Year of the Ghosts

Published Wet Ink 2006

It is February 2nd, Chinese New Year. We go to our friend Rong’s for the occasion. We have dragged out our Lonely Planet guide to China, to find out how the New Year is celebrated, but it tells us only that it will be very hard to find accommodation. We stop at the bottleshop, buy beer and champagne.
At Rong and John’s we join a crowd in the little lounge room: Olga, who lives nearby; Trevor, John’s friend; Vera, who lives behind them; and Bill, Vera’s boyfriend.
Rong is Chinese. When we arrive she is sitting at the kitchen table making coconut muffins from her new cookbook. She stirs the muffin mixture with chopsticks, then uses them to fill the muffin tins, redistributing artfully between the pans so that they are perfectly even.
Olga sits beside her at the table, watching with disapproval. She is large and wears bright round beads. They lie cowed against her floral blouse; she insists I sit with her.
‘I make vushka.’ she says. ‘The grandchildren, they love them, I make a hundred, they eat them all.’ Olga is Ukrainian. Her son is a doctor, he is Doctor R_ of Mt Eliza, she tells me when we are introduced. I feel awkward; it seems I should know him. I think of the story a friend told me about her outrageous friend, who, upon meeting her gynaecologist at a party, yanked her dress up to her waist and shrieked, ‘Remember me?’ I don’t think Olga would appreciate the anecdote. I pretend to recall her son, Doctor R_.
John gets Adam a beer, then another for Bill. I wait a bit, then ask for one. John is embarrassed – it was not a deliberate oversight. He worries about not having glasses, but I assure him I’m fine with just a stubby. Trevor is impressed.
Trevor is eighty; he is the other Australian in the room. He beelines for me, has kissed me without introducing himself. He tells me how much he’s wanted to meet Adam’s wife, that he’s been told all about me. This makes me feel at a disadvantage, as I have no idea who Trevor is. During the course of our conversation, I discover that he actually knows nothing about me whatsoever. I wonder if this is worse.
Bill and Vera sit on the couch. Vera is German. Olga, who spent the war in prison camps in Germany, begins to talk about her trip back to Europe to try to find her family. She was unable to. Her one surviving relative, her sister, died from radiation poisoning after Chernobyl.
Vera has been back to Germany recently. She says that it has all been rebuilt. ‘You wouldn’t know there has been a war. They have kept one ruined church in Berlin, one in Dresden. It is all new.’
‘There is nobody left,’ Olga proclaims.
John and Adam are both New Zealanders. Adam is in Australia to be with his wife, John to escape from his. Bill tells them they are too small and pale to be New Zealanders. He begins to talk about the All Blacks. Bill is Irish. He used to play rugby, and still looks trim and fit. When he was young, he says, there was a boy on his team who lived in his street but would never pass him the ball because he was the wrong religion.
I tell Vera I am from Melbourne. She beams. ‘I love Melbourne,’ she says, ‘I wouldn’t live anywhere else.’ Bill announces that Perth is better. He lives in South Australia. Vera has just driven from Melbourne to Alice Springs with her grandsons. It took them three days. ‘Never again,’ she says. The boys were bored, did not appreciate anything. It was too hot to have a window open. And all they ever want to eat, says Bill, is Coco Pops.
‘My grandsons,’ says Olga, ‘love my vushka. Every time they come, “Grandma, make vushka. And borscht.”’
‘No,’ sighs Vera. ‘Just Coco Pops.’
‘At least it’s not McDonalds,’ offers Adam.
‘Oh, and McDonalds too,’ laughs Vera.
‘Yes,’ concedes Olga.
I turn to Rong. ‘How would you celebrate New Year in China?’
‘The women not cook for a week. Long holiday. Before, they spend, one, two weeks working, working, cooking so that then they can have holiday. They make huge parcel of dumplings and put it outside, in the snow. Go and collect little bit each day.’
‘What sign are you?’ I ask.
‘I am ghost – sheep. This Year of the Ghosts.’ She brings out the sheet of Chinese New Year stamps that Australia Post has issued. They are beautiful – elegant little creatures swirl across the stamps, the Goat foregrounded and leaping with embossed grace. I look for the monkey.
‘I’m a monkey,’ I tell Rong.
‘Ah,’ she says, ‘Monkey very clever, very quick. Intelligent. But dishonest, you cannot trust a monkey.’ She laughs and puts the stamps away.
John passes and dutifully checks my drink. I ask for another beer. Olga is horrified. ‘You will be drunk!’ She tells me that she never drinks. ‘My husband, he drink wine. Four litres a day. Every day. We think he is just drunk, but he has a brain swelling. He drink because of his head. We not know, we think he is drunk. It is a tumour. Within six months he is gone.’
‘Oh,’ says Rong. She was a paediatrician in China, but in Australia she works in a paper factory.
Bill has had a couple of beers and has started to talk. He talks about his visit to Ireland and the suspicion – the photos shown to him in the pub, of men suspected of hiding in Australia. ‘Supergrasses. He gives me a great pile of photos to look through and says he’ll be back in half an hour. I didn’t know any of them.’ He is quite red in the face now. His bare arms are covered in intriguing collections of freckles, extended splotches like spattered volcanic mud. He starts to talk again about the boy on his rugby team, about how he grew up to become one of the ‘Butchers’.
‘They’d choose a man off the street, just the look of him. Then they’d tie him to a table in an empty shop, and in the pub next door they’d have raffles about what to do to him. Horrible stuff. And these are white people – civilised! You could understand it in places like Africa, with the blacks.’ He shakes his red red face. ‘They got him though, did a deal. The others went on trial, but he was handed over. They just drove the van out of the way and gunned him down. Good thing too. You just can’t believe that white people could behave like that. There’s a book been written about it.’
The men begin to group around Bill with his lilting tales. Rong and I go out into her garden. We pick onions, chives, chillis, zucchini and tomatoes. Strawberries and rhubarb, tamarillos and lemons swell in the heat. Her orchids are lush against the tumble-down back fence.
Inside, Vera has obviously heard Bill’s stories before. She says her goodbyes, telling Bill to stay, finish his beer. Olga, at the kitchen table, is also restless. She watches us clean up the vegetables. ‘I cannot eat tomatoes,’ she says, ‘or oranges or anything vegetable with seeds. I was only sixteen when they took me away. We starve for so many years, nothing to eat. My stomach – is ruined. Now, cannot eat these things. Terrible.’
A bowl of stew is put in front of me. Meat with potatoes and carrot and pumpkin: it reminds me of my mother’s stew. My mother hated being Mrs Murphy and serving stew. The song about Mrs Murphy’s Irish Stew made her teeth clench. I struggle with my helping – it is only four o’clock on a hot day and I have already eaten one of Rong’s muffins.
John clears away the dishes. It is dumpling time. Rong begins to make dough, stirring the flour and water meticulously with her chopsticks. Laughing, she hands me a chopping board and the large pile of vegetables. As I chop the vegetables Rong mixes them with chopsticks into minced chicken. Olga watches, remembering other things that she cannot eat. Bill finishes his beer and departs full of cheer at an afternoon’s talk, his landscape of freckles disappearing out the front door into the sun.
We decide to open the litre bottle of champagne that I brought with me. Olga is surprised. ‘Whose birthday is it?’ she asks.
‘It’s Chinese New Year,’ I tell her.
Olga is mortified. ‘I should have known that,’ she exclaims, ‘the casino, they give us brochures about it. I forgot.’
‘Olga go to casino every week,’ Rong tells me.
‘I get the bus. I have membership. Ukrainian ladies, they very good to us. We play on the machines, win some money, have lunch. And I sing, the casino always ask me to sing for them.’
‘Ukrainian songs?’ asks Rong.
‘Yes, the old songs. I have a good voice,’ she tells me. I toast Rong and Olga decides that she will have a half glass too. She winces and shudders. ‘Too sour,’ she says. ‘I cannot eat sour.’
Trevor is thrilled with his glass of champagne, comes to see the action in the kitchen. He talks about his daughter, who is living in America and has just had a baby. Her American husband is in the airforce. In the photos Trevor produces the baby kicks long bare legs, while his father is invisible under layers of flying suits and gas masks.
Rong has finished mixing the dough. She rolls it into strips and chops it into small segments, which she then rolls into perfectly neat circles with her rolling pin. It is a long process, although she is very quick.
‘I use a glass,’ says Olga. She is still upset about forgetting that it is Chinese New Year. She shakes her head over the neglected casino brochures.
When Rong has made a handful of circles, she gives them to me for filling. I have already forgotten how to do it, and she demonstrates for me again, making deft little crescents with her long fingers. My dumplings come out fat and dowdy, like thick white sausages.
I pour more champagne. John opens a bottle of red for himself and Adam, carefully offering it to me too. Trevor, who is driving, opts for light beer. Rong has hardly touched her drink. I realise that the litre of champagne is mine.
Rong puts more and more dough circles in front of me, giggling. I put my turdlike dumplings onto a sheet of waxed paper on the table. Olga, watching, says they are just like vushka, but the shape is different. Her vushka she makes into blossoms, little flowers.
‘Ah yes,’ says Rong, ‘that is different. Like this.’ She creates the most beautiful little dough parcel, collected like petals at the top. I am in awe.
Olga is pleased with Rong’s flower. She decides to have another half a glass of champagne, wincing and shuddering. ‘I cannot have sour,’ she says. ‘Vinegar, nothing like that. For years, we have nothing but turnips, sometimes bit of bread. Nothing to be done. The Jews, they get compensation, but not us.’ She shrugs heavily beneath her bright floral blouse, sips again at her glass. ‘I was only sixteen, they take me away from my family. My sister, she cling to me, she scream and scream, but they tear her off, take me away.’ She shrugs again, wipes her eye. ‘I never see them again.’
‘Why they take you away?’ asks Rong.
‘To work in the camps,’ says Olga. ‘The Nazis make us work, they starve us. And Polish priest, Nazi, he very bad. He want me – I am only sixteen – he try to make me do things I don’t want to. Then, he have me sent away, to the city where things are very bad. He very bad man, Polish priest. After the war, they get him, beat him to death. They come and tell me.’
My dumplings are getting messier and messier. Olga’s glass is also almost empty; she is trapped again and again in her sister’s desperate cling, in her hunger and her hatred. I cannot think of anything to say, I do not want to sound trite. I do not say much at all. Olga’s narrative is confusing, jumbled, but I am too embarrassed to ask her questions, ashamed at not knowing. Rong was sent to work in Siberia by the communists. She asks what I cannot. ‘Why?’ she asks Olga.
The water for the dumplings is ready. It has to be kept at a rolling boil – they cook quickly. Olga recovers. ‘You boil them?’ She looks askance. ‘I fry my vushka. Very similar, but I fry.’ She looks unconvinced by the rolling water. ‘I must go,’ she announces.
‘Now?’ says Rong, shocked. ‘You no eat dumplings?’
‘I must feed my birds,’ says Olga, ‘or it will be dark and they will go to sleep.’
‘Oh, do you have chickens?’ I ask.
‘No, they are birds that come.’
‘Olga has beautiful garden,’ says Rong. ‘Very good. You must go with her, see her garden. But after dumplings.’
Olga wants to go, but doesn’t want to be rude. She promises to return after feeding her birds, for dumplings. Now Rong is unconvinced.
‘What birds are they?’
‘They big ones, grey. Very pretty. Today it is getting late, they will be asleep before I feed them.’
‘They are native birds?’ prods Rong.
‘I don’t know,’ shrugs Olga.
‘You should not feed if they are not native.’
‘I think they are native,’ Olga concedes.
Rong vanishes. I run out of dough circles and have a rest. On the waxed paper in front of me is a huge pile of ungainly sausage fingers. John opens another bottle of red wine and laughs at them. Rong reappears with a brochure from the Department of Natural Resources, where she worked as a volunteer. I once met the couple she worked for there. He was Italian, she French. He made very tidy dumplings. They told me that you could only get decent French bread and croissants in Springvale, at a Vietnamese bakery.
Rong’s brochure has photos of all the local birds, and information. She makes Olga look at it, and identify which are the ones she feeds. Olga points to the doves.
‘This one,’ she says. I realise that she cannot read English.
Rong declares the doves not native. She reads out bits from the brochure which condemn the peaceful bird. ‘You should not feed,’ she scolds Olga. Olga decides that they will be asleep by now anyway, and they can survive a day without her food. She seems cheered by this notion. Rong serves the first batch of dumplings. She makes a dipping sauce out of sesame oil and balsamic vinegar. Olga shudders.
We crowd together, enjoying the dumplings. Trevor is thrilled with them. To my relief, only some of them have broken open. Adam makes more sauce. I eat too much.
The dumplings re-energise us, make us jolly. When Olga says she must now go home, Rong announces that we will accompany her. Olga lives not far away, just around the corner. I must see Olga’s garden, Rong tells me. Olga is pleased. ‘I have many many fruit trees,’ she tells me. ‘I have two kiwi fruits, which my husband bought me. Nine dollars each.’
John and Adam clutch glasses of red wine defensively, but Trevor is keen for a walk.
We collect Goorlier, Rong’s jack russell, and set off across Nepean Highway. Olga sprints across before the rushing cars; we are left stranded in our timidity on the median strip. Rong tells us that Olga is seventy-nine.
We discuss the houses we pass, assessing plants and gardens, picking handfuls of bay leaves from a large bush sticking through a fence. It is still hot, but cooling; the smoke from the bushfires makes the pre-dusk sky strangely opaque.
Olga’s house is squat orange brick, set amidst ramshackle flowering trees. She shows us woody old magnolias, camellias and hibiscus. Along her driveway are gladioli. I’ve always meant to grow gladioli in memory of my grandmother, who died while I was living in London in a flat full of New Zealanders. My grandmother would have approved of Olga’s gladioli and her casino jaunts (she’d always had her form guide close at hand). And perhaps Olga could have been persuaded to share a beer with her. I remember being shocked once when my loveable grandmother wouldn’t vote Labor in one of the state elections because their candidate was a ‘Paki’.
Olga’s backyard brims – an enormous triffid tangle of kiwifruit reaches for us at the gate, and the garage is open and spilling orchids. Feijoas fill her corners, and plum and nectarine trees droop under cascades of fruit. Carefully tended bean plants climb wire fences the length of her yard. Plastic bags hang in armies from her apricot trees to scare the birds – Rong points this out, laughing.
Olga is transformed: she scurries like a young girl, filling my arms with nectarines, plums, stems of native ginger for my garden. Her bright shirt blends with the shed full of bromeliads. We go inside to get plastic bags, and she welcomes us into her simple house with bursting pride. Her husband built the house for her, just as she wanted it, soon after they moved to Mornington. When they arrived in Australia, they were shipped to the countryside, segregated into different camps and put to work. They were horrified by the parched yellow land, the backbreaking labour they were forced to undertake. When they finally moved to Mornington, to their own block, the area was all farmland, there were no roads and only one shop. Now her house is in the middle of a sprawling suburb, and worth over three-hundred-thousand dollars, a real estate agent has told her. She finds plastic bags in the single cupboard, which is all that her kitchen contains besides an ancient cooker, a rickety, free-standing sink and a small table.
Olga beams. ‘Come!’ she says. We are given a tour. Every door is thrown open. The rooms are European in style – colourful crocheted spreads cover every bed, everything is cluttered and absolutely spotless. Her husband had built the house with a wide hallway because she didn’t like narrow corridors. Every room is a source of pride and delight to her. She shows us her bathroom.
‘Oh,’ says Trevor, unsure.
Outside Goorlier is whining, and it is growing late. Olga walks to the front gate with us, alive with promises of cuttings and pleas for us to visit again. As we wave goodbye and cross the street she is still calling out.
When we get home John hasn’t tended the remaining dumplings in the pan, and they have crumbled and are ruined. There will be none to give Rong’s daughter Marnie when she gets home from her weekend job in the fish and chip shop. Rong is upset, but reluctant to make a scene in front of others.
We head for home, laden with food and plants from other people’s spaces. The bush fire sun still hangs over the highway, a fiery opal red. It is a blazing sphere: new and old and enduring. It greets the New Year with the blank strength of omnipotence. Under its gaze, the traffic is little more than a passing blur.

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