Fiona McMahon settled into her wicker rocker as the Brisbane stilled between its lazy tides. From the back porch of her old Queenslander she could watch the river ebb and flow: measure the days by its rise and fall, and by the traffic slipping quietly over its muddy brown surface. She lowered her eyes, blurring out the river’s full, sleepy, swell and the tiny cross-river ferry bobbing, toy like, between the banks and allowed her mind to drift. Meira would be shopping now … probably standing in the Indian greengrocery in Hardy Road testing poor Duval Singh about the freshness of his herbs and the quality of the spices she needed for the evening meal. It would be complex; Meira’s meals were invariably complex Indian concoctions with at least five dishes plus popadoms, dhal, naan ….
Fiona settled lower in her chair as an odd mixture of sadness and excitement washed over her. Tugging at her heart was the loss of her child’s innocence, which in itself brought hope, and excitement, of things to come. She breathed deeply, soothing herself and taking comfort in the certain knowledge that the journey her daughter was about to undertake was inevitable: its dangers unavoidable and, in any case, essential elements in her preparation.
Her eyelids relaxed and her breathing slowed as she let her mind drift back over Meira’s childhood: over the early school years in Beirut; college days here in Brisbane; the boys calling; the joys and tears of relationships; days with her father. What a wonderful man Hessnie turned out to be. What a wonderful choice of father for this special child: this very special young woman.
She awoke much later and was immediately aware that the river had come alive, and was ebbing rapidly east now carrying the nutrients from land to sea; their progress marked by the slender channel markers raising bow waves in the swirling muddy currents. Blinking into consciousness she realized she must have slept as the river had slept, taken her nap as the old waterway had snoozed between ebb and flow. As her vision cleared a sleek blue and white river cat came sweeping downstream: her decks filled with returning city commuters, their minds full of evening meals, the test playing out its lengthy saga at the Wooloongabba Cricket Ground, kids at home with endless appetites, lawns to be mowed, fences to be fixed, cars to be washed, scouts, netball practice: comfortable, easy, everyday things that were no longer part of her life. From the kitchen came the chopping and clattering of furious food preparation as Meira raised the tempo to signal her need for company. If she needed any confirmation that her period of tranquil communion was at an end Fiona found it in the exotic aromas wafting out to the deck: filling the tired old house with fresh promise.
Neither mother nor daughter had spoken of Meira’s decision to go in search of her father since she announced it, and neither would until they thought the time was right, but it had left gaps. Conversations had been short; silences were lengthy, but mildly comforting in their familiarity for they had never been voluble in their disputes. They were never demonstrative. There were no slammed doors, or stamped feet, because each preferred to leave the pot to cool rather than fuel an irrational fire. Theirs was still a long, and deep, love that had progressed over the years from that of mother and child, to adolescent and mentor, and, in these later years, to a growing equality as friends. It had been a fine beginning, Fiona decided, but only a beginning.
She roused herself and stepped out along the veranda to the back hallway where the wall mirror allowed her to watch her daughter as she worked by the stove. Meira was wearing a loose, fine cotton, blouse over pale baggy jeans but it was easy to see she had gained weight living in Hong Kong. Probably the fine wine and dining, Fiona mused, and why not? She was sexy, no doubt about it, and pretty. A foot-loose young woman should enjoy her beauty years, exploit those lusty suitors, and revel in romantic dinners and pompous cocktail parties aboard the swanky yachts gracefully moored beside the Hong Kong Yacht Club.
Then there was Rodger; the one man. The one man who carried her away on whirlwind of parties and exciting romantic weekends to Taipei, Beijing, Tokyo and even a trip here, to Old Brissy to visit mother. It ended in tears of course, as such intense relationships always do; even if there was a loss of appetite for the rich foods and romance for a while, the drinking continued. It all added up, and ended up, on her hips poor child.
She had cut her hair in the aftermath of the Rodger debacle and it suited her, showing off the long neck, and the classic high cheekbones she inherited from her grandmother. Her father had given her his olive skin, and dark hair, but Hessnie was a short man: not more than a hundred and sixty-seven centimeters. Although Meira was taller than that, she was not a tall woman. This might have exaggerated the effect of her extra weight because she was by no means fat, and she had her own bright green eyes. Lucky girl. With those eyes, and a comfortable bosom, she would always be able to take her pick of the men.
The phone on the table beside her rang. Fiona answered quickly. “Can I call you back?” A short pause and she hung up.
Leaning tentatively into the kitchen she said, “Can I do something?” She did her best to sound submissive before Meira’s tight lips, and determined demeanour, but her daughter’s expression showed no sign of acknowledging it.
“You could lay the table. Find some glasses. Pull the cork.” Meira barely broke her concentration over the smoking wok but Fiona could see her mind was busy, her eyes roving over the spice jars scattered across the work surface. Had used them all, Fiona wondered, and knew her daughter was wondering who it was on the phone, and why she had answered it so quickly, and what she would do if she actually found her father.
“I still can’t get over your indifference mother. How can you be so unconcerned?” They were nearing the end of the meal, the final moves in a long ritual: the purpose all but achieved. “I know you care. I know you loved him, but you never seemed concerned at being deserted. I can’t get over that.”
Until now Fiona had said nothing because her daughter her daughter was so unshakable in her judgement, but once their stomachs were full, and their appetites satisfied, there were no more barriers to the inevitable conversation. “If you have to go, you have to go,” Fiona’s tone was quietly resigned. “There’s nothing further I can do or say, except to be mindful of your business. Your father would not want you to neglect that.”
Meira turned on her, her eyes wide, her anger clear. “You speak as if he were still with us. You speak as if he is just around the corner, that he will be home at any minute.” Her frustration was bubbling to the surface as she held her gaze, staring hard, allowing the full force of her anger to be directed to her mother. “He deserted us mother. He walked out of this house nine years ago and you behave as if it were only yesterday. As if it never happened.”
Fiona recognised the anger deep within her daughter, and could plainly see her frustration at hearing it all coming out wrong. Meira was angry, yes, but angry with men. She was angry with her father, and she was angry with Roger – although she no longer considered him a man – but she was not angry with her. Rodger, she knew, could go to hell and back, but she did still miss her father, and she was both fearful, and confused, because she could tell that her mother did not share the pain.
Meira had in fact doted on her dad, listened to his every word, to each carefully articulated sentence so closely, so attentively, as to be obsessive. In rapturous schoolgirl adoration she watched his soft brown eyes dancing back and forth as he adjusted the little mirrors in his laboratory, focusing the Sun from the window onto whatever it was he was treating. It was for him that she worked so hard at the school in Beirut, and even harder at the university in Brisbane. It was for him that, after only two years, she won two prizes, and then he left. How could he? How could he do that to her?
These were the questions her daughter was now resolved to answer, and had made it clear she would find him because she believed he was too big, too clever, and too active in business and government, never to have been seen, or heard of, again.
“He will turn up Mother, and I will find him. I will not be cheated of my father.”
Fiona busied herself with the plates. Long used to these debates she was waiting for the angry words to die in the air. As they cleared the table, rinsed the dishes, she ventured, “Do you have to go tonight?”
“No, I do not have to go tonight. I might never have to go at all if you would open up. If you would give me some clue as to why my father, your husband of twenty-two years, suddenly, and without hint or warning, disappeared from our lives I would not have to go, but that is not the case. Is it mother? You tell me nothing of your early life together. I have to guess. You have always behaved as if you knew why he had gone, and when he would return, but he never came back, and he never called or wrote. Did he? Did he?”
It was a plea, a searching question and a cry for help in a rising, almost trill note, but Fiona left it there. She was expert at the unanswered question. There was nothing of value to say.
Meira dropped her shoulders in resignation. They had been over it too many times. “So I will go tonight. I will take the night flight to Bangkok and connect with the morning flight to Cairo and, if he’s still alive, I will find my father and wring his bloody neck for the pain he caused us. If my business, his bloody business, in Hong Kong suffers while I am doing it, then to hell with it. I don’t like the damn jewellery business anyhow.”
Out on the back deck the scene was familiar: a cigarette for Fiona; a second glass of wine for Meira; the Brisbane alive with the evening river cats slipping back into the city for movies, theatre, rich food in dark restaurants, dancing, romance, escapes …. “It’s not so long to Bangkok, less than nine hours. You might want to stay there a few days, see the temples, the floating market. Chinatown is really something in Bangkok. No need to hurry to Cairo, or anywhere for that matter.” Fiona knew she was sowing seed on fallow ground for history had shown that when her daughter was resolved, and she clearly was resolved, she would not be distracted.
Meira nodded in acknowledgement, and then they were in the street outside, the diesel cab rattling, her bags loaded, time ticking. In the warmth of that evening under a cloudless Queensland sky they hugged long: Fiona giving her daughter all she could. A taxi had seemed preferable to driving together in sombre silence to the airport but it had accelerated their parting, leaving them strangely naked, and unprepared, for the final moments. Softly they released each other, parting awkwardly, their eyes filling.
“I may not be long,” Meira sniffed. “I might find him quickly. I’ll call you from Cairo.”
Fiona smiled, and then it was only her. She was left to watch the cab’s brake lights flare at the junction to Vulture Street, then quietly disappear. She turned to the house, empty now, its purpose served. She had only to make the call.
“There was no stopping her. She’s as ready as she’ll ever be. It’s up to you now.” She hung up. Her life had changed.