The following is an excerpt. The full story appears in Going Down Swinging #38. Grab a copy here.
Halfway through my açai bowl I looked up and saw them. A dozen or so elongated red dots hovering as if suspended in time, enjoying their two weeks of glorious life after years as invisible, forgotten larvae. A swarm of red dragonflies above a Mosman café’s water feature. As women in linen pants let out restrained oohs and ahhs in the direction of the red dots, I started to think that maybe this little square of privileged harbourside life was quietly drowning in its larvae stage, never destined to fly. That maybe I’d drown with them, hanging by a thread to a world that I never really landed in.
I don’t think my mum ever had a larvae stage. In fact, she flew for so long in glorious winged form that she broke, leaving big, shiny pieces of herself all over the city: in bars, jails, rehab facilities and in one stolen oboe, an obscure instrument she always talked about like a mythical creature. In a way it was, because the stolen oboe led me to the school band that led me to Dean and, in turn, this strange harbourside world involving obligatory monthly brunches with his parents at their favourite café. Where, cocooned in clean architectural lines and surrounded by white people with moisturised elbows and Fitbits, we discussed topics such as “What really is al dente?” and “Should you really use your collectable pens?”, their sentences cooled by long vowels squeezed from marrow-deep wealth.
Mum was always on the lookout for ways to escape the “cesspit of a fucking life” she’d created for us. She dreamt that one day we’d wake up and be able to leave our unregistered Ford Festiva with no air-conditioning on the side of the road, no longer needing to shift from shitty Western Sydney apartment to shitty Western Sydney apartment and from ‘guy who definitely loved her’ to ‘guy who absolutely loved her’ and so on and so forth. And she bloody well found our way out one Saturday afternoon surfing the net at Parramatta City Library.
I was due to start high school, and Mum was dreaming big by googling hardship scholarships at private schools when she came across the Mary Bright Oboe Scholarship: full tuition and board. “What the fuck is an oboe?” she’d said, before further googling and then declaring: “This is it. You’re smart enough to learn this fucking weird thing.” It was salvation via reed instrument and we both relished it. Not only because of the way my stolen oboe (I have no actual proof it was stolen, but we did pick it up after hours from a pawn shop following hushed phone calls) made my lips vibrate and made a sound that slipped between voices, but also because when I was practising, I had my mum’s full attention for the first time in my life. I was her way out, or so she thought.
Cocooned in clean architectural lines and surrounded by white people with moisturised elbows and Fitbits, we discussed topics such as “What really is al dente?” and “Should you really use your collectable pens?”
She hadn’t anticipated that, just like Rose and Jack on the Titanic, only one person could fit on this life raft. But she figured it out pretty quick, because on my first day of school, when I walked through the gates and joined a sea of preppy, shiny girls in bowler hats with ribbons, she didn’t wait and wave like the other parents, she just walked away. I wasn’t sure why exactly, but I always assumed she didn’t want to blow my cover as someone who didn’t really belong there (although there was proof enough of that in my terrible teeth and cheap plastic shoes). Or maybe she was confident that she’d taught me well, and knew I’d leverage my private school education to get a university one and then use that to marry someone on the ‘right side of the tracks’.
Which is exactly what I did.
As the years went on, Mum remained a blur. In and out of my life in short, fiery pieces like a meteorite trail: phone calls about pokie wins, glorious binges, engagements, money transfers and prison visits that she always did her hair for. She was always able to see through the tiniest pinhole of hope and optimism. Like the time she organised our wedding invitations after Dean’s mum insisted, despite paying for the entire Mosman party, that we stick to tradition and send invites from the bride’s parents. It was redemption via gold leaf and mum relished it. Sweat. Tears. A maxed-out credit card. 3 a.m. joints. 5 a.m. black outs. And 200 glorious invitations, her name (and my dad’s, who I hadn’t thought about for so long I forgot he existed) shimmering in gold.
Want to hold this story in your hands? Buy a copy of Going Down Swinging #38 here.