Walking along Megalong Street and heading toward Leura Mall, Sarah Penrose looked like any other mother walking her two teenage daughters around on a warm and sunny Saturday morning.
Except that for Sarah, the blond ‘teen queens’ beside her weren’t her daughters, and the whole fuzzy ‘motherly’ feeling was beginning to wane, as all the jokes, girly stories and female bonding she had dreamed about were not materializing.
The minutes passed by in silence and after a few furtive nudges and gestures the sisters shared (and which Sarah tried to overlook), she decided to resurrect their dying-before- properly- being- born friendship.
Pointing at a shop window where a mannequin was dressed up in fishnet stockings and a short red skirt that passed off as a dress, Sarah smirked and said, “Good, galloping grief, that is such a lol!”
Lex and Sophie who were strolling in front of her, stopped and looked back vacantly. “What?” said Lex.
I beg your pardon, Sarah mentally corrected her but said instead,
“ Lol. As in Laugh Out Loud. You know, like when you chat on the internet?”
Lex raised her brow at Sophie.
Sarah bit her lip. Aisha’s voice rolled into her mind. “ Mum, you’ve got to speak in abbreviations. That’s how we do it in school. Like we do online. So throw in a lot of LOLs and stuff. And a little expression with it will really underline your coolness!”
“Well, you’re the boss, Aish! I trust you know what you’re telling your old fossil!”
“Aw mum, this is a piece of cake. And you’re a natural. Trust me!”
“Hey, check this out!!” Sarah tried again. She walked into a BAGS 4US store and picked two bags off the front shelf and posed with them.
“ OH Em Gee!!! How do I look? Sassy or snazzy?”
Sophie and Lex glanced at each other and Lex yawned behind a well moisturized hand.
Sarah tutted and said in a haughty voice, “Why mademoiselles, aren’t we chic enough for vous?”
Sophie shrugged and Lex turned around, bored.
Sarah plaintively replaced the bags, her heart sinking further south. It wouldn’t kill the two to just be a little more enthusiastic. God only knew how much she was trying. And today was just a trial run with them. Oh, boy, have I bitten off more than I can chew? she wondered, as her head was swamped with images of silence between the girls and herself in the months to follow.
Just then the tags on the bags caught her eye and she gave a whoop of nervous laughter, startling everyone within a five mile radius.
“Well! Haven’t you two got an eye for taste?” she said, even though a voice inside her head was debating on how she could purchase designer cereal for them at home. “These bags cost 20 bucks each and they’re only imitation leather! Lah mao! Lah mao! With the Guccis and the Guesses you’re toting around you must think me a fat goose for showing you phonies! Oh em Gee!”
“ Lah Mao?” asked Sophie.
“I think the logo on that bag says NYC not OMG,” said Lex irritably.
“ Yeah! Laugh my tushie out!” Sarah said, slapping her bum theatrically for emphasis. Several people nearby looked over at her in disdain.“ And Oh em Gee? Oh my God!? Hello? What? Aren’t you getting my accent or something?”
“I’m hungry, can we nip into a snack bar somewhere and grab some nosh?” Lex interrupted loudly, as she tried to ignore the stares from people nearby. “ I’m thinking a nice fat, juicy burger!”
Sarah looked taken aback but took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Of course, let’s go.”
They walked for a few minutes, once more steeped in silence, and an annoying sense of déjà vu struck Sarah. Not if I can help it, she thought.
“Hey look,” she said suddenly, flapping eagerly at a random object in the window of a random boutique. “ that looks…” she probed her brain for an appealing word and from the depths of her whirring mind, Aisha’s voice rang out, “ sweet as!”
“ …sweet as!” Sarah finished, with a huge smile.
Sophie and Lex turned around resignedly and craned their necks to look past Sarah’s outstretched arm and she saw their deadpan expressions liquefy into bewilderment, then amusement and finally Sophie erupted into a full-fledged laugh and Lex clapped a quick hand to her own mouth, as if in disgust.
“ What?” Sarah shrugged. “ I know ending a sentence in a conjunction is a bad idea but …” she turned around and did a double take when she saw that she was pointing at a mannequin dressed in leather ‘unmentionables’ complete with a bridle around the neck and a whip in its hand.
“ Oh, my…” Sarah ogled and goggled for a few seconds at a loss of words. “ Oh my, what is this shop??” Looking up, she saw a board, brandishing in bold and brazen lettering,
“ ADULT STORE – open 7 days a week”.
Sarah quickly spun around and was in the process of herding the abashed adolescents away from the scene of intense mortification when, to add insult to injury, the door to the store opened and a middle aged man bustled out.
“Wait up, wait up, ma’am! We have a special discount on all hosiery and stockings!” he called out, waving frantically for Sarah to stop.
“ Keep moving girls,” Sarah hissed urgently, bowing her head in humiliation and ushering her cackling nieces onwards.
“ But please, we have 60 percent off on all leading brands, including the leather getup you were admiring in the window…”
“ I most certainly was not admiring anything in your confounded window!” barked Sarah, looking up and over at the man, flashing him a look of pure contempt. He balked under the weight of her glare and hastily retreated into the shadowy recesses of his store.
Many paces away from the fateful store, the three stopped to catch their breath.
Sarah was alternating between intense embarrassment and borderline rage.
“ Oh. God. I’m. So. Very. Very. Sorry!” she bent over and panted, while her adrenaline slowed down, giving way to discouragement and self-pity. She was an utter fool and had completely tarred her image in front of her nieces.
Straightening up, she ran a hand over her eyes and felt a few strands of hair that had escaped from her headscarf, snake down the sides of her face.
Sneaking a glance through her fingers she saw the sisters engaged in a silent conversation involving many facial expressions that did not appear to be favouring Sarah, no surprise.
Suddenly she felt that she had had enough. Straightening up, she cleared her throat and said, “You know? All what has happened today, me coming all the way to Sydney, leaving my own kids behind, all the exhaustion I’ve put up with travelling, me skipping meals because I was so excited to see you, enduring that debacle outside that store just now- was all because of how much I wanted to get to know you.”
Her eyes begin to moisten as disappointment and exhaustion fought each other to escape. “ Sure, I didn’t have to go through all of this, but I wanted to. I wanted to connect with you, know you inside out, love you…do you know how much remorse has been eating at me throughout the years, ever since I found out Virgie and James died and you two had no home? I was not up on my feet back then, but each year as I bought Eid prezzies for my kids, I thought of you. Wondered what you were getting for Christmas.
Each time Aisha brought home her report card form school, I wondered if you were good at math like me or excelled at music like your mother. When Amir fell down and fractured his arm, I was longing to know you were safe because who would hug you tight and tell you that everything was going to be okay?
Who would tuck you in at night and read that bedtime story ‘one more time’ because they were already starting to miss you while you slept? Who would buy you an expensive tinker bell electric toothbrush just to see your eyes light up, even if they had to give up on buying a bottle of hairspray for themselves?”
Sarah paused to take a breath and swallow hard to stem the tears from flowing freely. Finally it seemed like she had broken the ice.
Lex was biting her lip and looking down. Sophie was fidgeting and seemed unable to meet her Aunt’s eyes.
“I’m not saying I want to take your mum’s place or your foster carer’s either.” Sarah continued, carefully treading on the matter as if on eggshells. “ but if only you knew how I felt when Virgie just shut me out of her life and yours ages ago, and how even after she’d gone I couldn’t get hold of you, tell you how much I was aching to know my own flesh and blood, you wouldn’t be judging me on how eccentric or old fashioned or tatty I look now.
Sophie, Alexandra – Lex, I may not be living in a mansion or having serving maids or promising you Prada shoes. But I’m willing to give you every scrap of my love and devotion and hope and pray that while you are under my roof for as long as you want to be, you will be happy with the warm and down-to-earth atmosphere that makes my house a home.”
Sarah ended the tirade and tried to gauge the effect it had had on the girls.
Both were now looking at her, their eyes somewhat devoid of the distrust and apathy of a few minutes ago.
“ Well,” Lex said slowly, “ You called me Lex and I think that’s a start.”
Sarah felt her eyebrows skyrocket incredulously. Was this a truce? Was the sun finally coming out now? .
“I’m sorry,” Sophie said, still not meeting Sarah’s eyes.
“Oh, you needn’t be. It’s all water under the bridge now,” Sarah felt herself buckling under Sophie’s long intended puppy dog look. Maybe things would be alright now, she considered. Maybe all the snobbishness she had been encountering so far was a result of their awkwardness and unease in her presence. Maybe by opening up to them, she had closed some of their doubts and misgivings. Maybe…
Lex cleared her throat softly, and Sophie snapped as if she’d been in a trance.
“ I’m sorry…that the loon back there made you feel bad.” she said, adding a shrug to punctuate her statement.
Sarah blinked. Oh-kayyyyy….hmph!
“Yeah,” put in Lex also stepping forward and sounding more animated than she had ever been in Sarah’s presence. “What a gyp! He and the lady from the bag shop have never met I s’pose? They could make a fortune on their faux leather products and brand it ‘Bag a loser co limited.’”
Sophie crowed with laughter. “lol, lol, lol,” she wheezed.
Lex snickered and slapped her butt. “ Lah mao, dude! Lah mao!” she said and both sisters high fived each other, before collapsing on the kerb in hysterics.
Sarah felt her face crack in despair.. An old lady passing by, smiled at the spectacle and whispered in Sarah’s ear, “If only I had been able to make my daughter happy like you’ve made yours, she wouldn’t be casting me off to the old people’s home, next spring!” Smiling forlornly at the two almost weeping teenagers on the ground, she patted Sarah’s arm and slowly shuffled away.
Sarah frowned. The irrepressible two were testing her, and if she walked off in a huff, started bawling in frustration or even gritted her teeth, she realized that this was the moment she could either break or make their union.
So even though one part of her mind was screaming for her to back off from the entire adoption shebang, most of her didn’t want to go down without a fair fight. Perhaps not go down at all, if she could help it.
So she gathered up all her self-respect, dignity and pulled the wool over her conscience and joined them in ringing laughter.
“It’s good to see you happy, girls,” she beamed. Inside, she was delighted to see that this was definitely not the reaction they had been expecting. Holding out her hands for them to pull themselves up from the ground, she added, “But let’s remember it’s not good to laugh at other people’s expense, no matter how bad their taste is.”
The defiance crept back into Lex’s expression as she helped herself up. “Oh, so if, say, someone were to deliberately wear a sack to work, or,” her eyes cynically swept over Sarah’s head. “drape a weird, bubonic piece of rag over their heads, then we should compliment them?”
In her mind’s eye, Sarah was seeing her mother gawking at her when she had first started wearing the hijab. And in her mind she was listening to Virgie’s taunting voice on the phone, “Please, Sarah! Marrying a wog is bad enough but why beat yourself to a pulp? Tell me, your daughter in this photograph, will she also wear that oppressive thingy on her head when she grows up?!”
Drawing herself back to Lex’s sneering face, she saw Virgie peering out of her niece’s eyes. “Well, girls,” she said, the smile never leaving her face. “It was my decision to wear the hijab as a symbol of my faith and modesty. You call that bad taste. But it was also my decision to look after my Burberry clad, Guess toting, Chanel- wearing, Clinique- enhanced nieces. All in the name of bad taste, right?”
She shoots, she scores, Sarah watched as her comment wiped Lex’s smug look straight off her face. Sophie, on the other hand was directly looking at Sarah for the first time with an expression akin to respect. Sarah winked at her, and for a moment, robbed of the effect of her dominating younger sister, the older Cameron smiled in return.
“ I’m still hungry,” Lex broke the spell, with a murderous look in her eye.
“ I see a sushi bar up close but if you want something hardcore, I think I passed a KFC or a MAC’s round the corner. Which would you prefer?” Sarah inquired.
Lex stamped her foot. “Enough with the stupid acronyms, already!”
Sarah smiled broadly. “Ok, sushi it is then!”
She pretended not to notice Lex’s mouth drop open in disbelief. Instead, she draped an arm around each girl’s shoulder and casually began steered them towards the attractive sushi bar at the west end, feeling optimistic that the tables had been turned. For now at least.
At the sushi bar, Sarah was busy placing orders for three chicken and avo rolls, two tuna and mayo delights, and a serving of fried shrimp rice, when Sophie’s phone buzzed in her pocket.
“Yes, soy sauce for the girls and none for me thanks,” Sarah was saying to the girl behind the counter, as Sophie whipped her phone out and read the message:
-Aren’t u glad Madison and Kylie lent us their clothes and bags? The batty broad wud never take us in. she thinks v r spoilt brats. Keep up the charade dummy, lest u want2go live in her smelly house wt her fascist rules. Ugh, id rather sushi myself 2 death 1st!!! :/here she comes. ttyl -