MUCH of life is perception, a ghosting of thought. I believe – even in old age – some people, experiences, and places never leave us.
They remain within, a biological blueprint, elemental in all we are. This is how our lives, our stories, are shaped.
In early December 1949, Lena and I boarded the Fairsea with hundreds of others. This enabled me to pin the anchorless uncertainty I had experienced during – and since – the war, on the swell and roll of the tide. I could pretend, at least for that month at sea, that my sense of vertigo was environmental, rather than emotional.
The war had left me unmoored, robbing all I had previously believed to be certain, solid. Those years stole from many of us; our families, friends, and – for Lena and me – our beloved hometown of Istria, no longer part of Italy.
My new marriage was all I felt sure of.
We arrived in Sydney, from Genoa, on December 30. The harbour, stainless steel in dawn light, offered a silver lining in the post-war cloud. We were taken north, by train, to a camp close to the settlement of Greta in the Hunter Valley.
Later that same afternoon I was sent back to Newcastle with three other young men – Jimmi, Dem, and Ted. We were to share a room in a migrant boarding house, in Scott Street. It had been arranged that the four of us were to begin work the following day at the steelworks, on the Hunter River. They were in need of labourers, and we in need of pay.
That first summer billows, unbound across my mind; days and nights seared by energy, noise, and fire. I still see visions of the huge industrial animal as it belched its by-products out over the river toward the city and suburbs.
I knew little of the language then – verbal exchanges were limited – but working and learning alongside the other men, their collective presence, that force-field of frenetic activity, it quietened something inside me. The earth began to feel stable, safe, reliable again.
Those mates from the boarding house, they forged friendships that never faltered. Jimmi with his flaming hair, and freckles as big a penny piece. And Dem; everything about Dem was quick, his speech, his movements, and his willingness to help out. Ted was quiet and constant. He was a reader. He’d been places in his books that none of us knew of. He was more than smart. He was wise.
They’re all out at Sandgate now – the cemetery. I’m the only one left.
In those early days when we weren’t at work we travelled up to Greta to see our “girls”. It was hard on us; newly weds having to live apart.
I saved like a demon and in April 1954 Lena and I took on a tiny wreck of a terrace in Mayfield and began incremental repairs.
I was 72-years-old in September 1999, when Newcastle Steelworks closed. I’d managed to strategically dodge retirement; upskilling, broadening my knowledge. I worked in a different capacity, but I was still there.
Many of the men struggled, particularly the younger ones, with families to support. Others – marvellously malleable – dreamt up plans to reinvent themselves. In the generous spaciousness of their minds a steelworker could alchemise; become a nurse, an art student, or even a massage therapist! I envied them the depth of spirit and belief that allowed such a leap. For me, no such move felt possible. I was paralysed by a returned sense of uncertainty. BHP Newcastle was home. I had isolated those letters in my early attempts to master the English language – all those years ago – and I had decided that for me, BHP stood for Belonging, Hope and Prosperity.
It’s not so much what a place or a person actually is, I now recognise, but rather what it is they represent to us. For me BHP was financial security, friendship, family, self-worth, pride. Above all else BHP was solid ground, somewhere to stand with a sense of safety. Until it was no longer there.
It was the war, I believe, that forced a gap between my body and soul – a dissonance – creating in me a faultline, this fearful and ongoing need to know what all my tomorrow’s hold. To be on high-alert, constantly scanning for danger.
It was only three years ago, in the months following Lena’s death, that I found her diaries – fleeced in fine cobweb – in the bottom of a kitchen cupboard. She had written of her longing for family, for our children.
They had never eventuated.
She wrote of her friendships with women at the church and exclusion from particular events, due to her childlessness. She had felt “adrift” she’d written, “alone”. The sense of “separateness” that had begun in those early days in Greta had not subsided.
Never had she spoken to me of this.
Her last diary entry had been in November of 1999, almost 16 years before her death.
“I am full of hope. The BHP has closed. It has symbolised both production and pollution in my life. I pray that Carlo will find purpose and connection in places – and people – beyond the BHP.’
My beautiful wife. I miss the sound of her steps in the sunroom, the lilting lyrics she would sing to herself as she hung the washing, the fragrant thickness of her wavy hair. Lemons, Lena always smelt of fresh lemons.
I had believed I was keeping her happy and safe through my commitment to BHP. Now I see for 50 years, it was I who carried a sense of contentment and Lena who had felt adrift. When the steelworks shut Lena had felt hope, and I, despair.
I keep her diaries by my bed.
I learn things, still, of my wife’s internal geography.
In our lives, there is as much said in the white space, as in the words.
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