(from an untitled novel in progress)
Later that night, lying in bed, he hears his parents arguing. The tongue-and-groove walls, muffling their voices make it impossible for him to hear exactly what they are saying. He wouldn’t be able to understand the details anyway. Their arguments are mostly in Greek, and even though he is told he is Greek, he doesn’t really speak the language. There is a reason for this. His father thinks Greek is a peasant’s language, and he wants his children to speak only English. When in Rome, do what the Roman’s do: that’s one of his father’s favourite sayings. He speaks only English to his children, but makes an exception for his wife because her English isn’t very good.
He lies in bed and stares up at the ceiling of bedsprings that make up his brother’s top bunk. His brother is slight of build, his weight making only a slight sag in the mattress stretched out above him. When his brother sleeps, he hardly moves. In the morning Paul has only to slip carefully out of bed and it’s more or less made. By morning his bed sheets, on the other hand, are usually in complete disarray, kicked undone, piled on themselves like squashed drapery.
He lies there, listening in the dark. His father’s voice is by turns commanding, sneering, vicious in its reprimands. His mother’s voice is by turns desperate, hateful, pleading. Even though their voices are muffled by the wooden slats of the tongue-and-grooves walls, they are still piercing, and the emotions they carry penetrate deep into him.
There are tense pauses between his parents’ exchanges, and in those pauses he hears Paul’s soft breathing. His brother is sound asleep. He hears nothing from his sister’s room next door.
He has tried to get used to his parents’ arguments, but he never can. No one acknowledges their existence, and they leave him tense for days. While they largely happen off stage, deep in the night, out in the shop, he doesn’t find them any less disturbing for it: this, in fact, makes them even more menacing, a constant war that is bitterly fought out in the near distance.
This particular night, their argument goes on longer than usual. From what he can understand his mother is pleading for something, and his outraged father is saying no. Emerging from the stream of his mother’s Greek he can make out a phrase that sounds likes English, a phrase she repeats over and over again and that seems to be at the centre of the fight. It takes him a little while to recognise what it is. The health inspectors, she shouts again and again. The health inspectors.
Eventually his parents fall silent. Then he hears his father’s footfalls on the lino as he goes from the shop into the house. The footfalls grow louder as he enters the main bedroom directly across the tiny hallway, then cut off abruptly when he closes the door.
He waits to hear his mother come in from the shop. He waits a long time. As he waits all he can hear is the sound of his brother’s light breathing and the occasional whoosh of a car on Stafford Road.
He waits and waits, but still she doesn’t come in.
He decides to go out and see what has happened to her. He has never done this before. He gently swings out of bed, taking care not to wake his brother. As he makes his way into the corridor, he is surprised to find that he feels more curious than troubled.
The house is very dark. The double doors that separate the shop from the living room are shut. Seams of greyish light seep through their cracks and edges. Also seeping through is the smell of burning oil. This is unusual. The burners should have been turned off hours ago, the oil now cool. He twists the handle softly, gently pulls the door toward him, and pauses on the threshold.
The shop is dimly lit. He sees the slight figure of his mother over by the vats, acrid smoke billowing behind her. She has turned on only half the lights. The front doors of the shop are open to provide some air: she hasn’t put on the exhaust fans for fear of waking the family.
He watches her. She is still working, even though she looks completely exhausted. Beside her is a tall metal drum set on a dinted wooden chair. He recognises the kind of drum: it’s one the oil comes in. Between her hands she holds a worn bed sheet. It’s either his or his brothers’; he can tell from its stripes of blue, pink and white, pale from countless washings. Despite her tiredness, with forceful, precise movements, his mother tears a large rectangle from the sheet. The ripping sound echoes in the dull air. She folds it into a square and places it delicately over the opening of the oil drum. Then she tears off a long thin strip from the bed sheet and ties it around the rim of the drum, securing the square of cloth. The fabric stretches tight. She presses it in with her hand to form a kind of bowl.
He knows what she’s about to do. She’s going to strain the oil. He has seen her do it before, but never late at night, and never after Saturday night rush hour when she is her most tired. She usually does it early on a weekday morning when she has some energy. It’s a dangerous job. The vats, heavy and awkward to move, must be lifted out of the steel frames that hold them. And the oil needs to be very hot, otherwise it won’t flow through the material quickly enough, instead backing up in the cloth and spilling over the sides. But, if it’s too hot, and the bed sheet too worn, the cotton will burn through immediately, and oil splash about.
He watches his mother work. She takes a long-handled utensil, dips it into the vat, and starts scooping out the muck that has settled to the bottom. She ladles out scoop after scoop of burnt breadcrumbs, blackened batter and scraps of potatoes onto a thick pile of newspaper. Once she has got out as much as she can, she hangs up the utensil, wipes her sweating hands on her apron, and pauses.
He looks at her hands momentarily hanging there. He knows those hands well. The veins on the back are raised and swollen. The skin on the inside of the fingers is split and calloused. They always seem to be injured in some way, either from a knife cut, some small infection from handling crabs or prawns, or a minor burn from the cooking stations.
She looks over and sees him standing at the doorway. He’s afraid she will be angry with him but, to his surprise, she isn’t. Instead, he sees an expression in her eyes he does not quite recognise. An expression that he has seen before but can’t name, and that makes him feel guilty and uneasy in a way he has never quite felt before.
She tells him, in Greek, to go back to bed.
He doesn’t move.
She tells him to go back to bed again.
How can he go to bed when she might burn herself with no one there to see?
He tells her he’s not sleepy. He offers to help her.
She tells him he can’t help her. For the third time she tells him to go back to bed.
He says he’ll stay and watch.
She turns back to what she is doing and puts on a pair of thick, oil-stained mittens.
There are two vats. She lowers her hands into the billowing smoke of the first one, taking hold of the handles he knows are hinged above the oil line. Her arms flex as she pulls, her teeth bared with the effort. She succeeds in hauling it out, her small frame, stooped at an awkward angle, bowing under the weight. Arms straining, she balances it on the narrow edge of the cooking station. Oil smoke envelops her.
It immediately becomes clear that she has positioned the drum a little too far away for her to be able to simply tilt the vat and pour the oil in. She extends one leg and tries to hook her foot around the chair leg to bring it closer. As she does so, the vat lurches on its edge.
His heart starts to race as he watches the vat teeter. He want to rush up to help, but is afraid he will distract her.
She abandons the idea of tilting the vat. Instead she hauls it up into the air above the drum and, arms quivering with the effort of holding it steady, gently tilts it forward. Hot oil pours out in a thin, precise stream. There is a split second delay as it soaks through the cloth. Then he hears it spatter loudly as it hits the bottom of the drum. Slowly, for what seems like an eternity, his mother pours the oil. When it’s empty she replaces it with a clang. She pauses a moment, then closes her eyes in exhaustion. Her brow is covered in sweat. For a moment he thinks she might be praying to herself.
She goes to the second vat. The burning oil smoke rising from it is particularly noxious: it has been boiling for too long. Grunting with the strain, she hauls the vat out of the cooking station. He watches its scorched metal sides swing through the air. This time she doesn’t even try to balance it on the edge. She wants it over and done with quickly. Besides, the handles will be too hot to hold for any longer than strictly necessary. With the same laboured effort she pours the oil into the makeshift strainer. As the last of the thin stream pours out, her arms falter for a split second.
A glowing stream of hot oil splashes onto her forearm. She yelps with pain. But she does not falter again. Tears streaming down her face, she finishes pouring the oil. She replaces the vat with a clang. Then, sobbing, her shoulders suddenly heaving, she rushes to the sink, turns on the tap, and plunges her arm under the gushing water. She stands there weeping, all the while talking to herself in Greek.
Then she remembers he is there. She turns to him and pleads for him to go to sleep. He wants to go to her, to comfort her. Instead, he tears himself away from the doorway and plunges back into the dark of the house.
He carefully gets back into bed. He lies in the dark, his heart pounding. As he lies there he recognises for the first time the expression on his mother’s face when she first saw him at the door. It was not anger. It was not embarrassment. It was shame.
When he wakes up the first thing he does is look up at this brother’s mattress. The slight dip is gone. His brother is already up.
He briefly remembers what happened in the shop last night, but pushes it out of his mind. It isn’t hard to do, because everything seems so normal. The summer light strikes through the cream vinyl blind just as it did yesterday morning. His brother’s rugby league posters are on the wall just as they were last night. If he wants to believe it, last night never happened. And yes, he wants to believe it never happened.
It’s Sunday, and he has come to dislike Sundays. Lately, he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. There may or may not be shop chores: it depends on how much his parents force him to do them, and how determined he is to get out of them. There is homework to think about, even if it’s not something his parents expect him to do. His teacher is the problem. Recently she has noticed he doesn’t do much of it, if any at all, and has started to ask awkward questions. And, it’s cricket season, which means it’s likely his brother will spend the whole day camped out in the living room watching it, hogging the TV. He has tried to watch it with him, but it bores him beyond belief. He likes playing it with him in the backyard, and when Paul is in the mood they can spend hours playing French cricket, the bat vertical in front of their legs which act as wickets, each trying to bowl the other out with a spin ball. But why his brother so enjoys watching the tiny figures on the screen is a complete mystery to him.
He decides to read a little before he gets up. When he opens the pages of a favourite book, there it is again, a world he can enter into, a world outside this world. It’s an experience he constantly craves, and one he needs more than ever now that Disneyland seems closed to him. Under his bed, strewn about in cardboard fruit boxes, are his books. There are the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, books like Snoggle, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Sword in the Stone, and what seems like dozens of books by Enid Blyton: The Famous Five, The Secret Seven. For many years the Enid Blyton books were his favourites. At the height of his passion for them he would beg his mother to take him on her next trip into town to buy any titles in the series he didn’t have. On one occasion he dragged her from bookstore to bookstore, insistent they track down a missing one, nearly beside himself with tears when it became clear no one had it.
As he fishes one out from under the bed, he no longer feels any such enthusiasm. If Disneyland has only recently started to feel too young for him, Enid Blyton has long been something only for little kids. Out of habit, he idly looks over the first few pages of The Secret of Spiggy Holes. There they are, his now estranged friends, enjoying lashings of homemade lemonade and ginger biscuits, contemplating dressing up as Red Indians and chasing one another.
He hears his mother’s voice call out from the kitchen. It’s time for breakfast. His food is getting cold. Seated at the table, his brother has already started eating. Bacon and eggs, tomato, often a small piece of steak as well. Meat, the boys must have meat, his mother often says. Paul has one egg, he has two. He watches Paul eat with quick, birdlike movements. Paul never eats the tomato skins, and leaves them in a neat pile on the rim of his plate.
His mother stands over by the sink, doing some washing up. He sees the long burn on her forearm. Red and angry, it vanishes under the cuff of her pink rubber glove. The urge to help her in some way, the one he felt last night, overcomes him again. She goes to take off her gloves to make his toast. He says he’ll do it. His brother, surprised, glances up at him disapprovingly. Their mother always makes the breakfast toast. Why is he challenging the order of things? Isn’t it enough that he is taller when he shouldn’t be? Isn’t it enough that he eats more? By the time he’s made the toast and sat down to his breakfast, his brother has finished and left.
As he predicted, Paul settles down on the sofa to watch the cricket. The day stretches out aimlessly before him. If he’s lucky, Paul may want to go down to the shops before dinner to play pinball, but he can’t count on it, and the possibility is hours away anyway. His sister is nowhere to be seen, but that doesn’t bother him. He doesn’t count on her for company. She is five years older and lives in a different universe.
He wanders about the place, making a nuisance of himself. His father rouses on him from his bed for clattering about: he is still trying to sleep. The house behind the shop is unbearably small, just six cramped rooms. Two of them are absolutely tiny. His sister’s room is only large enough for a single bed, a dresser and a desk piled nearly on top of each other. The bathroom is so small there is no actual bath, only a shower cubicle. In the back yard there is a dilapidated shed full of junk. It’s dark and dirty and he avoids going in there.
To pass the time he reads, listens to his mother’s transistor radio, plays a ball game on the shed wall.
Finally, when it gets too hot outside, he goes into the shop to make himself a milkshake even though he doesn’t really want it. There, he finds his mother engaged in a fury of cleaning. Sunday is a slow day and, between customers, it’s normal for her to clean some parts of the shop. Throughout the morning, however, he has noticed her doing much more than usual. Crouched on her hands and knees, she has emptied frozen sand crabs from the bottom drawer of the main freezer and chipped out the stinking ice that always seems to build up faster than she can get rid of it. She has scrubbed the floor under the vats with hot soapy water and a large bristle brush. She has taken steel wool to the metal plates that protect the walls of the cooking areas and cleaned them until they gleam. And now she is mopping the floors with a mixture of Ajax powder and Handy Andy. She doesn’t ask for any help, and nobody offers her any.
He moons about, watching her. The burn on her arm has started to form a brownish crust. She acts as if it isn’t there.
He asks her why she’s doing so much cleaning. He doesn’t really expect an answer. After a pause, to his surprise, she gives one.
The health inspectors, she says. They might be coming tomorrow. Or the next day. She doesn’t know when. They don’t say when. Only that they’re coming this week. She has to be ready, she says.
She’s silent for a moment. Then, perhaps judging that he might be old enough, or perhaps simply because she wants someone to know, she tells him that maybe they will close down the shop.
Close down the shop? He can’t believe what he is hearing. Why?
Because maybe it isn’t clean enough.
Isn’t clean enough? All she does is clean. Cook, serve, clean. How much cleaner does it need to be?
Who are the health inspectors? he asks.
From the government.
He is bewildered. The government? Why would the government want to close down the shop? He wants her to explain. But he senses he will get nothing more from her. The conversation is over. She has work to do.
He goes into the living room. His brother is stretched out on the sofa, glued to the cricket. There is no point in asking him. He hears his mother call him from the kitchen. She tells him in Greek that there’s a customer waiting who wants to buy a drink. While he doesn’t serve during rush hour, he’s often called upon in the quieter times for simple orders like this. He goes into the shop and in the serving area finds a boy his age. His hair is fiercely blond. He’s staring shyly at the can of Fanta he has placed on the counter.
‘Yes, please,’ he says to the boy.
The boy nervously offers him a sweaty coin. Nick gives him his change and watches him disappear through the curtain of plastic strips that hang down over the shop’s entrance. Behind him, through the kitchen doorway, he hears the slap of the mop head on the floor. Then suddenly it seems unbearably quiet, and he has the sudden fear that no customer will ever walk in and buy anything again. It’s a fear that comes to him from time to time, especially on long quiet days like this. But this fear, intense while it lasts, never lasts long. Just when he thinks there’ll be no more customers, another one fronts up as if by magic, and by five o’clock there’s always a steady trickle, even when it’s not a Friday or Saturday night.
Yet now there seems to be this new, more serious threat to their livelihood: the health inspectors. If they close down the shop, how will he and his family live?
Read the Health Inspectors Part One here.
Anthony Macris is an award-winning Australian writer and author of the Capital novels. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw: a family’s journey through autism, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction category. His most recent book is Inexperience & other stories. He is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney.