Kate Cantrell (Queensland University of Technology, Australia)
On my last day in Chiang Mai, my mother calls to say that my grandma, the one with a lump of cancer in her breast, has passed away. Except she doesn’t use the euphemism, which is strange since my mother is Catholic.
When I was a girl, the boy next door had a heart attack in the park and my mother, when quizzed on his where abouts by the paramedics, said he had gone to be with God. Later she told my father he had ‘graduated’. ‘From where?’ my father asked.
‘Gran died,’ she says now.
I sit down.
The station itself is close to the ground. A single track, buried under tuffs of grass and tatty flowers, runs parallel to the platform. Tucked to the side, between the bonsais, is a block of toilets and a shop that serves rice and fish balls. The King, who rode the rails as a boy, is raised on a flag pole; his cheeks just as pink, his sword still drawn for dragons. In the garden below, someone has made an offering: a bowl of baby mandarins and some turtle shells, flipped and filled with oil. In the distance, the sun has fallen behind the mountains and the sky is the colour of grape juice.
‘When?’ I ask.
‘It’s dark,’ I say. ‘Why didn’t you call?’
‘I tried,’ my mother says.
As she moves the phone from her mouth, I can see her standing in the kitchen. She has her back pressed against the fridge; one hand on the flat of her chest, some fruit magnets in her hair. On the stove, there is a pot with eggs. The water is boiling over.
‘Kate,’ she says, finally, as if she is naming me.
But this time, she has changed the weight of the word.
One by one, she takes back the letters; sending out a notice for my name, recalling the first thing she gave me. She stresses the syllables and knots the lines and twists the new sounds around her tongue.
I undo my backpack, which is heavy now, and rest it on the steady ground. It seems lighter there. As my mother sends questions over the sea, an announcement comes over the speaker. I recognise some words I have learnt of the language: sa-bai-dee, cop-koon-ka. When the words fall away, the woman in the window stands and spits her gum. From somewhere above, she pulls down a roller door and pops up a sign behind the glass. The sign is printed in strange symbols I have never seen before; crop circles, forks.
‘She left you some books,’ my mother says. ‘And an envelope. I haven’t opened it.’
‘What about Dad?’
‘Coins,’ she says. ‘There’s little piles all over the floor. He won’t stop counting them.’
My grandma hated change.
On Lotto days, she always played the same numbers: 1, 7, 11, 17 and 37.
‘These are lonely numbers,’ she would say, crossing the boxes.
She nearly won once too.
‘When’s the funeral?’ I ask.
‘Friday. At St Catherine’s.’
St Catherine’s is the Church where my grandparents were married; her in a dress more yellow than white, him in a suit too big. In the year that followed, they built a house and bought a farm and planted a banana tree. My grandma heard a beat in her belly and my grandfather went to war. She kept his ashes in a vase.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I’m here.’
‘There’s a flight tomorrow night.’
My mother is quiet.
I hold the line.
While I wait, a man with no shoes crosses the train-track. He is carrying an open suitcase. Inside, there are gold chains in velvet pouches, leather watches and packs of cards. In a small compartment to the side, there is a lighter with a naked woman on the front. Her thighs, white and plump, are curved against the stars and stripes of an American flag.
‘Special price,’ the man says, pointing at some pearls.
I shake my head.
He swaps the necklace for the lighter.
‘For your father,’ he says.
‘No thank you.’
‘Where are you from?’ he says now. ‘You are very sexy.’
I smile again and turn away.
The man stays.
He undoes his top button.
Every now and then, he flicks the lighter and says, ‘I’ll give you my banana.’
While he waits, I press the phone closer, listening for my mother. From where she is, I can hear a tap running in the background. Eventually, there is a clicking sound followed by muffled conversation and then my father is on the line.
‘Don’t change your ticket,’ he says.
The man leans closer.
‘I want to come home,’ I say.
My father, unsure what to say next, doesn’t say anything at all, so I add, ‘There’s a man here trying to sell me his banana.’
My father laughs.
He is the still the same.
‘I’m worried about your mother,’ he says, lowering his voice. ‘The ducks are back again.’
Whenever my mother is unwell, she does obscure tasks around the house. She vacuums the pot plants, and dresses the furniture, and lets the fish swim in the bathtub. She unplugs the telephone, and colours the tablecloth, and chops up bits of bread. She bags the crusts, ties them off, and stores them in the freezer. ‘We need to get some ducks,’ she says, ‘ducks love bread.’
‘Who was with her?’ I ask now. ‘When it happened?’
My father makes a clicking sound, like he is annoyed by the question.
‘Well, the nurse was there,’ he says. ‘You know, the one with hair on her chin. But all the roads were blocked because of the floods. The hospital was closed for a week.’
The man with the suitcase scratches a spot on his head, then walks away.
‘I couldn’t get there,’ my father says.
I close my eyes and imagine my grandmother, flat on her back, waiting for my father to come to her. The cricket plays on a tiny screen above her bed. The sound is off. Her cross-word is half finished.
‘What’s another word for consolation?’ I asked her once.
‘Whiskey,’ she said.
‘She waited as long as she could,’ my father says. ‘You know your grandmother.’
‘Did she say anything?’
‘Yes. Well, not really. She asked for a radio.’
‘She said she would like something to listen to. That was the last thing she said.’
Once, when my grandmother was still well and our words were not yet weighted, we met for lunch in the city. We ordered sandwiches from a busy deli and walked to the gardens to eat. On the way, we found a dead bird. Its neck was chewed in the middle and one of its wings was missing. We saw the bird at the same time, but neither of us said anything.
My father clears his throat.
‘Where are you?’ he says.
Through a break in the buses, I can see the rice fields, which have been flattened and flooded for harvest. Near the sludge, in a square of patted grass, there is a father and son. The man uses a buffalo to plough the soil. The boy follows behind. Sometimes they stop to wash their hands or drink from a water bottle. When the rain falls and the weeds have sprouted, they will plant the grains by hand.
‘I need to write the eulogy,’ my father says.
I understand what he means.
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘Okay,’ my father says, then he hangs up.
As the train finally returns from wherever it disappeared to, I notice it has changed: it is stained on the side and one of the doors is missing. The ropes that hold the carriages together have started to fray at the ends. A chubby woman, already on board, squeezes out the window. She has a baby in one arm and a pineapple in the other. She nurses both to her breasts.
As I near the platform, a man in a conductor’s hat, asks to see my ticket.
‘Sawadee-kup,’ he says.
When he nods permission, I lift my bag onto the train and take a seat by the window. From there, I see the man step back from the platform. The station is empty now. The ticket collector raises a whistle to his mouth and blows three times.
‘Krung Thep,’ he says. ‘Final call.’
I take off my shoes, one at a time, and slide them under my seat.
The woman with the pineapple has fallen asleep.
A little while later, we are gone.
Kate Cantrell is a Brisbane-based writer who is currently completing her first novel. Her work has been published by Voiceworks, Express Media, The Lifted Brow, Escape, Perilous Adventures, Stilts, REX, WQ and the Sunday Mail. Her doctorate, Thoughts while Travelling, looks at trends of ‘wandering’ and ‘wondering’ in women’s travel stories. She recently worked in the Rong Muu slums of Bangkok and interned at the United Nations in New York. When she was a girl, she covered her bedroom walls with maps of the world.