My mother is a white lady. In my head, she has Cinderella’s hair and Snow White’s skin. Her voice sounds beautiful, in my head. She never stutters or fumbles her words because her tongue knows how to move in just the right way – it doesn’t get caught between her teeth like Father’s. No, my mother’s words are perfect. They listen to me and they tell me things and they make me feel special. When my mother speaks, I am special. I know I’m special because I’m the only one who can hear her voice, and when I do, I feel her words chirping around my tonsils. It soothes me. When she whispers and rolls her ‘R’s, I imagine that she’s hugging me. And I like that. I like the feeling of a hug, and I like my white mother. I love my white mother. In my head, she loves me too.
Father never tells me who my mother really is, why she is gone. When I ask him, his wrinkles stiffen and his eyes shout at me. It’s a subject he wants to ignore, but I don’t know why. Shouldn’t he love her?
The only thing he tells me is that she is white. He can’t ignore that. Nobody can. Customers always stare at me. It’s hard not to see how light and brown my hair looks under all the red lanterns, and my skin looks so pale beneath my uniform: the same bright red qipao Mama Julie wears. With Mama, it looks normal, but with me, people raise their eyebrows. They don’t expect to see such a white girl packing Chow Mein into silver containers. But Joseph says it’s always been that way. People have been giving me looks since the day I was born.
“The only difference is that they used to spend all day talking about how cute you were,” Joseph says.
“But they don’t do that anymore, big brother. Now they just think I’m weird.”
“That’s when you just have to ignore them, kiddo. People always feel threatened by what they don’t understand.”
Listen. I want to tell you a bit about Joseph, because after my mother, he’s the most important person in my life. He’s my brother, but he’s 15 years older than me and we look nothing alike. We have similar noses (fat little buttons with no bridge), but that’s about it. I could never call him ‘Joseph’ to his face. He’s so much older than I am, it feels disrespectful. But he doesn’t say my name either. I’m ‘kiddo’ to him, not Lily. It should make me feel small, but when he calls me ‘kiddo’, it just makes me feel comfortable.
Joseph doesn’t have a white mother like I do, but he does have a real mother that he can touch. She’s a Chinese lady, but she’s very dark, almost brown. Long face, tight bun of strict black hair, and a constant catfish-frown on her lips. She makes me call her Mama Julie. She doesn’t live with us in the takeaway, but every weekend she comes to work with us, cook us some dinner, and hate me. I don’t know why she hates me, but she does. Whenever we meet, she greets me with the same words: “Oh, pretty little girl getting fat, huh?”
I used to hate it when she said that, but now I just think of the words Joseph told me. People always feel threatened by what they don’t understand.
But Joseph does understand me, mostly. I can’t feel his words in my throat, but I can feel them stretching my brain. Joseph knows things. My big brother knows things. More things than anybody. The only reason I can say I love Joseph is because he taught me to understand love. Before then, I didn’t get it at all – it kept treating me differently each time I saw it, kept smiling at me one day and frowning the next.
“Love has its own emotions,” Joseph said. We were in the kitchen, cleaning up after a late shift. Joseph was holding a mop, wiping dried sauce from the floor, while I swept pieces of diced garlic and spring onion with a dustpan and brush. From out front, we could hear Father slamming cupboards and moving chairs along the ground, so we tried to speak quietly. “We all have our happy loves and our angry loves, but that doesn’t stop it from being love. You understand that, don’t you, kiddo?”
“Yes, I understand that,” I said, “but, big brother, your angry love isn’t the same as Father’s angry love. How can two things be the same when they’re so different?”
“Well, you know how some people can be Chocolate People, and others can be Kitten People?”
I nodded my head.
“Well, kiddo, Chocolate People are always gonna give you Chocolate Love. And when that Chocolate Love is good, it’s always gonna be sweet and delicious. But when it’s bad, it’s gonna make you feel sick and greedy and ashamed of yourself. You know what I mean? Kitten Love’s always gonna be cute and playful until the day it decides to randomly scratch you.”
“And what about everybody else? What other types of love are there?”
“Loads. An unlimited amount. Too many to describe.”
“Okay,” I said, “But what about father? What kind of love does he give?”
Joseph rubbed his eyes and chuckled.
“Oh, kiddo. You ask some difficult questions.”
“It’s okay if you don’t have an answer.”
“No, no. I have an answer. I’ve thought about this a lot.” Joseph knelt down and placed his great big hands over my shoulders. “Look, kiddo, you probably won’t understand this, but our father’s love is medicine. It is. It might taste foul, and you might not want it, but it will make you better. You can trust me on that. Father’s love is nothing but medicine.”
Yes, I suppose I did tell her that our father’s love is medicine. Bit of an odd comparison, I know – slightly cheesy – but it made sense at the time. What you have to understand is, when you talk to Lily, you need to speak to her in a way that will actually touch her brain. She has a unique mind, one that’s made from skin rather than words or letters. She will feel even the smallest thought, and the smallest thought has the capacity to tickle her or soothe her or cut her or bruise her.
It makes sense that she thinks that way. Words don’t mean anything in our house. Just look at the way our father runs the take away; he has a million different hand gestures and facial expressions to direct you with, but no words. He’ll simply mime a stirring motion at you if he wants you to prepare the sauce, or chop against his palm to say: “Go cut the vegetables”. The only words I’ve heard him say in the kitchen are the numbers on the menu.
But look, I’ve been studying my father for a long time and, by now, I’ve sussed out all the different things he says in his silence. I’d consider myself an expert. I could tell you my father’s mood, just by listening to the way he sharpens his knife (the blade will hum if he’s happy, hiss if he’s mad), but that doesn’t mean I expect Lily to notice all the same things. I don’t expect her to notice how much his lips quiver when he shouts at her. She’s just a kid. Hopefully she’ll understand one day, but sometimes I do wonder. She spends a lot of time in her room, whispering under her breath, talking more to her imaginary friends than she does to anybody else. That’s why I told her that our father’s love is medicine – she needed to know how good his love can be, how vital.
Lily needs to know a lot of things. She needs to know about the smile on our father’s face when he first brought her home. She needs to know how many times Mama stayed up crying, feeding her and rocking her to sleep. But more than anything, she needs to know about herself, about where she came from. I need to know where she came from too. When we first took her in, I tried asking Mama and Father about it nearly every day, but I always got the same reply. “The hows and whys don’t matter. All that matters is that she is here.”
But come on, look, I’m not dumb. I’ve never really cared about how or why. I’ve only ever cared about who.
Not me. Not mine. Though she taste milk like mine, slept in arms like mine, stop crying only when Mama Julie say hush hush. Not mine, though I named her, gave her who she is. Lily. Little white flower.
She came from the other one. The tall one, the red hair one with small speck of sun on her cheek. My head pictures that woman well. The first time we meet, I see her walking around church with her knees together, her hand in shape of praying, greeting everyone with “God bless” like good Christian woman. Such a good Christian woman until the day she take my husband and anoint him with the smell of her.
I never know why he do that, why he hurt me when he say he love me. Love me. You don’t share love with other woman sheets, don’t share what’s mine. I tell you what’s mine: his love mine, his face mine, the smoke of his stubble mine, the scar between his thumb and finger mine, the chocolate mole on his cheek mine, his children – every children he have and ever have – all mine. Everything mine if he love me, everything his if I love him.
But he broke our everything when he had that other one. I was going to leave straight then, take Joseph with me, but then he say that the other one is pregnant. He take my arm and he say “please, please, please” and “sorry, sorry, sorry”, but I don’t forgive. I only forgive when I see my little white flower. I know I have to stay when I look at her, because in her face I see toothless kindness. Teardrop eyes that sparkle and say they need me.
So I forgive as long as I have to. Stay as long as I have to. Treat her like mine, raise her like mine, until Joseph old enough to take care of her. Then I let go, just before she remember me. Visit just to see her and push her away, call her fat, ugly, pretend I don’t need her. Otherwise it hurt too much.
Lily, I love. Joseph, I love. It hurt not to see them every day. But I have to let go. Have to. Not me. Not mine.
“It’s yours,” she said down the phone. Her voice was shaky, cracks biting at the ends of her words. She told me she didn’t want it, the child. She talked about the shame, the sin, the reasons she had to leave and hide and forget herself. But she said the child would be born, no matter what. “I won’t kill it. We’ve sinned once already. You’ll just have to raise it yourself.”
I said yes. When she invited me to her house, I said yes. When she asked if I was comfortable, I said yes. When she touched me, when I felt her skin, I said yes and yes and yes. So, when she asked me to raise the child, there was nothing left for me to say.
The moment Julie found out, about everything, she said no. First in a whisper, then in a shout. Then she said nothing but tears. Then she left and there was silence.
There’s a Chinese proverb: “Water and words are easy to pour but impossible to recover.”
Impossible to recover, the tears and the yesses. I’ve learned to say nothing.
When you say nothing, you start to notice things. Recently, I was out front, closing down the takeaway, when I overheard two people chatting in the kitchen. Walking behind the counter, I placed my ear against the door. It was Lily and Joseph. They were speaking quietly, but I could just about hear the croaky rumbles of their voices. As I tuned into their conversation, I heard Joseph chuckle and start to speak.
“Our father’s love is medicine,” I heard him say, “it is. It might taste foul, and you might not want it, but it will make you better.”
The words made my heart feel thick in my chest. Medicine: it will make you better. I wanted to tell Joseph he was wrong. My love could never be medicine, could never heal, never recover. My love could only break things: the family, Julie’s heart, Lily’s light-skinned face. My love was illness. My love was water and words, poured so easily into the wrong place, in the wrong way. And now it was irrecoverable.
So I stood, and I stayed silent.
‘What They Don’t Understand’ was published in 2016 as part of the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology, Undertow.