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.
Emily Sun is from Western Australia and has been published in various journals and anthologies including Westerly, Island, Hecate, Australian Poetry Journal, and Growing up Asian in Australia. She is currently working on her first novel Maybe it’s Wanchai? and can be found at http://iamemilysun.com
Maybe It’s Wanchai [灣仔]?
Tape deck, SONY
made in Japan
too many places and too many dark spaces
soft wave radio
white noise comforts in mah-jeh’s refuge
masking the sounds of a forgotten city
Non-recyclable plastic and metal, magnetic tape
Tony Leung pre-lust but with caution
together we unspool the tangles and with an
octagonal pencil, made in the people’s republic,
until the music plays
the Banana Boat song
tonic to sub-dominant fragment
then I started a joke
Too many men in skinny flared jeans
No one was laughing.
All animals know they are born to die, but none really believe it.
A mouse caught by a well-fed cat does not know its death is imminent even when that cat presents it to her musophobic owner who will scream, grab the injured mouse up by its tail and feed it to Susa, an Appleyard rescued duck. Susa will pick up the mouse and shake it so violently that its little neck breaks. This mouse will never know that after it disintegrates in the darkness of Susa’s stomach, it will become part of the manure that nourishes the garden it once called home.
Susa was meant to die before the mouse. The council ordered the slaughter of all abandoned domestic ducks found wandering in public parks because introduced species destroy the delicate eco-system. Susa is only alive because when her would be executioner, a middle-aged council worker who was usually on the pot-hole team, looked into Susa’s woeful and purulent eyes, he knew he had no option but to take her to the vet.
This is how it is and how it should be.
Only purebreds and country women’s baked goods are assigned prestigious categories at the show. The decorative —animate and inanimate, edible and inedible— are placed in metallic cages or glass cabinets. A purebred Hereford steer or heifer can fetch thousands at a charity auction, but lesser breeds are sold in bulk and that exchange is used to teach business students the concept of futures. There is no gender pay gap amongst these purebreds because both the steer and heifer’s carcasses are as tender as the other after twenty-eight days on a hook. Even the most discerning diner will not be able to tell whether their rib-eye steak was once male or female, only that it was expensive and more so when drizzled in truffle oil.
Piglets are, arguably, not decorative, yet everyone laughs and applauds when they are forced by the farmer/clown to dive into shallow pools of water from two or three metres. Some piglets fear the height and others fear the water. The farmer/clown will not kill them until they break a leg, drown, or grow too large for the plastic pool. They are not sucklings so are safe from Chinese fathers who want to present them, roasted, as a symbol of their daughter’s virginity at her wedding banquet. These diving pigs are kept away from piggeries that house pork because most mammals can sense and taste like fear. A pig on a spit at Oktoberfest is always sweeter when its day begins like any other, rutting and running around, and only dies when, from a distance, Uncle Giovanni shoots it in the head with his a single 150-grain projectile, the unregistered rifle. Uncle Giovanni’s pigs always requires less salting.
Simplicity Chan was like any other hopeful animal when she woke up on a wintry morning in the early 21st Century. She went for a swim in the heated indoor pool, ate lunch at Subway, and sat down to watch the Masterchef semi-finals in the evening. By midnight, she was hooked up to an oxygen tank and told by the ED doctor that if she were his sister, he would say “Yes. You have cancer.”
It turned out that Simplicity did not have a procrastinating cancer, one of the types that give you enough months or even years, to tidy up your affairs and perhaps even allow for the medical researchers to develop a new cure. Simplicity had an aggressive but good cancer, and the type that Laura, her assigned cancer support buddy, said she would pick if she had to choose from the hundreds in the cancer catalogue. Laura explained that although the sub-type was rare, it was known to have at least an eighty plus, or so, percent survival rate. The cancer cells were dumb and easily killed by chemo. Only a very small percentage, oh two or was it twenty percent, did not respond to treatment. Laura assured Simplicity that by next Christmas the entire experience would be simply a ‘blip on the radar’.
Simplicity survived so she forgot about dying and started a music studio in her living room. She taught small children how to play whatever instrument their parents wanted them to play, usually the keyboard. It was a shock when, on Valentine’s Day two years later, Simplicity woke up, made dinner reservations at a Gold Plate award winning restaurant but passed out on the hot pavement outside the restaurant while waiting for her date. By midnight she was hooked up to an oxygen tank in a different ED —not the one where she had once spent the night in a dark room hooked up to an IV pole attached to an immobile trolley bed and her head next to a full commode.
This second time around, Simplicity didn’t want a support buddy but she overheard a patient on the ward ask for a priest so she requested a Buddhist monk or nun. She wasn’t really religious but one of her grandmothers had been a devout Buddhist. The young ward receptionist who was in charge of Simplicity’s request said that he could call someone from their list of spiritual counsellors or if she wanted him to, ask a nun who was a regular at the markets where he busked on weekends. He was pretty sure she was a nun for she had a shaved head and walked around in robes that looked a lot like the Dalai Lama’s. She wasn’t on the official hospital list nor was she Asian but she was “really awesome” and always dropped ten dollars into his guitar case whenever he played Blur so she would have been youngish in the 1990s. Simplicity said she didn’t care who it was as long as the person believed in an afterlife because this time no one was saying hers was a good cancer.
The Blur loving nun was dressed in orange and yellow robes when she visited Simplicity on the ward. She said she wore different coloured robes each week because couldn’t fully commit to the temple she’d trained because not all the monks and nuns there were vegetarians. When Simplicity asked the nun why some people were struck down by cancers, the nun also said that all cancer patients were flawed humans in their previous lives and Simplicity’s relapse was evidence of this. But as the doctors still called it a ‘curable cancer’, Simplicity’s sins were relatively minor. Only terminal cancer patients who experienced agonising pain before they were taken to the hot or cold Narakas were the ones who had been murderers and child rapists last time around. Sure, it wasn’t fair for the people they were now but this is just how it was and how it should be. Besides, everyone had more chances since their damnation was time limited in the Buddhist realm and most people would be reborn human.
Simplicity survived again but afterwards stopped visiting the temple where her grandma’s ashes were kept for fear of bumping into the nun. When Simplicity returned home, she was more like the pig whose carcass will still tasted like fear even after drowning in a cauldron of soy sauce and five-spices. Simplicity was unable to make any plans beyond the moment, but soon these moments turned into seconds, the seconds turned into minutes, the minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, so she decided to read War and Peace in the order Tolstoy had intended. But before Prince Andrei left for war for the first time, it happened again. Simplicity woke up one day and by evening she was back on the cancer ward.
The doctor on duty walked in, her eyes blood shot, and told Simplicity that her only cure now was a bone marrow transplant, or they called a stem-cell transplant. The less arduous process, and softer sounding term, meant that more people were more willing to register as donors, this included religious people, except those from specific sects, once they understood that the process did not involve unwanted IVF embryos. The chances of finding a donor were not high, the doctor said, but not entirely impossible. What she neglected to say then was that Simplicity’s odds of finding a match were lower because she wasn’t European, or more specifically Northern European.
In year five, Simplicity’s sometimes-friend Nita had asked her, ‘Don’t you wish you had been born something else?’ This was after Shelby started making fun of Simplicity for having ‘slitty eyes’. That was the year when everyone was cruel to each other. Some kid called the teacher a fat cunt so the teacher dragged another kid across the desk and slammed him against the wall. When Nita, more an ally than a friend, and Belinda, the girl with no allies, were absent, Simplicity was teased for looking Chinese or Japanese, and speaking English too ‘posh’. Simplicity later discovered that her accent was one that some English celebrities often adopted to mask their aristocratic upbringing. By that time though, Simplicity had lost the accent and sounded more like Bob Hawke and no longer said daahhnce or Fraahhnce when she referred to the school social or the country across the English Channel. Other than dickhead Don, who pinched Simplicity whenever he had a chance, no one really physically hurt her. Nita though was constantly subject to electric shocks administered by Shelby, who excelled at nothing else. Shelby couldn’t have bullied Nita for looking or sounding different because although Nita was part-Maori, she had blonde hair and blue eyes, and no one made her say ‘fish and chips’ or ‘six’ repeatedly as they did with that other kid from New Zealand. Initially, Shelby used her index finger to shock Nita but then she learnt how to charge up a drawing pin to stick into Nita. If their teacher had seen Shelby’s experiments as a teaching moment perhaps Shelby would’ve ended up at the CSIRO and not an inmate at Bandyup.
At least Simplicity and Nita had each other. Belinda had no one.
At best people ignored Belinda. Most of the others made fun of her for having nits even though she didn’t have any and laughed at her for wetting her pants after someone tipped their left-over lemon cordial onto her chair. They called her all sorts of names and when she got pregnant, in the summer between primary and high school, everyone said that the only way that could have happened was if the guy had put a plastic bag over her head when they were doing it.
Simplicity was glad she wasn’t Belinda or anyone else from her primary school. Of course, she sometimes wanted to be other people, but not any specific person or someone she knew in real life. She wanted to be one of the Bradies on The Brady Bunch but never part of the Keatons from Family Ties. In high school she wanted to be womanlier, like the popular girls. Although her nipples budded around the same time as the other girls she didn’t need to wear a training-bra so she never drew the attention of the boys who went around snapping bra straps. If there were times she’d wished she’d been born something else, she’d long forgotten these moments and it was only now that as the doctor explained to her the limited options that Simplicity’s answer to Nita’s question from decades ago was now yes.
Yes. Simplicity wished she had been born European and more specifically Dutch. Even before this relapse, she’d read about how the Dutch and Germans, the Teutons, had an easier time finding donor matches because of less genetic diversity and higher donor rates. The 19th Century pseudo-science of eugenics benefitted those descended from European colonisers because although their ancestors colonised other people’s lands, intermarriages were rare until long after they lost their colonies. Who would have thought parochialism, apartheid and inbreeding had its merits?
The doctor kept talking but Simplicity wasn’t listening because she was too busy scouring the archives in her mind for examples of people who had low odds but did not die. There was an Ivy-league educated Indian-American guy who recruited everyone from his fraternity and then almost everyone from his ancestral village onto the American stem cell registry. Then there was a Lebanese-Australian who went to Lebanon and founded a cord blood match. She even met the Lebanese president. Simplicity’s placenta and her baby’s umbilical cord were left in the freezer of the hospital where she’d given birth. In this moment she felt rather stupid that she didn’t donate or bank it but instead had the idea to plant it in her backyard upon a doula friend’s suggestion.
Simplicity’s grandmother once said that people in her village used to eat the afterbirth, but Simplicity couldn’t recall which village it was or even in which country, nor how long ago that had been. Even if she found that village, there were still those villages of her other grandparents to find. Hers was a fractured tribe. She often joked about how relatives are meant to dislike each other because it reduced the chance of inbreeding. Secretly though, she envied friends who enjoyed weekly Joy Luck Club style extended family gatherings where there were enough people to warrant the purchase of an extendable dining table. A friend who came from such a family said that these gatherings were overrated and a drag but conceded that’s why her family didn’t die in the Vietnam war.
Simplicity was dying … again.
Like the other two times, death was swelling up inside her, compressing her nerves and crowding out her vital organs. This time, however, she could not laugh at her reflection in the mirror or make YouTube videos wearing a funny wig as she had the previous times. This time she needed out where she was really from, and hope that when she found her tribe, they would care about whether she lived or died.
‘It’s a lot to take in,’ the doctor said gently. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. You should try to get some rest and eat a little something before bed.’
The doctor disinfected her hands and left the room.
Fear smelt like pink liquid hand sanitiser.
Su-May Tan is a copywriter and emerging author. She was a recipient of the Varuna Publisher Introduction Program 2018 for a short story collection and was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize 2018 for her novel in progress. Her short fiction has been published in Tincture Journal, Sala Prize and Margaret River Press. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, two children and dog.
The Origin of Things (Novel extract)
My name is Katherine Chen. My mother died when I was five. There are signs around if you care to look. Like the jewelled comb in the sideboard drawer, or the framed batik prints on the wall. If you go outside, you can see a banana tree standing in the middle of the garden, probably the only banana tree in Narre Warren.
“Why don’t we get rid of it?” I told Pa. He said, “No, just give it time. It will do better next year.” And so, we live in this house with a white picket fence and a banana tree that looks like it’s going to die.
For someone who has lived in Australia for ten years, Pa spends an awful lot of time reading Malaysian news. Whenever he does, he gets really cross. There’s always some politician he’s grumbling about or some new occurrence that makes him annoyed. Diana often says, “You’ve left the country, why don’t you just let it go?” She says this in her psychologist voice, a soft, quiet voice that could be your own. It’s the same voice she uses when she sees me heading off to the park. Are you sure that’s a good idea? Will you get back before dark?
One day, Dessi and I came back from school and she said, “Oh my god, there’s a banana on your banana tree.” She was right. I didn’t even know they grew that way. The red bud was huge now and it had little green fingers coming out of it. I should have suspected something then but Dessi and I continued to traipse past as if it was the most normal Friday in the world.
We munched on some Cruskits, we did homework. As I flung back my hair, still wet from the pool, I began to cough. At first it just tickled my throat and then I felt the spasm rise up my chest. The germs prickled my lungs, hundreds and thousands of evil mitochondria, attacking my delicate cells. “Oh no,” I said. “Do you think I have pneumonia?”
“No,” said Dessi.
“You’ve had this cough since we first met.” That was true. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t pneumonia. A grey cloud descended upon my room, blurring out the poster of Kimiko from Spirited Away. I put down my pen. The cloud swirled across my Algebra book and transported me into the dark and foggy place I sometimes found myself in. My heart began to beat fast, too fast; and I couldn’t breathe.
“You’ve got a message,” said Dessi.
“Message,” she said, pointing to the lighted up screen of my phone. When I saw the name – John Ichuda – I felt like I was flying.
Hey…Do you want to go to the Spring Dance with me?
“What do I say?” I asked Dessi, struggling to breathe. Dessi rolled her eyes. “Well, you’ve only been in love with him for like two years.”
It was all I could think about that night as I looked at this Chinese girl in the bathroom mirror staring back at me. Should I wear the blue dress from Sports Girl? Was I getting a pimple on my forehead? As I chucked the toothbrush into my mouth, I saw the cat. I hadn’t seen it since I was nine. “A possum, you mean?” said Pa.
“No, a cat,” I said, pointing with my stubby finger. But when he turned to look, all he saw was the swing, and a pile of leaves where the cat had been.
The cat at the window now stared at me. Could it be the same one? How many stripy cats were there in the neighbourhood? I couldn’t forget those yellow eyes. It blinked once, twice, then disappeared into the darkness. Later that night, the eucalyptus tree tapped me on the shoulder, and the cat appeared again.
“Pick up,” it said.
“Pick up.” And that’s when I heard the phone ringing. For some reason I could not move. It was like an invisible weight sitting on me. Pa, I said, the phone is ringing. This time, I could not even move my mouth. “Pa,” I screamed in my head. “The phone!”
The yellow eyes continued to burn. The cat began to change. First, it turned into a possum, then into a fox, then into a tawny frogmouth, like the one in Mrs Smyth’s garden.
The next morning as I padded down the stairs, I knew something had happened. The light seemed especially bright, as if everything around me was made of crystal. I could almost hear a shimmery tinkle as Diana’s voice cut through the air. “Will she be there?” There was no reply, only the sound of boiling water.
“Hi Katie,” said Diana when I walked in.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing,” she said in a bright, cheery voice. Pa put his cup down and took a deep breath. He looked deep into his cup, then turned to me and said, “Ah Ma passed away last night.”
Pa continued to talk. He must have told me the details: how she died, who was there and what we had to do, but my mind was too busy thinking about John Ichuda and the date of a lifetime we would never have. I could even see the dress I would wear, a twinkling mass of gossamer blue, slowly disintegrating into nothingness.
“When are we going?”
“Tomorrow,” said Pa.
“How long for?”
“Just a couple of weeks.” Diana stirred her mug. She kept stirring it as if trying to dissolve the spoon.
“The taxi will come at six-thirty A.M, okay?”
“Are you going?” I said to Diana.
“I can’t sweetie, I’ve got to work.” She took one more sip and got up. Her cup made a cold clinking sound on the table. I watched her wash her hands and flick them dry. After she left, the smell of her dewberry shampoo lingered in the room.
The sliding doors opened and the day hit me like a wall of hot air. Trolleys rolled left and right. Signs said exit in three different languages. Out of this haze, a lady appeared. She called Pa by his Chinese name and gave him a hug. This was Tua Ee. For the longest time I thought that was her Chinese name. It meant Eldest Aunty and that’s who she was to me.
The diamonds on her sunglasses flashed as she and Pa spoke in a mix of Hokkien and English. All through this time, I tried not to stare at her eyebrows, two painted arches on her white face. “This Katie?” she said, squinting at me. “So big already.”
“Hello, Tua Ee,” I said. “How are you?” I leaned forward to give her a hug and she hesitated just the very slightest. A cloud of perfume floated around me as I wrapped my arms around hers. She let out an embarrassed laugh. “How was your flight?” she said to me.
“Good – ”
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at my feet.
“Wah, so clever, I don’t think anyone in the family can play anything.”
“My mum played the piano,” I said.
Two stewardesses sashayed past. Their sandals made slapping sounds on the concrete. “She means Sue,” said Pa softly. Tue Ee gave a little gasp and clasped her Chanel handbag. “We better go,” she said, glancing at her watch. “The traffic is going to be very bad.” With that, she made her way to the other side of the car and clicked opened the door.
Palm trees and billboards followed us all along the highway. In the rear view mirror, Tua Ee and her eye brows peered at me. She said Roy and Maggie were looking forward to seeing me. How old was I? Sixteen? That’s just one year younger than Roy.
We kept on passing rows and rows of oil palm trees. After a while, they changed into jungle, huts, and then more jungle. Finally we stopped at a large boom gate. In fact, every lane had a boom gate in front of it, beside which was attached a booth, and inside, a person collecting money.
Tua Ee dug into her handbag and handed the lady a few dollars, after which the lady raised the barrier and let us through. It was like opening the floodgates to the city. The jungle disappeared, and was replaced by petrol stations, hotels, rows of shopping strips, and a monorail zipping between them all.
“What happened to Jalan Templer?” Pa said.
“Didn’t you hear? They changed it to Jalan Muhiyiddin.”
Pa looked out of the window thoughtfully. I wondered what he saw. I saw a bus stop, a mosque, a shopping mall. At the traffic light, a woman stood draped in black from head to toe. The only thing visible was her eyes. She squinted into the hot blustery wind as Justin Bieber sang, You’re my baby, you’re the one.
Tua Ee stopped at a house with a large metal gate. All the houses had tall metal gates. Beside the gate, there was a mango tree with green fruit hanging from its branches. “Ah Fu,” yelled Tue Ee. “We’re back!”
The door grill creaked opened. “Uncle Patrick,” whispered Pa to me.
“Hello, Uncle Patrick,” I said to the man who came out. “How are you?” He cleared his throat and said rather stiffly, “Fine, thank you.”
I watched him stomp to the car in his blue flip-flops, and back again to the driveway, two grocery bags in hand. Tua Ee continued to bark orders at various people. She asked Roy to help with the suitcases. She asked someone else to hold the door open and someone else to bring in the pomelos. Pa took his shoes off at the door, I did the same.
We went to the kitchen at the back where a table was laden with food. A girl with short curly hair came to greet us – could this be Maggie? “Did you do a marathon?” I said, pointing to the words on her t-shirt. She grinned at me shyly.
“What do you want to drink?” said Tua Ee. “Orange juice, coca-cola, chrysanthemum tea?”
“Some tea would be nice,” I said. Tua Ee spoke to the girl and she came back carrying a yellow carton.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve never seen tea like this before.” The girl laughed, displaying a grid of teeth.
“What is it?” I asked Tua Ee.
“She says she can’t understand your English.” She introduced me to Siti then, her helper from Indonesia.
The grown-ups began talking about politics. They talked about scandals and the coming elections, and this guy, Tun Said, who was the leader of some Islamic group. I, on the other hand, examined the food in front of me: fried noodles in black sauce, and okra stuffed with fish paste. I chose an okra, which Tua Ee called a ladies’ finger. She said I was ‘very clever’ to eat it, though I wondered what kind of intelligence one needed to consume a vegetable.
Maggie sat on the couch in a stylish red blouse. She did not look like Siti at all. Her skin was flawlessly white. From time to time, she would play with a pendant around her neck.
“Your hair is so nice and thick,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Do you curl it?”
“No,” I said. “It’s just like that.”
I watched Maggie talk to her friend in Chinese. It could have been birds at the park. “Do you speak Mandarin?” she said.
“No, not really.”
“A little bit.”
“You’re Hokkien, right?”
“Well, my father is,” I said.
“So you only speak English?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling a prickle in my neck. A Korean singer appeared on TV and I said he looked a bit like George Shane.
“George Shane, that guy who won The Voice.”
“Oh,” said Maggie without meeting my eyes.
Not long later, another one of Maggie’s friends came over to talk to me. She started asking me all sorts of questions about Melbourne. Did all the houses have swimming pools, how cold was it there, can you see kangaroos everywhere? That’s when the prick on my wrist happened.
“Ow,” I said. “What is that?”
“Mosquito,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just a mosquito.”
“Is it a Dengue one?” I’d read about Dengue fever. A woman from Sunshine died from it last year. The mosquito continued buzzing around us, a needle of death. I was still trying to spot it between the cushions when Tua Ee said, “Alright, let’s go!”
“Where are we going?” I said, as everyone started to stand up.
“Lunch,” said Maggie.
“Didn’t we just have breakfast?” I said.
The Chinese restaurant we went to was nothing like its namesake on Little Bourke Street. I snapped Dessi a photo of the sign.
Dragon Boat Palace.
It had a zinc roof and cheap plastic furniture. A stray cat weaved through the chairs, hoovering up scraps of rice from the floor. We went to an indoor section, which was marginally fancier. The tables were clad in red table cloths. There was a Chinese painting on the wall and an air-conditioner spewing out mist.
When the tea arrived, Roy poured it out into little porcelain cups for everyone. He responded to my queries about what each dish was. Four Seasons with a jellyfish salad. Fried fish with plum sauce. The highlight was the crabs; a shiny, vermillion platter of crustaceans whose brethren were eyeing us from a tank across the room.
Again, the conversation started to blend into a mix of Hokkien and English. Even when they spoke English, I wasn’t sure if it was English. I concentrated on dismantling the crab claw in front of me without creating too much of a mess. I tried the soup beside me, a light brown consommé with a lemon inside. On the second dip of my spoon, Maggie yelled, “What are you doing?”
“What?” I said.
“That’s for washing your hands,” she said and everyone laughed.
When we got back to Tua Ee’s house, Maggie and her friend returned to the couch. I wandered off to the living room, where I found Uncle Patrick poring over some newspapers.
“What are you reading?”
“Mudrum Pits,” he said.
“Mat-Rem-pits,” he said, more slowly. He showed me the page. Everything was in Chinese but the picture showed a group of men on motorbikes. There must have been about a hundred of them, filling up the whole street.
“Who are they?” I said.
“Some gang,” he said. “They snatch bags, break into cars. Look, this woman got dragged down the street.”
“Ug,” I said. “How can they show that?”
“This lady broke her arm… and this guy got slashed with a knife. There’s a close up, do you want to see?”
“No thanks,” I said. I suddenly felt like I needed to get some air. Everything was so stifling. A hot wind blew from the window. There was a ceiling fan but it simply whipped the heat up into pieces.
“What are you doing?” said Uncle Patrick, peeping at me from behind the papers.
“Going for a walk,” I said.
He peered at me curiously. Then he sat back in his seat and lifted up the wall of papers again.
I only made it two roads down before realising that taking a stroll in KL was not the brightest idea. I had never felt heat like this before. It was hard to breathe and it made no difference whether you walked in the sun or the shade.
I reached a kind of lookout point with the Twin Towers in the distance. A construction site sprawled below me, and next to it, a group of men were queuing up with buckets clutched in their arms. Their bare backs gleamed in the sun, as they waited for the man in front to finish with the tap.
Suddenly, one of the men looked up at me. I quickly turned away – as casually as I could. Then I stepped back and made my way back to the road. Cars passed by so close I could feel the wind against my skin. Every time I heard an engine, my heart seized. I imagined someone grabbing my bag or ripping my arm off like the lady in the newspaper.
I sensed the car before I heard it. You can tell when a car slows down. The men made a screechy sound with their teeth. “Moy,” they said, as if it were my name. “Moy!” they said again. The car picked up speed, then just as it passed, I saw the bold blue words ‘Polis’ written on the door.
I kept walking briskly down the road. When I reached the end, I heard the car again. I turned left and the car did the same. I was about to start running when a girl’s voice said, “Katie!” I looked up and saw Maggie waving at me from the car, a white car, with Roy in the driver’s seat. “Come on,” she said, beckoning me over. “We’re going to Pete’s place.”
‘Pete’s Place’ really was a place called ‘Pete’s Place.’ There was a large metal sign hanging on the door. It looked like a restaurant but no one was eating. People just hung around in groups, chatting or fiddling with their instruments.
Roy found us a table at the back and we watched a few bands play. Some sang in Mandarin, some sang in English. There were posters on the wall – ads for things like coconut juice and a new Indian restaurant that had ‘Malaysia’s Best Tandoori Chicken.’ The most prominent flyer was for something called ROM, the Rock On Malaysia concert. There were like ten sheets plastered across the wall, so from a distance, it looked like ROM, ROM, ROM, ROM, ROM.
After Roy’s session ended, we sat in a circle on the floor. One of the guys started picking at his guitar. Then another guy started tapping a drum. It became some kind of impromptu show, even Maggie was on the maracas.
“Hey Katie,” said Roy. “Do you play anything?”
“I thought you play the violin,” said Maggie.
“Cheng, do you have a violin?” Roy yelled. “Anybody got a violin?”
Suddenly, I found someone thrusting one into my hand. All eyes were on me. I picked up the instrument and started playing the song I was currently learning – Beethoven’s Concerto Number Five. I even did the trill at the end. When I finished, the whole room was quiet. It was like the world had stopped.
“That was good,” said Roy. No one else said a word. Roy looked at Maggie, Maggie looked at the floor. Then just like that, everyone started talking about the ROM.
(End of extract)
Rafeif Ismail’s current work aims to explore the themes of home, belonging and Australian identity in the 21st century. A third culture youth of the Sudanese diaspora, her goal is to create works that blend the traditional elements of the arts of her home country with elements of classic and contemporary western arts. She is committed to writing diverse characters and stories in all mediums, is currently working on her first novel and hopes to also one day write for screen. She can be found exploring twitter @rafeifismail
Almitra Amongst Ghosts
Houah Maktoub, your grandmother always used to say, it is written. She firmly believed that everything that will ever happen had already happened, that distance and time were no obstacle. You used to sit by her side, in the shade of a veranda overlooking a courtyard, in that house surrounded by tall walls painted white, with its metal gate that was green with age, always open. You listened, your fingers sliding across the imperceptible thorns of the okra you handed her which she expertly cut for that night’s dinner as she told stories she had grown up learning, in the village on the island between two Niles. Stories of family, friends and legends, she had weaved them together like a dark Sahrazad. It is where you first heard of Mohamad, the village boy who lived on the edge of the savanna, who cried, tiger! tiger! tiger in the grassland! Until no one believed him, and his whole village was massacred as a result. And of Fatima, who sang so sweetly that a ghoul stopped the Nile for her, so that she may retrieve her lost gold. Of the spirits in the rivers, those on land and ancestors who whisper in dreams, reaching out from some other world with warning and advice; years later, you will learn that quantum entanglement posits that two more objects may exist in reference to each other regardless of space time, and think on how much physics sounds like her folklore and faith. At your grandmother’s side you learned of a world three parts unseen and believed in it. Now those days seem hazy and distant, and there is a space in you, that twinges like phantom limb, as though you lost something you did not know you had, somewhere along the invisible borders between what you thought was home and here.
Your house is like every other, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room and your house is full of ghosts. You see them pass across your father’s eyes as he stares at a wall, seeing a place that is not there anymore. They follow your mother into the sunlight as she gardens, they inform the heaviness of her step, the creaking of her bones – she is trying to grow chili, aloe vera, and a lemon tree, much smaller than the one that grew in your old home, that doesn’t seem to want to flower. You see the ghosts on your way to the bus stop, where every day without fail in the space of a single step, the street becomes dusty and you can smell sandalwood in the air, it is almost as though if you walk down that road, you would see your grandmother, sitting outside that large green gate with a big wooden bowl at her feet, cutting okra. The ghosts thankfully don’t follow close behind you at school, although they linger at the edges of the classroom, in the shadows of the trees dotting your school oval. You get used to them over time, those flashes of scent, of memory and you learn how not to react the same way you learn to not hide under your bed when you hear fireworks, or jump every time a car backfires. The dreams are more difficult to control but as the years pass you form an understanding between yourself and those haunting you.
It is 2016 and your newsfeed had been full of stories from the Orlando massacre, and suddenly the world is tilting much further along its axis, and gravity seemed much stronger, every breath feels like a battle. You do not attend the vigil to commemorate the victims and survivors. You cannot bring yourself to leave your house. Adrift from your body, you feel trapped, unable to look away as the news shows people becoming hashtags, becoming tombstones. You finally understand why your mother cried that day two years ago, when you, eighteen and giddy to the point of intoxication tried to find the words to explain something you did not have the language for, when you tried to tell her about Dunya.
” Everyone feels like this way about their friends at some point!” She had screamed, when you’d both lost your tempers, yours in frustration, hers in something closer to desperation ” It does not mean you act on it”
In your stunned silence you had offered no response
“This will pass” she had said “and we’ll talk no more about it.” Ending the conversation. The distance between you grew, until now, where it feels like you are standing on opposite shores of the same river.
Now you see her words for the plea and prayer they were. There is so much that is unspoken in that ghost house of yours, the silence is often straining to bursting as it rings on every wall but like bullets, words can ricochet and fragment, so you all keep your silences. You had called Dunya earlier that day, tired of navigating minefields in your living room. She had deactivated her social media accounts earlier that week, always much more practical when it came to dealing with grief, better at avoiding it, putting up walls and daring it to come closer, you on the other hand, soak it up like injera does mullah, your comfort food, until it becomes all you can taste. Travelling to meet her is the first time you are out in the sun in days and everything is just a bit too bright, the bus crowded enough that you have to sit next to someone.
It is sometimes easy to fall into the dream of this country, to walk towards that mirage of blind equality and for a moment forget that your life has always been shaped by the actions of others, from centuries and continents ago to just now, as you walk on to a bus and strangers with frightened eyes uncomfortably avert their gaze and shift as though shielding themselves, praying you don’t come near them. As always, your embarrassment comes unbidden, rushing through you, pricking your skin like tiny okra thorns and your every moment automatically becomes an apology. You remember that so much of you is not your own. Maktoub. But not the way your grandmother believed. No, in this nation people assume they can write your story from beginning to end, and wait for you to fall into place on the stage that has been set, it is why every conversation scans like a hostage negotiation, with your humanity being the item that’s up for deliberation.
Once, when you were fourteen and Dunya was still just one of the many girls you meet in passing twice a year during an Eid barbeque and your futures were not yet this possibility. There was a boy who walked home with you every day after school. You talked in a way that you never did on campus, those conversations became the very best part of your day. He was different and made you laugh. He called you beautiful, for a black girl and you kissed him. It would not be the last time someone would pay you a provisional compliment, nor the last time you accept it. Back then, you had not yet realized, that those who view your beauty conditionally, undoubtedly felt the same towards your humanity.
With Dunya, you found a love without stipulations and it was at once both a revelation and revolution. She walks proudly in the streets with her dark hair beneath brightly colored hijabs so obviously herself and it terrifies you that she may not come back one day. As report after report makes its way onto your newsfeed of attacks on women who look like her, like you- you pray more fervently than you have in years. Even if you’re not sure who you are praying to.
It’s one of those dime a dozen, cannon-fodder days that roll on lazily through the summer, with a too hot sun and clear skies when you meet her, under a jacaranda tree in some park you’d found when exploring the city, it’s biggest attraction is that its located several suburbs away from where you both live. You have both learned to compromise. You speak English with American accents and Arabic with Australian ones. You hold hands but only in places where you cannot be seen, because gossip spreads faster than bushfires and neither of you would survive the burn. Yet in those compromises of all that you are, you still carve out spaces for yourselves. You sit for hours under the shade of that tree, and remember stories from an ocean ago, and Dunya reads out loud from her favorite book, you listen to the cadence of her voice, as she recites poetry the way she was taught to recite prayer, it is almost indistinguishable from singing.
And there is a way to describe this moment, the shade, the tree, the breeze; this brief respite from the world – in the language you were both taught as children – Al dul al wareef. There is no companionable phrase in English. That is fine, there are no words for who you both are either – in the language of your grandmother and your parents – the one you now speak with an accent now, love is described by forces of nature, monstrously destructive and divine, and in all of that, is possibly an explanation as to why in that language the words for breath and love are indistinguishable by sound. It is probably why songs only croon phrases like ‘You are the Nile’ ‘She is like the Moon’ and ‘you are the hawa coursing through my veins’.
“So speak to us of love, said Almitra” Dunya quotes in Arabic. Stories like yours don’t have happy endings, not any you have seen. But you are not only beautiful in your tragedy. One day you will write this story, and speak of love, it might be read under a different sky, it might have a happy ending. Just for now though you think, your eyes drifting shut I can keep living it.