Why Are You Crying? by Suvi Mahonen

I look at my mother’s profile brighten then darken as we pass a roadside light.

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ I say.

She turns away from the window and gives me her don’t-fret smile. ‘It’s just a little lump,’ she says. ‘I only noticed it last month.’

‘And you only saw the doctor last week!’

‘This isn’t Melbourne,’ she says. ‘It takes a while to get in. And anyway, I was planning to wait for Keith to check it out.’

‘Keith’s specialising in ophthalmology,’ I say. ‘He doesn’t look at people’s necks.’

‘He’s still a doctor.’

Keith glances around from the front passenger seat at the mention of his name.

‘You can turn around SIL,’ my mother says. ‘We were talking about you not to you.’

He gives a salute then turns back and keeps talking to my father.

‘So when do you have to have the biopsy?’ I say.

‘I don’t know. I need to have the ultrasound and see the specialist first.’

‘Why couldn’t they see you before Christmas?’

‘They were fully booked. Nothing’s going to get done until the new year.’

‘Can’t you —‘

‘Janey.’ She squeezes my knee. ‘I only want to talk about happy things over the holidays. Like us spending time together, and my grandchild that I can’t wait to see.’

Now it is my turn to look out the window. At the blackened fields of stubbled sugarcane, their ongoing monotony broken only by the occasional glow of a homestead set back from the road. Beyond them the tops of the Atherton Tablelands are hard to distinguish from the cloudy starless night sky.

My mother leans over. ‘So,’ she says in a conspiratorial whisper that’s loud enough for everyone in the Landcruiser to hear. ‘Guess what I bought Keith for Christmas?’

‘I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?’ I loud whisper back.

‘A set of lures.’ She winks. ‘That way the men can go out on the boat and give us girls some time alone.’

Lost in their own conversation my husband and father don’t react. Ironically they seem to be talking about trout.

‘Good thinking,’ I say. ‘What have you got planned?’

‘Cooking, decorating, doing puzzles, catching up.’ She smiles. ‘Plus we’ve got lots to talk about with your pregnancy.’

I look out the window again. ‘When’s Ross arriving?’ I ask.

‘Christmas Eve,’ she says. ‘I thought I’d told you that.’

‘Actually I think you did. I forgot.’

The engine hum changes as my father shifts down a gear. The tyres go thunk thunk as we pass over a railway crossing. The lights of the outskirts of Innisfail are coming up ahead. ‘They’ve subdivided some more land on the north side since you were last here,’ he says.

‘It’s good this area’s growing,’ Keith says. ‘It means your farm will be worth more.’

‘True,’ my father says. ‘But only if we sell it. We’re planning to eventually be buried in the backyard.’

‘Gross,’ I say.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ my mother says. ‘You two can move in and help look after us when we get too decrepit.’

‘That’s what nursing homes are for,’ Keith says.

‘What’s a nursing home?’ My mother laughs.

I laugh too but it’s forced. I touch my belly.

‘Hey, there’s a KFC,’ Keith says.

We turn right at the main intersection. Pass on through the town.

The Christmas tree is old and some of its branches are missing. The articulated base is loose and the trunk squeaks as we assemble it. My mother wraps duct tape around a joint to hold the two pieces together. It’s seen better days.

I slot in the last remaining wire and plastic pine branch and get down off the stepladder. ‘When are you going to get a new tree?’ I say.

My mother looks up from the big cardboard box that stores the decorations. ‘Hopefully never,’ she says. ‘It’s a family heirloom. We bought it when you were only two.’

My mother’s always enjoyed putting up Christmas decorations together. I lost most of the magic in my late teens, but over the past few years it’s starting to come back.

I see her pouting.

‘What’s the matter?’ I ask.

‘One of the balls has broken.’ She grins. ‘Oh well. Plenty to spare.’

We’ve set up the tree in the corner of the lounge room. My parents’ house was built in the thirties. White walls, high ceiling, timber floors. Big window that looks out on a wraparound veranda. Porcelain figurines line the top of the upright piano. A yellow L-shaped couch faces the TV. On the walls are two of my paintings alongside three generations of wedding photos.

We begin with lengths of tinsel. My mother hums as she wraps them around the tree. She reaches the end of one and throws it up. It balances on the tip of a branch.

‘Nice shot,’ I say.

‘Thank you.’ She bows. ‘Now it’s time for the decorations!’

I’m a bit nervous going through the stained musty box. It’s stored up in the attic and I’ll never forget that time we found the dried-out mouse amongst the baubles. My brother had hung it from the tree by its tail. My father told him to stop being a turd.

‘I’m so glad we finally got the boys out of here,’ my mother says as if reading my thoughts.

‘I wonder if they’ll catch anything,’ I say.

‘I wonder. The important thing is they’re gone.’ She holds up a Frosty the Snowman on a string. ‘Where do you think this one should go?’

While we work my mother chats inconsequentials. I try and bring up the neck lump but she brushes the topic away. After the second attempt I drop it. We all have things we prefer not to dwell on. After a while the tree is so covered with balls and stars and figures and silver bells you can barely notice the gaps.

‘Just wait till next Christmas,’ she says beneath me. She’s holding on to my ankles. I’m up on the ladder again to place the angel at the top. ‘You won’t believe how much better they are when you have children of your own.’

I perch the angel on the top branch and take my hand away. White flowing dress, golden harp, long blonde hair. Blank face. No eyes or nose or mouth. Just flesh-coloured smooth plastic. All of a sudden I feel empty.

I get down.

My mother claps her hands. ‘OK. One more decoration each then I’ll put the rest away.’ She goes over to the box. ‘There’s still so many. I wonder which one.’ She covers her eyes theatrically with one hand and rummages in the piles of crumpled tissue paper with the other.

‘Tadaah!’ She pulls out a lump covered in pink tissue. She unwraps it. ‘Hmmph.’

It’s a Santa figurine riding a surfboard. She shrugs. ‘Oh well. Rules are rules. Your turn.’

I look down at the mass of paper, tinsel and plastic packets in the box. It smells like mushrooms.

‘No peeking!’ My mother covers my eyes.

With dead mouse in mind I pick up something from the top.

‘Nice choice Janey.’ She takes her hand away. Something golden glints from a patch of torn paper.

I uncover it. I hold it up.

It’s the miniature cottage with little mirrors for windows. It was one of my favourite decorations as a kid. I haven’t seen it for years. The paint is starting to peel. I run my thumb along the roof edge. I prise open the door with my nail. The tiny hinges squeak. Behind the door is another little mirror. As a kid I used to love peering into it. Seeing how much of my face could fit in the reflection.

It’s changed though.

The glass is dusty. A scratch runs across it. The silver lining underneath is tarnished with age.

‘Darling,’ my mother says. ‘Why are you crying?’

 ***

Pregnancy diary, 16 December 2009

So glad I had the screening after all. I got to hear the baby!

Was just about to put on a load of laundry this morning (need to do that now) when I picked up the phone and rang. Talk about weird timing. Someone had just cancelled for 11 am so their spot was vacant.

Hated having the blood test. Not that probe up vagina was a load of laughs either.

When I got to the Ultrasound for Women place in Ringwood I had to change into a cotton gown and lie on a couch that was kind of like a dentist’s chair. Embarrassing having to go commando. Glad that the sonographer was a female, though she looked so young I suspect she might still be in Year 12.

She had a quick read of the form I filled out. Then asked me to lie back and put my feet on the rests.

Second biggest surprise of the morning was the next bit. She pulls out a condom and rolls it down over the probe. Then squirts lube all over it. Guess it was kind of shaped like a dildo.

‘OK, can you lean back please?’ she said to me. ‘Sorry if it’s a bit cold.’

It was weird having a piece of machinery pushed up there. Had a sudden fear of getting electrocuted. Totally forgot about paranoia though when she pointed at the ultrasound screen.

I sat forward. Ouch!

‘Was that the baby?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ She smiled at me even though I bet she was thinking silly cow. ‘Now please lean back, it’s best if you try and stay still.’

She re-adjusted the probe and I saw you again.

Now I know you’re in there. I mean I knew you were. Why else the queasiness, the painful boobs and the jeans that have gone up two sizes. But sometimes it’s hard to imagine you since I can’t feel you move. But now I don’t have to imagine any more.

‘I can’t believe how big it is,’ I said to the sonographer.

‘Actually it’s on magnification.’ She pushed a button and the picture of you froze. ‘The crown–rump length’s 38 millimetres,’ she told me. ‘About half the size of your thumb.’

So you are still really small. Curved like a broad bean. But a bean with a head and what I thought might be tiny arms and legs.

‘Yes they are,’ the sonographer said when I asked. ‘Most of the organs have formed by now.’

She unfroze, then refroze the screen and took another measurement.

‘When did you say the first day of your last period was?’

‘I’m not sure. Roughly the second week of September.’

‘That would be right,’ she said. ‘According to this your baby’s ten weeks and five days size.’ She winked. ‘Did your partner do something special to earn a reward that day?’

I laughed.

Actually. She had an interesting point. Let’s see … Just counted back in the diary. Must have been Friday the 16th of October.

To quote myself (Sat 17th entry):

 ***

OK. So I’m over grumps now. Dinner at the Pig and Whistle tends to do that. I know he was just trying to get back in good books for covering for Jason this weekend—EVEN THOUGH HE’D PROMISED NOT TO DO THAT ANY MORE. I had the trio of bangers and mash for main. Keith had the beef and burgundy pie with chips. Boy I was stuffed. Still managed that slice of lemon cream cake though. Just as well we had that bit of exercise when we got back home. Not sure if it was the wine, or the full moon shining in on us, but man I had an intense …

Anyway. Back to today.

The sonographer checked a few other things. She said the thickness at the back of your neck was a bit in the high range of normal. Apparently the obstetrician will look over the results and combine it with the blood test. But she said not to worry, it was likely all fine.

And then by far came the best part.

‘Hold steady now.’ She pushed another one of her buttons and a bright yellow line went across the screen. She rolled the console’s ball and the line angled to cross your chest.

Boomp Boomp Boomp Boomp Boomp Boomp

That’s what it sounded like.

Boomp Boomp Boomp Boomp Boomp Boomp

The sound of your little heartbeat.

Got your ultrasound photo of you next to me right now. Can’t wait to show your father. Little you in me. Little Mini-Me.

‘What about this one?’ my mother says. ‘Don’t you think it looks nice?’

‘If you want me to look like a traffic cone,’ I say.

‘Don’t be silly.’ She pushes the dress to me.

Boxing Day sales have never been my thing. But my mother had insisted, so this morning we drove into town leaving my father, my brother and Keith to their own devices. After a day of constant grazing interrupted only by present opening, a short service at my parents’ church and three sit-down meals, the last thing I feel up to is trying on new clothes.

‘It’s a size ten,’ I say.

My mother checks the tag. ‘It’s a big size ten though. Why don’t you try it on anyway?’

‘Mum. I’m barely size twelve when I’m not pregnant.’

She raises an eyebrow, sorts through the traffic cones and brings out a size sixteen.

‘If you like it so much why don’t you wear it,’ I say.

‘Janey,’ she says. ‘Just because you’re pregnant, doesn’t mean you should stop trying.’

‘Stop trying what?’

‘Stop trying to look nice.’

‘You don’t think I look nice?’

‘Of course you do Poppet. It’s just that as you get older it gets a bit harder.’

‘What’s new clothes got to do with it?’

‘New clothes are like a polish. It helps keep the husband interested.’

‘Keith’s more interested when I’m not wearing clothes.’

I snatch the coathanger and walk towards the change rooms. There’s a line. It gives my mother a chance to catch up.

‘What’s the matter, Janey? Did I say something that upset you?’

I eye her and weigh up which way to go.

‘No, Mum. I’m just tired and my legs are really sore.’

Inside the change room is a mess of strewn cellophane and empty hangers. As I slip out of my skirt I notice a security tag in the corner. I straighten. This change room is one of those ones with full-length mirrors on all three sides of the cubicle. Why do they have to build them like this? It makes it impossible to ignore the back of your thighs. And as for my bum—maybe I was kidding myself about Keith’s interests.

My mother’s rummaging through a bra bin when I rejoin her.

‘It doesn’t suit me.’

‘That’s a pity.’ She takes my arm. ‘OK. Let’s go to Sussan. There’s sure to be something there.’

‘Do we have to?’

‘Come on. We haven’t bought you anything yet.’

She guides me through the aisles clogged with bargain seekers and out through the store’s entrance. Here the shopping centre’s walkway is even worse. It’s so crowded you can’t take more than three steps without brushing someone else’s flesh. My mother’s still got my arm, leading the way. Walking too fast. Almost a drag.

Too many people. The noise. Aren’t the air-conditioners working?

‘Mum.’

She keeps going. Either not hearing me or choosing not to.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

‘Mum!’

Improve-your-daughter crusade.

‘MUM!’ I yank.

‘What is it, Janey?’ She looks hurt. Surprised. Concerned. And hurt.

‘My legs are cramping,’ I say.

‘Are you OK?’ Now she just looks concerned.

‘I’m fine,’ I lie. ‘I just need to have a sit down.’

She studies me for a moment longer. ‘You’re probably dehydrated,’ she says. ‘Let’s go to the food court. I’ll get us a nice big Boost Juice.’

The food court is loud. We scan the area. Sparrows are flitting to and fro in the dome of the high glass ceiling.

‘There’s a table,’ my mother says, pointing. ‘Go and save it for us.’

I’m staring into the fountain when she returns.

‘Penny for your thoughts,’ she says, sitting herself down.

‘You could have them for free if I had any.’

I take the jumbo-sized green cup and straw. ‘Thanks.’

‘Apple, pineapple, orange and kiwifruit with crushed ice. Hope you like it,’ she says.

We both draw on our straws. My cup starts to slurp first.

‘How are your legs now?’

‘Much better,’ I say.

‘Good.’ She scrunches her ice with her straw. ‘So have you two decided on a name for my granddaughter yet?’

‘Mum. You don’t know it’s a girl.’

‘Mmm. Maybe. But our family always seems to have girls born first. Aunty Karen was born first. You were born first. And your cousins Shani and Andrea are older than their brothers.’

‘What about David?’ I say.

‘He’s on your dad’s side.’ She raises her cup. ‘I’m so happy to finally be getting a grandchild,’ she says. ‘Let’s go have a look at the baby shop next if your legs aren’t too tired.’

I take the lid off my cup to get to the last of the ice. I think of what the obstetrician said about my first trimester screening. I think of the nuchal fold thickness. I think of the one in ten chance that our baby has Down syndrome.

I swallow.

‘Mum.’

She looks at me.

I imagine her reaction.

‘Can we go home?’

When it comes time to board the plane my mother gives me a hug and starts to cry. I do my best to avoid joining her but it never works.

‘Thanks for Christmas,’ I say. ‘We had fun.’

‘Me too,’ my mother says. ‘Now you make sure you look after yourself.’ She gives me another hard squeeze. ‘And take care of my granddaughter.’

‘Come on, Evelyn,’ my father says. ‘They’ll miss the flight.’

He picks up my hand luggage and the four of us walk to the security checkpoint where we join the tail of the line. I look out at our plane sitting on the tarmac.

‘Tell me as soon as you know,’ I say to my mother.

‘I will.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise.’

‘See you next time,’ Keith says, shaking my father’s hand. 

We can’t hang back any longer. All the other passengers have passed through.

***

Suvi Mahonen is studying for her Masters (Writing and Literature) at Deakin University. She has published short stories in various literary magazines and online in Australia, the UK (including on ‘East of the Web’) and the United States, and has worked as a journalist both in Australia and Canada. She lives in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne with her husband, Luke Waldrip, and a menagerie of wildlife including a family of magpies and a possum named Toby. Examples of her creative work can be seen at www.redbubble.com/people/suvimahonen.

***

The Australian Literature Review.
www.auslit.net

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