This is a special holiday treat! This is an rare early fiction piece by author, screenwriter and all-round superstar Ben Law.
First published a million years ago in Voiceworks Magazine, Mr. Law has loaned it to us to share with you to take the edge off the festive season. Enjoy!
The suburbs had been decked out with netted, dreadlocked tangles of fairy lights and the green-red blinking outlines of neon reindeer. The places around here —usually so politely uniform — looked insane tonight. Inflatable Santas, pinned down to clippered lawns with tent pegs, mingled with gaudy plastic flamingos and crying models of baby Jesus. Neon reindeer (also in cardboard and plastic species) squatted on tiled roofs, pulling cardboard sleighs behind them, filled with fake Styrofoam presents and craft store crap. Families from all over had swooped upon this suburb like spectators, with their cameras and commentary.
‘Wah,’ Mum said, looking up at it all. ‘Gum lerng — so pretty.’
‘Yeah,’ said my twin sister Wendy, ‘If you’re blind.’
This was a nice area. We didn’t belong here.
We were all still in our work clothes: yellow T-shirts, with our badly screen-printed restaurant logo on the breast. Mum’s had an unfortunate stain on hers, which made it look like she had been lactating grease.
‘Mum,’ Wendy had said in the car on his way over. ‘It looks like your tit’s exploded.’
Dad drove us here, and left the engine running as he dropped us off — the unspoken message being that he wasn’t going to wait for us, so we had better hurry the fuck up. He didn’t have time for suburban Christmas light shows, and only at Mum’s insistence had he left the restaurant in the dubious care of Lorraine, our only hired waitress, who, everyone agreed, was mildly retarded. She once spent a whole hour serving customers with her shirt visibly tucked into her underwear.
‘Ten minutes,’ Dad had said, and Mum had told him it was more than enough time — all she wanted to do was give Mandy McAllister a Christmas present.
Mum rang the doorbell. We waited a few seconds, and Mandy opened the door.
Dorothy,’ she said. ‘Hi!’
Mandy McAllister was the women Mum did a load of ironing for once a week, to earn extra money. Mandy was on the phone. The cord was stretched taut behind her like tripwire, and she had a blue dishwashing glove on her free hand. She had small, plastic Christmas trees dangling from each ear. Mum had always wanted to pierce her ears, but was too scared.
‘Merry Christmas, Mandy!’ Mum said.
Mandy gave us a generous smile and silently waved. We all waved back — Mum, like a hyperactive kid.
‘Hang on, Marjorie,’ Mandy said into the phone. ‘We’ve got visitors. It’s —‘
‘I really like your decorations,’ Mum said. They —‘
Mandy held up her index finger as if to say ‘Just a moment’.
‘Uh-huh.’ Mandy said into the phone. I saw Mandy was looking at Mum’s book, where the stain was. My sister Wendy was staring at both of Mandy’s, which were rather large.
‘Oh, I know,’ Mandy said into the phone. ‘Yeah…No, Jim did the decorations this year, thank God but … No, just hang on, there’s someone here…’
She covered the speaker with her free hand and whispered to Mum conspiratorially: ‘It’s Jim’s mother,’ accentuating and exaggerating every syllable, in case Mum didn’t understand. She rolled her eyes in mock-exasperation for effect, and poked out her tongue like something dead. Mum giggled nervously; over-enthusiastically, like she was on a first date.
Mandy smiled again, and waved at Wendy and I in the way that always irritated my sister — this cutesy squeezing action with her fingers. She mouthed to us: ‘Hi guys!’ Even now, Mandy was wearing lipstick, and smelled like perfume and soap. I was suddenly aware of what we smelled like because of the contrast she provided. We smelled like oil and food. I looked at Mum’s hair, which she kept in a rubber band. It was greasy. Mum was clutching Mandy’s gift — a box of chocolates — behind her back.
We had never visited Mandy’s house before. Usually she came to us, with garbage bags full of clothes from the back of her sedan. The first thing I noticed about her house was how clean it was. They had carpet, and it was impossibly white. The McAllister Household was everything ours wasn’t — for one thing, it was located in an actual residential area, unlike our place, which was on the main road, and shouldered other takeaway stores, cheap restaurants and upstairs hotels. Our house sat above the restaurant, which meant it always smelled of peanut and sesame oil. The smell seeped through the floorboards; everything seemed greasy to the touch, and if you ran your fingernail across any surface — a wall, the linoleum, a table, a bench — there would always be this weird film Mum could never get rid of, no matter how much cleaning she did, which wasn’t much because she had to work downstairs anyway, or do someone else’s ironing. Our house was kind of exhausting.
‘Uh huh,’ Mandy said into the phone. She looked flustered with these two parties vying for her attention, but right now, her mother-in-law on the phone was winning.
Mum, Wendy and I stood patiently. Mum scanned over the house and its decorations with genuine wonder, while Wendy wore her trademark sour look, which mum referred to in Chinese as her ‘just-ate-shit’ expression.
Behind Mandy, I could see their living room and a massive Christmas Tree, decorated with immaculate gold and red baubles, I couldn’t help comparing it to our tree — a miniature, plastic deal about sixty centimetres tall, which was perched on the counter every year, beside the tip jar and the cash register, with its hand-written sign: ‘Cash ONLY — we apoligize for any inconvenient. THANK!’
Uh, huh,’ Mandy said into the phone. Yeah, Marjorie, I’m listening…’
Mum stood there, her polite smile still fixed.
‘Yeah … okay, Marjorie,’ Mandy said. She put her hand over the mouthpiece again, and looked at Mum. ‘Sorry!’ she whispered.
‘Is okay! Mum said, whispering as well. ‘Your decorations!’ she said again, pointing upwards. ‘So pretty! I really like them!’ She giggled, something she didn’t do often.
‘Oh, thanks,’ Mandy whispered, hand still covering the mouthpiece. ‘Jim did them — he’s back in action now.’
For two years running (1986-87) Jim McAllister had won their house the grand prize of a $500 Woolworths shopping voucher from the Christmas lights competition. But the year before, Mr McAllister had slipped a disc falling off the roof while setting up the Christmas Display, and his daughter’s efforts — a nativity scene involving Barbie doll wise men and a Cabbage Patch Jesus — didn’t win the prize that year.
‘Yeah, Jim’s back in action,’ Mandy said again. ‘In more ways than one, if you know what I mean!’
‘Okay!’ Mum said. She didn’t get the innuendo, but laughed anyway. Wendy rolled her eyes.
One of Mandy’s daughters — the younger one, Phoebe — came out of the living room to the door.
‘Mummy,’ she said. ‘Who is it?’
‘Hi!’ Mum said to Phoebe, smiling big. ‘Merry Christmas!’
Phoebe didn’t say anything.
‘Uh huh,’ Mandy said into the phone again. She patted Phoebe on the head.
Phoebe looked at Wendy, then me. She was about our age and wearing a tartan dress. Phoebe kept looking me up and down and my ears burned. My shorts were cut high above my knees and bore the label ‘Mango’, an imitation surf label bought from Best ‘n’ Less. My hair had recently been subjected to a bowl cut and my legs were scabby from mosquito bites. I knew without looking down that they appeared eaten and angry.
‘Are you here to get our ironing?’ Phoebe asked us. She looked at Mum’s shirt, where the stain was. Wendy glared at her.
‘Honey, why don’t you check how the roast is going?’ Mandy said.
Phoebe shrugged and wandered off.
‘Merry Christmas, Phoebe!’ Mum said.
With her back to us, Phoebe gave us a half-hearted backwards wave. A dog started barking from somewhere inside their house.
‘Dorothy!’ Mandy said, looking up. ‘Actually, it’s good you’re here. Is it okay if I give you some ironing tomorrow morning? I know it’s Christmas, but we’re going to this dinner with Jim’s parents, and one of Phoebe’s skirts needs ironing. I know it’s silly, but I can drop it off tomorrow? She’s got nothing else to wear, and I don’t want her looking like an idiot at this thing.'
The dog kept barking.
‘It’s only the one skirt, Mandy said, ‘but we don’t even keep an iron here, and — Snoopy, shut UP! I’ll pay you some extra when you bring the next load around.’
She held the phone to her ear with her shoulder and snapped off the blue latex glove.
‘Actually, this is perfect,’ she said. You guys don’t even celebrate Christmas, do you?’
Mum’s smile wavered.
‘Mum,’ I said. ‘We should go now, Dad’s still wait —‘
‘Is that okay, Dorothy? I’d be so grateful. How’s seven for you? She took her hand off the mouthpiece. ‘Yes, Marjorie, I’m still here.’
‘Yeah, is okay!’ Mum said. ‘See you tomorrow? We’ll stop disturbing.’
‘Oh Dorothy. You’re a lifesaver,’ Mandy said, and made a funny face to impersonate her mother-in-law on the line. ‘Seriously, I owe you one. See you at seven, then!’
She pointed to the phone’s mouthpiece and whispered to us: ‘I should take care of her.’
Mum nodded and smiled.
‘Enjoy the rest of the lights show, guys,’ Mandy whispered.
Mum regained her composure. ‘Merry Christmas, Mandy!’ she whispered back. She looked like she was going to explode with goodwill, her smile was so wide and eager. ‘Tell Jim he say hello! Merry Christmas to both of you. So exciting, nearly the 90s, isn’t it? Oh, and the girls! Tell them Merry Christmas too! Merry Christmas!’
Mandy nodded and smiled, mouthed ‘you too’ to us, then broke off eye contact and said ‘Uh huh’ again into the phone.
‘Merry Christmas!’ Mum said again. ‘And Happy New —‘
Mandy closed the door in our faces.
Outside, it was darker and weirdly silent.
‘Okay, bye!’ Mum said. She smiled stupidly, facing the door as if Mandy was still there.
‘She can’t hear you,’ Wendy sighed. ‘This is boring. Can we go now?’
There was a tense pause. A yellow, blinking letter ‘H’ reflected itself on Mum’s oily forehead. Up on the roof, the McAllisters’ lights spelling out ‘Happy 1990’.
‘What boring?’ Mum said, turning on Wendy. ‘Only boring because you boring person!’
She was still holding the box of chocolates behind her back. From inside the house, we could hear Mandy say to her mother-in law, ‘Oh, it was the ironing lady…’
‘Mum, the chocolates,’ I said.
Mum brought the chocolates out from behind her back. She’d forgotten about them. She looked like she’d been dealt a soft blow.
Whispering now, she said, ‘Should I just leave them at the door?’
‘Someone will steal them, I said, whispering gas well ‘Maybe the letterbox?’
‘Letterbox?’ she said.
‘Why are we whispering? Wendy asked loudly. ‘I think Dad’s waiting. Can someone just make a decision?’
Mum said (still whispering, and in Chinese): ‘How will she know it’s from me?’
I looked at the box of chocolates. It was wrapped in paper with party balloons all over it, with old fold marked embedded into the faded pattern. Anyone – except Mum, apparently — could see that it was recycled birthday wrapping paper.
‘Trust me,’ Wendy said, looking at the wrapping paper. ‘She’ll know.’
Mum looked at the letterbox, weighing up her options. She opened it, put the box of chocolates inside, and closed the hatch. She gave the thumbs up to both of us.
We crossed over the lawn, back towards Dad’s Datsun. Young families with over-excited children were everywhere, sucking lollies, ooh-ing and ahh-ing. A fat, middle-ages couple passed us, both wearing Seaworld caps with cameras hanging around their necks.
‘Eh, look at that ‘un Bruce,’ the woman said, walking towards Mandy’s house. ‘They’ll win the voucher, faw sure.’
When we got back to the car, Dad had fallen asleep and was scratching his crotch absent-mindedly. He had turned the engine off. We knocked on his window and he woke up, flinching. He looked at the car’s digital clock.
‘Wah!’ he said. ‘Gum loi? — so long!’
‘Can you let us in?’ Wendy said.
The ride home was quiet; the car’s radion had broke the month before when Dad had tried to fish a jammed Chinese opera tape out of the cassette player with a screwdriver.
‘What is she finds out they’re from King Kong sales?’ Wendy finally asked.
‘Are Swiss chocolates,’ Mum sain in English, reciting the packaging. ‘Deluxe. Even if two dollar, still Swiss.’
‘So why’d you take so long?’ Dad asked in Chinese. Giving chocolates to the gwae-poh?’
‘She’s a friend,’ Mum said, in Chinese.
Dad snorted. ‘You don’t have friends,’ he said. ‘You have a family.’
He burped loudly, which set Wendy and I off screaming and laughing, keeling over. In the rear-view mirror, I could even see Dad allowing himself a smile. But Mum just looked out at the road, expressionless now, with the Christmas lights blinking through the passenger seat window, onto her face, in a green-red, greed-red neon blur.
Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based journalist, columnist and screenwriter, and has completed a PhD in television writing and cultural studies. He is the author of two books—The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012)—and the co-author of the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle and illustrator Oslo Davis.