My parents ran a Chinese takeaway shop called Happy Valley that was joined to our house like an appendage. My sister and I weren’t allowed in the shop during business hours because customers would “snatch us away”. Mum always delivered this warning with a note of exasperation in her voice, as if the thought of our abduction was as tedious and annoying as replacing lightbulbs in the bathroom. In her defence, she and Dad were committed to a strict routine that wouldn’t tolerate deviation. During the day, Dad cooled cooked rice in plastic tubs and fed fist-sized potatoes into an electric slicer that turned them into chips. Mum, wielding a large cleaver, chopped mountains of vegetables with impressive speed but poor dexterity. Once she almost julienned her finger and we had to go to the emergency room where I held a box of tissues she’d tug at whenever blood seeped through the mess of bandages around her hand.
In the evenings, Dad was the first line of defence against customers wanting a cheap and greasy dinner while Mum fed and washed us and made sure we did our homework. When it got busy, Dad hit a brass bell that sent a sharp, urgent “ding” through the house and Mum dropped everything to help. The types of customers they served varied. Some were middle-aged men who just wanted to fill their lonely hours chatting with Dad. Others were young, bewildered parents with excited children screaming for jam wraps and donuts dunked in cinnamon sugar. Then there were the skinheads. Back in those days, the street we lived on thrived with gaunt shiny-headed men high on white supremacy. They often came in pairs just before the shop closed to harass and intimidate my parents.
I never witnessed these interactions myself, only heard about them when Mum shared war stories with friends. “I told him to get the hell out of my shop and he flipped me off so I flipped him off and I followed him onto the street and we were flipping each other off as he walked away.” She always relayed these incidents as if they were whimsical anecdotes designed to make the listener laugh. But every time she finished, the corner of her mouth would quiver as if she was trying to suppress a different and less pleasant emotion.
We never confirmed but always suspected it was a skinhead who stole our car. The morning we discovered the crime was bitterly cold. We left the house in thick fleece jackets and watched our breath plume like smoke. My sister held a pencil to her lips and exhaled with the grandiloquence of an old Hollywood actress. I tried to do the same by rolling a piece of torn paper but it flopped pathetically when I pinched it between my fingers. My sister laughed so I tried to snatch the pencil off her. She held it behind her back and dodged every swing and grab. Before a fight could break out, we heard Mum scream “Fuck!” and kick something. We thought she was yelling at us but she was standing at an empty space where our car was normally parked. All that was left were bits of broken glass like blood splatter at a crime scene. “Come on,” Mum said and we followed her back into the house. In the hallway, Mum pummelled Dad’s bedroom door with a balled fist. We could hear him stumble out of bed, knock his leg against the nightstand, swear under his breath.
“What?” he asked as he emerged from the bedroom, dishevelled and half-dressed.
“The car is gone. Someone took the car.”
Dad pulled on a robe and rushed out of the house. We drifted to the lounge where my sister turned on the TV without asking. Mum, too distracted to care, stood by the window and lightly tapped her foot against the loose skirting board. On the television was a rerun of last night’s Shortland Street. We were normally at school by now, so it was a transgressive thrill to watch something outside our allotted screen time while our classmates were chained to their desks listening to a teacher drone. When Dad returned, he picked up the phone. Mum asked what he was doing. Without turning he said, “Calling the police. What do you think?” Mum switched off the TV and told us to put on our coats.
“How’re we gonna get to school?” my sister asked.
We couldn’t afford to pay for insurance. That’s what Mum said over and over when she called friends and family to tell them of the theft and ask if she could borrow their car. Nobody could spare one though and our days were relegated to walking or taking the bus. Walking to school was a 30-minute trek and much of the route was along a main road choked with cars and large trucks bleeding exhaust fumes. We took the bus to buy groceries, an even more arduous journey because Mum had to buy boxes of canned soft drinks for the takeaway shop and carry them with both hands, while my sister and I trudged behind with bags of normal groceries hanging off our arms. We did this at night when it was less busy but that was also when meaner people used the bus. Young men, old men, men clad in tattered jackets sneered at us as we got on and off the bus with our supplies. My sister and I followed Mum’s example and kept our heads down.
About a week after the theft, Mum got dark. She was always prone to the odd cloudy spell that left her silent and distant but they usually lasted about a day. This time, she was in a perpetual black mood. The only time she talked was when she served customers or greeted, brusquely, checkout operators or teachers at the gate when we arrived at school. She didn’t even argue with Dad, something she used to do at least twice a week. The arguments would vary in intensity; sometimes they were conducted in hushed voices or completely in Cantonese, other times they screamed at each other like feral cats. Once, they were so loud a customer left the shop without his order. Dad grabbed Mum’s arm and tried to drag her into the bedroom. I remember watching her later touch the purple marks he’d imprinted on her skin and make a noise that sounded like a hiss.
When things in the house got intolerable, she put me and my sister in the car and drove. There was no destination in mind. Sometimes she drove around the block or to the supermarket. Other times, she drove out of the city until we were surrounded by acres and acres of flat green paddock and the wide empty roads sprayed pebbles beneath us. She drove until the anger or the sadness or the whatever that fogged her brain would clear, and then she’d turn back and return to the house.
On the morning of Mum’s disappearance, I woke to a thin sheet of ice that had formed on the inside part of the window. Downstairs it was quiet, even for a Saturday. Normally, Mum would be getting ready or doing last night’s dishes. Not this time. The couch she slept on was empty. The duvet and the sheet were folded and put in the cupboard. I went back upstairs and woke my sister. She said, “Maybe she just went out to get something.” That wasn’t unreasonable. Sometimes, Mum would leave the house early to pick up supplies from the dairy. Maybe her dark mood had lifted and she was going to buy us something to make up for the last few miserable weeks. Maybe she was going to make us pancakes for breakfast. We wrapped ourselves in old quilts and sat in front of the TV and watched cartoons, having convinced ourselves that there was nothing to worry about. It was only when Dad emerged from his bedroom—fully dressed, hair combed back—that my sister burst into tears and ran into his arms. Dad didn’t appear too concerned or maybe he was pretending not to be concerned so we wouldn’t be concerned. He made a few phone calls to friends and family asking if they’d been in touch with Mum, then he told us to go upstairs and play while he started prepping food for the evening. I told Dad that there was ice on the windows and so he drenched a cloth in hot water and wiped the panes. The streaks he made across the glass left it looking worse than before.
None of us believed Mum wouldn’t return and so we all waited expectantly until the evening when Dad had to open the takeaway shop. We remained unbathed and unfed. My sister found some hard lollies under the couch—barley sugars, lemon drops, butter candies—that we rolled in our mouths like they were clothes in a tumble dryer. We let the TV run beyond 8.30pm when the “adults only” screen popped up and a man’s voice warned that “the following is suitable for adults only.” It was an action movie, packed with blood, peppered with sex and, though edited for TV, scandalised our inexperienced eyes.
Dad brought us a bowl of fried rice hours after our usual dinnertime. “Eat,” he instructed and left the bowl on the edge of the coffee table as if we were zoo animals he didn’t want to get too close to. When he glanced at the TV he said, “You shouldn’t be watching that,” but before we could respond he was back in the takeaway shop serving customers. I don’t remember the rest of the night too well. We must have fallen asleep and been carried to our rooms because the next morning we woke in our beds. I rushed downstairs, nearly tripping on my tattered pyjama trousers, hoping that in the hours we were asleep, the world had returned to normal. But there was nobody in the lounge to greet me.
On Monday, my sister wrapped herself in a duvet and stumbled towards Dad like an old beggar woman from a medieval city and said she was sick. I could tell he wasn’t sure how to check the veracity of her claim. He felt her forehead and listened to her cough but his inexperience meant the only conclusion he could arrive at was to believe her. “Are you OK to walk to school yourself?” he asked me and though I wasn’t, I knew by the hurried and hopeful way he asked, there was no answer I was allowed to give but “yes”. We had done the walk so many times that I knew the path by heart but the thought of doing it alone made my chest tighten. The various scenarios of what could go wrong—slipping and breaking my neck, getting kidnapped or hit by a car—ran through my mind like slides on a projector gone haywire.
It was another cold morning, although the overcast sky meant no frost on the ground. I gripped the straps of my backpack and started walking down the main road. There wasn’t much here besides old weatherboard houses and a park lined with tall oaks.
The park had a playground and a public toilet covered in graffiti, and it was there that I thought I saw Mum standing at the entrance to the women’s toilets. I stopped and turned just as she disappeared inside. Etiquette kept me from following her, so I waited on the wet grass for her to come out. That was when two skinheads sharing a cigarette emerged from the darkness of the men’s toilets. Even though it was cold, they wore ripped T-shirts. Their long pale arms, matted with bruises, looked like the tentacles of a squid. At first glance, they were indistinguishable. Both had the same lanky build, the same oval-shaped head shiny with sweat. But the longer I stared, the more their differences became apparent. One had deeper lines on his face. The other had a heavier midsection. The eyebrows of one were thicker and darker than the eyebrows of the other.
“Hey kid,” one of them said. “What’re you doing here?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Looks like he was looking for something, doesn’t he?” the skinhead said to the other, then he flicked his cigarette towards me. I stepped back but couldn’t avoid the ember flecks scattering across my shoe. The skinhead, the one who pitched the cigarette, leaned forward and narrowed his eyes.
“I know you though,” he said. “Your folks run the Chinese takeaway around the corner, don’t they?” The other one tapped his head as if it were a device he was trying to get up and running. “What’s it called? It has a stupid name.”
“Happy Valley. That’s right. What a stupid name for a shop. What does that even mean? Am I supposed to get happy or something when I walk in? They don’t even mop the fucking floor.”
Roars of laughter erupted from their tattooed throats.
“What’s your favourite order, little man? Flied lice?”
More laughter. I turned to run but I slipped on something protruding from the ground and fell on my knees. One of them grabbed the collar of my shirt and yanked me back up.
“Clumsy little fella, aren’t ya?”
Close to me now, the skinhead’s breath was dank. I pulled away and wondered if they’d chase me if I sprinted off.
“Shouldn’t you be in school now, mate?” the skinhead who didn’t grab me said. I nodded. He then raised his eyebrows. “Then get the fuck out of here.”
I ran into the women’s toilets screaming for Mum, but the only reply I got was the echo of my own voice. There was nobody in here, just some scrunched balls of paper and something caught in the window, fluttering in the wind. When I stepped outside, the skinheads were halfway across the park, shoving each other playfully.
Their laughter still rang in my ears. The way one had said “flied lice”, the casual mockery rolled within me like thick fog. I bent over and picked up a large clod of dirt and thought how satisfying it would be to chase after them and hurl it at the back of their stupid heads. The only problem was doing something like that would get me killed. Just forget about it, Mum would tell me if she was here. Keep your head down and keep going. Her voice, no-nonsense and bereft of sympathy, managed to cool my blood. I squeezed with everything I had until the clod of dirt turned to dust in my hand.