The Visitor

Melanie Cheng

Jenny scanned the faces of the travellers as they appeared through the sliding doors of the arrival hall. Everyone looked weary, some more than others. But she didn’t concern herself with them. She was on the lookout for one face and one face only. A face not so different in contour and colour from her own.

It had been three years since they inhabited the same space, breathed the same air. In that time, two babies had been born—first cousins who looked nothing alike, on account of fathers who hailed from opposite sides of the globe.

When the younger sister finally arrived, crumpled from sleep and sallow under the airport lights, the older sister’s heart lurched. But it wasn’t until they embraced that tears fell from the corners of Jenny’s eyes. It was the smell that did it. The faint scent of home on her sister’s hair and flesh and clothes. Jenny was so overcome with emotion, she almost didn’t notice the crown of black hair bobbing behind the suitcases.

‘Hello,’ she said, bending down, which wasn’t easy with a sleeping baby strapped to her chest. But the girl remained hidden behind the mountain of bags.

‘She’ll warm up,’ her mother said, with a small and uncertain smile.

In the car they didn’t speak. There was so much to say, it was easier to say nothing. Jenny turned the radio on. For some reason, the accent of the host sounded unusually strong. The roads, too, seemed particularly wide and flat, the suburbs especially huge and sprawling. Jenny sensed her sister shift in the passenger seat beside her.

Darkness fell as they neared home and the baby started to stir. Jenny was glad for the light of dusk. Its crayon-pink hue brought a welcome softness to their otherwise rough inner-city street. Even the sneakers dangling from the power lines had a certain poetry about them.

‘You live in a house?’ the younger sister asked as they pulled into the driveway.

‘A townhouse. Not really a house. We share a wall with another family.’

‘It’s beautiful.’

Jenny wanted to explain that they were only renting and there were much bigger houses with swimming pools and tree-lined streets on the other side of the river, but she stopped herself. ‘Thank you.’

Once the children were in bed, the two sisters sat with cups of hot tea in the small concrete courtyard. The week before, Jenny had decorated the space with brightly coloured pot plants she had bought on special at Bunnings. They were fragile things, which wouldn’t survive even a few days of the Melbourne summer.

‘Remember the bougainvillea outside Grandma’s house?’ Jenny said and her sister nodded. Jenny pointed to a small leafy plant in a box beside the garage. ‘They don’t grow here like they do back home.’

‘Too cold?’

Jenny looked at her sister, wrapped in a shawl, even though it was a warm and still spring evening. She smiled.

‘I miss Grandma.’

‘Me too. Remember how she would always give us money when we said goodbye? She’d stuff it into our pockets, like she was rewarding us for spending spend time with her. Little did she know, I didn’t go for the money—I went for the food.’

Jenny’s sister laughed.

‘Her ma po tofu. Her Portuguese chicken. Her sweet and sour pork.’

‘Stop it, you’re making me hungry.’

‘I can go to restaurants here and order that stuff but it’s never as good as Grandma’s cooking.’

They sat in silence then, watching bats soar across the charcoal sky.

‘Well,’ the younger sister said finally, ‘Grandma’s gone and so has the place you’re remembering.’

Jenny had never shown anyone around Melbourne before. She didn’t know where to start. Eventually she found a travel website recommending a trip to one of the tallest buildings in the city. The website lauded it as a place not to be missed and—most importantly for Jenny—a family favourite.

Jenny suggested the outing over breakfast and her sister shrugged, which annoyed her a little. When she asked her niece if she wanted to go for a ride in the fastest elevator in the Southern Hemisphere, the girl sucked her thumb and said nothing.

In the elevator, their ears popped and the baby cried, as if in agony. When they stepped out of the lift, they joined the flurry of tourists circling the glass-walled room like stupefied goldfish. For a moment, Jenny wondered if she’d made the wrong decision in bringing her sister here, but then her niece removed her thumb from her mouth and emerged from behind the shield of her mother’s knees. She placed her small hands on the glass and looked down upon the city. Jenny kneeled beside her. The baby, quiet now, kicked his legs.

Jenny was disoriented. She was not used to seeing the city from this angle. But as her niece pointed to some of the bigger landmarks, she slowly gained her bearings. Flinders Street Station. The MCG. The Royal Exhibition Building. The girl seemed to enjoy this new game she was playing with her auntie. For every point of her tiny finger, she was gifted a funny new English name. Soon, her aunt supplemented the names with details—stories about her life in Melbourne.

‘There’s the hospital where I gave birth to Harry,’ she said, running her fingers through Harry’s soft white hair.

‘There’s the aquatic centre where I learned how to swim.’

‘There’s the gallery where I met Harry’s dad.’

‘There’s the intersection where I crashed my car.’

‘There’s the hotel where Harry’s dad proposed.’

‘There’s the park where I watched the ballet, huddled in a blanket with a mug of hot Milo.’

After a while, the little girl ran out of landmarks and slipped her thumb back inside her mouth. But Jenny couldn’t stop. ‘And if you follow that wide street with the tram up past the big football oval, you’ll eventually get to our house.’

The little girl looked up at her aunt, whose eyes were now shiny with tears.


Melanie Cheng is an author, general practitioner and health columnist for The Saturday Paper. Her debut short story collection, Australia Day, won the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and her debut novel, Room for a Stranger, was longlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Illustration: Jackie Nguyen

Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.