Chapter 3

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and has won the Foreword INDIES LGBT Book of the Year Award. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

Dear Mama,

Sydney was so blue and beautiful when I flew out,
so lovely in its first stirrings of autumn.
Next stop, Tokyo—and springtime!

Delia Massina turned over the postcard with the picture of the Sydney Opera House. Its shell resembled some armadillo-like creature with its hackles up, ready for a fight.

Laughter and singing exploded around her and she looked up. There was a large cheery, beery contingent of football players on board her flight. The team had taken over the entire forward section, where the beer had begun flowing even before they cleared Australian airspace. The mood quickly became infectious, particularly as the other passengers also began to imbibe the strong Aussie brew, inspiring bawdy songs and a degree of camaraderie rarely witnessed eleven thousand meters above the Timor Sea.

She watched as the "footies" pranced and danced up and down the aisles, offering drinks to everyone on board. That's one of the things she liked about being Australian: We never pass up a good time, she thought, especially when there's free grog to be had.

She was keeping her eyes on the fellow responsible for instigating all this revelry. He was a big, beefy larrikin, easily over six feet, and built like a Northern Territory water buffalo. He wore an Akubra hat, set back on his head, revealing thick auburn locks beneath its weathered brim; a reddish beard and laughing eyes set off his damp, shining face; wet curls were plastered to his forehead as he came down the aisle with a liter bottle of Foster's Beer in each hand, pouring for anyone who held up a glass or cup, and inviting any who might be hesitant. "G'day, mate! Have a bit o' the brew?" was his standard opening, with a broad smile showing strong white teeth. One would have thought that he was running for political office the way he was pumping hands and slapping backs. Each time he passed, he had eyed Delia, grinning broadly, as if he were performing particularly for her.

Big Red was now towering over a neatly dressed Japanese couple sitting several rows ahead of her, talking with them about their holiday. "So what did you see in Oz?" he asked.

"Ah! Shid-ney," answered the husband, smiling and giggling as though he were a game-show contestant.

"Well, what did you think of it?"

"Ah, I think very beauty-furr. Peop're very friend'ry."

"Goodonya, mate! Put 'er there!" and stuffing one cold bottle under a sweaty armpit, he grabbed the man's small, delicate hand with his big, meaty paw and pumped it vigorously. "You're all right. Here, have a drink. My shout," and he poured beer into the man's cup and that of his wife. "Enjoy your trip, folks, compliments of the best damned airline in the whole bloody world—I'll be back!" And he was off, this Aussie Goliath, striding down the aisle, holding the second bottle of Fosters aloft like some Australian parody of the Statue of Liberty.

He came up to Delia. "G'day! Have a bit, luv?" His broad, tanned face was flushed from his altruistic labors.

"You bet," she said, smiling up at him as she held out her empty teacup.

The giant gave her his open-mouthed grin, winking, as he filled it.

"Thanks, Cobber."

His eyes lit up at the native colloquialism. "Where about you from?"

"Shidney." And they both burst out laughing like this was the funniest thing since Dame Edna Everidge.

"Damn fine city," he said, and they both drank to the city by the bay.

"What are you, the Qantas social officer?"

"No, ma'am, just doing my bit for Oz." He took another swig from the bottle.

"Who's supplying the beer?"

"I am! It's my own private reserve I was taking to Japan. Wasn't sure what kind of grog they have over there. But once I got on the plane, I found they won't let me bring it into the country."

"How much did you bring?"

"All I could carry, ma'am," he smiled broadly. "All I could carry." He looked like he could carry half a brewery without straining himself.

"Are you part of the footy team?"

"No way! I've got me a visa to study over there."

"Goodonya. What are you going to study?"

"Dunno yet. Figure that out when I get there." He poured her some more beer. "How about you—what's a pretty little Sheila like yourself going to Japan for?"

Coming from any other man, Delia might have taken offense at the remark; she wasn't "little", five foot ten, though next to him, even Paul Bunyan would appear a bit dwarfish. And she didn't think of herself as "pretty"—pretty was for dresses and little girls; she thought "beautiful" and "voluptuous" were closer to the mark. Nonetheless, she liked this big, brawny galoot, and such antiquated sexist slang seemed in keeping with his character—a character that exuded a thick male lust that Delia had always been particularly susceptible to. In certain people we forgive all.

"I'm going there to teach English," she said.

"Do tell. Figure I could use a few lessons meself, especially when the teacher's so damned pretty."

There were shouts from the forward section and he turned back to her. "Duty calls, ma'am," and he touched the brim of his hat with the tip of the bottle in a farewell salute. "Maybe I'll call back later. It's going to be a long flight."

Her smile was all the invitation he needed but she said, "You do that," and she watched the giant stride back up the aisle, dispensing his liquid blessings, his red, lumberjack shirt straining against his bulging biceps, triceps, and lats. She had noticed the well-proportioned bulge in his blue jeans as well. All together, she concluded, he was a fine specimen of young Aussie manhood. No doubt about it, Delia did like her men. Considered them one of God's better ideas. Her smile turned mischievous as she entertained a wish that the nuns back at St. Catherine's School for Girls could see her now, drinking beer and openly lusting after this lusty male. It would send them into new paroxysms of anguish over their erstwhile protégé.

She settled back into her seat, sipping the last of the beer, and resumed writing the postcard to her mother.

Dearest Mama,

you shall be with me every moment I am away this year. And I shall write, I promise—reams and reams—and through my eyes, you too will see Japan.

Ti voglio bene, Mamina.


A sudden rush of warm and tender emotions welled up as she put aside the pen and reclined her seat, looking out the window. I am realizing my goal, she thought—and yours, Mama—for she knew travel had been one of her mother's dreams, one of many which had been postponed many times over the years until they had faded like the curtains from her mother's native village. Some dreams had become transmuted with time's passage into gentle regrets, surrendered gracefully with age and the realities which age imposes; others had been handed on to her children like family heirlooms. Travel was one of them.


The whole family had come to see Delia off. Alicia and Simone with their husbands and her small nephews and nieces, and Mama. Delia had bent down and hugged her mother as she prepared to pass through the international departure doors, and what had struck her, amidst the hurly-burly of farewells and tears and best wishes, was how small her mother had suddenly become. So small and fragile. Mama had always seemed such a large and strong woman in her eyes. When had she shrunk? And when had she become old? It had taken Delia by surprise, and she found herself suddenly blinking back tears with the realization that her mother was old and small and seemed suddenly frail in her arms.

Helluva time to realize it, she had told herself, and she sniffed back the tears and ended the embrace with a final hug.

Her mother looked up at her, still holding on to her arms. "You write, cara mia," she said, after all these years still weaving in and out of English and her native tongue.

"I will, Mama. Don't worry about me." The tears welled up again.

"I don't worry about you. I always pray for you, so I don't worry about you." And she gave this, her youngest, a great blossoming smile that was both a blessing and a benediction, freeing Delia to leave.

She smiled through the film of tears. "Yes, pray for me." Then turning to the others, "Goodbye, Alicia...Simone..." and they all hugged and kissed quickly, and she had hurried through the doors without looking back.

Delia felt the tears again as she gazed out the plane window and whispered to herself, "Yes, Mama. I'm doing this for you, too."