Arum held her tongue between her teeth as she poured milk into the flour mixture. The risoles had to be just right. If they were too thin, the crepe would tear with handling. Too thick, and the dough would overpower the subtle flavours of the vegetable filling. Her heart felt tight as the batter clung to the whisk in stubborn tufts. She added more milk.
When she thought the mixture was the right consistency, she ladled a spoonful into the saucepan and held her breath as she watched it cook. Carefully she peeled the crepe away, ignoring the sting to her fingertips from the heat of the pan. She laid the crepe out across a platter and inspected it for a moment. It wasn’t perfectly round, but it would do. She smiled, wiping perspiration from her upper lip with the back of her hand, and dipped the ladle into the batter again.
The invitations are in yellow envelopes this time. They’re pigeon-holed into the pockets of the wall hanging that’s decorated with orange lions with sunshine manes. Arum peers over the shoulder of another mum, but can’t tell if the invitations are for a girl’s party or a boy’s. Brianna has an invitation but so do Josh and Sam. Her eyes find their way to Rafi’s pocket—last row, three from the right. Empty.
Last week the envelopes were pink, for Letitia’s birthday. He wasn’t invited to that one either.
The kindy doors open and the waiting mums shuffle along the corridor. The two women in front of Arum chat to each other, talking too swiftly for her to keep up. Her English is getting better, but she understands only snatches—the Woolworths in Annerley … sweet and white. One of them reaches over, tears open the envelope, reads it out to the other. Mott Park … Sunday.
The closer Arum gets to the kindy room the more the dusty smells of the corridor recede, replaced with the familiar odour of stale wee, orange peel, antiseptic cleaner. The mum behind her, the impossibly thin one, reads something on her phone. Her toddler son leans against her legs, claws at her T-shirt so that it gapes low, reveals the top of a pink bra. His fingers leave their trace on everything they touch, reminding Arum of a frog’s sticky pads. She places a hand on her stomach as it roils. It was like this when she was pregnant with Rafi, too, like everything is overexposed, bleached in light, but fogged and distorted. Her lips part, the thickest part of her tongue rising as she silently gags.
The children are sprawled across the squares of scratchy carpet while the teacher reads the final page of a book about a wombat. Two boys at the back of the group squirm across the floor, but most are seated cross-legged as they listen to her, mouths open, eyes glazed, like cold snapper on beds of ice at the supermarket. Rafi is in his special chair, the one with the blow-up wedge cushion that’s supposed to keep him attentive. He’s watching the two boys roll around on their bums, but he stays put, his fingers pressing and stroking the rubbery goosebumps down the side of the cushion.
When they finally notice their parents, the kids sit straighter, twist around to see better. One of the squirming boys looks like he’s ready to burst forwards, as if he’s a sprinter poised against a starting block. Other children smile shyly while one boy even gasps, as if this daily ritual is new to him again.
Arum moves to Rafi’s side, places her hand on his shoulder. ‘Get your bag, Rafi,’ she says, careful of the English words.
He stands up, kicks his chair—showing off for her—and stomps over to the bag rack, head down, like a steam engine.
‘The dentist came to kindy today.’ Little Harriet’s voice, high pitched with excitement, carries above the others as her mum wriggles her green jelly sandal onto her foot. Harriet balances on one leg by planting her hand on the top of her mother’s head. ‘We all got to see him, Mummy, even the naughty boy, Rafi.’
‘The teacher says Rafi might be “on the spectrum”.’ Arum says the English words for ‘on the spectrum’ because she doesn’t know how to use the term in her own language.
‘What’s that?’ Her husband, Dani, is seated at the pine table that’s too big for their kitchen, and he has to shuffle his chair right in so she can squeeze around him to reach the fridge.
‘I’m not sure.’ She pulls out a tray of diced beef. A taut layer of cellophane covers the meat, neat and fresh, no sign of blood. Once, Arum spent three hours in the supermarket, inspecting all that was on offer. She marvelled at just how many types of cereal people here in Australia need, how many types of rice.
The meat sizzles as it hits the frying onion in the pan.
‘The teacher says Rafi sometimes hits the other children, or even kicks them.’ Her eyes search her husband’s, seek out a reaction.
‘But he never hits,’ says Dani, surprised.
‘I told her this. But she says that maybe he does it because he doesn’t know how to get their attention in a better way. He doesn’t speak well. Can’t communicate.’ She wipes the bench down with Spray n’ Wipe, its antibacterial tang reminding her of her work at the nursing home. Dani had brought them here on a special skills visa when his work at the Nike factory outside Bandung had dried up, but she can’t return to nursing until she does a bridging course. So in the meanwhile, every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday she cleans tiles and floors and sometimes hands out meals at Hopetown Aged Care.
‘Will he need to see a doctor?’
Arum shrugs. She wonders if he’s worried it will cost too much. She pours treacly soy sauce over the sizzling onion and meat, and thinks she should’ve bought chicken instead of beef for the semur. Chicken’s cheaper.
While the beef simmers, Arum moves to the lounge room. Rafi is at his red plastic table, staring at the television. Behind him is the small bookcase that houses her nursing textbooks in their shiny, lilac covers, the only things she brought from Indonesia besides clothing and a few bits of jewellery.
‘Makan,’ she says to him, pointing at his plate of strawberries. He’s watching Mr Bean cartoons again, his favourite. Arum promised the teacher she’d wean him from them, because Mr Bean doesn’t talk properly. But she also promised they would speak English more often with him at home, too.
Her eyes take in Rafi’s long lashes, the curve of his nose, the way his stubby fingers play with his right ear, pleating it in and out. Does he even notice he isn’t invited to parties; that he doesn’t have any friends? Sadness weighs heavily on her, like a sack of rice has been lowered onto her chest. Perhaps it was a mistake to leave all their family in Depok. If they were there, Rafi would have his cousins to play with; little Neng might sing ‘Bengawan Solo’ to him, and the boys could race each other down the dirt lanes. Arum misses having her older sister around. Lilis loves Rafi almost as much as Arum does; she knows the quiet, funny boy beyond this ‘spectrum’ thing.
Rafi looks up at Arum and dimples. He places his hand under his armpit and flaps his elbow. He learnt this trick from the man who came to fix the taps in the kitchen. The man noticed Rafi trying to hide by the side of the fridge and he grinned, showed Rafi his trick of making farting noises by cupping his underarm. Now Rafi does it whenever he wants attention or even when he’s embarrassed and doesn’t want attention. But his little hand can’t catch the air in his armpit; he makes the noise with his mouth instead. Brrrrp. Brrrrp.
Dani comes up from behind, and wraps his arms around her, resting his hands across her rounded stomach. ‘You worry too much. He’s fine. Look at him.’ Rafi sees them watching him, rolls off his chair, laughing at Mr Bean falling down a broken lift shaft in a wheelchair. ‘He’s fine.’
The TAFE campus where Arum learns English is small—much smaller than the university she attended in Jakarta. She likes that the TAFE is surrounded by forest—dry trees that rustle in the breeze, so tall that when she looks up between them it reminds her of when she was little, gazing up at adults, their hands and heads filtering the beams of sunlight. She has a white folder in which her notes are neatly organised, nouns written in solid blue biro, verbs in eye-catching red. She uses yellow highlighter for past tense, pink for present and green for future, but sometimes she gets it wrong, has to re-highlight, so that she creates new colours of blue or streaked orange. But she feels proud every time she speaks in English, uses a new word. ‘Can I please buy two beef pies?’ or ‘Does this bus go to Garden City?’ Although some words—words such as ‘tongue’, ‘shower’, ‘school’—still trip her up.
And she has made new friends at TAFE; two women who make her feel like herself again. One is Sabeen, from Iraq, with heavy, black kohl around her eyes, her friendly, pudgy face framed by a hijab. Arum doesn’t wear a head covering any more. She stopped bothering within a month of arriving in Brisbane, but she keeps a scarf in her handbag, just in case they run into other Indonesian women who still wear their kerudung—it happened once when they were eating noodles at Little Singapore and Mrs Suhanda stopped by their table, her fingers playing at the edge of her colourful scarf. At times like that Arum feels almost naked, brings the silk square from her bag, slinks it across her hair. Laleh, Arum’s other friend, is Iranian and she doesn’t use a scarf either, although she too is Muslim. She’s younger than Sabeen and Arum, and her hair has been lightened to the rusty colour of autumn leaves.
At lunchtime they sit at the park bench next to a cluster of bamboo palms and Arum tries to tell them about how Rafi is being left out of parties, but she needs to reach for her kamus, look up the English word for ‘invitation’.
‘But that is not kind,’ says Sabeen.
‘Rude,’ says Laleh, popping a piece of pineapple in her mouth. ‘You need to just go.’
Arum stares across at her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Just go to the party.’ Laleh goes to say more but can’t think of the word, even though her English is much better than theirs. She flips through her own dictionary. Finally she taps at a word on the page, and pronounces, slowly, curling the ‘r’, ‘Pretend. You need to pretend you get one of these invitations. Or pretend you do not understand.’
Arum draws back and laughs. ‘No. I could not.’
‘Yes. Yes, you must.’ Laleh waves her fork. ‘And then you have a big birthday party too. Invitation all the children.’
Arum shakes her head. ‘But Rafi’s birthday is already finished.’
Sabeen leans her chest against the table. Her voice is heavy with disappointment as she says, ‘We were supposed to go to Basra for my sixteenth birthday.’
Arum turns to look at her. A tiny mole teeters on the bottom eyelid of her left eye that always reminds Arum of a tear. She knows Sabeen escaped to England before finding her way to Christmas Island. Of the three of them, she’s the one who always says she will return home, as soon as all the trouble is over.
‘My mother come from there. She used to say it was like Venice. Beautiful. You ever been to Venice?’
Arum shakes her head, but Laleh says, ‘Yes. It is beautiful.’
‘I will go back,’ Sabeen says. She turns to Arum. ‘Do you miss home?’
Arum stares at the palm fronds that cast their tiger-stripe shadow across the lower leaves. She thinks of how excited they were when they were contacted to say the visa was approved. A new life in Australia! But then she thinks of her mother, of her firm hug at Soekarno-Hatto airport, how her eyes were smiling but her bottom lip jerked. She feels a dip of sadness, but then a flutter, like the tremble of powdery moth wings against the inner wall of her belly. Her baby.
She lifts her shoulder. ‘No. This is my home now.’
On Sunday she catches the 180 to Mott Park with Rafi. At kindy drop off on Friday morning, she heard Josh talking about Tom’s birthday party, so she has a gift-wrapped box of Lego in her bag. She thought about Laleh’s words for three days, uncertainty slippery in her guts. By Saturday she has formed a plan. She will sidle up to the party. If the parents seem aghast to see her, she will say they are passing through the park, looking for the swings. If they are friendly, she will pretend, like Laleh suggested, that they were invited, offer them the gift of Lego.
Balanced on her lap is a lunch box with the risoles she has cooked for the party. They’re Indonesian style, not the lumps of mince they call rissoles here. Arum knows a baker in Runcorn who cooks risoles and other Indonesian pastries, but she charges three dollars a piece, minimum 20 pieces. So Arum looked up the recipe on Google, made them herself. She’s hoping that once the other mums taste how delicious they are, they’ll ask her about them, talk to her.
But when she packed them into the lunch box before leaving the house, she could tell that the risoles have not turned out well. She hasn’t gotten the crepe layer right—it’s too thick, too dry—and there’s not enough carrot in the filling. They’re supposed to look like soft spring rolls but, instead, they’re deflated and greasy. She considered not bringing them, but she has spent four hours on them and they still tasted good.
She takes Rafi’s hand as they step from the bus. From the path, she can see the park bench with balloons bobbing in the breeze, the small groups of parents standing near the children. Uneasiness gurgles in her stomach, like she’s swallowed too much soft drink. She wants to turn around, climb back onto the bus, but it’s pulling away.
‘Oh look, Harriet, it’s Rafi.’ Harriet’s mum smiles at Arum as she takes a bag from the boot of her car. She tells Harriet to run ahead with Rafi and falls into step with Arum. She tells Arum her name is Jodie, and when she asks for Arum’s name, she repeats it twice, like she’s tasting it.
Arum sniffs the air, looks up at the blue sky. It is always curious to her that this country has no real smell, except maybe at times like this, among the trees, when it smells of something like crumpled bay leaves and the sharpness of dirt.
As they approach the party, Jodie peels off to talk to two other mothers. Arum treads forward, her smile fixed, her muscles tensed, ready to keep moving if she senses the slightest animosity. But she’s not even sure which ones are Tom’s parents, and nobody seems to notice her.
She approaches the picnic table, and silty dirt slips into her sandals, grass prickles the sides of her feet. She places the container of risoles between a packet of pink biscuits and a bowl of stout sausages that are the colour of red balloons.
Jodie beckons and introduces her to the two mothers she’s with. They’re talking about making something for the kindy, something to do with dinosaurs and green. She wants to join in, but knows her tongue will turn into a snail. Her eyes scout the crowd of children until they rest on Rafi’s black hair. He’s waiting by the swing with the scooped seat for small bottoms, watching Harriet swoop up into the air and back. At the table a kid, younger than the others, inspects the food, his fingers hooked over the side of the table, his nose resting against the edge. He reaches out and places three fingers on the top risole, presses, takes his hand back and licks it. Then he rummages through a bowl of chips, takes a handful and runs off.
Arum slaps at a midge that nibbles at her right shoulder as she follows the others to the table. Her fingers slip across the sweat that trickles into the cleft of her collarbone. Jodie hands her a cup of orange cordial and reaches for a piece of watermelon for herself. Nobody is eating the risoles. Arum wants to cover them, take them away even, but doesn’t want to appear anxious. Maybe, in half an hour, she will put the lid back on, keep them for dinner.
Rafi still stands by the swing, watching Harriet. He turns to Arum, points at the girl as she swings high into the air, kicking her legs forward. He wants a turn.
But her attention is drawn to Josh’s mum who leans in close, inspects the risoles before picking one up. She’s chatting with the skinny mum, brings the risole to her lips, pauses as she nods and says something. She waves the risole twice before finally taking a bite. An ant tickles its way across Arum’s heel. She can’t tell if Josh’s mum likes the risole or not—she just keeps chewing and talking, reaches for a napkin, presses it to her mouth. Arum’s chest swells, she wonders if Josh’s mum is about to spit into it, but she pulls the napkin away, glances at the lipstick mark she’s left on the tissue.
Rafi is still pointing at the swing, glancing over his shoulder at her. She makes her way to him, asks, ‘What is it, Rafi?’
He keeps pointing at the swing, pleats his ear with his other hand.
‘Why don’t you get on the other swing, Rafi?’ She points at the empty, flat swing-seat that jangles in tune with Harriet’s movements. ‘I will help you.’
He shakes his head.
A mother—maybe the birthday boy’s mum—buzzes by with a friendly smile. Arum smiles back, and catches a glimpse of Josh’s mum, as she wraps the rest of the risole in a napkin, places it on the table.
Arum’s eyes drop to the girl. She watches her brown curls feather across her cheeks each time she tucks her legs in and swings back. ‘Maybe Rafi can go on swing, Harriet?’ But the girl just frowns, shakes her head no, surges upwards.
Arum looks over at her risoles, which are wilting in the sun. A fly lands on one, rubs its hands over the glistening breadcrumbed surface. She turns back just in time to see Rafi whip the seat out from under Harriet, how the girl lands on her hands and knees, screeching.
‘Rafi,’ she gasps.
Rafi squints up at her and tucks his hand under his armpit, flaps his elbow.
Mirandi Riwoe’s novella The Fish Girl won Seizure’s Viva la Novella and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her debut novel is She Be Damned.