All she could see was red. There were no shapes, just a blur of red. She tried to blink, but her eyelids seemed to be stuck together and when she tried to move, she found that she was pinned down. Panic began to set in and she thrashed about, slowly feeling the weight on her lighten. Encouraged, she continued to shake herself, while she willed her eyes to open. She could see something now, a large, bulky shape on top of her, and when she realised that it was a person, she froze.
Lying still, in a fear that kept her motionless, she tried to remember the last thing that had happened, but the only thing that came to her mind was an image of a fourteen-year-old girl on a bed and the body of a man lying next to her, with a pair of scissors plunged into his stomach.
Chapter 1 – Before the Beginning
She remembered that she always hated the way she looked. Beauty was a curse, she was told time and time again by her father, something that would never make her or anyone who loved her happy, and something that she should never rely on. It was sad then that she was stuck with it, inheriting it from her mother, to whom it was also a curse.
When Elena was four, her mother left her and her two-year-old twin brothers with their father in the middle of the night. The dreams began that year, torrid dreams that would awaken her, leaving her shaken and her bed drenched in sweat, and she tried with all her might, her eyes clenched tight, to hold on to them, to grab a piece of the dream, to clutch on to something before it vanished completely, but when she awoke, there was nothing. She could never remember the dreams, but she was convinced they were sent to her by her mother and she desperately wanted to remember her mother. All that remained in her memory were flashes of a smile and the last thing she remembered was a kiss being placed on her forehead before her mother walked out of her life.
Growing up the eldest child among three boys, and her father, as much as she loved him, was a boy, she naturally became a tomboy and also a substitute mother to her younger brothers. She already knew from a young age that she was different from the other kids at school, kids whose mothers dropped them off, blowing kisses to their angels who sped away to their friends, the same mothers who waited for them after school, while Elena walked home behind her neighbours, as told to by her father, so as to be safe.
‘Stay back,’ one of the girls said to her one day, when Elena had gotten too close to the group in front.
‘Miriam,’ the girl’s mother had chided. ‘Elena is all alone, she has no mother to walk with her. Be nice.’ She had then looked at Elena and smiled sweetly.
Elena had been taken aback and from that day, she dawdled far behind, keeping a distance from herself and the mothers and children ahead of her.
She could feel the difference in the way the kids at school dressed compared to herself and she tried to emulate their clothes as best she could with whatever she had. Although she loved fighting with her brothers in the mulch at the nearby park and playing soccer with the neighbourhood children, she also wanted to fit in at school and that meant being girly. She could be creative with a scarf bought from the opportunity shop in the centre of town, turning it into a hair accessory or a belt, or she could cut up and sew one of her father’s old t-shirts into a cute top.
On the odd occasion, her father would take her to a real shop in a shopping centre and allow her to buy something new. Knowing that money was sparse, she would drag her father around the place, making sure she bought something really special, something she would be able to reinvent again and again until it almost fell off her from wear. Walking through the aisles, Elena sniffed deeply into her nostrils, trying to keep the smell of new in her. Her father, understanding how excited she was, would traipse behind her patiently, trying to have an input into what she chose, knowing well that he had no clue as to what kids were wearing these days.
‘How’s this one, Pa?’ She would come out of the changeroom and twirl in front of him.
Jose would raise his eyes from his English notebook, and nod or screw up his face. Elena would skip back into the changeroom with another outfit and Jose would look back into his book.
Elena relished these trips, as few and far between they were, because this was when she felt equal to her peers, who she knew did this type of shopping almost every weekend, and usually with their mothers. They would talk about it at school, competing for the best shopping story, and Elena would listen quietly, hoping they didn’t ask her what she did on the weekend. They usually didn’t.
Elena was naturally curious about her mother and her father would tell her stories about Maria, elaborate tales of her mother as a princess, one who had been summoned back to her kingdom. Elena envisaged her mother a sparkling queen, who would one day come back for them all and take them back to her home, her kingdom, to live amongst her other royal aunties and cousins, of which there would be many. Elena would don her pink taffeta skirt and the plastic tiara that she had found at the Salvation Army, and twirl around the apartment with a wooden spoon, ordering her brothers about like page boys.
She would sit in Jose’s arms and tell him to repeat the princess story again and again until she fell asleep. As her eyes began to droop, she would imagine her mother with dark, flowing locks of hair that fell to her knees and a crown so big and so golden, waking her from her dreams, taking her hand and leading her to a set of gates so large that she couldn’t see the top of them, ones that would automatically open to welcome them in. Elena could almost smell the roses from the bunches of flowers that would be crammed into their arms. She could feel her feet sink into the plush red carpet that was rolled out in the middle of a large garden path, while her mother’s royal family would form a guard of honour below great hanging trees, bowing and clapping and welcoming them home. She would nod and curtsy in acknowledgement while her mother waved her hands about, calming the hailing crowd.
She waited for the day when it would finally happen and pestered her father about it. Then she would be able to play amongst her friends and not be embarrassed about what she wore because she would have the finest clothes, better than those of her friends at school, the same friends that turned their noses up and snickered when she came to school wearing an outfit she had fashioned herself or worn a hundred times before.
‘Tell me, Pa, how beautiful was Ma?’
‘Beauty is not everything, my girl,’ he would say sternly at first, then his eyes would lift upward. ‘But she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.’
‘Tell me again, tell me when you saw Ma.’
‘She was a princess and I knew I was going to marry her the moment I saw her.’
‘Do you think I will also find my prince like that?’
‘You will have your prince, my angel. One day.’
For now, here in a quiet outer suburb in Melbourne’s west, Elena’s father was her real prince and her palace was a little two-bedroom flat on the third floor on Elmut Street, where the neighbours’ food could be smelled through the walls and the rusty bathroom tap dripped constantly. Elena shared a room with her brothers, but she spent most of her time on the little balcony that was used to hang out the washing. There she would draw the little people on the street below her and the views of the tops of houses, houses that were filled with families—and mothers. But she found no real reason to be dissatisfied with her life as it was. She had her father and her brothers and one day, she would have her mother back. She knew it would happen, she just had to be patient.
Jose worked hard as a bricklayer in inner Melbourne and he tried hard to make up for the absence of the children’s mother. He took them out once a week, sometimes to eat pizza, sometimes to the local market, where the smell of fish accosted their senses, and sometimes even on a train ride to the city, where Elena vowed to live one day. He tried to help them with their homework, even though his English was lacking, but his maths was good and he would sit with them in the evening feeling pleased with himself and glad that maths was the same everywhere in the world.
Elena adored her father and waited every day for him to return home from work, when he would always present her with a chocolate bar or some other treat that he had bought from the corner store on his long walk from the train station. Her brothers would always get the same thing, or sometimes they would have to share, but she always felt like her father had bought something that she had especially liked, something special for her.
‘What do you want me to buy for you?’ he would sometimes ask when he kissed her goodbye in the morning.
She would sleepily mutter the first thing that came to her mind and reach up to hug him. He always came back with what she had requested and she would munch at her treats while she told him about her day and he would listen, genuinely interested, smiling and nodding and asking more questions. Then Elena would help him make dinner while he would tell her about his day at work, which was always the same - ‘always the big rush,’ he would say, and Elena would nod sympathetically. Yes, Jose was her prince.
Jose migrated with his wife, Maria, from a small village just south of Cadiz in Spain, when Elena was in her belly. It was 1972; the call for migrants to work in Australia was loud, and Maria was louder. They lived in a small town, where every person knew every other person, and she longed for something more. Maria’s family was affluent and didn’t approve of the match because Jose was a working-class man. He had been working with his own father from the age of eleven and he was not of their calibre, her father being the owner of a large chain store. Once Jose and Maria had eloped, knowing it was the quickest and easiest way for them to be together, Maria’s family didn’t have very much to do with them. Alone at home in a small two-bedroom apartment shared with another couple, Maria found herself missing the things to which she had become accustomed. At first, they were little things like a luxurious bar of soap, or a shampoo from the top shelf of the Mercadona, but soon, she was missing the other things too, the evenings spent at the club and the once-a-week dinner outings at high-end restaurants. Jose couldn’t afford these luxuries and Maria, at first, was happy to forgo all these indulgences in favour of just being with the man she loved.
Maria and Jose met at the local night market, where his mother was selling—or trying to sell—her homemade pies. Jose, an only child, was needed to help out and to bring in customers, but he spent most of his time walking up and down the rows of stalls chatting to friends and charming the shoppers. Maria, at the market with one of her friends from college, saw him immediately and watching him from a distance, saw a dashing, roguish young man who seemed to have entranced a woman, who was acting like a childish schoolgirl with him. He seemed to know he had her lapping up everything he said and he appeared to be laughing inwardly. Maria knew at once that she had to have him and had walked straight up to him, sultry and self-assured. She swished her black, wavy locks of hair around her face, while she sat atop the sale table.
‘Hey, mister.’ She leaned to within an inch of his face. ‘What are you selling?’
He fell under her spell immediately. The woman who he had been flirting with was forgotten and she strode away angrily.
Jose didn’t even notice, and Maria laughed.
‘What are you buying?’
‘Nothing I can see around here really interests me, except what I’m looking at right now.’ She stared more deeply into his eyes.
‘I think that’s already yours.’
They both giggled and Maria hopped off his table.
‘That was very well done, mister, did you pick that up from a movie?’
Maria boldly gave Jose her phone number and he took it without hesitation. Only later did he realise he would have to walk two miles down to his friend Juan’s house to use his phone. But he was smitten and they married two months later.
Life as a married woman was not what Maria had envisaged and she became bored, in spite of the nights out at clubs, where she sang to a large crowd on a regular basis. One of her high school friends from her singing class, Pauletta, had talked once about going overseas to become famous. They had been out on a Sunday evening and Maria, as usual, had been called up to sing.
‘Entertainment is the big thing now, Maria,’ Pauletta had said after Maria had performed an encore. The crowds banged their beer bottles on their tables calling for more, and even though her throat was raw, she came out and sang again, smiling broadly as she bowed out.
‘Here in this place, there is no entertainment. I love it, but I won’t go anywhere from here,’ Maria replied, downing her beer and looking around her.
‘This is not where I’m talking about,’ Pauletta insisted. ‘To get our fame and fortune, we need to be somewhere else.’
Maria put her beer down and leaned forward. She could feel a buzz in her ears and her heart beat faster. ‘What do you mean? Madrid? Barcelona?’
‘No, think beyond that. America … Paris. My old neighbours left for Australia just last year and they love it there. Melbourne, lots of nightclubs, beautiful city. Lots of people going there now. They want us there.’
Maria leaned back in her chair, the buzz in her ears waning. ‘My aunt went to Australia too, but I don’t think so, it’s too far away. Jose would never leave here. He loves his home.’
‘I think he loves you a lot more.’ Pauletta raised her eyebrows and sucked at her straw.
The idea played in Maria’s mind for a while; she realised that apart from Jose, she was quite alone and the opportunities she dreamed of were not going to come to fruition in the small town of San Fernando. As beautiful as it was, San Fernando was not going to further her dreams.
Maria had heard about Australia, as frightfully dangerous as it seemed in the book that she borrowed from the library, but the opportunities it afforded outweighed the negatives. One could never be poor there, she had heard, and she began to talk to Jose about it incessantly.
‘It’s great there, I’ve heard so much about Australia. My aunty went last year, to Sydney, but I don’t want to be near that old goat.’ She scrunched up her nose.
‘It will be hard, to go from all this. This is all I know.’
‘That’s exactly why!’ Maria’s eyes lit up. ‘We can start our own lives, our own adventure, just you and me. We can do whatever we want to do. I can find a gig and we can both work and we will make it big.’
‘But my family … your family …’
‘Your family can come to visit us and we can come back to see them too. And my family!’ Maria almost spat it out. ‘I will show them!’
Jose, in the beginning, had been hesitant, but his only goal in life was to make his wife happy, so they applied for a permanent visa and were accepted after three months. Pregnancy and a three-month boat ride didn’t sit well with Maria, but she focused on her goal and Jose, quite seasick himself, tended to her every need.
On arriving in Melbourne, they had stayed at a housing commission flat initially and Maria was unimpressed; they had moved a thousand miles away to be in a worse position than they had just escaped. Being in such close proximity to other families, with screaming children and odd aromas that penetrated every room and even the hallway, was not her idea of living. Jose, twenty-two at the time, already having worked in the building industry in Spain, had secured a job almost immediately and seeing Maria’s distress at her new lodgings moved them out within a month. He was happy to go to work and allow Maria to keep house in a quiet suburban area thirty kilometres from the city.
Maria was not so satisfied. Living her life through stories and visions of making it big, her dream of Melbourne was not all she had hoped. With a good grasp of the English language, which came from her education at private schools, Maria had thought that moving to a Western country would offer her the opportunity of fame and riches and it would happen immediately. Having a voice that used to draw crowds, she expected to break into the entertainment industry straight away. She realised that by being pregnant and holed away with no influences or contacts, she was not going to achieve her dream.
‘Just wait until the baby comes, you’ll see, you won’t even want to work.’ Jose tried to reassure her one evening when he returned from work and found her angrily scrubbing away the paint off the kitchen counter.
‘Of course, I want to work. I’m not going to be stuck at home all day. I will get a job at a club’ - she saw his expression at that - ‘or at a bank and then I will make enough money to have a carer for our child.’
‘Maria, a child needs its mother.’
‘I am not going to be one of those mothers!’ she retorted. ‘I can be a good mother and I can also work. Everyone else in this country does it. Jenny down the road does it. Of course, she cleans people’s houses and I won’t do that.’
‘Whatever you want, Maria, whatever makes you happy.’ Jose knew he couldn’t tell his wife what to do. ‘Once the baby is born, we can see about finding you a job.’
‘Thank you, Jose.’ She hugged him. ‘You are the best man in the world. I don’t know how I got so lucky. You make me so happy.’
Jose held her tight, wondering if he could indeed keep her happy.
After giving birth to Elena, Maria had tried to find work, but living so far away from the city, it was hard to find people who she had things in common with, and as well as she could speak the language, her accent, being strong, meant that bank and white-collar jobs were not forthcoming. She prepped Elena in her stroller every morning and went to the CES, where she would look through the little cards and take them to the counter. She went for a couple of interviews, but she knew as soon as she had left that she hadn’t gotten the job. She refused to accept a job that relied on manual labour so she tried to be patient, hoping that time would make things easier. She enrolled in a local language class that she hoped would help make her accent more Australian and practised incessantly on Jose, who smiled and encouraged her.
Maria also befriended neighbours and when Jose encouraged her to visit the Spanish Club in inner Melbourne with him, she flatly refused, feeling that the progress she was making with her accent would go backward. Feeling lost and alone, she began to frequent bars and clubs, at first expecting a chance to have a singing gig, in the hope of being ‘discovered’, leaving Jose at home to care for Elena by himself.
Jose relented; his only wish was for his wife to be happy and if she found a singing job, she would be, so he stayed home to care for his daughter while his wife caught a train to the city in the evenings, dressed in her finest. He worried for her, he always worried for her, but she had a mind of her own and he knew that once she had made up her mind about something, she would get her way no matter what he said or thought about it. Finding herself pregnant again at the age of twenty-four, Maria reluctantly stayed home, but continued to socialise with friends she had met and neighbours that were all too happy to have this exotic woman with the voice of an angel entertaining them in their homes.
When Michael and Tom were born, Maria stopped bothering Jose about finding a job and cared for them as he had always wanted. Even though he worried about her lack of conversation or interest in him, he put it down to her adjusting to their new life. He was just happy that his wife was finally becoming interested in her family. So, when he came home from work late one night, two years after the twins were born, he couldn’t understand why she was not there. The children were tucked in bed, but his own was empty, and when he thought that perhaps she had gone out as she used to in the old days, his heart had fallen. When he realised that all her clothes and shoes had also vanished, it completely broke. He had sat on the edge of the bed and cried. He lived in the hope that she would return but knew in his heart that she never would.
‘Where is Ma?’ Elena came out of her room the next morning rubbing her eyes and found Jose on the sofa.
Jose, who had been awake all night, just held out his arms and Elena hopped onto his lap. He squeezed her tight.
‘What’s the matter, Pa?’ She turned his face towards hers.
‘Your ma had to go somewhere.’
‘She went in the night. She kissed me. She’s not back yet?’
‘No, she’s not back. She won’t be back for a while.’ Jose picked up Elena and, taking her to the kitchen, placed her on a stool. Elena waited for more. Jose pulled out the frying pan and, lighting the stove, placed it on the fire. ‘You see …’ he began.
He told his children the princess story hoping Maria would prove him wrong and hoping against hope she would return before they were old enough to doubt it.
It was when she was six that Elena began to question the fantasy and tried to get the truth out of her father. Her friends at school had scoffed at her story and she had run home in tears to ask her father about it, knowing he would tell her the truth, tell her that her mother was indeed a princess, which made her one too, and her friends would have to apologise for what they had said. But when her father had brushed off the topic, she began to worry that he had been lying all this time. She stopped asking him about it, but she also stopped telling the story at school and at the same time, Jose also stopped telling it to his children. That was when she realised that this dream was never going to come true.