Portrait

Gathering at a church soup kitchen. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

Nino, Spence and the pastor

Nino shuffles into the back of the church. He wears a pilling navy jumper, shrunken brown blazer and a pair of pants, baggy around his tiny body. His skin is the texture of dried fruit and his face is scrunched up in thought.

Nino waits. He sits with his friends from the church’s soup kitchen service. He likes his friends. He waits. As the songs are sung. As the prayers are prayed. As the children are told a story. The sermon is told by a young mum whose baby cries out every time she looks up from her dad’s lap and realises her mother is not holding her. The baby is all big biracial eyes and feathery hair.

At the end of the service, there is a last song and Nino shuffles into the church hall. There is a special morning tea on for Mother’s Day, a little pot of purple flowers, plastic tablecloths, lumpy cookies with M&M’s or rainbow sprinkles in them, what looks like a boiled fruitcake with slivered almonds on top, little cherry cake slices in gingham patties, hot coffee from a percolator machine and tea if you want it. He takes a piece of cherry cake and orders a cup of coffee from the American couple manning the kitchen. They have pink gummy smiles.

Nino stands near the doorway, bent over eating. He goes outside for a smoke. The pastor and his girl come out the front to chat.

“Hi, Nino, how are you?”

“Sad about Spence.”

“I’m sad about Spence, too,” says the young pastor, looking like a kid in his unironed shirt and jeans.

“They bury Spence?” Nino asks.

“Not sure what they did with the body, we haven’t had contact with the family but we’re having a memorial service on Tuesday for him after the soup kitchen.”

“Spence buried?” Nino asks.

“I’m not sure, sorry,” says the pastor.

“Spence had a big dog,” says Nino.

“Yeah, Spence was like his dog. Big, scary-looking guy,” the pastor opens his arms to remember Spence’s bigness. Then he touches the left side of his chest and adds: “But very kind inside.”

 “What happened to the dog?” asks Nino.

“Someone is taking care of the dog.”

“How big was the dog?” asks the girl.

“This big.” The pastor holds his hand up to his shoulders.

“No,” says the girl. “How big, Nino?”

“The dog was this big,” says Nino, holding his hand at the same height.

“Oh,” says the girl, and then, “Do you miss Spence?”

“I miss Spence. I miss Con. I miss Jimmy,” says Nino. “I miss my friends.”

An orange bus drives past and the three of them watch it going.

 “What happened to Con? I thought he was alive.”

“It was an accident, he stepped out and a bus hit him,” says the pastor.

“It was dark,” says Nino.

“It was about 8pm this time last year, so maybe dark, maybe after daylight savings.”

“It was an accident,” says Nino.

“Yes, not on purpose,” says the girl.

“Con was going out to get chicken,” says Nino.

“Yes.”

“He shouldn’t have gone out that night. He should have stayed home. If he stayed home, Con would still be alive.”

“Maybe,” the young pastor hesitates. “But… we still have to live, still need to get our chicken.”

“What happened to Spence?”

“He had cancer of the stomach and died.”

“He died?”

“Yes.”

“His body, they bury him?”

“Maybe. Bury… or cremate,” says the pastor.

“Bury-cremate? They bury-cremate him?”

“Yes.”

“What is cremate?”

“They burn the body in the oven and make ashes to put in an urn.”

“They burn the body?” Nino’s eyes widen with alarm.

“Yes, but they make very sure he’s dead first. He doesn’t feel it,” the girl adds quickly.

“He doesn’t feel it?”

“No.”

“They bury-cremate Spence,” Nino says slowly. “Cremate-bury.”

An old man in a red jumper with a Labrador-like smile comes out of the church.

“You should see Nino’s new set of wheels, guys!” he says as he walks past. “How are ya, Nino?”

“Good.”

“You have a new bike?” asks the pastor.

“I have a new bike,” says Nino.

“A new bike. Well, can we see the Rolls-Royce?” asks the pastor.

“Yes, you can see it.”

A vintage ladies’ bike in cream and aqua with a wire basket, three patterned bells and four lights stuck onto the handlebars like so many bright-shelled beetles on a branch. A back basket with two leather bags looking deflated are stacked. People are leaving the church and saying goodbye to the pastor as he admires the bicycle. The women are still holding the roses they were given for Mother’s Day. Pink and yellow. Nino watches them.

“Do you want a rose, Nino? We’ve got some left over,” says the pastor.

“I want a rose,” says Nino.

“Pink or yellow?”

“Pink.”

Nino stands by his bicycle, in his brown jacket, lighting up again, and takes the pink rose in his hand. After his last drag, he mounts his bicycle and rides away.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 1, 2017 as "Finding Nino". Subscribe here.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.