Entries open for Honi Soit 2021 Writing Competition

The Most Wonderful Time

On family history, and beauty in the face of struggle

My father was no stranger to booze. It sounds pretty bad when I put it that way, but he was usually responsible about it. Most of the time, he listened to one of us before it got too much for him. My sister was usually the first to speak up. I can still see her at twelve in my head; her lips pursed and eyes dark, staring at my father. Then my mother would step in, whisking away the half-full shot glass as she wiped the table with thinly veiled disapproval.

I didn’t say much. Partly because as the youngest sibling, my leverage wasn’t great, but also because it was interesting hearing what he had to say.

“Alcohol is the great truth-teller,” he would hiccup between sips of baijiu, “So don’t get too drunk if you need to lie.”

Some nights, if he’d had just the right amount to drink, and felt charitable, he would nudge the glass towards me. I was around seven years old the first time.

“Try it.”

I raised the glass to my lips, only for the full force of the liquor to hit my nose first. My father laughed when he saw my shriveled expression and snatched the glass from me.

“Why do you even like it?” I asked, clamping two fingers over the bridge of my nose. “Just to get drunk?”

He chuckled. “The taste. It’s very rich.”

“No, it isn’t!” I said, still recoiling.

He downed the remnants and smacked his lips.

“When you get older, you’ll understand,” he said. “Chi ku.” Quite literally: swallow bitterness.

My father’s drinking habits didn’t align with what I’d heard from other people. For one, he seemed to actively avoid drinking around holidays, especially Christmas. When my mother offered him a drink, he’d flat out refuse.

I never asked him about it. He was fun to be around when slightly tipsy, but blackout drunk was a different story. I could count the times he’d been wasted on one hand, and I had no desire to fill another.

Perhaps I’d have figured it all out then, if I’d just been more observant. 

***

My mother and father worked weekends, selling wares at street markets. Work would often start before the sun had even risen. They would make their way through the showground parking lot, saying hi to some of the friendlier faces before arriving at the few small squares of dirty asphalt they rented. The back of the van would come up, and they would transform that empty space into a sea of tables and racks. It started out with just clothes, but as rent hiked and the wallets of customers tightened, business expanded. Anything from nail polish to hardware to cleaning products was fair game.

It was grueling, relentless work all year round. The showground’s tin roof radiated waves of heat in summer, and retained the cold from icy winds during winter.

By the time I was ten, my parents had taught me how to sell, barter, and talk to customers. While other kids went to the beach or the park over the weekend, I recounted tales of petty thieves and demands screamed by middle-aged aunts and uncles.

My sister and I used to call it the magic castle, because you could find almost anything you wanted in the endless sprawling lanes of knick-knacks. We sank our teeth into kebabs and played tag with the other kids whenever we weren’t working, just happy to be out of the house and not studying.

The novelty wore off as time passed. Working weekends was especially bad when we were in high school, but my mother and father did all they could to keep us at home poring over books and laptop screens. I’m sure it was a luxury, but it certainly didn’t feel that way back then.

A single Saturday evening stands out among them. My father and I had just finished a particularly grueling workday in late December, and were headed to a charcoal chicken joint for a quick dinner. My mother and sister had returned to China the Friday before to visit an ill grandparent, so I would have to pick up the slack for a good part of a month. Given the festivities and the prospect of a month-long break on the horizon, I didn’t feel so bad about putting hours in at the market.

After we finished eating, we stopped in the courtyard of the local shopping mall to admire the decorations. It wasn’t much — just a plastic tree, adorned with a few baubles and some careless drapes of LED light bulbs.

It was there and then that my father told me he hated Christmas.

When I asked him why, he sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets. I watched his eyes trace the outline of the tree, from the base to each extending branch.

“I came here for the first time in December,” he said, “Your mother and sister still had to sort out their passports, so it was just me here for a few months.”

I sensed a dam breaking somewhere inside my father. The stories spilled. Cautiously, then all at once.

He told me about the only stable job he could land after touching down in Sydney, cleaning floors and bathrooms in the high-rises along Oxford Street. He recalled the endless meals of instant ramen and stale bread — the only hearty food he could afford with what pay he could save after he wired money back home and paid rent.

I heard about his long train rides back to Cabramatta; how his knees would shake as he alighted from the train, apologising to the person beside him, who had to breathe in the sharp smell of ammonia that latched onto his overalls like parasites.

The sun had set by the time my father fell quiet, and the tree finally lit up. The wrinkles on his forehead looked like deep crevasses in the feeble white light.

“Still,” my father said, after the silence had become deafening. “It got better. And then we had you, and then it was a lot better.”

He flashed me a smile. I tried to return it, but it came out as a grimace. I trailed him as we turned away and headed back to the parking lot. His gait was uneven. In the half-darkness, it looked like he was staggering.

***

Most of our inventory came from a wholesale factory in Merrylands. My father often went there strictly for business, but he couldn’t resist picking up a few things for himself or the family if something caught his eye.

When he brought in the light-up advent wreath for the first time, my mother nearly fainted. My sister launched immediately into the logistics of hanging it, while I simply laughed at how stupid it looked. After much trial and error, we decided that the best place to display it would be on the window of the dining table, much to the chagrin of my mother.

Still, it provided a nice source of ambient light as we ate dinner on Christmas Eve. My father prepared a few seafood dishes, and my sister bought a bottle of rosé from a liquor store in the city. For once, my father indulged himself on a holiday, and for the first time I was asked to join him. I swallowed a few mouthfuls with much difficulty, while he made his way through three flutes and a shot of bourbon before my mother’s stare finally forced him to stop.

My father’s gaze was set firmly on the advent wreath. He hadn’t said much about it, but I could tell he adored it, despite how cheap it must have been. If you got close enough, each individual LED looked hideous, but from afar they came together in a fairly pleasant way.

“What do you think? Not bad, eh?”

He turned to me, his vision clouded yet decidedly clear. He could’ve been asking about anything at that table. Maybe he was searching for reassurance, seeking answers as to how we got this far, with the odds piled so high. I knew deep down that it wasn’t my answer to give; it was his burden to carry, and it would always be impossible for me to boil it down to just one response.

Instead, I told myself to be honest, though I suspect the champagne may have played a part.

“It’s beautiful.”

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