An extract from The Mothers’ Group by Fiona Higgins


It was the last Friday of the month, a warm spring day in October. Although it was only ten o’clock, the sun already had a sting in it. They’d parked the babies’ prams beneath the broad white umbrellas of Beachcombers, and pulled together two tables for their first book club session. The idea had been suggested by Cara a few weeks earlier.

‘My brain’s turning to mush,’ she’d said, laughing. ‘I used to be a journalist, and now I can’t even read two pages at night without falling asleep. I need a book club to keep me motivated.’

They’d all submitted suggestions for books, then drawn titles out of a hat. Suzie’s suggestion, Eat, Pray, Love, had been selected for the first session. Made had been thoroughly intimidated by the prospect of reading an
entire book in English and hadn’t even tried.

‘This has got to be my favourite book of all time,’ Suzie gushed, thumbing a dog-eared volume. ‘I just loved every single chapter, especially the India section. It was such a spiritual journey for the author.’ Suzie’s
blonde curls bounced behind her ears. The way her hands fluttered as she spoke, her child-like eagerness, reminded Made of her younger sister, Komang. Suzie’s face was open too, and her heart was good, Made was sure. When Suzie asked Made how she was, she actually waited to hear the answer.

Ginie coughed impatiently. Australians were always in a hurry, Made had come to understand, and none more so than Ginie. She was tall and athletic and rather old, with white hairs springing from her blonde plait.
This was not unusual in Australia, she’d learned, women having babies at an age when they could be grandmothers. Ginie’s face was lined across the forehead and slightly drawn, giving Made the impression of hunger or thirst. Her restless, dissatisfied energy seemed to unsettle the group.

‘I found the India section the hardest, actually,’ said Ginie. ‘Italy was passable, but India was dull. In fact, I found the whole story a bit tedious. I just couldn’t get past the fact that after the author split up with her husband, her publisher gave her an advance to go and have an overseas adventure and write about it.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I mean, how many unhappy thirty-somethings get to do that after a messy divorce?’

As usual, Ginie spoke too quickly, making it difficult for Made to follow what she was saying. But her tone spoke volumes. Suzie looked chastened.

‘I know what you mean,’ agreed Pippa, sipping at her peppermint tea. ‘That seemed a bit premeditated. But in the end, I thought the author was really courageous to write about such personal things. Sometimes I’d read a paragraph and think, “Gosh, did she really mean to tell us that?” I liked the way she described all the unexpected things that can happen to us in life.’

Made had never heard Pippa say so much.

‘Oh God, I hated all that,’ objected Ginie. ‘Why put your own bullshit out there, unless you’re someone of world importance? The author kept rabbiting on about how challenging her life was and I kept thinking, come
on, this is so indulgent.’

Made’s eyes widened; she’d heard at least one crude word. No one else in the group seemed troubled by it. A waiter arrived with a tray of coffees, their second round. These women drank milky coffee, with hardly any sugar in it. It was too creamy for Made, so she always ordered tea. At Suzie’s suggestion, she’d tried a variety of herbals, but they tasted like warm flowers.

‘I agree with Ginie,’ said Miranda, bouncing Rory on her knee. ‘I just wondered how hard the author’s life really was.’ She stood up from the table to check on Digby and, seeing him scaling the climbing frame, sat down again. ‘I mean, she didn’t have any children, did she? I loved her honesty and humour, but hated how much she didn’t know about life. I kept thinking to myself, honey, if you think this is worth whining about,
just wait until you have kids.’

Everyone laughed.

‘What did you think of it, Cara?’ Suzie’s expression was hopeful.
‘Well . . .’ Cara looked thoughtful, fingering the end of her ponytail. She had hair the colour of teh panas, Made thought, the dark orange tea she missed so much. ‘I felt like I got to know Elizabeth Gilbert quite well in the Italy section. Then I found the India section a bit odd, mostly because she spent all her time in an ashram full of expatriates.’ Astrid gurgled and suddenly coughed; she hadn’t long been fed. Cara dabbed at the baby’s mouth with a wipe.
‘But I guess more than anything, I felt sorry for the writer,’ Cara continued. ‘She spent most of the book trying to make sense of her pain. I was relieved when she found happiness in Indonesia. I found that part quite beautiful. And I’d love to hear what Made thought of it.’

All eyes fixed upon Made, who rummaged through her bag for her notebook. She’d prepared for this moment.
‘I write down my thinking,’ Made announced, glancing about nervously. ‘I want not to say the wrong.’ She didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Ginie’s scorn. She’d seen how she made the others wilt at times, Suzie in particular.

She folded back the pages of her notebook. Cara nodded at her encouragingly.
‘Too hard for me to read book,’ she said. ‘But Gordon borrow DVD for me. I watch four times. I learn many new word in English. Like celibate, mozzarella and gelato.’

The others laughed. She wasn’t exactly sure why. With Gordon’s help, Made had pored over her dictionary the night before, trying to piece together the right words. Even so, she knew her expression was imperfect. She’d wanted to tell the mothers’ group that she’d been perplexed by Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey. That the Bali portrayed in the film, the popular holiday town of Ubud, was a world away from the village life she knew. And that many of the Balinese characters looked and sounded like the opportunistic buaya—or ‘crocodiles’, according to her dictionary’s translation—that hung around tourist precincts, waiting to prey on foreigners. Eat, Prey, Love, she’d jotted in her notebook, proud of her first English joke.

‘This movie confusing for me,’ she started. ‘Elizabeth Gilbert take long journey to find happiness. She throw away old life, old husband, search for new things. But why she not like old life? I wonder. Sometimes life happy, sometimes life sad, but always life have meaning. In Bali, life not only about happiness.’

Ginie interjected. ‘What is life about then, in Bali?’
Made shifted in her seat. ‘I think . . . ’ She wished her grasp of English was better. ‘In Bali, life is about . . . accepting.’ She glanced around the group. ‘No person or place give the happy feeling more than few days, maybe few weeks.’ She looked at Ginie. ‘Author Elizabeth, she run from the sadness, but sadness natural. Happiness not always the normal thing for humans. This is the way, in Bali.’

Made stared at her hands, doubting she’d made herself clear.
Cara broke the silence. ‘I think I know what you mean, Made.’ Her smile was warm. Even when Made couldn’t entirely understand what Cara was saying, her tone was always kind. ‘I have an old friend from university who comes from a small village in rural India. Bali is mostly Hindu, like India, isn’t it?’
Made nodded.

‘Well, this friend taught me that the pursuit of happiness is a very Western concept.’ Cara folded the canopy down over Astrid’s pram, signalling it was sleep time. ‘In most parts of the world, in places like Indonesia
or India, people are busy just surviving. Trying to get enough food, clean drinking water, or education for their children.’ Cara zipped up the canopy.

‘Achieving happiness or enlightenment is a preoccupation of the privileged, for those of us in the first world. Only people like Elizabeth Gilbert can afford to worry about being happy. Billions of others can’t. It’s one of the reasons I chose a career in social justice journalism.’
‘Well, good on you,’ said Ginie. ‘I must be quite decadent in the scheme of things, with a life coach I pay to keep me happy.’ Her tone was jovial, but her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
‘You’re dead right,’ replied Cara, without hesitation. ‘We’re all part of the global elite.’

Ginie reached for Rose, who had started to whimper in her pram. Cara didn’t seem to feel threatened by Ginie, Made reflected, unlike the rest of the group.
‘If you ever come to Bali,’ said Made, ‘you see life very hard outside the tourist area. Difficult to get the food and the water. Happiness not always possible.’
Ginie pushed a bottle of formula milk into Rose’s mouth. ‘I’ve never been to Bali,’ she said. ‘Daniel’s wanted us to go for a while now, for the surfing. I’d prefer Paris.’
‘Me too,’ said Miranda.
‘Well maybe you come to Bali with me one day.’ Made smiled. ‘You all come. Then you see the Balinese way. Accepting the good and bad together. You help other people, that is happiness.’

There was a brief silence.
‘Well, I’d better bring my husband on that trip, Made,’ said Miranda. ‘He’s hell-bent on working his way to happiness. Usually on Sundays—it’s his version of church.’
Several of the others laughed, but Made couldn’t grasp what was funny about Miranda’s words. Humour was the hardest thing about learning a new language. You never could tell what these women would laugh at, or
why. But she’d noticed, over the past four months, that it was really only Miranda who could make Ginie laugh.
She closed her notebook: the conversation had moved beyond her.

Even now, after attending every single mothers’ group meeting, Made still felt her difference keenly. In the early weeks, it had been a challenge to familiarise herself with the women’s incessant babbling. Their words ran into each other, like the cackling of a brood of chickens. There was Ginie, who was always receiving telephone calls; Cara, the one who smiled as if she knew her; Suzie, who bubbled like a cooking pot whenever she spoke;
Miranda, who was always distracted by the difficult Digby; and Pippa, the subdued one. With babies inevitably crying or feeding, it was difficult to conduct a one-on-one conversation with any of them. So she usually took their cues and laughed when they did, or simply listened as the conversation coursed around her. But over time, despite the fact that she knew none of them very well, she began to find comfort in their company.

A sudden shriek from the playground jolted Made out of her seat. Digby lay face down at the base of the climbing frame, wailing. Made turned to Miranda and held out her arms to take baby Rory.
‘Thanks,’ said Miranda, bounding down the small set of stairs, across the grassy slope and into the playground.
Made watched as Miranda kneeled next to Digby, who raised a bloodied face towards her and pummelled the ground with his fists. Miranda rocked him in her arms, trying to pacify him. Digby lay limp in her lap for
a moment, before suddenly rearing up. The crack of their foreheads connecting was audible, even at a distance. Miranda fell backwards, dazed, still holding Digby.

Made immediately started down the stairs, carrying Rory on her hip. ‘Miranda alright?’ she called.
Miranda shrugged. An angry red mark had appeared across the bridge of her nose.
‘Come on, Digby, let’s take you home.’ Miranda’s voice was low and controlled. ‘We’ll put some band-aids on your face.’
Digby continued to wail. The noise seemed to irritate Rory, who began to squirm in Made’s arms.
‘I help you to car,’ offered Made.
Digby was upping the ante, writhing and kicking as Miranda carried him from the playground.
‘Bye, everyone,’ she called, apologetic. ‘Sorry for cutting short book club.’
Everyone made sympathetic noises; they’d seen it all before. Made returned to the table and, with Rory in her arms, slung Miranda’s nappy bag over her shoulder and scooped up the Evian bottle under her seat.

Then she joined Miranda on the street, watching as she wrestled Digby into his car seat. He arched his back and screamed in indignation, as if she was prodding him with a hot poker. Finally, Miranda was able to pin his arms and legs down and buckle his seatbelt.
‘I hate you,’ he screamed as she shut the car door.
Miranda turned to Made. ‘There’s only one thing worse than a screaming baby,’ she said quietly, taking Rory and the nappy bag from Made. ‘And that’s a screaming toddler.’ Made smiled.
Miranda fixed Rory in his car seat, then opened the driver’s door. For a moment, they looked at each other.
‘Miranda work very hard,’ said Made, unsure what else to say. ‘You do good job.’
It was true. For all the challenges of life in a foreign land, Made couldn’t imagine dealing with a child like Digby every day. What’s more, Digby wasn’t even Miranda’s own son.
‘See you next week,’ said Miranda, pulling the car door closed.

As Made walked away, a car horn sounded behind her. She turned to see Miranda jogging back towards her, the car engine idling.
‘Forgot that,’ she said, pointing to the Evian bottle in Made’s hand. Made smiled and passed it to her. Australians drank far more water than Indonesians, even though the climate was cooler. Miranda waved as she drove away. She was always calm, Made mused, even when Digby gave her every reason not to be. She was carefully groomed, lived in a beautiful house, and was married to a successful financier. And yet, for all of that, there was something about those piercing green eyes. Despite so much to be grateful for, Miranda wasn’t happy.
Made could remember a happier time, before the Bali bombings, when her family never went hungry. But after the bombings in 2002, tourist numbers had plummeted. Suddenly there were fewer rich Westerners holidaying in expensive resorts. The price of basic goods rose, and employment fell. And like almost everyone else on the island, her family was affected.

Being of Sudra caste, they’d never been affluent. They worked hard, cultivating rice and soybeans on the small plot of land they leased from Ida Bagus, the head of the village. They ate what they grew and gave Ida Bagus
his share. Her mother took great care of the money earned from the sweet cakes she sold outside the village temple, keeping the notes straight and smooth in a tattered leather pouch beneath her mattress.

That pouch was only ever produced in the most desperate circumstances. Like when her older brother Wayan had fallen ill with blood fever, before the second Bali bombings in 2005. In his typical entrepreneurial way, Wayan had been supplementing the family’s income with a small tyre-repair service at the foot of the mountain. When he fell sick, lying motionless and glassy-eyed on his bed for three nights, her mother had walked half a day to fetch the doctor. Made’s stomach had churned with anxiety as she watched her mother bow down and touch the doctor’s feet with handfuls of her long black hair. Her silent plea: save my son. The doctor had stayed two days in their village, mixing up all manner of potions and poultices, leaving instructions with her mother on how to use them. Then he’d accepted all the notes from her mother’s pouch, promising to return the following Tuesday. But Wayan had died before the week was out. And so her only brother had gone, along with her mother’s savings.

Within two months of Wayan’s death, they were eating only one meal a day. The whole of Bali was suffering, the second bombings having frightened the Westerners away again. Forever, some said. Her mother refused to beg and ran the household as though nothing was wrong. She dismissed Komang’s complaints with a raised hand.

‘Komang, we are very fortunate,’ her mother would say. ‘Your father works hard and so do I. Do not dishonour our efforts with your ungrateful words.’ Then she would push most of her own meagre rice ration into Komang’s bowl, reserving the rest for Made. When Made objected, she would raise her hand for silence again.

But Made would hear her mother at night, weeping quietly into the sarong she used as a pillow. As she listened to her mother’s grief, she would imagine Wayan alive again. His cheeky smile, his husky voice accompanying
a four-stringed guitar on moonlit evenings, his wily schemes to make money. At family gatherings, her father had always told the story of how Wayan, at seven, had picked wild lychees in the wet season and sold them at market. He’d hung a sign over his bicycle with the words Magic Lychees—Make You Strong and spent several hours spruiking their qualities to the market throng. He’d returned that night with six thousand rupiah in his pocket, much to his parents’ amazement. ‘There’s no doubt about Wayan,’ her father chuckled. ‘He could sell eggs to a chicken.’

All of that was gone now. Since the day Wayan died, her father hadn’t spoken much. He spent much of his time smoking under the papaya tree. Made would see her mother watching him from across the yard, a worried look on her face. Three months after Wayan’s death, Made came to a decision. With her brother gone, she was the eldest. She was eighteen years old: it was her responsibility to help the family. She needed to find work, one way or another.

Early one morning, before the rooster crowed, she slid out of bed and began to get dressed.
Komang stirred at her side. ‘What are you doing?’ she murmured.
‘Little sister,’ Made whispered, kneeling next to her, ‘I am going to find work. Tell mother I will return soon with good news.’
‘But . . .’ Komang began. Her small hand gripped Made’s.
‘Shhh,’ whispered Made. ‘It is my destiny to go. It is your destiny to stay.’ She stroked Komang’s hair and kissed her forehead. ‘Go back to sleep.’
She stole out into the cool dawn and took Wayan’s bicycle, unridden since his death. With a knapsack of clothes strapped to her back, she set off for the coastal town of Sanur, where her cousin Ketut worked. She hadn’t been gone two hours when a nail punctured her rear tyre. Her legs were weary from the pedalling, and her arms ached from steering the heavy steel frame around potholes. When she saw the thin metallic spike protruding from the tyre, she almost cried. What would Wayan do? She picked her way along the road, wheeling the bicycle next to her.
‘Where are you going to, missy?’
Made stopped and turned, scanning a nearby rice paddy for the source of the voice.
‘I’m trying to get to Sanur,’ she said.
‘Down here.’ A woman’s head popped out from a water channel running alongside the field. She was hauling a large wicker basket on her back, loaded with wood. She straightened up with some difficulty, then clambered out of the channel. Made guessed she had just been drinking the water, or defecating in it. Her dark skin and dress immediately announced her lower caste. But she didn’t look Balinese, Made thought. More Javanese, like her own mother.
‘Good morning, Ibu,’ said Made courteously.
‘Sanur’s a long way to go by bicycle,’ said the woman, looking Made up and down. ‘Especially for a scrawny girl like you.’
‘Do you know where I can fix my tyre, Ibu?’ asked Made. ‘I’ve never visited this area before.’
‘There’s a petrol seller straight ahead, on the right.’
‘Is it very far, Ibu?’ Made glanced at the sun rising higher in the sky. Soon the heat would become uncomfortable.
‘Not far. You tell him that Ibu Lia sent you. He will help.’
Made thanked the woman and continued on to the petrol seller’s. There she sat in the shade of a coconut palm while the tyre was patched by a boy of no more than eight years.
‘You have a strong son,’ Made said, smiling at the petrol seller. ‘Just like my brother.’
‘Where did you say you were going?’ asked the seller.
‘Sanur, sir, to find my cousin.’
‘Sanur? On a bicycle?’ The seller threw back his head and laughed. ‘Did you hear that?’ He gestured to his son, then turned back to her. ‘You know how far that is, don’t you, buffalo brains?’
Made shook her head. She felt ridiculous. But if she didn’t get to Sanur, what hope did her family have? Tears began to slide down her cheeks, dropping into the dust in front of her.
‘Now you’ve made her cry, Dad,’ the boy said in an accusing tone. He wheeled Made’s bicycle towards her.
The petrol seller stood up from behind the stall and squatted next to Made.
‘How old are you?’ he asked, his tone kinder.
‘Then you’re old enough to know that it’s too far to cycle to Sanur. Do you know where you’re going?’
Made shook her head. She knew nothing of distance or maps.
The man sighed. ‘My brother drives the bus to Denpasar,’ he said. ‘He’ll be coming through in an hour. Why don’t you save your legs and catch the bus? Then you can cycle from Denpasar to Sanur. That’s not so far.’
‘That is very kind,’ said Made. ‘Ibu Lia said you would be kind to me. But . . .’ She reddened. ‘I have no money for the fare, sir.’
The man looked at her. ‘Well, if Ibu Lia knows you, I’m sure my brother can give you a free ride.’
‘Oh, thank you, sir.’ Made stooped forward into a bow, touching her hand to her heart.
The seller stood up. ‘Sanur’s a big place, and shifty too,’ he said. ‘Be careful down there.’

The bus traversed winding mountain roads and, eventually, the heavy traffic of Denpasar’s outskirts. Made sat at the rear of the vehicle, next to an elderly woman with three chickens and a goat tethered to her seat. The frequent lurching of the bus and the panicked bleating of the goat made her feel queasy. On several occasions she thought she might be sick, but she pinched her nose to control the urge. The petrol seller had been right, she reflected. She never would have made it by bicycle.

When they arrived in the centre of Denpasar, the driver unloaded her bicycle from the luggage rack on the roof of the bus.
‘Thank you for your kindness, sir,’ Made said.
‘Sanur’s to the south, that way,’ replied the driver, pointing to a highway.

Made had never seen so many vehicles. Trucks carrying all manner of cargo careered down the carriageway, weaving between motorcycles and four-wheel drives. Buses competed with minivans for space in the narrow
shoulder, where she would be cycling. Quietly, she prayed for safe passage before mounting her bicycle.

It took her more than two hours to reach Sanur, stopping for directions along the way. When she finally arrived at Pantai Raya Resort on Duyung Road, the sun was setting. Breathless with fatigue, she stopped on the footpath and stood astride her bicycle, staring at the ocean. It was bigger than she’d imagined. The waves made a peculiar sucking sound, like the rush of strong wind through a forest. The air was sharp and cool, carrying pungent aromas she’d never smelled before. She was as far from her mountain home as she’d ever been.

She approached the resort’s security post and smoothed her hair with one hand. Pantai Raya was one of the best-known resorts on the island, favoured by diplomats, corporate travellers and government officials. Only the wealthiest tourists could afford to stay there.

A middle-aged man in a brown uniform looked up from his newspaper. Six security screens blinked black and white behind him. Beyond the security post, dozens of cottages with thatched roofs dotted tropical gardens.
Pebbled paths sloped down to a golden sweep of sand.

‘Yes?’ the security guard asked, his tone uninterested.
‘Sir, my name is Made. I have come to visit my cousin Ketut. She works here.’
The security guard folded his newspaper. ‘We have eighty staff members. What is her job?’
‘She’s a cleaner, sir. I’m hoping to find work here too.’
The security guard yawned. ‘You and half of Bali.’
‘Please, sir.’

The security guard cleared his throat, rolled a glob of phlegm around his mouth, then spat it out the side window of his booth.
‘I’ll call housekeeping.’ He picked up a telephone and dialled three digits. ‘Security,’ he announced. ‘There’s a girl here looking for a cleaner called Ketut. Her cousin, she says. Do you know her?’
Made waited.
‘What time tomorrow? Right, thanks.’ The security guard replaced the handset. ‘It’s your cousin’s day off. She’s on tomorrow morning at seven o’clock. Come back then.’

Made gripped the handlebars of her bicycle. ‘Sir, I left my village early this morning. I am happy to come back tomorrow, but I have nowhere to stay tonight.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘Please, sir, may I stay in Ketut’s room?’
‘No.’ The security guard was firm. ‘You say you’re her cousin, but can you prove it? Besides, only staff and paying guests are permitted on site.’
Made stared at him, helpless. The sound of the ocean was frightening. ‘What will I do?’ she asked, her voice shaking.
‘Come back tomorrow.’

It was cold, colder than a mountain evening, lying on the beach. She attempted to shelter from the wind by curling up against the exposed roots of an enormous banyan tree and resting her head on her knapsack. Her limbs throbbed from the day’s exertions, but sleep evaded her. She was too alert to the foreign sounds around her, too frightened of being discovered, too ashamed of her predicament, too homesick. She missed her mother’s familiar smell, the smoothness of her skin, the warmth of her embrace. She imagined lying next to Komang in the bed they’d always shared, their toes touching, giggling at each other’s jokes. She drew the flap of her knapsack around her ears, attempting to muffle the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes encircling her. All night she drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep.

In the stillness before dawn, she was jolted awake by a snuffling sound. Her heart raced as she tried to make out the creature in the sand nearby. She sighed with relief; it was only a stray dog scrounging for scraps. Her body was stiff and her clothes damp. The beach was shrouded in mist, but she could detect a faint arc of light creeping across the eastern horizon. She slung her knapsack over her shoulder and began to walk across the sand, her limbs warming with the movement.

She gazed out at the endless green expanse beyond, heaving with hidden currents. The ocean was alive, she could feel it. Her uneven breaths were barely audible above its rhythmic surge; she felt insignificant in its presence. This sea had delivered sustenance to the people of Bali since the beginning of time. A light breeze tugged at her clothes, like the invisible spirits of ancestors calling her on.

The mist swirled and suddenly parted. In the semi-darkness, not two metres ahead of her, an elderly woman stood facing the sea. Her skin was dark and her frame skeletal. Her long hair, streaked with silver, cascaded down her back. Made gasped and immediately crouched down on the wet sand.
‘Dewi Sri,’ she breathed.

The woman was a crone: she looked nothing like the goddess of rice venerated in the small shrine in her father’s field. But the name had sprung instinctively to Made’s lips. A tingling crept along her spine and down her arms.

The woman did not acknowledge Made’s presence. Instead she stood, unmoving, her eyes fixed on the sea. Her clothes flapped in the breeze. A batik sarong was wrapped around her body, fixed in place by a bright yellow sash. A blue shawl of woven lace lay over her right shoulder. Her lips were moving, but Made couldn’t make out the words. She stooped to place an offering on the sand. A lychee, rice, a sweet cake and several brightly coloured flowers were nestled within the basket. The woman staked the offering to the sand with a wand of burning incense, then turned towards Made and smiled. Her mouth was stained with the reddish-brown juice of betel leaf and several of her teeth were missing.

‘The most important thing, child, is not what is in the basket, but that the offering is made with love.’ Her voice crackled like dry wood on the forest floor. She was terrifying, yet strangely familiar. ‘Even the fanciest offering, given without love, is worthless. True love is divine.’

Made stared at the woman, speechless.
The woman nodded once, then turned and disappeared into the billowing mist.
Made took several steps forward. She wanted to follow the woman, to sit at her feet. To tell her about Wayan, her parents, Komang and the responsibility that was now hers. To beg for the woman’s help and protection against the many things of which she was ignorant.

The first rays of sun fell on her face and stretched across the deserted beach. As the mist began to clear, the jagged outline of jetties, flagpoles and reclining chairs emerged, littered like flotsam and jetsam across the sand.
The old woman was nowhere to be seen. Made turned back the way she had come. It was time to find Ketut.

‘Little cousin!’ cried Ketut.
Made stood to one side of the security post, conscious of the guard’s glare.
‘You look awful. Are you alright?’ Ketut dropped her bags and hugged Made to her chest.
‘I’m fine.’ Made lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘But I slept on the beach last night.’ She nodded in the direction of the guard. ‘He wouldn’t let me in.’
‘That doesn’t surprise me.’ Ketut’s bright eyes danced. ‘What are you doing here? Let me look at you. You’ve grown so big.’
Made smiled. Ketut herself, at twenty, looked much older in her crisp brown uniform.
‘Mother would never admit it,’ said Made, ‘but it’s been terrible since Wayan . . .’ She bit her lip as tears spilled down her cheeks.
‘Poor darling,’ said Ketut, drawing Made to her chest again.
‘I need to find work.’ Made wiped her eyes with her sleeves. ‘I thought you might help me, Tut. Is there any work going here?’
Ketut shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It is very hard now, after the bombings. Not so many tourists. But I can introduce you to Ibu Margono today. You’ll need to get changed first. Come with me.’
Ketut marched over to the security booth and, holding Made’s hand, smiled at the guard.
‘Sir, this is my cousin. She is a village girl from the mountains, looking for work. She needs a bath before I can take her to see Ibu Margono. May I seek your approval to take her to my quarters?’
The guard smiled at Ketut. There was a leering quality to his gaze. ‘Well, since you asked so nicely, Miss Ketut, certainly.’
He pushed a clipboard towards Made. ‘Sign here. But make sure you report back to me by this time tomorrow,’ he added. ‘We don’t want people overstaying their welcome.’ His breath stank of cigarettes and coffee. Made recoiled, stepping away from the booth.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Ketut, shepherding Made up the driveway.
‘You’re welcome,’ the guard called, his eyes following them. ‘Have a nice day, Miss Ketut.’

Made showered in Ketut’s room, then borrowed a fresh change of clothes. While she was changing, Ketut telephoned ahead to organise a meeting with Ibu Margono, the manager of guest amenities.
‘Don’t get your hopes up, though,’ said Ketut as they walked to Ibu Margono’s office in the administration building. ‘She’s a bit of a dragon.’
Made bowed her head and said a silent prayer, preparing for the worst. Ketut knocked on the door.
‘Come in,’ commanded a voice.
‘I’ll wait outside,’ whispered Ketut. She turned the handle and pushed Made into the room.
Ibu Margono’s office was dominated by a large timber desk. Bangkiri wood, Made guessed. Papers, folders and clipboards were stacked in neat piles across its varnished surface.
‘You’re a village girl, then?’ asked Ibu Margono, leaning back in her chair and studying her.
Made nodded.
‘Did you complete your schooling?’
‘I finished middle school,’ Made replied.
‘And what experience do you have working in this sort of environment? Where’s your CV?’
‘I don’t have a CV,’ said Made. In truth, she wasn’t entirely sure what it was. ‘I’ve never worked in a resort before.’
Ibu Margono put down her pen with a loud sigh. She looked irritable.
‘But I’ve worked hard all my life, with my parents,’ said Made quickly.
‘I have experience cooking, cleaning, sewing, tending fields and animals. I’m a diligent worker. I’m willing to learn new skills.’ She swallowed, desperate. ‘And if you give me a chance, I’ll be loyal to you always.’

Ibu Margono drummed her fingers on the desk.
‘Loyalty is hard to come by in this day and age,’ she said. ‘Especially in this part of the island.’
Made hesitated. ‘Whatever you ask, I will do your bidding, Ibu.’
Ibu Margono looked at her. ‘We’ll just see about that.’ She opened the top drawer of her desk and removed a clipboard. ‘One of our housekeeping staff resigned yesterday due to ill-health.’
Made began to smile. ‘Oh, thank you, Ibu . . .’
‘But this is a Western-style resort,’ barked Ibu Margono. ‘And these are difficult times. Do you understand what that means?’
Made shook her head.
‘It means standards of cleanliness that you can’t even imagine. It means being able to eat breakfast off the bathroom floor. Do you understand?’
Made nodded, uncertain if she did.
‘And you’ll also be responsible for placing offerings around the resort. Every morning, without fail. Can you do that?’
‘Oh yes,’ Made replied. It was an activity she was familiar with at home. ‘I’m an early riser.’

Ibu Margono unclipped a form and passed it to Made. ‘Fill this in and return it to me tomorrow. Report for duty at six am.’
Made nodded again. ‘Yes, Ibu Margono.’
‘You’ll be working under Gusti Agung, head of housekeeping. If he’s happy with you by Saturday, you can keep your job and a permanent room in the staff quarters. In the meantime, you can share with Ketut. The wage
for cleaners is twenty thousand rupiah per week, including on-site accommodation. Are you satisfied with that?’

Made attempted to contain her excitement. An extra eighty thousand rupiah a month would mean her family could return to two meals a day, with a little left over for savings. She thought of her mother, so thin and anxious, and her empty leather pouch.
‘Yes, Ibu Margono.’

The next day, Gusti Agung demonstrated the meticulous standard of cleaning required. They stood outside a newly vacated cottage on the ocean side of the resort. Gusti Agung gestured to a trolley crammed with mops, brushes, dusters and cleaning products.
‘This is your trolley, no one else ever uses it,’ he said, his tone stern. ‘It’s your responsibility to refill it every day from the store run by Pak Anto. If you start using too much of one thing, Pak Anto will know. And he’ll tell me.’
Made was puzzled by the inference. She wasn’t a thief.
‘The first thing is, you need to be neat and tidy.’ Gusti Agung looked her up and down. ‘Our foreign guests expect the best. Always tie your hair back.’ He passed Made an elastic band and she hurriedly pulled her hair into a ponytail.
Gusti Agung stared at Made’s feet. ‘And no open-toed sandals. Get yourself a proper pair of shoes.’
Made wondered how much this would cost. She would ask Ketut to show her the cheapest market stalls in Sanur.
‘Now,’ said Gusti Agung, pushing open the cottage door. ‘Let’s get started.’

Over the next hour, Made learned that bed sheets had to be changed on a daily basis, even if the guest had not slept on them. All towels had to be replaced, unless a guest hung them neatly back on the towel rack. This had something to do with the resort’s environmental policy.
‘And as for bathrooms, Westerners have standards way beyond our own,’ Gusti Agung explained, brandishing a toothbrush. ‘Use this for hard-to-reach crevices around faucets, shower screens, plugholes. And don’t think
you can just wipe over the top of them. Our guests pay top rates. They will report anything less than perfect. And if that happens, I’ll deduct a penalty from your wage.’
All furniture had to be dusted and polished, the carpet vacuumed, bathroom and mini-bar replenished, mirrors and glassware buffed, ashtrays emptied and washed, cushions shaken and plumped, any missing items documented, curtains repositioned and tied with a sash, frangipani and hibiscus flowers tastefully arranged on the vanity and, finally, air freshener sprayed throughout the rooms. Made doubted she could remember it all.

Gusti Agung closed the door. ‘Now, your turn,’ he said. ‘Do cottages four through to ten. Their guests have all checked out. Call me if you have any questions.’
By the end of her first day, Made’s back was aching. By Saturday, she was exhausted.
‘You’re a good worker, I can see that,’ said Gusti Agung, passing her a pile of neatly pressed brown clothes. ‘Here are your uniforms. And your first pay packet. Welcome to the team.’

Made smiled, grateful. She stuffed the white envelope, weighty with thousand-rupiah notes, into her pocket. She’d never felt so tired. She’d always worked hard for her parents, but at least there’d been a rest period between noon and three pm, the hottest part of the day. Not at Pantai Raya. She was expected to clean up to twenty cottages in ten hours, and thirty minutes per cottage was hardly enough. She didn’t even have a lunch break. Instead, she snacked on guest leftovers—pastries from bread baskets, pieces of fruit, cheese and crackers. At night, dinner was provided in the staff quarters—large servings of rice or noodles, sometimes with pieces of fried chicken or fish. Her rostered day off was Tuesday, the slowest day of the week. Travelling home to the village and back again in one day was going to be a challenge.

She waited until the following week, when she had been at Pantai Raya Resort for a fortnight, then caught the earliest bus back to where she had met the petrol seller and his son. She imagined telling them of her success in Sanur, assuring them that it wasn’t all bad. But when she arrived, it was still too early and the stall was deserted. She cycled home without stopping, hoping to arrive before the daily chores started.

She stopped outside the high stone wall of her family compound. As she hoisted her bicycle through the narrow gateway and leaned it against the wall, she caught sight of her mother. Busy as ever, she was draping wet
washing over the bushes in the yard.
Bu,’ Made called.
Instantly her mother dropped a sarong and rushed at her.
‘Oh, you naughty girl,’ she cried, throwing herself at Made. ‘I thought I had lost you. Why didn’t you tell me where you were going? I have been worried, sick to my heart.’
Her mother was thinner than ever.
‘I am sorry, Bu. I didn’t mean to worry you. I wanted to make you proud.’
‘You do, my little Made. You do.’ She hugged Made to her.
Bu, I have found work.’ Made removed the white envelope from her pocket and closed her mother’s hand around it. ‘Eighty thousand rupiah a month. It won’t make us rich, but it’s something.’
Her mother frowned. ‘You don’t have to do that, Made. What sort of work is it?’
‘Cleaning,’ Made replied. ‘In a big resort for foreign tourists. The same place Ketut works.’
Her mother appeared to relax a little. ‘And Ketut is there with you every day?’
‘Yes, except her day off is Sunday. Mine is Tuesday. We live in the same staff quarters.’
Her mother hesitated. ‘Well, as long as it is a proper job and you are only expected to clean. Come and talk to your father about it. I will make some tea. You’ve lost weight. Have you eaten today?’
Made shook her head. She was ravenous from the cycling.

They walked towards the bamboo pavilion in the centre of their compound, where her grandmother sat washing soybeans.
‘Hello, nenek.’ Made stooped to kiss the old woman.
‘Where have you been?’ she asked in her gentle, wispy voice.
‘Working.’ Made smiled, proud of herself.
Her grandmother gripped her hand. ‘Good girl.’
There was no sign of her aunt, uncle or cousins. They must be in the field, Made thought.
Bapak! Komang! Made is here,’ her mother called. Komang emerged from the cooking area and ran to Made, throwing her arms around her waist.
‘I missed you,’ Komang cried. ‘Please don’t go away again.’
Made patted her sister’s hair. ‘I’m working now, little sister. I have to go back to Sanur today.’
Komang began to whimper.
‘Now, who would think you are a big girl of fourteen? Only babies cry.’
She stroked Komang’s face and whispered, ‘I missed you too.’

Her father appeared, scythe in hand. From the mud caked around his ankles she could see he had been working in the field.
‘Made,’ he said, his face grave.
‘Good morning, Pak.’
He didn’t return her smile. ‘Why have you made your mother sick with worry?’
‘I wanted to help. I have found some work.’
Her father stood silent, waiting.
‘As a cleaner in Sanur, at a resort for foreigners. Ketut helped me to get the job.’
He cocked his head. ‘How much?’
‘Eighty thousand rupiah a month.’
Made could hear the hens scratching in the dust, squabbling over tiny scraps of rice thrown out with the dishwater. It was a familiar, comforting sound, one she had grown up with.
‘Good,’ said her father finally. Then he turned and walked towards the gate.
Made looked at the ground, resisting the urge to cry. But what had she hoped for?

Her mother took her hand. ‘Your father still misses Wayan.’
Made nodded, the tears tumbling down her cheeks.
‘I am very grateful, Made.’ Her mother cupped her face in her palms. ‘You are a good girl. Not every daughter would do what you have done. Are you sure they treat you well?’
‘Yes,’ said Made.
Her mother lowered her voice. ‘Well, if that changes, promise me you won’t stay there. I don’t want you mixing with lowlife in Sanur. The city can be a dangerous place. Smiling faces can hide ugly hearts. And a pretty
girl like you . . . just be careful. There are too many village girls working as prostitutes in Sanur, Kuta, Legian. Don’t you ever, ever, do anything like that. It would break my heart.’
Made nodded, solemn. Her mother rarely spoke with such vehemence.
‘I won’t, Bu,’ she promised.

The day passed all too quickly. Word spread around the village that Made had returned, bringing news of a job. Many of the villagers stopped by and her mother was kept busy serving endless glasses of tea. She even made a batch of her best sweet cakes, usually reserved for formal occasions.

After lunch, Made sat with her mother and sister on the cool white tiles of the central pavilion, fashioning an offering. Komang threaded the young banana leaves together to serve as the container, while Made wove the circle, triangle and square to represent the moon, the stars and the sun. Her mother then placed f lowers in their cardinal points: red in the south corner of the offering, white in the east, blue in the north and yellow in the west. They added rice, betel vine and several sweet cakes.

‘It is ready,’ announced her mother.
They changed their clothes and walked to the ancestral temple. Her mother presided over the placement of the offering, while Komang lit incense sticks around the shrine. Then they stood, three as one, with Made in the middle. Holding a jasmine flower between her fingertips, she pressed her hands to her forehead and closed her eyes, whispering her thanks to the ancestors.

They walked home in silence, their arms linked. They all knew it was time for Made to leave, if she was to be safe in Sanur by sunset. She changed out of her ceremonial clothes and bade farewell to her father, who had just returned from the field. He wiped his forehead and, for a moment, she thought he might embrace her.
‘Made,’ he said, with the briefest of smiles. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and then turned away.

Her mother and Komang stood by the gate, waving. As she cycled, Made kept turning her head to glimpse them again, until they were blurred specks in the distance.

Weeks became months and Made began to see the effect of the extra income on her family. Her mother’s face was fuller and brighter, her father seemed more talkative. Most importantly, Komang returned to school. Komang was naturally clever, adept at school in a way Made had never been. Every week when Made returned to the village, she would sit with Komang and quiz her on her studies. And every week she would return to
Pantai Raya with renewed energy to continue her work. It gave her enormous satisfaction
to see Komang complete her first year of middle school, and then her second.

Within a year of starting work at Pantai Raya, Made had been assigned the most important cottages to clean—those of the highest-paying corporate clients. After two years, Ibu Margono gave her a pay rise.
‘You have done well for me, Made,’ said Ibu Margono, an uncharacteristic softness in her voice. ‘From now on, you will receive one hundred thousand rupiah per month. And if you work hard for another year, I will make you my assistant manager.’
Made was astonished.
‘Thank you, Ibu Margono,’ she said, pressing her lips to her hand.


The next morning, Made rose before dawn and, as she always did, carried the day’s first offering to the sacred banyan tree growing at the edge of the beach. The tree was ancient and sprawling, a mystical guardian of the shore. The lower part of its bulbous trunk was draped in black and white checked poleng cloth. As she placed the offering on the stone altar in the semi-darkness, she noticed a Westerner walking along the beach towards her. It was hard to make out his features below a shock of white hair. He seemed oblivious to her presence as he sauntered, barefoot, across the sand. She stood up quickly and, in so doing, startled him.

‘Oh!’ he said. An indistinguishable string of words followed.
She opened her hands, palms up in an apology. Then she gestured towards the offering in the tree.
He pumped his arms quickly. ‘Walking,’ he said. It was, she realised, a reciprocal explanation.
‘Ah, jalan-jalan,’ she said. She lifted the edge of her sarong, which was trailing in the sand, and nodded at him. ‘Goodbye, sir.’
‘Goodbye,’ he replied.
As she was walking away, he called something out to her which she couldn’t understand.
She turned and smiled over her shoulder.
The man laughed, then continued along the beach.

Later that morning, she knocked on the door of Cottage 12.
‘Hello, cleaner,’ she called out.
In her two years at Pantai Raya she had memorised a number of useful English phrases—‘How are you?’, ‘It’s a nice day’ and ‘Come back later’. She’d also learned how to say ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’ in Japanese, Mandarin and Dutch.
‘Hello, cleaner,’ she repeated, louder this time. She inserted the master key into the lock.
The door swung open, revealing a man in a white bathrobe. She immediately averted her eyes.
‘Come back later,’ she said, backing away.
‘No, no,’ said the man. She looked up at him. Was it the Westerner she’d met on the beach? She couldn’t be sure; they all looked the same. But the white hair was similar.
The man smiled and said something, gesturing over his shoulder.
‘No English,’ said Made, shaking her head.
‘Come in,’ said the man.
She followed him inside. A laptop was perched on the coffee table, surrounded by large sheets of paper with elaborate diagrams on them.
‘My work,’ the man said, pointing to the table. ‘Engineer.’
She nodded and looked away. She didn’t want the man to think she was prying.

She began her cleaning routine in the kitchenette. One used coffee mug, one glass, one plate. She glanced into the bedroom; the bed was rumpled on one side only. The man’s mobile phone rang. He picked it up, slid open the glass doors and stepped out onto the tiled balcony overlooking the beach. Made listened to his muffled words as she changed the sheets, dusted the furniture, adjusted the curtains and plumped the cushions. She wondered where he came from. America, she guessed.

Made pushed her trolley into the bathroom. She replaced the shampoo, disposed of a used razor and shaving cream, and changed the toilet roll. Then she commenced the painstaking process of cleaning the tiled walls and floor, and scrubbing the toilet bowl. No matter how repugnant the task, she thanked the gods every day for her work in Sanur.

The man’s laughter floated in from the balcony. It was a deep, rich laugh and, for some reason, it reminded her of Wayan. He’d always been a prankster. Wherever he went, someone was always laughing. But humour had almost entirely disappeared from their house since his death. Something moved behind her and she jumped, bumping her head against the cistern. It was the Westerner, standing in the bathroom doorway.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. She’d seen enough Western movies to understand. She shook her head, indicating that she was fine.
‘Are you alright?’ the man asked.
She shook her head again and carried on scrubbing.
The man walked away. A moment later he returned, a large dictionary in his hands.
Anda sehat?’ he asked. Are you well?
Made sat back on her heels and laughed aloud. She immediately clapped her hands over her mouth, horrified by her impertinence. The man might report her for rudeness. But he’d said the words with such an odd accent, she couldn’t help but giggle.
Saya baik-baik saja, terima kasih,’ she responded slowly. I am just fine, thank you.
The man looked delighted.
‘No Indonesian,’ he said.

For a moment they simply looked at each other, smiling.
‘My name is Gordon,’ he said. He stepped gingerly across the damp tiles and crouched down, his hand outstretched. She wiped her hand on a rag before she took his.
The man’s phone rang again.
‘Working,’ he said. ‘Always working.’ He took the phone and walked out onto the balcony once more.

Made completed her tasks in the bathroom, then sprayed air freshener throughout the apartment. She wrinkled her nose as she did; she didn’t like its artificial smell. She closed the front door behind her.

The next day, she had only just arrived at Cottage 12 when Gordon opened the door with a flourish.
Selamat pagi, Made,’ he said. Good morning, Made. He was clearly proud of this achievement.
‘Good morning, sir,’ she replied in English.
‘Gordon,’ he said. ‘Call me Gordon.’
She said nothing. It was resort policy to refer to guests as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. ‘Come back later?’
‘No, no, come in.’

She commenced her cleaning routine and watched him out of the corner of her eye. He was sitting at the table, referring to his dictionary and writing words on a piece of paper. It looked like a laborious exercise. Twenty minutes later, just as she was preparing to leave, he beckoned to her.
She walked over to the table and looked at the words he had written: Anda tidak di pantai tadi pagi? You were not at the beach this morning?
She smiled. Gordon had obviously been out walking again, just as he had the previous day. It had been an unusual morning for her. The night before, despite her fatigue, she’d been unable to sleep. When she’d finally closed her eyes, she’d heard the distant crowing of a rooster. Then, what seemed a moment later, Ketut was banging on her door. It was six forty-five. Made had scrambled out of bed in a panic, donned her uniform and reported for duty.
Besok,’ she said.
Gordon shrugged and held out his pen.
She grasped the pen and, as neatly as she could, wrote: B-E-S-O-K.
Gordon thumbed through his dictionary, then smiled.
‘Tomorrow? Good.’
He seemed satisfied.
‘Finish,’ she said.
She pushed her trolley out onto the path and closed the door behind her.

The next day she spotted him walking along the sand before dawn. He saw her, too, but waited at a respectful distance while she made her offering at the banyan tree. Completing the ritual, she turned in his direction.
Selamat pagi, Gordon.’
Selamat pagi, Made.’

He fell into step beside her and they walked along the beach in silence. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be doing, walking with a Westerner she barely knew. He was old, probably older than her
father. But he had kind eyes, and a mouth that curved upwards even when he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t as large and intimidating as the other Western men she’d seen at the resort.

They picked their way along the shoreline and once, when Made stumbled in the sand, Gordon caught her arm and steadied her.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘You’re welcome.’
When they reached the timber pier at the far end of the beach, they turned back towards the resort. The sun’s rays were just starting to warm the sand. Made wondered if Gordon would join her again the following morning.
She pieced together the English words in her head as they stood at the junction of a pebbled path leading to staff quarters in one direction and guest cottages in the other.
‘Gordon stay tomorrow?’
Gordon nodded. ‘Yes, I’m staying four weeks. Working.’
Made couldn’t be sure that she’d heard him correctly. Four weeks? She would check again later, when she cleaned his cottage.
‘Made work now.’ She gestured towards the staff quarters.
‘Me too. Thank you for the . . . jalan-jalan.’
She smiled at his attempt. ‘Yes, thank you for the walking.’

A fortnight later, she borrowed an Indonesian–English dictionary from Ketut. Her daily visit to Cottage 12 had become a pleasant distraction from the mundane aspects of her job. Gordon had started writing more and more Indonesian sentences on paper, reading them aloud so she could correct his pronunciation. She discovered that he was from Australia, not America; that he was a civil engineer contracted to work in Bali on a large retail development in Legian; that he enjoyed his job, but enjoyed surfing more. In turn, she’d begun listening to an English language CD on the small disc player he had given her. Every night she plugged in the headphones and lay back on her bed, mouthing the foreign words. She imagined Gordon doing the same with the Indonesian for Beginners CD he had purchased.

Their early morning walks became a fixture in Made’s day. Gordon always waited by the banyan tree, watching quietly while she made her offering. They walked the same route, but never failed to discover something new along the way: a silvery shell glinting in the sun’s first light, an ancient piece of timber washed up on the shoreline, a single shoe with a US dollar note curled inside it.

One Saturday morning, they almost fell over a Western couple, half naked in the sand. The pungent smell of alcohol hung in the air as the woman writhed on top of the man. A tattoo spiralled down her sunburned back, bold purple letters inscribing a word Made didn’t recognise: P-U-R-I-T-Y.

Made blushed, embarrassed, as they veered around the couple. Suddenly she felt very conscious of Gordon.
Gordon shook his head. ‘Bules,’ he said, as they continued walking. She stared at him. How did he know that colloquial, slightly derogatory term for Westerners? She certainly hadn’t told him.
Bules not polite,’ he said.
She nodded, relieved he thought so too.

After his first stay of one month, Gordon came and went from Pantai Raya every few weeks. She was always disappointed to see him leave and relieved when he returned. She practised her English between his visits and noticed that he, too, had been practising his Indonesian. Their conversations became less staccato, more natural. One morning in July, eight months after they’d first met, Gordon passed her a piece of paper with the words on it: Umur saya 47 tahun. Made berapa? I am 47 years old. How old are you?


© Fiona Higgins

Extract published with permission from the publisher. For details of purchasing this book, visit the Allen&Unwin website and see the book review here on Parenting Express.

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem