by N L King
Kim ignores her father’s voice. She scrolls down her Instagram feed and taps a witty reply to her Canadian friend, Stevie.
Kim sighs and closes her phone. Her father is in the dark lounge room watching Gardening Australia.
Tomorrow Bo will have Kim planting whatever Peter Cundall has just planted on TV. Their urban block is a tiny farm. Chooks live in the chook-house Bo built when Ma was still alive. They get eggs and sometimes meat, although Kim shudders to think of Linh and Mai in a curry. The cat, Quan pays his way too. Bo keeps score of Quan’s kills in the notebook in his shirt pocket.
‘Kim, tomorrow it’s onions.’
Kim reaches for the tray. Bo’s plate is pristine, and she wonders if he licks his plate clean to make sure not a morsel is wasted.
‘It’s dark in here, Bo.’
The blind clatters noisily as it rolls to the top. Sunlight streams in, illuminating Bo’s pained face.
‘Why, Kim? Why you not careful?’
Shrugging, Kim leaves the lounge, tray in hand. Her phone pings with a DM (direct message). Kim hopes it’s Laney from Sydney. Laney posts on Insta three times a day and Kim comments on each of them.
How’s it going?
So, so. Looks like I’ll be planting onions tomorrow.
What are you doing?
Rob and I are looking at rings.
He finally asked? Congratulations!
Thanks, Kim. I’m so happy.
Kim snaps her phone shut. It’s not that she isn’t happy for Laney, weddings just make her uncomfortable; like she’s been forgotten. How many 36-year-olds live at home? How many single, almost-virgin (her relationship with Michael ended over seven years ago) 36-year-olds live at home, look after their Dad and the family business? Mostly Kim doesn’t go into the bakery, her brother, Danh took over the business. Kim does the books. Danh inherited the family business and Kim inherited their father.
Danh lives above the bakery with his wife, Lily, and their daughters. Lily styles hair for a flock of older Vietnamese women who lean heavily on the bannister to pull themselves up the stairs. She bows at the top of the stairs and offers them iced-coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
Before Ma died seven years ago, Kim had a sex life and dreams for her own family. She wanted two little Michaels; Eurasian children with the best of Kim and Michael. After Ma died from a stroke, Bo was like a lost child. Kim left Michael and their modern three-bedroom townhouse and moved home with Bo.
She would hold Bo’s hand and steer him to the vegetable garden. When he was cold and lonely, she gave him chilli plants and coriander. Weeks passed, Michael insisted Kim return, but she couldn’t leave Bo staring out of windows with dull, empty eyes. When she discovered Gardening Australia,she moved Bo from the windows to the television.
A few months after Ma passed, Bo’s neighbour, Elena, stopped Kim in the street. Kim took home a cardboard box and showed Bo a male kitten mewing piteously. Bo reached in, pulled the kitten out, and tucked him within the folds of his flannel shirt. He kissed the top of the kitten’s head and murmured ‘Quan’. Quan brought Bo back to the land of the living, and soon outgrew his big kitten eyes and squashed up nose and became a killing machine of rodents.
After a morning digging in onions, Kim showers and leaves Bo in front of the television. He watches reruns of Escape to the Country. He likes the English countryside and dreams of green fields. He talks about apple trees and asks Kim to Google ancient varieties. Bo says the Chinese were the first to graft apple trees and he wishes Ma were alive so they could tour the world visiting orchards. Every time Kim comes home with a bag of Pink Ladies, Bo clicks his tongue and asks why she hasn’t brought him Pippins.
Kim raises her eyebrows. If Ma was alive, she and Bo would run the bakery, Danh would have a mechanics business, and Kim would still have Michael, regular sex, and dreams of two little Michaels. They would not be debating the merits of ancient apple varieties. She bangs down the apples on the kitchen counter; part of her hoping the rough handling will bruise the fruit.
After showering, Kim gives Bo lunch. She rolls up the blind carefully and reminds him to take his pills. Bo nods impatiently, his eyes don’t leave the screen. She settles in front of her laptop and runs over figures for the bakery. Danh has changed suppliers and Kim suspects they’re being swindled.
She hears Bo switch off the television, shuffle into the kitchen in his slippers and fill a glass with water. He hates pills; convinced that’s why Ma died. The screen door bangs. Bo is probably inspecting the onions and planning an orchard. He’ll limp to the back and sit with the chooks, cluck his tongue and talk nonsense.
Steve takes a playful swipe at Kim on Insta. She had posted a photo of Bo holding a shovel and Stevie asks why she makes her old Dad work? Kim’s fingers fly. She DMs Laney. Laney asks if she will fly over for the wedding and be her bridesmaid. Kim says she’s too old to be a bridesmaid.
The sky opens. Rain pours down on the tin roof. Kim purses her lips in self-satisfaction thinking about the onions. Quan meows at the back door. Sighing, Kim gets up and flicks on the kettle. Quan can wait. She sits back down with her milky coffee and hopes Bo will come in soon. She doesn’t want him catching a cold. His slippers will mess the floor and she only vacuumed yesterday. Quan keeps up a plaintive mew.
Kim switches on a light and goes over the bakery accounts, lines up numbers and then she spots it. The number that doesn’t fit. She doubts Danh and his too trusting nature.
Stretching her shoulders, Kim glances at her phone and can’t believe Bo has been in the rain for so long. She hopes he hasn’t fallen asleep with the chooks. Sometimes, he wets the bed. Could his piss affect the eggs?
Quan’s cries grow louder. Slipping into crocs, Kim moves to the back door. She peers into the rain as Quan winds his tail around her legs.
‘Bo?’ Kim calls. Then, she panics. Is Bo lying on the ground?
Running, she slides through dirt in her crocs. Stands over Bo with rain pelting down her face. Blood has pooled around his head. His body twists awkwardly. She knows he is dead before she checks his pulse.
She sinks to her knees. Rain comes down fast. The sky is an angry black. The chooks are in their house. Quan stares unblinking from the verandah. Kim cradles her father’s head and caresses his white hair. She can’t move. She sits in the downpour and cries.
Weeks later, when Bo is next to Ma at the cemetery, Kim wanders around the house. She stares out of windows, strokes Quan absentmindedly. She watches Gardening Australiaand reruns of Escape to the Country. She googles ancient varieties of apple trees and fertilises the vegetables in the back garden. Eggs pile up in the kitchen.
Kim drives past the townhouse where she lived with Michael. They sold the townhouse years ago. Kim’s share of furniture is in the garage. Bo covered it in tarps and tied it up into a neat square of Kim’s old life. Michael married his hygienist. They run a professional looking dental clinic and have two little Michaels who are blond.
Kim is empty; a hollow vessel. She welcomes grief and avoids Insta. Lily cuts her hair. Kim lets the Vietnamese ladies pat her hand and pretends to be happy with her new hairstyle.
At home, in front of the bathroom mirror she questions why she’s still alone. She shouldn’t be alone in a large house. Kim offers the house to Danh, but he says it’s easier to live above the bakery. She empties Bo’s pills into the toilet and watches them twirl before they dance into the sewer.
Days and nights merge. Kim dozes most days and prowls the house and garden with Quan at night. She records Gardening Australia.Months after Bo’s funeral, she is at the cemetery planting chilli plants and coriander at the grave site.
More time passes. Kim finds Quan as stiff as a piece of card. She buries him under the frangipani tree. She knows it’s time for the chooks to make tracks and puts a notice on Gumtree. Kim helps the young couple excitedly dismantle the chook-house Bo had built from cast-off pallets.
She flies to Sydney for Laney’s wedding, wears a too-tight, too-pink dress and swings her thick black hair over her shoulder as Laney climbs into a limousine. Kim helps her nieces with their homework and talks to Danh about upgrading the bakery ovens. She harvests onions and cries when she pulls them out of the earth. The house isn’t the same without Quan, the chooks, and Bo’s enthusiastic planting.
One Sunday afternoon, Kim eats a sandwich on the grave. Swigging at water, she looks up at the bright blue Western Australian sky. Kneeling on the ground, her bare legs warm in the sunshine, Kim digs in cherry tomato plants. Sitting back, she sighs and laughs. Her laugh catches her by surprise. She is shocked she remembers how to laugh.
She remembers Bo and Ma and their tomatoes. They fled South Vietnam in 1979 and arrived in Geraldton with thousands of other Vietnamese who fled the North Vietnamese Army and wanted new lives. Bo and Ma became tomato farmers.
Danh and Kim grew up amongst tomatoes. After school the pair helped out and Kim grew to hate tomatoes. Now she digs them in on her parents’ grave and thinks about the old days.
She reminisces about that day before market when the family spent hours packing tomatoes. Bo carefully stacked towers of crates onto his ute. Ma wiped her hands on her apron in satisfaction as Bo pulled onto the road. Danh realised Bo hadn’t fastened the back of the ute but was too late with his warning.
The crates swayed dangerously as the ute picked up speed. Ma screamed for Bo to stop. The towers toppled and tomatoes tumbled. Ma stared as tomatoes rolled tumultuously over bitumen. Kim thought Ma would cry, seeing her mother’s shoulders shake.
When Bo stepped from the ute, Ma was laughing. She laughed so hard, tears streamed down her face. Bo walked over, kissed Ma on the cheek and they rescued tomatoes together.
The memory never left Kim. Even now, if Danh or Kim mentions the ‘tomato incident’ one of them giggles, tears spilling down their face. Bo mentioned the tomatoes in his eulogy at Ma’s funeral; his admiration of her sense of humour and the ease with which she dealt with hardship. He was her greatest admirer, and she was his ray of sunshine. Kim hopes she’ll be someone’s ray of sunshine one day.
Kim’s laptop is on the kitchen bench. An enrolment page for arboriculture casts a blue-ish tinge over the room. Scent from the frangipani tree floats in through the window and a gentle breeze from the Indian Ocean blows across Kim’s home.