Atti

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Atticus told me to write a story about something beautiful. But what is beautiful? A bouquet of flowers, a symmetrically-featured face, a snow-capped mountain, a satellite view of the earth orbitting the sun?

He clicked his pen as he thought of his own ‘beautiful’ story.

‘Can you stop?’ I said. ‘It’s distracting.’

‘Sorry.’

He stuck the end of his pen in his mouth and cracked his teeth against its edges.

I gathered my notebook and went outside to sit on the deck.

There was nothing but fence and straw-coloured hills and sky. The cows and sheep must have been over the hills, grazing in the shade or drinking from the water hole. The gum trees rustled in the breeze, and goosebumps appeared on my arms. I stretched my legs into the sun, but kept the rest of me in shade so I could see my pages.

You know what’s beautiful, I wrote. The lines in the wood on the deck right here. You can follow them with your fingertips and go on journeys to everywhere. And you have to wonder what came before – what kind of tree was this wood made of, and which year of its life did this line signify? What happened that year – or the years and years before – to make the grain swirl in this way? Who sat under this tree, who climbed it, who lived in it, who scratched their initials into the bark? 

What’s beautiful is even thinking about these things. How does the sun feel if you’re a tree? Can you feel yourself growing?

Does your stump still exist out there somewhere, left to grow tall again while you are here, a plank of wood for me to sit on, stretching my legs out in the sun and writing about something beautiful?

Bare footsteps padded towards me, thumping and peeling away from the inside floorboards. The door opened then slid shut again to keep out the flies.

‘Time’s up,’ Atti said.

‘You didn’t say there was a time limit.’

‘Sometimes you can’t know these things.’

‘But-‘

He snatched my notebook and held it high, ignoring my protests and jumping in pointless attempts to get it back. Giving up, I sat on the pile of firewood, crossed my arms, and waited.

‘Not bad,’ he said at last. ‘I’m impressed, little sis.’

‘You have to show me yours now.’

‘Didn’t write anything,’ he shrugged.

I got up and ran inside, but all his stuff was cleared from the table. My blood boiled like only he could make it.

‘I hate you!’ I called.

‘You don’t,’ he laughed.

‘I do! Why’d you make me write that stupid thing anyway? It’s not even a story.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Don’t you get it?’

Just then, mum and dad pulled back into the driveway. Dad got out of the car and opened the gate, and mum drove the car in, crunching gravel all the way. Atti left to help them bring the shopping in, and I cleared some space on the bench.

I gave one-word answers and nodded as they rattled on about the things they saw on the drive, the locals they spoke to, the daylight robbery prices of things at the shops.

And I forgot to say to Atti, No, I don’t get it. Why did you make me write about something beautiful? What did you write? I know you wrote something. I know it.

Now that he’s gone, I wish I’d remembered.

[a 20-minute story inspired by the following random words: beautiful, earth, orbitting, slow, Atticus, drinking, red, tree, running]

Bucket

He fetched a large bucket and placed it out on the balcony in the rain.

‘Free water,’ Dad said.

‘Yeah but water’s always free…unless you buy it,’ I replied.

‘This water’s better. Trust me.’

‘Ok.’

Staying with dad was always an adventure. He did weird things like put tea towels in the bathroom and use garden tools in the kitchen. Once he made a salad with two small shovels because he couldn’t find the salad mixers. None of his plates matched, and he let us use the coffee table as a footrest.

The last time we saw him, he’d just gone outside to check the water in the bucket. It had rained all night – we stayed up late in the fort we’d built between the couches listening to it, flinching every time the lightning lit up the room, and bracing ourselves for the rumble of thunder. Mum waited at the door while we said bye and got our things.

‘Kids!’ Dad called from the balcony. ‘Come see this.’

‘Mick, we need to go. Daniel has a dentist appointment in ten minutes.’

‘Just a sec, Luce. Just let me show them this.’

We walked through the sliding door onto the balcony. The air cut through our clothes like ice, but the sun warmed our backs.

‘Look at that,’ Dad said.

In the bucket, a brown-speckled duckling swam in circles, making chirpy-quack sounds.

‘Might be missing its mum,’ Dad said.

‘Or its dad,’ I replied.

[a 10-minute writing exercise using the prompt ‘He fetched a large…’. From Pilot 2016: A Diary for Writers]

The Edge of the World

[a short story written in 2009, that I just found and felt like sharing] 

It’s like standing on the edge of the world. Evelyn’s mama lifts her high enough to see over the wall, to the land of concrete below, the planes resting between flights, the long trailers of suitcases like worms and the people like ants following each other in lines, trying to find the best way to lift the planes and carry them back to their hole.

It feels like standing on the edge of the world because behind them is Kai Tak Airport’s main building – large and multi-levelled with laminated floors and fluorescent lights, shops and food and people concentrating on getting from one place to the next. Behind that is the city, all shiny hotels and shabby apartment blocks, local people’s laundry stemming from windows and flapping over the street like flags. Evelyn’s kindergarten is in there somewhere, amidst the flashing neon signs and the sweet sizzle of fried taro. People stand beside street vendors slurping noodle soup from plastic bowls. Glossy Peking ducks hang in restaurant windows, with soy-sauce chickens and crisp pork bellies; there are businessmen in sharp shirts and pants, old men laughing behind counters of herbal medicines or hiding within caves of red incense, firecrackers, and smooth-carved firewood. Women walk with baskets slung over their shoulders, like human scales, each basket loaded with jewel-like oranges, or bean sprouts. Children play marbles in front of their parents’ shops; a blind man flicks the strings of his liu qin, sending streams of quivering, high notes into the air. There are huge white buildings with columns and arch windows, where gweilos work and they keep the British flag raised to make sure nobody forgets. All of these things, the feeling of always being in the middle of a busy market, the polished rich people and the dusty poor people, the smells of street food, the repetition of stinky herbal shops and colourful grocery stores, Evelyn and her mama’s apartment, the playground at the bottom of their building, her kindergarten, all of these things, mixed together somehow to become the same memory, are what will come to Evelyn when she thinks of her old home. In front of her, beyond the concrete floor, is the oily grey-blue water of Kowloon Bay, dotted with junk boats, surrounded by city buildings thick along the coast, and mountains so dense with trees they look like broccoli. Beyond that, Evelyn is struggling to picture anything but the man with the crinkle-faced smile, the one they are moving for.

She doesn’t want to go. But she has to – her mama says so. Her mama says her new baba will be waiting for them in Melbourne – and won’t it be nice to have a baba again? Her mama also says Australia is full of gweilos. Evelyn has seen them on the streets of Hong Kong Island, where she has lived all her life with her mama in a one-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor. Tall men and women, pinky-white skin, blue eyes, green eyes, fried daufu coloured eyes. But if Evelyn closed her eyes when they reached the front of the street vendor queue, or stepped up to buy their bus ticket, she wouldn’t have known that their faces didn’t match the Cantonese shooting out through their lips.

There were two blonde sisters at Evelyn’s kindergarten. Their parents were British, but the girls were born in Hong Kong and sometimes it seemed like they had forgotten they weren’t Chinese. Evelyn never forgot, though – she couldn’t help looking at their fine blonde plaits, the way the loose strands turned white when the light touched them at certain angles. The girls’ cheeks flushed magenta when they ran around too much; their lips were the colour of lychees and their eyes reminded her of sunny day skies. When Evelyn looked at them she thought of fairies – pretty and fascinating, but also mysterious and strange. Evelyn was never really sure whether she wanted to play with them or not.

Evelyn wonders whether, in Australia, people will call her and her mama black ghosts because of the colour of their hair. She imagines going to a school full of gweilo fairy children, where all of the blonde, brown and red-haired teachers stand tall and proud. What if no one is sure whether they want to play with her? What if no one wants to be her friend? Her mama tells her she will have to learn English. What if English is too hard? All of the other children will already speak it – what if she can’t learn fast enough, and can’t talk to anyone – how will she make any friends then?

Evelyn and her mama go inside, holding hands, Evelyn’s other hand clutching her dolly tight. They wait in line, give their tickets to a man at the door, then follow everyone else onto the concrete outside. The sun is shining and the water is just a thin strip now. The planes are as big as buildings.

The echoing bang of her mama’s heels against each metal step. Rows of seats, blue carpet, hidden cupboards in the ceiling. Towards the back, Evelyn’s mama buckles her into a seat and sits beside her, nudging her handbag under the seat in front with her feet.

A loud whooshing noise sweeps through the plane. Evelyn buries her face in her mama’s body, breathing in her perfume. She feels the plane begin to move, slowly at the start, slowly for what seems like forever, and just when she thinks maybe they are already flying, and she is about to lift her head and look out the window, the plane lurches forward and she is sucked into the back of her seat. Her eyes are closed, and her mama is squeezing her.

‘Look! Can you see? We are flying!’

But Evelyn is too scared to look.

*

Evelyn’s mama says they are going to live in a house – big, pretty, with flowers in the garden – just like the Botanical Gardens! – and Evelyn will have her very own room.

‘But I want to sleep with you, mama,’ Evelyn said on their last night.

‘You can’t,’ her mama replied. ‘You are a big girl now. Big girls have their own rooms, and they sleep by themselves in their own beds. Aren’t you a big girl yet?’

‘I am a big girl.’

‘Then what is the problem?’

‘What if I have bad dreams?’

Her mama stroked her hair, coaxing her into sleep. ‘If you have bad dreams, you can come to me. But you must try to sleep by yourself, ha? Big girl now. Ha?’

‘Yes, mama.’

She had shared a room with her mama since she was born, and shared a bed with her for as long as she can remember. Every night, in that cosy double bed, Evelyn curled into her mama’s arms and wrapped her own arms around her dolly. The three of them fitted perfectly into that space; it had never occurred to her that they would ever need anybody else.

When she was born, Evelyn slept in a cot beside the bed. But then her Chinese-American baba flew back to visit his parents, and on his way to the airport to come home, the taxi crashed into another car. This is what her mama said. She told her that on the night she learned that he was never coming home, she lifted their baby from the cot and sat with her on the bed, letting hot tears fall onto the baby’s brow. The baby blinked with surprise when each one landed, and if they slipped down her fat red cheeks and touched her lips, she licked them. Evelyn’s mama lay down and continued crying, keeping her eyes on the baby beside her. A dark patch swelled on the pillowcase. Baby Evelyn, she said, looked back at her, gurgling, perfectly content. That’s when she knew that the two of them would be all right.

‘Then why do I need a new baba?’ Evelyn had asked before the wedding.

‘Mama cannot give you everything you need,’ her mama told her. ‘Your new baba will look after us; he will send you to a good school so you can grow up smart and have a good job and look after your mama when she is old. Ha?’

‘But why can’t he live here?’

‘Because he lives there. Ai,’ her mama kissed her hair. ‘Everything will be better from now on. You will see.’

Evelyn looked at her mama, wondering.

‘Do you believe me, little one?’ her mama asked. ‘Do you trust mama?’

Still, Evelyn wasn’t sure.

‘Wei, can you hear me?’

Finally, Evelyn nodded. Her mama’s face stretched into a smile, and she gathered Evelyn into her arms and squeezed. ‘Do not worry about anything, okay?’ she whispered. ‘Mama will always look after you. You are my baby.’

*

‘Wake up, wake up! Look, you can see Australia!’

Evelyn’s dream, in which the blonde sisters were holding her hands and leading her into a classroom full of children who looked just like them, fades into black. The steady rumble and whoosh of the plane fills her ears again; she breathes the soapy smell of the seats. She remembers where she is, that her room for the last ten hours has had a window and an armrest, the back of her seat and the back of the seat in front of her for walls. Her mama is beside her. Her dolly has fallen onto her unbuckled shoes on the floor.

The plane is in a cloud, and when it shakes a little, Evelyn whimpers. Her mama points outside again, and she dares to look. The cloud opens up and far, far below is a land – green and yellow and brown, and as the plane gets lower, she can see that it is speckled with white square houses.

Her mama’s arm is around her when the wheels hit the ground. They collect their suitcases and wait in lines, and they are walking through sliding doors, into a room full of people waiting, watching the same doors they came through. Just as her mama had said, there are a lot of gweilos. They wear slippers, shorts and t-shirts and floaty beach dresses, their arms spread wide to greet their loved ones emerging through the doors. And then the tall, slender man Evelyn remembers appears from somewhere in between them. His black hair is flecked with more grey than there was at the wedding; it is combed and gelled to the side. He is wearing a suit and holding flowers and a new dolly with a bright pink and yellow dress. When he sees Evelyn and her mama, and they see him, his face crinkles all the way up to his hairline because his smile is so big.