Word Count: 1,352
The front gates of the house were decorated with festive inscriptions native to the Chinese New Year. “Long life and fortune”, “Riches and success”. These were displayed in intervals as far as the eye could see. The door swung open and I was welcomed by none other than the hostess, my Aunt Fay.
However, before I could greet my Aunt, I was distracted by the sound of a deep throated growl. A dog as large as myself was evilly eyeing me and looked about ready to jump.
My Aunt abruptly turned to the dog and shouted, “Vincent! Back to your room!”
A dog with a room, I thought, the irony not lost as the creature sulked.
“Sorry dear, Vincent doesn’t like strangers,” my Aunt assured me.
Vincent was right though – I was a stranger in a strange land.
The guests for the New Years party all wore traditional “cheongsams”, a form of suit popular with well-to-do Chinese in the 1920’s. It had continued to be associated with wealth and prestige, and in Sydney was tailor-made by dressmakers in Chinatown.
In comparison, I was rather droll in my western tees and faded baggy jeans. I spied that the girls at the party had a consensus on either cocktail dresses or the form fitting China doll dresses. I immediately felt the awkwardness of my difference.
At least I didn’t wear the same outfit as anyone else, I mused, but this was poor comfort to my embarrassment.
Aunt Fay led me to a room where a shiny grand piano stood in the middle. A girl was playing Beethoven’s symphony with delicate fingers, lightly moving up and down the keyboard. Even though I had never seen her before, her face was recognizable almost at once – she had the same eyes and jaw-line as my Aunt. When her daughter had ended the song with a dramatic musical pause, the audience that had gathered around clapped with delight – but not louder than Aunt Fay.
“Isn’t Rachel absolutely gorgeous?!” my Aunt exclaimed, as she turned to look at me.
I took this as a rhetorical question, but looking up at my Aunt’s eager face, she probably expected an ecstatic reaction – which she received none. After about half a second of awkward silence during which I was racking my brains to try and think of what to say (with only a stuttered “yes” escaping my lips), my Aunt’s smile slightly faded. Perhaps she thought I was quite slow because she took my hand and leaned in closer to my face with a look of sympathy.
“Where is your father?” she questioned me.
“He’s still working. He will be here a bit late,” I replied.
“Oh, never mind. I shall take you to the other children,” she told me, rather slowly and loudly, as if I was mentally handicapped.
I felt like an accessory as Aunt Fay dragged me painfully through the house. We weaved our way around groups of people, dressed in glamorous outfits engaged in idle chatter. Occasionally, she would stop and join in the conversations and laugh hysterically, which made me feel more awkward and abashed because of my rather poor attire that seemed worlds away from this majestic realm. When my Aunt had tired of the conversations, I was the excuse she used to leave them, but not without embraces and kisses on the cheek.
The children were sitting at a table with a traditional red and gold cloth, upon which dishes of barbecue pork buns, dim-sims and dumplings were placed. I easily spotted my cousin, Rachel, seated at the table as various relatives made their way to present her with thick red packets of lucky money while she thanked them with a sweet “Goong hei far choy”.
On seeing this, my Aunt quickly pulled out a flimsy red envelope (it looked like it had been recycled) and pushed it into the palm of my hand, “Before I forget. Just a little something for the New Year!” she said with a wink. We continued towards the table and she released her firm grip on my, now numb, arm.
She proudly embraced her own daughter, “Dear, you were absolutely wonderful on the piano! Everyone loved it.”
Then, remembering her niece, “Rachel honey, this is your cousin Kayla. Be nice to her ok? You two are about the same age. I’m sure you’ll get along.”
And with an indulgent last glance at her beloved child, she left to join a group nearby in their conversation about her large jade (and probably expensive) peach tree in the hallway.
Rachel, golden child of the Tsui dynasty, regarded me with a smile of stars (her lips overly glossed to resemble plastic, slightly blinding me in one eye).
“I love your jeans”, she exclaimed. For a moment, I thought my Aunt had been reborn. Rachel sounded like a syndicated replica of my haughty Aunt, “Are they faded?”
“By time, yes,” I replied, averting her eyes lest her smile of a thousand artificial suns burn my retina.
Rachel casually looked over to the grand piano.
“I’ve recently been selected to go to the United Kingdom – that’s England – to play a collection of Beethoven’s finest pieces. I will of course be a representative of the private school I attend,” she boasted. She turned to face me, probably ready to gloat.
I answered with an “I see,” and looked sideways at a nearby statue of Buddha in a pond full of lotus flowers.
To regain herself, Rachel slyly remarked, “Oh I heard, from my mother that my Aunt – or rather your mother – died when you were very young. Three years of age I believe.”
Anger began to boil up inside me, but I forced it back down. My dad always taught me to be calm in every situation, “Yes. What’s your point?”
“Oh I’m so sorry. It’s just…you know having no motherly figure for almost your whole life must be difficult,” she smiled, with fake sympathy, “Of course I wouldn’t know. But I’m sure”
I stood up abruptly, fury in my eyes. I stared down at her long and hard before I asked, “Tell me, Rachel, what has your father done recently?”
“My father bought some property along Sydney’s coast. Very close to the beach. My family will be spending our next vacation there,” she prided.
“Oh, so your father gained monetary wealth. Congratulations,” I said, “My father saved lives today. He saved lives yesterday and every other day of the goddamn year.”
Leaving her flabbergasted and utterly speechless, I made my way to my Aunt and bowed low, “Thank you for such a great party, Aunt Fay, but I think it is time that I left. You have a lovely house, but this place isn’t for me.”
With that, I turned and made my way out of the house. Once outside, I felt that a heavy burden had been lifted from my chest. I looked up and found myself staring into eyes that were very familiar.
“Kayla honey? What happened?” my dad’s gently voice coaxed.
I looked away from him as I recounted my story. After I had finished, he bent over and took me in his arms and I lay on his broad shoulder. It seemed that all time had vanished completely, and we were the only people in this world.
Eventually, he lifted my chin with a smile and suggested, “C’mon, how about we go get some ice-cream. Our favourite? Cookies and cream?”
I beamed up at him and nodded and we walked hand in hand down the street. I turned back once to look at the great mansion.
It was one thing to have all the riches in the world, but it was another to feel safe and warm…