I’d never had any aunties so when Mum told me we had three aunties hiding out in Canada I felt like I’d just won the Avery scholarship. After I gave three cheers, I asked, “How come ya never told us we had three aunties on the other side of the world?”
“I didn’t know myself,” said Mum. “Gramps lost track of his sisters after the war.”
“Do they live on Prince Edward Island? Do ya reckon they know Anne Shirley?”
As usual Mum pretended not to hear my questions. She put her head down and concentrated on stirring the brown goo in the saucepan (smelt like turnips—yuck).
“How can ya lose three sisters?” asked my sister Josie.
Mum heard that question. She tapped the spoon on the side of the saucepan then laid it down on the bench. “You girls’ve had it so easy. You wouldn’t understand. During the war everything was turned upside down. Families were split up—everyone just went wherever they could survive. Gramps came here and his three sisters ended up in Canada … they’ve only just tracked him down after all these years.”
“I wish Gramps’d gone to Canada too,” I said. “Then I could’ve grown up on Prince Edward Island and been bosom friends with Anne of Green Gables.”
Mum laughed. “Then I would’ve grown up in Canada and Dad would’ve been here and you two wouldn’t exist.” She picked up the spoon and turned back to the stove.
“In your case that wouldn’t be a loss,” Josie said in a voice soft enough that Mum couldn’t hear. I stuck out my tongue, wishing I could lose my sister. Maybe I should ask Gramps for some tips.
* * *
Gramps hadn’t seen his sisters in over forty years—longer than Mum and Dad had been alive—but when those three sisters hopped out of the taxi and launched themselves at him, Gramps looked about as happy to see them as I’d be if I ran into Josie after forty minutes. He stood on the front lawn, arms glued to his sides like a soldier, as one by one the sisters wrestled him into a hug.
“So good to see yer after all this time!”
“Me long lost brother!”
“Even handsomer than I remember.”
Gramps didn’t say anything, just stood pulsing his hands into his thighs, his face glowing like he was sunburnt.
I’d never met anyone from Canada before and I’d assumed my aunts would look like the picture on the cover of Anne of Green Gables, but rather than long red braids, their hair was grey and cut short just like Gran’s. Not having red hair meant they were able to wear pink, the most bewitching colour in the world. All three of them wore pink t-shirts emblazoned with a silver love heart.
Gran, Mum, Dad, Josie and I stood in a row waiting our turn as the sisters exclaimed over Gramps. After forever my new aunts released Gramps and began kissing and exclaiming their way down the line of my family. They got to me last.
“Oh, Sarah, ain’t yer a sweetie!” My Aunt Mary (or “Ant Mary” as she called herself) pinched my cheek then threw her arms around me. While Gran and Gramps always smelt of Palmolive soap, Ant Mary smelt like apples. I took a big breath, sucking in her sweetness. “How old are yer now, sweetie? What grade are yer in at school? What classes do yer like?” Ant Mary fired questions at me, leaving no room for answers.
When Ant Mary finally let me go, the second ant, Ant Flo, grabbed me right away, nearly knocking Anne of Green Gables out from under my arm. “Y’are such a doll!” For some reason she was crying, plump tears cascading down her cheeks. “I’m so happy to meet yer at last,” she sobbed. She held me so tight she squeezed out all my breath and when she let me go I was panting like when I surfaced after swimming underwater for the whole length of the pool. I didn’t even have a chance to recover before the third ant, Ant Dodo, snatched me up in her arms. Ant Dodo was the youngest sister so, like me, she always got left to last. “Oh, me littlest grandniece. What a cutie!” Ant Dodo had a mountain of a nose like Gramps and it jabbed into my cheek as she clasped me.
After the ants had finished hugging us all ten times each, we went inside for a cup of tea. Gran put out a plate of homemade fruitcake, even though I’d told her that our Canadian guests would be expecting cherry pie. Still, fruitcake was better than going hungry, so I reached out to grab a piece but Mum slapped my hand away. “You know you’re not allowed to eat that. You’re fat enough as it is.”
Ant Dodo chuckled then picked up the plate and held it out to me. “Here yer go, sweetie. Don’t listen to yer Mom, y’are real beautiful just the way y’are.”
“Ain’t she just,” agreed Ant Mary and Ant Flo, their heads going up and down in unison.
I took two pieces of cake, one in each hand, and grinned over at Mum, but she was studying the carpet.
“Do ya live on Prince Edward Island?” I asked.
The three ants looked at each other and started giggling. “No, sweetie,” said Ant Mary. “We live in Toronto. That’s a big city, just like Melbourne.”
I reached for another piece of cake. “Have ya ever been to Prince Edward Island?”
“That’s enough of your silly questions, Sarah,” said Dad. Then he turned to the ants and asked them what they got to eat on the plane and whether they’d been able to sleep and what time it was now back in Toronto.
After we’d finished afternoon tea, the ants rummaged around in their ginormous suitcases and pulled out presents for all of us, even though it wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday. Ant Mary handed me a box wrapped in gold paper with a silver bow on top. I’d never received anything so beautiful. I held the present in my hands, just gazing at it, not wanting to spoil the gift by unwrapping it.
“It’s ace!” I said. “Thanks heaps.”
“Go ahead, sweetie,” laughed Ant Mary. “Open it up.”
I turned the box over and slid my finger along the seam, trying to prise off the sticky tape without damaging the gold paper—it’d come in handy for my art project. Beneath the beautiful wrapping paper was a beautiful box and inside the beautiful box was a beautiful necklace in the shape of a beautiful butterfly. The beautiful necklace had a beautiful shiny stone in one corner and a beautiful letter “S” engraved right in the middle.
“S for Sarah,” said Ant Mary.
“S for sweetie,” said Ant Dodo.
“S for special,” said Ant Flo.
“S for stupid,” muttered Josie. I jabbed my elbow into her ribs. Why couldn’t I have a nice sister? It wasn’t fair—Gramps had three. Maybe if I’d grown up in Canada I’d be surrounded by kindred spirits and bosom friends.
Dad snatched the box out of my hands, holding it up to the light and squinting. “Is that a real diamond?” He traced a finger over my butterfly. Ant Mary nodded.
“There was no need,” said Dad. “You shouldn’t spoil them.”
“But I’m meeting me grandnieces for the first time. I want ‘em to know how much I love ‘em.” She smiled at Mum—two rows of straight white teeth. “Y’are lucky to have such beautiful daughters. Yer must be so proud.”
“Of course.” Mum’s teeth were gritted behind her grin. She glanced over at me, her smile drooping. “Don’t be rude, Sarah. Thank your Aunty Mary for the generous present.”
“Thanks so much!” I hooked the butterfly around my neck. “It’s ace! It’s unreal! It’s the most beautiful present I’ve ever gotten … much nicer than the diary Gran gave me last Christmas that had every Friday and Saturday missing … and the jumper Mum got me at the op shop for my birthday and …”
The ants looked at each other and burst into laughter so loud the whole room seemed to shake. “Grandkids are a gift from God, ain’t they,” Ant Flo said to Gran, “Yer grandkids are so special. Yer must be proud.”
Gran was examining the same bit of carpet that had captivated Mum a few moments earlier. I leaned over to have a real good squiz, but I couldn’t see anything wrong with the carpet. It was standing perfectly upright, still holding the shadow of Gran’s hoover.
Usually when we visited Gran and Gramps, we all sat around drinking tea and listening to the clock on the mantelpiece going tick tock, tick tock for about an hour until at last Mum said it was time to go home, but the ants didn’t seem interested in listening to the clock and the clock’s tick tocking was drowned out by their chatter and laughter. They spoke in exclamation marks with their hands dancing in front of them. And usually they all spoke at the same time.
At one point I looked over and saw Gramps covering his ears with his hands. A little later I noticed him pull himself out of his chair and sidle towards the door. Then, in a rare gap between an exclamation and a giggle, I heard the faint sound of his piano out in the garage.
The ants were busy telling a story about this “sweet, lovely, fabulous” guy they’d met on the plane. “He was coming to Ors—tralia to buy a dog …” said Ant Mary.
“A dog to work on his farm,” said Ant Dodo. “Apparently there’s this special type of dog in Ors—tralia …”
“He showed us photos,” said Ant Flo. “That dog sure was a cutie …”
All of a sudden, Ant Mary looked around. “Where’s Matthew?”
“He’s playin’ piano out the back,” I said.
“Oh?” The three ants fell silent and we could hear the distant tones of the Moonlight Sonata.
“I play piano too,” I said. “I had an exam and I got …”
Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t boast, Sarah.”
“Oh sweetie, that’s fabulous,” said Ant Dodo. “I bet yer Dad’s real proud of yer.” She clasped her hands in front of her chest and tilted towards me.
“I can recite poetry too.” I sprang to my feet. “I know ever so many pieces of poetry off by heart. Would ya like to hear The Lady of Shallot or Bingen of the Rhine?”
“The Lady of Shallot,” said Ant Mary.
“Bingen of the Rhine,” said Ant Dodo.
“Neither,” said Dad, Mum and Josie all at the same time.
Ant Mary and Ant Dodo looked at each other with smiles as big as Prince Edward Island across their faces. “Why don’t we hear both.”
Dad, Mum and Josie gathered up all the plates and headed into the kitchen to do the washing up.
* * *
I’d always dreamed of having an aunty and suddenly I had three. All three of them were kindred spirits, but my favourite was Dodo. She noticed the book I carried around with me and said, “I read that book too when I was a little girl. Which bit are yer up to?”
“I’ve already read it four times,” I said. “I borrowed it again so I could learn all about Canada, ready for ya visit. I’ve gotta take it back to the library by Friday or I’ll get a fine and Mum’ll kill me.”
Ant Dodo’s laughter was like wind passing through poplars. “I’m sure she wouldn’t do that.” Clearly she didn’t know my mum very well yet. She tapped her finger on the book’s cover. “What’s yer favourite bit?”
“The part where Anne walks along the ridgepole.” I stuck out my arms and took a few careful toe to heel tightrope steps to demonstrate. “I tried to walk along our ridgepole but Dad grabbed me before I got halfway up the ladder … Walloped me with his belt.”
Ant Dodo laughed again. “I’m sure yer Dad wouldn’t do that.”
Obviously everyone in Canada was much nicer than they were in Australia because my Dad would most certainly do that and I had the welts on my backside to prove it. I was just about to pull down my pants to show her when Dad poked his head around the door. “Get a move on, Sarah, we’re goin’ home.” He glanced at the book which Ant Dodo now had open in her hands. “Don’t forget ya book. Mum’ll kill ya if ya get another library fine.”
The reason we had to go home so early—before I even had the chance to find out about Ant Dodo’s favourite bit of Anne of Green Gables—was because Dad’s team were playing and he wanted to watch the game. Dad loved football and if he ever missed a game he’d be grumpy for about a week afterwards. Dad had wanted sons rather than daughters so he had someone to kick a footy with, which was why he was so disappointed that Josie and I had both turned out to be girls.
Yes, I was an unwanted girl, just like Anne Shirley. Dad said that when I was born he was so sure I was going to be a boy, they didn’t have a girl’s name picked out. They only had a boy’s name and it wasn’t a nice, romantic name like Gilbert. No, they were going to call me Paul. Paul! Then I arrived and Mum decided to call me Sarah, on the spot, without even thinking about it. Like Anne, I kept having to remind everyone to stick the last letter on my name, otherwise they’d call me Sara which was nowhere near as distinguished as Sarah.
I often reminded Dad that girls could play football too, but he always said don’t be ridiculous and if I wanted to do sport I could enroll in ballet. I reckon if I had’ve come from an orphanage rather than out of Mum’s tummy, Dad would’ve sent me back for sure and got the boy he wanted.
Josie’s favourite ant was Ant Mary. Before she retired Ant Mary was a hairdresser, so Josie sat on the floor between Mary’s knees and Mary whipped her hair into fancy styles, braids and buns and French rolls. Josie liked Ant Mary so much that she even started talking like her, dragging all her words out to twice as long as they should be and flicking her tongue up behind her front teeth so her Rs rolled on forever. She started calling me Sarah sweetie, just like the ants did, even though I knew Josie thought I was about as sweet as Vegemite.
* * *
The ants only stayed a week—they all said they’d love to stay longer, but they had their own families back in Canada and they needed to get home. On their last day they took Josie and me shopping for farewell gifts.
When we got to the shopping centre, which the ants and Josie in her new accent called the mall, Ant Flo threw her arms open wide. “Yer can buy anythin’ yer like, sweeties.”
“We want to leave yer a real special gift so yer don’t go forgettin’ us,” said Ant Dodo.
“I’ll never forget ya!” I sniffled into the sleeve of my jumper. Gramps might have forgotten about his sisters for forty years but, even though I’d only known them for a week, they were in my heart forever, right next to Anne of Green Gables.
First we went to the bookshop so I could buy my very own copy of Anne of Green Gables. (I didn’t tell Ant Dodo that I’d returned the book to the library two days late and still had the indent of Mum’s wooden spoon on my bum.)
“Yer can get somethin’ else as well, sweetie,” said Ant Dodo. “What about this?” She held up a box which had all six Anne books in it.
I threw my arms around her. “You’re the sweetest, kindest, loveliest ants in all the world.”
Next it was Josie’s turn. She dragged us to the jewelry store where she tried on four pairs of earrings and because she couldn’t decide which she liked best (“They’re all so cool!”) Ant Mary bought her all four pairs. Ant Dodo came over to the corner where I was squatting, reading one my new books. “Yer sure we can’t buy yer somethin’ else, sweetie?”
“No thanks.” I stuck my nose back in my book. “Just red hair like Anne of Green Gables.”
Ant Dodo cackled like a chook. “Oh sweetie, y’are such a card!”
Josie was leaning on the counter watching Ant Mary counting out fifty dollar notes. She snuck a glance back at me and stuck up her middle finger, her lips silently moving in the all-too-familiar shape of the word “Stupid”. Then she turned and grinned up at Ant Mary. “Can we go to Sportsgirl now? It’s so neato.”
“Of course, sweetie.”
In Sportsgirl I sat cross-legged under a rack of t-shirts reading while Josie tried on practically everything in the whole store. After about two hours, Josie swept back the t-shirts hanging above me and kicked me in the shin. “What d’ya think?” She was wearing a red skirt so short I could see the tartan of her undies and the top she had on was only half a top, sitting an inch above her bellybutton. She turned a circle in front of me. “Cool, hey Sarah sweetie.”
“Mum and Dad’ll kill ya if ya leave the house wearin’ that.”
Ant Flo came over, her shoes going clip clop on the tiles. “Don’t yer look like an angel! Let’s buy it!” She smiled down at me. “Yer sure yer don’t want anythin’ else, sweetie?”
“Do ya reckon they have anything with puffed sleeves?” I asked. Josie rolled her eyes.
Ant Flo went over and spoke to the sales assistant. I couldn’t hear what she said, but the sale assistant’s voice was so loud I think everyone in the whole shop could hear. “Puffed sleeves? Na, you’d be lucky to get anything with sleeves at this season. What about a boob tube?”
When we got back to Gran’s, Dad took one look at Josie and shouted, “What the hell are ya wearin’?” His eyebrows arched to fill the bald spot at the top of his forehead.
“Don’t she look fabulous,” said Ant Mary.
“Just like a model,” said Ant Dodo.
“Yer must be so proud of her,” said Ant Flo.
Josie smirked and did a lap of the lounge room, her bum wiggling side to side. Dad tucked the newspaper under his arm and disappeared outside.
After tea, we all stood in the driveway waiting for the taxi that would take the ants to the airport. The ants, Josie and me were all in tears. Gran, Mum and Dad stood off to the side with their arms folded over their chests and Gramps stood even further away, over by the roses, looking at his toes.
Ant Mary flung one arm around me and one arm around Josie. “Oh sweeties, we’re going to miss yer so much.”
“Can’t we come with yer,” pleaded Josie.
Ant Mary shook her head, laughter tumbling out with her tears. “Oh sweetie, I wish yer could. But yer can come visit.”
“Yeah, come visit,” said Ant Flo.
Ant Dodo combed her fingers through my hair. “I’ll take yer to Prince Edward Island. I’ve heard it’s the prettiest place in the world.” I buried my face in her skirt, wondering how much a ticket to Canada cost. If I managed to stay out of mischief and did the dishes and made my bed every day, I got two dollars a week pocket money. Maybe I could save up.
The taxi pulled into the driveway and Dad loaded the ant’s suitcases into the boot while the ants began another round of teary hugging. One last hug then they all piled into the backseat, rolling down the windows and reaching out to clasp our hands, Josie on one side, me on the other.
“Bye sweeties … We’ll miss y’all so much … We love yer, sweeties.”
I ran alongside the taxi, clinging to Ant Dodo’s hand, but the car sped up and I lost my grip and my ants disappeared over the hill.
“What a relief.” Dad stamped his foot down right in the middle of a line of ants scurrying along the footpath. Then he glared over at Josie who had her hands over her face, boo-hooing. “Get inside and get some clothes on.”
“I’ll wear what I want!” Josie pulled her hands away from her face and jerked a finger up at Dad.
“How dare you!” Dad’s face was beetroot. “Just you wait, young lady …” But Josie didn’t wait, she’d already vanished into the house, slamming the front door behind her.
I sat hunched on the front lawn sobbing into my knees. “What are you bawling about?” Mum jabbed me with her shoe. “All that spoiling’s made you soft.”
“I’m not soft,” I blubbered. “I’m sad. What if Gramps loses his sisters again and I never get to see them …” I wiped my nose along my forearm, leaving a glistening trail of sadness. “I wanna go to Canada, where everyone’s sweet as Anne of Green Gables.”
Louise Hopewell is an Australian writer and public policy researcher. Back in Melbourne, Louise has led community laughter groups in raucous merriment for over five years. Louise has published poetry, as well as short fiction, and regularly performs her original songs. Her work has been published in Seizure, EastLit, FH: A journal of English senryu and Chamber poets anthology: Shots from the chamber.