Suns & Mothers (Extract)


The clairvoyant tells my mother that I am beautiful, but shocking: a description suitable only for natural disasters and poisonous flowers. I am neither of these things. I am not citrus flames that swallow gumtrees whole. Perhaps my mother thinks I am beautiful and shocking in all of the ways an asteroid is. A dangerous rock with shiny edges, that orbits around the sun with untamed force. But she forgets that from where I glide—afloat in the space the two of us share—she is the sun. Balmy nights, sandal tan lines, tawny forearms. The light of my universe.


I finger through a rack of pastel slip dresses. Through the speakers, a woman with honeysuckle vocals recites tales of drunk love to her shopping-mall audience. Today we are buying new clothes, because it is the first week of January, and my mother has had it up to here with my ivory slacks.

              ‘This one,’ my mother says, not asks.

              The mauve dress she holds is soft to touch, a size too big, and sporting a blemish my mother has not yet noticed.

              ‘It’s so you.’

              I am here because this shopping mall is where I am redeemable. Kookai is my confessional, and my mother waits patiently as I enter the booth before her, hang the garment on the hook, and circle my misdeeds in the mirror as a sales assistant named Aya in a boob tube asks me how I am going. I am pleading guilt and asking for forgiveness, Aya. But thank you for asking.

              Aya is beautiful. Dainty wrists, auburn waves, plump lips.

              Once penance is over and absolution is received, I hand the mauve dress to my mother, who hands the mauve dress to Aya. Aya has olive knuckles too, and when the two of us leave—garment in stow—my mother asks me if I think Aya is also a little bit Indian.


               I am not sure if the colour of Aya’s skin is something she inherited from her mother. Perhaps it is the product of the sun, but I am also not quite sure that the two are that different to one another. Both suns and mothers cast warmth. Have seasons. Impose inheritable health risks, like cancerous organisms and black dogs that lurk in swampy gene pools, and sure enough—if you get dangerously close—somebody is bound to get scorched.

              I reach into the bag and stroke the dress, paying attention to the stain that went unnoticed. The mauve dress is my disobedient niece now. I am her cool aunt. She hides stick-and-poke tattoos and hickeys from everybody else but me.

              ‘I love it,’ I smile.

              Because it is the first week of January, young adults laze about in bars and parks and poorly-lit pubs, handing over Christmas card cash to underpaid bartenders. I’d been at Grunge Star the night before. Grunge Star, where Harry hurled his Merlot into my face that time; the vinegary taste of hurt slowly trickling into my mouth as he upped and left.

              ‘I’m sorry, I think some wine ended up in that person’s aioli,’ I blubbered at the time to nobody in particular.

              Yesterday I noticed that the bartender who served Harry his berry-hued weapon that evening was still there, and I could tell this same person wanted to know if I was still there as well: rolling about in all of that badness. I had to order the most expensive cocktail on the menu to demonstrate my freedom, because spending $26.00 on rum, passion fruit syrup and absinthe is a widely renowned gesture of self rule.

              As I slotted myself into a booth, the bartender brought over my Duras: a cocktail aptly named after the novelist herself, who had a penchant for liquor, a curiosity for criminals, and an imagination she zealously declared as truth. Duras had bags under her eyes even as a child. Skin suitcases, that harboured secrets in little sockets above her cheeks. Perhaps her mother always knew she’d be a storyteller. What did my once-upon-a-time crooked front teeth reveal about my destiny, then, besides a cumbersome two year adolescent stint with braces? There is nothing poetic about cosmetic teeth straightening solutions, I don’t think. Everything I was born with I have altered or severed or straightened or covered somehow, whilst continuing to call it by its original name. These teeth are not my own.

              ‘If it’s just you tonight, perhaps it’s worth sitting up there. In case a group comes in.’

              The bartender smiled and signalled toward the bar, so I left the booth—Duras in stow—and climbed onto a stool that overlooked a family of beer taps. I wondered if the two others on stools adjacent had initially assumed a booth as well. Any old-time bartender should know that loneliness can serve as much monetary value in a wine-bar as a small troupe of responsible drinkers. How long does one have to be by themselves for their solitude to be transferred to a smaller, more compact space?

              Once I had finished my Duras the bartender offered me another. I settled for a pot of their cheapest Pale Ale instead. I had already demonstrated my freedom.

              I asked her if she knew who Marguerite Duras was exactly. She didn’t. Her job didn’t require her being familiar with French novelists, she said. She also said ‘just’ a lot. She was just a bartender, just trying to save for nothing and nobody and no place in particular. She had the four-letter declaration lodged into a sleeve in her wallet in case of emergencies. No business cards, just a few stray bobby-pins, a handful of justs, and an empty Myki.

              I lined up my justs, like tiny warriors, and rooted for them as they feuded with hers. I was just an illustrator, who sketched people’s trembling whippets and drooling bulldogs and bandana-wearing retrievers for a living. My being just a little bit Indian was the only just I chose to refrain from using in battle. A true combatant never deals the cards they themselves were dealt. A true combatant avoids blood at all costs, especially the blood passed down from their mothers.

              The bartender sniggered. ‘Have you ever been asked to draw a really ugly dog?’

              ‘I don’t really think there is such a thing.’

              I thought about the fireworks over New Years. All of the roaring humans sticky with hope and adrenaline as missiles sounded. All of the regrettable kisses and suburban parties and four-legged troops digging long, narrow trenches to escape the fury of it all. I thought about my last night with Harry, and how he toppled out of the passenger seat of my car. I drove away as he caught his breath under street lights. The woman counted down to the new year through the radio speakers.

              7, 6, 5, 4.

              It must have felt odd to be left behind like that. As told by the rearview mirror, the untethered sofa that collapses from the ute does not remain a sofa for long; instead becoming a speck of green that cars come to avoid. But Harry still looked like Harry, just further away. 

              3, 2, 1.

              The bartender affectionately started to describe her family dog, Winston. She told me that Winston was the colour of an average pinto bean. Her phone background revealed a joyous Winston wearing a blue glow-in-the-dark collar. It complimented his leguminous coat. ‘You are welcome to draw Winston if you like.’

              I reminded the bartender that I draw Poodles and Papillons and Pomeranians for money. I do not enjoy it.

              ‘Well if you ever come to love it,’ she started. ‘I have a huge backlog of pictures of Winston. I have ones from when he was a pup, and ones from now. He’s old now. I have all of the in between as well.’

              I told her that If I were ever to draw Winston, I’d want to draw him in the peak of his in betweenness.

              My phone background revealed a photograph of my mother and father in the midst of their own in betweenness. 1990. Big teeth, tight jeans. The bartender was not impolite. She did not ask about my mother’s pedigree, just as I did not ask about Winston’s.

              ‘She is beautiful, your mother.’

              By this stage, a man had entered Grunge Star by himself. He slotted himself into a booth and was not asked to move. He ordered a house red and played with his earring, and the empty expanse before him looked undue. I envied him because of it, with his private kiosk of loneliness. It was so obvious, so clear. I wanted my solitude to be seen and commiserated.

              I asked the bartender if she had heard of the loneliness epidemic and how it had ferociously swept through India, knowing well that she hadn’t. I went on to explain how loneliness had been recognised as a legitimate public health hazard in the south. For women, especially. She told me that she liked being by herself sometimes, as if she truly believed that this made her an anomaly. But there I was, sitting at her stool with a belly full of booze, paying her bills with my soliloquies.

              ‘Mother Theresa was a little bit Indian, I heard.’

              For a moment I thought the bartender was waiting for me to compare myself to the patron saint of missionaries.

              The winter before last, Harry and I sauntered together down High Street before noticing a man lying down on the pavement. He stared blankly toward the road; his cap grounded by a handful of loose change. I plucked out the forgotten coins that lived at the bottom of my tote-bag and handed them over.

              ‘Tessa, do you think you’re some fucking saint?’ Harry sniggered.

‘Are you still with the man who threw the wine?’


              ‘I was hoping that was the case. I’m sorry that that happened, by the way. I served the wine.’

              ‘I remember.’

              Grunge Star was a cosmopolitan warehouse full of firearms. An emporium, where Prosecco poison and 2015 Riesling rifles could be hurled at any moment. But not by lovers. Only ever by enemies. If the bartender had served Merlot to my mother, for example, she would have emptied it onto the crotch of my ivory slacks.

              The bartender mentioned that it was nearly closing time. ‘I know that it is none of my business, but nobody deserves to have wine poured all over them.’

              She smiled at me carefully. I knew this was something that she believed, and I pitied her because of it. I wanted to tell her that Merlot is easy enough to wash off skin, and that clothes forced to wear the remnants of somebody’s hate—be it berry-hued or otherwise—demand to be thrown out anyway.

I had a commission waiting for me at home: a photograph of a big, black Great Dane who had passed away recently. In the black and white portrait, his chin is resting on the armrest of his family’s sofa. I am not sure what happened, but there were posters taped to bins in the local dog park just last week saying that this same dog had escaped from his yard during a noisy and persistent bout of thunder and lightening.

              ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ The bartender asked, eager to change the subject. She reached for the remote to turn off the projector.

              ‘My mother is taking me shopping.’

              She looked pleased; as if her ploy to venture onto safer, less delicate grounds, worked.

              ‘My mother doesn’t like the way I dress. Every year she takes me to the fashion capital to buy me new clothes. Every year she says that she will burn my old clothes in no time, but she doesn’t.’

              ‘What doesn’t your mother like about the way you dress?’

              ‘I am not entirely sure.’

              Many of the patrons had left. Some together, some alone. The bartender took this as permission to pour herself a pint of Balter XPA.

              The bartender told me that she had not been to Chadstone in a long time. Not since her hooligan adolescence, where she spent afternoons after school outside the cinema, Boost Juice in hand, attempting to sneak into the tail-end of MA+ rated movie sessions. But people love Chadstone, she had said. It’s where skin-cream and anti-depressants and leather boots and laptop chargers and hair dye and cane armchairs all live under the same roof, a little like our family homes. Soft drink in the fridge and lined journals stacked in boxes under beds. Empty frames, even still.

              There are some corners of Chadstone I, myself, am partial to. Like Robinsons, and Riot Art and Craft, and Dumpling Station. I told the bartender that I would not be getting dumplings at Dumpling Station tomorrow, though.

              Last year, to the muffled sounds of a bullish afternoon radio program, I waited for my mother in the parking lot. Wanting to impress her, I dug a lipstick out of my glove compartment—‘Earth Scarlet’—and applied it with keen precision. I left my car with confidence, ready to fill my stomach with a handful of Chadstone’s finest boiled vegetable nibbles before my annual exoneration.

              ‘Six steamed vegetable dumplings, please.’

              The woman behind the register tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear before turning her head, gesturing for her co-workers to look at me. They did, hiding laughter underneath their cupped hands. According to the restroom mirrors, a bit of Earth Scarlet had escaped my lips, stained my chin, and turned me into the clown I knew I was. Tessa the buffoon: all set for her once-a-year shift. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! This adult woman jovially hops in and out of costumes at the expense of herself!

              ‘That woman sounds mean,’ the bartender sympathised.

              ‘My mother is not mean. It is more complicated than that.’

              ‘Not your mother, the woman behind the counter.’

The bartender had started to cash up by this stage. Everybody had left. Sliding off of the stool, I loosely swung my tote-bag over my shoulder. I said goodbye to the bartender, who insisted it was fine I stay till close.

              There is a grey-led outline of a deceased Great Dane on a table in my bedroom that must be finished, I told her. This is the responsibility I bear. I package people’s grief, turn it into something able to be slotted into a frame, and hand it back to them in exchange for a measly fee.

              Perhaps I will spend the rest of my life doing this. In my 30s, I will learn to sew canine portraits onto pillowcases and in my 40s, I will model Neighbours-Be-Gone hedges into leafy Newfoundlands. In my 50s, I will become a canine enthusiast in revolt; spray-painting dog tags and paw prints onto sidewalks and shopfronts.

              But it is the New Year, and I am still drawing dead dogs and pleading for clemency at my mothers feet in  overcrowded shopping malls.

              Moments after leaving Grunge Star, somebody hollered from behind me. I turned to find the bartender, who in between gentle puffs and pants, told me her name. Silvia Walker.

It is time for my mother and I to part ways, as it is late. The shopping mall yawns loudly as sales assistants peel their smiles from their faces. I am holding four shopping bags, and my mother is happy. The weight of brand new fabric is a small heaviness. Tiny, really. There is a man at the exit with a name-tag and a black tie who doesn’t—but does—look like Harry. Silvia Walker, I repeat in my head as I pass him. Silvia Walker, Silvia Walker. Silvia Walker who served the wine. A magpie is lunging at the windscreen of my car in the parking lot, trying to shatter its very own reflection. As my engine sounds, it leaves.