‘The Boy Who Swallowed the Sea’: extract by Jessica Yu
Jessica Yu is a Melbourne-based writer and editor and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellow. During her fellowship, Jessica has been working on a Young Adult novel, The Boy Who Swallowed the Sea. The book is about 16-year-old En Ye Ang, a chronic over-thinker, meticulous life-planner, quiet achiever, nervous wreck and scintillating storyteller. This is an extract from the novel.
En Ye’s house was proudly utilitarian with its thick plastic sheeting over the tablecloth, carpet and couches. His mother often boasted to guests that their lounge suite was 16 years old – dating back to when she and her husband had first come to Australia – but looked as new as a baby after its bath. Having Anita over forced En Ye to view his house as a stranger would. He realised that his mum was right – the furniture and the floorboards did, indeed, look as if they hadn’t been altered for 16 years – but this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Anita had already strayed over to the faux-wood TV set and was playing with the McDonalds Happy Meal toys blu-tacked onto its surface. The characters were bright and faded blobs of fur and slime and spikes from a TV show that had long been lost to the VTR era. And then he noticed. Her shoes. Their scuffed black polish stark against the absolute cleanliness of the floor. En Ye’s mum had worked back-to-back evening and morning shifts to pay for those floorboards. Now that she was partially retired, she cleaned them with her ENJO mop every second day.
‘Um, sorry …’ said En Ye.
‘What? I think it looks kinda cool. Like totally kitsch but not tacky-kitsch, retro-kitsch.’
‘No, your shoes,’ En Ye said so quietly that Anita had to try and lip-read.
‘Shoes off!’ En Ye’s mum came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron.
‘Oh, sorry. Look, I’m so sorry,’ Anita said as she let herself out of the front door and saw the family’s shoes, stacked onto a rattan shoe rack. She kicked off her T-bars as well as, rather unnecessarily, pulling off her long socks. When Anita came back into the house, En Ye’s mum held out her hand like a truce. Or perhaps it was a threat.
‘I’m Auntie Ang,’ she said.
‘I’m Anita?’ Anita tried. ‘Niece Anita?’
‘My house has a strictly shoes-off policy. My eldest son has kids and when they come over they play on the floor and put aaaaanything in the mouths. So the floors have to be clean for them,’ En Ye’s mum explained.
To En Ye, no two words were ever swappable in the way that no two babies could ever be swappable.
‘Wow. That’s so great, Anita chimed. ‘Three generations under one roof. That's the Chinese idea of filial happiness, right?’
‘Actually four. It's four. And my mother-in-law lives with us, too, so we have four. I only hope I live long enough to see my eldest grandson get married and have his own kids. Then we’ll have five.’
En Ye could never stand the way his mum communicated. The way her words were lazy approximations of what she really meant. The way she thought that words were…just words when to En Ye, no two words were ever swappable in the way that no two babies could ever be swappable. En Ye was far too pedantic to believe in the existence of synonyms.
‘Mummy, Anita has to get home for dinner, so we need to do our work now, okay?’
‘Aren’t you hungry, Boy? You two don’t want some Maggi noodles?’
En Ye looked at her and tried to communicate ‘Go. Away.’ via telepathy but it didn’t work.
‘I’d love some,’ said Anita.
‘Good, because I’ve already made two bowls.’
Auntie Ang’s Maggi noodles. Cooked with chicken broth and full of sliced fish balls and cabbage and the odd dried shrimp. En Ye picked up his bowl and chopsticks from the dining table and began walking towards his bedroom, hoping Anita would follow.
‘Ah Boy,’ said Auntie Ang.
‘Yeah?’ said En Ye, innocently.
‘Where you going?’
‘My room. Me and Anita have some work to do.’
‘No eating in your bedroom. You make a mess and then who will be the one to clean it up?’
‘But we have homework.’ You can do it here. I clear the kitchen table for you. Then I’ll do the cooking. Out of your way.’
And then En Ye twigged. The new rule about not eating in his bedroom was a polite code his mother was using. It was code for no girls in his bedroom. Even ones who came over to work on their Politics projects. The Maggi noodles were a cunning plan. It occurred to En Ye, that perhaps, his mum did know something about words and their power after all.