Linda fixed her eyes on the TV, hands gripping the sides of her seat. Counting down now:
5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Go!
The runners took off as the stadium erupted with cheers. Cameras in the stands flashed brightly. It was extraordinary seeing people moving so quickly; it didn’t seem humanly possible.
“Run, Cathy! Run!” Linda’s mum had leapt out of her chair in excitement, the peanut shells on her lap tumbling to the floor.
Linda watched the women’s legs do endless, hypnotic circulations. It felt like she was really there, running the race herself. She could feel her sore feet rebounding off the hard track and the air burning in her throat. She could see the muscles of her competitors tensing and releasing in the lanes beside her. Goose bumps prickled along the hair on her arms.
Cathy Freeman rounded the final bend and began to pull out in front. The crowd roared. She hurtled over the finish line and then sat down on the track, spent, letting the applause wash over her.
“She did it! She did it!” said Linda’s mum, and she had tears in her eyes. Linda felt dizzy and realised that she’d been holding her breath the entire race. She breathed deeply until the stars in her eyes abated and then paced around the kitchen, too excited to sit still. She cleared the kitchen table of watermelon skins and peanut shells and took them over to the sink, to be sorted for compost, making sure not to get her clothes dirty.
Before the race, she’d changed into her nicest outfit: a light pink singlet dress with purple flowers along the trimming that her mum had bought at a night market in Singapore. Tonight’s race was historical and she wanted to look grown up for it, even if her mum had already changed into her Garfield pyjamas.
“Come and watch this,” said Linda’s mum. Cathy Freeman was doing a victory lap, holding the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag high up in the air as she waved to everyone in the stands. “How proud she must be. I like how she remembers her roots. That’s very important.”
Linda’s mum went back to shelling peanuts on her lap over an unfolded paper napkin. She leaned across the table and popped some peanuts into Linda’s mouth. Linda crunched the peanuts using the side of her mouth without a wobbly tooth and sat back down on the wicker furniture. She tried finding a sweet spot in the cushions that had sagged beneath the weight of her father, who died when she was a baby, and her older sister, who was working as a teacher far away.
“Who do you go for?” Linda had asked her mum, one day. They’d been watching the Olympics together over the school holidays. Their favourite sports were the track and field events, swimming, diving and figure skating. Linda loved how the figure skaters looked like they were flying.
“What do you mean?” said Linda’s mum.
“Do you go for Australia or China?”
“Australia, of course! I’m true blue Aussie,” said Linda’s mum, enunciating each word in her thick, Chinese accent. “Isn’t it so obvious?” Linda’s mum giggled a bit at her own joke and then winked at Linda, her mouth agape in a huge smile, revealing some of her gold capped teeth. “Of course I am a Chinese person at heart, but I’ve lived here for so long, you become part of the Aussie culture.” She took a sip of cold, boiled water from her cup — a Bugs Bunny mug from McDonald’s that Linda got with a Happy Meal — smacked her lips together and made an ‘Ahhh’ sound. “I wonder if your sister is watching too.”
Linda’s sister lived in a small town in central Queensland, teaching kids in a remote Indigenous community. Linda didn’t like the idea of it because she needed her sister too. Surely the kids could have someone else for a teacher.
Linda and her mum had visited her early in the school holidays. They’d taken the train there, on a country line, where the seats smelt stale and there was a separate carriage with a dining area and real tables.
“Look how big you are!” said Linda’s sister when she met them at the station. Linda’s sister looked different too: she was tanner and her hair had been cut above her shoulders to cope with the heat. Linda thought she looked prettier when she was at home.
In town, Linda’s sister showed them her classroom and the school grounds, both of which were very small and tidy. As they left, some kids sitting on the fence rails eating a bag of barbecue chips yelled out, “Hey, Miss Wong!” and Linda’s sister smiled and told them she hoped they were having a nice break.
On the walk back to Linda’s sister’s house, they passed a lot of pregnant dogs with long nipples blinking flies from their eyes that Linda wanted to pat, but her sister said to leave it. Linda’s sandals got stained with red dirt and when she stopped to wipe them on a patch of grass, she locked eyes with a shirtless boy a couple of years younger, playing with an old soccer ball in his yard, and she lowered her eyes. She didn’t know why she’d done that, so she lifted them again and smiled at the boy, and he waved at her.
At Linda’s sister’s house, Linda hopped into the shower to wash her feet and when she came out, she overheard a conversation between her mum and sister. They were sitting on the verandah, watching the sunset and drinking beer.
“They love salty plums — the same ones we eat at home,” said Linda’s sister. “I give them out as rewards in class.”
“Are they good students?”
“Most of the time,” said Linda’s sister. Then she sighed. “It’s hard, because I can tell they want to learn and they enjoy it, but a lot of the kids drop out and start a trade or they’ve got family responsibilities. I try not to get frustrated, but when you don’t see outcomes — ”
“It’s very complicated,” said Linda’s mum.
“I feel disinterested sometimes, like it’s not my place. What’s my role here? I don’t even know.”
“You have to be respectful,” said Linda’s mum, in Cantonese. “Our ancestors didn’t cause this displacement, but our lives have benefited from it. It meant that we could move to Australia in the first place, at the expense of somebody else’s heartbreak and pain. So we must be mindful and help where we can.”
Linda felt breathless and sweaty, like all of the other times she’d felt overwhelmed by information she couldn’t comprehend. She jumped out onto the verandah, her towel still wrapped around her waist, and into her sister’s lap.
“Lin, did you know that Cathy Freeman has family here?” said Linda’s sister.
“Wow!” said Linda, star struck. “Maybe she’s been running around here.”
“Do you think she’s fast enough to win gold?”
“And fun fact: did you know that her great-great-grandfather was Chinese?”
“Well now I know she’ll win gold,” said Linda’s mum, finishing her beer.
Suddenly, Linda’s sister lifted her up by her armpits, until Linda was standing upright, her feet atop her sister’s feet.
“Next up: Linda Wong, running the 400 metres for Australia!” said Linda’s sister, in a deep commentator’s voice.
“She just washed her feet,” groaned Linda’s mum.
“On your mark,” said Linda’s sister, and they descended the stairs together, counting each one, as Linda whooped with laughter.
5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Go!