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The first thing Ella draws from the box that her Uncle Joe has sent from Innisfail is a brittle branch of longans. The fruit’s skin is as raspy as she imagines the hide of a scaly lizard might be. Sliding her fingernail beneath its skin, she strips it away and is taken back to her grandmother’s loungeroom when she and her younger brother, Shaun, used to peel the paper from the walls on those long, sticky afternoons. Ella tries to recall if Ma ever scolded them for such vandalism but only remembers the feel of her grandmother’s cool fingertips when she cupped Ella’s cheek, the rings of talcum powder caught in the wrinkles of her throat, and the jade earrings swinging from her stretched lobes.

The longan flesh is plump, moist. She knows it will taste sweet, a bit like a lychee, but instead of taking a bite she lifts it to her nose. There’s only the faintest scent, thank God. For the past month, most smells make her gag, even the fragrance of her mother’s Clarins face cream. The other day, at the restaurant, she nearly vomited when the cook was slicing cucumber. Cucumber! Who knew it even had a smell? And yesterday she had to cross the road to avoid the salty musk coming from the fish-and-chip shop, even though a handful of hot chips is the only thing she can keep down right now.

Dr Chin said that if she goes ahead with the procedure, she’ll need to go to the northside to have it done. Ella places the peeled longan on the deck table and, pressing her hand to her lower belly, her fingers search for movement. Surely it’s too early. Surely the tiny tug she sometimes senses is just wind, or perhaps food shifting in her stomach.

Beneath the longans is a notebook, covered in tattered brown paper, speckled with grease spots. Ma’s cookbook. Ella has to clear her throat, loudly, to dislodge the sadness that catches there. She opens it up, revealing page after page of her grandmother’s scrawl—some recipes scratched in Chinese, some in English. The earlier pages are almost indecipherable, filled with recipes originating somewhere along the Pearl River and passed down the Chu family line for over a century.

She lifts the notebook and several slips of paper slide to the table, including a yellowing playbill of some sort for a Liberty Theatre, London. Ella doesn’t recognise the play—or, for that matter, any of the actors; although Laurence (Sir) Olivier sounds familiar and Ella’s interested to see, a few lines down, the name Rose Quong. Perhaps a friend of Ma’s? Perhaps saved purely for the novelty of a Chinese name on an English playbill? She picks up a newspaper clipping that announces the passing of her grandfather, William ‘Bill’ Hartley, who died a good ten years before Ella was born. Apparently her freckles are from him, her small stature from Ma.

Turning over the last piece of paper, she sees it’s the old black-and-white photograph of Ma’s family. It used to hang on the wall outside her bedroom, dusty tape binding a loose corner of the timber frame. Sometimes Ma stood gazing up at it, and one day Ella had joined her but had turned away when she noticed her grandmother’s lip tremble. Their mum explained to Ella and Shaun that the photo had been taken in Cairns when the Chinese side of the family still farmed bananas in Innisfail. Eleven children, neatly barbered and wearing starched dresses and suits, are seated cross-legged on the floor. Ella thinks Ma is the one second from the left, in the dark pinafore. An old woman, perhaps Ma’s own grandmother, balding and dour, is seated in the heart of the family, her six adult sons standing behind; her five daughters-in-law on either side. None wear Chinese clothing, except one young woman, seated to the right of the picture. She cradles a baby. Ella peers closer to inspect the baby’s bonnet, to admire pretty, dark eyes. And that’s when she notices the strange outline around the pair. It reminds her of the cardboard push-out dolls her cousins gave her one Christmas. Ella traces her finger along the woman’s edges, feeling the faint crease of her presence. She’s been glued onto the family portrait. There, but not.


The bell above the restaurant’s door tinkles as she leaves work. Sent home early again. Business just never picked up again after Christmas, not even for Chinese New Year. The sky is still blue, but the wind that whistles between the tall, grey buildings has a bite to it. Ella draws her cardigan close about her thin frame as she walks to the bus stop. Sussex Street is mostly deserted, apart from a man sweeping the pavement and a waiter smoking outside the Hong Kong noodle place. A woman walks past at a brisk pace, a surgical mask covering her nose and mouth. Ella wonders if she should wear one too—especially now—but she’s worried it’s a bit much. Look foolish in some way. Even racist.

She understands why Mr Wang sent her home early. The virus has scared off most customers; there was just one couple to serve the whole day, and they only ordered two chicken stir-fries, the cheapest thing on the specials menu. But Ella’s also pissed off that Mr Wang has kept on Mei, the other waitress, for the rest of the shift. The smells of the kitchen might leave Ella slightly queasy, but she needs the work. She glares back over her shoulder at the restaurant, its sign—Double Happiness—painted in some faux Chinese bamboo script across its facade.

On the bus, Ella manages to find a seat next to the window and all the way home she mulls over the words she could use to complain to Mr Wang about Mei. How Mei springs into action when he enters the restaurant, clearing tables, replacing washed bowls and chopsticks, fawning over him with offers of tea and toothpicks. Yet as soon as he leaves or goes out back to his office, she returns to her boyfriend—who spends hours parked at a corner table, drinking free glasses of Coke and nibbling on prawn crackers—leaving Ella to pick up the slack. Anger spikes, hums between her ears. And what about when Mei doesn’t wash her hands at the beginning of their shift, like she’s supposed to? And that time she smoked a cigarette in the ladies’ toilet? Indignation rises in Ella’s chest, bringing frustrated tears to her eyes.

Rather than embroiling herself in a shit-fight with stupid Mei, perhaps Ella should just quit. Find a waitressing job somewhere else with more hours. God knows she needs the money. She draws in her stomach. One way or another, she needs the money. But she also thinks of those months the year before when she couldn’t find work—not in a restaurant, not in a shop, not even in a warehouse. How her mum had to pay for her phone plan, all her food, the extra ink to print out resumes. At twenty-two! Could she really risk throwing in a job now? A dull headache taps at the back of her skull. Something like the one she gets on her period. The bus travels along Belmore Road, passing the Vietnamese restaurant, the bank, Woolworths, the medical centre, reminding her of her follow-up appointment with Dr Chin, and Ella wonders if hormones account for her ragged temper, the ache ticking in her head.

She hops out of the bus onto Carr Street and trudges up the hill to her mum’s house. Letting herself inside, she drops her bag onto the hall table and turns into the bathroom where she lifts her cardigan and shirt to inspect her belly in the mirror. She can’t tell if there is the slightest bump or if she simply imagines it.

If Ella were really determined, perhaps she could find him—the Irish guy she spent one drunken night with in that Parramatta motel after her mate’s twenty-first. All she has to go by, though, is a first name (Kieran), that he grew up near some famous brewery and that he doesn’t like onion or tomato in his kebab.

Sighing loudly, Ella turns on the tap to wash her hands and the splash of water catches a lone ant, sweeping it down the plughole.


Ella lounges back in a deckchair and watches two miner birds bicker between the spiny leaves of the grevillea. A kid over the neighbour’s fence insists, ‘Well, vampires die if they go out in the sun, and I’m standing out in the sun!’ and another child concurs. She slaps at a mosquito that hovers by her shoulder. A motorbike roars past and, if she really listens for it, she can just hear the white noise of the ocean beyond the insistent burring of crickets.

‘Bring out the photo album, would you, Ella?’ her mum says as she goes through the box from Uncle Joe on the deck table. ‘The pink one, with the lilies on the front.’

It takes Ella a few minutes to find it in the bottom of the mahogany dresser, among all the other albums, the empty frames, the stacks of loose photos yet to be housed. She returns to the deck and hands it to her mother, who slides on her reading glasses.

Her fingers—long, blunt, just like Ella’s—pick their way through the album. She pauses at a photo, bleached in light, of two kids standing in the front yard of a house as white as a seagull’s breast. They’re squinting at the camera, and her mum murmurs, ‘That’s me and your Uncle Joe.’

Ella nods. She’s seen the photo before.

‘I had to wear that frock to church and it was as scratchy as all hell.’ Her mum smiles. ‘Had to wear bloody bloomers under there too. You know what bloomers are?’

‘Yep. Those big pants.’

‘Big pilchers, more like.’ Her mum shakes her head, flipping over to the next page.

She pauses at the photos taken from one Christmas holiday spent in Innisfail, the year Ella was ten. There’s a photo of her mum steadying Shaun, still little, on the back of a grey pony. In the photo she’s saying something, laughing, her dark hair cropped in a pixie cut, her arms sinewy and tan. That was how her mum used to look. How she looked before Shaun died. Afterwards, Ella’s sixteen-year-old self had been puzzled to see silver strands streak her mother’s black hair. But now, watching her mum turn the pages of the album, it occurs to Ella that perhaps she didn’t turn grey overnight with grief. Maybe she merely stopped bothering to colour her hair, the same way she had finished with mascara and lipstick.

‘That’s the longan bush,’ her mum says, pushing the album across the table. The photograph is square, the colours grainy. The tree’s branches are weighed down with bunches of longan. A slender Chinese man stands to the side, metal bucket at his feet.

‘It’s huge,’ Ella says, surprised.

‘So it should be. It’d be well and truly over a hundred years old by now.’

She picks up the longan that Ella peeled earlier, frowning.

‘You shouldn’t waste them.’

‘Can’t stomach it.’ Even now, just glancing at it makes her feel nauseous, reminding her of the tiny, fleshy thing growing in her belly. She slides Ma’s family photo across. ‘Look at this.’

She taps her finger against the woman glued onto the portrait. ‘Why’d they stick her on later?’

Her mum pushes her glasses further up her nose. She pops the longan in her mouth where it lodges in her cheek as she speaks.

‘I can’t remember her name. I think the story is she came from China to marry one of my great uncles, but by then the White Australia policy had kicked in and kept her on the run. My great uncle was born here so he could stay, but she was shipped back and forth to China while she waited for her visas. For years at a time, I think. She must’ve missed out on photo day.’

‘I wonder how many of these kids were hers. Did she have to cart them around too?’

Her mum leans in, peering close. ‘I’m pretty sure they stayed here when they were old enough. Imagine having to leave your kids behind.’ She spits the longan seed into the palm of her hand. ‘“Dragon’s eye”. That’s what the word longan means, you know. That’s what my po po told me anyway.’ She places the gleaming, brown seed on the table. ‘Reminds me of Shaun’s eyes. Remember how dark they were?’

Ella nods. Her own eyes are hazel, as though the Chinese blood has been steeped just a little too long over the generations. She wonders if the child growing inside her has her pale eyes or her brother’s dark ones. She stares down at the family portrait again, at the infant lying in its mother’s arms. The baby has the same beetle gaze as Shaun used to have. Ella considers the mother again, her slender shoulders, the stoic expression on her face. There are so many ways to lose a child.


She’s finally made a decision. She will tell Mr Wang about Mei. Stuff her. If there are any extra hours going at Double Happiness then Ella should have them.

Before work she heads to the post office and waits in line to send the package her mum has prepared for Uncle Joe. Ella found some more photos in an old biscuit tin and they had both pored over them, trying to find the glued-in lady again.

‘I’m sure that’s her,’ her mum had said, pointing to an older woman seated to the side of a family gathering. Her grey hair is gathered in a ponytail and a toddler sits by her feet. ‘I think she was my Great Auntie Bok. She had seven kids. Seven! You know that relative of mine in Townsville? Henry? The one with the three Alsatians? Auntie Bok was his grandmother.’

As she pulls the package from her tote, Ella thinks that perhaps it would be nice to add to such a large family. Maybe she could name the kid Shaun, after her brother. Or Shauna, if it’s a girl.

She waits impatiently for the young Chinese fellow in front of her to be finished. He’s placed four small bottles of hand sanitiser on the counter and Ella’s been listening long enough to know that he’s trying to send them home to his family in Wuhan.

The post office woman is worried. ‘I think this gel is flammable, isn’t it? I’ll have to check if you can send it.’

She goes out the back to ask someone. She rifles through a guidebook of some sort, murmuring back and forth with the young man. ‘Hard to say,’ she says, eventually. ‘We could risk it.’

‘What’s the risk? If I send them anyway?’ he asks.

The woman slides the bottles into a plastic envelope.

‘They might be discarded somewhere along the way if they’re deemed too dangerous to post.’

The woman has to repeat herself for the young man and Ella almost rolls her eyes. She feels bad for the guy, but if he faffs around much longer she’ll be late for work. And she wants to be a bit early so she can have that word with Mr Wang about Mei.


Ella sinks into one of the restaurant chairs. Laid off. Sacked. Dismissed. To be fair, Mr Wang had actually said, sadly, ‘We need to let you go.’ And when her eyes swivelled around to Mei, he added, ‘All of you. Yes, the cooks too. I have been losing too much money. Terrible time. Terrible, terrible time.’

She looks around the empty restaurant. It seems as forlorn as she feels, with its bare tabletops and the glasses stacked in crates on the bar. The cooks stay out the back and the bell over the front door tinkles as Mr Wang lets himself out, mumbling something about the bank.

‘Well, this is fucked.’

Mei sits down at the opposite side of the table. She’s helped herself to a Tsingtao and prises off the lid. She takes a swig, gazing out on the quiet street through the plate-glass window. A curtain of black hair hangs in her eyelashes as she blinks. Her nostrils flare, making the tiny ruby nose piercing glint. Ella knows she must take it out every time she visits her Cantonese parents.

She turns back to Ella. ‘You look gutted.’

‘Well, it’s a pain, isn’t it?’ More than a pain. Perhaps she should try Woolies this time. When she tried Aldi, she got no further than a group interview of eight.

‘Yeah, I’m a bit gutted too. This wasn’t such a shit place to work.’

Ella watches, irritated, as Mei fishes around in her bag for her cigarettes and lighter. She looks uneasily at the smoke alarm on the ceiling, saying, ‘You’re not going to have that in here, are you? Mr Wang wouldn’t like it.’

Mei laughs, the cigarette clamped between her lips as she lights it. Smoke puffs out of her nostrils.

‘Geez, I hope he doesn’t fire me.’

Ella’s phone pings with a text reminding her of her doctor’s appointment. She’s feeling queasy again but knows it’s nothing to do with the smoke or morning sickness.

Mei fetches another beer from the fridge and brings back two glasses. She has Mr Wang’s bottle of whisky tucked under her arm too, the whisky he keeps for special customers.

‘Don’t worry, Ella. My cousin owns a kebab shop in Miranda. He’ll give us work.’

Ella stares at her. ‘That’d be great. Do you think he really can?’

‘Sure. My dad will make him.’ She grins.

‘Thank you. That’d be great.’

Her eyes follow the smoke that billows around Mei’s head. Ella feels bad now about what she had been prepared to say to Mr Wang earlier. And wonders, drawing in her hard little abdomen again, if Mei’s cousin really will give her a job. If he does, she promises herself she will be friendlier with Mei. She tries to smile at her now.

Mei pours two beers, and then in each she adds a generous dollop of whisky. She pushes one across to Ella.

‘Least we deserve. What a shit fight.’

There are hours to kill before Ella sees Dr Chin and she doesn’t want to go home just yet. When her mum hears the bad news, perhaps she’ll put her arm around Ella’s shoulders and remind her that she won’t be alone, just as she did when they looked through photos of the cut-out lady. But Ella’s not so sure. She clenches her hands, her thighs, as though she can hold it all in, as though she has control over something. She reaches forward and draws her fingertip down the condensation that’s formed on the glass. Knows that, should she take a sip, she’ll relish the release the alcohol will provide, despite the sick roiling in her stomach.

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