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  • Published: 16 July 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761345180
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Jade and Emerald

Winner of the 2023 Penguin Literary Prize

Extract

Angela Nu was the richest girl at my school.

She wanted everyone to know it, too. That’s why she invited the entire school to her twelfth birthday party. All two hundred and fifty of us. It was in the city, at a big fancy hotel with an old man’s last name on it, filled with chandeliers and tiny snacks that had names I couldn’t pronounce.

I walked past tables piled high with tidy string bags for the guests.

‘I heard there are Game Boys in the party bags,’ a Year Nine girl said to her friend. I looked at them and they turned away, ponytails whipping each other.

I kept moving, seeking relief from the party as it pressed itself on me. Boys yelled the lyrics to a song with heavy bouncing beats. People chatted and laughed in huddled groups. Forks dinged against dishes.

Discreet waiters carried small portions of food around. I had eaten some, but everything was too chewy, too crunchy or too salty.

Someone had installed arcade consoles with the sparkly words Dance Dance Revolution splashed across them. The flashing pink and blue lights reflected off the crystal beads hanging from the ceiling. Angela stomped on the machine’s glittery floor as a crowd cheered her on. Right at the front were Steph O’Neill and Britney Schreiber, her two best friends. Steph was so tall the girls behind her leaned sideways to glimpse the game.

Angela’s parents and relatives were seated at a round table in the corner, chatting in Chinese and placing dumplings on each other’s plates.

Only Angela could get away with this. We were in Year Seven – we’d only been at the school for a month – but she already had Year Elevens sucking up to her. Every morning at the school gates, she would step out of her dad’s silver Mercedes-Benz in little high heels that somehow complemented her school dress. She carried a shiny leather purse instead of a backpack and a lunch box that had compartments filled with spicy condiments or snacks you wouldn’t find at Coles.

I was the only other Asian kid in our year, so maybe Angela and I should have been friends. But I wasn’t really like her. And for all the ways I wasn’t like her, the kids in our year loved her. They asked her to say swear words in Chinese and oohed and ahhed at her gymnastics skills. But I couldn’t speak another language and I was bad at sport. I sat in this invisible in-between spot – not ‘exotic’ enough to be interesting, not white enough to be ‘normal’.

I scurried towards the party room exit, keeping my head down as I passed a couple of Year Eight boys hurling dumplings at each other. One morsel hit the off-white wall with a splatter. The target laughed and yelled, ‘Missed me, ya dickhead!’

The hallway was lined with plush carpet the same red as the ang pao Mum had just given me for Chinese New Year. It smelled so clean my nose stung.

At the bar, a woman sat alone. Slim, elegant. Her sleek hair had been pulled into a complicated tangle at the back of her head. She wore an emerald-green dress and stones in her ears, on her chest, on her fingers. In her lap sat a black handbag with two interlocked gold Cs that caught the light of the chandeliers above. She sipped a clear drink with an olive rolling around in it.

She looked up and our eyes met. I immediately fixed my gaze on the two Cs.

‘What are you looking at?’ she asked. Her voice was deep, throaty. She spoke with perfect English in an accent I hadn’t heard before – delicate like a silver necklace thread.

I shrugged. ‘Your bag,’ I said.

She picked it up and peered at it. ‘Mmm,’ she purred. ‘It’s beau­tiful, isn’t it? Chanel. Only the finest.’

She looked back at me through spindly lashes. ‘Why aren’t you playing with your friends?’ She pointed a cherry-coloured nail at the ballroom. There was a loud crash accompanied by squeals.

I shrugged again. ‘It’s too noisy.’

She nodded. ‘I agree. I like it better over here. Close to the bar.’ She smiled and sipped her drink again.

‘Who are you?’

‘Who am I?’ She laughed – a laugh that rose up from beneath her emerald necklace. ‘Gigi Nu. Angela’s aunty.’

‘Oh, okay.’

‘And you are?’

‘Lei Ling Wen.’

‘Lei Ling Wen,’ she repeated. ‘You don’t have an English name?’

I shook my head.

She frowned. ‘Interesting. But you were born here?’

I nodded.

‘Can you speak Chinese?’

I shook my head again.

‘Hmm. You were born in Australia. You sound Australian. You can’t speak Chinese. Yet you have a Chinese name. An interesting choice by your parents.’ She ran a finger along the rim of the glass.

‘Is it . . . bad?’ I asked.

‘Not bad. But you should give yourself an English name. Especially if you live in a Western country.’ She sipped her drink again.

‘Okay. Is that what you did?’ I asked.

‘Me? No, no, my parents named me Gigi. Georgina.’

I shifted from foot to foot in the shoes I hadn’t grown into yet.

‘Oh dear. Sit, sit!’ She patted the high bar stool next to her.

I pulled myself up on to it. My feet dangled below.

‘Oh my,’ she said, pointing at my lap. ‘What is that?’

She was talking about my backpack: a shabby drawstring sack that usually carried my books and lunch box. Reds and greens and oranges clashed and zigzagged all over it, but the colours had black­ened over time. The synthetic material was peeling away from the straps in shreds. It didn’t go with the lacy dress or the dark heavy shoes I was wearing. I was draped head to toe in a mishmash of ugly things that didn’t even match each other’s ugliness.

While I’d been standing up I had been able to hide the bag behind me, but now that I had brought it around to my lap this glamorous lady could see it in full.

‘That pattern is giving me a headache,’ she said, squinting.

‘My mum gave it to me,’ I said. ‘I hate it.’

She pinched the stem of her glass, tipped it back and sipped the last few drops. ‘I know.’

I looked up from the bag. ‘How?’

‘Let’s just say I’ve been around long enough to recognise when someone is forced to do something.’

She looked at the bartender and lifted a hand beside her face, a minuscule gesture. He obediently approached her.

‘Another, please.’ She nudged the empty glass. ‘And for my friend . . .?’ She looked at me.

I shook my head. ‘No, thank you.’

‘Please, darling. At least have a Coke.’

I nodded slowly. I had never had Coke before.

‘A Coke, please,’ she said to the bartender.

He nodded and started gathering utensils: something that looked like a beaker, a small silver hourglass-shaped cup, and a spoon with a long metal braid for a handle. He grabbed bottles from under the bar and held them high as he poured them. The liquid flowed into the measuring cup then over the ice in the beaker. With his collec­tion of tools and bottles he looked like a potion master, stirring everything together with small, precise movements, then tipping the liquid into a glass identical to the one Gigi had in front of her. Lastly, he skewered a shiny olive with a toothpick and plopped it into the potion.

He made my drink with similar expert agility, dipping the glass into a box of ice, pouring black liquid out from a hose. He dropped a slice of lemon on top and placed the concoction on a napkin in front of me.

I watched the bubbles rise to the surface then pop.

‘Cheers,’ Gigi said. She held her glass in the air.

I copied her, trying to steady my hand as the two breakable vessels tapped each other. ‘Cheers!’ I took a sip. The Coke was almost too sweet, and it scratched my throat.

‘So, you go to school with Angela,’ she said.

‘Mm-hmm.’

‘Do you like it, your school?’

‘I dunno. I have to go, so it doesn’t matter whether I like it.’

She laughed. ‘Aren’t you clever! I hated school when I was young.’

‘You’re still young,’ I said. ‘You look young.’

‘Oh! You have no idea how happy that makes me.’ She took another sip. ‘But no, no, I am not as young as I once was.’

I looked at her drink – the transparent still liquid, the fat green olive. ‘Can I have some of that?’

She laughed again, then stopped. ‘Why not?’ She pushed the glass towards me. ‘Just a sip, now.’

I sipped. It was awful – bitter and burning. I coughed.

‘Oh, you’ll get used to it,’ she said with a wink.

----------------

‘Aiyah, Lei Ling, why so slow?’ my mother said as I clambered into the car. Her small frame was slouched over the steering wheel. She was wearing a once-pink t-shirt that had faded to white, the fabric so stretched that the hems rippled. Her hair, shorter than that of most boys at my school, stuck up in odd places.

‘Sorry, Mum,’ I said to the floor. ‘Everyone’s still there. The party’s not finished yet.’

She made a tck noise, like she had a piece of peanut stuck in her teeth. ‘You late to your violin lesson now, ah. This thing so far away, how to reach there on time? You think the car can fly, is it?’

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled again. Of course there was no way this muddle of metal could fly. My mother had purchased it after seeing the handwritten FOR SALE sign taped to the rear window. It made a noise like a complaint when she drove, and the back windows were stuck and wouldn’t roll down. The heavy odour of the previous owner’s big drooling Rottweiler had never really gone away.

My mother gestured to the containers in the back seat, stacked in cardboard boxes faintly marked with Schumann Farms and a picture of a sunrise over a field. The frost clinging to the sides of the containers was turning to droplets in the heat. ‘So many old people need this food, ah. You know what happen if I am late?

Mrs Donaldson will fire me. Then, no payment. Our lights turn off, we have nothing. All because I let you go to this thing.’

I bowed my head so that my chin touched my neck.

She stopped at a traffic light and pointed at the glossy bag in my lap. ‘Where you get this?’

‘It’s a party bag.’

‘Very big,’ she commented.

On the radio, an old man mumbled news headlines under crackly static.

----------------

My violin lessons were at the private secondary school a few suburbs away from where we lived. I was under no impression that I would ever attend this school. Mum had made it very clear that we couldn’t afford it, and any time she heard a mention of private schools she would make that tck sound.

All the same, I enjoyed walking through the halls and examining the cabinets filled with trophies and photos of beaming students in rowing boats.

Carolyn smiled with her big yellow-brown teeth as I entered the classroom. ‘Lei, thank you for joining us. And you’re all dressed up! Busy with a special occasion, I take it?’

The other four were already sitting in chairs arranged in a horseshoe, violins propped up on their laps. They turned to look at me. I noticed Laura, the first violin, gazing at my outfit, and I wished I had changed. The dress was too frilly, the shoes too clunky.

‘A birthday party,’ I mumbled.

‘Wow!’ Carolyn said. She clapped her hands like two cymbals. ‘Was it fun?’

‘Yeah,’ I replied, taking my bow out of its case and rubbing it with rosin. I could feel everyone looking at me, but I kept my eyes on the tiny disc as I ran it up and down the bow.

The music school was run by one of those big organisations with standardised pieces for every level. They offered group and individ­ual classes, but my mother had insisted there was no difference and chose the group classes because they were cheaper.

We started by practising our scales. Carolyn walked around to correct our postures or the placement of our fingers. Even in summer, she wore a skivvy and a long skirt that swished around her legs as she moved. It was like she was hiding every part of herself except her head and her long skeletal fingers.

When we moved on to our group piece, a Beethoven symphony, I watched Laura carry the melody, wishing I could play as smoothly as she did. She had already started doing vibrato, her fingers pressing the strings with a controlled quiver. It made the violin sound so pretty.

‘Excellent, Laura,’ Carolyn said.

Seeing this made me want to do vibrato too. I had practised it a bit, but only in the privacy of my room. I pressed down the A string, wiggling my second finger. The violin almost slipped out from under my chin.

‘Lei,’ Carolyn called out, causing everyone to freeze. ‘Don’t focus on your vibrato so much, okay? Just work on trying to get the technique and the notes right.’

I felt my face grow hot and spent the rest of the lesson playing softer than the piece called for.

----------------

As I loosened my bow, I watched Carolyn speak to Laura’s mother. Carolyn threw her head back and laughed like a horse, while Laura’s mother smiled demurely.

Mum entered and strode past them to me. She folded her arms and watched me strap my violin into its case.

Carolyn still had laughter in her voice when she came over to us. ‘Hi, how are you?’ She cast a long shadow over my mother like a tree in the late afternoon.

‘Mm, good,’ Mum said.

Carolyn stared at my violin case as I zipped it up. ‘You know, Lei’s violin would really benefit from some new strings,’ she said. ‘I recommend restringing to all my students. Especially the ones with, er, newer violins.’

Anika, Victor and I had identical violins, pumped out of an instrument factory. The wood was a lurid orange under too-shiny varnish. But Laura and Sarah-Anne owned pretty, antique instru­ments with stresses in the wood. Laura had even said her chestnut violin had belonged to her great-grandfather.

Carolyn produced a small square packet from her bag and passed it to me. I inspected the label: a line drawing of a violin scroll on what looked like foil.

‘These are Dominant strings,’ Carolyn said. ‘They’ll give the violin a richer sound.’

‘How much,’ was Mum’s response. Not a question.

‘These are one hundred.’

‘Wah,’ Mum said. ‘Why so much?’

Carolyn chuckled. ‘If you don’t come from a musical back­ground, it’s difficult to understand. But strings can really change the sound of a violin.’

Mum snatched the packet from me with her angular fingers. She tossed it back to Carolyn as if it were blistering hot.

‘I think about it,’ she said.

I glanced at Laura’s mother. She picked up Laura’s violin case with the same hand that held her car keys. The star in the Mercedes-Benz logo glinted between her fingers.

Outside, I placed my violin and music books in the back of the car, among stacks of clean Tupperware containers.

‘Hundred dollars!’ Mum exclaimed as we reversed out of the parking space. ‘Why so expensive, ah?’

I shrugged. ‘She said it’s better quality.’

Mum made that clicking sound again with her tongue. ‘Not “better quality”. You must practise more, that’s how you sound better. No need for all this.’

I brushed my fringe out of my eyes.

‘These people, ah,’ she continued, focusing on the road, ‘only care about making money. First you buy the strings, next thing you know, she say you need new violin! Just want you to spend, spend, spend.’

‘Don’t worry about it, then,’ I said. But I wanted something to improve my plastic-looking violin. Its cheapness was embarrassing, especially next to Laura’s beautiful antique.

‘Now you are just a child, you don’t understand. But you must practise so you have a good future. Once you are older, successful, then you see.’

----------------

We lived on a quiet suburban street where tiny knives of yellowed grass barricaded most of the houses. The driveway next door was home to a dull red ute with the numberplate K0ZZ4. Across the road, in a window, a curled and faded poster of a cartoon demon with sharp triangular teeth read DEMONS ’64 PREMIERS.

Our house was a unit at the back of a block of six. Single storey, two bedrooms, a replica of its siblings. Mum complained about its size every time she had to rearrange the pantry to fit in additional hundred-pack noodles and giant cans of Nescafé.

‘Hey, Mum,’ I said, following her into the kitchen. I was greeted with the sharp smell of garlic and ginger, the scent of cooked meat. ‘What happened to my party bag?’

‘Hmm?’ she asked. She stepped onto a stool to reach the higher cupboards.

‘The party bag that I got from Angela’s. I left it in the car. Where is it?’

‘So much junk in there,’ she said. ‘Lot of waste.’

‘Where is it?’ I repeated.

‘My bedroom. Keep safe for you.’

‘But I haven’t even—’

‘Aiyah, enough play time today. Go do your homework,’ she said into the cupboard. ‘You think I move to Australia so you can play? Think I struggle for years so you can throw away your future?’

‘But—’

‘You want the ruler?’

I slouched to my room and sat at my desk. My Kumon book lay open, the maths exercises from that morning waiting for me.

I stared at the bookshelf against the wall, stacked with the relics of my school and tutoring history. My Kumon workbooks were lined up together, their blocky red titles screaming out MULTIPLICATION, DIVISION, LOWERCASE LETTERS, UPPERCASE LETTERS. There were a few picture books, too, with golden spines that had peeled and faded. A small white Lego bucket Mum had gotten from someone at work sat on one of the shelves, the colour sucked out of its label and a layer of dust on its lid.

The bookshelf was a barrier between my room and my mother’s. Somewhere beyond that wall my party bag sat, filled with untouched luxuries.


Jade and Emerald Michelle See-Tho

From the winner of the 2023 Penguin Literary Prize.

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