Tag Archives: family

Squinting Against the Sun, Laura Neill

Tess opens her eyes. A sandwich sits half an inch from her face, the crust nearly grazing the tip of her nose. A mangled mess of chicken shoved between two planks of frozen bread.

She rolls onto her back and scratches at a crust of dried spit in the corner of her mouth.

‘Right.’ Mick is sitting on an upturned milk crate in the corner of the room. ‘Two days is enough sulking time, kid. Better eat something or I’ll have the coppers round here charging me with child abuse.’

Tess hauls herself up. Little brown dots freckle her vision.

‘Can I’ve a smoke?’

‘Since when do you smoke?’

‘Please.’

Mick tosses the pouch to her and she teases out a clumsy lump of tobacco. The wax-white band of skin on her ring finger sends a spear through her empty guts.

‘Your mother rang again. The bed’s all made up for you down there. She’s offered to come get you, so you don’t have to drive.’

Her mother. Flitting around like an insect trapped inside a lampshade.

‘Just a few more days.’

‘Tess, mate. She’s bloody beside herself. And you know I’m not—’

‘Dad. I’m not here for your famous hospitality, alright?’

‘I know what you’re going through, kid. I remember it.’

‘I’m surprised you remember anything,’ her voice cracks.

Mick looks at his hands. A fly lands on the corner of the bread and begins to clean itself with its furry feet. Tess doesn’t shoo it away.

‘Hey, listen.’ Mick straightens up, clasping his hands together. ‘There’s a south-easterly blowing. Why don’t we go for a paddle later – like we used to.’

Tess watches the fly crawl over the sinews of chicken flesh. Mick rises to his feet and pauses at the door, as if about to say something else, but then changes his mind. The door closes.

She crushes her cigarette into the top of the sandwich. It extinguishes with a soft hiss.

Mick trots across the dirt the canary-yellow kayak under his arm and his wetsuit peeled down to his waist. Tess trails behind him, shrouded in a beach towel despite the heat.

She steels herself for recognition, but the streets are empty. On the corner, the surf club stands unchanged, like an old photograph. The hours she’d spent in that carpark, scratching her name on the salt-crusted breezeblocks, listening to the beer glasses clink inside. How she’d climb up the lifeguard tower to try and catch a glimpse of him behind the bar.  The smell of his uniform when he’d finally emerge, stale beer mixed with a perfume too sickly-sweet to be her mother’s. Those late night “dinners” of canned spaghetti “thickened” with a raw egg. Once, a dinner roll filled with the cold horror of apricot yoghurt that she’d hurled against the wall.

When she’d finally left, there were still flecks of dried yoghurt stuck to the lounge room wall.

On the beach, the sun is blinding. A string of surfers bob like black beads in the water, waiting for the next set to roll in. The tide is retreating, leaving behind crusted tidelines of debris; scraps of fishing net, cuttlefish skeletons, scabbed stumps of cunjevoi. Mudjimba Island stands stoic against the horizon, her green bulk fuzzed in the heat. ‘From here, it looks close,’ Mick used to tell her, pointing out to the island before pushing her out on the kayak. ‘But it’d take you a day to get ‘round it. So don’t get any ideas.’

Now she stood on the same beach, with the same kayak, looking out to the same island. As if nothing in the universe had shifted.

‘What a pearler,’ says Mick, beaming at the water.

Tess’s legs are gelatinous with exhaustion. She trudges behind her father as he drags the kayak down to the shore, following the groove the hull cuts into the wet sand. They wade out until the water licks at their knees and the kayak butts and nudges between them.

Mick holds out the paddle, squinting against the sun.

‘In you get.’

‘Me?’ A thousand excuses bottleneck.

‘What’s worse, out there or in here?’

The words hang suspended between them. Tess takes the paddle. Mick holds the fibreglass hull still as she climbs in and straightens out her legs.

‘Go easy now, don’t go trying to—’

‘Dad. I know.’

They wait for a break between sets and Mick pushes her out. Tess strokes forward, slowly at first then gaining strength, dipping and scooping, rising and falling over the increasing swell of the waves. The water grows darker and she paddles stronger, rope-burn in her shoulders and biceps. Every stroke in perfect synchronicity with her ragged breath.

Dip, scoop.

Churning water.

Slicing further, deeper into inky murkiness.

The island drew closer; the outlines of foliage now visible on the crest of the headland. At this time of day, there’d be a long afternoon shadow falling behind her.  The water sparkles, gold on tile-blue. She closes her eyes, but the light remains, shifting, flickering on the insides of her eyelids.

On the shoreline, Mick stands tiny and concave like the spine of a broken shell. If she hadn’t arrived unannounced yesterday, he’d be leaning on the balcony of the surf club right now, a beer in his hand, looking out to the same horizon.

He raises his arms now, in a semaphore wave.

Tess tries to turn the kayak, but her arms are heavy. The horizon gently lifts. A set is rolling in.

It seems to happen in an instant. A crystal wall of water, shards sparkling, curled, poised. A rollercoaster drop. Tess is thrown from the kayak, water crashes, blasting, deafening, her body grinding into the sand. She claws and breaks the surface, dragging a lungful of air before being forced back down again. Galaxies explode behind her eyelids. She instinctively thrashes, her toes curl and cramp. Lungs tighten, ready to explode. A lifetime of seconds.

She’d heard that trivia fills the mind in the moments before drowning, but all she sees is a series of quick, colourful images.

The green island.

Yellow fibreglass.

Red bricks, splattered with yoghurt.

Seawater scorches down the back of her throat as she tries to stroke forward. Then a yank, a tearing in her scalp. Her head snaps back and her face breaks the surface. She can hear someone else’s gasping. She grows heavier and heavier and then her heels are dragging, bumping along wet sand and she is plopped down like a rag doll on the shoreline.

Her chest swells again, this time quick and urgent. She leans forward and coughs up slimy foam and bile-infused seawater.

She coughs again, and drags in a breath, her lungs burning. A string of saliva dangles from her chin.

Breathe. In and out. Her whole body pounds.

Mick holds her upright, one arm across her chest and the other hand cupping her forehead. His grip trembles.

Tess gives his hand a squeeze.

‘Next time we’ll go on the river, eh?’ The joke rings high and he forces a chuckle.

They remain on the shore as the tide recedes further and their shadows slant long and lean across the sand. Nobody approaches them.

After a while, the pain in Tess’s chest fades, replaced with a new sensation; a growling ache in her stomach.

A piece of yellow slices her periphery, as the kayak slips back onto the shore.

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After the Phoenix, Kirsten Oakley

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Your ashes are in my mouth. I swallow the bitter taste as I crouch. But I cannot follow you. They need me here.

In the small bathroom their shrieks reverberate against the tiles. I want to cover my ears but my arms are weighed down with their soapy bodies. I cannot even close my eyes as I know that it only takes a second, a moment of inattention. Instead, I watch them as the tepid bathwater rises and falls with their bickering. I ignore their illogical arguments and try to hold those slippery limbs still. I rearrange my lopsided mouth. Does that look like a smile now? I can’t remember the last time I looked at my own face in the mirror. Even now it is at my back, capturing only the faces of my mischievous sons as they dart away from me, and vegemite and dirt slides away from my grasp.

From far away, the noise of the doorbell peals. My neck snaps sideways, listening, exasperated. It rings again and I have called out half a syllable of your name before I remember. Half of you hangs, spoken in the air, reverberating in the empty house.

Their voices clamour and I drag them from the bath, wrapping them in one toweled arm each. I heave and move to exit but our bulk won’t make it through the door. I was never good at judging angles, distances, practicalities. That was your department. We jam in the doorway, a three headed monster that sends the cat tearing away from our path. As I untangle us, the towel sweeps a plastic bottle from the makeshift shelf onto the floor. From the cracked bottle a pool of your anti-dandruff shampoo seeps out. Did you imagine that in your new life that you would no longer shed your skin?

I leave the mess and drop one son, wrapping him in his own towel. He leads us down the hall, trailing a path of shampoo, snakelike, for us to follow.

I tell myself that they will be my world, but the water from their wet bodies has already seeped through my t-shirt and is chilling me in the darkening night. Their faces are damp but dirty as the youngest loops chubby limbs around my neck, leaving vegemite in my hair.

I hold them tighter as I peer through the rusted screen at the empty doorstep. I stare at the space where somebody had just stood. There is no-one but me here now. I wonder how soon I can start the rituals of sleep.

At night I will sip the port that your mother gave us as an anniversary present. I will remember the whispered plans we used to make, dreaming of a time beyond sour vomit and cubed food and endless cheap plastic. I will click through the images of you as you inhabit that space of clean, bright newness. I will watch you emerge, trapped in my den of blue light.

This yearning will not snap the tether of small fingers, dark eyes, the smell of breast milk and the tug I feel all the way through the seven layers of my Caesarean scar. I am anchored to them skin and bone. But your ashes are in my mouth as you rise.

 

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The Errand, Ramona Kennedy

 

‘Have you been speaking to the police?’

Amina stood in the foyer of the station house, holding the phone a few centimetres from her ear to compensate for the shouting. Around her, uniformed police officers came and went. Others sat across from ashamed individuals, filling out wide charge sheets in carbon papered triplicate. To her left was a short concrete corridor of closed wooden doors, decorated with green paint and metal spittoons and signs that read ‘No Spitting on the Floors’. The whole place smelt of men’s cigarette smoke and inaction.

‘I haven’t had a chance to get to the police station yet.’ Who did this defence lawyer think he was, trying to extort money out of her?

Five minutes ago, Amina had stood feet apart, mouth open, shock melting into fiery anger as the female desk officer had explained Public Defence lawyers are salaried by the government and should not be charging individual fees. Amina had watched the policewoman remove a scrap of paper from under the counter, write ten numerals on it and slide it across the wooden bench. She had stepped back, taken out her mobile phone and called the number. She’d recognised the corrupt lawyer’s voice, the same one who’d contacted her at home, and greeted him with a calm edge of politeness.

‘Tell me again, how much the fee is for the defence?’ The scoundrel had been all business.

‘Two thousand, and you need to get the money to me by Friday.’

‘I can do that.’

Amina took a slow breath and allowed the evil fellow an extra second to believe the money was coming. ‘Only, I have just heard the legal services your department provides are free, and in fact I should not have to pay you even one cent for what you are doing for my daughter. Is that correct?’

And then he was shouting. ‘Have you been speaking to the police? Do not tell them I have asked you for any money or there will be trouble.’

‘I haven’t said anything to anyone.’

The police officer’s eyes were averted down. She was dipping a long calligraphy brush into a glass gluepot, pasting forms together. Her lips were pursed lightly against a smile.

Time to seal the deal. ‘So then, you won’t be requiring any extra payment from me?’

‘No.’

The lawyer ended the call.

Amina put her phone back in her handbag. Right. That was the legal fee attended to. She approached the desk officer again, holding the package of bread, dried fruit, nuts and clothing.

‘I would like to see my daughter, Rahima Ibrahim.’

‘Oh yes.’ The officer looked through a thick logbook. ‘I’m sorry but she has been moved from this station to the detention facility outside of town.’

‘How do I get there?’

‘Prisoners are not allowed visitors until they are convicted.’

‘But I am her mother.’

‘Not even family.’

‘I was told to travel here so I could see my daughter.’ She had never travelled in an airplane before. She needed the cabin attendant to help her with her seatbelt.

‘If she were still here, I would allow you to see her. But un-convicted criminals are not allowed visitors at the main complex.’

One thing on the phone and another when you turn up in person. Who was to know these sorts of rules existed? Amina indicated the goods at her feet. ‘Can I get this package to her?’

The desk officer leaned over the bench. ‘Let me check the contents.’

Amina followed her to the wooden desks at the back of the room and lifted the bundle onto the desktop. ‘It’s just food and clothes.’

‘I need to check them.’ The police officer untied the string and unwrapped the brown paper. She removed each piece of clothing and bag of food and arranged them on the desktop. Then she reordered everything into two piles. The clothes were placed in a neat pile back on the brown wrapping paper.  The fruit, nuts and bread were left where they were on the table.

‘I can make sure the clothes get to her, but she is not allowed to receive food.’

‘I was told she wasn’t eating the prison food.’

‘Prisoners on remand are not permitted to receive food parcels.’

No food. No calls. No visits. No mothers. Amina’s eyes were hot. This middle-aged police officer would also be a mother to someone, of course she would be. Amina collected up the unwanted flatbread, nuts and dried fruit into a pile. The godless and the believer share the same struggle in this world, but the believer knows greater suffering. They are left to wonder why.

The policewoman wrapped and retied the smaller package of clothes using the same paper and string and set it aside on a metal filing cabinet. She looked directly at Amina.

‘Would you like to know the circumstances of your daughter’s arrest?’

‘Tell me whatever you can.’ The only information so far was from that crooked defence lawyer.

‘Wait a minute.’

Amina watched her disappear down the green corridor and into one of the smoky rooms, heels clicking on the bare floor. She can’t be planning to catch any criminals in those shoes. Amina looked down at her own feet. She was also wearing good shoes, the sort saved for an afternoon at the department store, fondling unaffordable clothes and bags. Shoes meant for temporary incursions into the better worlds of other people.

The police officer clicked her way back out of the corridor, carrying a brown envelope. At the desk she laid it down and unwound the string from the sealing eyelet. Opening the flap, she pushed her fingers into the envelope and brought out a pile of thin papers covered in blue handwritten characters and inked red with official stampings.

While she read silently through the docket, Amina strained to pick out a few things from the upside-down scratchings.

…7.35am train…

…520g…

…female restaurant owner…

The officer looked up. Amina snapped back in her chair. Was she too obvious in leaning forward? God. Now was the time to look as complacent as possible. This could be her only chance to hear the charges.

‘Rahima was stopped when alighting at the city station. Her bag was searched and almost 300g of heroin was found. Although Rahima had stated it was not her bag, she admitted she had been given money by the owner of the restaurant to travel with the bag. When officers went to find the restaurant owner, she had left town.’

The restaurant owner? Wearing her headscarf like a true Muslim and on the side running a heroin business! No doubt the whole time saying God this and God that. God on her tongue but not in her heart. Amina wanted to pull off the restaurant owner’s headscarf and wave it in the air yelling, ‘Shame!’ She had no doubt disappeared back into her home village by now. The local police officers would either be her old schoolmates, or her brother – one of the village elders.

The desk officer packed the case details back into the envelope and rewound the sealing string. Amina was shaking, watching her work. When she looked up the policewoman was taking in the details of her appearance. Headscarf, gold earrings, flowered shirt, diamante brooch in the shape of a pomegranate flower, three-quarter length skirt, stockings and department store shoes.

‘You’ve never been to this city before, have you?’

‘No.’

‘From here, go straight back to your hotel room. Tonight, don’t go walking anywhere. Keep inside the hotel and eat at the hotel restaurant. In the morning, get a taxi from the hotel straight to the train station. It is not safe in this city for people like you. You need to get back home as soon as possible.’

 

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Mornings with Doves, Judith Mendoza-White

When José María opened his eyes to the new morning, he knew this would not be an ordinary day. Apprehension tightened his eyelids as he snoozed the alarm, struggling to face the dim light of the early autumn sun and dismiss the irrational foreboding that kept him curled up under the blankets.

The ominous feeling tightened the pit of his stomach into a knot while he stood in the shower, lathering his body with soap and water to wash away the vague sensation of discomfort and fear. The dream came back to him with the sudden sting of the after-shave lotion: a dark, uncanny dream, as real as the water running down the sink. A dream in which he, José María, knew he was dead.

During breakfast, he tuned in to loud music on the radio and chatted to his wife and daughter, who were getting ready for work and school and only contributed absent-minded answers to his incessant, unusual small talk.  Eventually, alone with his thoughts in the overcrowded suburban train, he was forced to face the idea. He knew this was the last day of his life. The feeling, which had started as a mere aftertaste of last night’s dream, had now become an absolute certainty.

He walked the first of the three blocks that separated the underground stop from the insurance company where he worked, but stopped before reaching the busy intersection ahead. It was stupid to continue plodding along the noisy downtown street as if this was yet another ordinary weekday, avoiding the hurried passers-by who elbowed their way past him, the offending odour from last night’s garbage bins climbing to his nostrils. Wasting the last day of his life in front of the paper-crowded desk, just like every weekday of the last twenty-five years, would be even more absurd.

Retracing his steps, he turned the corner and walked to the nearby park where he often ate his lunch on warm, sunny days like this.  In what felt like a split second he found himself sitting on a sunny park bench, a large pot of chocolate ice-cream on his lap. Half a dozen doves cooed and picked at the gravel around him. José María stared at the half-eaten ice-cream. He did not remember buying it; it might as well have materialised in his hands by magic. The eerie sensation increased. How did he even get to this park? It did not look at all like the one where he usually sat during lunch breaks away from the office.

This dream has been playing up with my head, he concluded. With a sigh of exasperation, he pushed the ice-cream carton away.

He felt unusually tired. Leaning back on the bench, he thought of his wife and daughter. If this was indeed the last day of his life, shouldn’t he be spending these last hours in their company? Cecilia was doing a Math test that morning; she had mentioned it during breakfast. He imagined her eagerly jotting down figures at the school desk, the unbecoming uniform creased, her thick brown hair tied back in the usual careless ponytail. He smiled at the vision, which appeared so vivid that his fingers moved as if he could reach his daughter’s worried frown. At this point his daughter looked up and smiled at him, as if she could feel his eyes on her.

The image soon faded, and José María stretched his legs under the warm autumn sun that bathed the park, empty and still at that early morning hour. With a start he realised someone else was sitting at the opposite side of the bench.

‘Rodríguez?’ José María gasped, ‘Rodríguez, from General Villegas High School?’

The newly arrived nodded and smiled. The world was indeed a small place; what with running into an old high school friend in a small hidden park, lost in the hustle of downtown Buenos Aires. He had not seen his classmate, or thought of him, since the day his family moved away from the small country town almost thirty years ago. As he went to say this out loud, Rodríguez opened his briefcase and took out a crumpled paper; a page torn out of a school copybook. It was an unusual briefcase; it reminded José María of the school bags they both used to take to class. Rodriguez pointed at the figures on the paper.

‘The Math exam, do you remember? We both failed, like your daughter Cecilia’.

Irritated, José María thought that Rodríguez could not possibly know his daughter’s name, even less the result of the test she’d be doing this very minute. He went to say this, but instead heard himself telling his old school friend about last night’s dream.

Rodriguez listened in silence and then replied in a calm, matter-of-fact tone: ‘We are brought up in the fear of death; that’s the problem. Yet it is nothing but another form of life. A crossing… A transition, that’s all.’

A white dove fluttered its wings over José María’s shoulders, distracting him from the conversation. He threw his arms up in the air to scare it away. When he turned to his school friend, he found that he had left without a word of goodbye.

Shaking his head at Rodriguez’s lack of manners, José María thought that since the bench was now empty, he might as well lie down for a while and enjoy the sun before starting the walk home; perhaps even put a hint of tan on his white-collar, middle-aged skin.

When he tried to lie down though, he found the park bench was no longer a bench but a narrow, uncomfortable bed. No, it was a stretcher, a hospital stretcher; and the doves around him had turned into men and women dressed in white who leaned over him, placed weird gadgets on his mouth and his bare chest.  His wife’s teary face flashed amongst the others; José María tried to call her name, but the words refused to leave his dry, sandy throat. Cecilia stormed in, still wearing the ugly dark-green uniform. She pushed her way through the figures clad in white that surrounded him, trying to reach him, her voice breaking into sobs.

‘Dad! Daddy!’

Her mother put her arms around Cecilia, pulled her away from the scene. A sudden pain, sharp as the tip of a knife, stabbed José María’s chest as the voices and the faces around him faded in the distance.

He opened his eyes to Rodríguez’s soothing voice in his ears.

‘Nothing wrong with a good cry, my friend.’ Rodríguez’s hands were on his shoulders; an incorporeal, yet comforting gesture. ‘I used to cry my eyes out as well; at the beginning, that is. You miss them all so much, it’s only natural to see them in your dreams. You’ll get used to it soon enough, though. Sooner or later they’ll all cross the border and end up here, anyway. It’s only a matter of time. And time on this side, let me tell you, goes by real fast…’

Wiping away his tears, José María looked into Rodríguez’s eyes. They were the same eyes that used to smile at him in class, decades ago. It was then he realised he was staring at Rodríguez’s teenage face; smooth, unlined, unchanged.

Leaning back on the park bench, José María closed his eyes and allowed the white doves and the new knowledge to descend upon him. In this way he learned, while his eyes dried out and the last tears disappeared down his throat, that the dead dream too.

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The Mystery, Lauren Ford

It was simple enough: click on the link, pay the money, and wait for the package to arrive. There was mild suspense: what would the documents reveal? What deep, dark secrets was the government releasing? Would I finally discover that my grandfather was a post-World War II Soviet spy who had generously been given asylum in this distant, exotic, desert land?

One week passed and my suspense waned with the days, but my imagination scuttled under the dull, energy-efficient light of my slapdash dining table desk. I was picturing an awkward, middle-aged, cardigan-wearing government employee slowly foraging through a large X-Files warehouse of boxed files.

Weeks meandered by, and I had almost forgotten about the whole order until a deadline popped up on my screen reminding me to submit my latest poetry drafts to my supervisor. I had nothing more to write; my poetry was merely outlining the mundane, predictable details of my grandfather’s blotchy journey through Europe in the late 40s before suddenly disembarking a boat in Sydney in 1950. There was no depth, conflict, intrigue. Maybe I had to make it all up; it was only poetry, after all.

Now I was torn between fantasy and bureaucratic reality: were they debating whether these files were safe enough to be dispersed into the public netherworld? Or was it simply a matter of my order (which email confirmations and bank debits assured me had been received), sitting somewhere in the midst of a pile on some underpaid employee’s—or worse still, work experience teen’s—cheap Office Works desk tray.

The former was undoubtedly more glamorous, but I had to admit that the latter was a whole lot more realistic. So, I continued to wait, trudging on through the muddy waters of my grandfather’s story and producing substandard poetry about this mysterious, unknown figure.

And then finally, the documents arrived. There were four in total, which confused me somewhat, since I had only ordered two, but I quickly realised they had sent each email twice. It was unromantic, really, to receive the secrets as a set of auto-generated, accidentally duplicated emails.

The first set was uninspiring: his arrival date, boring employment papers, and a mildly thrilling passing reference to him breaching some regulation by not telling the government in a timely enough manner when he married my grandmother. I couldn’t think why this could possibly have been sealed for so long.

The second set began with an official letter stating they were sensitive regarding the security of the Commonwealth. My excitement burned as I wriggled further into my cold, metal, pale green IKEA chair and readied myself for the Great Revelation.

It started harmlessly enough: a letter from my grandfather requesting his naturalisation certificate. And then nothing. Thirty pages of documents about another Romanian-Hungarian with exactly the same name, who had arrived in Sydney 5 months earlier and ended up at the same migrant hostel in Orange, before settling in Queensland. I sighed. This journey through history was taking me backwards.

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The Memory, Melissa Farrell

I have this early memory of my mother. We’re in the house where we lived for a couple of months before we moved to Italy, while my father was in Naples organising our new home. I must have been two years old because I turned three soon after we moved. This memory is like looking through a lens that won’t quite focus. I’m sitting on a blanket. There is some sort of pattern to it, but I can’t quite make out the detail. A collection of soft toys lies beside me. One might be a rabbit. I’m looking out through the bars of a wooden cot. My mother and a man. Sitting close together on a couch. Murmurs that don’t take quite take the shape of words. My mother stands. Leans down and kisses my forehead. Then she and the man disappear down a set of stairs into a darkness below. That’s it. That’s the memory.

We were in Italy for three years. My father had an engineering contract in Naples. I have some memories from our time there but they’re of moments lying outside the context of the larger world: sipping a sour orange soft drink from a thick glass bottle, riding in the back of a car through honking traffic, walking through an endless space while clutching my father’s hand as we gaze at paintings on the walls.

My sister, Anna, was born in Italy. She was born several months after we arrived. She was a chubby white baby who our Italian nanny would bath outside in a big wooden barrel. The nanny’s name was Giulia and she could only speak a few words in English. She taught me to speak Italian. I’ve forgotten the language over the years since we returned to Australia, having nobody to speak Italian with. I can remember stories Giulia told me, long stories about strange creatures who lived in magical forests. She must have told me these stories in Italian, but I remember them in English.

We have photographs from our time in Italy. Black and white ones. There are lots of my sister and me. Even in tones of black and white you can see my olive skin, inherited from our father’s side of the family and further deepened by the southern Italian sun, in contrast to my sister’s pale skin that would turn red but never seemed to hold a tan.

I watch now as my sister passes her new son to our father. Our mother stands by his side. I can smell the brandy in the morning coffee she holds tightly. He carefully takes the baby and leans down to kiss him on the forehead. The baby has my sister’s pale skin and a soft white fuzz on top of his head. My sister’s smile is wide as she watches our father with his first grandchild. I pull out my phone and take some photographs. It’s time to create new memories.

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Checking In, Kylie Needham

This is how my sister told it to me.

‘Mum’s stuck in Immigration. They’re not letting her get on the plane.’

‘Can they stop her?’ I was tidying the kitchen after Ben and the kids had left for Saturday morning sport. I hadn’t thought of my mother in months; hadn’t seen or spoken to her in seven years. Still, my question was stupid. I knew as well as anyone else no one could stop my mother doing a thing.

‘They’re showing her articles about Nigerian love scams. Like she doesn’t know.’

‘She called you?’ I flicked on the kettle and got out a teabag. Conversations with my sister had a way of eating time.

‘No, I called her. To tell her about Nanna.’

‘What’s happened to Nanna?’ I put the phone on speaker so I could at least pack the dishwasher and feel like I was getting something done.

‘Last night she wrote letters to everyone except mum, cooked a batch of Ladies Fingers, and then swallowed a bottle of Temazepam.’

I nodded. Almost every member of my mother’s family had threatened suicide at one time or another. None had ever succeeded. Uncle Elio came close when he drank a bottle of Domestos.

‘Anyway, I was ringing mum to tell her Nanna’s on life support.’

‘What’d she say?’

‘They should turn it off.’

‘Who was dumb enough to give Nanna Temazepam?’ I asked, filling my teacup with boiling water and at the same time remembering the kids had finished all the milk. I’d have to add it to the list.

‘Some shit doctor she goes to. She told him her daughter’s run off with a black man and she can’t sleep, so he wrote her a script.’

Unfortunately for everyone, my sixty-nine year old mother had recently discovered the Internet and, with it, Facebook. There she discovered her new husband-to-be: a fifty-nine-year-old white American guy from California. Really he was a twenty-three-year-old black Nigerian guy named Richard (I had doubts about the name) who stole a photograph of a middle-aged Turkish real estate agent and used it for his profile picture.

‘How is she?’

‘Nanna? Pretty pissed off she’s still alive.’

‘No, I mean mum. Will she get on the plane?’

‘Who knows? She’s going nuts they won’t give Richard a visa and let him come here. Calling them all racists. And she’s fighting Florrie on Facebook.’

‘Who’s Florrie?’

‘Richard’s girlfriend. In Nigeria. She’s hot, looks about twenty. I’ll text you a picture.’

I thought of the officials at Immigration, laying down documents in front of my mother and showing her articles about lonely women who’d been tricked into online romances by smooth-talking scammers. Women who’d lost everything. Women who’d gone missing. Women who’d been murdered.

‘Stupid bitches,’ I could hear my mum say, pushing back her chair and standing up to catch her plane.

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Empty Shells, Lani Watt

When I was a kid, I remember my Grandma taking me for a walk along the beach. It was a day just like this: scorching hot sun prickling my skin like needles; the humidity encouraging the sweat to plaster my shirt to my back. But the sea breeze was heaven. And the water lapping over my feet as I walked the shore reminded me why the beach was the best place to be at that very moment.

I was a bit of a rough nut, as everyone liked to tell me. Shells were being tossed haphazardly into the basket Grandma used to keep her sewing threads in, sand littering over the top of them. ‘Why?’ was my favourite question at that age. I wouldn’t learn until I was growing up myself just how annoying that could be. Patience of a saint, Grandma had.

‘Grandma, where do shells come from?’

‘They come from the sea,’ Grandma explained as she handed me one that I had decided was a pretty cool looking one. Aqua-blue, shiny, clean. It didn’t immediately go into the basket with the others.

‘Why?’ I shot back, studying the shell.

‘Maybe they’re the souls of the beautiful people who passed away when they’re no longer with us. It’s a lovely view for them don’t you think, darling? Perhaps this is why we feel compelled to collect some and not others. They’re the souls we’ll always stay connected to,’ Grandma mused. I still remember the knowing smile she gave me then.

That was when I started to gather the shells out of the basket and put them back in the sand, carefully, with the opening facing out to the water. I kept that one cool shell she gave me.

‘What are you doing, sweetheart?’ Grandma asked.

‘I don’t want to take someone else’s friend home.’

Some things as you grow up just stick with you. I remember looking back over the beach from the direction we came, seeing hundreds of shells littered all over the place. It was nice to think about, even back then. But now, since I lost you, I keep coming back here.

I’ve been sitting here yet again looking at the beach. I keep getting drawn back here. This was our place. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to come here to feel like you’re still with me. But today is the first day I have ever sat right down beside an empty shell that is almost identical to the aqua-blue one I kept way back when. Your favourite colour.

Now I’m older, I don’t know if I truly believe Grandma’s sweet musings of the world and the beauty of the relationship between shells and the beach. What if they’re really not empty shells? I can’t leave this one here, I have to take it with me. Just in case.

For some reason, today it feels easier to turn away from the water and walk away without looking back.

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Powerless, Niko Campbell-Ellis

It had always been a struggle for Cate, seeing her grandchildren wanting for something so easy to give. Holding out a book to their parents and asking them in perfect English and Korean to “read it to me. Please, pleeease.” Seeing them head out into a frozen Seoul winter day without a coat and only cloth slippers on their feet. Seeing them slapped for not eating properly, not speaking properly, for getting a bad report from school. Tory was only seven for God’s sake, and Nano only five. Lucky, or perhaps not, Kara was too young for school.

It wasn’t something she wanted to face but these three little people, wild, fierce and desperate for love, forced her to see that her son was an idiot and her daughter-in-law a cold-hearted bitch. They were such an odd pair. Sure, she could see the attraction, they were both beautiful, but they had nothing in common. Cate knew that Tory, coming when he did, glued Sam and Akari together and that without him they probably would have split. But in their shoes Cate would have left, pregnancy or infant notwithstanding. And now the crazy pair had added two more kids to their brood.

The straw that broke Cate came a week ago. Nano had not eaten her dinner. She didn’t like it she said and Cate could understand that. Was there no room for the child to have her own opinion? Apparently not. Akari pulled Nano from her seat and delivered a slap to her knickered bum in one practiced movement.

Lip quivering, Nano still refused the food. Arms crossed, mouth clamped shut, a shake of her head. Then Sam, Cate’s only child, the one who had been brought up in a home of gentleness and love, her Sam grabbed the plate and shoved his daughter and her meal outside onto the balcony. “Come inside when you’ve eaten it all.” His words swirled around the heated apartment in an eddy of icy air.

Cate had looked from Sam to Akari and back again. They avoided her eyes, watched Nano instead.

“It’s freezing out there…

She’s only wearing a singlet and undies… she doesn’t even have any shoes on…

Let me take some warm clothes out to her.”

“No.”

Both parents spoke at the same time.

“She can come in anytime she wants,” Sam said, not taking his eyes off his shivering daughter. “All she has to do is eat it.”

“Sam, this is cruel.”

Cate could see Nano watching them through the glass. Stoic, she wasn’t crying and she wasn’t eating. Her arms were still crossed but Cate couldn’t tell if this was defiance or an attempt to keep warm. Every breath haloed around Nano as it hit the cold air. She locked eyes with her grandmother.

“Sam, it’s freezing…

Sam, let her in…

Akari?”

Cate started to cry. Outside in the cold, Nano began to eat.

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In This Otherwise Normal Day, Laura Neill

She was supposed to call at ten, and it was already 10:26.

Tara sat at the kitchen table, her gaze locked on her phone. A full cup of tea was growing cold on the bench beside her.

When the screen lit up, she snatched the phone.

“Hello? What did they say?”

“They said we should all come now.” Her mother sounded groggy.  “We can have until this afternoon with him.”

Tara pushed back the chair and moved to the window. Outside, the sun bounced bright off the white picket fence.

“Darling?”

“Yes.”

“He’s been asking for flowers – could you get some? Bright ones. The nurses gave us some extra vases.”

 

At the supermarket entrance, the flowers stood in steel buckets under a Fly Buys Special sign. Chewing a thumbnail, Tara surveyed her options. Daffodils that sulked, stale-looking, their cellophane wrappers stickered with orange dots. Snapdragons with petals curled and scorched around the edges. Roses in tightly wrapped greenish buds that wouldn’t blossom in time.

Her throat constricted. Nothing here was beautiful enough, bright enough, and she was running out of time.

Tara grabbed a basket, loaded it with daffodils and headed to the express lane, dripping a trail of water behind her.  One by one she unpacked them onto the conveyor belt.

“How are you going today?” the cashier sang in a well-worn melody, tapping a plastic talon against the screen. Her name tag read ‘Marion’ and below it, ‘you can count on me.’

“Fine thanks and yourself?”

“Good thanks.” She started scanning the bouquets and arranging them in plastic bags.

Her lips pressed tightly together, Tara studied the artillery of breath fresheners and chewing gum in front of her.  Extra, Double-mint, Tic Tacs, Fisherman’s Friend, PK.

“Nice day isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

His favourite gum had been PK – he’d always kept a stash on the cut-crystal change tray beside his bed. He’d slip her a couple of pellets when Nanna wasn’t around, smiling that secret twinkly smile.

“Twenty-nine fifty thanks.”

It had been years since Tara had chewed a piece of PK. She couldn’t remember what it tasted like.

“Do you have a Fly Buys card?”

What else would she eventually forget? Those big fix-it hands, cool and leather-dry, or the smells of car oil and fresh mint on his shirt? His crinkly smile, his salt and pepper hair?

“Wait, I’ll take this.” Tara grabbed a stick of PK and handed it to the cashier. The woman sighed and jabbed at the screen again, then pushed the pin pad towards her.

“Thirty dollars.”

She peered into the bag.

“They’re nice and bright, aren’t they?”

“Yep.” Tara whispered.

“Have a nice day then.”

Her vision swimming, she snatched up the bags and hurried out through the mezzanine, past the bottle shop and the cafe with its smells of freshly-baked bread and coffee.  She weaved around shoppers, prams, baskets and rattling trolleys, all a neon-lit blur. She was a stranger, an alien, out here in this otherwise normal day.

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