‘Who wants to try a chicken wing?’ Cara Pope stopped at the doorway to the living room as two heads swivelled around to face her.
‘Meeeeeeeeeee!’ Her daughter, Poppy, leapt up from the piano stool and ran towards the kitchen.
‘Hey, little girl, you come back here and finish your scales.’ Cara’s mother spoke with a rapid-fire delivery.
‘Ma, please. It’s been nearly an hour.’ Cara entwined her fingers behind her back. ‘She needs a break, and the party’s about to begin.’
Joy bent down to collect her handbag and a pile of sheet music from under the piano. ‘You are too soft with that
girl,’ she grumbled in Korean, which was what she always did when she didn’t want Poppy to understand. ‘Practice makes perfect.’
Cara bit her lip. ‘Come and eat something.’
In the kitchen she found Poppy smacking her lips and wiping sticky soy sauce off her lips. ‘Can I have another one?’
Cara smiled and picked up a tissue. ‘Just one, or there won’t be enough for the party.’
‘Little girl, you should wait for your elders.’ Her mother tapped Poppy on the shoulder before prodding at a wing.
‘Try one, Ma,’ Cara encouraged.
Joy picked up a wing and sniffed it before taking a small bite. ‘Good,’ she said, chewing. ‘They need more gochujang.’ Her mother went to reach for the fermented chilli paste.
‘Wait, Ma. These are for the neighbours. The annual street party. Remember I told you? Poppy’s going to wear the hanbok you had made.’
Poppy nodded. ‘It’s very pretty, Halmi. Thank you.’
Her mother let go of the chilli paste. ‘Then it is okay.’
Cara exhaled. ‘Would you like to stay, Ma? You’re very welcome.’
‘Will the lawyer be there?’
‘Alex? Yes, and you know Beth, the one who’s married to the real estate agent.’
Her mother cocked her head. ‘She is the one who asks for my kimchi recipe?’
‘That’s her. She loves your kimchi.’
‘She has a very clean house.’ Her mother grunted with approval, her eyes flicking to the dishes piled high in Cara’s sink. ‘I will not stay for this party. Your father will die of hunger if I am not home to feed him. So hopeless.’ She shrugged and sighed. ‘What can you do.’
Cara suppressed a smile. Her father had been the one who suggested she stay for the party. She is too much in this new house, he’d complained on the phone. Joy always made him ring to let Cara know she was on her way for Poppy’s piano lesson, as if she expected the little girl to be ready and waiting with hands poised on the keys for her arrival. Your mother needs to get out more. She loves this place like a baby, almost like she loves that church. So much praying. I think she will be the first Australian-Korean saint.
‘Oh, okay, Ma. That’s a shame you can’t stay.’ She paused and contemplated how to phrase what she was about to say. ‘They’ll be closing the street soon, and I would not want you to be delayed …’
Her mother’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Closing the street? Woh, these people and their parties. So strange. Why would you want to eat in a street when you all have nice houses.’ Her gaze went to the peeling wallpaper above the oven. ‘Some are nice.’ Clutching her bag more tightly, she patted Poppy on the shoulder and headed for the hallway. ‘Goodbye, little girl. Practise your scales twice every day.’
At the front door, she went to remove her slippers and put her shoes back on.
‘Need some help?’ Cara bent down to pick up the shoes.
‘Who do you think I am? An old lady?’
Ignoring Cara’s outstretched hand, her mother instead reached for the wall to steady herself, putting her hand right near the wedding photo of Cara and Pete. Joy’s gaze went to it, and she shivered, blessing herself, as she always did.
‘Such bad luck.’ She shook her head and gave Cara a look that asked her for the thousandth time why she chose to stay in the broken-down old cottage that was saddled with no dishwasher, and the curse of a death of a man in his prime.
Cara kept silent.
Shoes on, Joy was out the door in a hurry. No goodbye. No I love you. Not even a See you next week. Just gone.
‘Bye, Ma. Thanks for the lesson,’ Cara called, and her mother waved without turning around. Further down the street, she could see Beth and Max, setting up the barbecue on the Pezzullos’ front lawn, and Alex’s twins playing in the driveway with their new guinea pig.
Waiting for the little lawnmower engine of her mother’s ageing Daihatsu sedan to come to life (Joy believed in good appliances over good cars), Cara allowed herself to shift focus from the street and back to the photo of her and Pete. She stepped closer, rubbing a speck of dust off his grey-green eyes, then flinched as the car emitted a tinny beep of farewell. Her mother’s way of saying goodbye.