I AM STANDING on the train platform, twelve years old. Too old for dolls and dress-ups, too young for lipstick and love. I am bewildered, lost; this space overwhelms me, this crowd pushes me down into the February-hot asphalt. In my navies and creams, I have forgotten my hat, and my socks are slouching. I stare around this circle of old chewing gum spots, graffitied phone box beside me, transfixed. A brown sign above says 'Lidcombe'.
Lidcombe. I roll my tongue over the word, sounding it out like a six-year-old learning the alphabet. I have never seen it on a train map, never heard it on a loudspeaker (Eastwood, Meadowbank, Strathfield). And yet, it exists. Lidcombe exists.
Three girls, older, in skirts and stockings, giggling obscenities, lead me to another platform. 'Go back to Strathfield,' they say, 'then you can get to Epping.' I pray they are right. I clench my teeth, hold my breath and count up the stations. The old woman next to me with her knitting needles is like a praying mantis ferreting through a ball of wool for survival. 'A jumper,' she says, 'for my granddaughter.' I wonder if somewhere my grandmother is knitting me a jumper, too.
The girls are right and I find myself at Strathfield, where the platforms make sense and familiar names sound through the station (Meadowbank, Eastwood, Epping). I am carried away on the 3.55, still clenching teeth and holding breath because Dad will be angry and Mum will be wondering where I am. A bus, a long walk home, then through the door and Meg is barking. Through the door is my brother, two years older and invincible; my sister, fifteen and set in her ways; my parents, happily married; a golden retriever and a tabby, observing from the kitchen.
I AM FIFTEEN, and we are late for church and still have to stop to get petrol, flowers and three pigs from the butcher – whole pigs. I have a stepmother, or my father has a new wife, and she is known as 'she': she is nameless. She is fussing with my hair, says it's not right, says it needs more gel. I am drowning in gel, her hands are freezing, and already May is hinting at a cruel winter ahead. The pigs stink up the back of the car and I feel the snout of one of them breathing down my neck, laughing at me in my tapa cloth.
I am wearing a tapa cloth. That woven piece of fabric, a mat, from the Pacific island of Tonga ('The island of plenty,' Dad used to laugh). It itches and rubs and I feel anything but Pacific-tanned on this freezing morning in a Sydney suburb. Arna is two – I have a stepsister – and she is learning to form words in her mouth and spit them back out. 'Bup yup ieeeeek,' she screeches as we pull into the BP station. A two-year-old in a car seat, a minister in his alb and stole, his devoted wife beside him, garbed in her island mats, a silent fifteen-year-old and three dead pigs in the back of a Holden Commodore station wagon.
Dad navigates the streets, finding the quickest route (this has always been a favourite pastime of his) and singing 'Tell Out My Soul' under his breath. At 8.30 on a Sunday morning Parramatta Road is crawling, used-car salesmen greasing their suits and polishing their shoes, McDonald's filling with bored families devouring their hash browns and pancakes, sucking the syrupy sweetness off their fingertips one by one. She passes me an apple. I am not hungry.
'The smell of dead pigs is nauseating,' I say.
They argue about the florist. One has baby's breath, four dollars cheaper, so we have to drive a little bit further: it's cheaper. Dad is not interested in cheaper (never has been, never will be), and pulls into the main street of Lidcombe to spite her. These are her streets; she grew up in them and knows them blindly. They do not belong to me.
Bunches of flowers tumble, tumble into the back seat and, for a moment, the smell of the pigs disappears. We round the corner to the church and I am invisible amid a flood of celebration and congratulations and how was it and what did you bring me and where are your other children and malo e lelei and innumerable words and sentences and stories that I do not understand, coded in the deep language of plenty.
The pigs are unloaded and the feasting, inescapable, begins. In the church hall, service finished, I am contemplating a silent escape, heading back to the car to find my black stockings, overcoat and Doc Martens– but I must remain garbed. The hall is spilling with life, laughter loud and belly-rumbling. Then the dancing begins.
Young girls in tapa mats weave their way through the hall, seductively yet unseductively, for they are too young to know the meaning of the word, as everyone begins to clap and sing along. Greased up in coconut oil, the girls slip through the crowd as old women reach forward and slap ten-dollar notes on their skinny arms and try to pinch their shaking bottoms. Wallets are opened, wads of cash visible from their insides as twenties, fifties, even hundreds are slapped onto the girls' arms and legs to squeals and shrieks of delight from the aunties. Adrenaline builds in the air. And I am awake, present in this moment as the midday sun sidles through the window and sits down on my naked arms.
I meet her mother, silently, respectfully, as she lays her hands upon mine and says words I cannot fathom. 'Hello, Mele,' I say. My father interprets, a slight delay. 'It is a blessing to meet you,' comes the stilted reply. 'Your father is a good man.' We drop her home later that night – her home which is covered in shells and paintings, flowers, images of Jesus and Mary, Bibles, books, magazines and so much in Tongan I cannot comprehend. Arna falls asleep and stays the night, and as we leave I hear a cassette being placed into a player and a distant Tongan choir sings 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus'.
From my back-seat corner a flashing clock tells me it is 8.30 pm as I am in and out of sleep, awake and unawake to the sounds of their nagging, niggling, arguing on the drive – why can't you do this for me just this once, I already told you, it's not possible, you're so selfish, you're so stubborn, today was nice, only because I went to so much trouble, I don't see you going to any trouble, do you want to be part of my family or not, you couldn't care less because you've got your three perfect children and no one can touch them with their perfect private schools and they have no idea how hard it is in the real world, you're living in a fantasy, they're living in a fantasy because it's so much harder out there, out of suburbia, out of daddy's pocket, Arna will never be like that – and he is silent, staring into the traffic, white stripes upon grey asphalt, red lights into green lights, arterial road after arterial road. Pretending to be asleep, I am awake to every hiss, every snap, every laceration across my father's chest.
AT 10.07 AM I am running up King Street to make the 422, late to meet my father in the city. I am twenty years old. His flight landed an hour ago – by now he will be at the hotel, checking in, a process he tells me he could do 'with his eyes closed'. My father is an Internationalist now. His work flies him hither and thither, serving the Lord in a great many countries, some of which I cannot pronounce. All good missionaries are based in London (he works in David Livingstone's building) and so I see him once, twice a year.
We are in a silver Mitsubishi, yet another hire car, the latest in an endless series of clones, and I am cramming notes for an exam the next day. We are driving to keep her happy, to keep their marriage alive, for if this trip is not taken my father is a dead man. I have never doubted her ability to kill. I see her stabbing him to death thirty-eight times with a kitchen knife in a blind frenzy of hate. We drive past Broadway, down Parramatta Road, as the streets widen, grass disappears and endless furniture shops appear, wholesale stores and factory outlets screaming for attention on the side of the road. We talk a little; it is strange to be in a car with my father, driving down Parramatta Road on a Friday, as if this were something on offer to me each week, each day, as if distance does not really exist. I know where we are going, and he tells me to look out for a shoe repairer and a florist.
We remember on that drive. Remember early morning breakfasts and hockey games in Burwood Park, my old school, that supermarket, that café where we ate croissants and bought ice cream. And this is the street where so and so lived, and where that meeting was that night. We drive on, into Strathfield. We do not take the M4. We snake under the railway bridge and continue driving. There are no florists in a swamp of mechanics and machinery – this road is a wasteland, an echo of Gatsby's valley of ashes. Cracked billboards and used tyres hug the kerbside, desperate to be noticed. We edge that little bit closer. One of us has to say it.
'So, how is she?' I ask.
'She's okay. In Geneva at the moment for a conference.'
'She goes into Year 4 this year. I can't believe it.'
A green sign above us: 'Lidcombe 3km'.
'And how are you going?' I ask.
'Fine. The same. Fine.'
My father and I have talked.
We have seen neither a shoe repairer nor a florist as we enter the main street of Lidcombe, but Dad remembers there is a florist in there.
'In there? How big is this place?' I ask.
'Huge. It has its own bus route.'
We follow the main street around the corner and the sign assaults me with its bigness. In overbearing italicised letters it reads: Rookwood Necropolis Cemetery, Lidcombe: The Largest Cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere.
Lidcombe. I feel nauseated. I feel it flooding me. The pigs in the back seat and her hands holding mine (it is a blessing), the mats, the language, the service, the singing, the dancing, the money, and this. We follow the signs down Memorial Drive that say FLORIST, and I wait in the car as my father purchases the flowers, bundled in cheap cellophane and silver curling ribbon. He insists he knows where he is, remembers how to get there as we pass Salvation Army, Greek Orthodox and Other. Mourners bear their sadness, overwhelmed, beside their loved ones' graves. Old women, black-scarved and varicose-veined, sit beside their dead husbands and talk of electricity bills, elections and baptisms.
We drive a little further. Dad finds a map.
Her mother, Mele, is buried in the west part of the cemetery, the New Lawn in Row D. On her gravestone a photo of her in glasses, words in Tongan. A year later and still flowers adorn her grave, overflowing and strong-scented like her home. She is surrounded, row by row, with Tongans, friends, relatives, members of her congregation – very common in Pacific communities to be buried near each other, my father says.
Beside Mele's grave he lays down the kangaroo paw, tentatively, careful they are positioned correctly, and hands me the digital camera. I am careful not to include myself in the shadows: I do not exist in this. But Dad is there, beside Mele's grave, squinting in the Sydney sunlight and laying down a bunch of flowers that I know were not the cheapest.