The Australians love Vegemite, but we love death.
— Placard waved after Bali settlement massacre by Mohammed Ghandour Jr, 4 July 2019
Laura McKenzie Langer, tall blonde, and handsome in her teal-blue Suzi Marchette housedress, leaned against the cast-iron railing of her balcony and looked out at Wilsons Promontory. Laura had loved the Prom since she was a child. She used to imagine its landmass was a stone-grey dragon rising from the sea. It still looked like the mythical creature, especially now, when it was on fire. Smoke billowed up from the eastern tip of the national park like dragon’s breath.
It was another stinking hot morning. The air was bitter and autumn-dry.
Laura went back into her air-conditioned study, ordered her live-in housemaid – whom she had nicknamed Helpless – to bring her another cup of tea and a Turkish cigarette, and then tried calling her mother again. Large fashion photos in white mats and black-lacquered frames covered the walls. All photos of her. Laura was Suzi Marchette, the Suzi Marchette, even if her mother had created and established the couture brand.
‘Hello, Mother,’ she said, directing Helpless to put her tea and cigarettes on the cloisonné table beside the chair with carved spiral arms where Laura had been sketching. The maid was a tall, fair, almost pretty girl from Wales who had presented herself to Laura’s husband Jason as a legal entrant, though it was easy to see that her entry papers were forged. Laura suggested to Jason that he hire her as a provisional indentured at half wages.
‘Yes, dear, I can hear you very well.’ The voice seemed to come from nowhere and float in the cool, breezy air.
‘I’ve been trying to reach you all morning,’ Laura said, agitated.
‘Well that’s very kind of you, dear. I appreciate your concern.’
Laura motioned to her maid. ‘I need an ashtray. And matches.’
‘That’s why you called me?’ her mother asked.
‘No, Mother,’ Laura said, resigned and frustrated. ‘I was talking to Helpless. Turn on the visual. Please … I can’t stand talking to a disembodied voice.’
‘You called me, remember? And I’m not ready to be presentable.’
The maid brought the matches and a cut-crystal ashtray. Laura waved her away. ‘Yes, and I’m your daughter, remember? I don’t care how you look. I was terribly worried about you.’
‘Thank you, darling.’
‘Have you seen the news?’
‘Again with the news. Always with the news. I told you never to marry a politician, remember? I told you to marry Murray Taschen, who had his own money and would have given you a happy life.’
‘Murray Taschen is dead, Mother,’ Laura said.
‘May he rest in peace. You would have been a wealthy widow, and you wouldn’t have to work yourself to the bone and prostitute your talent so the Schmuck can afford to stay in office.’
‘Don’t call him that.’
‘Mother, goddammit, turn on the visual right now. I can’t talk to you like this.’
‘If you want to see me, come back to Melbourne and buy me lunch at Vito’s. I’m dying to walk down Collins Street again. I haven’t done that since the riots.’
‘You know I can’t do that.’
‘And why not?’
‘Well, first of all, I’ve got Hannah home today. The school called another day of prayer because of the shortfalls, and it’s the nanny’s day off.’
‘You’re too lax with your help,’ her mother said.
‘She’s always off on Wednesdays, Mother. And, as you well know, my travel pass is good only for Thursdays and Saturdays.’
‘The Schmuck has his diplomatic pass. You’re his wife. God, even the premier’s wife has an unrestricted pass.’
‘I’m not the premier’s wife,’ Laura said.
‘Mother, I only called to see if you were all right … and, obviously, you’re all right, so I’ll hang -‘
‘And why shouldn’t I be all right?’
‘Because your shahid neighbour martyred himself in your temple this morning.’
‘Unless there’s another Beth David synagogue on Grey Street, half a block away from you,’ Laura said. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t hear the explosion or feel the vibrations.’
Her mother didn’t respond.
‘You shut down your implants, didn’t you?’ Laura said, sighing.
‘It’s the only way I can get a good night’s sleep,’ her mother admitted.
‘Well, thank the good Lord you weren’t there. I was so worried because you’re always at the temple on Wednesday mornings.’
‘I slept in,’ her mother said very quietly.
‘Mother, turn on the damn visuals.’
‘I haven’t been feeling up to par,’ she added vaguely. Then, ‘Did anyone survive the martyrdom?’
‘No, Mother, the synagogue and the Catholic hospital complex next to it were completely destroyed,’ Laura said. ‘Worse than the Opera House. Now do you see why I was calling you?’
‘My neighbour … you said my neighbour. You don’t mean the Ghandour family? You don’t mean Mohammed, do you?’
‘Yes, I think his name was something like that.’
‘He’s such a lovely boy. He lives right next door in 11E. He always brings me presents.’
‘He brings you presents?’
‘What does he bring you … what did he bring you?’
‘Just … presents,’ her mother answered and then dead silence.
Laura called to her. ‘Mother. Mother …? Are you all right?’
The line was still intact.
‘Yes, dear. Don’t be so impatient.’
‘I was just about to call Emergency. I think I’d better call a doctor for you anyway.’
‘I just checked the news,’ her mother said, ignoring Laura’s threat. ‘Terrible, terrible. Yes, it was Mohammed. He saved me. I told him I was going to stay home today. I’m sure that’s why he picked today. Well, he told me that paradise was right in front of his eyes. I should have known something was up when he said it was just beneath his thumb.’
‘You’re talking utter nonsense.’
Her mother sighed and said, ‘Your sister Lorraine always was the smart one in the family, but she wouldn’t call me if I was dying.’
‘Yes, she would, Mother.’
‘So now you’ve got the business and most of my money, and you’re as dumb -‘ She stopped herself and said, ‘I haven’t got your university education, and I understand what Mohammed meant.’
‘And what was that, Mother?’ Laura said coldly.
‘He meant that a detonator lies beneath his thumb.’ She paused, then said, ‘I must have some flowers sent to his parents.’
‘I thought you said you checked the news. His mother and father were both in the temple.’
‘Whatever for? They’re Muslims.’
‘How would I know?’ Laura said. ‘You know all the answers. Go find Lorraine and ask her.’
‘Wait,’ Laura’s mother said and checked the news again. ‘Ah, it was the ecumenical breakfast. It’s a big deal. The mayor and the bishop and that blind tele-minister who speaks in tongues – and God only knows who else – will have been there. I’m surprised your husband wasn’t in attendance.’
‘He’s in Canberra, Mother.’
Laura’s mother sighed and said, ‘Mohammed shouldn’t have carried his parents away with him, but he once told me -‘
‘Told you what, Mother?’ Laura insisted.
‘That he belongs to God and that an angel came down from Heaven to tell him that God is going to take revenge on all religions, on all the churches, mosques and synagogues.’
‘And you never thought it might be an idea to report that to the authorities?’ At that moment, little Hannah ran into Laura’s study. She had her mother’s white-blonde hair and dimples, and she was wearing pearl-pink jodhpurs and a matching cardigan.
‘Mummy, who are you talking to? Daddy?’ The little girl looked around and said, ‘He’s not here.’ Then, in a hushed voice: ‘Are you talking to Grandpa?’
‘Grandpa’s in Heaven, honey, remember?’
Hannah nodded sagely. ‘Uh-huh, I remember, that’s why I thought maybe you were talking to him.’
‘Go put some shoes on. You’ll get a sliver in your foot running around like that.’
Hannah balanced on one foot and held the other one in her hand. ‘Were you talking to Grandpa’s ghost? I talk to angels in the garden, but you can see them.’
‘No, Hannah, I wasn’t talking to Grandpa’s ghost. At least he would have made some sense. I was talking to your pig-headed grandmother, who is in the process of going completely mad and has forgotten all her manners.’
‘Grandma doesn’t have a pig head. And she doesn’t get mad all the time like you,’ Hannah said, scowling and dropping back onto two feet.
‘That’s right, baby,’ Laura’s mother said.
Her image appeared suddenly, big as life and in high-definition colour and contrast in the centre of the room. She wore a sea-blue nightdress, privacy veil, and a satin mourning scarf. ‘Mummy’s being very mean to Grandma,’ she said to her granddaughter as she patted a brown-and-white masked beagle puppy that was wriggling around on her lap.
‘She’s mean to me, too,’ Hannah said; and then, realising that there was a puppy on her grandmother’s lap, shrieked with joy. ‘I want to pat the puppy too. Is that your puppy? Where’d you get him? Mummy, I want a puppy too. Why can’t I have one? Is that one for me, Grandma?’
‘This puppy’s mine, sweetheart,’ Hannah’s grandmother said. ‘He was a present. It’s up to your Mummy and Daddy whether or not you get a dog.’ She turned her gaze meaningfully to Laura.
‘Go put your shoes on. Mummy’s talking to Grandma.’
‘What’s the puppy’s name, Grandma?’
‘Henry. He’s named after your grandfather.’
‘If I had a dog, I’d name him after you, Grandma,’ Hannah said.
‘Lorelei would be a nice name if you have a female dog, but what if it’s a male?’
‘It won’t be,’ Hannah said with authority. ‘And when I get one, I’m going to name it Old Oar after you.’
‘That’s not my name,’ Lorelei said, smiling. ‘Now where on earth did you get that name from?’
‘Shoes. Now!’ Laura shouted. Hannah skipped out of the room, banging the Hindu temple door back against the wall.
‘Old Oar, hey?’ Lorelei said.
‘I may be a whore, darling, but I am certainly not old. The fact that the Schmuck always talks to my bust proves that something about me must be youthful.’ Indeed, Lorelei looked as young as her daughter, who had similar features, especially the thin, aquiline nose. Although Laura was attractive, Lorelei was beautiful. Perhaps that explained why the media, especially the paparazzi, still called out for Lorelei at Marchette mannequin parades.
‘Mother, Jason is just -‘
‘Look, Mother, I’ve got to go. As long as you’re all right, that’s all that concerns me.’
‘Don’t you want to know who gave me the dog?’ Lorelei asked.
‘And what’s this business about Hannah talking to angels in the garden?’
‘All children have imaginary friends,’ Laura said.
‘She’s not getting enough attention.’
‘That’s all she gets, is attention.’
‘She needs a companion.’
‘I’m not buying her a dog.’
‘I miss your father,’ Lorelei said, as if it were something she just remembered.
‘Yes, Mother, I know you do.’
Lorelei smiled with nostalgia and mumbled to herself as if she had forgotten she was still on the line. ‘At least Mohammed was interested in the ways of the flesh … if not in the ways of the world.’
With that, Lorelei ended the connection, leaving Laura with nothing to do but light another Turkish cigarette, sit back down on her blue mohair velvet settee, call Helpless, and watch a shoeless Hannah sneak back into the garden to talk with the angels.
Jack Dann is a multi award-winning author and editor whose books include Junction, Starhiker, The Man Who Melted, The Memory Cathedral, The Silent and Bad Medicine.
© Jack Dann
This story is illustrated by the wonderful Matthew Dunn, a Melbourne-based comic creator/illustrator who can be found at www.matthewdunnartist.blogspot.com.
Overland 196-spring 2009, pp.75–80