Short Story: Farewell To Roggiano
Short Story: Farewell To Roggiano
The little FIAT 500 struggled down the road. Loaded to within an inch of visibility with three people, our luggage, our bags, our hopes, dreams and feeling of loss.
A strange calm pervaded me as I sat in that little car, squeezed in the back seat, between suitcases and assorted baggage. It all seemed unreal. The house I had lived in, the memories, all stepped further and further away as the car puffed its way further and further from the familiar to the new unknown. Each turn of the wheels seemed to take memories, faces and people away from reality. Now the reality was just the wheezing of the tiny engine, moving its precious cargo along the road. Road to nowhere it seemed. The horizon was not visible or even in the hopes and plans of the occupants of the vehicle. We were all silent, as if words would break the stillness of our feelings, the cover of protection we had unwittingly created, to dull the senses.
My mother’s sad face offered no consolation, no answers, no communication. Her previous life was ending and she must have wished she had died with her husband of 40 years.
At the same time, I recognised how brave my mother was, giving up her heritage, her life as she knew it and abandoning the grave of a husband who had been so wonderful. We drove in silence
The driver, Gigino, a friend of the family, had volunteered to drive us to the next town, from where we would travel to Messina. Messina was the major port where our ship would depart for Australia, our new home, if there would ever be a home. But all these thoughts were not weighing on our mind.
The struggles of generations of Calabrians had possibly inculcated the strength, the staunchness of character, the ability never to complain. Perhaps even the courage to search for the unknown, ready to make the leap of faith necessary to change their daily drudge. Many had left the town, in search of another horizon, trusting and bravely confronting each day without expectations or demands.
I looked outside the tiny gaps of the windows in the car and what really upset me at the time was the coldness of the man I had considered my boyfriend for two years.
That morning he had come to the door of our house to say goodbye. We met at the door, he did not come inside. He seemed unwilling to even come a step closer, the distance between us already palpable in that space and coldness of the farewell. There, while I stood with my heart in turmoil, he shook my hand and said goodbye.
Shook my hand!!! For goodness’ sake. I nearly broke down in tears, but I would not say anything to anybody about this; it was my private pain. But I was not one for commiseration and self-pity. I decided that this had to be the end of my feeling for him. And I would never write to him, ever, never ever.
The car weaved its way through the narrow streets leading into the large piazza, where several people were standing, chatting, as normal as they had done for years and would for years to come.
I could feel their eyes on the little car. Did they know that
this little car was carrying two beautiful ladies away, to reach unknown shores? The silent drive continued until somewhere, near Cosenza, we were stopped by a traffic policeman.
The policeman had noticed the overloaded car and was going to give the driver a fine. Gigino, the driver, looked like he was having a heart attack, he had never been in trouble with the law. My mother suddenly broke into tears, telling him how we had lost the head of the family, father and anchor. Gigino was kindly giving us a lift to Cosenza, so we could go on and get to the ship to Australia, how unlucky we were, losing everything and now a fine. God have mercy.
The policeman, who seemed embarrassed, took pity on the woman, I guess. He let the driver go, without a fine. I had never seen my mother in such a state or heard her uttering such miserable words, reserved for the downtrodden and peasants. Mum was a ladylike woman, from a good, honourable family. Compassionate, kind and proud. But at that moment, we were the miserable downtrodden peasants, with all our possessions in the back of a tiny car. A silent sigh of relief pervaded the stifling air in the car: no fine. Keep moving. The rest of the trip continued in silence, each busy with our own thoughts.
The FIAT 500 finally arrived at the temporary destination and was unloaded. You could almost feel the relief of the little engine and tyres! Mother and daughter thanked and hugged Gigino, the driver, whose misty eyes betrayed the deep affection he had for the departing family. We separated in silence. He went back to his car and we loaded all baggage in the elevator, to take us to the friend’s apartment.
My mother and I settled in a room in our friend’s place for the night, before we would catch the train to Messina the day after.
Not sure who slept that night. I had a sleepless night and was racked by a persistent cough all night. I hid under the bed covers, trying not to disturb anybody else with my cough.
In the morning, I had a sore throat and to my dismay I discovered I had lost my voice. No time or opportunity to see a doctor. We caught the train early in the morning. Cold and wet morning, early December 1969. A silent, long trip, about which I would remember little or nothing. I did not see any of the towns we passed by or the fields or the stations we must have stopped at. Not sure if it was the desire to forget to avoid any semblance of sadness in future. Maybe we fell asleep during the train trip or perhaps our minds just went into a complete relaxed mode, empty of all cares, trying to create calm where there would be none, when the mind was awake. Sleepwalker in a manner of speaking.
Reggio Calabria and the day was bright and sunny. The memory is so fuzzy and the transfer to the ferry happened without anybody even getting off the train, or so it was imprinted in our mind. How could so much happen and still the memory be consumed, obfuscated or just non-existent. We transferred onto the ferry directly, without alighting from the train. The short trip across the Strait of Messina was brief but rough. I managed to throw up the little food I had ingested at some point that morning. I would not remember this either, never bring it up in discussions or tales, in the future. Selective memory.
How did we get to the spartan hotel? I presume we walked? Our luggage would have had the labels for the ship and hopefully it would be loaded onto the cargo of the large ship which was already in the port at Messina. Frankly we had left so much behind and given away so much that it seemed I was walking on a cloud in a dream from which my mother and I would emerge and all would be well.
I was still sick and although not in pain, I realised I still had not regained my voice. We boarded the ship, tall, large, noisy and full of people. My coat and scarf tightly around my neck, gloves on, I showed our boarding passes to the mariner on duty. We were told our cabin was below; randomly shown the direction and told to follow the signs to the deck. What was the name of the deck? It was way below, perhaps it was well underwater? I was too ill to care. And we were migrants, not vacationing seafarers, so I sort of expected mediocre lodgings.
We reached the cabin, our small cases in hand. I fell on the bed and fell asleep. I did not wave goodbye to anybody; there was nobody to farewell. No tears for us; no heartbreak at the departing shores.
After all, we had left our heart in Roggiano, days before. That was the time for tears, now is the time to be courageous. Time to open to the here and now, however different it is.
Finally, I could rest. Mum covered me with blankets and I could feel the sweat pouring from my body. I had a high fever. Mum went to the doctor’s rooms, a few cabins down from ours, to ask for a “house visit”, but they refused.
A little later that day, a young man turned up at our cabin and he carried me to the doctor’s surgery. Noticing my state, the nurse then believed my mother’s story and for the next few days she came to my cabin to administer an injection to help me get better. I realise now how unprofessional they were; they did not believe a gentle lady, asking for help, they did not give us an apology or a diagnosis.
They probably thought we were poor ignorant Calabrian peasants, therefore there was no need to explain, apologise or even show simple compassion. But as a true Calabrian, steady of heart and determined never to give in, determined to deal with whatever unexpected situations, you just learn to manage.
Eventually I felt well enough to venture out of my cabin and off the dreaded bunk. First thing: a shower and shave my legs. That must have felt better! I ventured up to the dining room for breakfast. Corn Flakes beckoned to me: so, different, never seen them before! I tasted the exotic flakes and milk with much pleasure, even had a coffee. Many people were delightedly eating all sorts of delicacies, or so it seemed to me. Laughing and chatting.
Alas, my delight did not last, as I felt the ship rock and roll, moving under my feet. I ran out the door looking for a place to vomit discreetly … I found a vase and used it as a bucket: so sorry. It was better than spewing all over the floors!
The high seas got me. As we were circling the Cape of Good Hope, the seas were unbelievably rough and again I was relegated to my bunk. In the meantime, I received daily visits form the young man who had carried me to the doctor’s surgery.
I thanked him, however my gratitude was short-lived as I realised he had been following me and basically stalking me to find out where I was, since he had seen me when we first boarded the ship. To make things worse, while I was resting and half asleep, he lightly touched my chest and that was it. I could not take the sneaky so-and-so. I told him to leave me alone in no uncertain terms. However, I kept this information from my mother. She figured I just didn’t like him; that was mainly true!
After 23 days at sea, we docked at Fremantle, our first Australian port. Just to take on more passengers or to let off the lucky one who were meeting their families there.
It was such an odd feeling. I was on deck for the first time in weeks. I could breathe the fresh air and take in the sights for a while. It was December and summer in this new country, but the air was still fresh. An unusual sight and a feeling of unreality. The freedom did not last long and again I was seasick. While everyone else seemed to have fun (excluding my mum), I had a miserable, sick, long trip. Thank goodness, Mum had made friends with the other lady sharing our cabin.
We arrived in Melbourne, our destination, From the deck we could see the crowds and both Mum and I searched the crowds for a face we might recognise. I was wearing my little black suit, which was now a bit loose, having lost weight. It was also a bit long by the looks of the short skirts I could see on the wharf. I hitched my skirt up and rolled the waistband a few times, so the skirt could be shorter. I was 18, slim, naïve and eager to face the brave new world. I already wanted to be part of whatever was being offered in this new world. Australia: terra Australis, Oceania, whichever name you chose, it was fantastically unusual and unexpected.
Roggiano was far, far away on the map. At that moment, it was also far, far away from my thoughts. A new beginning, a new world for me. I was ready.
AUTHOR CARMELA PETTER
Carmela lives in Adelaide, South Australia, with her husband, pet dog, Kelly and cat, Jinxy. She is retired and volunteers within her local community. She enjoys cooking, writing short stories and painting. Carmela came to Australia at the age of 18 and lived in a country town for several years, before joining the RAAF. After residing in a few other towns around Australia she and her husband settled in Adelaide with their children.
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