Sport 5: Spring 1990
Virginia Were — Dark Country
My parents left the rural poverty of Vermigho in the Italian Alps and came to live in Wittenoom in Western Australia. My father worked in the blue asbestos mine there.
The Colonial Sugar Refinery—the company which ran the mine—sent its agents to Italy to recruit young men from the villages to work in the mine. My father answered an advertisement in the paper and after passing the medical examination he signed a contract for two years. He was told he'd be working on a hydroelectric dam and that the climate was much like that of his own country. The company paid our fares and a month later we boarded a ship bound for Fremantle. Nothing could have prepared us for the desert of Wittenoom.
I was too young to remember the poverty we left behind and too young to recognise the poverty we came to in the new place. I knew nothing of work in the mines—of asbestos dust and what it can do to a person's lungs. All I knew of this was my father's cough at four a.m.
The dust was everywhere, it stuck like glue in the corners of his eyes. His lids became inflamed and red and he rubbed them constantly, wearily with the back of his hand. He rubbed them during the long shifts in the mine and at night when he sat at the kitchen table to eat. My mother shook clouds of dust out of his clothes before she washed them.
When my parents first moved into the iron sheds the company provided for its workers my mother hung a crucifix over the bedframe. She draped her black shawl—the one she used to wear when she gathered porcini mushrooms in the mountains in autumn—over the uneven mattress. When they made love I could hear the sound the crucifix made as it knocked against the bedframe.
We shared bathroom and toilet facilities with the other workers and my mother said she could never get used to other peoples' dark hairs ' curled around the handbasin, to the imprint of someone else's fingers in ' the soft yellow soap.
At first my father's cough was sporadic, and then as the years passed page 24it became constant, hacking, and terrible. The sound of it rattled the thin walls and I no longer heard the knock knock of the crucifix at night.
My mother wore thick beige powder on her face in an attempt to lighten her olive skin. Her sweat left dark streaks in the smooth finish and she carried a powder compact in her bag. At the moment when her face stilled, concentrated by the pool of light which was the mirror, she ceased to be my mother and became a woman who has taken her glasses off and appears naked with only a small plastic shield—the lid of the compact—to protect her from the world. I searched her features for a resemblance to mine. The lid snapped shut and my mother was back—the glasses firmly on her nose and the smooth finish restored.
I must be going mad, she said as she knelt on the kitchen floor cutting out a picture from the Australian Woman's Weekly. I think your father is having an affair. I must be going out of my mind to imagine such a thing. Perhaps it's living in a new country. Perhaps it's living in the desert, the red desert—a trick of the light or the heat. She wiped her damp hair out of her eyes and handed me the picture to be coated with glue. The insides of the cupboards were lined with pictures so that when you opened them, a kangaroo, the Queen, or Princess Anne on her horse leapt out at you. That was before the Vietnam War when the Queen and her hats made way for pictures of mothers who had lost their sons and draft dodgers.
We closed the windows and pulled the blinds during the hottest part of the day so that there was a chance the place would stay cool—the temperature never dropped much below forty degrees. There was a man in town who wore an aluminium pie dish safety-pinned to his hat. My father said you could fry an egg on top of that hat.
My mother wore dark glasses with detachable plastic frames and when I put them on they made the world look blurry, the way it did when the cyclones blew in from the Indian Ocean and raised tawny clouds of dust in the town. She said the dust hurt her eyes and she wore the glasses day and night. When my father asked her if it was too dark to see with them on at night she said, I'm used to it.
She kept the frames in a small tin on top of the dressing table. There were green ones, red ones, yellow ones, and blue ones—the green ones were my favourite. She wore the diamante ones on special occasions—a dance or the movies, and the tortoiseshell ones every Friday night when she went to the pub with my father.
She collected smooth round stones and used them to make a garden for us in the rough uneven ground. She painted them magazine-bright page 25colours, creating detail and pattern in a landscape where there was none. She placed them in lines on either side of the path—purple alternating yellow, orange thrown in every now and then to give some sense of randomness to the design. She placed them in circles to suggest trees and shrubs, ponds and flower-beds. Sometimes she moved them—changing the patterns so that we could imagine seasons—the shedding of leaves in autumn, the bursting forth of buds and flowers in spring instead of the long monotonous season of heat which wrapped us. Once she even wrote my father's name in large letters with the stones. I think it was their wedding anniversary
Her days were a slow impatient counting of the hours until the screen door creaked open and my father came home from work. It could be anyone's mouth I'm putting my tongue into, she said as she kissed him. She didn't seem to mind that now her own clothes were covered in dust. Reworked in the bagging mill where the dust was so thick you couldn't see more than a few feet in front of you. His job was to stencil the destinations of the asbestos on the sides of the sacks.
I remember my father's shy averted smile as we picked our way between the tables and chairs toward the bar. For a long moment he didn't know where to look. He pulled up a stool and sat down, took off his hat, looked across at the woman behind the bar and began to talk, shyly at first, and then, after a few drinks, more confidently. He looked nonchalant with his head on one side and his hat beside him on the bar.
The door opened and my mother walked into the bar. She wore her hair up and her black patent leather bag with its gold clasp accompanied her like a tender. It steered her around the tables and chairs and she came to rest lightly against the bar. She put the bag down next to my father's lit, smiled at us, pulled up a stool and sat down. He asked her what she wanted to drink and as she replied he leaned towards her and breathed in the cloud of perfume which surrounded her. It was at its most frangipani intense on her neck—just below the earlobe. He kissed the spot as the woman behind the bar drew off a schooner—expertly tilting the glass so that the froth burst against its rim and no higher.
I miss the goats, said my mother. In Vermiglio she made fetta cheese from their milk. Her breath made white puffs in the cold air of early morning as she leaned against the goats' sides pulling milk from their teats.
The company closed the mine in 1966 because it was no longer profitable to keep it open.page 26
There was no other work for my father in the town and so we moved to Perth. We moved into a brick house which kept out all sound except the buzz of cicadas during the day and the shrill of crickets at night. We had our own lawn and our own front door, our own gate and our own letterbox. My father planted a lemon tree in the garden and mowed carefully around it in the weekends.
In Perth there were lawns and trees and a breeze called The Doctor. When I first saw these paradisal squares of green outside the houses I drank them in. I was thirsty after the red cliffs of Wittenoom. My body let down into the coolness—I lay on my back on the lawn and felt my bones sink into the earth. With the help of sprinklers the lawns stayed green in summer.
I had never seen a lawn before, never even heard the word for one. It seemed to me that some people in our suburb took their lawns for granted, they allowed the grass to grow long and unkempt—stalks laden with seeds bent over the path, crowded the shrubs, and obliterated any line where the lawn was meant to end, and the path, the clothesline or the fence begin. Somehow the lawn lost its homogeneity. It ceased to be a lawn and became grass. Grass in need of being cut.
My father planted a lemon tree in the garden. So we can make lemonade in summer, he said.
And the eight-year-old child was excited by the word lemonade, by the sweetness of it and the feel of it fizzing on the back of her tongue. I still remember the crackle as my mother broke the back of the ice-tray, dislodging some cubes, the clink as she dropped them into my glass. I kneeled at the kitchen table squeezing lemons and when I stood up my knees were imprinted with the cane pattern of the stool. I squeezed with the enthusiasm of a child squeezing the juice of life out of the yellow rind of the world. My mother added sugar and I drank the juice greedily. I always wanted more.
My father's cough grew worse and one morning I woke from a nightmare in which he was dead. I prayed that it wasn't true, and then realising that it wasn't, I waited, shaking, for the dawn.
You won't leave me? I said when he came into my room. Never? Promise?
No, he said, never. And he took me in his arms, knowing that it wasn't true.
Yet at that moment as the first rays of sun brushed colour into the face of the child in his arms, into the garden outside the window, he didn't believe that he would ever die.page 27
During the day he stood in the garden watering the tree. From where watched him he looked calm and unhurried, contemplating every detail of the tree—the tiny pores in the thick yellow skins of the lemons, the glossy leaves and the fresh smell which came from them. I could tell that he felt the sweetness of life—grass springing up underneath his feet, the soft air on his bare arms. He heard the creak of the screen door and turned around and smiled at me.
Soon after the nightmare my father surprised me with a present—a budgerigar in a cage. Budgerigars are Australian grass parakeets and the word is Aboriginal for good cockatoo.
I loved its bright yellow head, the necklace of purple dots around its neck and the fine black lines which rippled down its head and neck. When it stretched its wings—the equivalent of a yawn—a pattern opened and closed. I decided that I would never need to leave the house again, the world had flown into my room—a bit of green in a white room.
I left the door of the cage open so that the bird could fly out. I imagined the sound of wings, the yellow and black of opened wings, the rush of air on my face and the feel of tiny claws on my shoulder, but the bird stayed inside.
My father's illness worsened until even the effort of pushing the lawn-mower made him breathless. He became too weak to kneel on a sack in the flower-bed and pull out weeds. When he withdrew from the garden he lost the small part of the world that was left to him.
Angela! Can I come in?
I opened the door and my mother came into the room.
I have something to tell you, she said, and she sat down beside me on the bed. As she spoke she fumbled the crucifix around her neck. I couldn't see her eyes behind the dark glasses and I was afraid.
Your father is very ill, she said. Soon God will take him. When he gets
Heaven St Peter will give him wings and a halo. We must enjoy what
little time we have left in the world together.
You know, Angela, I never wanted to come to this country, I came so that your father could work, I came because I had to. Now I know it was a mistake.
As she spoke I looked across at the budgerigar in its cage. Its tongue appeared for an instant—a small blue pea—as it opened its beak. I understood that my father was leaving us for a dark country underneath like an abyss.page 28
Suddenly the budgerigar launched itself out into the room. It was as if Australia flew at me—the whole terrible continent, the hugeness of it, the wildness; the size and colour of deserts and rainforests. And in that moment I realised that I loved it, loved it in a way that my mother never would. I would never feel myself in exile as she did.
Angela Marconi! I've told you I don't want that bird loose in this room! Her knuckles whitened against her black dress and the crucifix turned in her hands. The husks the bird flung out of its cage and the occasional feather floating down on a shaft of sunlight enraged her.
Your father's been ill for a long time only we didn't know what was wrong. The doctor saw a shadow on his lungs and thought that he may have moved while the x-ray was being taken, but when they took more x-rays the shadow was still there. You see the asbestos dust gets into your lungs and scar tissue grows around it like a spider's web until eventually the lungs are strangled. This is why he finds it so difficult to breathe. We thought it was a cough and now we know it's a disease. All the time the company knew the dust was dangerous and they did nothing. I hate them, she said.
She used the word asbestosis and an even stranger word mesothelioma. Now my father's illness had a name.
Suddenly the sound of wings made us look up. The budgerigar flew across the room and landed on the picture of the Virgin which hung on the wall.
For some reason my mother forgot to be angry. Here is the story she told me.
In 1844 Father John Brady, the Catholic Bishop of Perth, sent a group of missionaries into the bush north-east of Perth to begin the conversion of two million Aborigines whom he believed were living beyond British civilisation. Among the group were two exiled Spanish Benedictine monks—Dom Rosendo Salvado and Dom Joseph Serra. They settled at Moore River, New Norcia, where they persuaded the Aborigines to come and trade—game for grain, bush skills for farming skills, and the stories of their spirits for word of the white mans God.
One day a terrible fire broke out in the bush around the Mission, and everyone—the Aborigines and the missionaries—ran outside to stop the fire from spreading to the wheat field. They beat the burning grass with green branches but the fire raced on. Their hands and faces were scorched, their hair and beards singed by flames fanned by a strong wind. In this extremity, when it seemed that all their property was going page 29to be destroyed, they had recourse to the mercy of God through the intercession of the Holy Virgin. They brought a picture of the Virgin from the altar and took it to the corner of the field nearest the flames. They left it leaning against the wheat stalks in the fire's path. They prayed for mercy, and scarcely had the sacred picture been placed, than the wind suddenly changed direction and drove the flames back to the part already burnt.
Afterwards Father John Brady said that the Aborigines who witnessed the event looked at the miraculous picture and cried out: The white lady knows so much! It was she who did it, yes it was she!
On one of the rare occasions when I went into my parents' room I found my mother kneeling on the floor with her black shawl spread out in front of her. Her hands made small hurried movements as she bundled the crucifix and the picture of the Virgin away inside the shawl. The white candlewick bedspread rose and fell as my father struggled for breath underneath it. Often I practised holding my breath to see what it would feel like, sure that I would pass out into that dark country and be given wings and a halo just like my father—but breathing seemed to happen whether you liked it or not, and just as my head was bursting and my vision darkening my lungs opened and the sweet air poured into them.
I crawled towards my mother and put my head in her lap. I longed for her to put her arms around me, but she didn't—her arms remained stiffly at her sides. I felt the dismal grey terror of the dark country and I knew that she had lost everything. We stayed like that for some time, saying nothing. I stared up at the ceiling where the chord of the lightbulb came out of a plaster rose. The curtains were closed and the bulb shone weakly in the dark room. The sound of cicadas came in through the open window.
My father sighed and turned over in bed. I tried to picture him in the firmament with great wings growing out of his back and a halo over his head. Instead I remembered the time a man stopped him in the street. He was on his way to the Supreme Court to give evidence in one of the largest industrial compensation cases ever to go through the Australian courts.
Do you want to see something different? said the man.
My father carried on walking but the man kept pace with him, tugging at his elbow.
No really I've got something you should see, he persisted.
My father laughed, exasperated by the man. OK, he said, show me.page 30
Here, said the man, follow me. And he led him into a coffee bar nearby. Sit down, he said.
My father obeyed, puzzled.
The man kneeled down in front of him and pulled his tee shirt over his head.
There, he said, there. And on his back was a huge pair of wings. Now look, he said, now watch this. And he rolled his shoulders around and around, his head bowed with concentration, his skinny neck outstretched like a chicken's. The wings rippled and beat—red blue and green across his shoulder blades. Every vertebra in his back stood out underneath them.
I sat up and my mother opened the drawer of the dressing table and put the bundled up crucifix and the picture of the Virgin away inside it. Her hands shook and she rocked forward on her knees and smoothed her dress over her thighs.
Don't tell your father, she said.