees to the limestone wall, leans out as far as she can over the Bay’s arc and sobs. It seems to last for hours. Endless tears fall from her eyes in a single diamond stream and join the dark water. She is submerged by sadness.
My grandmother saw her beloved mother maybe one more time in her life. She almost never saw her sisters and brother who were scattered across the world. She lived, not just without her family, but without stories to provide her with an understanding of her place in a community of others. She faced her abandonment in isolation.
How could she know that she was never the weed? How could she know that she was the resilient herb? The Dandelion with its face turned always to the limitless sky.
Lest my family’s story be dismissed as a quirk of history, I want to finish with an aside I came across recently in Alexander Chee’s luminous book of autobiographical essays. (42) Chee is an Amerasian whose heritage is partly Korean and he describes his family’s vigilance whenever, as a child, he visited relatives living in Korea:
Biracial Korean and white Amerasian children in Seoul in 1968 . . . were often kidnapped and sold as, for some time, your patrimony was your access to personhood. Put another way, if your father was a white GI, no government authority automatically thought of you as a citizen. (43)
The Empire has ended but my family’s story will never end. There will always be fly-in fly-out incursions of boundaries, the breaches of war or commerce that leave in their wake a trail of people who do not know who they are. Untethered and drifting but I won’t abandon them. I won’t let them float away. I’ll build them a net of connection and join them up with my stories.
1. Viscount George Valentia, cited in Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India. Leiden, (Netherlands: E. J. Brill 1973) at 13
2. Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity for Anglo-indians” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) at 17
3. Eurasian communities targeted in the Indian Rebellion 1857. “Shunned by the Indians, despised by the whites . . . the unfortunate Anglo-Indian found himself cut off from the main economic and social bases of Indian life.” Correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in 1933 cited in L Jacobsen, The Eurasian Question: The Colonial Position and Postcolonial Options of Colonial Mixed Ancestry Groups from British India, Dutch East Indies and French Indochina Compared (Uitgeverij Verloren 2018) at 82, web, accessed 10 January 2019, See also Mills, M. “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001) at 225; Mannsaker, F. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914” Victorian Studies 24.1 (1980) at 37.
4. Kris Griffiths, “Anglo-Indians: Is their culture dying out?” BBC Magazine, 4 January 2013, web, accessed 3 February 2018
5. Elementary Handbook of the Burmese Language 1898 cited in Edwards, P “Half-Cast: Staging Race in British Burma.” Postcolonial Studies 5.3 (2002) at 285
6. Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India (Netherlands Leiden1973), 18
7. Hervey, A soldier of the Company, cited in Sen, A Distant Sovreignity, (Routledge 2002) 148
8. ‘The Eurasian Anthem’ cited in Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) 14
9. Mills, M “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001): 223–236, web, accessed 11 1 20, detailing disproportionate levels of Eurasian military and sporting achievement. Probably Empire Eurasians display disproportionate achievement in entertainment also, but no one in public life will admit to their Eurasian heritage: Kris Griffiths, op cit.
15. Kris Griffiths, op cit. I experienced a flash of recognition when Griffiths says: ‘The Anglo-Indians also have a distinctive cuisine – jalfrezi was a staple in our household, but unlike anything on Indian restaurant menus.’ Even the most slavish imitators of British customs would balk at adopting that country’s cuisine. My grandmother cooked beautiful curries that were like Asian curries but different, as well as a type of balachaung (shrimp paste) that we ate on toast and which I have never tasted elsewhere
16. Shriver, L “I Hope the Concept of Cultural Appropriation is a Passing Fad” The Guardian 13 September 2017, web, 3 February 2020
17. Abdel-Magied, Y “As Shriver Made Light of Identity I had no Choice but to Walk Out” The Guardian 10 September 2016, web, 2 January 2020; Wong Y, “Dangerous Ideas” inexorablist.com 8 September 2016 web, accessed 18 January 2020
18. Shriver, L op cit.
19. Frears, Stephen. et al. My Beautiful Laundrette. London: FilmFour, 1985. Film.
20. For Kureishi’s particularly controversial status, see Ruvani Ranasinha, South Asian Writers in Twentieth Century Britain: Culture in Translation (Oxford Scholarship Online 2011) 260, comparing Kureishi’s critical reception to that of Meena Syal; Alberto Fernandez, ‘Hanif Kureishi: The Assemblage of a Native Informant’ Queering Islam 6 March 2015 web 2 Jan 2020, suggesting Kureishi is as controversial than the fatwa-eliciting Rushdie, Mick Brown ‘Hanif Kureishi: A Life Laid Bare’ The Telegraph 23 February 2008:
21. Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia , London, Faber and Faber, 1990, print at 180
22. Interview with Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi, The Movie Show, 7 July 1988, www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/11716675713/sammy-and-rosie-get-laid-stephen-frears-and-hanif-kureishi
23. Shriver, L, op cit, “That’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing.”
24. Hanif Kureishi, ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’ in Collected Essays Faber and Faber 2013 at 286
25. Zaidie Smith, ‘Introduction’ to Kureishi, H, op cit, vi
26. Kureishi, H, op cit, at 213: “If I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to invent it.”
Ibid at 3
28. Kureishi, H , My Beautiful Laundrette and The Rainbow Sign, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986. Print.
29. Her representations are later shown to be impotent in comparison to Karim’s as they require validation by white liberal authority. But this does not detract from the skillful way in which she has managed her minority identity.
30. Kureishi, H, op cit 84
31. Ibid 250
32. Ibid 63
33. Kureishi, H, op cit .12
34. Mannsaker, Frances M. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914.” Victorian Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1980, at 33
35. With thanks to Rilke, “As Once the Winged Energy of Delight”, allpoetry.com, web, 2 February 2020
36. Kureishi, H, op cit 111
37. Sandhu, S “Paradise Syndrome”, London Review of Books, 18 May 2000; Fortini A, “From Justin Bieber to Martin Buber, Zadie Smith’s Essays Showcase Her Exuberance and Range”, nytimes.com, 21 February 2018, web, 2 February 2020
38. Shukla, N, “How the Buddha of Suburbia Let Me Into a Much Wider World” The Guardian, 17 February 2017 web 2 February 2020
39. Shukla N, loc cit.
40. Pascoe identifies with both white and Indigenous aspects of his heritage, “Andrew Bolt’s Disappointment”, griffithreview.com, web, 2 February 2020
41. Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu : Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident? Sydney: Magabala Books, 2014. Print.
42. Chee A, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, London:Bloomsbury, 2018
43. Loc cit at 182
Karina Ko is from Sydney and graduated from a arts-law degrees. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Things I Used to Believe
That I shouldn’t go near the dragonflies that hover over our pool because they could release a fine white powder and make my hair fall out.
That I was already bald enough at seven, the hair so fine at the corners of my forehead.
That my forehead bulged out too much, and was too high, whatever that meant.
That I was the reincarnate of my great grandmother on my father’s side because we were born on the same lunar calendar day at three in the morning. Also when I was born, I had the same big eyes and flat nose as in her funeral photo, the one on my grandparent’s ancestral shrine.
That when my grandmother saw my baby face, her big hands went up to rub her collarbones. Oh heavens, her mother-in-law has come back to keep an eye on her.
That it was why my grandmother always talked more to my brother when he and I flew over to see her. It was why her chopsticks struck the back of my hands when my fingers picked up the soy sauce chicken wing in my bowl.
That it also had something to do with my dark skin (like a Filipino’s they said). And the only time she really loved me was when she pulled up my shirt to rub a bitter minty oil and she beamed at the paleness of my aching belly.
That my cousin was more beautiful than me because she had pale skin, long thick black hair and no double chin. That if I put a clothes peg on my nose, as my mum instructed, it would grow to be more pointy.
That my mum was the most beautiful woman in the world but her nails were too sharp and scratched my scalp when she washed my thin hair with Johnson’s shampoo.
That a few nights into Chinese new year, I should walk through the streets outside our small federation house in Bexley North, past the Banksia and gum trees and announce that I am selling my laziness.
“Beautiful and delicious laziness for sale. Come and look. Come and choose. Discounted for big clearance. Look, you can even have it for free.” I mimicked the stall vendors’ calls at the markets in Hong Kong, the ones with pigs heads hanging on hooks and severed eels swimming in their own blood. My hands flew out at my sides flinging my laziness like rice grains at the dark front lawns of two storey brick houses where rich families lived.
That the spirits were too clever to believe my wares were worth taking. But that I was cute enough to make my mum laugh, happy to see her daughter making an effort.
That I could make her happy by telling her I would become a lawyer and buy her a Porsche.
That my dad was handsome when my mum met him, and that his perm, a small afro of Chinese hair, was fashionable at the time.
That Jesus walked on water and made it rain fish.
That as my mum warned, nine out of ten men were cheats and liars, the lot of them, especially the handsome ones. Except Jesus.
That ghosts liked to wander along the hall in our house. That they leaned against the tiled bathroom walls in the middle of the night when I needed to pee.
That you could hold them off by making a sign of the cross. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
That when Kirsten told me to blow the dandelion fluff and make a wish, it was because the fluff could capture the moment of my wish like a video. It would fly up to God where he had a special fluff VHS player and he would watch me wishing for my parents to be happy.
That as long as I kept the necklace Kirsten gave me with half a heart on it and she kept hers with the other half, we would stay best friends forever.
That everyone needed to have favourites to have personality. A favourite colour. A favourite scented crayon. A favourite dinosaur.
That in scripture class when Miriam with glasses so thick that it made her look cross-eyed, sputtered about a visit from an angel, the people who laughed were faithless hypocrites, even though I didn’t know this word then.
That there were things I couldn’t tell anyone.
That the way to be popular was to laugh at people’s jokes even if you didn’t find them funny. That most of the things people said at school were jokes, even if they didn’t start with knock knock or why did the chicken.
That when my mum was pushed against the dresser and the wedding photo fell to the floor, the shattered glass said something I couldn’t.
That the only tea one should order at yum cha is Tiet Kwun Yum oolong because it was what my mum always ordered.
That if I unveiled the pink table cloth hanging over the mirror at my mother’s dressing table, a banshee with long flowing hair would climb out. She would grab me with her bony coral fingers and pull my soul out like a flimsy silk scarf. “Children’s souls are the easiest to extract,” she would tell me in a scratchy voice, “because they are still getting used to their human form.” Then she would possess my body and trap my soul behind the mirror.
That I should never wear indigo in my hair because that is what girls wear to their mother’s funeral.
That as the palmistry book at the library said, the four vertical lines at the base of my mother’s right pinky, meant she was fated to have four children.
The fourth line was meant to be a younger sister. She would not have been good at maths but she would have been warm like the first day of spring. She would have belonged the way I tried to but never could.
Belonging was like one of those cards with an optical illusion made up of tiny coloured dots. You had to stare at it a certain way to reveal a picture. According to Thomas, a friend of our big brother, it was a picture of a snake. Sensing their growing boredom, I had said, “Yes, I see it now,” when all I saw was a mess of dots scattering over each other again and again. My sister would have been the first to see the snake.
That I was a traitor of a daughter for just standing there at the end of the bed, my mum crawling on the floor with my sister bleeding inside her.
That I would have gotten in trouble if my dad found me talking on the phone, reciting our address the way school had taught us.
That I should have called even if he hit me.
That when I grew up I would never fall in love with a man. That there was no good man who would love me and my bulging forehead.
That my unborn sister was behind the mirror and watched me through the pink cloth.
That I had to kneel near the mirror each night to go through my plastic rosary beads.
That the fifty Hail Marys would help calm my sister’s sadness, which swelled at eight twenty, her approximate time of death.
That even if Jesus had forgiven us, I never would.