This is a beautifully written, heartfelt look at the effects of breast cancer and the loss of a loved one to the disease. It’s the summer of 1987, and Mira is beginning her first year at university. She has a radical new haircut, and an all-black wardrobe: she should be having the time of her life. But, it’s hard for her to get excited about anything when she’s being smothered by her crazy Italian family, enrolled in a course she’s not interested in, and expecting nuclear warfare at any moment. Even a new best friend and the magnetic boy from art class can’t wipe away the image of a looming mushroom cloud—her mother has breast cancer. Mira’s world is about to explode, but it’s not the skies she should be checking.
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Antonella Preto is an Australian writer of Italian descent who has worked as a technical writer, trainer, graphic designer, gardener, and counselor. She has worked on several film, music, and writing projects.
Read an Excerpt
The Mimosa Tree
By Antonella Preto
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2013 Antonella Preto
All rights reserved.
'What are you doing in there?' comes a screaming voice from the kitchen. Because it's able to penetrate halfway across the house, and through my locked door, clear even with my radio blaring – I know it's my aunt Via.
'Coming!' I shout back, but there's no guarantee she has heard me. Via is like a broken walkie-talkie – messages go out loud and clear, but not much goes in.
I take another handful of my fringe, hold it next to the cut bits and slice it at about the same length. At least I try to cut it the same length. I've got Mum's kitchen scissors. They're great for hacking off chicken legs, but they struggle to find a grip on the fine tendrils of hair I am feeding them. An hour of sawing has left my hair staggered. It's much longer at the front than at the back, and when I drop my head it flicks over my eyes and hides my face completely.
I like it.
I know a crazy haircut isn't going to erase twelve years of boring Catholic schoolgirl, but it's a start. No more moss green uniform. No more unnatural politeness. No more apologising for being different. Me and my hair are now free to take our natural form.
I look at myself in the mirror, trying to get a feel for my new hairstyle, but the nauseating pink shade of the wall behind me is ruining it. I feel like a witch trapped in a fairy castle. Nothing in here has changed since I was nine and, according to my parents, won't unless there is a fire. Maybe a nuclear explosion. It's hideously girly – pink blinds and lacy white curtains tied with thick, glossy pink ribbon; white laminate furniture with gold trimmings, and floral pink bedspread, pinched and puffed at the sides like a wedding dress. Topping it off is a crucifix of Jesus hanging over my bed. Every night I have to put up with Him staring down at me, tongue hanging out, blood oozing from the corner of his mouth.
I'm telling you, my family are crazy.
Opening my wardrobe door is like uncovering a gaping black hole in the world of pink. Needless to say, they hate my clothes. I slide on black jeans and a grey T-shirt. I have to dig around for my boots and the short buckled belt that wraps around the ankle. I shake my hair so that it falls messily and casually around my face, and I am done. I give the pink the finger and then squint my way into the morning brightness.
Mum and Via are seated at the table, steaming coffee, a plate of biscuits and a bottle of brandy between them. It's eight o'clock in the morning but for some reason they think it's perfectly normal to have a shot of alcohol in their coffee. They reckon it helps them wake up, but I tried it once and all it did was make my eyelids go heavy and my legs so wobbly I had to go lie down. Even their bodies don't work the same way as normal people.
I clear my throat and Via looks up slowly from her stirring, noting each of my fashion choices with a grimace.
'Scema, VHAT is you done to yours capelli?' cries my aunt.
'I'm sorry, what?' I say, because I hate it when she tries to speak to me in English. Not that you can really call what she speaks English. It's more like something that would happen if you forced English and Italian to mate. Ding-lish is probably a better word for it.
Via rolls her eyes, then leans forward on the table. 'You know what I said,' she says in Italian this time. 'What the hell happened to your hair? If a hairdresser did that then I hope you're going to sue.'
Mum gropes at her neck, looks like she's going to cry. 'Oh Mirabella, your beautiful hair!' she says in a squeaking, pleading voice that sounds so miserable that I almost regret cutting it.
'I did it myself,' I say.
'No kidding,' says Via.
Mum gets up, walks over to me with her palms outstretched and knees slightly buckled from the shock. She's like a wounded soldier, struggling to get a final message to a comrade before collapsing under her own weight. She is still in her nightgown, a frayed and shabby looking thing that only just covers her flabby rude bits. She grabs me on both sides of the head, twists me this way and that to get a good look at the damage.
'Can we fix it?' she asks her sister.
'The hair, yes,' says Via brushing some biscuit crumbs from the shelf of her bosom, which she has viced into a grey linen top about two sizes too small. 'But the girl?' She twists her hand to suggest she's not so sure. I put my hands on my hips, look past Mum to Via.
'Nothing to fix. I like it this way. It's cool.'
Via goes back to flicking the pages of the newspaper. She's bored with me already. 'Ignore her,' she says to Mum, pages whipping through the air, too fast to be read. 'We have work to do.'
Mum clasps her hands together like she's praying and looks up at the ceiling. That's where God hangs out. Our ceiling. At least that's what you'd think given the amount of times people around here look up there and pray.
Via takes a long drag of her cigarette. They are organising the menu for Mum's birthday party in two weeks. Halfway smoked, the force of her sucking has almost flattened the cigarette where she holds it between her thumb and index finger. Aunt Via reserves all her energy for the inhaling part of the process. The exhaling part she merely allows, so as she speaks, smoke falls from her mouth like a steamy waterfall.
'Lobster,' she says, flicking ash into her saucer. Smoke and steam entwine.
Mum shifts uncomfortably in her seat, pulls the nightgown out from under her bum. It's hot and everything is sticking. 'Lobster? Do you think? But it's so expensive.'
Via waves her hand magnanimously. 'Nothing is too good for my sister,' she announces, though we all know it's Mum that will be footing the bill.
I put a hand on the newspaper, look at Via who nods quickly to let me know she's finished. I twist it round the table to face me, try and focus on reading instead of listening to them, but it's not that easy because they have a tendency to include you in the conversation whether you want to or not.
'So much fuss,' says Mum, reaching over absently and pushing hair from my face. 'Just for a birthday.'
'Are you crazy?' says Via, thumping the table with her fist, her gold bracelets jingling into each another. 'You know how many times in the last year I wondered if we would even get here? My sister is not sick anymore and I am going to make sure we have the best party in the world, understand? (Thump). And we are going to have the best food and drink your money can buy! And we will have a party this year (Thump), and every year (Thump) for as long as you live (Thump). Everything as before, understand? Everything as before.'
Via leans across the table and takes Mum's hands firmly between her own. She allows her tears to brim without spilling; a finely honed skill. Mum looks shaky and I know her well enough to know she has forgotten about her own pain over the last year and is absorbed in Via's anguish instead, as though being the one who wasn't sick is somehow harder. Via keeps her eyes locked on Mum until she's sure she has her full sympathy, then she smiles, pats their joined hands before reaching down and picking up her handbag.
'I have a present for you,' she says. She searches around inside the bag, squinting one eye. She pulls out a used tissue, then a small tin of Italian sweets, then finally the object she is looking for. A palm sized, transparent figure of the Virgin Mary filled with clear liquid. She uses the end of her skirt to wipe crumbs from it then twists off the Holy Virgin's head to reveal it is actually a small bottle. 'This,' she says handing the body to my mother, 'is holy water from Lourdes. I ordered it especially for you. Not that you need it anymore!' she adds hastily and makes the sign of the cross to ward off any bad luck.
'Oh thank you, Via,' says Mum, and she really means it.
Via looks like she's swallowed a bucket of smugness.
Even in Mum's small hands, the bottle looks tiny. I take it from her to get a better look, hold it sideways to let the water drain from Mary's stuck-together feet to her generous bosom. There are probably no more than a few thimbles of water in this thing.
'So how many miracles do you get in one bottle?' I say, clicking the head back on and shaking the bottle at my ear, listening to the water slosh around. 'Do you have to buy a bottle for each thing you want fixed, or does one bottle cover everything?'
'Don't be stupid,' says Mum, snatching the bottle away from me.
'No really. I just want to know how it works.'
'It's holy water,' says Via.
'Yeah, but do you drink it? Anoint yourself with it? Did it come with instructions? How do you get the miracle out of the bottle?'
'Like this,' says Mum then whacks me in the head with it. A sharp bit in Mary's crown digs into my flesh and it hurts more than she intended, but they still laugh hysterically. They think they're really funny. When they're done holding their bellies, Mum picks up the pen, writes on her shopping list, '12 LOB IS TOR' and Via nods, satisfied.
'And what will we have for main course?' she says, sitting back with her coffee, holding it at her chin because there's too much stomach to hold it anywhere else.
'Well,' says Mum, taking my hand. 'Mira had a nice idea, didn't you Mira?'
'Yes. It's something a bit different.'
'Tell me,' says Via, leaning forward with interest.
Mum takes a swig of her coffee as Via and I wait to hear what my great idea is. 'Mira thought we could have a bar-bee-coo.'
Via grasps her heart-shaped brooch. 'Has the cancer spread to your brain?' she says, pushing her palm to her temple.
Mum sits up straight, brushes the streak of white hair from her forehead. She doesn't like the 'c' word, and she's doing her best to look unaffected, but she's starting to blush from her neck to her eyeballs. 'I think it would be nice,' she says pulling her shoulders back so that beneath her flimsy nightie you can clearly see the hollow chunk from her lumpectomy.
'You want to serve me sausages at your birthday?'
'Sausages!' says Mum genuinely horrified. 'What do you think I am?' She pulls the newspaper towards her and begins to leaf through it desperately. When she finds the recipe section she slides the paper over to Via.
'Gore-met Bar-bee-coo,' Via reads out loud.
'We can do shesh-kee-bubbas. With prawns.'
Via's hand hovers between the cigarette packet and the brooch. Suddenly, as she happens upon an explanation for her sister's outrageous suggestion, she folds her arms across her chest. 'You mean they'll be cheap.' she says.
'Don't be ridiculous!' says Mum, but she is unable, as always, to hide her true feelings from her sister.
Via points a podgy finger. 'That tight bastard. After everything we've been through he is worried about how much money he has to fork out?'
Mum pulls the frayed collar of her nightgown together. She holds it closed with one hand while the other sweeps crumbs from our breakfast into a neat little pile. 'Benito would do anything for me. For us.' She shoots a look in my direction. 'But Via, we have to think. We have a lot of bills.'
Grunting, Via pulls her wallet out of her bag, opens it and begins sliding fifty-dollar notes on the table. 'My sister will have the best.'
'Stop it, Via,' says Mum, picking notes up as fast as they are being dropped and returning them to a pile beside Via.
'No,' says Via, now taking them from her pile and making a new pile next to Mum. It's like a casino table. 'Tell Benito his money is safe, this party is on me.'
'Please, Via. I will pay. I will pay,' says Mum trying to push the money into Via's hands.
'I knew he was stingy, but this? This?'
'He will pay, Via. He has not said anything. It was me, I was just thinking.'
'Does he think we are still in the war? Does he want to hide his precious money under the mattress? Is he scared he is going to have to line up for his bread again?'
'Please, Via. We will have a big party. Just like you want. Won't we Mira?'
But Via is not looking at us anymore. She has taken her rant to the ceiling, and she's staring up there now, having a conversation with the ceiling god. 'What is wrong with him? He is still a little boy, hiding from the bombs and thinking the world is going to end! The war is over, we left it behind remember? Remember?'
Suddenly, surprising both of us, Mum slams her hand down on the table. We stare at her in shock. She waits a nice, fat moment then she turns to me, her eyes wetting up with tears. She takes my hand and squeezes it tightly.
'I want you to listen to me, Mira,' she says. I hate it when people look into my eyes, even her. I feel my face going red and I look down at my feet but she lifts my head up to face her again. 'Your father is a good man, never forget that.' Then she gets up and starts clearing the table. Just like that. Her nightgown has caught in her underwear so that the hem is pulled up past her knees. Its thinness barely hides the soft flabby skin of her legs, arms and stomach. Unlike the firm plumpness of Via's body, my mother's is soft, pale and limp.
'I don't know what you're getting so upset about,' says Via sliding a cigarette from its packet. She is trying to seem calm but I can see that her hands are shaking a little as she lights it. 'It's nothing I haven't said before.'
'I would give you the world if I could, Via,' says my mother leaning over and taking Via's coffee cup in her loaded arms. 'We will have whatever you want. Just write it down on the list. Benito will be pay for everything.' Then she turns on her heel, in a dainty kind of way, and disappears into the kitchen, the very picture of dignity with her pink nightie caught up her arse.
* * *
'You coming or what?' says Via, and I can tell by the way she stares at the end of her burning cigarette rather than at me that she is hoping I won't. This alone tempts me to accept the offer, but luckily for her I have important things to do today.
'Don't be silly,' says Mum answering for me. 'Mira doesn't want to come shopping with us old ladies.' Well, she got that right. 'Why don't you call one of your friends?' she says eyeing me hopefully. 'I'll give you some money and you can go to the cinema.'
I smile. One of my friends, like I have so many to choose from! You'd think she would have noticed after all these years, that I am not exactly in great demand in the friendship department. I'm not a reject or anything, I'm not hated by anyone, but I'm not loved either. There are people I hung out with at school, talked about school stuff with, but that is the extent of our relationship. I don't get phone calls, I don't go out anywhere. So where has Mum imagined these 'friends' have been hiding all these years?
'I'm not calling anyone, Mum.'
'But you haven't seen anyone since you finished school!'
'Mum, there is no one to see.'
'It's been three months. Don't you want to see how they are going?'
I sigh. 'Who exactly are they, Mum?'
'I told you, I don't have any friends!'
Mum sucks on her thumbnail as she considers what I have said. 'Well, maybe if you call them once in a while ...' she says, but I put my hand up to silence her.
'Look, there is a reason people don't stay in touch, okay? Everyone at school was boring, and I don't care if I never see them again.'
'And judging by the amount of times they have called you it looks like they feel the same,' says Via sliding open the flyscreen door and flicking her smoking cigarette butt into the garden. 'Come on, Sofia,' she says with an impatient wave of her hand. 'Just leave her. If she wants to be alone and miserable there is nothing we can do about it.'
'I'm not miserable,' I say but she is already turning away from me, sliding her handbag up her arm until it gets jammed tight around her flesh. Mum looks like she is about to cry about my pathetic life. 'I'm fine, Mum,' I say nodding encouragingly towards the door, and then because she looks so mournful I add: 'I'll make some new friends, okay? At university.'
Mum doesn't look any happier, but she allows Via to drag her out the door. I lean back against the wall and wait until I hear the car leaving. Then, when I am sure they are gone and not coming back, I run into my room. I scan my tape collection nervously, eager not to waste this rare moment of alone time with the wrong choice of music. I finally settle on Born Sandy Devotional by The Triffids. I push the tape into the deck then flop face down onto my bed and wait for the music to emerge over the hiss of the tape. I am not disappointed. From the first song I am floating in deep water, far away from the shore with just seagulls keeping me company. I listen to it over and over, rising only when I need to turn the tape.
When they get back from their shopping a few hours later, Via notices creases on my face from lying on the pillow and asks me what I have been doing.
'Nothing,' I say.
'I can see that,' she says motioning to the stack of unwashed plates on the sink.
Mum hands me a fat salami and cheese roll and a can of Coke before starting to unload the bags of shopping. Before leaving, Via makes a final plea for me to fix up my hair.
'What are the other children going to say when they see you?'
'Students. And I don't care.'
Via shakes her head. 'I'll be back in the morning,' she says leaning over to give Mum a kiss on the cheek. 'To take your miserable daughter to school.'
'Stop calling it school. It sounds like I'm three.'
Excerpted from The Mimosa Tree by Antonella Preto. Copyright © 2013 Antonella Preto. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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