Stefano looked out over the balcony and stared into the horizon. The sun was making its way behind the mountains to disappear for the evening only to return, much like his melancholy thoughts. A painful sorrow had consumed his mind and not even the stars which had appeared instantaneously above him could sweep away the sadness in his heart. He was growing older and his once taut skin now sagged around his cheeks. His hair no longer covered his head and his eyes struggled to read without spectacles. But growing old was not the reason for his emptiness. He welcomed old age much in the same way he had welcomed Lupita into his life forty-three years earlier. He walked back inside his house and sat on his recliner which still smelt of the deodoriser she used. He refused to buy a new one, much to the persistence of his children who had stopped visiting him. He closed his eyes and exhaled so deeply, his vocal chords echoed. When he closed his eyes, he was taken back to his youth…
The crates of apples wouldn’t be moving themselves so Stefano picked up the last remaining ones and placed them on the back of the truck. He’d been working since the very early hours of the morning and by the time the last crate of apples were packed away, his body was exhausted. His mouth was dry yet his face was wet. The days were much like this and he still found it hard to believe he left his job as a train conductor to pick apples. His father had said there would be enough money and food to last a life time in Australia so when the Fascists moved in, he left the comfort of Sulmona and chose to make Melbourne his new home. Some relatives had already settled and within weeks of arriving, Stefano was working. He liked to keep his body moving and his mind apt because when he was still, it would give him time to ponder. He would gaze up at the blue sky and then down at the green trees and despite basking in the beauty of nature, he was alone. There were other Italians on the farm with him too. Some even came from Abruzzo and he soon established a warm camaraderie with a few of the men. Guido and Nunzio became his closest friends and together, they worked hard and saved their money. “We have money and homes but we don’t have women,” Guido said one day as the three of them sat and watched the trucks full of fruit drive away. Stefano looked out into the distance and took a sip of some water. He hadn’t told them he already had a woman. He also hadn’t told them he had been sending his money back home so that she could join him. She was Lupita and even though she and Stefano met in Sulmona, she was half Italian and half Spanish. She had long black hair which curled on the ends like tiny ringlets. Her eyes were dark brown and her skin darkened each time she went out and stood in the sun. He carried her picture in his wallet and often looked at it, wishing he could see her.
“Let’s go out dancing tonight. We can ask Tom. He seems like a nice man,” Nunzio said. Tom Smith was the Australian man they worked for. His family owned the hectares of land around them including some bungalows on the outskirts of the farm which housed some Italian immigrants. Stefano stood up and walked away. He had no interest in going to dances and meeting other women. He only had eyes for Lupita and soon enough she’d be here with him in Melbourne.
“Stefano, where you off to?” Guido asked.
“I don’t feel like going out tonight.”
“Come on, it’s been too long since you smelt a woman. You’re coming and that’s it.”
When they arrived at the hall, the music was loud and couples were already holding hands and dancing. Guido and Nunzio disappeared into the sea of people and Stefano soon lost sight of them. He sat himself on one of the empty chairs which were along the perimeter of the hall. The music was all in English but he recognised the melody. He sighed knowing his friends were in no rush to leave. Their grins were wide when they were locked in arms with the two Australian women. He placed his glass down and when he looked up, he saw a petit woman staring at him. She was wearing a blue skirt and a white camisole. Her hair was pulled back and she wore glasses. She made her way through the dancing couples and stood in front of Stefano.
“Dance with me?” she said.
Stefano looked at her, unsure of what she had asked. He saw her hand and nervously shook it. She laughed and pulled at his hand so that he stood up. She reached his chest and when he looked into her big eyes, he felt her take his hands and place them around her slim waste. Even though he couldn’t understand what she was saying, he knew she wanted to dance. For a moment, he forgot about Lupita and danced with the woman. He felt her head rest against his chest and hoped she couldn’t feel his heart beat bursting through his chest. He hadn’t been intimate with a woman since he and Lupita lay beneath the fig trees back home. When the music stopped, the woman didn’t pull away, instead she dragged Stefano from the dance floor and outside into the cool darkness of night. She held his hand tightly and they walked down the gravel path towards an old shed. The moonlight cast ominous shadows on the floor but Stefano knew it was only the trees. When they finally stopped, she turned to face him.
“My name is Sally,” she said.
Stefano looked at her button nose and long lashes. “I am Stefano.”
She smiled, leant in and pressed her lips against his. At first he hesitated, but then he kissed her back and held her close to him. He followed her into the shed which had hay bales stacked in arrays and apple cores on the floor. He was slightly nervous and neither of them had said a thing to each other but when she began unbuttoning her shirt, Stefano understood perfectly well what her intentions were.
He’d been working on the farm for a few months now. The days were longer and the nights warmer and thanks to Guido and Nunzio, he knew a few more English phrases. They had both recently married the Australian women they met at the dance earlier on in the year. He often thought about Sally and their moment of passion. After that night, she would come to visit Stefano and they’d explore one another. The only one who knew about their nights together was Tom’s cat. He never told her, but she had been gaining weight, especially around her thighs and belly. Soon, Sally stopped coming and Stefano could go back to doing what he had planned: saving money for his and Lupita’s future. He was glad he hadn’t seen Sally because he was slowly forgetting about his moments of weakness. He tried to quash these thoughts about the Australian girl by working until his hands had calluses and his body was dripping with sweat.
Lupita’s ship would be arriving soon and although he couldn’t wait to hold Lupita, he wondered if the distance between them would change the way they felt about each other. He had met Lupita one afternoon while he was walking home from middle school. He would follow her home, offer to hold her books and help her study Latin. At first she dismissed him but after weeks of persistence, she let him hold her books and soon, they were spending their afternoons reciting Latin phrases.
He had finished picking all the apples for the day and wanted to rest beneath the penumbra of the trees. He waved to the other men who had also finished working and were making their way home. From a distance, he could see a car approaching the farm. Puffs of dust left from the tyres billowed around him as the car came to halt. He watched in anticipation as the car door opened. Out stepped a woman wearing a hat which covered her face. Stefano’s eyes were locked on her protruding belly. When the woman removed her hat, Stefano saw Sally’s button nose. His stomach dropped and his palms became wet and sticky. He followed her feet as they moved closer towards him. She smiled at him as she tapped her fingertips around her stomach. Stefano was lost for words and managed only a half -hearted smile.
“It’s ok, I won’t tell anyone,” she whispered. “I’ll come back soon.”
Stefano then watched her disappear back down the dirt road in her car. He still hadn’t moved and it wasn’t until Guido came and shook his shoulder that he awoke from his comatose state.
On their way home, Guido didn’t mention anything about Sally or the pregnancy and just when he thought he could have imagined the whole thing, Guido broke the silence.
“We’ll find you another place to work.”
By the time Lupita arrived, Stefano was working on another farm, this time he was picking strawberries and other berries. It wasn’t the same as the apple farm but it kept him busy. He would often think about Sally. He wondered about the child he had and whether she had tried to find him. As the weeks turned into months and then years, he soon forgot about Sally and his child altogether. Lupita would spend her day cooking him fried fish, pasta, zucchini flowers and other home cooked dishes. The flavours and aromas would often linger and the smells in the house would remind him of being back in Sulmona. She’d make sure his clothes were always washed and clean. He wondered if she suspected he had been unfaithful because on their wedding night, she had told him he was acting like he had done it before. He often replayed that conversation in his mind and to ease the pain, he would bring Lupita fresh roses every day, just so he could see her eyes close and her nose crinkle when she smelt them.
By the time Stefano could understand English well enough so that he could get by on his own, he had managed to get a job with trains. Not as a conductor, but as a maintenance man. He and the company he worked for were responsible for fixing any lose tracks. It wasn’t what he hoped to be doing but he was able to bring home a pay check which allowed his family to live comfortably. Each time he felt like quitting, he thought about Lupita and his twin girls – Geneva and Emelia. He realised early on that the promised gold filled streets of Australia were all but a mirage, fabricated by those who lived in desperation post World War Two. He constantly felt like a foreigner and assimilating to the customs expected of him were weighing him down. He spent the days longing for some kind of sign that he was meant to be where he was. Yes, he had a family and enough money for them to eat but there was an aching in his heart which neither his wife nor his daughters could fill.
One day, while he was hammering some steel, a few of the workers had come up to him and said he had a visitor. He put his tools down, wiped his face and made his way into the workers shed. Inside, he could see the back of a young man. He was slim, around his height, his hair mousy brown and fell around his jaw line. When he turned around, Stefano saw he wore glasses and behind the frames, he noticed brown eyes. They stood in perfect silence and stared at one another; analysing each other.
“I know who you are,” Stefano said.
“Mum said you didn’t speak English.”
“I’m Leonard. My mother and I have been trying to find you.”
Stefano moved in to shake his hand but was overcome when Leonard embraced him. At first Stefano was unsure of where to place his hands but then a magnetic energy surrounded him and it was as though some kind of force was between him and the young man. They held each other tightly and Stefano felt tears stream down his face.
Every Tuesday, Leonard would come and have lunch with Stefano. The more time he spent with him, the more he saw himself. At times, it was as though he was looking in a mirror, especially the way Leonard would curl his top lip when he’d sip his drink through a straw.
“I want to visit Italy one day, Dad.”
“We will go.” Stefano lied. No one could know Leonard existed and every time he returned from seeing him, he would leave his dirty shoes on inside the house so Lupita would nag and they’d argue. When he would notice loose tiles that needed to be glued back down or a leaking bath tub tap, he thought about Leonard and fixing those items with him. But when he watched his wife in the kitchen, he swallowed the thoughts away. He hadn’t come to Australia to bring shame on his name. He’d come to marry Lupita, have a family and settle down. She had given him the life he wanted and cared for him the way a wife was supposed to. How could he introduce Leonard to her?
When Stefano woke up, the house was illuminated by the moonlight. He made his way to his bedroom and sat on the edge of his bed. Beside his bedside table, he kept a photograph of Geneva and Emelia as toddlers. He picked up the photo frame and pulled the backing off. He gently peeled the wooden back away and hiding behind the photo of his girls, was one of himself with Leonard, the day they first met. He ran his fingers around the crinkled edges and tried to flatten them down. He looked down at his belly then back at the photo and giggled at his weight gain. He placed the photo down and turned to Lupita’s side of the bed. He closed his eyes and she appeared, dressed in her floral night gown. When he opened his eyes, there was no one there and he sighed as he threw his legs over the edge and lay his head down on the pillow. Eventually he’d fall asleep and be at peace with his dreams.