This story is part of a family memoir in progress about the mystery behind Olivia Guntarik’s mother’s decision to migrate to Australia from Borneo in 1977, and the impact this decision had on her own life and the lives of her children.
The plane spirals round the airport and our descent begins. I am with my mother, without my brother. Out the oval window I see red earth cracked dry, and the rising ochre sun on the horizon. At night in our new house, the house we share with the boatman, Brisbane’s city lights cast a rose glow which I watch from my bedroom. Atop tall towers, the lights that warn the planes blink on and off, on and off, like tiny explosions in a sleepy futuristic city.
From the beginning, nothing was quite right about our situation. I was about to cross from of the familiar into the foreign, and was already feeling at odds with the world. The child that was me was at war. Explosive and temperamental. As quick to erupt into a territorial barking fit about my sister being ‘my baby’ as to burst into tears for being taunted at school. I still spoke with a trace of my Borneo accent but was rapidly shifting into the clanging new gears of Queensland speech patterns, what I heard some people call strine. Perhaps some of my bad temperedness derived from an unhealthy dose of the sherbet bombs Mum used as bribes, hidden in a glass jar on top of the fridge. But much of it must have stemmed from the events we had left behind, and the difficulties we now faced. I didn’t know that when moments of difference anger us, we blame the world and claim it has cheated us. We look outwards instead of into ourselves. I didn’t know yet how to comprehend the ways in which anger can secretly infiltrate your being, a black unventilated rage that discolours the world.
My mother and I were different from the boatman, that much I knew. Because later on it took me so long to piece together our time in Brisbane, much of this man who became my mother’s second husband eludes me. He was remote. He seemed burdened by his work as a fisherman. Perpetually weary. He had taken to drink. My picture of him began as a faint patch like a small tea stain and grew larger and darker, filling me with unnameable dread. Over the years, I kept returning to his image because it both attracted and repulsed me.
I am still not entirely sure what he looked like, because no photographs of him exist in the albums that my mother carefully kept. If I half shut my eyes, I am able to bring him back in a blur of images. The boatman underneath the house mending a giant fishing net. The net is spread across a concrete f loor and draped over his bare legs and rounded gut. I see the afternoon light has caught his face. I am above him, peering at him from a gap in between the back stairs. He doesn’t see me. He never really spoke to me, except once. Two words. But I can recall his look, like I was an irritation to him.
The old Queenslander we shared with him was white, on stilts, reminding me of the houses back in Borneo. Stilts, to provide structure and support. Like pillars of strength. Like my mother. At the back of the property was a tree I liked to climb. Sometimes I sat underneath, gazing up into what seemed a limitless azure sky. I recall being struck by the coarseness of the grass – thick, winding clumps like the frayed edges of the rattan mats my grandmother wove. Dry pandanus leaves intertwining in overlapping squares. The grass in the backyard hid an assortment of tiny spiky pods I had never seen before. Most of my weekends were spent foraging for the pods and other strange seeds, as well as stones, gumnuts, berries, feathers and fallen leaves. I stored these in a small box in my bedroom.
If the boatman was an uncertain presence, my mother was vivid to me. For a long time I regarded her with awe. She was deeply spiritual; we attended the Adventist church every Saturday morning. The boatman did not accompany us because he was not a believer.
My strongest memory of all that church-going is how loud Mum sings. I am embarrassed whenever I sneak a peek at her and find her singing in a deep, resonant alto, her eyes closed. There she stands, her whole being stretching her four-foot ten-inch frame into a proud, boastful statement of difference. Why does she have to sing low when everyone else sings high? And why must she sing with her eyes closed like that, like she doesn’t care who is watching?
When I observe her from a distance, I am conscious that she is asked the same question over and over. This question invariably pops up in the middle of a conversation that is more often than not initiated by my mother. She is talkative – too talkative, I feel – chatting about this and that, what I believe to be mundane. How many times a day can someone talk about the weather? To me, there are only two climates. Hot and wet.
It’s hot today, isn’t it?
It’s a lovely day today. Full of sunshine. Wasn’t it hot yesterday?
I wonder if it will be hot tomorrow.
Looks like it’s going to rain. Look at the clouds. Isn’t it beautiful when it rains?
Isn’t it beautiful after it rains?
I wonder if it will rain tomorrow? Wasn’t it beautiful yesterday?
What happened to the weather today?
On and on it seems to go – the same conversation with almost everyone she meets. The lady at the milk bar, the man mowing his lawn next door, the lollipop man at my school, the old lady who plays the organ at church. The talk begins with small variations on the weather theme before the big question arrives, and this usually after a slight lull in the discussion.
Where’yer from anyway, love?
Of course at that age I have no real understanding of the deeper implications of the question. At first I thought they were asking my mother where she lived. About the Queenslander. I tug at her free hand and nag: Maarrrrmmm. Lett’sss gooooh. Come on, Mmmummm. Lett’sss gooooh. I am thinking of the sherbet bombs. I am miserable, needing to get away, to escape to the sanctuary of my bedroom, to escape to the safety of the television set and The Jetsons, to climb my tree in the backyard, to take f light from the utterly dreary babble going on above me.
Where’yer from anyway, love? I hear the question again. My mother’s response is always offered without a blinking of the eyelids and with an overly dramatic expression, like she knows the question is coming and can’t wait to answer. She suddenly affects a certain look, a stance of both power and mysteriousness.
Oh somewhere far, far away. From the jungles. From an island called Borneo. Have you heard of it?
Each response is different. The lollipop man was a soldier who served in the Australian army during World War II. He knows. Mum is certainly excited about that connection. The piano lady at church has never heard of the place. To this lady, my mother speaks in a hushed whisper, and I am forced to lean in closer.
Yesss … we came from an ancient tribe. Very matter of fact.
This elicits a lift of an eyebrow from the listener as Mum continues the story of our origin with a voluble stress on the last words. Those final words stretch into a slow dramatic build-up.
Yesss … So ancient. From many many many years ago and for so long we were in fact … head hunters!
I remember the organ lady gasping at this. She almost falls off the edge of the stool as Mum unclasps my hand from hers and suddenly grips the woman’s knee.
But don’t worry, my mother whispers with a twinkle in her eye. I see a toothy grin as she draws nearer to the woman and croons in a singsong voice: Not anymore !
This ignites a nervous chuckle from the lady. I see the smile in Mum’s eyes and want to join the collective merriment, letting rip a peal of six-year-old giggles despite not fully comprehending the punchline.
Home again. My mother’s favourite Kenny Rogers’ record is spinning on the player. All I can hear is a man with a throaty voice. She said, I’m no quitter, / But I finally quit living on dreams. / I’m hungry for laughter, / Here ever after / I’m after whatever the other life brings / In the mirror I saw him.
The room is swimming with thick tension. I am in the kitchen scheming a plan of great proportions. My mother is in the backyard hanging out the washing. She disappears behind a stark white bed sheet and reappears again, her back to me. The sheets f lap in the breeze. Sunrays explode on the surface of waving whiteness, blurring my vision. I am on tiptoes, reaching up, feeling for the glass jar wide in my hands, seeing perfect spheres of pastel balls. Pink, green, blue and yellow saturated in thick mouth-watering crusts of sugar salt. My mouth wet with saliva and the almost-taste of salty sweet. Then shock. Whites of eyes suddenly enlarge like a startled horse. The mouth rounds into an O. The jar comes tumbling towards me, smashing to the f loor, Boom ! Tiny shards of glass detonating all remnants of desire.
From my hiding place underneath the bed I hear the thud of footsteps on the back stairs. Then a crunching of glass, a woman’s sharp intake and a shout. Olivia! Have you been at the lolly jar again? Look at all this glass everywhere ! I stay silent, holding back a sneeze.
Footsteps boom down the hardwood floor towards my room. I push back further into my corner beneath the bed.
I see a woman’s feet. Tiny. The toenails pointed sharp. I sneeze. My mother’s face bending down, and suddenly against mine. Smooth. Unlined. High cheekbones. Plump lips. Lips moving now.
Olivia. Did you break the lolly jar? Big brown eyes watching, piercing my insides.
No, I didn’t. My eyes looking straight into my mother’s.
Olivia. Please tell me the truth. Quiet. Listening. Gazing at me. Something falls away inside me. I return the inquiry with a sense of new-found liberation. Staring back I say, No. I. Didn’t. Slow. Punctuated.
It is the first of many lies to come. Eyes deadpan. Eyes gazing deep into hers. She stares at me for what seems an eternity. I stare back. We are in combat.
One against the Other. Daughter against mother. The record player blares. I can hear the final lines of the song, the sound of a guitar strumming and then fading out to silence. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille / With four hungry children and a crop in the field / I’ve had some bad times / Lived through some sad times, / This time the hurtin’ won’t heal. / You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.
Another memory. I am in the garden looking up, beyond a tree, stretched out on my back. The sun is seeping through the leaves, slanting shards of gold and shadow, speckling across my body. A slight
breeze pants on my face. My eyes are half shut. Squinting upwards.
I see a bee sinking into a frangipani. I smell something warm. Something peppery. Grass erect. Heating up and prickling my bare legs. Frangipanis all around me on the ground. Bruised and white. What happened next?
I write about that time, straining to imagine myself back when I was six or seven. Have I been struggling against my memory for so long? I am thinking ref lection is a bit like being underwater. In the sea with your eyes open, twisting your body upwards, supine to the sky’s light. Mottled colours. Voices underwater. Words I cannot hear. Just sounds. Faint and far away. I am somewhere between a place I knew and a place unfamiliar.
I think about L.P. Hartley’s famous opening to The Go-Between. ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ I’m thinking that the past is here, the past is now, and my here and now is foreign. The present is a foreign country, they do things differently here. My home is past. Lost and gone.
As I struggle to remember, something strange is going on. It’s what happens when you make it back to the past. A sort of collapsing of time occurs. Present, past and future cave in on each other. Space enlarges. Time is ruptured. You enter a threshold when you stop struggling to forget. You cross the threshold when you choose to remember. Memories trickle forward. Glints of golden light on land or water. One of my favourite writers, Victor Turner, describes this as a liminal state. A stimulus is amplified. Perplexity intensifies. A fructile chaos. A gestation process. A fetation.
I can’t find the term fructile in my dictionary, but there are others like it. Fructidor. Fructiferous. Fructify. Figurative, says the dictionary. After many years of perseverance his plan fructified.
I am fructifying.
Strange words that force me to think bodily. A pregnant embodiment of time, space, memory. Feminine. Fruitful. Fructile. Fetation. The ebb before the violent f lood.
I see my mother’s body growing and growing. Does the boatman know?
I am underwater looking up. I see colours. White. Red. Grey. Dappled reflections. Waves rising and falling in slow motion over the ocean. Eyes squinting. Golden shadows. Scent of grass erect. Frangipanis bruised and white.
Everybody is calling my mother Molly. And Mols for short. Hey Mols, how ya goin’? Seems y’r havin’ a baby, ey? Looks like it could be a girl ! Gestation. And then the birth. The birth of my sister. Born part brown, part blue. Mongolian bruise on her bum. Like the one on mine when I was born. Like the one my older daughter Tanah had on hers. Now faded. Like the one my younger daughter Anaé has on hers. Still has. In the now. In my own family unit of four: me, Greg and my two little girls.
Molly gives birth to my sister on 12 November 1977. The nurses at the hospital mistake my sister’s birthmark for a massive bruise and suspect my mother of child abuse. They have no idea what a Mongolian birthmark is. You’re from Malaysia, Molly, they say slowly, not Mongolia. As if she couldn’t speak English.
I am six and at school by the time my sister arrives. In my class the kids speak in funny ways. Eew, look! She’s eating worms for lunch (pointing to the noodles Mum has packed me). Why do you speak like that? (my accent again). There are no other Asians in Brisbane. That
much I can see.
Mum and I like to go for long walks with the baby over the hill to the valley behind our house. I push my sister’s pram. Our gaze follows the city skyline to its centre, past West End and over South Brisbane, where all the people living around us at the edge of the city are poor. We are standing now at the top of the hill looking skyward, towards the city, towards what I see looks like shimmering space rockets.
I gasp: Oh, it’s so beautiful !
She says, It’s sinful. And then: A fool vents all her feelings but a wise woman holds them back. Rise above it, Olivia.
So I imagine I am a princess in a high tower. The next day I go to school and ignore the taunts.
I rise above it.
Back at the boatman’s house, my mother is in the backyard hanging out the washing. I leave her and go in through the back door. There is no one inside but me. Or so I think. I go towards my bedroom. No, not my bedroom, I make a detour to the toilet down the hall. Pants off. I clamber onto the toilet. I suddenly hear the hollow sound of heavy boots clobbering down the hall. Getting louder. The door is Wide Open when He sees me. I am on the toilet, not sitting but squatting high above it. Facing Him. Two feet striding on either side of the toilet bowl. On top of the toilet bowl. I see his red face contorting, a scowl of utter disgust. Two words boil up from his twisted lips. Sit down !
That’s all I recall about that episode. I don’t remember sitting down. Another time, Molly is cooking rice. She likes to eat rice with her hands like she says they do back home. Pressing the fragments together into a tight little ball with the fingers and then straight into the mouth without dropping a morsel. Mixed with a Bornean fish dish. Borsor, she sings in language, lifting her tongue to the roof of her mouth and allowing the Rs to vibrate. Fermented fish. Sour-salty-sweet.
Bosungan bau, I sing to her. It stinks! I say.
Borsungan wangi, she returns. It smells beautiful, eating her rice. With her hands.
It tastes better with your hands, she says. If she doesn’t eat rice, she doesn’t feel full, she tells me.
Now, she has a strange look on her face. She is in foetal position. She’s trying to pull herself up. I see the man’s face and notice it is even brighter than usual, a boiled-red colour. All you do is eat rice, eat rice, eat rice, he shouts at her.
I hear myself yelling. Stop hitting my mother! I hear this. I have come inside from outside, where I was lying underneath the frangipani tree, sun still blinkering my eyes, but I hear him. Hear the slaps. Hear myself. Hear my Voice.
I do not remember what happens next. My mother has to fill that gap for me some years later when I am in my twenties.
You disappeared. I was frantic. I looked for you everywhere. All over the house. In the tree you liked to climb. I kept calling your name for hours and hours. I walked around the block sick with worry and fear. How could you just disappear? Where could you go? I searched your bedroom for clues. I began to wonder if He took you somewhere. That’s when I found the note in your little box. You said you had run away and needed money. I had a feeling you would be over the road in the shops buying your sherbet bombs. How you got there I have no idea. I found you underneath a rack of clothes.
My mother reminded me about the running-away note when I was older, though she did not connect the details with her broken relationship with the boatman. But it was not long after this incident that she decided to leave him. Barely a few months married.
We leave in the middle of the night with the assistance of some of the women from the church. We have been in Australia 11 months. My sister is six months old. I am almost seven.
We move to another suburb in Brisbane at the edge of the city. I never see him again.
My mother does. Once to sign the divorce papers; another time without warning, shortly after moving to our new house. I am playing outside and hear my mum yell. Ol-i-v-i-a! Get inside the house – NOW! She has seen him, driving slowly past and turning his reddened, weary face to look my way.
We have to move again.
Later my mother reads a letter he has written to one of the newspapers. Beware of all Asian women. They only marry us so they can stay in our country. Consequently, Mum decides that she will never ask to be an Australian citizen. She keeps her original passport and becomes a permanent resident of Australia, not through her marriage to the boatman, but by her own representations later on. It is not my mother who tells me the story of the newspaper letter. I only discover it when I make contact with my mother’s close friend, Connie, after Molly’s death. By then the past has grown more significant to me, with the realisation that our time in Brisbane was underlined by a foreboding sense of waiting for something else to happen.
The third place we live in is a one-bedroom flat in a rambling old house, dark and crumbling, with basic, weathered furniture. The three of us share the bedroom. My baby sister is always crying. The nights are hot. The days are hotter. My mother would often immerse our clothes in bathwater overnight and wash them by hand the following day. I remember having showers with our clothes soaking in the bath.
The house sits halfway up a steep hill and from the vantage point of our kitchen window, I see the city’s shimmering space rockets in the distance. I’m looking out towards the city one day when I hear the shouts cutting into the silence. Someone is shouting my name. A chorus of shouts.
Olivia! Come and play outside, I hear the kids in the house opposite yelling.
Just a minute! I’m coming ! I sing back. I am inside struggling with the fairy wings my mother has made me out of wire and pink stockings she found at the op shop. Then I am outside, with the other kids. We see a man pushing a woman sitting on a high stone wall. He keeps pushing his fingers against her chest with great force. Each time it is more violent and I hear the thud of skin against skin. As the blows throw her backwards, her legs suddenly rise as she tries to balance herself. She falls silent. She almost falls back. Onto the ground. On the other side of the wall. The ground drops quite steeply. On the other side.
I am scared for her.
I run to our house, circle through the rooms and crash through the back. The back door screeches on its wired hinges as I push. There is a long staircase, beginning at the bottom of the hill and reaching all the way up to our verandah. I stand there looking towards the skyrocket place. From my palace. My liminal space.
In the months that follow, Molly will wake early to prepare food. She will leave food on the table for her daughter. She will ask her daughter to be patient. To understand. She will think of her daughter. Her daughter’s anger. Her daughter’s rage. Her daughter’s will.
Mummy! I need you now! She will hear her daughter shout on many occasions afterwards. She will hear that the impatience has crept into her child’s voice. She will despair at how long it can take to teach someone patience. To teach a child peace. She herself does not understand how patience is learnt. Perhaps it takes a lifetime, she thinks. But she will learn quickly.
The baby will sleep. She will wake her gently and lift her to a breast. The child’s eyes will register the movement. The mouth will move quickly. Chin tucked under breast. Hungry. Hungry. Sucking hungrily. And then. Quenched. It will not take long. The baby’s eyes roll backwards, drunk with drink. Drunk with milk. Drunk with the drink of her mother. Her mother’s milk. Drunk with life. With new life.
Molly will gently lie her baby down. The baby will grow fast over the months to come. Growing big. Growing strong. She will touch the baby’s cheeks. Press her lips to soft baby skin. Loving the smell of her baby. Milky and new. She will move to the bed where her older daughter sleeps. She will press her lips to cheek. And leave the room as a layer of blackness seeps out the window, ushering in the light.
She will walk up the hill to the doctor’s surgery. She has two different cleaning jobs now, this one at the surgery, and others cleaning houses in the area. She works as a cleaner because there is no other way to support her family. She cleans each room in the house. Vacuuming f loors, wiping down windows, benches, walls, leaving the bathroom until last. Ten more minutes and she will make her way back home. She can do this, she tells herself. She can wake early when the children are sleeping and clean houses. She can also work at night when the children have gone to sleep. During the day she will return home to look after the children. Her baby. Her older girl. This will be the order of it. This is how it will begin. She will organise her life. Organise her thoughts. There is no other way, she will tell herself. No other way. Take care of the children. Clean houses. Cook. Clean her home. Then she will return to Borneo to get her son. That is the order of it.
By now, Mum has been labelled an illegal immigrant. I am not really able to comprehend what this means. An old lady lives next door by herself. She has a television set and I like to watch Skippy the Bush Kangaroo with her. I have never seen a kangaroo before and I like the way the kids on the show talk. I am learning that mimicry can get you anywhere.
Good on ya, mayt. Watcha up ta? Yoooo little rippa!
The old lady nods at me and says, You’re a good girl, love. A good girl.
And passes me a lamington.
But then. Waiting for residency. Caught in the unpredictable limbo between going back or staying put. Caught in the liminal zone.
The government doesn’t know how to react, to treat my mother’s application for residency. I remember a man from the immigration office saying to her: The baby can stay because she was born here. You and the older one need to go back … ASAP love. He says it like this, Ay Sap Luv. Just like that. Really quickly. I think it sounds like a delicious Chinese dessert.
My mother says: I don’t understand the meaning of this.
I wonder whether she is asking a question or making a statement. It doesn’t sound like a question to me. From the way she stands I assume she is making a very strong statement.
The immigration man sweats and looks perplexed. He looks to me. I translate what my mother has just said back to him. Even though she is speaking in English.
I say (really quickly and all nasally-like, making sure I get just right the speaking-through-the-nose thing I’d heard Sonny on Skippy do): She said, it’s all meaningless, mate. And then, as I wait for his response, I add for emphasis: Ay Sap Luv.
Don’t you get smart with me, little miss, he says. And then: You are both in Australia illegally. Your visa ran out long ago. You are illegal immigrants. Tell ya Mum, yoos’ve gotta go back.
I don’t tell her. I know she understands him. And we don’t go back to Borneo. I remember laughing, finding the whole concept of being illegal absolutely ridiculous. I say to my mother as we leave the office: He thinks we’re illegal, Mummy. Oh, that’s so funny, so funny. Ill-lee-grl. I tossed the word around on my tongue, savouring the new sound each consonant emitted, and did not think to ask my Mum its meaning. Words seemed hilarious then. What I didn’t understand I laughed at.
As my mother and I make our way home from the immigration office, my thoughts are on other things. Molly retreats to the kitchen and I to the back verandah. I stare out towards the city centre and close my eyes, listening to the song calls of the birds, soaking in the soupy wet-warmth of summer and realising for the first time that Brisbane is my home, whether or not we are wanted.
In the end Australia’s prime minister, a man called Bob Hawke, relents. There is an amnesty for people like us, and we are allowed to stay. For many years afterwards, often when I’m not even thinking of Brisbane, the contrasting white and red faces of the immigration man and the boatman appear to me, then disappear, fading in and out of a shadowed smile, a hooded sneer, an explosion of rage which feels like it might be mine, or it might be the boatman’s. When I deliberately think of those days there is another disembodied image: a vision of a woman in battle gear like Joan of Arc, galloping off into a blazing sunset with a white f lag sailing in her hand. I am not the woman warrior but her horse with large f lared nostrils, a horse that has grown giant ivory wings and is lifting the maiden so that she is always higher than the armoured battalion clutching at our heels, chorusing for her downfall and death. My role is to kick the attackers with my steely back hooves, as the roar of the encroaching battalion combines with the chaotic thrashing of feathered flight.