It’s Wednesday and I’m on the 12.50pm train from Swan Hill to Melbourne and there’s 3 minutes until the train will leave the station, not enough time for me to get off the train, take a photo of the monstrous fibreglass trout on the train station lawns, and get back on before departure.
So instead, I sit looking at and listening to the Italians who are sitting in the seats across the aisle.
There are about 10 of them, I make the guess from around 65 to 75 years old.
They are making a lot of noise; talking a lot, moving from seat to seat, taking their coats off, checking their seat numbers and tickets, yelling at each other over the top of the seats.
And then suddenly I hear from 3 seats down an elderly woman, who is wearing a blue skirt, blue cardigan and glasses stands up, turns toward the Italians and leans over the top of her seat and starts calling out to the old Italians.
‘Oi,’ she says, ‘you’re making too much noise, keep it down a bit?’
Having lived in Italy, I feel protective of the Italians, so I give the woman the stink-eye.
Then, I overhear the Italians talk about me.
They are saying how sorry I must be to have to sit so close to them, with all their noise and chaos.
‘Non c’e problema,’ I say, ‘capisco tutto e mi piace gli Italiani,’
Now they are all laughing and saying to each other, in Italian, ‘she understands Italian, she speaks Italian, she likes Italians, how nice’.
And they are all leaning forwards now and looking at me and waving and saying hello and I am smiling back at them and saying ‘piacere’; telling them it is a pleasure to meet them all.
Then the train starts to move and for a while I sleep in a patch of sun that falls on my seat through the uncurtained window.
When I wake up, one of the Italian men, who is wearing a beige sweater, has ginger hair and moustache and is wearing a short-brimmed, grey hounds-tooth fedora leans forward in his seat, waves his hand palm up to me and tells me, in Italian, to look at the seat next to me.
I look to the seat on my left and see a Ferrero Rocher chocolate.
I say thank you and then I ask who has left it for me and then I pick it up and unwrap it and eat it.
‘Giovanni te l’ha lasciato,’ says the man, who holds his hand out for me to shake.
He tells me his name is Rocco.
And we begin to talk.
He tells me he came to Australia in the 1950s but really he loved Canada.
‘I would have dug a hole all the way down to get back to Canada,’ he says.
Everyone is talking loudly so I lean forward in my seat so I can hear what else Rocco wants to say.
He tells me he is the boss of this social group, and that they have been in Swan Hill for 4 days, playing cards and poker machines and shopping and they come here every year and stay in the same motel.
We speak in Italian for a while until one of the other Italians, a woman, comes and sits opposite me and starts to talk to me.
Firstly she tells me why her English is not good.
‘I came from Sicily,’ she tells me, ‘and I have 4 kids, 5 years,’
Then she holds up 4 fingers on her left hand and tells me the names of the children.
Then she asks me if I have a husband.
I tell her no.
‘No time, eh?’
‘No,’ I say, ‘no time for husbands,’
Then we both laugh.
Then she tells me she likes to play the poker machines.
Then swapping between Italian and English, we have a discussion about poker machine addiction.
I tell her about my mother’s.
‘I think my mother spent most of the money my father left her on poker machines,’ I tell the woman.
She makes a ‘tsk’ noise and then suddenly everyone is laughing.
The woman’s husband has fallen asleep, 2 seats opposite and behind us, and is snoring.
Rocco gets up to take a photo of him with his phone.
All of the Italians are laughing and after the husband wakes up they begin to bring out food from containers under their seats.
There is a thermos of coffee and the women offer me some.
I say yes and they give me a little disposable cup of espresso.
They stand in the aisles and shout to each other, laughing loudly, passing biscotti and coffee and wine.
They explain to me what years they came to Australia, they tell me their names and who is married to who.
And it is then I realise that the woman who told them to be quiet, Barbara, is married to one of the Italians and I get out of my seat and I go to speak to her.
‘I am really sorry,’ I say, kneeling down and holding on to the arm of her seat, looking up at her slightly, ‘for giving you such a nasty look,’
‘I wondered why you were staring at me with such a look on your face,’ Barbara says to me.
‘I wanted to say- Excuse me, madam, but these people are Italians, and this is how they ARE,’ I tell Barbara, and she laughs.
‘I know how they are,’ she says, ‘I’ve been married to one for a long time.’
And Barbara and I laugh and then I go back to my seat and Giovanni offers me ‘vino’ and I lie and tell him I am allergic to wine.
‘I am allergic to cheese,’ Rocco then tells me, ‘and milk, anything like this,’
That must be hard for an Italian, I think, with all that pizza and mozzarella di Bufala and cappuccinos.
It would be like an Australian being allergic to beer or tinned beetroot or dim sims.
It is a 4 hour trip from Swan Hill to Melbourne and for perhaps 2 and a half of those hours I talk to the Italians, drink their coffee and eat their biscotti and cakes.
And the Italians are never still.
And they are never quiet.
And they never stop laughing.
It’s Friday morning and I am sitting in my pyjamas in the Pasquale’s kitchen listening to a woman, called Bev, who is standing at the kitchen table talking.
Bev, who is wearing a quilted beige winter coat, blue slacks, slip on blue shoes, that have a shiny faux-gold piece of chain decorating the front, and some kind of pearl-style earrings, suddenly looks down at me and says, ‘Oh, are you Norma Le Busque’s daughter?’
I tell her that yes I am and Bev raises her hands in the air and then brings them down again, in the kind of way you do when you’ve had a revelation.
‘I used to go marching with your mum,’ she tells me, ‘me and her and Bev Equid, we were all in the marching girls together,’
‘I remember my mother’s photos of the marching girls,’ I say, ‘my mother’s head always stuck up over the top of everyone else because she was so tall,’
Bev doesn’t say anything about my mother being so tall but she goes on to tell my mother and my aunt and her had also attended school together.
‘We were at Mildura Central school until I was about 10, I think, and then my dad got a job on a water gang in Irymple and we moved out there,’
I am just staring at Bev now, smiling, yet feeling slightly as if I might cry, waiting for her to go on telling me more about my mother.
And she does.
‘Then I moved back from Irymple and we were at high school together,’ Bev says.
Then she tells me my mother had been fun.
‘Oh, she was fun, your mother, she really was,’
Then she tells the story of how they all came to be marching girls.
‘There was this chap, about 60, the son of a chap who owned the menswear shop in Langtree avenue and he went off down to Geelong one time, and well he must have met a woman at some stage and he married her. And well, this woman was involved in the marching girls so she moved up to Mildura with this chap and put an ad in the paper for girls who might like to march,’ Bev tells us, ‘and blow me down if they didn’t get 400 girls turn up to march,’
Then Bev tells me this-
“There was this one time when we went to Shepparton on a marching trip and we were staying in rooms at the cannery, and they were all just little box rooms and we were chaperoned and we were supposed to be all back in the rooms by ten o’clock but of course your mother wasn’t because she’d found some boy and gone off with him and so then at, oooh, must have been midnight I could hear her creeping along the rows of rooms calling out my name..”Bev…you there, Bev?” until she found us,’
I am smiling at Bev, mesmerized.
‘Ive got a photo album of us from marching days you can have a look at, and you can see photos of your mum clowning around. She was such good fun,’ says Bev, ‘she really was the life of the party, your mum was.’
I’m in the Safeway Supermarket, Lime Avenue, Mildura, in the rice and pasta aisle where I have come looking for brown rice, when I see half way down the aisle, someone I haven’t seen since my mother’s funeral; Jenny Bower.
She has her profile turned to me so I walk up behind her and say hello ‘Jenny Bower’.
And Jenny Bower, her hands still holding her shopping trolley, turns fully toward me and says my name.
Not just my first name, my whole name.
‘Hello,’ she then says, ‘how are you?’
I say I am fine and she lets go of her trolley and then I put my arms around her and give her a hug.
And she hugs me back.
And because it’s such a joy to see jenny Bower, I have a big smile on my face.
‘How are you? I say, letting her go.
Jenny Bower, who is over 60 years of age, but younger than 70, laughs and tells me she is good.
‘I’m good, Tone,’ she says and then she looks up the aisle at where Shane Cumming and his son, Jake are standing.
‘Shane was just telling me you were here somewhere in the supermarket,’ she says.
I laugh and hold my arms out as if addressing an audience or presenting a car on a game show, and say – ‘And here I am, Jenny Bower, like a miracle,’
Jenny Bower laughs and Shane and Jake call out goodbye and we say goodbye to them.
Then Jenny Bower and I turn to each other and start catching up.
Firstly Jenny tells me about her husband, Graham.’
‘He’s good,’ Jenny Bower tells me, ‘he’s just had a triple bypass,’
‘Well, he’s had a pretty good innings considering that bloody crash,’ I say.
25 years ago Jenny Bower’s husband was involved in a near-fatal car crash when a car ran into his car while he was driving home from work.
I think about how how he had been wobbly on his feet ever since the accident, and how he had always referred to beer as frothy coffee and that he had once worked for Jenny’s father in his hardware shop.
Then I think about how before she had married Graham, Jenny Bower had had a boyfriend whose name I had never forgotten; a Biker called Norrington Helpworth.
Then I stop thinking these things from the past and pay attention to Jenny Bower who is talking about one of her sons and his divorce.
‘I’m getting one too,’ I tell Jenny, ‘my second one,’
‘Oh, Tone,’ Jenny says, ‘I am sorry to hear that,’
‘Not to worry,’ I say, and then we go on to talk about a mutual friend who has also undergone divorce.
‘It’s odd, don’t you think, Jen,’ I say, ‘that none of us came from divorced parents, yet we have all had divorces,’
And I cock my head and frown and Jenny laughs and says ‘Yes, Tone,’
Then Jenny Bower asks me how I find being back home.
I laugh and tell her it’s funny that everyone calls it ‘home’ when anywhere but here has been my home for almost 25 years, but that I am enjoying it, and sometimes I think about moving back.
‘But,’ I say, ‘it is still weird that mum and dad aren’t here,’
And Jenny Bower smiles sweetly and frowns and says ‘I bet it is,’
And then because it’s Jenny Bower I am talking to, and because I suddenly feel I might, I tell jenny Bower I think I am about to cry.
‘That’s alright, Tone,’ says jenny Bower, and she reaches out her right hand and rubs the top of my left arm a couple of times.
I smile at Jenny Bower and say thank you.
‘I’m a bit emotional still, about the way they died,’ I say to Jenny Bower, and she smiles and frowns again.
‘Aw,’ she says, ‘I know Tone, I bet you are. I bet you are.’