The New Australian
The New Australian
Fernando García Izquierdo
LE CHESNAY, France
Only the sound of motorcars and the wind break the great stillness. A hollow iron structure glides past, lofty and ugly, and a yellow crane; some glowing glass façades and, in between, a motley array of red brick houses, galvanised-iron roofs, rows of sash-windows and the tiny local stores underneath. Everywhere, on either side of the street, hanging in shop-windows and passage-ways, the same sign, CLOSED… CLOSED… CLOSED… The sky is leaden grey with a yellowish glint.
‘’Dreadful weather!’’ he remarks leaning forward.
The old man doesn’t reply or give the slightest sign of having heard.
‘Very well,’ thinks Luis Galvao, shrugging his shoulders, ‘it’s all one to me.’ And he resumes his watch of the street.
Presently he hears an old broken voice, ‘’ Very much like August,’’ a score of sounds, like a refrain, slowly uttered and – as far as the Spaniard is concerned – utterly devoid of meaning. Believing nevertheless the man has at last made up his mind to start a conversation, he bends forward once again: his lips move close to the wrinkled red nape. To no avail. The driver does not seem to have heard him; or maybe he hasn’t understood, because of the passenger‘s strong foreign accent. After that Luis Galvao sits still, trying to hide his anger with a sneer.
As the cab enters a main commercial street turning left Luis Galvai spies the shadow of a stroller moving along one of the pavements under the overhanging with the neon lights. He tries to spell the unfamiliar names, STERN’S, NOCK & KIRBY’S, WOOLWORTHS, COLES’, BEARD WATSON, DAVID JONES’, BEBARFALDS’, ANTHONY HORDEN’S… A sudden jerk, and he is flung forward. ‘’Look out, bastard!’’ he hears the driver, and sees an individual lurching drunkenly in front of the taxi, then edging in and out of the traffic. ‘’So very drunk,’’ comments Luis Galvao, ‘’and on the Day of the Lord, too!’’
At the tram-stop he sees a bearded young man trying to light a cigarette using his leather jacket as a cover; then, a pretty platinum–blond leaning her back against a large hoarding with the figure of a cowboy, SMOKE A MARLBORO. Some cypress trees in the precinct of a protestant church, JESUS IS LIGHT, and a little old lady stepping on the gravel-walk, holding her bonnet with both hands.
After a while, the cab takes a right turn, and they enter a district of winding lanes and alleyways, a confused muddle of narrow houses with here and there an open shop, a small creature squatting inside in the twilight. He observes a lonesome girl at the window of a Chinese coffee-house, gazing at the traffic. ‘Oh dear, what’s amiss my pretty maid? Shall I come down and kiss that charming frown?’
A long fence ornamented with grafitti, REFFOS GO HOME, NO MORE MIGRANTS… as well as some bills pasted over electoral propaganda, COMMIES OUT! He recalls his engagement back home, that early enthusiasm, and the struggle, the mounting difficulties, the many battles fought and lost, the regime’s clamp down on dissidents and protesters.
‘’Harris Street!’’ he hears a grunt. ‘’ Where shall I drop you?’’
His heart sinks as he beholds the deserted street, the miserable dwellings and the filth: an overturned garbage bin, some coils of dust and all the Sunday papers twisting and twirling in the wind as if performing a ritual dance.
‘’Pray, drive slowly,’’ he replies, ‘’I have an idea it must be one of those houses.’’
‘’I’ll drop ye by them houses,” the man says, and without waiting for a reply he brings the car to a standstill and looks round. Galvao pays him. They both alight. The driver opens the boot and waits. Slowly, wearily Galvao gets hold of his cases and moves on, while the other gets back into his cab and drives away.
From nearby the houses look still shabbier, more miserable. Built in a row, with no front garden, a century or so ago, they would have resembled the wall of an old fortress but for the windows and doors and the portion of the roof that can be seen from the pavement. No name or number anywhere. The doors are black or dark green or maybe navy-blue; the paint is too old to tell. In every house a dusty sash-window by the door and two more upstairs of same shape and just as dusty. A rusty iron pipe separates each dwelling from the next: in some places the pipe is altogether gone, leaving a brown vertical stain in its stead. The flower-pots still standing on the window-sills are empty or just some soil or mere dirt oozing out through the cracks.
‘Hullo!’ Something is moving over there at the entrance of the corner store. They may be able to help. But no, only a sheet of wrapping paper floating in a whirlwind by the double glass-door. Hanging within from a colourless rubber sucker there is a notice, NOW OPEN. He gives a scornful laugh; someone must have forgotten to turn the notice round when they closed the shop for the weekend. Leaving the cases in the middle of the pavement he approaches the store, presses his nose against the glass, between two stickers advertising some goods, and peeps inside. A film of dust seems to cover the lot, from the packets of breakfast cereals and jars of jam and bottles of cordial on the shelves to the brooms and kitchen utensils on the floor. There is a tin-and-copper cash register and a multitude of little wicker baskets with commodities on the counter. The whole place looks untidy, positively dirty and seemingly abandoned for good. He steps back, still gazing, sees his reflexion on the glass door: he looks unkempt and haggard, dark, bespectacled, weak. Torture in Franco’s jails and now nearly two years on the run have impressed a heavy toll upon his previously elegant appearance, and he knows it.
Of a sudden, just as he bends down to pick up the cases once more, he hears an angry voice. ‘’Hey! Wot can I do fer ye?’’ On the protruding balcony above the store, half-hidden by a weather-beaten board of VINCENT’S WITH CONFIDENCE, two rows of rotten teeth. ‘’Sye, wot d’ye bloody want?’’
The wind has died down, and a few isolated drops of rain now fall on Galvao’s glasses as he mumbles: ‘’Madam, can…. Could you tell me if…’’
The ugly creature cuts him short. ‘’Chrissake! Can’t mike out wot the hell yer talkin’ about!’’ and disappears, producing a sound like the rattling of glass in a disjointed window.
He limps on along the row of houses, hoping to see someone gazing out. Suddenly he catches sight of a pair of castanets hanging from the latch of one of the sash-windows, inside. Decidedly he goes to the door, plies the knocker and waits. Nothing happens. He tries again, and this time a flaxen-haired head peeps out.
‘’Excuse me, I am looking…’’
The vision vanishes without uttering a word. Pushing the door open Galvao steps inside. In the twilight of the small corridor he sees an army jacket and a steel helmet hanging on the wall. There is an archway at the end of the passage, and a subdued bluish light coming from the room beyond. Suddenly the sound of a rifle shot is heard, and as he crosses the threshold he perceives a queer acrid smell. Two men are sprawling in armchairs; next to them sits the female who opened the door, as quiet and still as if she had never moved from her stool. Only, her hair this time is platinum-blond, unless it be due to the reflection from the television set.
‘’Manuel!’’ Luis Galvao calls in a whisper.
One of the men turns to look round and stands up. Just then another rifle shot is heard. The man stands still for a moment, watching the scene on the set with great interest, then comes to Galvao. ‘’Aha! Here you are at last.’’ He gets hold of one of the suitcases and motions with his eyes to a flight of steps by the passage. Sitting at the foot of the stairs now appears an awfully large figure. ‘’Sorry!’’ Galvao mutters, stumbling over. But the figure does not stir: only his jaws seem to be active. And the newcomer sees two fatty fingers going in and out of a paper cone from where that weird smell he noticed as he entered emanates.
‘’What do you bring in here?’’ Manuel asks, proceeding upstairs.
‘’Nothing, some books.’’
The two men stop at the landing. Manuel taps lightly at a door and they pass into a badly-aired room with two beds, one under a small window opposite the door, the other one against one of the contiguous walls, the one on the right. Manuel sits under the window. ‘’ Well, dear,’’ he says, ‘’ this will be your bed. That one is Heribert’s. Come on, sit down.’’
‘’Is that the fellow in the armchair?’’ Luis asks, sitting down on the other bed.
‘’Oh dear, no! He is the landlord.’’
‘’The landlord? I thought the property…, why, you told me that… that I could lodge at your house.’’
‘’Did I though? Now, as I recall it, what I told you, when I’d the pleasure of making your acquaintance at the York Street Labour Exchange, was that, assuming you’d nowhere else to go, I knew of a very cheap place, my own house: that is, the place where I lodge. Though if you really want to know, I manage the place for him. You shall know why by and by. It doesn’t affect you, old chap, either way.’’
Manuel has said all this with great affectation, showing his white teeth, and smoothing now and then his Brylcreemed hair with the palm of his hand. He now stands up and goes to the door to switch the light on. Coming back he sits beside his friend. ‘’Come on,’’ he says, laying one of his hands on Galvao’s knee. ‘’Don’t pull such a face, or you’ll no longer look pretty.’’
Luis moves so that Manuel’s hand slips off. ‘’It will do for the time being,’’ he mutters without looking; for he is polishing his glasses with his handkerchief. ‘’And the other one?‘’
‘’What do you mean?’’
‘’Well, is he Heribert, the one with the fish and chips?’’
‘’Oh, not at all! Nino doesn’t even live here. He’s the greengrocer’s boy round the corner. Comes to watch television.’’
Galvao sighs with relief. ‘’I see.’’
He has been observing the small room all around, and his eyes are now fixed on a map pinned up on the single door of a built-in wardrobe, a map of Germany during the III Reich. ‘’Is he German?’’ he asks.
‘’My word! German to the backbone,’’ Manuel answers, standing up. ‘’Now, you’ll excuse me…. The Sunday programme, you know?’’
‘’Of course, of course,’’ Galvao answers, also standing up. ‘’Well, good night!’’
‘’Ta ta! Sleep tight.’’
As soon as Manuel took his leave, Luis threw himself down on his bed, rested his head on one arm on the pillow and remained still for a long while, watching the murky sky outside. The rain had now begun in earnest, producing a pattering noise on the galvanised-iron roof, not unlike the rattling of a machine gun. The light was off and as he gazed out into the night images from the past came vividly back to him, and in another minute he was shivering.
… I grieve for my dear friends, dead and gone; and for my country, under the awful shadow of fascism. Oh, sad hour! That I should have given up the fight so easily! And now a run-away seeking shelter in foreign parts, and an entirely new horizon.
… that better world I sought has turned out to be a fallacy, only this solitude is real! I shall always be alone, alone with my recollections, the vision of those younger years when I really was alive and loved. Then I believed in a revolution which never took place, or which I failed utterly to understand.
The rattling on the roof-top goes on, the low ceiling above looks menacing. And now and then the hooting of a cargo ship moving in the harbour fills his mind with past fears, sorrows, ever the same sad ideas. Boats are moving about in Port Jackson, the bay, imposing even at night: the metropolis, with its lights, in the south, and on the north side and all around the suburbs and small towns. While in the day you see the ferryboats and a multitude of other craft sailing across, from north to south, from south to north, northeast or west. Over the blue surface of the deep enormous port they glide all day on Sundays, pleasure boats too, plenty of them, the inflated sails of the big yachts like colourful balloons. Luis Galvao, however, is not thinking now of the city and its grandiose port, for his mind is thousands of miles away… “Oh, Margaret, my Margaret!” he sighs.
… we marched to the village along the calm country road with linked arms, filling the air with our songs; the first thing to be seen was the public house, its black beams on the white façade, and a multitude of tiny copperish doors and window panes reflecting the dazzling setting sun.
… the pub was full of people from the village and from the camp; and elderly woman in a colourful dress and flowered hat presided at an old piano, her fat fingers thumping the keys; she sang turning her head to the audience and the refrain was enthusiastically taken up by the audience.
... the campers danced with the villagers and I saw my Lancashire lass, joining up with a student from Uppsala I knew well, doing a slow waltz: and he embracing her tight, bending his blond head forward; and she smiling that radiant smile of hers; her calico dress floated up in the air at every turn. ‘Well done, my beauty!” Showing her shapely legs, white and pretty.
… on the road back to the camp she rests her sweet head on my shoulder, her gorgeous blond hair shining white in the moonlight. Half way between the village and the camp, there lies an unused canal with a lock. We stop short on the edge of the bulging stone-bridge, gazing at the silvery surface of the water, down below, which extends a score of yards up to the lock. And on both sides of the water hundreds of reeds standing in the moonlight, long and black like the strokes of a fine brush in a Japanese painting.
… ‘’Come, let’s go!’’ I murmur. And we stroll along the towpath, the canal on our left-hand side, some wheatfields on the right. And in the distance the camp, the lights of the “Recreation Hall”, and some voices, the campers enjoying themselves: a few playing guitars and singing.
“Oh, Margaret!” Luis Galvao cries, Iying down on his bed by the sash-window of a boarding house in Ultimo. He remembers all that, that summernight in Yorkshire so far away, that immense undefined feeling of happiness, those wheatfields bathed in moonlight, the still blue, starry sky! a foreign land so different from his native home! that Volunteer Agricultural Camp where he met the girl of his dreams, blond and wavy hair and an oval face filled with intellectual beauty.
There were twelve nissen-huts in the camp. He recalls every detail, the dining and recreation halls, two gravel paths, FEMALE QUARTERS… and MEN’S QUARTERS). “Spaniard, not your way!” she had called; and he had turned right toward his own nissen-hut. It was divination. The campers worked for ten shillings a day (sometimes a guinea, when doing piece work), and in the evening they played and danced and enjoyed life together, or marched to the village linking arms. All that had come to an end. So quickly! Now it was a shared room, a boarding house, in a Sydney district called Ultimo.
… we have just made love by the sleepy canal, on the other side of which lies the students’ and volunteer-workers’ camp, and she is now sitting on the grass, holding her legs very tight, with both arms, her chin resting meditatively on the deliciously round knees bathed by the moonlight. And I lifted my hand to caress those knees.
… I then grabbed with both hands a few blades of the grass I was lying on and had taken them to my face; for I wanted to absorb through my senses the very essence of that English night, the camp, the land… that unforgetable August of 1953.
… my love, my hopes, my utmost desires, all were there… and specially my youth! That wonderful feeling! Yes, I wanted to thoroughly rub that grass on my cheeks, my mouth, my nose!
… “So that in years to come, if I happen to be on the brink of despair, I may be able, by a stroke of will, to recall your precious image, to relive this very moment, this happy sensation, our love tonight and all the emotions we have felt together, oh Margaret! which already form part of my being forever!”
He was awakened by some strange noises like the recital of a prayer right under his bed. It turned out to be a conversation between a man and a woman going on in the room below in a language he did not understand. There was a beam of light coming from a chink in the wooden floor near his bed; and it was through this chink that the sound of voices filtered in. It was the man who did most of the talking, while the woman only whispered a monosyllable or two, after which a prolonged moan was heard.
Casting his eyes around in the almost complete darkness of the room, he saw there was a young man on a nearby bed quite still, but not asleep; for he noticed that the fellow moved his left arm, pulled on a cigarette, which he held between two fingers, and then rested his hand on the floor, describing as he did so a semicircle of reddish light with the tip of his cigarette; he repeated the operation and then stubbed out the cigarette on the wooden floor.
Luis Galvao had been feeling nervous and depressed for quite a long time and, contrary to what he had expected, he had got worse since his arrival in Australia, almost five months ago. Indeed so depressed and sick at heart had he felt of late that at times his reasoning powers seemed to fail him, and just now he did not know whether he was hearing and seeing or merely dreaming. He was going to ask something of his fellow-lodger when he was suddenly overtaken by a feeling of nausea. He sprang up very swiftly and rushed out of the room. At the far end of the landing there was a flight of two or three steps and an open door. He tumbled up the steps and switched on the light. On the checker-patterned vinyl floor legions of cockroaches scampered in all directions as Galvao sank on his knees, embracing the toilet bowl, vomiting violently for about a quarter of an hour. As he was trudging back to the bedroom he was stopped short by a shrill and piercing shriek, followed by a roar of laughter, both coming from the floor below. He peered down over the banister. Through the kitchen door, slightly ajar, white neon light poured out, and with it the smell of burnt meat. He decided to go down and make himself a tisane or something. From an electric clock on the kitchen wall, he noticed that it was nearly five o’clock. Pushing the door wide open he stepped inside. A man and a woman were in the room, the one having breakfast, the other serving him. Luis walked up to the cupboard, muttering a subdued ‘’Good morning !’’ which received no reply. Obviously the landord, and the woman must be his wife.
At that the landlord stood up, a big bear of a man with bushy eyebrows that stuck up like antennae. Still gazing at the couple, Luis Galvao saw the bear pick up a bottle of vodka from the table, fill a small glass, and toss it off. The man then grabbed a helmet from a hook on the wall and stalked out of the house. A moment later the sound of an engine was heard, soon the sound grew fainter and died out.
Luis Galvao turned to the landlady, who was now slouching along the wall of the clock as if possessed by a strong fear of being touched by her lodger, who was confronting her.
‘’Don’t go, please,’’ he whispered, holding her by the arm: her had was trembling.
She stood still, piercingly staring into Galvao’s eyes. It was then that, in the brightness of the neon light, he noticed how strange her eyes looked: large and attractive in a way, but they were of different colours, one heavenly blue and the other hazel-brown. Only once before in his life had Galvao encountered the phenomenon; and even then the colours were not so dissimilar, just blue and green.
“Please, don’t!” he whispered again. For she had burst into tears.
The lady’s hand was trembling in his grasp, when she gave a sudden pull, scuttled out of the kitchen and dashed into a bedroom across the passage.
For a few moments Luis Galvao did not move; he simply looked quite perplexed at the door through which she had gone. Then he sat down, putting on the table a mug with some leaves and a kettle of boiling water. He had hardly begun to drink his tisane when he heard the sound of music coming from somewhere on the ground floor of the house; the woman must be playing the violin. He recognised the music, “Swedish Rhapsody.”
Lus Galvao stayed listening, resting his head on his forearm on the table, overcome. For the music spoke directly to his heart, bringing back memories from the past.
… that Summer ’53. I had thought I had lost her to my friend Sven, a fellow who slept in the same nissen-hut as I; and heard her telling me, just an hour later: “it’s you, Luis, I love with all my heart.
… Coronation Year. A new Monarch was crowned just as I arrived, Elizabeth II Regina. In Spain, until then, the regime had kept the frontiers tightly closed. But in the spring of that year, I had been able to obtain a passport and corresponding exit visa… allowed to embark upon that great adventure…
And now this failure, this feeling of absence and lost love. A run-away who had seen his dear Margaret fall in the hands of the Guardia Civil, the infamous paramilitary forces of the regime. “It wasn’t my fault!’’ he wailed.
Luis Gavao wanted to cry: he felt that gnawing pain; he had not done as much as he could… anyway, he had lost that driving force. Before he fell in the hands of the fascist forces he believed. Now he was scared, he couldn’t deny that. At the crucial moment he had faltered and cried like a baby, showing his real nature. Love had ceased to be all-important, as had loyalty to a cause he had once thought immortal… Only preservation of his own self had counted in the end, could now be of any consequence in a troubled world where nothing was left but greed.
‘’Goodness gracious!’’ he hears a man coming in.
The music has ceased. There is only the rattling of the rain on the roof of the porch outside the kitchen door.
‘’I say, Luis, what are you doing here in that apparel? You look horrible.’’
Galvao gazes up. Manuel stands before him clean-shaven and smelling of eau-de-cologne, that sugary smile of his playing on his rather sensual lips. ‘’ Ah, hell!’’ he exclaims, ‘’haven’t you heard there’s been a fight? Are you all deaf in this house, or crazy or what?’’
‘’Oh dear, I see what you mean!” Manuel laughs. “Yes, quite horrible, but don’t you worry; he’s left for the bush. This happens only rarely, you know, and of course you too will get used to it.’’ He has begun preparing his breakfast very methodically, lighting the cooker, getting out a frying-pan, a pot and a kettle. He now stands by his friend, polishing with a serviette his crockery and cutlery as he lays his things on the table, then, giving his back to Luis, starts cooking.
‘’Why didn’t you tell me… when we met…, well, that I’d be coming to such an odd place?’’
‘’Odd, you say. My dear Luis, everybody‘s odd, one way or another, in this… world of ours (I was going to say Vale of Tears.) Le droit à la difference, as we said in the Latin Quarter. I guess you too have lived in Paris, haven’t you?’’
Galvao does not reply. Instead he goes on: ‘’But they’re all nuts. The German upstairs too. And have you seen the woman’s eyes?’’
‘’Of course I have. So what?’’ Manuel says, bringing forward his breakfast to the table. ‘’Luis, I’m making some coffee, will you join me, or what can I offer you?’’
After a rather long pause, Galvao starts again: ‘’And… and he treats her as a slave, he does. Doesn’t anybody…’’
‘’Wait a momo,’’ Manuel says, raising his hand. ‘’I feel you are a little squeamish. There are quarrels in the best of families, absolutely. As for you and me, we aren’t to interfere, full stop.’’ He pats the other on the cheek. ‘’No, don’t get annoyed. I’ve the weakness of loving my friends, you see. Though, of course, you’re not altogether wrong about Krappov; he’s a savage bear, that’s for sure.’’
‘’Is that the name, Krap-off?’’
‘’That is his name, Leonidas Krappov, two pees,’’ Manuel giggles, ‘’straight out from the Russian steppe. Oh, dear, no! Not Russian, but Ukrainian (not the same.) I mustn’t make that mistake again, or he’ll smother me.’’
‘’A bear’s hug,’’ Luis sniggers, responding to his friend’s rather comic mood.
Manuel now sits down and adds, rather peevishly: ‘’As for his wife, that silly romping thing, what can I tell you? You’ve seen her, nothing to speak of, full stop.’’
‘’Well, I find her quite interesting and, to tell the truth, beautiful. I mean… if only she would comb herself and…
‘’Beautiful? Well, well, well! An uglier creature would be difficult to imagine. But, what is happening here? Okay, you go on, make eyes at her and all that sort of thing; but be careful, my dear, that you don’t steal her heart, for you’ll be in trouble if you do, absolutely.’’
‘’In trouble? Why, Krappoff?’’
‘’Krappov, yes. You’ve seen the bear. But what you don’t know is that he’s a member of a group of chums training out there.’’
‘’In the bush, you mean?’’
‘’The outback yes, all employed by some big concern, a mine or a factory, I don’t know; but their real calling is, well, firearms. Now, about this Leonidas, I believe that during the war – don’t take me literally in this – he was a a warden or foreman or something in a concentration camp, you know. The ideal nazi sort of thing. And when he learned that the Red Army was approaching he ran for his life. And listen to this, he’d got his big hands so stained with blood that not even the Americans wanted him; and from Orleans, where he’d landed somehow, they spirited him away. Through the Pyrenees, can you imagine? And you know, the Church did the rest (for he’s a Roman Catholic, you see.) He crossed our dear country, a stopover in Gibraltar, and hence to Australia.’’
‘’And his wife?’’
‘’The missus is indifferent. In politics, I mean, if that’s what you want to know. As for the rest, you see,’’ Manuel went on, touching his forehead with two fingers, ‘’not much up here.’’
‘’She plays the violin well.’’
Manuel is now polishing his thick red lips with the tip of his serviette; then placing his other hand on his friend’s shoulder he says in a maudlin tone: ‘‘I see, my lovely boy, that you too find her fascinating. What the devil can this mean?’’
‘’Ah, never mind, let’s leave it? She’s not worth noticing, really.’’
‘’All the same, pray tell me more about her.’’
‘’Since you insist. It’ll soon be told. She was once upon a time, well, a famous violin player, a child prodigy, that sort of thing. By the way, would you guess… she’s just a girl, why!, twenty-two or twenty-three, that sort of age.’’
‘’Quite possible…, I mean, well she could be, why not? Only… she looks so haggard and melancholy.’’
‘’She was very ill,’’ Manuel says matter-of-factedly, and stands up. After a pause, he adds, rather mysteriously: ‘’Callan Park.’’
‘’Gosh! In the mental hospital?’’ Luis exclaims, taken aback.
‘’Exactly. Ain’t I telling you she’s stark mad? And thank God she came across Krappov, who was at the time a male-nurse at the hospital. Without him she would still be locked up there, I’m assured.’’
‘’You seem to know him well?’’
‘’Enough to make me fear him. Though on the other hand he does appreciate my work here, likes me, you see. He’s made me his bailiff for the property, as I believe I’ve already told you, haven’t I?’’
‘’And the lady, is she Ukrainian too?’’
Manuel was now arranging his things in the communal fridge and upon the shelves. ‘’That’s right,’’ he answers without looking. ‘’And that’s why something tickled the scoundrel’s heart. Sort of fatherly love, I suppose. Be it as it may, the case is that he took her to the outback and to the altar as they say. Then her health began to deteriorate once again. Life in the bush didn’t suit the young princess, you see. And that’s why he bought this property.’’
‘’How did you come to meet this… Krappov?’’
‘’Ah that!’’ Manuel answers, making to go. ‘’Look, I’ll tell you about it some other time.’’
‘’In two words, please, tell me now in two words.’’
‘’I’ve to be at work at eight. But I’ll tell you, in two sentences, eh? Firstly, when I escaped from the old country (for I also ran away, though not for the same reasons as you – this bracket doesn’t count), I went to live in the outback and made friends there. Second sentence: why I went to the outback is… well, trying to obtain some experience, I’m a vet, you see, or at least I was in the old country. Bye-bye! Have to go.’’
‘’Me too. Wait a moment, and we’ll go out together. In ten minutes I’ll be ready.”
“I can’t. So long.”
The rain goes on, ceaselessly, monotonously. Inside the air is grey, and there is the added monotony of a dozen large machines in full swing. A few men are lurching about, appendages to the machines some of them, silent and nearly all static. That is to say, there is no human communication between them. Indeed there could not be, for the noise is unbearable. Outside there is only the rain as far as a young man in overalls, with a snuffling nose, who is watching the scene from a corner, can judge. Fragments of broken flasks and glass containers are scattered on the floor at his feet.
“Luigi amico,” he half-hears someone nearby.
Luis goes on gazing around him with dizzy eyes. On a conveyor belt, at some distance from his corner, a row of cardboard boxes are moving, like in a parade, unendedlessly. Two silhouettes are glued to the conveyor, on either side, performing some operations, as two elements in a doll’s house. At this end of the conveyor, where the boxes are constantly arriving, two more silhouettes operating some fine contrivances, now sealing the boxes, now piling them up on wooden trays, carried away on tiny electric vehicles to the lorries waiting outside in the rain. There is a constant dought all around.
It is a small white-haired man (leaning on a broom like himself), saying something in Italian.
“It’s alright!” Luis pronounces rather loudly.
The old man has begun telling Galvao something the latter cannot hear or understand. As the machines stop, all of a sudden, the man’s treble voice sounds unnaturally high…, ‘’alora Lei cognosce l’Italia?’’ Floating shadows shamble past the two cleaners like phantoms in the moist twilight. ‘’Stop jabbering!’’ one of them shouts; and the others chime in, ‘’Stop yer bloody lingo!’’ But without rant or malice: they are giving a piece of advice to two recalcitrant New Australians who do not adapt themselves to the ways of the inhabitants of the land.
Luis Galvao goes out at lunch-time, dashes to a nearby telephone booth, protecting his head from the rain with the back of his jacket.
‘’ Hallo! I’m ringing in connection…’’
‘’What’s that, what’s that?’’ comes the voice of an asthmatic old person at the other end of the line.
‘’I was saying I am ringing regarding your advertisment in The Herald…’’
The same asthmatic voice breaking in: ‘‘Can’t catch a word of what yer saying.’’
‘’Right,’’ Galvao articulates, ‘’Warren and Warren Law Offices?’’
‘’I am a graduate in law ringing in connection with this morning’s ad in The Sydney Morning Herald about a legal clerk. Galvao is the name, G. A. L….’’
He is interrupted by a few loud coughs, and then: ‘’Say that again!’’
‘’I was spelling my name, G.A.L.V. … ‘’
New interruption: ‘’Hang on, will you?’’; and at the same time a noise of banging; then the old man’s muffled voice: ‘’Bobby… a New Australian… Herald…’’
Next, another voice, a young man’s this time. ‘’We’re sorry, sir. There must be a misunderstanding. Very sorry.’’ And the sound of the phone being hung up.
It is his third attempt at finding a decent job! Still holding the receiver in his hand, and gaping in despair, he starts kicking the walls of the cabin like a madman. An old man stops by. ‘’Look here, bold chap, stop that, will you?’’ Galvao hears. He makes a cone with the newspaper, sets it upon the old man’s pate, shouting, ‘’For the rain, mate !’’, turns round, and runs back to the factory.
He has his own nook in the warehouse, where he hides from the others during the lunch break. Sitting on a cardboard box full of goods, he opens a packet of sandwiches and starts eating, a thermos flask at his feet. He is shaking nervously, and after a while he stands up and paces about between some lofty walls made up of cardboard boxes, heavy with tins of merchandise.
Always that smell of bleach and other chemicals which cause his eyes to smart and his nose to itch. The tapping of the rain on the galvanised-iron roof above goes on.
In the afternoon, after four more hours’ work, Luis staggers out of the factory beside old Bruno, the other cleaner, and half-a-dozen fellow-workers all silently trudging along, heads bent down, arms hanging limply by their sides. There is a line of redbrick buildings on the left side of the street which receive at the moment the last rays of the setting sun, causing the sash-windows on the top floors to glitter. And not a sign of life anywhere. Anyway, the doors of the houses, which are black and massive, are closed. In some of the buildings there appears a trade name: VINCENT’S, BUSHELLS, ARNOTT’S… On his right he sees the stone façades of another kind, lofty and dark, with the triangular frontispieces on top, displaying the names in black, carved in white stone. They are the old warehouses. The street lamps are unlit, and in most cases the enormous wooden gates are closed and locked, big chain and padlock; but when by chance a gate is still open he can catch a glimpse of the sea through a more or less shadowy inside which is followed by a second opening at the other end; and then some cranes and girders come to sight, a bit of the harbour, and the black funnels of a ship or two, some curly snakes of smoke flying high here and there. This and the several port-lights glimmering in the gathering fog transform, for him, the moving silhouettes of the wharfies in the distance into something mysterious and queer.
And as is usual with Luis Galvao, coming at night from the factory into a badly illuminated street, the mystery is compounded in his mind by his melancholy and that rather strange character of his, recollecting now his dream of a journey to the South Seas as when he was embarking on the SS HIMALAYA, at Southampton, seven months before.
A grey stone wall now separates him from those fantastic visions of many masts and funnels, the wharfies moving about, and the lights of the Pyrmont quays; for between the warehouses there are concrete separations; and only where these separations are lacking can Luis see the docks with greater clarity. There is a liner at one of the ocean terminals. Maybe it has just arrived, as there is great activity around that area. The liner, with the lighted portholes and smoking funnels, looks imposing, makes him dream; and the white lights of the several decks also show some movement of people. The quay is in the yellow light of the port, with a tall lamppost here and there.
He sees his mates again, at the end of the ever-darkening street (specially as the evening has now given way to absolute night.) They all turn right, and he hurries up, entering likewise the main road to Pyrmont, a suburb next to the City. The roadway is full of vehicles as Luis begins to cross the iron bridge which spans Darling Harbour from south to north (the harbour that contains the Pyrmont Terminals and which he has had until now on his right.) The double-decker buses and the Juggernaut lorries, which at that hour fill the narrow way, cause the whole structure to tremble, and he holds instinctively onto the grimy iron rail, gazing at the smooth dark surface of the water below, dotted with the reflection of the yellow lights of jetties and docks, all in full activity at that hour. He feels nervous as his eyes turn upon the now foggy stretch of sea going to join the bigger bay of Port Jackson, hardly visible in the distance. The City lights, on the right, show up in the mist over the long row of warehouses he’s just passed. Here and there a HARBOUR POLICE launch and little boats splashing noisily in the water cause the now shiny surface to ripple. Behind he hears the voices of working girls and drunken labourers as they cross the bridge on the kerb probably on their way home to have tea.
He has to run to catch up with his mates and soon sees Bruno a few yards ahead, waiting for him. On the background the Pyrmony Power Station, columns of white smoke ascending to the dark sky. The two friends cross the street, avoiding the traffic, which is dense at that hour. At the entrance of a well-illuminated building, the PYRMONT HOTEL, in green and red neon lights appear on the façade. Eventually they all pass into a hall full of light and tobacco smoke, and that curious smell of decomposed liquor associated with fun in public houses. But again he finds himself alone in a short corridor at the end of which there is a large opening. The light and noise of the hall holds him for a few moments. The place is full of men, each one holding a glass and most of them shouting and laughing. Along a long wall he sees an abundant array of electronic machines; some quiet figures are gazing at circles and numbers, a mug of beer in one hand and the other activating a lever: the sudden clinking noise of falling copper-coins is heard.
Making his way through a crowd of men, Galvao reaches the bronze-and-walnut counter and shouts for a beer. The voluminous dyed-blond barmaid doesn’t understand.
‘’Can’t mike out wot you’s sying!’’ she shrieks, her extraordinarily handsome bosom nearly touching the bar.
‘’A middy, please!’’ he shouts, holding out a half-crown coin.
Leaning against the far wall, under some modern oil paintings, the noise of the poker-machines and the rattling of the copper cash-register in his brain, he closes his eyes.
… Margaret! I’d gone to Principe Pio station. After nine months of separation my girl-friend was coming, at last: she was to spend a Sabbatical year in Madrid, officially to improve her Spanish, in reality to be near me. On New Year’s Eve we went with the Madrileños to the Puerta del Sol, to hear the chimes of the Ministerio clock welcoming 1956 in. We then decided to take a stroll in the old city and stopped before a small decrepit house with a tavern on the ground floor, listening to a pasodoble: a little gypsy-looking man was playing a barrel organ inside, and some couples were dancing between the tables. They invited us to go in, and I took her divine body in my arms and we too started dancing. I didn’t know how to dance, but she loved it, she said.
… A few days later the first serious challenge against the regime took place. It began at the Law Faculty and soon the riots spread throughout the city; the repression that followed was terrible…
He is startled by a soft touch on his shoulder: ‘’Si sente malatto, spagnolo?’’ (It is his Italian friend, who thinks he must have fallen ill.)
‘’No, Bruno,’’ he replies, ‘’nothing the matter. I must go now.’’
He staggers along under the persistent drizzle, all the way to Harris Street, the main street of an old working-class district named Ultimo. Again columns of smoke coming from the Power Station, but this time a third thin black chimney-like tube is ejecting a little reddish flame he had not noticed before.
With his hands in his pockets he proceeds at a brisk pace along the terrace houses. Before taking the left turn which the street itself makes, he gazes back at the red flame, pressing his wet unshaven chin against his right shoulder, as in horror. His flannel jacket is thoroughly wet, for it is drizzling now.
The stone façades look grey and damp. No garden or area railing anywhere, and as he treads near the sash-windows, thinking to protect himself from the rain, he turns his gaze left. Most of the windows are open and, where the curtains are propped aside, he perceives that brownish-blue light which is new to Australia (on a chest of drawers, in a corner, the square box and that characteristic flickering), and some human shadows seated quietly around.
He trudges despondently on, always meditating, thinking of the past (the rain has intensified, and he hunches his shoulders.) Perhaps he should have stayed in the old country and tried to join the administration. A job for life. When you cannot beat them, join them. To hell with everything else. What is to be done? Nothing! To forget, that is all, to forget about a better life, a revolution that never came... And now hiding!… on the run all his life.
He enters the boarding-house. At the end of the dark passage the usual bluish light too, coming from the lounge on the left: Manuel and Nino are watching the programme, holding hands and laughing. Leaving his wet gabardine and cap on the coat-stand Luis Galvao passes on into the well illuminated kitchen, where the landlady is having her dinner. He steps up to the fridge and gets hold of a plastic box with some letters on a bit of elastoplast, then sits down, facing the young woman.
She at once rose from her seat with the obvious intention of making a dash to the door; but Galvao clasped her trembling hand in his, saying:
‘’Please, do sit down and finish your meal; I’ll only stay a minute.’’
She quickly returned to her seat, tossing her short blond hair as she did so. Then, but for her hands and wrists, she did not move at all, her gaze nearly always fixed upon her side of the table, her brow bent and her eyes hidden under her long dark eyelashes. She wore a loose open dress of some silky material.
After going again to the fridge to get out a bottle of milk (marked, like the box, with his initials), he returned to the table. Neither of them spoke, until suddenly and unexpectedly the lady pronounced in a fine musical voice, her eyes resting for a few seconds on his face.
‘’Is that what you always have for dinner?’’
‘’Oh no, not always, Mrs Krappov!’’ he said with affection. ‘’I intend to do some cooking, you see, once I put myself…’’ (he paused, for the young woman was now looking with nervous agitation) ‘’on the right track. I mean shopping, cooking and all that: do I make myself understood?’’ He paused again; but she only nodded, and in order not to stifle a conversation just begun he went on: ‘’Otherwise, you see, Mrs. Krappov, I might go to a restaurant.’’
‘’Don’t call me by that name all the time,’’ she spat the words out, ‘’I hate him.’’
‘’You’re married to him, aren’t you?’’
She raised her eyes to his face once again and said, stamping her foot upon the floor like a child. ‘’But I didn’t want to marry him, I didn’t!’’ She hid her face in her hands and cried: ‘’He forced me into it. Oh, they are horrible people!’’
Hearing her cry, the lodger felt a world of conflicting emotions. He liked her, for she reminded him of his lost love, despite that weird gaze. With one exception (when she spoke of her husband), her voice was quiet and her manners quite refined; but she was trembling and whimpering all the time. He had been looking forward so much to this encounter, face to face! Now he did not know what to do.
She had both hands on the table, palms down. He hesitated, then touched her fingers, slightly, but all the same caressingly, looking for an opportunity to talk to her, to start pehaps a conversation about her violin-playing. She might even play again that Swedish piece, this time specially for him.
Suddenly, she left off crying and said: ‘’You haven’t asked me yet what my name is.’’ And she was suddenly full of excitement
‘’Well, what is it ?’’ he asked.
‘’Malgorata,’’ she answered, and after a pause: ‘‘He doesn’t let me play. Out of spite he does it.’’ Her eyes flashed with anger, and Galvao thought she looked beautiful in her tremulousness.
He had noticed with pleasure and surprise that she had combed her short blond hair and used mascara and lipstick.
‘’Malgorata,’’ he said, ‘’I heard you play the violin this morning,‘’ and as he met her questioning look, he added, ‘’most beautifully.’’
She smiled and there was a glow on her cheeks. He got hold of one of her hands: a faint perfume arose from her wrist.
‘’I won a big prize,’’ she uttered after a little while, and as she smiled he caught a glimpse of a row of white teeth.
“You see?” he said, trying to hold her hand, which she withdrew.
There was a moment’s silence, after which, he added: ‘’Why did you give it up?’’
‘’At first I was playing with the orchestra of my home town,” she answered, twisting her fingers, and… and did some trips abroad.’’
“Good,” he said, simply.
And she added more calmly, though from time to time she still took one hand to her mouth and bit her nails most furiously.
‘’In Manchester a man rang me at the hotel…
(Manchester, the city where my girlfriend was born! I hardly heard what Margorata was saying, when of a sudden I felt the touch of her sweet hand.)
“… and I went to see them…”
“I’m not sure. They were three, only the first one spoke Russian, the voice on the telephone.”
“And they offered me, oh lots of things!, and I played then with a big American orchestra. England, New York, Canada, Melbourne, Sydney and then… ‘’ the tears once more trickled from her eyes.
‘’And then?’’ Galvao asked, getting hold of her hand again, soothing her.
‘’They sent me to that hospital!’ she said in a wailing tone.
There was a turn of the conversation, in that Galvao thought of the political situation in his home country, and suddenly became didactic.
‘’It happens to the lot of us, Malgorata,” he said, raising his voice. “ We choose risk, adventure.’’
‘’No, not adventure. It was my career, you see,” she said, shaking, “I wanted to improve my playing, being confronted to… to the other great artists. I wanted to have experience. And I… I did succeed; for eighteen months or a year, I don’t remember, I did succeed. Everyone acclaimed me, you see, I was sure of the triumph,’’ she wailed, looking at him. And she had the most beautiful two rows of pearly teeth Galvao had ever seen.
‘’Come on, come on!’’ Galvao said, releasing her hand to put his arm around her. ‘’They acclaimed you and paid you well, perhaps. Good money, right?’’
‘’Money too. But it wasn’t that which was important.’’
Luis Galvao once more took hold of her hand.
‘’Why did you leave the Soviet Union?” he asked, “hadn’t you triumphed already there?’’
‘’But it was not my triumph.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t my triumph!” she repeated. “And I don’t know why I left. Not for politics. I don’t care about politics.”
“I still don’t understand. You played overthere. A big orchestra. You are young, what other triumph did you expect? And, I think… your home town. You probably knew everybody like… like a team.”
“But, you see, I couldn’t be myself, I’ve told you,” she said vehemently. “I wanted to play my own music, I mean, develop my own… my style: not to be stifled, you know. It is impossible over there. You… you can’t become a great artist unless. Oh, they… they suppress your… your individuality… yes, they do! Oh, they are horrible, horrible!”
Galvao shook his head.
“You see,” she began, shaking all over, “the violin is all I have in life, my all. Oh, it meant so much to me, the violin meant so much to me… always… so much to me… it’s my whole life, my whole life, my whole life !’’ She broke into bitter desperate weeping, her elbows on the table, her face on the palms of her trembling hands. And when she had done with weeping, she stood up and went rushing out of the kitchen into her bedroom across the passage.