Extraordinary girl


Reg Taylor is a Ph.D student at Adelaide University, where he is writing a novel on some of the survivors of the New Australia experiment as part of his thesis.

by Reg Taylor

She came up to them on the train and asked for a light, and when he told her she was too young to smoke she said, ‘I’m fifteen, I’ll be sixteen on New Years’ Day.’ She was about five feet two, with a small sweet face, and after she’d had a good look at them she stayed with them for the rest of the trip.

She took out a bottle of lemonade and asked, ‘Have you seen British bottles of pop?’ and invited them to take a swig. She opened a tin and said, ‘Have you tried McVities biscuits…? Help yourself.’ She gave George two biros and a pencil with her name stamped on it. ‘I’m Samantha, like her that used to be on page three in The Mirror.’ Then, when the drinks trolley came round she bought them all one of the big cans of English beer.

When they had to get out she said, ‘Get by yer…I’ll get a guard,’ and ordered a senior and not all that firm looking servant of British Rail to help with their bags. ‘It’ll do him good,’ she said.

When they parted she kissed Adriana on both cheeks and held on to George for a little while, her scent overlain with just a hint of B.O. (‘in the English way?’ he wondered) before she scurried off, swigging her can.

‘I hope she catches her train,’ Adriana said. ‘Otherwise we might have to adopt her.’

On their next part of their journey, in a quiet that seemed rather dull, he studied the late autumn landscape passing outside; past its seasonal best but, as he reminded Adriana, ‘It’s Thomas Hardy country.’

‘Oh yeah?’

She had been determinedly unimpressed by anything English from the time they arrived, he knew. She was only here to please him. She kept drawing invidious comparisons between London monuments and Italy’s. Picking her way through the minefield of English cuisine she recoiled from the sight of an otherwise handsome black lady behind a counter delving deep into salad greenery with entaloned hands. After they’d been out to eat at an Indian restaurant she encouraged him to be sick after he felt something was sitting dodgily in his stomach. (The retching took a lot out of him.) She hated the mean spirited dimensions of the hotels’ beds and their plumbing; she returned, visibly shaken, from a visit to the public toilets. When they were out in the street she said, ‘This joint stinks.’

She wasn’t a lot of fun. Even after they caught the night ferry to Harwich to go to Holland she insisted on sitting down to dine during the departure and he missed any chance of inhabiting what might have been passing salt marshes with the ghosts of prison hulks. In reprisal he sat up drinking with a fellow passenger until late, and on the train next day spent an age in the toilet considering whether he should die or just pass out, until cold air from an open window revived him. At the next stop he got off to buy a can of Coca-Cola and then had to run back to the train and spend five minutes tracking down their seats. Adriana had tears of vexation in her eyes when he finally caught up with her. She shook him by the shoulders. ‘Don’t do that to me…’

She was always dragging him back from the well secured edges of look-outs and demanding he take her hand in crowds, and searching the placidest of sea surfaces for evidence of rips and other menaces. ‘I have to watch you like a hawk,’ she honestly believed.

He had been forewarned of Amsterdam and looked for signs of moral decay in the faces of the broad browed flaxen haired girls cycling about the city, breasts jostling of innocent necessity in the vigour of their owners’ pursuit…but they were not in Amsterdam.

‘I really do need to lie down,’ he reminded Adriana.

‘Just let me breathe a bit first,’ she said.

Even though her nephew Claudio had warned them that the Dutch would ‘rip even the hairs off your arse,’ she was happy. When they were having coffee in bed the next morning she kissed him emphatically to express her raised spirits.

'Aren’t you glad to be out of that awful place?’ she said – meaning England. ‘You must be. After all these years with me you have to be a little bit Italian.’

And from the moment they’d landed this time he felt he was; its mingled scents of diesel and coffee and cigarettes and women’s perfume were all familiar and welcome to him; while Claudio’s apartment, where they always stayed, felt like a second home.

In winter, waking to a hush outside which seemed to encourage the local species of dove’s catarrhal wheezing (quite different from its Australian cousins, but just as inane) he’d seen from the balcony the street and the roofs opposite satisfactorily dusted with snow. While in spring he was able to watch the neighbours emerging from a kind of dormancy to plant their veggies in their gardens underneath.

In summer, when each stifling day succeeded another and irritation settled like grit in the greasy air, and everyone who could had fled to the beaches or the mountains, he’d watched those left behind wearing the badge of failure as they went through the discontented motions of their day until, long before sunset, the sun gave up and slumped like a gory pearl in the murky sky.

Now, in autumn, with the great ribbed chalices of plane trees outside unburdened, he found he could look right into the windows of the homes opposite (some of them, he noticed, in a rather daring break with traditional white, repainted in recent years in crisp lemon yellows and starling’s-egg blues) until, one morning, while gazing innocently enough in that direction, he was caught out by a woman’s face on the same second floor level staring back at him – before she pulled her curtain closed. Making him wonder what past upheavals on this side of the road might have inspired her interest.

Because Anna, Claudio’s wife, was no longer there. While Claudio’s mostly melancholy running commentary to his aunty about the separation dwelt more in sorrow than in anger on his ex-wife’s improvidence, insensitivity, selfishness and so on, it was hard to imagine that the breakdown of their union would have been at all reasonable. And with her leaving, some of the spirit of the house had gone too.

Before she left, when they all went out together on one of the excursions Claudio had decided on, or just to eat, shushing and nudging each other exaggeratedly on the marbled stairs,  for the other tenants’ sake they used to pass the florist’s shop at the bottom, wondering as ever if its never visible owner had finally succumbed to the exhalations of his heady stock. Then, if they sidestepped the temptations of the gelataria, they had a choice between the pizza place over the road, or the bar almost at their feet. It was like almost all of its kind in Italy. The cosy glows were refuges, romances in the dark. Few of them ever seemed to be really busy, they stayed open for ridiculously long hours; their proprietors, while unfailingly courteous, often seemed to be suffering from terminal depression as a consequence. And yet their never off-puttingly spotless premises remained full of good things, light and warmth…cosseted with a drink in any one of them he felt that he was in a way – special – and not just some foreign blow-in off the street.

But on this trip there’d been a lot less fun. Claudio appeared preoccupied and occasionally sunk in a slightly theatrical, non-Australian gloom. On George’s way to the toilet late at night from the matrimonial bed Claudio had surrendered to them, he’d seen the wakeful flicker of TV from the lounge. Even his brought up-not-to-be-nosy eye was drawn to the kitchen’s pile of bills.

Claudio was still tirelessly devoted to his zia, but he was spending increasingly long periods away from home, returning sometimes after having driven as much as a thousand kilometres in the day, without seeming too enriched. While still insisting on cooking for them (‘Tired? No, I’m not tired,’ he’d disown, while dicing with infinite precision vegetables into wafers for some dish) there was an air of strain in the house – to which they began to feel prisoners.

One too  many cooped up days made up their minds: with no real plans they left an apologetic note and went off in the middle of a cloudburst, almost running, with mingled feelings of relief and guilt.

Steaming exultantly they got on a train, which took them at first through flat fields of grapes and pears and peaches– country, apart from its architecture, very much like his old Riverland home, as he pointed out.

‘Don’t talk to me please about that God forsaken place,’ Adriana protested. Their one visit there had not been a success (‘Stinking hot…filthy flies…’ she kept saying) until they went for dinner at the local club next to their motel. Unpromisingly, there was a Greek wedding going on, and they were served up the ruins of its very indifferent feast. ‘This is a nightmare,’ Adriana was lamenting when the young couple at their table with a baby invited her to have a nurse. She tried to get out of it – ‘First they break your arms and then they break your heart’ – but when she gave in and cradled it against her he felt everyone in the room’s approving eyes.

When, on their last night in London, they were recommended some pretentious restaurant where the dishes of pasta drowning in a sweet cold sauce were so awful that he left a penny tip, Adriana declared that she’d had enough, but he prevailed upon her to indulge him a little longer, while he was revealing the real reason he’d dragged her all this way.

‘I want to see where Dylan Thomas was born,’ he said. ‘You remember him?’

‘You mention so many writers,’ she said. ‘Which one was he?’

‘He…’ he started to explain, but she was indifferent really, and stayed that way until they’d parted with the little girl from the train and crossed the border into Wales – when she relented under the influence of the countryside.

‘Why didn’t you bring me here first?’ she reproached, ‘instead of wasting my time in London. You see the houses – even the sheep…so white and clean…’

When they arrived in Swansea it was drizzling lightly in what he was to discover was the Welsh way, and his feelings of trail blazing were greatly diminished when the man in the local tourist office responded to his queries with a slight, tight smile: ‘Cwmdonkin Drive…Next question?’ But Adriana was impressed when he found the poet’s house. She looked from the view of the sea to the For Sale sign outside. ‘Why would anyone ever want to leave this?’ she conjectured.

‘Unless they’re sick of people gawping,’ he suggested. But she was enthused. In the park next door she read out in the over reverent voice she saved for poetry the lines from Fern Hill on the poet's commemorative stone. But then, while she was in the middle of taking one of her never reliable photos that usually left out part of the subject, her camera suddenly got hot and died.

‘It’s burnt my hands,’ she said, wringing them.

He was disappointed too; the camera was practically new. But then he remembered a shop back in town. ‘They might have a look at it.’

‘Forget it,’ she said, and dropped it in a bin. ‘Come along. We’ll have to report it stolen so I can claim it on insurance.’

He had misgivings; he wasn’t sure if it was her ethics or the cold blooded disposal of his recent birthday gift that disappointed him more, and the incident cast a small shadow over their day on the way back into town that didn’t really lift until they caught the bus to Worms Head the next morning.

He felt better then, knowing that they were on the same road that Thomas and his friends would have taken. The dips the bus coasted down could have been those where the lorry swooped while Thomas and the rest of the boys clung to its roof. The nearest field to Worms Head might well have been the one where Thomas was forced to watch by firelight the awful Brazell sitting with the golden head of the girl he’d stolen from Thomas on his shoulder. The nearby five mile beach, Rhossili Sands, was the challenge Little Cough thought he had to conquer. On the cliff faces he was able to see descendants of the sheep whose ancestors probably reached out with the same perilous, and eventually – surely – mortal greed for a similar illicit treat.

‘They’re like you,’ Adriana said. ‘Only they haven’t got me to look after them.’

When they got back to town it was after five. He knew that the city centre had been flattened during the War, and it was a pretend town now you’d have to say, all glass and modish malls with no historical links to anything. Filling up each morning and emptying out at night it was almost deserted at this hour. The Friendly Pub staffed by Friendly People they went into was almost friendless – he had a never impeded view of an otherwise impeccably elderly gentleman in a dark blue suit with a bright red tie and matching handkerchief sitting near them, exploring both orifices of a long proboscis with a daggerishly tipped little finger. ‘I think I lost my appetite,’ Adriana said.

In the end they had a perhaps fitting meal back at their hotel. Each course, delivered and shortly afterwards retrieved by their waiter, was accompanied by a small exhalation of breath and a simultaneous more-in-hope-than expectation, ‘Thank you very mooch…’ benediction from its provider. By the end of the evening, a study in dejection, he sent them off to bed with a plate of cheese.

Adriana shuddered at the memory of their meal on the way up. ‘I thought the smell of roast mutton in the streets on Sundays when I first came to Australia was bad enough.’

His sleep that night was fitful. He woke once to hear a drunk walking down the street below, the sound of his footsteps accompanying a repetitively and disturbingly aired grievance far into the distance. Later he woke and sat up to see a figure regarding him from the end of the bed. It was his own alarming reflection in the mirror, he realised, but he couldn’t sleep after that. ‘That would be those revolting prawns,’ Adriana assured him. But he felt unwelcome then. In his mind the image in the mirror became squatter, imbued with a near malevolence, as if the subject of their pilgrimage could not abide them there.

As they left next morning, the inconstant but never entirely neglectful sun they’d glimpsed during their stay deserted the town completely, or was over ruled by the wet-eiderdownish clouds squeezing round it. The drizzle to which everyone had been presenting a cheerful face in the street gave way to driving rain. When the train stopped at a small station in the middle of nowhere the German girl who got out and stumped away under her backpack’s teetering burden, was flinching before she’d gone ten yards.

‘Poor thing, she looks so lost,’ Adriana sighed, but it only reminded him that he’d seen enough of backpackers in all their misery in all weathers, to be determined never to become one of them.

Their welcome back in Italy was not effusive. Even though his aunt had stayed in touch with him when she was away, Claudio was still disappointed in them. He had no interest in what he called the rest of the world – Europe – at the best of times, let alone that remote-as-the-moon place called Australia. (He couldn’t understand why they didn’t just sell up everything and come over for good). Once again there was an air of tension in the house which George, unwittingly, helped relieve.
 Forgetting which side of the road people drove on, he stepped into the path of a car one night. At the last moment he was able to use the flat of his hands to slip stream off the side of it, and was congratulating himself on his reflexes (still good) when the momentum of the car skipped his feet from under him and spun him back against it before brushing him lightly across the street.

Not so good, was his last thought.

When he came to he saw Adriana sitting next to his hospital bed. ‘Why do you do such stupid things…?’ she demanded, with a most unconsoling shake of her head as soon as she saw he was conscious. It seemed unkind, especially when she reiterated her complaint to an old bloke and his minder in the bed next to his, so they could shake their heads and growl too. She said, ‘They must feel like me, your guardian angel is working overtime,’ before she started crying, ‘Don’t you know what you are to me?’

The driver of the car who came in then was upset too.  ‘I am so sorry signore,’ she confessed, ‘but I did not see you until the ultimate moment...’

She looked so beautiful and smelt so nice; he spread his hands in a gesture of absolution. ‘Non preoccuparla signora. It was all my fault, really.’

‘I’ll give you “non preoccuparla ’ – Adriana grumbled when the lady had gone – ‘the pair of you nearly gave me a heart attack,’ but a doctor and a nurse came in then, followed soon afterwards by Claudio and then quite a succession of callers. It was almost like having the measles again, he thought, until the anaesthetic started to wear off.

Adriana rang the bell – dismissing the palliatives on offer – ‘I think he needs something stronger’ – and prevailed.

‘The injection,’ the doctor advised, ‘may make you feel a little elevated.’

Afterwards she asked, ‘My poor darling, how are you feeling now?’

‘I feel like having a good cry.’

‘Is it so very sore?’

‘No, I’m just so happy.’

He was, really. He hadn’t got off too badly he realised. Apart from a broken wrist he only had a sprained ankle and some scuff marks here and there. By next morning, when he wasn’t feeling a whole lot worse than a relic of some East African military campaign of the late 1800s, they said he could go. In a week he felt alright to travel.

But before that could happen, when  Adriana brought him in his coffee one morning she sat down on the end of the bed looking uneasy, before making some remarks on the weather outside and then getting down to business with a sigh.

‘I had a long talk with Claudio last night before I came to bed,’ she said. ‘Maybe you heard us?’

‘No, no. What about?’

‘Oh, things he wanted to tell me, you know. He hasn’t had it easy, don’t worry…What he really wanted to say though, is he doesn’t want us to leave. Or not just yet.’

‘He never does, does he?’ George mused. Even though he suspected that a part of Claudio would like to have his aunty all to himself, their partings were always tearful as Claudio pressed his bristly cheeks against his. ‘He should have said something earlier,’ he reminded her. ‘Everything’s set now. We’re leaving on Thursday.’

‘Ah – well, that's it, he says he can fix that up. You know, get the airline to put off our booking…’

‘For how long?’

‘Well, till we find out what we want to do.’

‘What is it we’re supposed to want to do?’

‘I think he needs us here,’ she said, ‘that’s the thing. He won’t admit it but he’s lost without Anna, you know. And we’re really all he’s got, for now anyway.’

‘Oh…’ Over the years George had never been quite sure what Claudio did for a living – it often sounded like its revelation might be a threat to national security. At the moment though it seemed to involve the fairly prosaic pursuit of bad debts. He knew that while Claudio was absolutely charming, able to disarm any audience and defrost the defences of any female between the ages of eight and eighty, he was very tall and had perhaps just enough Sicilian menace from his father’s side to put a shiver up most lazy payers’ spines.

‘I’m not going to help him stand over people.’

‘I know: you couldn’t. You wouldn’t have to though. He wants to start up something else. Something to do with tourists, like an agency. He says I could help out in the office if I want to and you could be a guide. Their second language here is German, you’d be able to translate for English people, Australians even.’

He’d always avoided Australians in Europe, especially the young ones with their endless whinging and obsession with exchange rates. ‘I haven’t come ten thousand miles to catch up on football scores.’

‘It wouldn’t be like that.’

‘What about your kids back home? Have you thought about that?’ he said. ‘What are you going to tell them?’

‘It might make some of them get off their arses and come and see their mother,’ she said, before reproving herself. ‘I know that sounds terrible, but to be honest, Claudio is a better son to me than most of my children –’

‘And you are a better mother,’ he suggested. That was blunt too, but Claudio’s real mother’s – Aurora’s – own maternal instincts seemed to have given up the battle with selfishness long ago. When her son was involved in an accident once and they all wanted to rush to the scene, they had to wait ten minutes while Aurora got her makeup right.

‘It doesn’t have to be forever,’ she coaxed. ’We can try it just for six months. I think I owe it to myself to see if I want to live here again, that’s all.’

He didn’t know what to say.

‘Just think, in six months your Italian will be perfect.’

‘Will it?’

Ma si, certo.’ She hugged him with relief. ‘Don’t look so worried, piccinin, Claudio thinks the world of you, you know that. He’ll take care of you till you know your way round.’

He heard her talking excitedly in the kitchen with her nephew after that; who sounded elated too. And it was true: Claudio was caring – and masterful – he’d find them a place of their own if they stayed and he’d make allowances for Adriana’s husband. Italians were sensitive: they’d understand if he was a bit lost at first. And Adriana would bloom, get back all the things migrants lose or learn to hide; he’d always preferred the Italian version of her anyway, with all its tenderness. While he could avoid becoming one of those voyeurs – tourists – who linger on worlds glimpsed in lighted windows but never really explore them.

Now he could. Sometimes he’d worried that he and Adriana would finish up like the majority of the town’s visitors, German and elderly, who came annually for the supposed benefits of the town’s thermal springs. He’d seen them lolling in their compounds, able like most long standing couples who’ve perfected the art of mutual ignorance, to devote themselves individually to acquiring one more gloss of tan each day, in between the spas, massages, mud baths, and the enormous meals that were the main reason for them coming. Perennial strangers, and forever alien…

They would never be like them now, he felt sure. Or – though he couldn’t know this, of course – become like those perfect married friends they had back home, whose lives were devoted to curbing one another’s excesses.

Because long before then Adriana and he would be lost to one another forever.