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Verge 2017 – Chimera

19

The Lady Who Walks

Ann Jackson

JOINT WINNER OF THE MONASH UNDERGRADUATE PRIZE FOR CREATIVE WRITING

I was never particularly nice to my mother. I guess I found it hard to forgive her for being Chinese. We lived together with my dad, who never saw a foreign shore in his life, in a flat that was really only meant for two people.

I’m not sure exactly when the walking started. It was just something that happened naturally, like fruit coming into season. Ma would be up at six thirty and out the door in ten minutes. I knew because the walls were so thin you could always tell what everyone else was up to. After I heard the front door click shut, sometimes I would push the curtain aside and watch as she set off down the street.

These days when I think about Ma, the funny thing is that I can’t picture her face properly. But I can see her tiny figure as she marches down the footpath, pumping her arms back and forth with a fierce determination.

***

One morning—I reckon I must’ve been eight or so—a boy came and spoke to me at recess. ‘That lady who walks all the time, she’s your mum, right?’ When I didn’t reply he went on: ‘My uncle saw her this morning.’

I said: ‘Is he okay? He’d better wash his eyes out quick!’ That was the first time I’d ever gotten a laugh out of my classmates. It gave me a warm shiver in my belly.

That very same day, a girl I’d never spoken to sat next to me at lunch. She had a brown ponytail and freckles on her nose. She told me I was lucky, being able to eat Chinese food whenever I wanted. I wasn’t sure how to reply to that so I offered her some of my chicken rice instead and we ended up trading lunches.

When I got home I told Dad I’d made a new friend. I pretended it was no big deal but he could tell how pleased I was. Ma was busy in the kitchen and I didn’t think she’d even heard. But at dinnertime when she clunked the bowl down in front of me, there was an extra fried egg sitting on top of my noodles.

***

I was ten when I first joined Ma for one of her walks. I remember because that year she’d insisted on a big birthday celebration, as if reaching double digits was some kind of momentous occasion. This particular morning Dad urged me to tag along with her. ‘Go on. She’d be stoked,’ he said. It wasn’t exactly my idea of a morning pick-me-up. But for once I didn’t whinge, just slipped on a pair of thongs and followed Ma out the door, slapping away flies.

It was the middle of summer and even at this hour, the air was warm and sluggish. My shirt was sticky with sweat and I knew my ears were bright red.

This was the first time I’d walked Ma’s route: past the IGA, through the park, around the school and back again. I must’ve been afraid someone would see us together as we passed the school, because I began talking to Ma in a short, stiff manner so as to not appear too close. She didn’t seem to notice.

We’d just reached the park when Ma grabbed my arm with a gasp. ‘Lu, look!’

I looked. A fly was tickling the back of my neck and Ma’s fingers were pressing into my arm. She was pointing to a cluster of small red apples, smiling like she’d stumbled across some buried treasure. Before I could say anything, she began to rip the fruit off the branch and stash them in the green recyclable bag she was carrying.

The fly buzzed in my ear, making me jump violently. ‘Ma,’ I hissed, glancing up and down the street to make sure no-one was around. ‘Are you sure that’s allowed?’

Ma shrugged and reached for another apple. ‘But no-one has taken them. They’ll be wasted.’

Maybe it was the heat—I’ve never had much of a tolerance for hot weather—but, all of a sudden, I felt hugely irritated with Ma.

‘Stop it!’

I pushed the bag out of her hand.

Apples rolled across the dirt. Ma squinted at me for a moment, as if I were an odd word she couldn’t quite figure out. Then she shook her head and made a clucking noise—like I was the one who was loopy—and squatted to gather the fallen apples.

I hesitated. I think I’d expected her to snap back at me or something. But now there was no easy way to make things right. I muttered something about heading home. The words dangled stupidly in the air, and after a few seconds I marched off.

When I reached the edge of the park I looked back. Ma was down on all fours, snatching up the dusty apples and shovelling them into that old green bag as if her life depended on it.

***

One morning I woke up and there was no porridge waiting. Dad made Vegemite on toast. It tasted dry and stuck in my throat. Dad said he’d wait a couple more minutes then take the car out to look for Ma. He told me not to worry.

When the phone rang he leapt up like he’d been shot. Only once we were heading down the road did Dad tell me that Ma had tried to enter someone else’s flat. ‘Maybe it looked sort of like ours,’ I said, and mumbled something about having seen plenty of dingy white buildings around. It was the first time I’d heard of Ma being, you know, not quite right up there. So I wasn’t exactly sure what to say.

When we got to the police station Ma was smaller than I remembered, like she’d shrunk into herself. There was a trickle of dried blood from her nostril. The cop was chewing gum. He said Ma had become violent when he’d tried to get her to leave the block of flats. It seemed unbelievable. Dad was the one who smacked me when I was mucking about. I’d never even seen Ma hit a fly with a rolled-up newspaper.

***

Dad said one of us had to accompany Ma every time she left the house. On Saturdays, that unlucky person was me. I set my alarm to six. If Ma went off by herself, Dad would yell at me later. It was like the more patience he spent on her, the less was left for me.

When Ma saw me coming her face lit up with a smile. She kept patting my arm with her small hand as we trudged down the footpath. ‘Lu,’ she’d say, ‘look at that lovely big fruit. Like youzi. You know youzi? Can feed a whole family.’

I spoke as little as possible. I guess I was still a bit scared that somebody might see us together. At first Ma didn’t seem to mind, but slowly, our conversations shrivelled and died. She still liked to point things out—maybe an early plum blossom, or a blackbird startled into flight—but it was as if she’d lost the words to say how beautiful they were. And for me, it seemed like far too much effort to do anything other than nod and keep walking.

Dad was awfully patient with Ma, always ready with a smile and the old dictionary so she could point to the words she couldn’t pronounce. Somehow he managed to figure out exactly what she wanted each time; I never bothered.

It took me several months to realise she’d stopped talking altogether. I’m not proud of it. I assumed Ma had simply accepted that I wasn’t interested in making conversation. It was only when she began to speak Chinese that I realised just how much her English had been chewed away.

I suppose I should make it clear that Ma had never spoken to me in Chinese before. Dad said it was because she’d wanted me to speak English like a native. Of course, I’d heard the rapid-fire string of swear words that spilled out when she broke a plate or burned herself on the kettle, so I wasn’t completely ignorant of the language. But the first time she turned to me and spoke in Chinese, the best reply I could give her was a blank stare.

Dad bought me a couple of textbooks but I never found the time to get very far. Weeks bled into months. Ma would step outside with dried porridge crusted on her upper lip and her shoelaces undone. When I bent down to help her, I could smell her stale sweat—she’d forgotten to wash again.

She would often reach a corner and head down the wrong street without the slightest hesitation. On the particular morning I’m thinking of, we’d just circled the primary school when she paused at the edge of the park. When I pointed her in the right direction she nodded and said something to me in Chinese.

It took a few moments to register. I knew very little of the language, but the words were straight off the first page of the textbook. The translation: ‘Thank you, miss.’ And underneath, in fine black print: Used to address a stranger.

***

The year I turned thirteen, Ma stopped walking.

She slept a lot and when she woke she was always irritable, so I preferred it when she was asleep. If there were roadworks in the street or the neighbours were having a party we would suddenly hear this bellowing, and Dad would jump out of his seat and run to Ma’s room. Only he could calm her down. Afterwards he’d apologise to the neighbours, as if what Ma did were his fault.

We never talked much about our feelings, but I could tell Dad was pretty cut up about everything that happened to Ma. After she passed he kind of let himself go. It was like he’d been holding together all these years for her sake. Dad’s sister Julie moved in to give us a hand. She had a prickly temper, but she could tell when I needed space and knew how to cook a fine roast lamb.

By then I was in high school so it was a while before I went back to the park and saw that the apple tree—you know, the one Ma’d been nicking fruit from—wasn’t there anymore. Maybe it’d been pulled out or maybe it just died, I don’t know. But it was a bit of a shock. It kind of made me realise that Ma was gone. Like, really gone.

***

Sometimes I jolt awake at six. It’s actually a bit creepy. Not that I believe Ma’s spirit is hanging about or anything like that. Still, I pull on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and head off into the cold crisp morning.

I take Ma’s route just out of habit. The IGA’s bigger now. There’s a bunch of new shops, with some of the stuff you could only buy at the city market before. They’ve even got sticky rice cakes out for the New Year. I picked up a packet the other day, thinking I’d share them with Julie and Dad. I’d just stashed them in one of my bags along with the dried noodles and the rest of the groceries when I heard a woman say: ‘Look, isn’t that her? You know, the lady who walks in the mornings.’ My bags fell with a thump; one of them burst open and apples tumbled across the floor. I scanned the aisles desperately for the shrunken form of my mother. Finally I caught sight of the woman who’d spoken and realised she’d been pointing at me.

My ears burned with embarrassment but I managed a smile. She came over to help me gather the bruised apples. Together we knelt on the floor and packed them into my bag—gently, as if each one was a treasure.

First published in Voiceworks #103 ‘Bang’ (2016).

Verge 2017 – Chimera

   by Bonnie Reid, Aisling Smith and Gavin Yates