Migrant becomes a man of property, two
European migrants encounter a new life in a Sydney inner suburb. Population mainly of British descent on land previously inhabited by Aboriginals. After World War 2 also Continental European migrants. Here one example of a suburban street in 1959.
Migrant becomes a man of property, two
Fernando García Izquierdo
We were told, even before embarking upon the wonderful adventure of emigrating to Australia, that the first thing we had to do, once in the new country, was to buy our own house. I had replied that, how on earth could we buy any property if we had no money. ‘In Australia,’ came the reply, ‘that doesn’t matter; you can get a loan very easily.’
There was, then, -I thought- the promise of a life of wealthy abundance in Australia, with plenty of everything, democracy, finance, production, social progress, beautiful surroundings everywhere, a good climate, and in particular full employment.
Sydney which we had chosen as the point of settlement gave us the impression, upon landing, of health, money and perfect joy. I felt happy to be there. Not that I had ever believed in fantastic stories, such as those told in youth: streets in new countries overseas paved with gold, migrants becoming rich overnight, diggers finding precious metals, stones, discovering oil deposits, etc. But there was a show of prosperity undeniably, such as would dazzle the most sober of immigrants.
Those were years of expansion in the whole capitalist world, and it has to be said that Australia was one of the most prosperous countries in the world. A whole continent to be shared amongst a few people. There was room for us, for everyone.
Moreover, we heard on the radio, and read in the newspapers, that ‘the Menzies Government was all for a policy of economy growth’. At that time growth was not calculated at one percent or two percent a year. In the Free World (I remember the years I went to university) capitalism’s growth was six, seven, nine percent yearly.
Australia is a vast country. Before seeking to obtain an entry visa and embarking on the big liner to cross seas and oceans, we had studied the situation, looked at the official statistics. It was written that Australia was the country with the greatest number of motorcars per person, excepting the United States and Canada, and that (motorcars) meant a lot those days.
‘They call our country the Awakening Giant,’ was the common saying.
An obvious, tangible, real giant, not mere fancy, a madman’s invention, like poor mad Don Quixote, his giant windmills. A real giant, Australia the sixth continent, with Tasmania, a very big island, also conquered by the British long ago.
Other circumstances, too, which need not be mentioned herein, led us to buy immediately upon arrival a small cottage, situated for the record in one of the inner suburbs, called Glebe, the complete address of which was 15 Ferry Road. The cottage was part of a terrace of about twenty or twenty-five similar places, old brick houses, all differently ornamented, painted in various hues: roof, façade, an area railing: a common thing, many properties placed together. Detached houses were more expensive. Relatively old places all of them, but well preserved and nice. It had been for sale these five or six weeks. Anybody could have bought it, with a mortgage.
A cosy place, now with our names on a brassplate attached to the façade. “Oh, home, sweet home!” A small square building with an equally square ground called front garden, and another larger one at the back. It filled our hearts with instant happiness.
In other words, what we had been advised to do we did. Property. It had been achieved. Nothing easier. Now we should start thinking of purchasing another one; sure thing to become rich. Many migrants did that precisely. A man of property. Plenty of credit. Acummulation and maximising profits. Once reaching that state, you could buy and buy. Easy mortgages from now on..
The day the contract was signed, I embraced my loving wife, whom I heard repeat ‘sotto voce’ the old English saying, ‘my home is my castle’.
But property also has its duties, and our house was not going to be in such a state of conservation for long, if we were not prepared to devote from now on part of our leisure time, precisely, to save it from falling in decay. We soon would have to roll up our sleeves, and set to the task of what people called “adding value to it.”
Among migrants from the south of Europe, groups were constituted to help one another, two families generally, to work first on this cottage, then in the other one, the families gathering together, the women cooking the whole weekend, paella, lassagne, rissotto, potato salad etc. and the men working , repairing, painting and so on; and reminiscing about the old country, listening to local music from the record player, pasodoble, Zorba the Greek and wonderful opera singers, pure Italian language, Sicilian melodies.
At eight, on Monday, everybody working in the factory, or wherever, men and women.
The roof of the main body or cottage was at the outset one of our main worries. Old stuff. There were attachments to the house of more recent construction. It was made of corrugated iron. When just built this sort of roof was referred to as ‘galvanised-iron roof’. I had often seen these roofs in new-development-housing projects, specially in the outer suburbs: newly built rows of homes, whether detached, semi-detached or forming terraces, and nearly all showed resplendent roofs, which I should have thought were made of real silver, so brilliant and shiny they all appeared specially on sunny days.
But every good thing, one way or another, one day comes to an end. I imagined that our roof had been thus brilliant thirty-eight or forty years before, when (I was told) all the houses of the terrace had been built. But now there was no question that said splendorous state had ceased to be, maybe long ago.
In the terrace, most roofs were nicely painted over, perhaps painted several times over. I couldn’t tell. Different hues: red, green, blue, light, dark, whatever. Probably, ours too, had received a coat long ago. Anyhow, at present it really needed painting or repainting, as the case might be.
How had we failed to notice it the day the real estate agent brought us there to show us the place, this deficiency, or hidden defect? He was a Hungarian who had come with his young family to Australia in 1956, the year of the so called ‘Hungarian Revolution’, and had opened a Real Estate Agency in Glebe Road, round the corner.
After a long spell of rain, during the month of October we began to see quite clearly in our roof some rusty spots, specially at the edges, and we began in consequence to worry very much.
‘We shall have to put a remedy to it,’ I said, solemnly.
‘Yes, Nano, do,’ said my wife, meaning I should paint the roof.
‘I’m not going to let it happen’ I said to my wife, meditatively. ‘If all the roof becomes old and rusty the whole house will fall upon us. I’m not going to see that happen,’ I repeated solemnly, ‘now you’ve given birth to our first child.’
So, when there was a definite change in the weather and the sun began to shine every morning, we took a decision: we would do something with the roof.
‘Nano, dear,’ said my wife one Saturday, after breakfast, ‘let’s leave Baby with Mrs MacCann and go down to town and buy the paint today.’
Said and done. That same Saturday we took the bus at the Glebe Road stop, some steps up our street, and half an hour later were driving along the main thoroughfares of the City, beginning to crowd at that hour with Saturday morning shoppers. It was for us a new experience, in the double-decker bus, sitting upstairs on the first row of benches, sightseeing. This was a portion of the City I knew well, my office being near George Street, the main thoroughfare; but I had never been there on Saturday. Healthy-looking citizens of both sexes were seen going in and coming out of big stores, old, young and children. Many of them were migrants come from Europe, just as we two were.
We left the bus at the last stop before the terminus, which was in Circular Quay. I felt so very happy, satisfied with myself and with my wonderful family; and then (why not) satisfied with what I had achieved. Indeed, I had been accepted as a legal clerk in a law partnership in town: that is, they would give me a chance to prove myself, a three month trial. But I was sure the contract would become definite after that, satisfied with my diplomas, about my studies at Madrid University and London.
Strolling among the Sydneysiders, we reached our destination. ‘STERN’S DISPOSAL STORES’, full of useful material all for sale, tools and machine tools for building, gardening and general repair, as well as for camping, trips to the desert, moving around the state and the whole country, and all the implements, commodities for travelling, for car repairs, lighting apparatus, small cookers, things used when picnicking, ornaments, utensils, working boots, desert and mountain footwear, beach umbrellas, sticks and hooks for rough marching and climbing, torches, gas-lamps, dufflecoats and all kinds of clothing from the army and hundreds of other things, most of them having their origin in products disposed of by the army, navy or air-force.
A score of prospective purchasers, all looking for bargains among the many goods that were spread on the floor in very many large interconnecting rooms, each with two or three doors, through which a large public circulated, more as the morning advanced, we at last found what we were looking for, and purchased what we needed: a one-gallon tin of paint especially made for roof work and certain other external painting. It had a label stuck to it, all around it, telling the world that the paint inside was OX-BLOOD RED, and nothing else. We also bought a smaller tin with a kind of resin, which they told us we would need, equally with a white paper stuck around, which simply contained the words BLACK JACK, plus a bottle of turps, a few brushes, spatulas and other auxiliary material of which I have forgotten the specifics.
In other words, we two, poor innocent New Australians, would have now to cart throught the city an unbearable weight inside a big leather bag of which we each held a handle, moving among the happy multitude, which in these two hours had considerably thickened, as so had the motor traffic, a continuous come and go of double-decker buses, utility vans and motorcars progressing sometimes bumper-to-bumper, stopping at the traffic lights and zebra crossings. Fortunately, the famous square of Circular Quay, where we could catch a bus to Glebe, was only a stonethrow’s away.
The sky was perfectly blue, permanenty crossed overhead by silky-white seagulls or other marine birds, either singly or in small flocks, the sea being just a hundred feet away, the sandy beach of Sydney Cove, name given a century or more ago by Governor Phillip.
I saw the square being crossed by dozens of double-decker buses, scudding each one to its terminus; people edging in and out of the traffic, bumping with one other. Traffic that a score of children also avoided, prancing towards the columnade of concrete pylons (supporting the expressway and railway line overhead) going to catch a ferry on the waterfront jetties.
We two proceeded among them slowly, searching for the appropriate bus-stop; when we found our bus, half-exhausted, we jumped in and upstairs right to the front seat again, and with the leather-bag under our feet, we reached Glebe road, and home at the Toxteth Hotel bus-stop.
A few days before this expedition to George Street, I had prepared the way to do one day the actual painting of the roof. I had had a long talk with our neighbour (number 17) John Lee-Young, who was a tradesman by profession. That was the intention when we invited the couple, Mr and Mrs Lee-Young to have a cup of tea with us one afternoon in the back garden and I had talked to him about the roof. I wanted to learn the way one proceeded in the circumstances. He very kindly gave the needed advice and promised to lend me the needed material (beside the things I had to purchase myself.)
It was Mr Lee-Young who spoke to me of STERN’S DISPOSAL STORES. Among the things I borrowed from him, there were two ladders I did not have, and I didn’t see me buying for only one occasion.
Now, our roof was divided, as most roofs are, into two opposite descending portions, the common edge thereof being a linking top, a long protuberance of steel and lead. The base of our cottage, like all the others of the terrace, was a perfect square. I decided, from the beginning, that I would not paint the two sides of the roof at the same time, but would let a couple of weekends pass before completing the job. Either the one descending towards Ferry Street, or the other descending towards the patio or back garden.
The Saturday afternoon after our trip to Circular Quay and George Street, I clambered upon the roof, and filled upon both sides with BLACK JACK all the spots of rust that I could trace. I was lucky that the torrential rains of the early spring had cleaned the roof very well. We were to let the resin dry for about two weeks, so the real job of painting did not begin until the tenth November. I remember the date, because it happens to be that of my birthday.
The sun was already out in the east when we woke up, there was a wonderful breeze, the sky was blue and cloudless. When we began the job, after breakfast, it was nearly half past six. Nicky came with me to the back garden, we placed the longer ladder against the wall in the corner formed by the cottage and the added building of the kitchen, and I climbed up on the roof of the smaller building, which was a relatively modern construction.
Painting the two descending sides of the roof of the house proper, two perfect squares, was the purpose; but finishing just one side would be enough for this morning, the side facing the back garden. There were other smaller roofs in the property that had not attained the state of decrepitude of the main one and were not to be touched at all.
The main building had a perfectly square base of about twenty yards each side. The attachment (kitchen and shower-room) was of course much smaller, and there were besides, at the other end of the garden, an outside toilet and a very small shed.
We placed the big ladder against the wall and I climbed on to the top of the kitchen, where we deposited all the necessary material, my wife climbing to the top rung of the ladder and passing things to me, first, the other smaller ladder, which I made fast upon the protuding edge of iron and lead separating the two descending portions of the roof. The big OX-BLOOD RED tin, of course, stayed on the ground, and Nicky would be coming from time to time to refill a little tin with a wire handle containing a small quantity of paint, which I kept near me almost permanently, as well as the main brush.
I naturally began the painting sitting on the highest rung of the small ladder, which had two strong steel hooks on top. A strip of roof, until it was necessary to remove the ladder towards Number 13, and paint another strip, and thus all the morning.
Being today a Saturday, and still rather early, there was great stillness generally in the district, save for the faraway sound of the traffic and the scarcely audible yapping of dogs. Many of neighbours would at this hour still be in bed, and the main thoroughfare of the district, Glebe Road, was a bit farther away. When I got tired of sitting and twisting my body, brush in hand, and was beginning to feel my bottom rather sore, I turned round and on my knees completed the rest of the strip I had for the time being planned to paint. And that was the plan I had formed in my mind for the rest of the roof, the rest of the morning.
At a quarter to nine, changing the side of the small ladder and my position to be sitting once more on the top rung, only more towards the other side, I heard someone coming out of the front door at Number 17. I raised my eyes over the steel-and-lead edge of the roof, and gazed out at the street, Ferry Road, and had a glimpse of pretty Carolyn Lee-Young, going out past the area railing, with her tennis racket and a basket. ‘On her way to the Jubilee Park courts, for an hour’s training,’ thought I, looking at her legs .
At once a neighbour on the opposite side of the road came out to see. There was on that side of the street a terrace of two-storeyed houses, bigger and older than ours. It was a fat woman called Anne, that came out to look; she did not manifest herself however, but simply stayed there, at the entrance of her house, silently crossing her arms under her generous bosom, watching.
I had to say that young Carolyn was a cute pretty girl; she wore white tennis shoes and socks, a small white tennis dress; her hat however was very wide-brimmed because (my wife had told me) Mrs Lee-Young, who was of Scottish descent, insisted her skin must be protected from the sun; the father being half Chinese (the son of a Chinaman brought into the country long ago, as indentured labour to help build the north railway line in the desert) she had a tendency to get very dark (even though she was a real blonde.) There was that fear in the child’s mother, even the old Granny (the woman who married the Chinaman) had been of pure Scots blood, born in the Highlands.
At midmorning, to my surprise, I found I was being observed in my work by our Number 13 neighbour, who was standing in her own back yard, behind the fence, static like a statue.
The other neighbouring property, Number 17, seemed somehow to be more distant than Number 13. Though equally adjoining, we saw less of the dwellers of the latter, the Lee-Youngs, due to a combination of circumstances, mainly the fact that we had the added kitchens joined together, which caused the paling to be shorter, whereas the paling separating Numbers 13 and 15 was very long.
She was an imposing dame, Mrs MacCann was. No more than fifty-two or fifty –three, always well dressed, always most correct in her manners, smiling only slightly and as far as I could gather, well educated. Of a Friday night, when someone visited her, we heard her singing and the sound of a piano (which turned out to be a pianola.) She was a merry window indeed; but we were not, as yet among her intimate acquaintances. The meeting and the noise, on the other hand, never went beyond ten o’clock.
From where I sat, doing my job on the roof, I could only see her head and shoulders, just beyond the paling planks.
‘Good morning, Mrs MacCann!’ I greeted.
‘Morning, Mr Isquiro!’ she responded, with a smile.
At that stage we rather knew of Mrs. MacCann than knew her. Although the usual formalities between good neighbours were never absent, on both sides, whenever we came across in the street or elsewhere, there had never been between the two sides a conversation, a visit to either place , to say nothing of ever sharing a pot of tea with biscuits; or having that sort of relationship that warms the cockles of your heart, as happened among neigbours, say in Spain and England.
When Lindi-Lou was born, we waited three moths before asking her to baby-sit. She had helped occasionally with the baby for a short time but never much and always half-grumbling. Until one day something happened that froze our hearts and made us forget for ever more of Number 13 neighbour as somebody who could help if there was need.
That particular day, we wanted to go to the local cinema and see a film, ‘South Pacific’, which everybody in my office had seen and had recommended to us (for Nicky often came with Baby, those days, to have lunch with me at my office or in a nearby park). Even the girls of the typing pool had all seen it. I badly wanted to go to the pictures.
At six o’clock one evening we knocked at Numer 13 and took the step (without entering) of asking Mrs MacCann if she would baby-sit for some two hours. We sure did not ask her a second time. ‘Oh, such a responsability!’ she grumbled, most ungracefully, when we took the baby back to Number 15, after the cinema, ‘I was on tenter-hooks these three hours.’
Just now she was on the part of her property, nearest to our place, where there was a yard or two to the respective kitchen-door. Staring in silence she was, without moving, equidistant between her kitchen and the common paling.
Thinking she was waiting for me to say something, I began talking, saying things out of the blue; that’s to say, about the weather.
“Nice spring morning, is it not, Ms MacCann? There is a welcome change, I should say!”
Her eyes were fixed on mine, and I certainly do not know why I couldn’t stop my garulous babbling in the circumstances.
“So much rain these two months… you know, Mrs MacCann,’ I went on. ‘Where I come from… October is the beginning of the autumn…, the fall, while here…” I paused, I was metamorphosed into another man, speaking and thinking deeply, philosophising: ‘The fall, you see,’ I stammered, “that is how the the Americans call the autumn…, don’t they?”
After a moment reflection, she articulated, “ My word!”
“You see,” I started with renewed effort, though without enthusiasm, “since the weather has now settled… seems to have settled… you’ve seen the water as has fallen,’ I repeated, ‘this represents… for us… a welcome change’ (and now a torrent of words shot out of my dry mouth:) ‘The weather being dry, we have decided to proceed with the roof, the painting of the roof, I mean. Do you like the colour? we’ve procured the raw material, I mean painting and the rest, in a shop of disposal articles from the army and air force or the Royal Australian Navy, R A N, that is,’ a long pause, ‘and here we are, hands to the job. Some red colour for painting: OX-BLOOD red, they call it. I see you have painted yours green, apple green, I should say, is it not?’
Suddenly I stopped. She had stood all this time on the same spot, without moving, watching. And I gathered she would not answer, and felt bitter. No more! What was I doing, why did I care to speak? she was not interested, she was not listening, she probably failed to see me as a person..
I went back to my work, descending first upon the kitchen-roof, going down, filling once more the little tin. And once more upon the brink! dipping the brush in my little tin, which I held in the other hand sitting down, having actually advanced two more inches towards Number 13. I had almost forgoten her, when I heard.
“Mr. Thomas did it.” She meant her own roof, painted green, apple green.
And I was flabbergasted. I was saved from a situation which might have been catastrophic by the arrival of my wife, who had been working in an open shed right at the back of the property.
By pure chance, just at that moment, the neighbour had become talkative. ‘I bet Mr Lee-Young lent you the ladders?’ she uttered.
It was Nicky who replied for me. ‘’Mornin’ Mrs MacCann! Yes Mr Lee-Young very kindly did. We said, we must ask.’
‘I’d guessed so,’ she said thinking. ‘Mr Young-Lee. Who else?’
I thought to myself that, though she was talking to my wife, she was actually not there, those penetrating eyes were not ‘true’.’My body is lifeless matter. Not seen? She’s not seen me! even if we are together, mano-a-mano so to say. Oh, these Aussies, they destroy your ego! they look through you as if you were not there. A nothingness. Good God! As if you didn’t exist!
I was tired. That was all. And Nicky had noticed. She touched me. The neighbour had disappeared. Except that I saw her at the other end of the property, proceeding with the secateurs in her hands among some rose plants and other flowering shrubs. There again she did make a beautiful elegant figure: a new, colourful dress, excellent footwear and a hat full of artificial buds.
Nicky had now moved away, having left me a bottle with a cold drink and a couple of recommendations: ‘My dear, you must put your shirt back on at once, or your back will be burned. And promise you will keep your cap on all the time.’
She began mowing the lawn: two strips of couch-grass, one on each side of a very narrow cement path. The mower she was using was a rather primitive contrivance we had found, when we took possession of Number 15, in the small shed at the end of the property beyond the outside toilet which was a brick construction like a sentry-box; on either side of the lawn there were flower-beds, but not so beautiful or so complete as in either of the neighbours’ gardens. There were, besides, two clothes-lines.
Our mower was a sort of hollow iron cylinder made of steel bars, a wheel at either end, and a vertical wooden bar, with the handle on top. Inside the cylinder there were five steel cutters which my wife caused to turn, bending her slender body forwards as she pushed the mower onwards, while filling the air (most unfortunatly for me) with a thousand fine particles of grass, making me sneeze with hay fever. While applying my handkerchief to my nostrils I watched the elegant movement of her body, her head of hair, gracious forms, her white mariner’s cap which with the intensity of the sunlight at that hour looked bright at times reflecting the very rays of the sun. Her sleeveless white blouse, satin blue shorts, brief and tight after her pregnancy, and her rubber thongs constituted the rest of her wearing apparel.
When she had done one row, she turned round and did the other one, and I saw her smiling face. She noticed I was watching and the smile turned into a happy laugh. Just at that moment there came a child’s cry from the house. Baby was calling! and I saw my wife coming, down below, and rushing into the kitchen, without in the slightest turning her gaze upwards.
At mid-morning I had done half of the paint work, which meant I had to change my strategy, for I couldn’t now go over the already painted half when I wanted additional material. The way now was by descending upon the patio, having prepared the way for the change and transferred to the ground all that had been on the kitchen roof. The long ladder (used to climb up to the top) was now placed against the wall of the main building.
The quietness of the beginning of the day was gone. The distant noise of the traffic, the near one of some power mowers in neighbouring gardens, the hammering, sawing, machine tools in properties where the owners always made substantial repairs over the weekends, running of toilet syphons and many other things and circumstances were now altering the peace and tranquility of all the near-district.
Suddenly the loud sound of what I took to be a bronze bell was heard. I took my eyes off my job, wiped my glasses with my handkerchief, looked out. There was, a hundred yards or so ahead, a little lane separating all the back of our line of houses from an immense three-storey building with a large ground which I was now contemplating from on high, so to say: maybe the former residence of a governor or military commander in the time of the first colony. Building and park which, though only partially (I couldn’t see, for instance, what I imagined must be an extensive lawn) I saw now in all their splendour, for I had never looked at it from above, and the property was surrounded by a rather high wooden fence. I knew the building I was watching was an orphanage, and I guessed the sound I had heard was a call to the orphans, probably directing them somewhere or telling them to come out for something. Anyhow, in a moment the entire building was seething with the babble and voices of waifs and strays and pauper children, and I saw them in their grey uniforms with a line of wooden buttons, a crowd of boys stampeding out of the porticoed entrance onto the cemented threshold, a flight of stone steps to the surrounding lawn, and though I no longer could see them, I heard them shouting and imagined them running, bustling one another, and most probably dancing around a gigantic dark fig tree topping the house by a good ten feet.
The persistent noise of a drill made me change my channel of vision and I saw Mr Thomas coming out of the back-shed under construction in Mrs MacCan’s place. He looked at his own work for sometime, holding a cigarette in his hand; then he went inside again, and once more I heard the drilling, alternating with some hammering: and I went back to my painting, thinking of Mrs MacCann’s lover. I had hardly seen him once or twice when we shared (the two men) a very funny incident. About five months ago, shortly after we entered the house, one Sunday of terrible bad weather, in the evening, when things calmed down, I left the kitchen where we had been having our meal, turned round the corner of the little brick attachment building, picked up the big black dustbin, and proceeded with it along the garden path to the back gate. Coincidentally, Mr Thomas had had the same idea and it happened that in the dark we almost bumped against one another, dustins interposed. We both had come out to leave in the little back lane the garbage which the Council dustmen were to collect in the morning. The result was that we frightened one another most stupidly.
There had been just then the rumbling of faraway thunder shortly preceded by a sort of longitudinal illumination of the sky, between some cirrus-clouds, very alarmingly indeed. Still, I might have made my presentation, or at least said at least ‘Good night!’ But when I turned round, the neighbour had gone away.
At last, I was reaching the end of the painting, and I felt great satisfaction having the conscience of a job well done. I left the roof without stopping the work, just standing for the time being on one of the three top rungs of the high ladder, unhooking the smaller ladder, giving the finishing touches to the roof, and painting the border of the eaves also red.
It was where a couples of rooks had set their nest, quite uncomfortably for both Mrs MacCann and ourselves, because of the cries and cooing of the early hours. Anyhow, it was past midday, I had completed my work for the morning, when a black bird, one of those called ‘Yellowbeak’, flew towards me, shooting out of the blue, and passing close above my head seemed to be wanting to attack me very seriously. The fright made me look up and I saw tall Mr Thomas standing at the entrance of his kitchen, two or three feet away from me beyond the paling. He didn’t seem to have seen me, was taking the last puffs of his cigarette butt, and his blue eyes were fixed on the firmament.
I now only saw the upper part of his body, for though he was very tall the paling interfered: his red head, freckled face and part of his shirt. It was colourful wearing apparel, with a marked cowboy-design: all were lines on new cotton fabric, intercrossing one another, vivid red, vivid yellow, vivid blue and black.I would have said ‘Good Day’, exchanged a few words, but unless I was stupidly slow, ‘It was seen and not seen!’
When I had placed all the material against the wall, beneath a sash window, I turned round and went inside the house, wiping my hands with a cloth soaked in turps. The kitchen door had been open all morning, but I still was dazzled by the contrast between the intense sun outside and the relative freshness of the room.
When I opened my eyes completely, I saw the perfect picture of a pretty mother holding her child on her arms. As I was still holding the dirty cloth I voluntarily avoided all contact with my little one, whom my wife soon took into the bedroom to change and put down to sleep.
Moving a step or two towards the cupboard, I looked at myself in the mirror. It was an old piece of furniture which a neighbour had given us a few days after we took possession of the cottage. I looked at myself, wiping with the cloth any spot of red paint I saw on my face and neck. Afterwards I entered the shower room (a late attachment to the kitchen) and thoroughly washed myself. When I came out of the shower, Nicky was laying the table and I brought a bottle of PENFOLD’S white wine from the cupboard. We ate as the main course: a lassagne we had cooked the night before and Nicky had brought out of the fridge and warmed in the oven.
Then we too went into the bedroom to have siesta. In a corner Lindi-lou lay sound asleep, in her cot. I moved to the sash window, which I left open, but drawing the curtains together. She lay down on her shift and I was looking at her body through transparent fabric while getting rid of my trousers and shirt. Then we lay down together, talking and cuddling for a moment or two. That is to say I was talking, she did not say anything. I wondered whether it was the gauzy shift she was wearing, which I had not seen before, that made me love her all the more. It was of an immaculate soft blue hue, and I still held the perfect texture in my hand. There was some embroidered pattern around the hem.
‘Please, Nano, be gentle! Don’t hurt me.’
Her body looked so very pretty through the bluish negligé that I could not help kissing her face and lips, so dearly.
She did not reply.
‘What is it?’ I repeated, and to my utter surpprise, she replied.
‘You know she’s listening.’
It might had been the immaculate gauzy shift, her suntanned shapely thigh on the palm of my hand, her blue eyes looking up from under her brows.
‘My charming girl!’
‘It is the charm of every change of clothing.’
‘Is that why you wear this blue shift I’d never seen before?’ I asked, kissing her powerfully.
‘Not so loudly, Nano dear, I’ve told you.’
‘You know, she’s listening.’
I khew she meant Mrs MacCann. Her sash window in effect was adjoining ours, only one foot or so separated the two windows, and no physical barrier (upwards from the paling) dividing the two properties. She had once told my wife, in a somewhat indifferent tone, that there were men that kissed their wives like the savages in the jungle. And recently we had heard from a reliable source (Anne of the place opposite the road) that she had begun to criticise me, telling the dwellers of the cottages along the terrace, ‘that the New Australian her neighbour must be a hot-blooded bloke, the way he kissed.’
But if ‘Number 13’ criticised me, I also had some defenders among my Aussie neighbours, who said Mrs MacCann was a jealous bitch, who saw herself young and handsome. ‘Bah, mutton dressed as lamb!’ one of them commented. ‘Number 3’, a middle aged blond woman, ‘aggressively belle’, who boasted of being a third-generation Australian and Member of the ‘chain and bolt’, pronounced me Fair Dinkum, hard working, good-looking and green-eyed, besides. And Mrs Mac was just a slut and a thief. She was here making reference to the fact of Mrs MacCann having stolen from Mrs Laurace her lover.
In effect, Mrs MacCan, so respectful and charming a widow, had ‘a hidden cadaver in her wardrobe’. The two ladies had been the best of friends for close to twenty years, until a Mr Thomas, REMOVALIST from Wollongong, married and with three sons, came to disturb that friendly union, that love that must always reign among real chums. He had been for no less than three years the formal lover of Mrs Laurace, a divorcee, mother of five (from different unions) who had lived with the ‘removalist’ on and off so very happily. Then, during one Christmas season, infidelity! It was a sort of long weekend (four days.) Too long. Nick the Devil had ample time to cause his evil among mortals which they would rememer all their lives, He always sows great discord among humans, even between two good chums.
In a word, Mrs. Laurace thought of having a grand celebration in Number 3 and, having her lover with her, invited her best friend to the fiesta and a Maltese called Charlie. There was to be plenty of fun, alcohol and other extraordinary things. In fact, the Merry Widow of Number 13 was one too many and at the end of the festivity Mr Thomas had switched positions from one handsome mature lady to the other.
‘And would you believe it,’ Mrs Laurace was now saying to anyone who would listen. ‘My own best friend, she was already planning to steal my man, filthy hussy! Yes, she did that, big whore. Ay!’
One evening, a couple of bawling drunkards, coming from around the corner, stopped at number 1, Ferry Road, the first cottage of our terrace (which did not mean the first of the street, for there was first a big edifice with entry in Glebe Road.)
Anyhow, in our terrace, the first (or Number 1) was a shop owned by a Mr Jon Van Es. This New Australian had transformed his property into a very small commercial establishment, advancing the façade, doing away with the garden and eliminating his own portion of the area railing; then, building an upstairs room, where he lived with his wife. Long ago, they had been very rich in Batavia (as the Dutch called the capital of their south Pacific colonial empire.)
The drunkards then bawled and called one another names, getting frantic all the time, for they had been looking for the “VAN ES CORNER-SHOP” and when they found it and read the word CLOSED they became mad, thinking they were victims of an injustice. They insisted, they wanted to buy a packet of potato crisps, ‘Only something to eat!!’ they yellled, and in their agitation one of the drunkards became sick, vomiting his guts out, not on the shop door, but on the front garden of the next terrace-house, Number 3.
Innocent Mrs Laurace (it was said afterwards) was watching at the time a film of “Perry Mason”, her favourite television programme, an entertainment (TV) which was novel in Australia.
Coincidentally the Black Maria happened to pass along Ferry Road that night. The driver pulled up, two big policemen came trotting out, they got hold of the drunkards by their legs, balanced the bodies into the van, and off the black vehicle shot in the dark down towards the ferry jetty, Blackwattle Bay, and the rest of the harbour area.
It was a neighbour from lower down the terrace, Mr. Peter Rode, who going up the street at six p.m. to catch a bus (he was a senior employee at the Railways) first noticed the smell and then saw the ruin caused on Mrs Laurace’s precious garden; his loud exclamations at once brought out the lady, who guessed who had done it. And down the road she ran with two poisonous bottles of bleach lamenting and swearing. She poured the content on Mrs MacCann’s garden. Then she trotted back to Number 3 in order to continue her breakfast with her new man, Charlie the Maltese.
Mr Thomas having come to Number 13 on Friday afternoon, Mrs MacCann did not notice anything. She even prepared breakfast for herself and her lover at 9.30, before going to the lounge to draw the curtains and air the room. As she lifted the sash of the two windows, her nostrils were filled with the intense smell of bleach and her mind was filled with a very bad omen. When she saw her garden ruined, she tried to calm herself down and went back to her breakfast.
The distinguished lady waited for her lover to go to the back garden, where he usually spent most of his free time on Saturday.Then she armed herself with a long weeding hoe and a minute later she was causing havoc in all the flower beds, lawn and all the rest of Mrs Laurace’s garden.
‘Number 3’ came out and ran after her enemy, shrieking like a mad woman. They came to blows. An extraordinarily furious fight ensued, each one pulling the other’s hair, scratching faces and necks and calling one another names. Other neighbours came out to see, and at least two joined in the frey. Anne opposite the way and a lad, her next door neighbour, Johnny. The lad had actually been working on the balcony of his Granny’s house, fixing the engine of his motorcycle when he saw the two women howling and running.
Anne hated Mrs Laurace, and that is why she started calling her names, like Abbo, mixblooded and others. As for Johnny, he jumped down into the street because he hated their neighbour Anne. The lad actually pushed Mrs MacCann on the shoulder.
I personally applauded when I saw my neighbour on the ground. I was half asleep and things passed through my brain as in a dream. I remember however I patted the lad on his back, thinking that the enemies of my enemies are my friends. Besides, I had to sympathise with him. He was the one who helped me to buy my Hillman (50 pounds.) It was Johnny who took me on his bike to the second-hand car-yard in Rozelle, and helped me to choose among one hundred wrecks. Also it was he who fixed and switched the engine on with the crank. A real brave man, not yet twenty and in the way of becoming a good motor-mechanic. I was sure he’d triumph one day.
Unexpectedly there came to Ferry Road one evening a little Maltese woman, Rosy, who claimed to be married to Charlie, Mrs Laurace’s present lover. It was said she had rooms in the Toxteth Hotel. It was soon discovered she was telling fibs, and beautiful blackhaired Tessa of Glebe, married to a navy lieutenant Joe (both catholic Australians, who had lived in Europe) said that though she was lying when she said she had gone through the matrimonial ceremony with Charlie, it was correct to say she had performed the sacrament in church. With somebody else. The proof of the pudding being that at eighteen, at the end of the war, she was united to an English soldier in a valid religious ceremony, in the Catholic Cathedral of Velletta, who turned out to be a plonky who beat her every evening.
‘Yes, that is it,’ said a respectful old lady, ‘and Charlie saved her. And they migrated together to Australia, P & O. Assisted passage!’
‘What!’ cried Anne, who didn’t know, and yet both women had worked together as barmaids in the Toxteth. That’s what it is: Australia spending money for others to be paid for travelling.’
Vick Rootsey quickly stated that the Maltese were British subjects (just as the Australians were) and were entitled to live in Sydney. And an octogenarian Irish chappie, Old Flanagan, said he was no British subject. Australian he was. He had migrated in the twenties, when the independent Republic of Eire was been formed, and nobody ever would force him to take an oath of allegiance to the blinking English Queen.
‘They’re all yellow monkeys,’ I heard Johnny shout, ‘Irish, Jews, Japs and all the Dagoes and Maltese, monkeys, monkeys, little monkeys.’
And I was so very much impressed, having seen and heard the lad my friend insulting me ‘Mediterranean Dago’ that I found myself sinking, seeing strange objects and phantoms circling around, shouting NO MORE DAGOES, TO HELL WITH THEM, COMMIES OUT, that I began to feel ill.
All migrants out! Monkeys all of them! Rosy is a monkey, monkey! I saw visions, I heard noises, like in a nightmare. The little nice-looking Maltese woman was turning into a chimpanzee, there before my eyes, a hairy little devil, dark long arms, her knuckles touching the ground as she moved around, and her legs so very short.
As Rosy raised both her hairy black arms, turning and turning round, an cheeky little boy, legitimate son (duly christened in St. Catherine’s by his Aussie parents, Joe and Tessa), came skipping to hit the Maltese Monkey, who was completing her ‘zapateado.’ ‘Ay, ay, ay! Oh, mamma mia!’ I heard. And then, ‘Ay! mummurrrr, eh- eeeeyy! Aya, aya, aya, hoooo! ahhhhhh!’ Brappppppppppbrepapoo!
Little chimpanzee screaming? I woke up from my siesta.
Lindi-lou was crying, and I saw my wife practically flying in the air rushing to attend to our little princess urgent calling from the corner. ‘Ah, mummmambbbrruppmmmuma-glo! Gubble, goble gooble… glaw glaw! glo!
I put on my clothes and left the bedroom, strolled out into the garden, the whole length of the narrow cement-path and out through the back gate into little Ferry Lane, where I had parked the Hillman on Friday, and began taking from the shed at the back of the garden to transfer into the back of the car the beach umbrella, two foldable chairs and a number of other things, failing to notice that I was being observed. ‘Hey, Mister!’ I heard. I looked round. Nothing.
‘Here!’ the voice, low and sweet, came wafting out of the blue and I could determine exactly wherefrom. It was a little orphan boy. Of that I was sure. It was from the other side of the fence. I was ready to drive my Hillman up to the end of the lane, turn left and towards Ferry Road. But I stopped and turned round. Our back lane was short and narrow, but perfectly tarred. Opposite the way, all the length of our terrace and more, there was a sort of palisade, or tall wooden fence; no doors or gates; several different leafy branches of trees showing over the top edge. ’Here!’ once more I heard the call.
Slowly I went to see, lowering my regard. A knot in one of the wooden planks was missing, at the height of my thigh: channel of communication? For I saw a little human finger twiddling out. A boy. What did he want to tell me?
One knee on the ground I endeavoured to see and comprehend. He obviously, wanted to exchage thoughts with me. I said ‘Hello!’ A voice, a little finger. I touched it.
Beyond the hole a large black shining eye was observing me, two feet from my own face, an immense barrier. The eye moved away. Through the round hole between the two contiguous palings I now saw the face of a little Aborigene. And he had yellow hair, which had been cropped but not enough to stop me seeing. He wore the normal grey tunic of the orphans, that line of wooden buttons. I saw him move away, still gazing.
Around that immense tall Moreton-Bay figtree a few scores of little boys were playing. About a third were aboriginals or mixblooded. I remembered a communist friend, Murphy, had told me a sad story on the subject of those Australians of the desert; while I recalled what my comrade had told me, I looked, my eyes glued to the hole in the ‘palisade’.
… those children were in great danger. The tree beneath which they were playing, jumping, dancing, twisting, calling… was not only enormous, but the branches, long and spread out horizontally were, I guessed, immensely heavy and full of grey big leafy subbranches. One of them was about to crash down and crusg all them, blacks, whites and mixblooded to death.
… and through my tears I saw him, my new acquaintance playing with others so happily and content without knowing perhaps, this world. For I remembered what Murphy had related during a meeting of Sydney wharfies. The government had been engaged for years in the performance of an official scheme which consisted in taking from their mothers little aboriginal children in order to make of them in the long run ‘white’ Australians. It was a mistake and a fault which had been committed ‘because we had not recognised that there existed and had existed before our arrival another people, an Aboriginal Nation.
I was driving the Hillman along the back lane, past Numbers 13, 11, 9, 7, 5, 3 and to the left round the corner. A little bit of a way, the length ot the corner store, with a big building on my right whose entrance was in Glebe Road. I drove again round the corner, and on to the entrance of our property, where Nicky was waiting with the baby in a basket. I pulled up at Number 15, and while Nicky placed Lindi-lou, already asleep, on the back seat, I ran twice into the cottage to bring out a hamper basket and the ‘esky’ with a few different jugs, tins and bottles.
I had just switched the engine on again, when there came the ringing of a bell: a van coming from Glebe Road. It was the driver of MacNIVEN ICE CREAMS, who always came on Saturday in order to make an extra pound or two during the weekend. He passed by our side while we were packing, and I saw the driver reducing speed, and halting further down the road.
For the instant the sound of the little bell was heard in Ferry Road and reached the ears of the children of the terrace and the ears of the children of the terrace opposite the road, the street was full of the luckiest children in the world, prancing onwards, a shilling each in his or her hand … Pete, Gabi, Carol, Melinda, Danny, Eva, Tommy, Maria, Felix and last but not least little Lisa and her tiny brother Micky of the bandy legs… their mouths melting already with the prospect of savouring MacNiven’s vanilla icecreams and other well known delights, happy happy kidies followed by a couple of stray dogs barking, frisking, and apparently as happy as they were.
We drove past the van of MacNIVEN ICECREAMS and saw the contented expressions of so many children, and continued down the narrowing road until we reached the jetty, turned right into Wentworth Park, onwards to the City, the Harbour Bridge and the northern suburbs. We had decided to go to the very best of sands in the harbour, Balmoral Beach, which we two loved because it was there where we first went of a Sunday for a swim upon arrival in Sydney.