Aliens by Vesna McMaster
In common with an increasing mass of humanity in this mixing, shrinking world, I don’t really come from anywhere. I just growed, like Topsy.
In this predicament, surroundings can seem relentless. Nowhere to run and hide, nothing so familiar that mores and customs are never questioned, simply worn like a hardy waterproof. Humans crave the easy carbohydrate of mono-culture, the refined sugar of knowing where you belong – sweet words in your mouth, filling your stomach with warmth.
But we move about these days, our legs far outrunning our minds. We have mixed families and are perpetually on Skype. I keep a special book with all the addresses I have lived at since leaving the last house I shared with my parents (itself the end of a scattered dozen or so that I can recall), because ‘they’ ask these things sometimes when you apply for official documents. The current tally is 22. I am 42 years old and still shifting.
The other day, one of our children (age 8) comes out with the random question of ‘Have you ever been to Poland?’
‘Yes, I was born in Poland.’
My partner spins round, half-chopped onions scattering in an astonished arc.
‘How come you never told me you were born in Poland?’ he demands, with the indignation of just discovering he’s been diddled out of a tax rebate.
Why would I? It’s not a stand-out feature, salient, defining. It’s been absorbed and translated within the general package of Me-ness but doesn’t need explaining any more than a stew needs to separate out all its ingredients while being served in a bowl.
Sometimes, one Serial Migrant (which is what we are) will bump against another. The ‘tells’ are light but unmistakable. An unwillingness to elaborate on origins in a casual introduction, a skin colour that jars with an accent, resignation in the gaze – acceptance. They nod, exchange unspoken condolences/congratulations, and move apart. Space is needed.
Life is hard for such children. Young bones compiled from calcium from so many different breeds of cattle cause growing pains. Personalities and opinions in an unformed, amorphous state wobble without support, thrown from one mould to the next until the original intended form is barely discernible. They struggle to stand without support of an accepted culture, and wonder if they’ll ever be fully formed as they stand before adulthood.
Then they start to let go, realising that they will never have that one place where they are safe: the place they’ve been trying to create with such desperation. They straighten up and find (with astonishment) they can stand. They are a little like those sci-fi monsters who absorb strength, appearance or other intrinsic attributes from their human hosts to acquire an undefinable polymorphous anonymity. A uniqueness carved from a host of typicals. This shape-shifting ingests the foreign particle, digesting, utilising, neutralising.
On the bus home from Junior High as I sat chatting to my friends, strangers would often stare at us without restraint. Sometimes their bafflement forced them into a direct question.
‘Are you Japanese?’ they would blurt out.
‘But you are speaking Japanese. Why are you not speaking like a foreigner? You don’t look Japanese.’ Again, there was that diddled-out-of-a-tax-rebate ring to this last.
‘Because I live here.’
‘Oh,’ they would say. Then they’d retire back to their own private space to consider the implications of such encroachment on the natural order. Reminiscent of a child's expression on first learning how much space the atoms of seemingly solid matter consist of. A re-focus, a silence. My friends would suppress a giggle and be a smidge self-conscious for a few minutes.
I am a sci-fi alien. Under the freckled skin, bones morph and glide in visible bumps, changing my shape to fit into any crevice, lodge on any outcrop. I have prehensile toes to grip the branches of trees and leap off again in one spring. I have rudimentary gills and a skin that absorbs oxygen from the water so I can survive in tidal estuaries, burrowing into the salt mud and feeling it cool on my sides. I can clamber up sleet-whipped cliffs with clattering hooves, safe inside wiry fur, and relish the desolate echoes that drop down the ravine. It is not odd that some people stare.
Strange is familiar. Foreign is home. In this oxymoron of linked disassociation, I am a paradox of exotic familiarity – unique in a completely similar way to millions of other inhabitants of this narrowing planet.
© Vesna McMaster
'Aliens' was first published in Foreign and Far Away - an anthology from Writers Abroad. Buy it now on Amazon
Vesna McMaster writes mystery novels under the pen name of Moosey. She brought out The Fastro Connection July, 2014 and is currently working on her second title. www.MooseysMysteries.weebly.com She has published a book of short stories as well as numerous fiction, prose and poetry pieces. www.VesnaMcMaster.com Vesna also has a weakness for Elizabethan poetry and has recorded all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets at www.ShakespeareMadeClear.weebly.com
Vesna offers fiction proofreading services for anything from short stories to full length novels. She has a BA Hons from Cambridge University in English Literature and is a writer herself. Details at http://www.vesnamcmaster.com/fiction-proofreading-service.html HWC members pay 1/2 prize
The character of the Northern Star Cafe on Beaumont Street has been formed over almost sixty years, infused with the history and aspirations of its Greek, Italian and Australian owners. Today, like any 60 year old, it knows who it is. It will have a few regrets - like all of us - and escapades best left hidden, but it enjoys the status of a Hamilton icon.
Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri purchased the Northern Star Cafe from Con Rolfe, a Greek immigrant, in 1974. The Café had been operating from as early as 1948, according to Hamilton resident Alex Sazdanoff. The Nicholsons had been its first owners.
Ada and Lorenzo were in their early 40s, with three children – Mario the eldest, aged 15, Norina aged 12 and Lucia, who was just 7. Acquiring a food business was a natural next step for Lorenzo, who had been cooking for working men for years. But to make this new venture a success, he would need his wife by his side, every day of the 7 day working week, and immense physical stamina.
It was in the Italian village of Cannara, on a rich floodplain beneath the hills of Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis, that Lorenzo and Ada grew up as next door neighbours.
Ada and Lorenzo began ‘going out’. However, their relationship was interrupted when Lorenzo responded to a call from the Australian government, which was offering to sponsor and provide work for fit and able European men. He was 22.
In 1955, Lorenzo and a small group of friends from Cannara left Italy together on the ship Toscanelli. Like many other emigrants in similar situations, they would support each other on this adventure, in a quest to build better lives for themselves.
The young men were to provide labour for the northern NSW cane fields around Lismore. After they had fulfilled their two year contract, they would be free to go elsewhere in pursuit of work, if they wished. Lorenzo’s family is unsure how long he actually worked as a cane cutter. They do know that when a cook for the cane cutters’ camp had to be found, Lorenzo responded hesitantly – ‘I know a little bit...’
The job was his.
Working long hours in the cane fields was hard, hot and dirty work. Cooking was considered an easy job, even a ‘cop out’. One of Lorenzo’s friends offered to change places for a few days, believing he could easily do what Lorenzo did. However, he had no idea about how much water was needed to cook the pasta, pouring a huge packet into the pot. When it all swelled and became a glutinous mess, then men were not impressed! Lorenzo quickly got his job back.
When his contract finished, Lorenzo moved to Newcastle and found work at BHP. He was confident enough to ask Ada to join him in Australia, and they became engaged.
With no immediate family in Australia, the new migrants helped each other. Lorenzo bought their first home, in Sandgate, but did so as a joint purchase with his lifelong friend from Cannara. That friend had married too, and both couples shared the house. When the friend had enough money to move on to a solo purchase, another friend from the village offered himself as investment partner. Thus began a series of real estate purchases for Lorenzo and Ada – Hamilton, Cardiff, Merewether, Charlestown.
Transfield was a large and successful company that had had been founded by two Italian born engineers. Lorenzo became a cook for the gangs of men that installed the massive poles supporting parallel power wires throughout rural NSW. In the dozen or so years Lorenzo spent with Transfield, he must have learned a great deal about cooking the type of food that satisfied hungry workers.
Lorenzo’s job was challenging for Ada, at home in Cardiff now with three children. Lorenzo travelled to be with the gangs, and was away all week.
In 1974, the opportunity to buy into a cafe came through one of the many produce suppliers Lorenzo dealt with in the course of his work – fruiterers, butchers, grocers, bakers.
‘Count me out’, declared Ada, when Lorenzo put the proposition to her.
Nevertheless, the Northern Star Cafe was purchased by Lorenzo from its Greek business owner, Con Rolfe. Ada was in, for the long haul.
‘They’ve been together, they go together’, explains youngest daughter Lucia.
When Ada was growing up in Italy before World War II, education was not compulsory. She left school at Year 3 to help on the farm her family leased. This early education deficit affected her confidence. She worried about her English language skills in the public domain of a cafe, but that was where she was needed. She would overcome her fears, and in time, become very proficient in English.
The cafe was at 106 -108 Beaumont Street, Hamilton – open 7 days a week from 8 am to 8 pm. In these circumstances, daily travel from Cardiff, with 7 year old Lucia at school there, was not feasible. Lorenzo and Ada decided to rent the flat above the cafe. Thus, they took up residence once again in Hamilton, this time as Beaumont Street business owners. They would remain for some 18 years, from 1974 to 1992, leasing the premises.
Lorenzo and Ada had taken over a cafe with a typical Australian menu – hamburgers, fish and chips, toasted sandwiches, selling tea, coffee, milkshakes, soft drinks and ice cream. Having cooked so long for the Transfield work gangs, Lorenzo would have been very familiar with the food preferences of Aussie workers.
Ada prepared Italian food for the family, always cooking in the cafe. Late diners were sometimes curious about what they were eating, and would ask to try some. Homesick young Italian men would ask for the dishes they loved.
Downsizing the cafe from a double to a single shopfront in 1985 provided the impetus for Ada and Lorenzo to reshape their menu. Italian dishes such as gnocchi, fettucine and lasagna, as well as scallopini, calamari and pizzaiola were now integrated into the offerings.
Ada made the pasta by hand, and Lorenzo cooked the meat and sauces. Ice cream and lemon gelato were sold. People had money to spare; the cafe became even busier in the evenings.
[Today] Ada still makes enough fettucine for 30 diners, drying the delicately swirled nests thoroughly on a table in her sun room at Charlestown. These days, her adult children and grandchildren are the grateful recipients of her skills and generosity. I am too, as she packs me chunks of cake and melt-in-my-mouth biscotti to take home.
Ruth Cotton is a member of Hunter Writers Centre and runs our writing group for established bloggers. Join: http://www.hunterwriterscentre.org/writing-groups.html
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