Authors: Hsu-Ming Teo
Behind the Moon
Behind the Moon
First published in 2005
Copyright © Hsu-Ming Teo 2005
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
The Australian Copyright Act
1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter of 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
This project has been assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts, funding and advisory board.
Allen & Unwin
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National Library of Australia
Behind the moon.
ISBN 1 74114 243 1.
1. Refugees—Australia—Fiction. 2. Vietnamese
Australians—Fiction. I. Title.
Set in 11.5/14 pt Adobe Garamond by Midland Typesetters Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Thi Kim Uyen Truong—the best friend anyone could hope to have—and in memory of my late cousin, Raelene Hui Hoon Teo (1977–2004), who was much loved by family and friends, and who died during the writing of this novel.
A hundred years—in this life span on earth talent and destiny are apt to feud.
You must go through a play of ebb and flow and watch such things as make you sick at heart.
Is it so strange that losses balance gains? . . .
By lamplight turn these scented leaves and read a tale of love recorded in old books.
The Tale of Kieu
Table of Contents
As you must weigh and choose between your love and filial duty, which will turn the scale?
She put aside all vows of love and troth— a child first pays the debts of birth and care.
The Tale of Kieu
Justin Cheong believed in the truth that was to be found in toilets.
His earliest childhood memory was of going to a public toilet with his mother. Perhaps they were at McDonald’s, or perhaps they were in a food court in some suburban shopping centre where the glare of overhead fluorescent lights glanced off the laminated surfaces of tables and chairs, and the smell of sweet-and-sour Asian takeaway mingled with sizzling onions, chicken tikka and doner kebabs. Above the cacophony of conversations swelling in a maelstrom of noise, Annabelle screeched out, ‘Jay-Jay! Do you need to shee-shee?’
He shook his head vigorously. His neck swivelled like a periscope as he looked around to see whether anyone had heard Annabelle. Already, he was starting to develop the habit of censoring his mother in his head; eavesdropping on their conversation from an imaginary non-Asian point of view and marking out her oddness.
‘You better shee-shee now,’ Annabelle insisted. ‘I’m not going to stop the car afterwards if you need to go.’
The tips of his ears reddened with shame. Annabelle grasped his hand and hauled him off to the ladies’. She locked them both into a cubicle and heaved him up so that he was standing balanced precariously on the rim of the toilet. She pulled down his trousers and held on to his little body with a pincer-like grip so that he wouldn’t slip into the bowl. She flushed the toilet once so that no-one would hear the happy tinkle of his urine hitting water.
‘Aim properly and don’t make a mess for other people to clean up,’ she admonished him.
She tore off a couple of sheets of toilet paper and threw them down the loo. Who knew what had contaminated them? Then she wadded a few more sheets together, grasped the warm dough of his penis with her cold fingers, shook it carefully and patted it dry.
After she’d dressed him, yanking up the metal zip of his trousers with a speed that had him wincing even at that age, she tore off more toilet paper and wiped the rim clean before flushing. They stood there and watched the gush of water and the gurgling swirl of paper sucked down into the S-bend. She could not endure the shame of strangers thinking she had fouled the toilet. She and her husband Tek lived their lives to one mantra: what would people say?
‘If I ever catch you not washing your hands after going to the toilet, I’m going to twist your ear off,’ she told her son as she soaped and scoured their hands under the tap and blasted them under the hot breath of the hand-dryer. He nodded obediently; he was a good boy.
By the time Justin started primary school, he had begun to develop the thigh and calf muscles of a rugby league player from crouching over public toilets. He was small for a six-year-old so Annabelle still persisted in accompanying him to public toilets. To her great annoyance, however, he now refused to let her into the cubicle.
‘I can do it myself, Mummy,’ he insisted. ‘I can’t go if you’re in there.’
She tapped urgently on the locked door with her wedding and engagement rings. ‘Jay-Jay, don’t touch anything you don’t have to, you hear me? And don’t sit on the toilet seat!’
‘But I have to do a number two,’ he protested.
The tapping on the cubicle door grew more frantic, like a woodpecker on amphetamines.
‘You crouch, okay?’ Annabelle cried. ‘You listen to Mummy like a good boy. Don’t you dare sit on the toilet seat. If you do, I’ll wring your neck when you come out. You hear me? Are you sitting? Are you?’
Annabelle was hysterically clean. She disinfected the toilets in her house every day and kept aerosol cans of air freshener in her bathrooms. She was meticulous about personal hygiene. She showered twice a day, and after sex.
In his childhood, Justin was occasionally jerked out of deep sleep by the sound of the water pipes shuddering to life in the darkness. He’d roll over and check the luminous green hands of his Winnie the Pooh alarm clock. It would be nearly midnight. He could hear his mother showering in the bathroom next door. He’d ask her the following morning, ‘Mummy, how come you showered again last night?’
She’d reply, ‘Because Mummy got hot and sweaty changing the bedsheets.’
‘You’re always changing the sheets,’ he would say with a slow, sly smile.
She’d frown slightly and say, ‘Your daddy has an oily head. All that Brylcreem to keep his fringe back. It leaves stains on the pillowcase.’
Annabelle kept a toilet roll in her bedside drawer, next to lubricating creams and other sex aids. She was a woman who used a lot of toilet paper. Tons of timber were logged, entire forests felled, just to feed this habit. She judged relatives and friends, restaurants and hotels by the cleanliness of their toilets and the quality of their toilet paper.
Once, the Cheongs made the long drive from Strathfield all the way over to the eastern suburbs of Sydney to visit one of Tek’s colleagues who lived in Bellevue Hill. Annabelle marvelled at the white mansion with its slategrey roof and the Daimler in the driveway. A timber-decked pool sheltered behind a brushwood fence in the backyard. Inside the house, her eyes goggled at the sight of Turkish carpets—too expensive to be laid on the polished jarrah floorboards and trodden underfoot—warming the walls alongside the artwork. Chandeliers glimmered overhead in the hallway and lounge; recessed downlights glowed softly from the ceiling in other rooms. Antique occasional tables, inlaid wood cabinets and tallboys bore the weight of sculptures—some traditional and immediately recognisable; others funkily modern, their plasticated forms impressive to Annabelle largely because of the price tag imparted by the hostess in a discreet murmur upon Annabelle’s inquiry. On a marble mantelpiece, a pair of bronze chimpanzee hands clutched the air.
‘They were cast from the chopped-off hands of a real live chimpanzee,’ the hostess said. ‘There are only three of its kind in the world.’
,’ Annabelle said.
Then, before they left, she visited the guest bathroom. When she came out, her mouth was pinched in disapproval. She could barely wait until Tek navigated his way onto New South Head Road to twist around in her car seat and tell him indignantly, incredulously, ‘You know what? With all that money and art and antiques and monkey’s hands, you know what kind of toilet paper they use? One ply!’
‘Maybe it’s the rich
. I read the Queen uses cheap toilet paper in Buckingham Palace also,’ Tek said. ‘Better bring our own next time.’
‘You can tell a lot about a person by what goes on in their toilets,’ Annabelle declared.
Justin would remember this nearly a decade later when, at the age of fifteen, he first had sex in the men’s toilet in Strathfield Plaza.
He was twelve years old when he first wondered whether he was gay. He sat in a history class watching a video of
, staring at the Anzac soldiers swimming naked in translucent green water while shells exploded all around them. He was mesmerised. He could not take his eyes off those lithe white male bodies rippling in the sea, suspended in a water ballet of blood and carnage. At the end of the movie, his heart pounded painfully against his chest and his throat was sore with suppressed tears at the sight of Mark Lee frozen at the moment of death. Later, he hunted down a poster of the film and Blu-Tacked the picture of Mel Gibson and Mark Lee to his bedroom wall.
His father nodded approvingly. It was a sign, Tek thought, that Justin was growing up an Australian.
When Annabelle saw the semen stains on Justin’s sheets, she frowned and made him change them. She knew about wet dreams, of course. She was a doctor’s wife, after all. The involuntary oozings of her son’s adolescent body distressed her, but she sat him down and told him with kindly resignation that it wasn’t unusual if he couldn’t control it.
‘Jay-Jay is growing up,’ she sighed. ‘Can’t be helped, poor thing.’
Justin did not dare tell her it was deliberate. She was already in mourning for the armful of soft flesh she had once bathed, powdered and hugged to her face, drawing in a deep breath of its clean baby smell. Her son’s hard, hormonal body was suddenly alien to her. For a brief moment, she realised that she did not know him.
Then she said, ‘Must always change the sheets,
. Don’t let Mummy have to tell you again.’
She did not want to know about her son’s nocturnal imaginings. Sex was a four-letter word to Annabelle and it spelt DIRT.
This was a woman who tried to censor her son’s moviewatching habits, who, if she could, would have restricted him to Disney films featuring doe-eyed animals that chirruped and sang. She was fiercely protective of his innocence. Even when he was fifteen, Annabelle automatically slapped her hand over his eyes whenever a sex scene came on the TV screen. She ordered, ‘Don’t watch, Jay-Jay. Dirty things going on.’
Worst of all were the annual televised snippets of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Try as she might, Annabelle could not remain oblivious because, on some Sunday evening in March, she might turn on the television for the news and, suddenly, she’d be ambushed by the sight of the previous night’s parade. The moment she caught a glimpse of those floats and feathers, the glittering costumes and all that prancing flesh, she was riveted. She would stand there, paralysed with prurient shock, the remote control in her hand, repeating in fascinated horror, ‘
, look at all those
hum sup lohs
‘Terrible,’ Tek agreed. He frowned ferociously at the screen. ‘They shouldn’t show it on prime time television when children might be watching.’
Annabelle noticed that her son was in the living room. She pushed him out of the room and warned him, ‘Don’t look, Jay. Dirty like anything.’
Justin looked back over his shoulder at his parents and, loving them, did not say a word. He dropped his eyes to veil his shame. That night, in the dark, he huddled on the floor of his bedroom and steadily battered his head against the wall. He punched his arms and thighs over and over again until bruises bloomed on his body and he throbbed with pain. ‘I’m going to be good,’ he croaked. ‘I swear it.’ He wanted to cry, only there was nothing inside him but a parched wasteland of regret for the choices he was too afraid to make. At last, exhausted, he crawled into bed. In the loneliness of the night, he could not help reaching for his groin to make himself feel better. Orgasm was an agony of pleasure that made him feel dirty like anything. He knew he was too unclean for his family or his friends.
Nigel ‘Gibbo’ Gibson was Justin’s oldest and best friend. The two boys had met when they were six at Saturday afternoon piano lessons with Miss Yipsoon. They bonded immediately over a mutual lack of practice and a regular smack of Miss Yipsoon’s twelve-inch wooden ruler across small knuckles where the bones knotted through thin skin.
Disgrace inevitably attended each lesson. Justin forgot to trim his fingernails and the yellowed keys of the old Beale piano (they were not allowed to touch the glossy black Yamaha upright grand until they reached Grade 6) were in great danger of being
. Those nails were long enough to be a
. And as for Gibbo, his wrists drooped wilfully when he fingered his scales. The heavy dodecagons of fifty-cent coins were placed on the backs of Gibbo’s hands and his fingers were forced to crawl crab-like up and down the keyboard. The wooden ruler hovered menacingly as his fingers marched rightwards, then left, descending sharply whenever a coin fell off the back of his hand.
The trauma of shared humiliation was as good a basis for friendship as any at that age, and it certainly helped that their mothers got along so well. Annabelle was enchanted by the vestiges of Gillian Gibson’s English accent, and Gillian preened under her Asian friend’s admiration.
, Jay. See how Mrs Gibson speak so good English! Got standard,
‘Well,’ Gillian said modestly, ‘I
an elocutionist and a singing teacher. My own teacher learned from Julie Andrews’ teacher. Diction is everything. The separation of consonants, and clear, crisp vowels.’
‘I tell you what, Jay. You should learn to speak from her, you know. Then you can teach Mummy and Daddy,
? You want to take speech lessons with Mrs Gibson?’
‘I thought you and Dad migrated to escape the
culture of Singapore,’ he complained. ‘I don’t wanna take speech lessons.’
‘Must want. Cannot don’t want,’ Annabelle insisted.
Justin shrugged in resignation. It was inevitable. To the long list of after-school activities he was already enrolled in—tennis lessons, maths tutoring, Chinese classes— Annabelle added speech lessons with Gillian.
Gillian spent most of her mornings teaching aspiring opera singers diction and her afternoons tutoring NESB kids like Tien Ho in English. Tien was a Vietnamese refugee who had become friends with Gibbo when she was repeating Year 3 and she joined Gibbo’s class at school. Justin had met her a couple of times at the Gibsons’, but he did not get to know her until he went to school with her and Gibbo in Year 8.
By then, he had been expelled from his prestigiously expensive and hideously conservative private school for mysterious reasons that Tek Cheong angrily refused to believe. Tek did not once ask Justin if there was any truth to the scandalous allegations which were so appalling that of course no son of his could be involved. After all, this was the son who, as a three-year-old, had stood quiescent between Tek’s hairy legs after he had returned from work and slumped onto the sofa in his undershirt and shorts. When he commanded his son, ‘Lift legs, Jay-Jay,’ Justin bent down, wrapped his chubby arms around Tek’s shins and valiantly hauled up his father’s legs to the level of his own armpits. The toddler’s face grew redder. He bled sweat and his full rosy lips firmed into a constipated line as the minutes passed and his father warned, ‘Not yet, Jay. Don’t put them down yet.’ Justin’s little body quivered and strained and his arms were hot with pain. Finally, he could bear the weight no longer. He let go. His father’s slippered feet thudded down to the carpet. Justin hung his head in shame.