Do you remember yesterday I told the story of Yianni, the old man who drank his last glass of Cassis with Domenico in Acland Street?
Today I got on the train and went down to Acland Street and sat to have a coffee with Domenico – it had been a long time. I bought a bottle of Crème de Cassis and offered it as a gift.
-What’s the occasion? He asked.
-You’re a friend and it’s a gift. Don’t interrogate me or I’ll take it back.
-Well, I’ll open it. Thank you.
Domenico is about two years older than I am and was born in the beginning of the Second World War, but he never knew his father until 1951. His father was in the Royal Italian Army and was captured by the Australians at the battle of Bardia, Libya, on the 5th of January 1941.
-So tell me. How did your family get here? I asked as Dom poured another glass of Cassis.
-My father was sent to India to a POW camp. But in Australia many men had gone to the Army and there was a lot of work to do on the farms. My father, he was from Calabria and was a good farmer and thousands of Italian POWs were sent to Australia from India. First they went to Cowra POW camp in New South Wales and then they got sent to different farms all over the place. He was lucky to get out of Cowra. He was sent to a farm on the Murray, near Albury. It was a good farm and the boss was a woman. Her husband was away in the Aussie Army.
-My father’s farm grew vegetables in Calabria and the farm in Albury was for growing vegetables and very soon my father was the boss of all the other workers. Then the war ended but the woman’s husband did not come home straight away. He had been a POW, but in Changi and on the railway. When he did come home he was not much good for a long time.
-Then the time came and my father was going to be sent back home but he asked to stay for a while until the man was well enough and so Papa didn’t come home to Italy until 1951. I was ten and had never seen him, but we learned to love each other as a father loves his son and a son loves his father. In Calabria life was not so good after the war and always my father he was telling us about his farm in Australia and one day a letter came and the man in Albury wrote and asked Papa to come back to Australia and manage the farm and there was a cottage and my Mamma cried but we all came here; Nonna, my Father, my Mother and my sister Poppy. Nonna loved the farm but she also missed the noise of a city with Italians all over the place and we would go, many times to Melbourne to Lygon Street and when I was seventeen I came here to stay and my Father helped me to start this coffee shop here in Acland Street. But he and Mamma never came to live here. They both loved the farm.
-So did your father stay on the same farm as manager?
-Yes and No. The man who owned the farm, Leonard, wanted to expand but he couldn’t work the farm if it got bigger. I remember the day it happened.
-We were sitting down to dinner one night and Len and his wife, Carol, came over and sat with us. Len and Carol had big smiles on their face and said they had something important to say.
‘Dom,’ he said, Dominico was my father’s name same as me. ‘Dom, I am not going to pay you any more wages.’
-My father and my Mother were shocked and my father stood up angry and said how he had worked so hard on the farm and he had not gone back to Italy when he could because of the farm and because Len was sick from being a POW and Len and Carol just sat there and smiled and my father said how can you come here and tell me no more you pay me and just smile. And Len said, ‘When you finish bellyaching why don’t you sit down and read that piece of paper I put in front of you.
-And my Father and my Mother read the paper and it said that the farm now belonged to Len and Carol and Domenico and Carmela “as tenants in common in equal shares”.
‘Now you don’t get a wage. Now you own half the business you get to share all the profit, so if you get slack and idle and don’t work we will all end up in the mud.’
-And that is how it happened. And if you write this story you make sure you tell it good. Not like the story you wrote of Yianni.
-What was wrong with story I wrote about Yianni?
-I’ll tell you what was wrong. You said how Yianni came to my shop, right here and sat in the same chair you are in today and drank Cassis with me and then he went and killed himself.
-I know I did. That is what happened. It was a sad thing that happened and I couldn’t make it happy. But in the end I think Yianni was content. So what did I say that was wrong.
-I was Yianni’s friend for forty-five years and I never knew he was sad like that. I should have hugged him and held him and stopped him going down to the pier. You made me insensible.
-You are never an insensible person, Dom. How much did Yanni love you that he came to his only friend to say goodbye? Tomorrow I want you to tell me Yianni’s story.
-If you bring another bottle I will tell you everyone’s story.