It’s late Thursday evening the week before Christmas and Ma and Aunty Nola have flown into Melbourne because ‘poor wee Liza she got the brain tumour.’ On the airport travelator the two of them are a jangle of post-post-menopausal nerves, shrieking and breathless, giggling like schoolgirls staggering off a carnival ghost-train, oblivious to my silence, and to Kosta behind them heroically blocking their sliding suitcases with his caveman calves. Ma rubs her head where the turbulence tossed her into the overhead locker – ‘I only forty kilo, you know.’ She’s still shaking from the gwei-lo 鬼佬two rows forward who dared to clutch his chest stumbling back from the lavatory forty-five minutes before landing, collapsing in his seat, tracky-dacked legs logging his demise across the aisle. For Ma, whose bladder needs draining every thirty minutes, the strain of holding it in was as traumatic as the soundscape that accompanied the man’s passing. When the wife screamed for help and the flight attendants ‘take too long because so lazy,’ Ma wet herself. (Aunty Nola: ‘Lucky she got the underwear change’.) The flight attendants propped the man up in his seat and covered him with a blanket – but not his face ‘because the dead thing make the people scare,’ but the wife ‘she cry cry can’t stop upset everyone make the plane shaking too much shaking – aiya 哎吔! – so scare.’
In the carpark, Ma and Aunty Nola grow quiet, and Ma’s face in the shadows looms pale and large like the moon, and my gut aches. Kosta strides ahead, suitcases in tow. ‘We’re over here,’ he says, and I say, ‘No… we’re over there – D Yellow, isn’t it?’ Ma’s lips are pursed in the rear vision mirror, and her face is puckered tight like a cha siu bao 叉燒包. She’s clutching Aunty Nola’s arm with chicken feet hands, knuckles gleaming – gelatinous – in the dark. On the freeway, we pass the golden arches and Aunty Nola throws up her arms and shouts, ‘HELLO MELBOURNE! I’m back!’
Liza stands arms straight and awkward by her sides as first Ma and then Aunty Nola hug her, and she bows her head – obedient – when they part her hair to look at the stitches. Ma winces at the depression in her skull – ‘Wah – so big! Why they not put the bone back?’ They give Liza a Ferrero Rocher chocolate Christmas tree and a white skirt printed with pink and orange peonies. ‘Pretty skirt for the pretty girl, ah?’ Aunty Nola pinches Liza’s cheek, claps her hands, says to Ma ‘What we do tomorrow, Maisie? Let’s go city – shopping!’ She says ‘shopping’ like the final buzzer in a TV game show and does a little tight-fisted thumbs up dance around the kitchen.
When Liza’s in the living room watching Pretty Little Liars with Celia and the Ferreros, Ma sidles up to me so close I can see the mesh in the part of her new auburn wig and, sotto voce, like the tumour is some dirty dark secret, says, ‘She all right? What they do now?’ I dry the dishes, straighten the tea-towels, wipe the bench, say ‘Nothing.’
When dear Liza, fourteen and grey-faced, tells me her head hurts and that she’s spent the day scoping classrooms for bins to throw up in – ‘It’s worse in the morning, Mama’ – I’m scrubbing dried cat vomit off the living room rug with baking soda and irritation, and I say, ‘Sounds like a migraine go to bed it’s probably nothing.’
‘Nothing to worry about Ma. They made a hole to drain the fluid but the tumour’s still there. We just have to wait and see.’ Face in the fridge, I say: ‘Are you hungry? Do you want me to make you some noodles or something?’
They want so much to help, so I give them my one good hessian bag to go shopping with. ‘Down the hill,’ I tell them, ‘about fifteen minutes.’ They return two hours later with a bag of sugar-white baguettes, a value pack of RSPCA-approved chicken wings and a bundle of wilted buk choy 白菜. I’m about to say ‘I have buk choy already in the garden,’ when Ma falls onto the sofa in a faint. ‘Oh no, what’s wrong?’ Aunty Nola is kneeling on the Afghan rug, fanning Ma with a supermarket brochure. ‘Too far for your mum, too hot, up the hill she feel sick have to stop every two minute.’
They’re lunching on baguettes and butter and milky white tea when Aunty Nola’s friends Harry and Viola rock up to take them out for the afternoon. Viola parks their silver Mercedes at the end of the drive and Harry, who looks like an Asian Harrison Ford in his aviator sunglasses and leather bomber jacket, strides up to the front porch, and he and Aunty Nola stand and king gai 傾偈 (shout at each other) while they wait for Ma to put on her make-up.
Harry and Viola have just returned from Hong Kong, where they were visiting their daughter Nina, who’s just given birth to twin girls – Krystal and Kendra – and where Nina’s husband Seth has just started a new job at the Baptist University. Harry and Viola’s older son Nathan had a motorbike accident two weeks ago on the freeway, where he was hit by a Budget hire truck – he’s still in hospital, both legs strung up and ‘sooooo lucky to be alive.’ Harry and Viola’s youngest, Nicky, whom Harry still calls ‘baby boy’, has finally graduated from dental school, but he can’t get a job anywhere because he has a bad scar on his upper lip from a cleft palate operation when he was two and people are afraid he might scare the patients away, not good for business. Harry says, ‘I told him he should wear a mask all the time, like he did in dent school – a lot of dentists do that – then patients would be none the wiser,’ to which Aunty Nola says, ‘he can’t wear the mask at the job interview come on Maisie what you doing!’
When Ma emerges from the bathroom, a cream linen ghost of a woman, her cha siu bao 叉燒包cheeks – despite her careful application of Medium Beige No. 2 – are bleached with anxiety. In not one of her sixty-eight years has Ma enjoyed hanging with people she doesn’t know. (‘What this mean, small talk?’ ‘The weather, Ma, how’s your family? Do you like gardening?’ ‘What if they don’t like the garden? What if they got no family? Then what I say?’)
‘Where did they take you Ma?’ ‘We just go to yum cha 飲茶and then to the little mall shopping and then go to see Aunty Nola’s friend Sara.’ I used to know Sara. She and Aunty Nola were neighbours when Aunty Nola lived in Moonee Ponds. Sara has a son, Elias, who’s a lawyer. He works from a tiny office in Fitzroy, in one of those 19th-century terraces with the front door two feet from the footpath. The office has dirty windows and dusty venetian blinds and dark timber chairs with split leather upholstery. I first met Elias ten years ago when Billy (Liza’s father) assaulted a nightclub bouncer. Elias assured us his specialty was defending violent offenders. He didn’t do a good job coaching Billy. When the magistrate asked Billy what was going through his mind when he kicked the bouncer in the head, he puffed out his man-boobs and said, ‘I imagined his head was like, you know, a football.’
The last time I saw Sara was straight after that court appearance. I still blame Elias for the breakdown of our family. If Billy had not been convicted, he would never have hooked up with Gretchen, his anger management group counsellor. ‘Aunty Nola, why did you take Ma to Sara’s?’ ‘So what why not? Elias got nothing do with your mum. Anyway, long time ago forget about it.’
‘Poor Liza,’ I tell the doctor, ‘has had headaches for two weeks now, and she feels nauseous, do you think it could be migraines?’ The doctor checks her temperature, blood pressure, pulse, pupils, hands (‘squeeze!’) feet (‘push!’) and writes a chit for an MRI. At the hospital they hand us a clipboard with a two page questionnaire: please tick YES or NO for the following: pacemaker, defibrillator, insulin pump, implanted electrical device, joint replacement, denture, hearing aid, shrapnel, bullet, gunshot. The technician checks Liza’s piercings, her veins, her music preferences: what would you like to hear? ‘There is a lesion,’ the doctor confirms, and she hands me the report on a sheet of fax paper that curls – recoils – in my hands.
We are gathered here today in the Emergency Room: Celia, Billy, Kosta, and me, with dear Liza centre-stage on the bed: a semi-reclining ‘nil by mouth’ star. Every thirty minutes the nurses check the pressure in her throbbing head: blood pressure, pulse, pupils, hands (‘squeeze!’) feet (‘push!’). By the time we are settled in the ward, it is 5:45am. I have barely shut my eyes when from behind the curtain – the fat controller came to the station to catch his train… ‘Declan! Declan darl, sit on the potty now!’ ‘Noooooo!’ You can be a really useful engine… ‘Declan!’ There were lots of trucks and Thomas worked very hard… ‘Noooooo! Don’t WANT to!’ ‘What’s goin’ on?’ ‘They wanna send him home. Poor baby’s been whimperin’ all night – he’s got appendicitis for fuck’s sake, not constipation! Why won’t they listen to me, I’m his mother…’ ‘Just keep telling ‘em babe.’ ‘That bloody Asian doctor’s useless – Declan! Declan darl – not now, Mummy’s talking to Daddy – where do they get these people from?’ and Thomas said, I’d like to teach those trucks a lesson…
By the time dear Liza returns from theatre, Declan darl has been discharged and the room is a sea of helium cats, stuffed puppies, flowers, and Mr Bean DVDs. Billy has brought chicken nuggets for Liza’s first post-op meal. (‘So what? What’s wrong with that?’) There’s a line of sutures in a bald patch on the top of Liza’s head and she’s tired, so tired, but she wolfs down the nuggets, nodding and smiling when Billy says, ‘More?’
Every hour, the nurses – young and hip and cheerful in their pink and blue and purple scrubs – waltz in to check the wound, temperature, blood pressure, pulse, pupils, hands (‘squeeze!’) feet (‘push!’) asking, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘What’s the day?’ ‘Do you know where you are?’ Dear Liza. You are Thursday. It’s Hospital. My Breast: Three Days Old. Fourteen: eating chicken nuggets in stark-white-Narnia sheets a hole the size of a twenty cent coin in your skull Normal Saline tick-tick-ticking into your elbow your mother standing at the window breathing hard on the trees behind the glass.
Ma and Aunty Nola are misting up over old family photos. ‘Can’t believe you are mother so long already – Liza year nine, Celia nearly eighteen got the boyfriend, what his name? Larney?’ ‘Yianni, Ma, Yianni.’ ‘We worry ‘bout you long time.’ ‘When Billy go to jail so terrible, but now you lucky got another man.’ ‘Kosta is the good man, you lucky girl you know, you really lucky.’
Kosta-the-good-man takes Ma and Aunty Nola to the airport in an Uber, and they marvel at the unmarked car and the cashlessness of it all. ‘How you know the real taxi?’ ‘How he get the money?’ The minute they land, Aunty Nola sends a text with a smiling emoji: ‘We safe land smooth fly THANK GOD your mum shaking the plane but ok home now.’