The House Where Milkshakes Came From (Draft Chapter) – Memoir JK.Leahy©
We climbed the steps together – mother and I. This house was where we got the money for the milkshake. I will soon have strawberry milkshake. It would be made in a tall silver cup that became sweaty with the cold liquid. With the straw, I would suck and burst the milky strawberry bubbles in the froth at the top of the cup. This routine happened once a month. It was the time when I went to Top Town (Lae City) with Mother and drank strawberry milkshake while I sat on my stool in the milk bar and imagined I was somewhere else – only for a half hour or less, until I finished.
There were a few routines like that between Mother and I. Another routine was buying a new dress once a year, at Christmas, so we could dress up and sing carols while we watched Jesus being born in the manger at Ampo Lutheran church.
Our thongs were slapping on the varnish steps as we climbed. We were loud. The steps jiggled and jingled to our rhythm. I saw our dashing reflections, like fleeting shadows on the clean wooden steps. We were early so the steps had no muddy prints on them. While I pretended to laugh with Mother, I was nervous. The milkshakes tasted divine and nothing like I had ever imagined, but I felt we always needed to pass a test before I could have the milkshake. Mother never let me have sweets – any sweets. She said the milk in the milkshake was good for my teeth and bones.
I grabbed her arm as we reached the top and saw that the two white doors were opened. They are the Lae welfare offices. Aunty Amet sat with her back to the door. The Welfare house was busy today. Other people walked up and down the wide corridor, but she remained undisturbed at her desk. Aunty Amet was a senior welfare officer and was probably busy with another ‘case’, I had thought. She wore a white cotton blouse and a floral skirt. Mr Knoll was in the other room and his face was turned away too. Thank goodness, he did not see me, I told myself.
“Here she is!” I heard a loud singsong voice and turned to see who was giving me away. It was Aunty Hebei. Mr Knoll would know I was here. Miss Hebei looked a million dollars with her curly black hair rolled up in a bundle above her caramel face. Her skin was polished and glistened with touch of sunlight that entered the office. She was like a picture of a famous person. I remember thinking, if I had been older than my seven years, I would have asked her what she put on her face, and her skin. To me, she was closest to being a misus, white woman. She smelled nice, dressed very nice, spoke very good English and she was so beautiful. I knew she was not tall but her shoes made her look so tall. I could never stand on the shoes as tall as hers, but I admired how easy she stood and walked in those shoes – a large piece of wood with pretty straps that covered her delicate feet with painted toe nails.
I liked Aunty Hebei as much as I liked Aunty Amet. Only Aunty Amet was related to us, but mother insisted I called them both “aunty”. These two women looked after my welfare case.
“Hello”, I mumbled quietly to Miss Hebei and slided on the varnish floors to the comforts of my mum’s side. I was afraid to hold a conversation with her, because she spoke so well. I could not trust my English and I preferred to watch her from the distance while she talked to my mother. She sat at her desk and smoked her cigarette daintily, and caring about where she dropped the ashes. She puffed and while staining the end of the smoke with blood lipstick, she blew white puffs into the air, only to fall back on her like a blanket of mystery. Many times, I thought, Aunty Hebei really was from a foreign exotic place.
“Are you seeing Mr Knoll or Amet?” Miss Hebei asked, with one side of her face smiling – knowing we would visit them both. Her lipstick, a deep red rose colour glistened against her perfect white teeth and her very short green silky skirt moved with her shapely body as she turned away and glided in her very high heels to Aunty Amet’s office.
“Guess who is here?”, she said leaning into the door. Aunty Amet turns to the door and breaks into a wide smile. She is very beautiful even without make-up. I asked my mother once and she told me that Aunty Amet was related to us through mother’s father – my grandfather Kauc. Aunty Amet hugged me and ushered mother and I into her office.
After some discussions with her, mother told me we would leave, but we needed to see Mr Knoll.
“Oh No!” I thought to myself, he would inspect my teeth and I have been chewing betel nut. I said goodbye to Aunty Amet and turned to my mother. “Tan-ning – Let’s go?” I asked mother in Bukawac and pulled her arm.
“Mr Knoll would be upset if we don’t see him, and besides, he already knows we are here,” mother said.
We crossed the wide timber corridor to Mr Knoll’s office.
“Freda!” he calls my mother with authority, as if he is making a roll call.
“Yes,” my mother says and breaks into a shy giggle.
“Mr Knoll yu orait?” she asks and keeps smiling.
Amet em tokim yu – tete, ino gat liklik wan siling? (Has Amet told you, today there isn’t a one shilling or we have not received the money). Mr Knoll has perfect pidgin, and the standard one could expect from an ex-kiap. He had worked for many years in many parts of PNG. He was originally from Germany.
I saw his expression and I knew, the milkshake money did not come. I watched mother’s eyes drop and she pretended the news was fine. I felt sad for her. No strawberry milkshake in that tall silver cup for me and we will have a longer walk back to the village. I felt sad.
“Em tokim mi na em orait” Mother replied – that Aunty Amet did tell her and it was fine.
Now, it was my turn. Mr Knoll turned his attention to me and stared at me, his blue-gray eyes checking every inch of my face. His face, red from sunburnt emphasised his large red mole on his top left lip. His silver hair was a sharp contrast and brushed with a curved blade across his brow.
“Come!” He spoke softly. How are you darling?” he said and tilted his head downwards with an inquisitive frown so his eyes got even bigger. He beckoned with his finger to go to him.
“Mi orait”, I smiled.
“English please”, he said sternly and tapped his knees for me to sit. He interviewed me about my life in the last month; since the last welfare visit. Then, he ordered me to open my mouth for the dental check.