Fiction

Brisbane, late 1960s

YOUR MOTHER DOESN’T like the school holidays. She has to run the shop as well as keep an eye on you. Your brother and sister are older and seem to be able to take care of themselves. Your brother vanishes for hours on end to play football with his friends, but you have no interest in sport, and he doesn’t want his little brother tagging along anyway. Your sister belongs to some alien world of older girls you have no place in. So it falls mainly to your mother to keep you occupied. She does her best to respond to your constant complaining about how bored you are.

Since you’ve graduated from comics to Enid Blyton novels, she gives you money to go to the newsagent’s and buy yet another in the Famous Five or Secret Seven series. It isn’t long before you exhaust their small range of titles, which you read over and over until you’re sick of them. You try watching daytime television, but the shows are for adults: shows like Bellbird or Divorce Court or movies that depict endless conflicts between adults – mainly, it seems, between wives and their husbands. You continually nag at your mother that you’re bored, although you give her no ideas what you might do. At least her helpless concern is some kind of emotional response, something to fill up the endless hours until the cartoons come on later in the afternoon.

One day, after you’ve gone down into the shop to tell her yet again how bored you are, she snaps at you and calls you a nuisance. You burst into tears and run to your bedroom, sobbing. You’re unwanted, not worth any effort, your unhappiness of no importance no matter how much it makes you suffer. You lie face down on the bed, your head turned from the door so that she can see you’re ignoring her if she comes in. More than anything in the world you want her to come in, to stand at the threshold and see you lying there, coldly ignoring her.

Just when you’ve given up, just when your feelings of hurt have subsided and you’re ready to resume your day (it can’t be too much longer before the cartoons begin), she comes in and sits beside you on the bed. As the mattress dips with her weight, your body goes rigid and all the hurt and self-­pity comes flooding back. You’re waiting for her to say sorry. To say sorry for calling you a nuisance.

She doesn’t apologise. What she offers is better than an apology. Tomorrow morning, she’ll be going into town. You can come along. You can’t remember the last time you went into town, or rather your memory of it is so hazy that you might as well never have been there before. You’ll take the tram, she explains. Your father will look after the shop for a while. You want to maintain your anger in order to punish her, but it has evaporated. In fact, you find it impossible to hide your wild excitement.

 

THERE ARE TWO main shopping areas in Brisbane: the Valley and the City. You will go to the Valley, your mother has decided. It’s the smaller of the two, but it’s closer, only a ten-­minute tram ride away. You know that the Valley has two main department stores, Waltons and Myer. You know this because you have seen their advertising on TV. They seem to sell everything: beds, sheets, books, clothes, shoes, toys, medicines, electrical appliances, gifts. Much of what they sell seems directed at women. Again and again you see ads where beautiful, slender women strike poses in elegant clothes, ads where their faces, pale and flawless, fill the screen, showing in detail their lipstick and face powder, the creams and soaps that will make them look younger, more beautiful, more glamorous. You hear the same brand names over and over again: Revlon, Schwarzkopf, Maybelline, Lux, Prue Acton. At school an older boy made a joke that everyone sniggered at, except you. What happened to Helena Rubinstein? Max Factor. You didn’t understand why it was funny. Later, you wanted to ask one of your friends, but you were too embarrassed that you didn’t know. The sniggering told you it was something to do with sex, but things to do with sex frighten you.

Next morning, lying on your back on the purple bedspread in your parents’ bedroom, you watch your mother put on her make-­up. Usually you avoid your parents’ bedroom in the daytime: the light makes you queasy. The room has no windows: sunlight struggles through the dark-­red glass of the double doors that open onto the hallway, and mixes with the sickly yellow light of the globe. But today is a special day, and it feels right to be in your mother’s company as you make your preparations to go into town.

From the top drawer of the dresser she takes out a shell-­shaped compact of face powder, a gold cylinder of lipstick and a small bottle of 4711 perfume. She opens the compact and, with what looks like a tiny pink pillow hidden inside, pats on the face powder. Then she twists the gold cylinder until a pink tip appears; it glides over her stretched lips. The 4711 she dabs behind her ears. She quickly appraises herself in the mirror. She doesn’t seem to be admiring herself. Rather, she seems to be checking that everything is correct. She picks up her good handbag – it’s dark green, to match her good dress – and slips its straps over her arm. She turns to you, scolds you when she sees you’ve been pulling tufts of threads from the bedspread, then says pame: let’s go.

 

WHEN YOU STEP off the tram on Brunswick Street your mother goes to take your hand, but you pull it away: you’re too old for that now. She gives you a glance that says she’ll trust you, then heads straight up the street to Waltons, which is nearby. She walks quickly, with short rapid steps, which surprises you. On the tram ride she seemed relaxed, but now that you’re on this busy shopping street, she has become tense and preoccupied. The hum of the traffic, the crowds of shoppers that weave around you on the pavement: her face sets harder as she leads you through the double doors of the store.

After the noise of the street, it’s quiet, the quiet of a place that has cut itself off from the rest of the world. It looks strangely empty, even though there are customers everywhere you look, most of them women, some with small children in strollers, shopping bags hanging off the handles. Customers mill along the strips of carpets that cover the walkways and deaden the sound of their movements. The store stretches out all around you like a labyrinth, one made up of racks, display cases, counters, long tables piled with all manner of goods. You pass through the cosmetics department, the electrical department, the haberdashery department, the toy department. Your mother leads you through the maze and, as you follow, you find yourself dazzled by the sheer volume of things for sale, all neatly organised into groups: the department store is a shop made up of a thousand shops. And you think: this is a magical place. This is where all the things that you have seen on television, in magazines, on billboards, come together in one place. This is where the images of the things you can buy become real things.

Your mother takes you by the shoulder for a moment: you are dawdling. You follow her. After a few minutes you realise that she’s lost. She tisks in exasperation and mutters to herself in Greek as she makes one wrong turn after another, her destination known only to her. You tell her you saw a large sign that listed the departments: all she has to do is look at that, it will tell her where to find what she wants. Her face darkens and she doesn’t respond. You wander around a little longer, and finally loop back around to the store directory. You have to pull at your mother’s arm to force her to stop in front of it. You’re bewildered by her behaviour. Look, you say to her, pointing at the sign, look, it will tell you where things are. Your mother stands there, staring at the sign uncomprehendingly. It’s at that moment you realise that she doesn’t know enough English to understand it.

Your first impulse is to be angry with her. How can she not be able to read the simplest of things? You stand there together, your mother staring up at the sign, squinting hard at the words as though that will help her reveal their meaning, you beside her, wanting to vanish into thin air, sure that everyone around you must know how stupid she is. Why can’t she be like the mothers at school, with their smart outfits and hairstyles? And now it appears that she can’t even read. Your face starts to burn with shame and embarrassment.

Your mother gives up her battle with the sign and asks you in Greek where the kitchen things are. She hasn’t noticed you’re angry with her, ashamed of her. But you notice that there is something new in her voice, something humble and innocent in the way she asks you. Your anger abruptly vanishes. Your mother is asking for your help, but this isn’t the kind of help you know: fetching something, doing something you need to learn to do anyway. This is a new kind of help, one you don’t quite understand. You feel slightly weightless for a moment as a wave of emotion overcomes you: it feels like the prickling on your skin when you’re too hot in your jumper. You realise that it’s guilt, guilt at being ashamed of your mother. You want this feeling to go away immediately. Then you feel an overwhelming sense that you must help her. It makes you feel happy and strong but at the same time you are resentful. You’re the one who should always be helped. You’re the one who needs to be guided through the world. Your mother, still oblivious to your tumult of feeling, asks you again: Pes mou, ayori mou, pou einai ta praymata tis kousinas? Tell me, my son, where are the things for the kitchen? Again, that tone of innocence, of sweetness. You study the sign, and soon find kitchenware. It’s on the ground floor, somewhere to your right. Bravo, your mother says. You nearly burst with pride.

Your mother is after new forks and knives. The ones you use at home are old, their handles of thick yellow plastic cracked and chipped. In the kitchen section there is every kind of knife and fork imaginable, shiny and new. The most expensive are laid out in display boxes, gleaming silver against the black velvet into which they have been set. They look like the ones that kings and queens use: you’ve seen royal banquets on TV where long tables are set with more forks and knives than you thought could possibly exist. At the sight of the expensive cutlery sets your mother’s gaze narrows, and she pulls back her top lip so that her teeth show: it’s her look of intense interest. She quickly moves on to the cheaper sets and finds one she likes: the handles come in two colours, light or dark blue. She can’t decide, so she asks you to choose. You pick the dark blue, because it’s like your school uniform. Good, she says, the light blue would be harder to keep clean.

For your next stop your mother, to your surprise, seems to know where to go. You follow her to the lifts that are located at the far back wall. When you get there, you see a sign on one of the doors: it says out of order. You think you might need to explain it to her, but the lack of people waiting makes it clear enough. She immediately looks upset. Her behaviour confuses you: you passed an escalator to get here, you could have just as easily used it, and you tell her as much. She refuses to move. You take her by the arm and pull her in the direction of the escalator. No, she says, better to get the stairs. But the stairs are nowhere to be seen. She thinks better of her decision, and you walk over to the escalators. You let her go first. She goes to put her foot on the first metal step, but its movement seems to disorient her. She pulls her foot away and steps awkwardly to one side. There’s a look of fear on her face. You’re amazed that she’s afraid to step onto it. For the second time that day your mother needs your help: you take her arm and together you step onto it. She clutches your shoulder with one hand, the black rubber handrail with the other, and shuts her eyes in fear. As you rise above the ground floor you suddenly panic: how will you get her off? When the moving stairs level out just before the first floor, you push her gently forwards. She responds to your prompt, meek as a lamb.

On the first floor you find yourself surrounded by women’s underwear. Suspended from coat hangers, dangling from racks, are bras, pants and other kinds of garments of thin shiny fabric that you can’t identify. Female dummies, tall and angular, are positioned everywhere between the racks. Many of them stand on white pedestals, their heads and shoulders jutting above the sea of lace and silk. Their frozen pouts show complete disregard for the fact that they are nearly naked. Your mother points to a nearby armchair and tells you to sit and wait with the bags. You sink uncomfortably into the chair, which is covered in dark-­blue velvet that’s shiny and worn. Right in front of you is a dummy with no head; her arms end in stumps just below the elbow. Also, you notice that her torso is at an odd angle to her hips; she hasn’t been screwed together properly. Through the lace of her bra you can see her nipples, a darker shade than the rest of her body. Her white panties bunch in a V whose tip ends at the top of her thighs. It all makes you incredibly uncomfortable, and you don’t know where to rest your gaze. You look over to where your mother has gone. Her head floats above the racks, then periodically disappears as she bends forward to inspect some item or other. You can’t see what she’s looking at. You don’t want to see what she’s looking at.

You retrieve the book you’ve brought with you from her handbag: Enid Blyton’s Five on Kirrin Island Again. You flick through the book and soon find your place. George, the tomboy who hates to be called by her real name, Georgina, is walking through an undersea tunnel on a mission to rescue her father, a scientist, who has been kidnapped. It thrills you, the fact she is walking through a tunnel hewn from rock, the sea pounding and surging above her. But as you start to read you find, to your frustration, that you can’t settle into the story: it feels strange to be reading in a department store surrounded by women’s underwear. You put your book away and wait for what seems like an eternity. Bored, you get up to look at the dummy in front of you. On the floor you notice what look like sharp tips peeping out from behind her white pedestal. You take a closer look. To your amazement you see the dummy’s arms lying twined together on the floor. The limbs are impossibly long and thin, especially the fingers, their nails like claws, painted in ox blood that has chipped, exposing patches of crumbling white plaster.

Your mother appears at the end of the aisle as if from nowhere and, waving her arms at you in admonishment, motions at you to sit. You go back to your book, but still you can’t concentrate. You can’t help but wonder about your mother. You think about how much help she has needed today, and how important and strong helping her makes you feel. For a moment you sit there, drunk on your own sense of goodness. You have become your favourite cartoon character, Prince Planet. You have no pendant that gives you limitless power, no spacesuit in which to fly, but nonetheless you are a doer of good, a helper to someone who needs it. The children in the Enid Blyton novels that you love to read – Julian and Dick and Anne and Georgina – are all doers of good. They’re decent and brave and always ready to take risks for others. But they aren’t good in the same way Prince Planet is good. Prince Planet, it strikes you, has a much deeper commitment to goodness. For him, goodness isn’t restricted to holiday adventures: it’s his purpose in the world, to seek out people who need help, either because they can’t manage on their own, or because there is evil in the world they must actively fight against. This is the kind of goodness that surges through you now, a call to right wrongs, to raise up the weak. And you think to yourself that there would be great rewards for doing this. Those you help would shower you with their love and gratitude. What could be more wonderful than that? But it also frightens you, this call to goodness. To be so dependent on the love of others: wouldn’t that be a terrible thing? Perhaps it’s better to be more like the Famous Five or the Secret Seven: to be mainly normal, but especially good when you needed to be.

One thing, however, is clear to you. Outside your family’s shop, your mother seems weak and helpless. You don’t understand why. You suddenly realise that you know very little about her. You want to know more. You decide you will ask her more about herself.

 

THE REST OF the shopping trip unfolds without incident. With your help your mother braves the down escalator, this time resting her hand on your shoulder rather than clutching it. She buys other things from the ground floor: hairclips, a plastic raincoat, a Kiwi shoe-­polish kit. She is careful with her purchases and it all takes some time. When she realises it’s nearly lunchtime she asks if you’re hungry, and when you say yes, after a moment’s reflection, she says you’ll have lunch in the Coles cafeteria.

A little while later, you’re sitting in a booth opposite her, the shopping bags piled beside you. The cafeteria is situated at the back of the store on its own mezzanine level that overlooks the ground floor. From the booth you can look down at the vast space of the main store. Like Waltons, it’s made up of a maze of shelves and racks and long tables, but they are packed in much tighter than in Waltons. It’s also much busier than Waltons – seemingly countless people fill the narrow spaces – and all around you is a muted clatter and hum. You’re fascinated by the booth. The seats of dark-­brown vinyl are thick and padded, but you don’t sink into them: they’re taut and a bit springy and remind you of the trampoline at the Police Boys’ Club. The lights directly above you are of dark-­orange glass, triangular panes stuck together at sharp angles that hang from long cables and make you think of dying stars, the globes within them struggling to project any light, just a dull, ember-­like glow. But the cafeteria isn’t dark: light floods in from the banks of fluorescents that cover the ceiling of the main store. You feel important and grown up sitting there with your mother, in this small space carved from the enormity of the world that you have the right to occupy for as long as you like.

Your mother raises her hand to brush back a stray hair that has escaped from a bobby pin. With her shoulders slumped slightly forward, she looks the way she always looks: resigned, a bit sad. Yet, sitting here in the booth, she also looks different, a little less burdened, a little more free. For a short while, at least, someone else is doing the work she normally does, the cooking, the serving, the clearing away. You feel happy for her.

In front of you, on an impossibly large white plate, is the meal you carried over on a tray from the gleaming steel self-­service counter. You have chosen a meat pie with a topping of mashed potato and peas. The skin of the potato forms a pattern like frozen waves, the crests a golden brown. It’s doused in gravy that also covers the half-­moons of mashed potato and pumpkin that the serving lady doled out with an ice cream scoop. Beside your plate is a small glass goblet of trifle and a can of Fanta. Your mother’s meal is exactly the same. You start to eat. The food is delicious and you eat so quickly your mother tells you to stop, stop, you’ll make yourself sick.

Reluctantly you put down your knife and fork.

You watch her eat, slowly, methodically.

How did you get to Australia? you ask her.

She pauses for moment.

On a ship. A big ship, she says in English.

How long did it take?

Then thymamai. I can’t remember. A few weeks.

You’re amazed.

How did you pay for it?

In a mixture of Greek and English she tells you that her younger sister, your Auntie Dimitra, paid for her. Auntie Dimitra had come to Australia a few years before your mother: she and her husband ran a café in country Queensland. To pay her back, your mother worked in their café for two years.

You knew that your mother lived with Auntie Dimitra before she came to Brisbane, but you didn’t know she worked to pay off a debt. These arrangements to do with work and money make you feel uneasy: there is something harsh and cruel about this side of things. Families should just help each other without thinking about money, you tell yourself. You have always thought of Auntie Dimitra as warm and generous. Indeed, on the rare visits she has made to the shop with her family – visits that are treated as events of major importance as they have to drive for many hours to come to Brisbane – she has hugged and kissed you as if you were her own son. Now, you think she might also be mean and cruel.

You ask your mother, indignant on her behalf: Did she give you enough food?

You mother looks at you like you’re an idiot.

Of course! There was plenty of food! She just had to pay off her ticket. Her sister had to work hard for years to buy her the ticket. It was very nice of her sister to do it, to help her come to Australia. Their family was so poor there was no other way she would have been able to come. Your mother desperately wanted to leave Greece. There was nothing for her there.

The way your mother says ‘her sister’, i athelfi mou, is full of passionate defence, and has a depth of love you’ve never quite heard before. I athelfi mou: your mother’s words ring like music, a music that can only be Greek, like finely wrought gold that sings with vibration. It fills you with delight, this music. You mother’s defence of Auntie Dimitra also makes you feel stupid, and you’re happy to feel stupid. You like Auntie Dimitra very much, and don’t want to think of her as cruel.

How much did the ticket cost?

It was expensive. Hundreds of pounds.

You ask her to tell you about Greece.

For a moment she looks surprised, then her face sets hard. She continues the slow rhythm of her eating.

You pester her. Tell me about Greece, you insist.

She answers mainly in Greek, with some English words when you tell her you can’t understand. But the more she talks about Greece, the more Greek words she uses. It frustrates you, this wall of language between you and her. You try to understand what you can.

Life was hard, she tells you. Too hard. You don’t know how hard. People had no food. They starved.

What do you mean, people starved?

There was no food. In the winter there was nothing to eat. Nothing. People died of hunger. You could see their bones under their skin. Babies died. Terrible, terrible.

Why wasn’t there any food?

The wars.

What wars?

The big war, the world war. First the Italians came. They left, then the Germans came. Hitler sent them. Then the Greek war. Against the communists. You wouldn’t understand. You’re too young to understand.

Your father wouldn’t say you were too young to understand. He’d jump at the chance to explain. Her reluctance frustrates you.

But you want to understand, you tell her.

She half closes her eyes: it’s an outward gesture of impatience with you, and an inward look that witnesses painful memories she prefers to forget.

You decide to take a different tack.

What’s a communist? you ask her.

Her expression suddenly becomes sharp and focused. O pateras sou: your father, she says with sarcasm. Your father is a communist.

She falls silent. She goes back to eating her food, slowly, methodically. Then the placid, resigned expression she wears most of the time comes back.

You decide not to ask any more questions and go back to eating what’s left of your pie. With the side of your fork you cut through the top layer of mashed potato, the next layer of green peas, then to the rich beef filling, sweet and peppery. Finally, there’s the pastry underneath.

Sou aresei? Do you like it? your mother asks fondly as she watches you eat. Your mouth is too full to answer: you nod yes.

The trifle is even more delicious. You’ve never had it before. Yellow custard, red jelly, white cake moist with syrup. On top, a fresh strawberry ringed with whipped cream. You both eat yours at the same time, in silence. When you’ve finished you want to scoop out the last trickles of the syrup with your finger, but you don’t dare.

 

A FEW WEEKS later you’re in class. It’s show-­and-­tell time. The subject for the term is ‘Where I come from’. Three students are picked each week. The only rules are that you must, as your teacher likes to say, stick to the subject, and you must bring a related object to talk about. Your turn hasn’t come yet. When it does, you would like to speak about Greece, but you’re not sure if you could say you come from there. Even though you believe you are Greek, are constantly told you’re Greek, you don’t really come from there. It confuses you.

A boy named Richard goes first. With his fine brown hair and soft freckles, he looks like some kind of woodland creature. In his piping voice he tells the class that his parents come from England, from a tiny place called Hugh Town. He was born there, he tells you, but he doesn’t remember much about it. He holds up a large sheet of cardboard, crumpled from where he has unrolled it. On it is a map he has drawn. There’s a large blob coloured in green that has the word England written on it. Way across the blue background is a dot: next to that he has written Hugh Town. Hugh Town is on a tiny island far away from England, he tells the class, but it’s still England. It’s part of Cornwall. He points to the tip of the blob. That’s Cornwall. The class laughs. His parents had no work, so they came to Australia. They love Australia. They came on a ship. It only cost them ten pounds to come to Australia. His favourite food is clotted cream, which he likes to eat off a spoon with jam. He then starts to talk about his other favourite foods: sausages, chips with tomato sauce… At this point the teacher cuts him off, thanking him for his wonderful talk.

A girl takes his place. In her hand she holds a large piece of pink coral and starts to talk about Townsville, in North Queensland, right on the Great Barrier Reef. But you barely hear her. Instead you’re thinking about Richard and his parents. They paid ten pounds to come to Australia. Your mother paid hundreds of pounds. You are trying to understand why. Nearly all the children in your school are Australians who originally come from England: these are the real Australians. There are no other Greeks apart from you and your brother. So, it would appear that Australia wants people who came from England more than Greek people, or other kinds of people. That seems to be reasonable, to bring over the people most like you, and to make the people who are different the same as you as well. In that way, it’s easier for everyone to get along. But there remains the problem of what this means for being Greek. You can’t be Greek at school. Your parents want you to be Greek, but school wants you to be Australian. The problem seems easily enough solved. You’ll be an Australian at school, and Greek at home.

That way, you can keep everyone happy.

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