Old as the Hills
Trying hard to make lots of money and have a good life far away does not compensate for separation from loved ones and longing for the 'old' country. Escapees feel the deprivations the most. 'These hills are not the hills of my youth', their plight.
Old as the hills
Fernando García Izquierdo
Humans first trod these hills thousands of years ago, when the land was full of trees, gigantic eucalypts for the most part, grown so close together that the forest, like in other parts of eastern Australia, must have then been impenetrable. The people whom we now call Aborigines no doubt walked about in these forests and probably found valuable things in them. Their habitation, however, was on the land along the coast, where kangaroos and wallabies ran freely, right down to cliffs facing the boundless ocean. The land supplied these primitive people with food and sufficiently provided for their other simple needs.
As for the hills on the lee of that land, apart from the mentioned eucalyptus trees, there were on them at that primeval time lofty oaks, some red cypress-trees, and all sorts of bushes, with a varied undergrowth of living matter, brambles, shrubs and those enormous ferns like trees, survivals from a previous era.
There is a pale example of what might have been the forest of Surry Hills in the times of yore (situated precisely near this suburb and the neighbouring one of Paddington) which thousands of Sydneysiders traverse every day to go to work in the city, and back again in the evening. In effect, the so-named Centennial Park, which now constitutes a botanical reserve and has trees that have come down to us from pre-colonial times, was an integral part of the same primeval jungle which covered the whole land, where nowadays peaceful citizens possess their homes.
There is a legend, spread around the cottages and terrace-houses of these hills, which says that years after the White Man settled on the land, but much before the complete destruction of the forest (mostly by the quick method of ‘ring-barking’), the enterprising inhabitants, builders of the then wooden-cabins, saw from time to time men appearing upon the edge of the hills, coming from nowhere, that is to say, from the rocks and cliffs on the east, overhanging the ocean beaches and rocky platforms down below; strange shadowy figures that eventually disappeared in the forest.
‘They were escapees, as we ourselves were when we arrived from Europe after the war,’ reported a Yugoslav woman to a group of recently arrived migrants (I being one of the number); she was the first person to tell me about runaway convicts, her speciality.
‘They sought to enter, unobserved, these then forested hills,’ she went on. ‘You see, they wanted to reach Sydney Town, somewhat west, as you know, on the lee then of these primeval forests. They hoped, unhappy lot, they would escape recognition hiding among the motley crowd of settlers and freedmen, soldiers and sailors who then inhabited this now big metropolis.’
The legend goes on touching even the smallest details of the adventure ran by some of the escapees. At least, the Yugoslav gave us those details, making her narration at times sound like a most interesting novel; those years, half a century ago, many of the inhabitants of Surry Hills, old Aussies and new Australians alike, told stories about bush rangers and cattle drovers, and runaway convicts as well.
I was a young man then myself, quite interested in ballads and stories of that sort. In other words, I followed with attention all the details and other information supplied by our lecturer (Anna was her name.)
On the sentimental side, I shall say that I became a personal friend of the woman afterwards; and that we had long talks on the subject together in her home, of a Saturday afternoon. She assured me that everything I was hearing (when we talked of the convicts and transportation generally ‘was God’s very truth!’ The way the escapees clambered up the rough and craggy terrain, trudging west from the beach, where they had no option but to abandon the boat which had served them to escape from Van Diemen’s Land. She spoke in particular of four Londoners, whose names she gave me, transported to what is now Tasmania in 1829.
‘The boat,’ she specified, ‘was no longer sea-worthy and had to be left, in any case, for one mast was gone and the sails had been torn to shreds in a recent gale.’ To make sure I understood, she further commented: ‘The beach. Go one day down there (I believe she mentioned Clovelly), ‘you’ll see. That will tell you of the labour, the suffering and anguish incurred by those condemed fellows. And it was worse once they entered the forest, which they expected would give them sustenance and cover. However, on the contrary it would soon prove to be their undoing.’
‘And not a tree left,’ I said wonderingly in a low voice.
‘Ah! Where is the forest now, you ask,’ she went on, unconcerned about my ecological remark. ‘The hilly terrain, yes, that remains, bricks and stones. Look at these hills now. Houses, steep lanes and alleys, and not a single tree!’
She dwelled in a little semi-detached house with a small garden in front, where there yet lingered the stump of what I thought must have been a lofty old tree.
‘I see,’ I said.
And noticing I glanced at this residue of a tree, she added. ‘That’s all that is left. It was there when I bought this property, oh, years ago! I doubt it comes down from the original forest.’
Surry Hills! I learned later on that, after years of deforestation, some early English settlers gave this district the name it has, thinking of the moors back home. Working very hard they turned the rather arid land into a series of green meadows.They must have found some resemblance with their hills back home.
It must have been an impenetrable forest, indeed, when the four wretches entered it. They had escaped, it is said, from a particularly harsh penal settlement in Tasmania. Even the authorities considered it ‘an undeniable place of horror’. Upon arrival the transported men were addressed, by the Governor in person, in the following manner:
‘Men who are sober, industrious and steady, may reasonably expect a ticket-of-leave, employment in the police, and ultimately emancipation and pardon. On the other hand, he whose misconduct, or habits of drunkenness, involve him in wickedness and ruin, can expect little else than assignment to labour on the roads, lashes – the treadmill – a penal settlement, and last, the gallows.’
Since the arrival of the First Fleet, in 1788, the transportation of men in tethers to Australia was one of the most important tasks performed by the Imperial Navy. Also some women caught walking at night in the streets of London and other big cities were transported; and welcomed, by the way, by the men of the colony, convicts and freedmen alike, for there were in New South Wales fewer women than men, convicts and ex-convicts and soldiers combined. For there were discontented soldiers, too, very lonely men who, with their assignment, were equally condemned to a life of privation and misery. Tough guys all of them.
‘In spite of romantic whitewashings since,’ writes the Australian author G. Johnston, ‘almost all the prisoners were genuine criminals.’ And he adds: ‘There was a somewhat recalcitrant and sullen military guard, marines and officers.’
For the convicts, there was the promise. Industrious and steady men would receive a ticket-of-leave, and would themselves become policemen. But if there were reluctance and mischievousness, or they developed habits of drunkenness… Beware!
The warning was well understood by all. The Sword of Damocles was perpetually hanging over the convicts’ heads. For they always ran the risk of being reconvicted and sent to a still worse place.
Commenting on Governor Arthur’s warning, Anna, my Yugoslav friend, exclaimed:
‘Now, how could one live the sort of existence the convicts led those days, without the consolation of the bottle, sir, you tell me?’
She had a point there. Drink and be merry! And try to forget. Dream of a better life. Back in the home country with the wife and kiddies. And the result was voluntary isolation. No one ever talked or exchanged a word or a greeting with any other, convict or not convict, in order to avoid further punishment: assignment to hard labour, lashes, the treadmill, and finally the gallows.
When sitting down in the local pub, alone with your bottle, much better to ignore your neighbours. Never enter into conversation with the others. Eventually a heated discussion, a brawl. And the guards entering the establishment.
‘The early Aussies became experts in the art of solitude,’ I said. ‘Have you noticed how people look at you as if you didn’t exist or were an object barring their view?’
‘Yes, I have. But allow me, sir,’ she said, causing a pause in the conversation, ‘would you like to come in, and I’ll show you something. I shall make you some coffee, in the meantime. Real Colombian, nothing like the stuff they serve you in this country.’
I accepted the invitation, and we had the coffee and some cake she had baked herself. With too many spices in the style, perhaps, of the pastrycooks back in her old country. On the table, beside the coffee service, stood a bottle of Gordon’s Gin and two glasses.
‘The four runaway convicts I spoke about,’ she began, going back to the subject, ‘came to these hills from one of the long beaches along the coast. I think I’ve told you that already.’
‘No. Not that one. Bondi or Coogee, a big sandy beach. Anyhow, the four escapees… I’m using the word on purpose, to indicate that they weren’t different from us others escaping from communism after the war.’ Another pause. ‘But allow me, sir, would you now like to have a drink?’ she asked.
‘I’ll have the pleasure, dear Anna, of drinking your good health,’ I replied.
We moved on to the sofa, and so did the bottle of gin. Indeed she was a sweet woman, Anna was: brown eyes and auburn hair. She filled the two tumblers, inclined over the coffee table, her hair hanging down.
‘Here,’ she said, passing me one of the tumblers and tossing her fluttering hair back: ‘As for the names of the four convicts, they were: Leslie Swallow, Tom Parker, Jimmy O’Bryant and Jack Ferguson. It was in the year of the Lord of eighteen twenty-eight, or twenty-nine (it doesn’t matter); anyhow, they reached the colony of New South Wales by sea, having escaped from a penal settlement in Recherche Bay, as I have already told you, I believe.’
‘Yes, you have.’
It was indeed a most interesting chat we had, on that sofa, that Sunday afternoon. I asked about the title of the book she had mentioned, and the name of the author.
‘Two,’she answered, ‘a historian and a novelist, a joint work.’
‘Could I see it?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I have some trunks full of books in a shed in the back garden,’ she vaguely responded, though I do not think she wanted to avoid the question. ‘I’m sure I’ll find the one about the four convicts there. I’ll pass it on next time.’
‘Wouldn’t it be a fellow called Stephensen one of the co-authors,’ I asked, wonderingly, mostly not to let her conduct all the conversation. ‘You see, I know the fellow. He is a very old chappie. You may have heard of him… Inky. The one who was a friend of Lawrence, the English novelist who wrote Kangaroo?’
‘The house is so little, as you see,’ she said, as if she had not heard. ‘That’s why I had the shed specially built, outside. A Hungarian did it. Good carpenter. In case you need one some day. But, as I was saying, next time we meet I shall have found it, the book I mean, and will lend it to you,’ she promised.
And she went on, and I learned how the four men traversed the hills, entering the murderous forests at night.
‘They had to hide somewhere,’ she explained, ‘that was their purpose, wasn’t it? The cabin dwellers wouldn’t have treated them kindly.’
‘Oh, yes. They had to hide somewhere.’
‘Otherwise, why run away?’
I replied that I was convinced about that. ‘And if they suffered… well, it was their bad luck,’ I added. ‘We all must assume our responsabilities.’
Oher historians have certified that there existed impenetrable forests elsewhere, in other continents, too. Primeval jungles in fact in Brazil, and in Amazonian Peru, Mezzo-America, etc.
‘There, right down,’ she actually cried, ‘past the suburb of Paddington, I mean… what is now called Centennial Park.’
‘I see what you mean.’
‘What is it, you tell me. If not the left-over from the primeval forests that must have existed everywhere.
‘After having clambered up the scraggy terrain,’ she went, ‘and reached the scrub land that must have existed along the coast… from the cliff, in the normal course of events, they came upon a forest, which they then penetrated,’ she added, descriptively, ‘and what for? You will see when I have finished.’
The four runaways (I have learned from other sources) had proved to be skilful at sea, withstanding the gales, and landing on the beach. Swallow and Parker were good sailors. They proved their quality of good climbers, too. But the forest was another kettle of fish. They did progress without much difficulty at first. They had kept their machetes with them, and it proved to be their must valuable possesion in time. They had come from the beach dressed in rags which in a forest full brambles and spiky bushes became reduced to tatters. Soon they had to stop their hard labour. Too weak to go on. For they found little to eat in the way of plants. The Australian forest produces nothing. No fruits on the trees; no berries in the brambles. They ate some roots, and munched some leaves and the bark of some trees. They found no birds to hunt. They once caught a big lizard. One of them, who was an expert in the matter of kindling a fire frictioning two sticks together, made with dry leaves, some ferns and branches a good fire for roasting their prey. A miniscule rivulet running among the undergrowth could quench their thirst. But about nourishment they found little, and soon nothing.
Little Jim (that is how the others called James O’Bryant) was a young lad, and probably needed more than the others, for energy. The fact is that he was the first to suffer the common destiny. On the third day, he was so weak he could advance no more, lost his head, staggered against a tree and fell to the ground. His fellow-travellers saw him make an attempt to rise. Unsuccessfully. When they approached he was howling for his ma to come. How’s that, mum? Pass us a piece of Xmas caike! Opening his mouth spasmodically: they were the shrieks of silence. The other three jumped upon the corpse, and with their machetes made a mess of the bleeding body. Ferguson kindled a fire in a clearing, and there the three stayed for three days.
Ferguson was a brawny Scot of thirty. He was for continuing the march now they had recovered their forces, and on the fifth day, branding his machete, he disappeared beyond the close trunks of the gigantic eucalypts. The other two, who had unsuccessfuly tried to return to the beach, followed him a day later, and had not advanced many yards when they stumbled upon his unconscious body, among the ferns and bramble. They took the decision to kill him, in order to survive themselves. Self-defense in a way.
One day Swallow fell on Parker and there followed a deadly fight which lasted two hours. Tom Parker won, and after a day or two of further penetration he too fell on the ground exhausted; before dying he wrote a letter to his wife, Joan; for he was an educated man and a natural writer (he always carried a pencil and paper in his pocket.) He hoped that when his body was found, his letter would be taken to London and find its way to Joan and their kids. In it, he explained what had happened, how he had tried to run away and sail somehow to London to see her, whom he loved, and hoped to live a normal family life in his home country. The corpse was found many years afterwards, when men had begun in earnest the task of completely destroying the forest, for building cabins first and then the houses we see today in the hills of these suburbs.
The bus shelter is hardly a stone’s throw away, but in his precipitation Luis Galvao misses it. He simply takes the wrong turn, and next moment finds himself trudging up a hilly road, painful to climb and making him very weak. He then runs down another road, more rows of terrace-houses, some brick-and-glass bungalows and semi-detached properties… and he knows he got lost.
Everywhere the sash-windows are drawn open, yet not a sound comes out of any of these properties. Nor does he see a soul entering or coming out of any of the buildings.
There can be little doubt that he is seriously ill. He has applied himself intensely to the profession and to his law studies, and it has proved to be too much for him. In such circumstances you soon become a one-track-minded person and Luis Galvao has proved to be no different from the others. You seek advancement in the profession, accumulation of some particular knowledge and money. The result, for him, has been catastrophic. Lack of sleep, to begin with. And worrying to the point of becoming nuts. In a word, he was falling at the moment into a serious nervous breakdown.
To boot it all, contrary to what he had thought (and had solemnly promised to his friend Manuel Suárez), he had been unable to put aside his ‘Dorotea’, a book about Spain he had begun to write two days exactly after his arrival in Australia.
The day he was confirmed in his post at Whyte and Huchkinson’s, he flew at once into a state of elation which lasted but a day or two. His mood changed when he began to sleep badly; and from elation to depression and back to square one, months went by. His arrival at the catholic church this morning triggered out further trouble for him. After mass, for no apparent reason, he sought to avoid contact with Spanish migrants. In a moment in these hills, this interminable tangle of narrow streets and alleyways, he lost conscience of what was going on around him, why he was ambling in such an unfamiliar atmosphere, and the question of what he should do to go back to his bed at home in Kirribilli?
Not now, much before, his life had turned into a dream. ‘I must escape, I must escape from here! That was in the end the only thought that occupied his mind.
In utter despair now, his rambling is transformed into a frantic flight. He does not know what he’s doing in these lanes, the poor fellow, only remembering that he was looking for a way to find the bus-stop and go away as soon as possible. Oh, sleep, sleep, sleep!
So swiftly he runs downhill that he trips over a slightly protuding cobblestone and falls flat on the ground. An old man comes to the rescue, it would seem, but as he reaches the fallen fellow, he lifts a thick stick and shouts.
‘You start early, dog. And on the Day of the Lord!’ (probably a member of a temperate society, thinking Galvao is a drunkard.)
Luis snatches the stick from the man and retaliates, leaving him howling on the ground.
Luis dashes off, up a road with the most dismal collection of decaying cottages he has ever seen. He would have asked somebody if they know where he could find a taxi-stand, but no one stops when he approaches them. If at all they look at him as if he were not there, as if he did not exist. Stalking about like a dead soul, he comes at length upon the very street with two identical rows of quite neat terrace-houses where he saw, one day, a blond girl like Margaret, whom he has repeatedly seen afterwards in his dreams.
… stopping short, fumbling in her handbag, opening a door and disappearing; backwards, folding a pink umbrella as she went in…
… and I was left alone and in despair.
It has begun to drizzle. Luis Galvao crosses the street onto the other pavement and hears a Ukrainian ditty, or some sort of song from the east of Europe, accompanied very beautifully by the soft sound of a violin.
‘Kalinka, kalinka moià!
‘Svadova, iàdoga, kalinka moià!’
The vision of an open window like in a dream, one of those dreams that assail him often in the early morning, which is when he finally falls asleep. He sees pretty Malgorata dancing with a handsome blond Cossack of some kind. The gypsy song goes on. The guy holds her tight by the waist, circling her, like the statue of a goddess; for all the time she remains static. But he goes on, the blond guy, stamping his knee-high black boots of the floor, his other hand flying with his fluttering cream-white silk shirt. ‘Oh kalinka, kalinks, kalinka, kalinka, svadova, iàdoga, moià!’
Luis now draws nearer, but stops short all of a sudden; for the scene changes when two white hands appear below the open window, they are seen holding the sash by its base, then drawing it down. He sees his reflexion in the window-pane. One of the two faces, that of the Ukrainian girl, shadowy, distant, still staring.
Unless he has gone mad, and it is only the product of his imagination. Nothing. And again he ambles up and down in the streets of a district named Surry Hills. He once had the company of the girl now in the embrace of that other man. It is the love of a woman he had always sought, not vain ambition. That is why. How could he have reached that low stage where only money counted, seeking to climb up the ladder of success, a celebrated lawyer, a senior partnership… to turn thus into a slave, a nervous wreck.
To think that he once voluntarily abandoned that woman, leaving her in the hands of a fascist murderer and his gang… the same as he once abandoned his Margaret in Madrid, the paramilitary in the pay of international reaction. Spring 1956. In jail in Cadiz Bay, the blue Mediterranean.
He reaches the end of the little lane, stops at the corner-store Young Street-Weedon Avenue. He observes it absentmindedly, vacillating. A pair of stone steps and the narrow wood-and-glass door, right on the corner. Begrimed walls inside, and outside quite the regular two-storeyed façade, one side and the other, with one dusty little window in one of them, all as dirty as the interior, full of small and medium-sized discoloured advertisements, everywhere. ‘Tip Top Bread’, ‘Rozelle Food’, ‘Peters Ice Cream’, ‘Vincent with Confidence’, ‘Salted Peanuts-Crisp and Crunchy’ and other sooty names besides.
He turns into Young Street, and after a while, reaches again the house of his dreams in Surry Hills. The narrow entrance where he saw the blond girl with the pink umbrella going in, first her elegant body pushing backwards, then folding the umbrella as she entered the house.
The drizzle has now turned into real rain, from which Luis Galvao tries to protect himself climbing upon the tiny cement verandah and pushing his body against the house, the eaves of the roof protecting him. On the painted-over brick-façade, by the door, there is a brassplate and on it, in black, the name ‘Laurace’. The two-storeyed houses in the terrace look identical, save the colouring. The door and the window frames of this one are glossy pink.
He goes to the door and plies the knocker. The sound reverberates all over the narrow street. For a moment it seems as if someone is laughing. At length the door is flung open and a stout flat-nosed woman is seen in the doorway. Luis recognises the ckeckered pattern of the hard floor of his dream. The woman glares at the intruder and waits, her arms akimbo. She wears a sleeveless, colourless dress, which allows her to show two handsome arms, full of dimples, the shape of her protruding tummy. Her face is round and pale, and her lips compressed.
Without knowing why, Galvao hangs his head down and also waits. Why has she not spoken? He thinks he has uttered ‘Good morning!’
Suddenly he catches sight of a red wart on the woman’s white cheek, the right one.
‘Miss… Missus Laurace,’’ he articulates, at length, ‘I mean… I guess that’s your name, isn’t it?’’ (with a glance at the brassplate.) ‘You’ll… excuse me, Madam. The case is…” (the woman stares without moving) “I’m looking for a girl, you see, a young lady… a foreigner like myself…’
‘Sir, there are no foreigners in this country,’ the woman grunts. ‘Only Australians. What you are, sir, is New Australian.’
He becomes very timid, and simple repeats, ‘I’m looking for a girl... blond and beautiful.’
‘Oh, looking for a girl, my word,’ she repeats in a sing-song voice
… always the same. They laugh at him, because of his foreign accent… lucky if they let him finish his sentence. Too slow, they say.
‘Then, sir?’ she utters, with impatience.
‘What?’ he opens his mouth wide, ‘That’s to say…’ and he shuts up.
Her imperturbable face does not give him any confidence, or encourages him to go on asking. She doesn’t show any feeling, a living stone figure, a statue.
‘You were saying something, sir.’
‘Yes, madam, I was saying she is… an English girl. At least I think she is English. I recognised the accent. From the northern counties… I mean Lancashire... I mean I know what I mean…’ She now looks at his hands.
‘I see,’ the woman utters in a shrill voice. ‘I say, what’s happened to your hand? You’re bleeding.’
‘’No, Madam, I’m all right… I assure you,’’ answers Galvao, putting his right arm behind his back. ‘’It’s only a madman, an old fellow, down by Albion Street… You see, I’m looking… What I mean to say, Mm… Missus Laurace, I saw her entering this here property, you see. The other day.’’
‘Oh, you must be mad. Go away.’
The window near the door is now opened, just as the woman sends him away. He moves a step to the left and see two beautifully white hands pulling up the sash. As the sash is drawn up, and beyond the now double pane, he sees the rosy face of a young blond woman.
‘Well, I think,’ he stammers, ‘did you just say nobody is lodging with you. I see you have at least one tennant.’
‘My word!’ is all the woman utters in reply.
She has crossed her thick bare arms, folding them tight underneath her rather big bosom. To stay put, barring the way to this potential trespasser, seems now to be her sole purpose in life. Her brown eyes are fixed of his green ones, just for a moment, quite suspiciously.
… she thinks I am a burglar.
He is confirmed in this idea because, after staring at him she looks right and left, as if looking for one or several accomplices. He finds strange the way she looks, one way and then another, just from the corner of her eye, without turning or moving her neck in the least.
‘She doesn’t trust me. That’s why.’ He again hangs his head.
Suddenly he hears the loud bang of a door being closed. Lifting his gaze, he sees that the woman is no longer there. He approaches the nearby window and hears the song of a woman, waiting for her lover, but sees nothing. Decidedly, he plies the knocker again.
The door is flung open again. The same woman. Brown eyes, silver haired tied up behind the head in a knot. She shouts in a fury.
‘What, you again?’
And Luis Galvao says, pleadingly:
‘I… I saw her entering this place…, your property, Madam, I suppose it is your property. Only the other day, yesterday,’ Luis said, slightly hampered by an occasional stammer, ’or a few days ago. I’ve forgotten… Today’s Sunday, isn’t it? It must have been last Saturday, perhaps.’
‘Right you are!’’ she growls, ‘but now go away!’ she breathes deeply: ‘Madman!’ And the wart on her cheek shifts up and down as she pronounces the last word.
‘Madam,’ he re-starts, nevertheless, quite humbly, ‘I beg you…’
‘I’m not mad, I assure you. Only very poorly. Something has happened to me lately. Maybe too much work. I can’t sleep at night. Help me to find my woman. I can’t live alone. I am looking for a girl…’
‘Again? And you’re saying you are poorly? Crazy, crazy, crazy! Go away, I’m telling you. Fuck off! Perhaps you’ll understand it better this way,’ she says, frowning.
Her face looks familiar, anynow. Luis recalls he has had a confrontation with a woman somewhere. And the representation of the scene now comes vividly to his mind. Pitt Street. A restaurant. A lady confronting him, shouting for the waitress to remove her plate to another table, a wart on her cheek swelling. Only the white flat hat is missing. It had looked to him that day like a sponge cake with some icing on top.
‘She must be here, madam. I once saw her… I mean, entering this house.’ He stops short and waits.
Giving signs of extreme anger and impatience she says, spitting the words:
‘I’m looking for my girlfriend, you see,’ he repeats the same tune. ‘You may be able to help me. Try it. I’ve just herad a Ukrai… Russian song, Kalinka, perhaps you’ve heard it too. Coming right out from that window,’ (turning slightly his head to the left) ‘unless it was an Eng… Norwegian. I heard it first one evening, lying with her on the grass, near an unused canal. Solvej’s Song, that is. It was in the air. A summer night. Fifty-three. The very same song I’ve heard just now, coming out from that room, I mean, that window. Turning his head again.
‘A liar, that’s what you are.’
… I’ve seen this woman before now, saw her in a restaurant, Pitt Street.
‘Sir,’ the woman cuts him off, ‘haven’t we met somewhere before?’
‘At the Chinese restaurant…’
‘No, madman. In Callan Park. For sure!’
‘Oh, no! Madam, I know nothing of mental hospitals.’
‘You see. Yeah, sir! We have met there, Callan Park. And you bloody well know we have.’
‘No, Mrs. Laurace, you must confuse me with somebody.’
‘Somebody my foot!’ exclaims the lady. ‘I say, haven’t you ever been interned in Callan Park? I’m a nurse at the hospital.’
‘You see, we were going to be married in Madrid. I think she’s been done away with. Oh, fascism is terrible. You don’t know, madam.’
‘I know,’ she says in a gruff voice, ‘you’re mad.’
‘I assure you, M’m… Sister Laurace, I know nothing about mental hospitals. You see, I’m poorly, just now, that’s all. Nerves, yes. But no hospital. Only, you know, I’m a foreigner here…, just looking for my girl… We were going to marry, I’ve told you. And now she’s emigrated, like me…’
‘You don’t know what you say.Just looking for a girl, are you?’
‘Why, yes! a beautiful girl, a New Australian like me. English. Perhaps I’ve told you already. I mean English accent. She’s been here. I saw her. Short wavy blond hair…’
‘Wait a minute!’ cries the woman all in a flurry. ‘I see. Oh dear, you must mean Marguerite!’
‘That is her, Madam. And… may I see her, please?’
‘Well, I doubt it, I doubt it very much,’ says the woman, turning to go. She had been hearing the New Australian quite patiently; but now she positively shows signs of displeasure
‘Wait!’ Galvao wails. ‘Oh please, why can’t I see her?’
‘Because she passed away, you see,’ she shouts furiously, ‘about two months ago!’ She had turned to face him once more, and, unexpectedly, now engages into a sustained conversation. ‘And now that I think of it, no, she wasn’t English. She did come from Britain, that yes! Manchester, I think it was Manchester; but… not English. Some other thing. New Australian alright, but some other thing. She passed away in my arms the poor thing. Took her meself to the hospital.’
‘Did you say… did you just call her Margaret?’’
‘No, I didn’t. Something like Marguerite or Margareta, I’m not sure. It was a foreign name. Anyhow, since she’s dead, what does it matter now?’
‘Dead!’ Galvao exclaims, devastated.
‘Dead,’ the woman repeats. ‘Don’t yer understand English? I said it very clearly, I think. Passed away in my arms. And yer keeping me away from my porridge, ye are; must be burnt by now!’ And off she goes into the house, banging the door on Galvao’s nose.
‘Passed away? Dead!’ he exclaims as he moves off.
Luis heard thunder in the distance; but overhead the sky is clear. ‘Dead!’ he repeats, terribly agitated. He is a trifle stooped in the shoulders. Even the shoulders of his jacket are terribly impregnated, unless it is rain: all in all, he is afraid he may catch brochitis, as happened the other day…Saturday; although just now there is a sparkling sunshine.
‘Gosh, this is awful, awful!’ Groaning like a wounded animal, he stumbles up and down a number of crooked hilly lanes, his gaze bent down. ‘Malgorata is gone, Margaret is dead. I’m alone, all alone.’
Eventually his feet bring him back to the same place, the two-storeyed terrace house, with the name Laurace on a brassplate, which he left five or ten minutes earlier. And, as before, he hovers for a while on the opposite side of the street, all the time muttering to himself: ‘Dead, oh, my sweatheart, beloved Margaret! To think… my!, to die so young, to die so young, aaaah!’
As he crosses the street intending to confront the woman again, he hears a sound coming from inside the house, like a jet of water hitting a wall, and simultaneously the faint voice of a girl singing a ditty in a foreign language. No, not a Ukrainian ditty, but an English operetta..
‘For he’s the most humane Mikado that did ever in Japan exist…!
The window being accessible from the pavement, he comes close and peeps inside: a small but tidy bedroom with a makeshift glass cabin in the far corner and, behind a smoke-coloured door, the diffused silhouette of a woman having a shower. Be it because the temperature has gone up with the steaming-hot water which probably is found in the shower- cabin. Or it may be he is feverish. Because the sweat now trickles down his temples like a waterfall, his forehead and also over his eyebrows and glasses. The whole scene turns blurred and misty. Probably because he’s half closed his eyes.
… yes, oh yes! it is she, my Margaret! That exquisitely beautiful voice. Reaching this awful place… weakened by what must be an extraordinary distance: A more humane Mikado never did in the world exist! Oh, no! She is here, she is here. Oh, what bliss! The song is muffled by the sound of running water…
Luis Galvao is resting his arms on the window-sill, his chin on his interlocked fingers.
The singing and the surging sound of water have stopped, the glass door of a shower-cabin slides to one side. He catches sight of a moving shadow enveloped in a white mist coming out of the cabin. The wonderful figure of a naked woman of extreme beauty.
… as she draws nearer it seems that the haze advances with her. She’s now covering the lower part of her body with a large white towel that she somehow holds round her supple waist even while she stretches her arms out, welcoming him.
… as she advances, he sees her shapely legs coming out from the folds of what turns out to be a white sarong. He caresses her knee, the leg, ankle and most endearing foot; and she looks at him in mute agony as she realises that his right hand is bleeding profusely.
Luis has rested his elbows on the window-sill and his chin on the back of his intertwined hands, looking on, as in a trance; and the whole scene changes, and the girl goes back to the middle of the room, ready to disappear any moment in a shroud of mist.
‘No, don’t go, my angel, my sweetheart!’
As the haze dissipates, the naked body reappears in all the splendour of its angelical nature, so white that it seems no blood circulates through the veins, and yet, so enchantingly beautiful! He wants to take her in his arms, but can only caress her soft rounded knee.
‘Oh, darling girl,’ he raises his head and whispers entreatingly, ‘wander no more, stay! If you leave I’ll never be able to find you again.’
And as she moves away, he exclaims: ‘I know you’ve been ill, I’ll cure you, my darling. My aim has always been to save you. Don’t go. Don’t be annoyed with me.’
… her hand clutches his in absoluty frenzy, and as she takes it to her heart, he closes his eyes and tries to remain still; for he lacks the strength to climb up into the room, much though he stretches himself upwards on the window-sill.
‘Let me caress your golden hair, your face, the soft curves of your breasts!’
… she shakes her head in reply, and her eyes shine with unfathomable mystery. She has been missing him so much! And at last, he has come for her. A smile of infinite sweetness is now playing round her lips, and the faintest possible blush flashes across her lovely cheeks.
‘Come with me, my fairy girl. Are you ready?’
… the young woman shakes her innocent head, and he feels how she again grasps his injured hand, looking at him as if to say: come on in, I’ll dress your wounds, and then we shall make love… you and me… as before, remember?
‘Oh my darling! How can I ever forget those days, our happiness at being together, your love? You know, I’ve been in great pain. But I’ll save you, I’ll take you with me. It’s the greatest longing of my heart.’
… he sees the young woman bending forward and sinking on her knees by the window. She’s passing her fingers through his hair and her firm girlish breasts are touching him. ‘My lovely, lovely girl!’ he says, as she presses her lips to his burning brow.
A delicious sunlight is coming fully into the room, and she looks ever so white and pure. ‘Like an angel from heaven you are.’ He kisses her compulsively, passionately. ‘I’ve come back to you at last. I’ll take you away from this dungeon, my dearest darling. You’ll soon become strong again, and I’ll always be with you.’
… she says yes with her eyes, and he stretches out his arms to embrace her, overflowing with happiness. ‘Oh my sweetheart, how my yearning heart has been waiting for this moment!’
Just at that moment Luis Galvao feels like the grip of a pair of burning pliers on his ankles and a strong pull downwards. Simultaneously he hears a scream: ‘Aha, thief! I’ve caught you. Oh, I knew I had to do with a madman. You’re mad. You rightly belong in Callan Park.’
Standing on the pavement, facing the Laurace woman, who is dressed to go out complete with flat white hat and all, such as Luis Galvao saw her for the first time in the Chinese restaurant in Pitt Street, he shouts with all the strength of his lungs. ‘Let go, you whore!’ he yells in her gaping mouth; for the woman is grabbing the lapels of his jacket.
‘Oh no, sir!’ she exclaims, holding him tightly close to her body, ‘you won’t run away from me this time. For I’ve called the police,’ and turning her gaze upwards to the sky, she screams: ‘Lord, look at him! Look at him,’ she snears, ‘the coward, he’s trembling, he’s got the terrors! His mug’s drenched with perspiration!’
At that the sound of a siren is heard approaching. Taking advantage of a moment’s hesitation on the part of his enemy, as the sound grows louder, Luis Galvao lifts his left fist to the height of the woman’s face and gives her a tremendous punch on the right cheek; the wart at once explodes like a volcano, splattering blood about.
‘Ay, ay!’ she cries, taking her hand to her face, ‘ah, you reffo bastard!’
But Luis no longer hears her, for he is running away at full speed. As he reaches the corner and turns round into a slightly inclined lane, he catches sight of the Black Maria coming up the street. Into the first side street he dashes, hiding behind a large black dustbin; and sees the police van passing by, blowing its siren and hooting.
For the next few minutes Luis Galvao walks slowly, painfully moving his aching body forward like an old man, his legs quivering, his knees knocking up against one another. Staggering and holding on to a lamp-post to avoid tottering to the ground, he sees a shadow coming forward.
‘Good Lord! Mr. Galvao, what’s happened?’
A handsome woman with fluttering auburn hair and glittering brown eyes.
‘The Yugoslav whore!’ he mutters to himself. ‘Nothing, thank you. I’m all right.’ And makes to go away, when he sees the Black Maria passing by at full speed again.
‘Excuse me,’ he says. ‘Goodbye!’
Turning left on the first occasion, then left once more he comes upon an open space with many different sorts of buildings, some big, some old and all painted in different glossy colours. All but one, made of red bricks, slate roof, and a timber tower with the cross on top.
He makes a bee-line across the square joining, as he goes, a trail of shadowy figures marching on a gravel path towards the brick protestant church; coming up to the main entrance, he stops to read on a big black hoarding, with golden lettering that ‘Jesus is Light’, and that ‘Sin Stands in the Way of God’. The ample door being wide open, there comes out upon the square the gentle sound of many voices and the pealing music of an organ. Singing the psalms of the day they are, quite contented. He listens for a while and turns away, impatient and actually disgruntled, and goes into another narrow street.
Without knowing why or wherefrom, after another few moments, he finds himself in Albion Street, not far from the Catholic church where he attended mass with his friend Manuel Suárez. Sweat is pouring down his temples and cheeks, and his clothes are damp. Perhaps, the rain early in the morning. What will happen if he now comes across his friend, with or without the Catalan priest?
‘I’m not finicky,’ he thinks. ‘He shouldn’t have come to fetch me out. Anybody can be ill and have a fever.’ Luis has now reached the flight of step stones. ‘All the same, he won’t mind. A real dear. Himself always so prim and handsome. But, if he’s still with his friend? No wonder the young priest feels an attachment for so brave a man, always smelling of Eau-de-Cologne.’ The loud chimes of the bronze bell in the spire. Frightening the birds away.
… he thinks of the stone towers of the three churches in his mother’s village. And why three? Such a small dirty place. Swallows flying around in spring. The same month. Only here it is autumn.
Luis Galvao sees people climbing up the stone steps, talking animatedly, exchanging impressions in English and Italian. Silently he joins them. Nobody seems surprised on noticing his presence, or simply cares.
The sound of the bells ringing grows louder, announcing that a mass is about to commence. Burning the last particles of energy left in his poor sick body, he leaps forward and at once enters the church.
All flushed and feverish, gasping and drenched with perspiration right down to his collar and the lapels of his jacket, he moves about seeking a place where he can sit down. He realises he is in the same church where he was attending mass earlier on in the morning. He sits on the very edge, at the end of a long bench, not far from the entrance, panting and shivering. His neighbour on the left is a rather elegant middle-aged lady, rather dark and very handsome. Thinking she is about to be infected by an infected body, she murmurs some kind of protest. She slides her buttocks on the bench away from him, crushing her neighbour, and a low murmur is heard. Dragging her bottom on the bench to her left, pushing everybody else in consequence. The word ‘germs, germs…’ is heard.
Disturbing the faithful once more, and making the foot-rest rattle with the trembling of his feet and legs, he takes advantage of the situation to shift his own bottom and sit more comfortably, and there is again a movement of the others to the left. He hears people murmuring, giving him the impression that his is a disagreable presence among those stern-looking figures in their Sunday-best. The state of his health has obviously deteriorated in the last few minutes since he was climbing the flight of stone steps.
Sinking his shoulders and lowering his tired damp head, his gaze fixed on the dusty wooden floor, he thinks of the days of old, when he was a very religious boy, Sunday morning in the church, trying to be sure that his soul remained whole and pure, so that God would receive him in Heaven after death.
The old country, still in the grip of fascism, and himself a member of the Falange Youth. Then, a radical change. In his imagination he sees the streets of Madrid, a demonstration severely suppressed. The sound of a siren is heard again. He thinks of Margaret, recalls that day when his sweetheart was taken away for good. He has to stop up his ears with both hands, not to hear the sound of the siren again; and to purse his mouth, biting his lips, to cut off a scream. And the low murmur of a prayer persists, several voices in unison, nearby. He sees the priest, the gold and sacred chasuble: a small man, rather old.
Luis closes his eyes still hearing the old man saying in Latin his mass. He knows he’ll be bending down and kissing the altar in a minute, then turning round to face the congregation. All cross themselves and stand up. He feels the commotion caused by this change in the course of the ceremony.
Though he is very tired and shivering, Luis Galvao follows suit at once, to avoid being detected, pointed out by some parishioner who recognises him for what he is, an escapee from ordinary life, and then caught and handed over to the police. For the same reason, as the parishioners sit down (and he with them) he crouches, makes himself small, the better to hide from inquisitive eyes. Luckily, the woman who sits next to him, on his left, is a rather voluminous element. He now sees the priest climbing up to the pulpit and chanting.
‘Oh, how much Our Father loves us, and that even while we are still submerged in Sin. Sonno disperato: soltanto habiamo il Peccàto fra noi. Christ died for us, to make us free from Sin… il peccàto della bestia... La moglie è il peccàto. Non siamo degni d’essere Umani… habiamo generato il peccàto. Having been created by God, we have lost… nessum maggior dolore… soltanto Dìo è nostra pace. Ricordarsi del tempo felice…
‘You swallow the lie, you swallow the lie!’ Luis thinks, letting the lids of his tired eyes close entirely, dreaming of a happier life.
Meanwhile the eminent teaching is being imparted to the docile congregation, swallowing big lies with great satisfaction. We are in the best of all possible worlds.
Fortunately for Luis he hears only half of the sermon. For he has the happiness of having in the meantime a forty-winks rest, during which he miraculously communicates with the woman he loves. It must have lasted only a few seconds. Enough, however, for an amorous conversation… She is telling him they will soon come together, and will live happily thereafter. When he wakes up, the priest and his acolyte are back at the altar, where they first exchange some words in Latin, and then the priest turns to face his parishioners, once more. And once more he speaks to them in the tongue of the Romans of ancient times.
There is the sound of little bells, soft, swift, sublime. The sound grows louder. It is coming from the part of the altar where the acolyte is, on his knees; while the priest still stands, close thereby. Moving his right wrist he creates the music, moving the thin arm with extraordinary agitation, like an angel from heaven in his cute red-and-white vestment. A discreet circular movement, that is all, of the young fellow’s wrist. All the time the sound grows louder. In the fellow’s hand Galvao sees a golden something with innumerable little bells ringing. He hears the noise of a siren again. Someone is whispering a prayer nearby, a prolonged monocord noise, like some whistling… unless it is the savage whining of a mosquito…
That bloody woman Laurace must have recognised his accent, noticed he was one of the Mediterranean Dagoes, like the ones surrounding him. The bitch, through an association of ideas, will have guessed he would be seeking refuge in this catholic temple. She is now entering with those two men, in the dark. Probably policemen from the Black Maria, sure enough. Yes! they are coming, they’re coming to catch and reconvict him. For he hears some strange noises like banging… the steps of military boots, tap, tap, tap!
Seconds, minutes perhaps have passed, and nothing happens. It was only the wild throbbing of his heart. Now, there is no longer anybody behind or near him; they all have been sliding their bodies away from the infection again. It must be because of the sweat, the stench and the sneezing that they think he must be nearly dying with fever: ‘’Germs, germs, germs!’’ The bells of the acolyte again. The accompanying prayers… oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Oh, Son of Man come, come, come to our help!
Sure they all think he’s brought in some infection. The plague, no doubt. That’s why they’re praying, asking the Lord to come and save them, save their precious little bodies and souls. Oh Lord, almighty!
Again, somebody has just entered the temple. Unless it is that some of the parishioners are leaving, moving along the lateral aisles. Probably the Black Maria is waiting outside. They are giving him away to the police who will set irons around his ankles, manacles around his wrists: a convict, a madman, a damp rope round his neck. His whole body and clothes are drenched: it’s as if someone’s been pouring water down his neck and shoulders. Unless he’s bleeding, like when the paramilitary were torturing him in Cadiz Bay, the fascist shit! Oh, there’s no escaping one’s destiny! He hides his wounded hand in his jacket pocket.
‘‘Missa ditta est!’’
What? This is terrible. There’s no escape, unless… He’ll have to be ready to steal away in a minute… now… running; he’ll run, yes. That’ll make him get warm again.
What’s the priest doing now? Going away to ring the police, too bad. ‘I shall have to sneak away…. Quickly! No, better slide under the bench. Or hide among the parishioners. Nobody will notice. Unless they perceive the stench? But I must escape, I shall escape, escape, scape, cape, tape, tap, tape, tap, tap! He snuggles up to a group of male migrant workers, who do not even notice him, all move rather lazily, all engaged in conversation, gesticulating with arms and hands.
There is a stationary police van at the street corner. He feared to be handed to the guards, be reconvicted and condemned to penal servitude, assuming they proved in a court of justice he was a runaway convict. Australia was after all a democracy. Respecting human rights. They would not take him into custody, just because he was not in his Sunday best.
He noticed the Black Maria on the corner was empty. No civil guards around. Nor in the street anywhere. Where had they gone?
He has had hardly a couple of hours sleep last night, and Manuel Suárez coming to wake him up at nine. Little sleep these thirty or forty days. His whole body aches.
His legs are very stiff, and although nobody threatens him, the idea that he is an escapee assaults him. He reels and falls exhausted upon the floor.
‘Luigi, amico! What are you doing here?’ a man asks, running to his rescue. For he is not a policeman, but one ot the Italians who had come out from the church with him.
He helps him to stand up and leads him towards a little group to which he belongs, made up by a young woman and two children. They all understand that he is very ill. He asks them to take him to the bus stop.
‘Thank you very much’, he says. No, he is not a tramp, and he now owns a home-unit in Kirribilli.
The man says he knows where he lives. He had heard it in the factory, where someone brought the news about those last days in Ultimo.
‘Help me, please… a bus shelter…
The Italian would not hear of taking Luis to the bus stop. ‘My car is parked nearby,’ he said. ‘Plenty of room. I’ll be pleased to take you to your place. Where exactly is it?’
‘Road. Name and number.’
‘Twenty-one, Fitzroy Street.’
‘That turns out quite well. We go to Crows Nest.’
The man, Pippo, drove the car through Elizabeth Street to hit the Cahill Expressway, and over the Harbour Bridge, in the direction of North Sydney, and came soon to Kirribilli. When they reached Galvao’s place, the Italian offered to take him upstairs to his flat.
‘No, no need, please, don’t worry. The lift is there waiting. Thank you very much.’
The man helped him into the lift, and saw that the wounded man pressed the right button.
As for Luis Galvao, he got out at the tenth floor. He opened the door of his flat, went in, and locked the door again. His physical and intellectual energies, under such heavy contribution, the result of his agitation these three or four weeks, gave up entirely. He hurled himself fully dressed on his bed, and lost conscientiousness altogether. There on his bed he lay, near the window, alone, and with no possibility of being looked after by anyone.