...a story about migrating to Italy

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Stairwell

The Stairwell - Short Story - Published by Flatchat Press 2005.
'…But this is not your average day,' Lachlan says, his slightly crooked grin appearing and fading with his speech. He pretends not to notice that the other two are staring at him. Lachlan is roughly six inches taller than Ann and Damien. His tangled, copper-wire hair rests on his broad shoulders; his eyes are blue and there is a cleft in his chin. He looks like he could be an athlete, a star football player. Although this year he dropped out of all the school sports teams, and took up extra units in maths and science.
The three of them stand on the nature strip across the street from their high school. At their feet, deteriorating cigarette butts and fading bus tickets are wedged in amongst the tufts of grass. Behind them the block of flats stand tall and brown—brown bricks, brown spouting, brown window frames. The Browns. A rolled up local paper sticks out of each brown letterbox. It's a Wednesday.
'Well?' Lachlan nods impatiently towards the laneway that opens beside the rows of The Browns clotheslines, and which travels around The Browns, to the main road. From there it is only one block of sprinting to reach the train station. Once they board the train, they will be safe.
Damien tucks his long dark fringe behind his ears and looks around as if he's just woken up. He is small, but wiry and quick—he used to play 'centre' for the school basketball team. His eyes are close-set and dark, almost black; his nose is narrow and long; and severe acne during the past three years has left craters in his cheeks. Damien is on medication now and his acne has cleared up considerably, although his mood swings are at an all time high. When not sullen and apathetic, he is madly cheerful and energetic. He bounces off the walls, mimics fictional character voices and generally behaves like the Mad Hatter. Or perhaps Damien is more like the March Hare. Lachlan is the Mad Hatter. Ann is the mouse.
Ann checks her watch. It's a quarter to eight. Her breathing quickens. Teachers will be arriving soon. Decisions must be hasty, and final.
Ann is slightly taller than Damien. Ann only likes to eat mashed potatoes, two-minute noodles, and vanilla ice-cream. When it comes to food, she sticks to mostly whites and yellows—too many colours infuriate her. This year, Ann has become prone to fainting spells. They usually last a minute or so at a time, and occur every few weeks. Her skin is pasty and her eyes are grey, but sometimes they look pale green. Her hair is ash blonde and always plaited into about forty thin plaits that end at her shoulder-blades. The plaits are bound at the ends with tiny, beige-coloured elastic-bands. When she is nervous, she chews on the tail-end of a plait until it is matted and spiked. At the moment, three of them are spiked at the ends.
'Let's just go, Damien.' Ann glances back at Lachlan.
'You two did bring clothes, didn't you?' Lachlan says.
Ann nods. Damien drawls 'Yes,' and crosses his arms.
Lachlan steps forward and grabs the loose shoulder strap of Damien's school bag. 'C'mon, you'll just be bored shitless at school!' he says, towing Damien to the laneway entrance. He lets go and stands in front of Damien, arms folded.
'Lach, what about Miss Burnes?' Damien says, looking down. His giant feet look tacked on to his small frame, as if he was meant to be six foot tall.
Lachlan sighs and rolls his eyes at Ann. She shrugs and winds a plait around her finger.
'Well, she's only teaching for the rest of this term,' Damien digs his hands into his pockets and kicks a discarded cigarette lighter. 'I don't wanna miss any classes, Okay?'
Despite appearances, Damien is a hopeless romantic on the inside. He would serenade Miss Burnes from outside her window with a song that he wrote, played on a lute. He doesn't know how to play the lute, but he would take lessons, for her.
A maroon sedan drives past them and turns into the school driveway.
'Shit!' Lachlan scrambles for the rubbish skip at the laneway entrance. The others follow, cursing and shaking with adrenalin. They crouch behind the skip, amongst piles of soiled clothes and several torn and fraying couch cushions.
'Okay.' Lachlan's eyes look almost as dark as Damien's. 'We're all goin' to the train station. You're just using Miss Burnes as an excuse! Admit it, you're a fuckin' softcock.'
Damien stands up. His pupils dilate and the veins in the back of his hands bulge as he clenches his fists. His voice is deep and scratchy.
'If we get caught, it'll be me that cops all the shit – you know that! I'm the bad influence! I'm already treadin` thin ice with my old man. If I get into any more trouble, he's gonna string my nuts to the clothesline!'
Ann and Lachlan are silent for a moment. Their eyes are twinkling. They look at each other and start laughing. Lachlan says, 'nuts to the clothesline!' He and Ann burst into a fresh wave of laughter, faces red and eyes watering.
Damien smirks and, crouching down again, leans with his back against the skip. His efforts to stifle a chuckle fuel Ann and Lachlan's amusement. A moment later, they are all roaring with laughter.
When they compose themselves, Lachlan leans towards Damien.
'Mate, forget about your old man. I swear—this is important.'
Damien looks at him for a moment. He tucks his fringe behind his ears and peeks around the corner of the skip.

'What are you doing?' Lachlan says.
Ann is weaving three of her plaits together. She glares at him and continues to weave. She feels light-headed. She doesn't like travelling backwards on the train.
A woman sits in the booth behind Lachlan. She is wearing a yellow bandana, tied over brunette curls. Across the aisle from her sit a group of younger kids: three boys and two girls. They keep switching seats. One of the girls is wearing ear-phones. The other kids are crowding around a video phone. They are laughing.
Damien is in the booth across from Ann and Lachlan. His school bag is on the seat facing him, his feet perched on the bag—one of his tactics. If an inspector walks through the carriage, Damien can say in his defence: 'but my feet aren't on the seat, they're on my bag.'
Next to Damien, jammed between two seat cushions, is a Burger Rings packet. He snatched it off Lachlan, who was throwing Burger Rings at him. Lachlan throws things at people he's annoyed with. Damien tries his best to ignore people he's annoyed with. Ann, in these situations, is the observer.
'Can someone talk, I'm bored,' Lachlan says, sitting forward.
Ann pushes aside her hair and shrugs. 'About what?'
Lachlan leans back and rests his head on the top of the seat. He looks up at the ceiling.
'I dunno. Stuff.' He looks at her.
'Well, I don't know,' Ann says. She traces her finger over clumsy etchings in the wall beside her: SAM + TYRONE + J.M RULZ.
Lachlan follows her finger tracing over each scratched letter. He crosses his arms.
'Things would be a bit more interesting if someone was talking to me, instead of being a shit-head.'
Damien continues to stare out of the window beside him, his brooding frown growing a few shades darker. Ann continues to collect her plaits in groups of three and transform them into one. Lachlan digs his fists into the seat. Ann sighs and tilts her head. Her eyes widen and the colour of her skin changes from white to greenish-white.
'Hey!' Lachlan jolts upright.
Ann begins to sway back and forth. Lachlan moves to her side and holds her shoulders. Damien scrambles onto his feet and sits across from her.
'Ann!' Damien places his hand on her forehead.
'Fuck, why isn't she talking?' Lachlan's face is red and there are sweat beads on his temples.
Damien stares into her eyes. 'She's fainted again.'
'People can't faint with their eyes open!'
'Why not?' Damien holds the palm of his hand under her nose. 'She's still breathing.' He grabs Ann's wrist and checks for a pulse.
'Okay, okay...' Lachlan glances out the window. 'Milford's coming up. C'mon, let's get her off this train.'
'But this is your stop, what if your olds are around?'
'Who gives a shit—c'mon, let's go!'
The boys stand either side of Ann and slowly try to hoist her up. She is a dead weight. Lachlan gestures to Damien to stand back and scoops her up into his arms. 'You open the door.'
Damien grabs their school bags and slings them over his shoulders.
The woman with the bandana is staring at them. The voice-over says, 'Now approaching Milford Station.'
Damien slides the doors open a second after they beep. He jumps out and then waits, shifting from foot to foot, as Lachlan steps gingerly onto the platform.
The air is cold and damp. The train tracks glisten. It is drizzling, like water from a garden spray bottle.
Lachlan carries Ann to a nearby bench. Damien places her schoolbag beneath her head. She is staring straight up at the ceiling.
The boys crouch beside her. Ann's eyebrows twitch.
'Shh!' Ann says, barely opening her mouth. Her eyes remain fixed on the ceiling.
'Ann!' Lachlan leans forward, his face inches from hers.
Damien nudges him in the arm. 'Shut up, you'll put her into shock!'
Lachlan carefully lifts her up into sitting position. He sits next to her on the bench and cradles her in his arms.
'She never faints for this long.' Damien stands and begins to pace. 'We should call someone.'
'That's great, Damien. Where are we supposed to be?'
Damien stops pacing. 'Oh shit. Look, let's just go back to school. We won't be that late—we can say it happened a few blocks away.'
'And our uniforms? We'll still get busted!'
'Why? We can change back, and—'
'Have a look at your shirt now, mate. Go on, take it out of your bag.' Lachlan watches Damien as he unzips his backpack and pulls out his school shirt. The shirt is badly creased, with blue ink smeared on the collar.
Damien looks up at Lachlan. He hesitates.
'Anyway,' Lachlan says, 'we'd have to change her clothes.'
Lachlan smirks as Damien's eyes grow wide. Blushing, Damien stands and walks to the edge of the bench. He picks at a sticker on the wall, tears off a strip, rolls it into a ball and throws it onto the train tracks.
'Shh!' Ann says. The boys freeze.
'Mike!' Ann screams and sits up. Her breathing is loud and fast-paced. She takes a deep breath and swings her legs down off the bench, and looks at Lachlan.
'Hey,' she says. She smiles wearily. The green tinge is disappearing from her skin as she peers at her surroundings, then at Damien. 'Why are we at Lachlan's stop?'
'Damien almost chickened out,' Lachlan says, staring straight ahead.
Damien opens his mouth to protest, then closes it again.
They sit in a row and stare at the train tracks. Rain begins to pelt at the metal, the wood and the rocks. Bells sound rhythmically and commuters on the far end of the platform approach the edge.
'We better catch this one,' Lachlan says, eyes fixed on the tracks as the train glides into view.

The smell of bitter coffee weights the air, softened by the aroma of freshly baked muffins, clouded with the reek of cigarette smoke.
They are walking down one of the Central Station platforms. They weave through huddles of black and grey suits—the men with briefcases, umbrellas and polished black shoes; the women with white K-mart runners and clothing boutique bags transporting stilettos.
Lachlan marches down the stairs to the underground passageway like he is late for a meeting. Ann and Damien quicken their pace to keep up. The concrete is covered with a layer of moist grime. It smells like garbage. Old event flyers line the walls, peeling like dead skin.
'Where are we going?' Ann says, breathing in short gasps.
Damien trails them. 'It's his big secret, Ann, remember?'
Lachlan glances back at Damien and scowls. Damien leers at him.
They ascend a set of stairs. The cold wind slaps their faces and picks up strands of their hair. They walk through puddles. The ground is dark grey. There are more suits and umbrellas, but they seem to be moving the opposite way.

At every side street they cross, Ann and Damien glance at each other. Ann is chewing her hair. Damien is frowning. Lachlan just keeps walking, his eyes focused straight ahead.

The skyscrapers are behind them. The suit-wearing commuters are thinning out. High density apartment buildings and shop-fronts take over. A fish and chip shop, an adult book store, a laundrette, an empty shop-front, another empty shop front. And another. Windows pasted with old newspaper pages line their way. All of Ann's plaits are spiked at the ends. Damien rubs his face every so often. Lachlan presses on.

Damien yelps like a puppy whose tail has been trodden on. The other two turn on their heels. Across the street is Miss Burnes.
Miss Burnes, their substitute Social Studies teacher, is holding hands with a man who looks twice her age. He is short and stocky. His hair is dark and slicked back, like an old school Dracula. He has dark, close-set eyes and a long, narrow nose.
Damien's mouth is opening and closing like a fish's. Lachlan curses under his breath. Ann taps Damien on the arm and whispers, 'Let's stand behind that bus shelter.'
The three of them sidle behind the shelter. Damien peeks around the corner. The couple are kissing and embracing.
'Oh, fucking hell!' Damien crouches and leans with his back against the shelter. He places his hands on his forehead, pressing them down with force, as if to stop his brain from bursting out.
Ann crouches beside Damien and rests her hand on his shoulder. She glances up at Lachlan. He shrugs and then looks out from behind the shelter. 'They've gone. They drove off.'
Damien gazes at him with red-rimmed eyes.
Lachlan starts to run his hands through his tangled hair. 'I don't know what to say, mate.' His hands get stuck half-way. He takes them out of his hair and folds his arms. 'I thought she was meant to take Social Studies this morning. I guess you didn't miss out anyway, hey?'
Damien hangs his head. 'Of all the shit and fucking stupid ideas you could have had, Lach…'
Lachlan's face is like stone. Ann stares at the ground.
Damien goes on: 'Forget about Miss Burnes, he says. What a fucking twist of the blade that is!'
'So she's got a boyfriend, big shit,' Lachlan says.
Damien stands up.
'You dragged us all the way here to fucking humiliate me!'
Lachlan's jaw drops. He shakes his head mutely.
'I kinda knew I didn't have a chance anyway. But thanks for rubbing it in my face.' Fists clenched, he steps towards Lachlan. 'You fucking tool!'
'No! Mate, listen to me…'
Ann scrambles to her feet. Damien swings at Lachlan. Lachlan dodges.
Damien takes another swing. His fist connects with Lachlan's jaw. They both flinch. Lachlan hooks his hands on Damien's arms and pushes him against the back of the bus shelter with a thud. Damien jumps up and head butts him.
Ann gasps. 'No, Damien! Stop!'
Lachlan stumbles backwards, holding his nose. It aches like a stab wound. He doesn't want to fight. He scrambles around the blur of Damien, the way he used to avoid a tackle in footy, and traps him in a headlock. Damien's fists flail. He squirms as Lachlan shouts at him: 'Listen to me, you dickhead! I didn't know about them!'
'Yeah? Then why the fuck did you bring us here?' Damien yells, still squirming.
A man's stern voice interrupts: 'Alright, you two. Break it up.'
The boys look up. A police officer. He looks young, maybe late twenties.
Lachlan lets go of Damien's head and they stand up straight, as if lining up at assembly in primary school. Lachlan can feel stinging warmth on his face. He is breathing through his mouth. He touches his nose—it feels hot and sensitive to the touch. It is also wet. There is blood on his hand.
Damien is still breathing heavily. His fists are clenched and ready to strike. The cop stares him straight in the eyes. Damien is suddenly aware that he is frowning back. He makes an effort to un-clench his fists and un-furrow his brow. He takes a deep breath and tries to calm down. He straightens out his fingers and feels them beginning to tremble.
'You two boys know each other, do you?'
'Yes,' Lachlan says. 'We were just mucking around.'
The cop glares at him. 'Awful bloody nose you got there, mate, for just mucking around. That looks broken.'
'It was an accident,' Lachlan says.
'Curriculum day today then, is it?'
The boys are silent. The cop looks at Ann.
'Is it? Do you kids have permission to be absent from school?'
Ann looks like she has been called on in class to answer a question that she doesn't know. She looks at the boys for guidance.
The police officer nods and takes a notepad and pen from his shirt pocket.
'Right, I'm Constable Hayes. I'm going to have to get all of your details,' he says as he flicks through pages and clicks his pen. 'Then you'll have to come with me to the station.'

They sit on olive-green vinyl chairs with wooden frames. Lachlan sits with his head tilted back. With his right hand he is holding a wad of tissues to his nose, while his left hand supports an ice pack on the back of his neck. Damien is cradling his left hand, wrapped in an icepack. Ann is sitting, hunched over. There is a water cooler beside them, and a glossy poster about crime stoppers on the wall, alongside a rack of pamphlets. They can see Officer Hayes at his desk, through the window. He hangs up the phone and enters the room.
'Right, I've contacted your school.'
Ann lets out a squeak like a mouse and covers her mouth with her hand. Damien clenches his fists and then, grimacing, unclenches his left fist in its icepack. Lachlan swallows.
Officer Hayes goes on: 'You'll be escorted back as soon as possible.'
'In a cop car?' Lachlan says, still holding the wad of tissues to his nose. He sits the icepack on his lap.
'No, in an unmarked vehicle.'
Lachlan sighs.
'We'll leave in five minutes, okay? Help yourselves to some water.' Officer Hayes winks and walks into the next room.
'Can this day get any worse?' Damien mutters.
Lachlan cups his hand over his mouth. 'We can't let on that we saw her.'
'What the fuck is that supposed to mean?' Damien says, not bothering to lower his voice.
'I mean, don't say anything,' Lachlan says.
Damien throws the icepack on the empty chair beside him and crosses his arms, his swollen hand jutting out like a mannequin's.
'What was today about, Lach?' he says.
Ann stirs, and stares at Lachlan.
Lachlan shakes his head. 'There's no use. Not now.'
'Just tell us!'
'Why not?' Damien groans and holds his forehead with his good hand. 'Just… just give me something else to think about, please!'
'It affects Ann more,' Lachlan says, and for the second time that day he tries to ignore the other two's startled stares.
'Lach, if you don't fucking tell us now, I'm gonna have to make my other hand swollen.'
'That's great, mate—with a dry, cool wit like that you could be an action hero.' Lachlan attempts a chuckle. Then he sighs and lowers his voice. 'Okay. But you gotta understand, this whole thing… maybe it is nothing. I'm probably wrong. That's why I wanted to bring you two there, to see for yourselves.'
He hesitates. The other two wait.
'I was in the city yesterday, up this way, buying some vinyl at Pepper Records. On the way back to the station, I tried a short-cut through some side streets. I thought I knew the way. But I ended up in a dead end lane behind the old post office. And then I saw this guy…'
'That dickhead, with Miss Burnes!' Damien leans forward, clenching his teeth.
'No! Listen to me!'
Damien sits back. Ann sits forward.
'He was a junkie.' Lachlan swallows. 'But I… I thought he looked familiar. I thought I know this guy, I know him, but I also didn't wanna know…'
Damien furrows his brow. Ann turns even paler. Lachlan looks her in the eyes.
'I think it's him.'
Officer Hayes enters the room. They stand and follow him down the corridor and into the foyer of the police station. They avoid eye contact.

'I'm parked just over here.' Officer Hayes holds out his keys and presses the button on the alarm keychain. The black Club-Sport lights flash as they walk towards the car. Lachlan walks ahead of the other two, directly behind Officer Hayes. His heartbeat quickens. He feels like he is on the wrong train. The silence is frustrating. He looks the car up and down as they approach it.
'Nice car, Officer.'
'Thanks, Lachlan. Are you into cars?' Officer Hayes walks around to the driver's side door.
'Sort of. Don't usually like Holden's, but these Club-Sports are pretty cool.'
Officer Hayes smiles and gets in.
Damien appears next to Lachlan. 'You better call shotgun,' he mutters.
Lachlan nods, opens the front door and turns towards Ann. She is no longer behind them. He ducks down to check inside the car. Damien is already seated behind the passenger seat. Ann is not there.
'Ann's gone!' Lachlan says. He shuts the door and steps back into the middle of the footpath, looking up and down the street.
Damien hops out. 'What? Where is she?'
'You tell me!'
Officer Hayes strides around the front of the car. His voice is stern. 'C'mon you two…'
'Ann's gone!' Lachlan is panicking.
Officer Hayes's narrowed eyes widen for a second. In this moment, Lachlan sees him not as a police officer, but a guy that finished high school not too long ago.
'Okay,' Officer Hayes says, glancing at the police station, 'I'll have to take you both back to the station for now. Which way did she go?'
'I don't know… she…' Lachlan stops cold. He looks sideways at Damien. 'Cheese it,' he quickly says, through his teeth.
'What?' Damien frowns.
'Run—now!' Lachlan takes off down the street at top speed, with Damien a close second. Lachlan can feel his chest tightening; he feels like he is going to collapse. They can hear Officer Hayes tearing after them. Then his footfalls fade as they hinge into a side street and lean against a billboard, catching their breath. Lachlan bends and grabs his knees.
'Fuck!' Damien says between huge gasps of air. 'You haven't raced… in ages… and you still beat me—you prick!'
Lachlan straightens up and starts down the street. 'This way.'
'What? You think she's gone to find him—if it is him?' Damien says, jogging to keep up.
'Where else would she go?'
'Fuck!' Damien quickens his pace. 'Well then… it better be him, hey? Better she run into Mike than some psycho stranger.'
Lachlan's nose is stinging, from the cold air.
'What if it is him?' Damien says.
Lachlan presses on and says nothing.
They turn into a laneway. Milk crates are stacked to the left, rubbish bins to the right. The crunch of rain-soaked dirt and shattered glass beneath their feet echoes between the buildings.
Lachlan stops. 'This is where…'
Ann is crouched under a stairwell, which leads to an abandoned loft above the old post office. She is crouched beside another figure. The young guy's hair is the exact shade of Ann's ash blonde, but twisted and matted like Lachlan's. He was once as fit and built as Lachlan, from their countless evenings of footy training.
Now he sits under the stairwell, his face grey, eyes vacant, leaning back against the wall, looking up.
Ann raises her head. Her eyes are red and full of tears. Her mouth is distorted.
It is him: Ann's big brother, Damien's friend, Lachlan's best mate.
'He said…' Ann hiccups with sobs. 'He said he was sorry for being away so long...'
Damien feels a surge of stomach acid in his throat. He quickly crouches and places a hand flat and spits on the ground. Lachlan takes a step forward.
Mike hasn't moved. He is staring straight up.

- Michelle Napolitano 2004
Written by Michelle Napolitano

Chapter One: Breathe…………………………………………………………………
Chapter Four: Thicker Than Water…...…………………………………………......
Chapter Five: All I Have Is My Hands……………………………………………...
Chapter Eight: Another Straw for the Camel's Back
Chapter Nine: Give the Man a Cigar……………………………………………………
Chapter11:Honky Tonk Man………………………………………………………
Chapter One
She was staring at my grandfather. He was leaning back on the couch and staring at the ceiling.
"…I know, it is hard to lose your son," Nurse Helen said. My grandfather let out a long, heavy sigh and looked down at the carpet.
"Yes, I know, it's hard," he said, his hands shaped in the air and fingers splayed, "But it is wrong for the son to go before the parents."
Helen's face was soft and calm. She wore a long white shirt over a navy skirt and white stockings.
"It's against nature," Helen looked each of us in the eye. Her eyes were an intense, dark blue. She went on, "but we must accept it, he cannot go on suffering like this." She held my grandfather's hand.
We sat on mauve, cloth-covered couches; surrounding a small, round coffee table. On it there was a stack of soup-grimed spoons, ceramic bowls and a glass jug of orange juice. A shelf beneath the table held dated copies of Woman's Weekly and Time magazine.
The wall opposite the door was banded with white string, thumb-tacked end to end; with an assortment of Christmas cards hooked onto it.
The air was leaden with the aroma of chicken soup.
Uncle Peter sat beside my grandfather. His short grey hair neatly framed his round, reddish face. He stared at the floor. He sat forward with his hands on his knees – exactly what Dad would do when he doesn't know what to say.
Peter looked straight ahead and locked eyes with Shirley, my Dad's sister. He searched her face; broad and pale, with deep, pensive eyes and a steely mouth. Her face: so similar to Dad's… and so similar to my own. She pressed her lips together. Her facial muscles twitched at her jaw. She blinked. Her ginger eyelashes moistened and matted together as she looked at her sister, Grace.
Grace glanced back at Shirley; then darted her eyes to the wall, where her gaze remained fixed. The Christmas cards were evenly spaced along the string, which draped across the wall in the shape of an upside-down rainbow.
Grace cupped her hand beneath the kick of her dark, shoulder-length hair. She smoothed her long skirt down over her knees. She crossed one tiny foot behind the other. Her whole face, small and soft, seemed to droop.
My sisters were seated either side of me. The three of us were wedged, shoulder to shoulder, into a two-seater couch. Nella clutched my left hand with her long, bony fingers. Her skin, which is usually tanned, looked tight and pale.
Lucia leaned into my right side. Her wispy, fair hair was swept up and clasped untidily at the back. Lucia's gaze was fixed in the direction of the cards. Her tightly pressed lips and her porcelain complexion made her look statuesque.
When Nurse Helen left, I walked into his room across the hall, and sat beside him. His room smelt of Sorbelene cream and disinfectant. A hint of Mum's rose perfume lingered in the air.
The bed sheet rustled like paper as Mum spread a thin, beige blanket over him. She turned the top edge of the sheet down over the blanket, into an even fold.
His torso seemed to disappear beneath the covers, tapering down towards the foot of the bed, as if his limbs were nonexistent.
His breathing was dry and hoarse, and he licked his peeling red-purple lips.
"Do you want some water, Dad?"
He nodded.
Mum handed me the glass of water with a straw in it. I brought it close to Dad's face and placed the top of the straw in his mouth. After a few sips he frowned. In the past day or two I learned that this meant he'd had enough water.
He'd had enough.
* * *
"Are you okay?" Jon asked. He flicked his fringe away from his eyes.
I noticed for the first time that the colour of his eyes were almost identical to his hair colour. A mixture of bronze and auburn: Bronburn?
We sat on white, plastic courtyard chairs; beneath a spectacular blue sky. Dried leaves and dirt crunched each time I shuffled my feet under the table. My mobile phone sat on top of the table, quietly beeping with a surge of text messages.
Jon was staring at me.
"I'm okay," I said quickly.
"Huh?" Jon squinted in the sunlight, shading his eyes with a cupped hand.
"I'm fine," I said. I stretched my arm out across the courtyard table for a moment. Jon was leaning back on his chair and I couldn't reach him for a reassuring pat on the arm. He smiled at me and I grabbed my cigarettes. I lit up.
"Remember Fags?" Jon said.
I spluttered.
His crooked smile revealed the gap between his two front teeth. He chuckled. Jon sounds like a hillbilly when he laughs.
"You know… the white stick lollies with the red tips? They looked like cigarettes."
I nodded, smiling. "They changed the name to Fads now though, Jon."
"Oh…did they?" He smirked and plucked a leaf from the shrub beside him.
At school, Jon, Anna and I used to trade 'Fads' for musk sticks and sherbet straws.
We would retreat to the slightly more rural side of the playground, well out of the way of footballs and soccer balls. We ate lollies and thought up ideas for plays. We spent almost every lunchtime rehearsing. We would plead with our teacher to let us perform it that afternoon.
Lollies and plays. Fads.
I examined the cigarette lodged between my fingers.
The sunlight was warm and comforting, though a cool breeze ran along my forearms and goose bumps appeared. I puffed on my cigarette and stared at my hands.
"Mish?" Jon sat forward.
"Yeah?" I said, without looking up.
"I…I think you're really strong." He shifted in his seat and twisted the tiny parched leaf in his fingers.
I ashed my cigarette and watched the flakes of burnt tobacco leaves float to the ground.
"Yeah," I said, picking at the skin around my thumbnail. "Thanks …" I inhaled tobacco smoke and looked up at him. "It worries me, though."
"What does?" Jon, eyes fixed on my face, discarded the leaf and plucked another from the shrub.
"It sounds weird, but…maybe being strong isn't the best thing. Like, holding too much in… will hurt more later on." I puffed the last drag from my cigarette and flicked it into the smoker's pot.
Jon nodded. The dry leaf cracked and split as he tore it into tiny pieces, dropping the pieces one by one onto the table. He wiped them to the ground with a sweep of his hand and looked up at me. He chewed his lip.
"They've got jelly cups in the kitchen," I said with a half-smile. "I can grab some for us. They let me. I can have whatever I want from there."
Jon stared at me, looking pensive. He put his forefinger to his chin.
"Do they have… the red flavour?" He said, as if describing a seasoning for a gourmet meal.
I smiled. "Yes, I believe that both the red and the green flavour are provided."
* * *
"Mum, stop worrying and go to sleep," Lucia said. She covered Mum with a blanket. The nurses had set up a spare bed in Dad's room, so that Mum could stay overnight.
Nella sat beside Dad, Lucia lay down beside Mum and I curled up on the armchair. We dimmed the light to a soft glow.
I noticed Lucia staring at her watch, then at Dad, then at her watch. When I realised what she was doing, I followed suit.
Breathe,…and then Dad would take another breath. Sometimes it was only ten seconds, other times it reached twenty seconds before he breathed again.
I hoisted myself up from the armchair, and walked over to Dad. I sat at his side and held his hand, with my head resting on the edge of his pillow. I could feel the coolness of the plastic through the pillow case. I closed my eyes and dreamt about the times when he would chase me around the house when I was three years old. He would change direction when I couldn't see him, so when I came running around the corner of the kitchen and the hall he would suddenly face me head on and yell "Rarrr!" I would squeal in delight as he lifted me above his shoulders until I felt dizzy.
I remembered Sunday mornings when Dad would sit up in bed and my sisters and I brought his coffee. Dad had that smell that was a mixture of coffee, aftershave and cigarettes and his fingernails always had grease under them from working on cars.
I opened my eyes and looked down at Dad's hands. I noticed that they were not much bigger than my own. His fingernails were clean, and his hands were bruised, with every vein elevated and his fingers were thin.
I blinked and peered around the dimly lit room. Mum's eyes were shut tight and her brow was furrowed. My sister's expressions were almost identical to Mum's. The hospital was silent, bar the occasional 'beep' from out in the hall when a patient needs the nurse. I looked to Dad. He breathed. Fifteen seconds passed. He breathed again.
I removed myself from the bedside and crawled back onto the armchair. I thought, 'Maybe I can fall asleep, and wake up to find myself home, woken from the sound of Dad mowing the lawn'.
All shuffles and beeps throughout the corridors had ceased for some time. The light above Dad's bed glowed red through my closed eyelids. The ensemble of breathing comforted me as I drifted into sleep.
I am curled up on the armchair. A child, wrapped up in my bunny rug. Nella sits, twirling her plaits around her tiny fingers. She is biting her lip with her protruding front teeth. Lucia lays awake beside Mum, chewing her fingernails. Lucia stands up and walks over to me. She rests her hand on my forehead. Our ears shift like cats. We can hear Dad's car turning into our street. Coming to a stop in the driveway. The slam of the car door. Footsteps. The thunder of the glass sliding door. The rustle of the paper bag. The aroma of fresh cinnamon doughnuts. The musk of his aftershave…
An anguished groan sounded from Dad's throat. I woke, sat up and watched him for what seemed like hours, until fatigue overwhelmed me and I drifted back to sleep.
* * *
The following day, family and friends began to pour into the ward by the dozen. I could view this comfortably from the sitting room. The doorway was directly opposite Dad's doorway, and an inside window widened my perspective.
I sat and stared through the window and the door, then slowly shifted my gaze to the carpet, the table and the wall of my quarter.
A few of the Christmas cards had slipped off the string and hooked themselves onto the top of the couch below it. Nobody had seemed to notice. There was one with a picture of a reindeer, and another with a nativity scene.
Today, the room smelt like chicken schnitzel. Relatives brought us meals without a word said and we would nod, smile, and eat up. Triangle-cut sandwiches from the hospital kitchen, which were ready-made and stored in the fridge, were not too bad – but now these were for snacks only.
I was reminded of my sister's presence with each sharp flick of a glossy page, as they leafed through magazines. Lucia picked up a pen from the table, and began scribbling in a copy of Woman's Weekly.
I watched my relatives through the window as they lined up, taking turns to stand at Dad's bedside. Each of them smiled at him and held his hand.
I watched them as they stood before him. I sat and stared. They moved and shuffled along like a line of ticket holders. Every so often, some newcomers would arrive and some others would leave.
* * *
By late afternoon of the next day, I was able to sit alone with my father. I sat beside his bed.
I could picture us sitting in the backyard. We would sit on the wooden bench under the gum tree, wattle, the plum and the fig. The lawn was always a few shades darker, near the back fence, beneath the shelter of the trees. The grass was soft and cool between our toes and we sat under the canopy of leaves; lazing on a Sunday afternoon.
Dad's favourite pastime was 'relaxing'. He is the only person I have ever known to honestly claim to have never been bored. He could sit placidly under the trees in the backyard for hours. He would never think about what time it was, he would never worry about what he 'should' be doing. To Dad, no time spent was a waste. He was a master at taking time out, clearing his mind of all thought and just 'being'.
Within this glorious backyard setting, if you direct your focus to the left of Dad, you will see the garage. 'Dad's garage'. A metal tag declaring 'World's fastest driver' dangling from under the cap with the Ford logo hangs above the tool bench, beside the 'Bar Open' sign. Each tool is perched meticulously on nails and hooks, each traced in black marker, in a perfect arrangement. Within the cupboards and shelves you will find tools, parts and bric-a-brac useful for any automotive, carpentry or building requirements.
As your gaze stays fixed, picture my Dad, Frank, standing at the tool bench, casually leaning with one foot crossed over the other. He is wearing his navy work shirt, navy Hard Yakka pants and his ever-present brown slippers. You can be certain that he will greet you with a smile, and follow with an amusing or philosophical story.
Frank was a master at his trade. He was a motor mechanic; transmission specialist. It seemed there wasn't an automotive question that he couldn't answer.
I was always Dad's assistant, occasionally called in to the garage to hold the torch, or pass a wrench. I didn't bleed the brakes until I was over ten years old though, for until my feet could reach the pedals, my sisters would be called upon instead.
One afternoon, Dad had to change the muffler on Lucia's first car. There seemed to be a problem with the make, because it didn't fit. All afternoon Dad lay under the car, turning the muffler this way and that. It's funny to think how Dad hated doing anything that got too fiddly, it would frustrate him to no end – so he decided to be a motor mechanic.
Dad was always a placid man – one of his catchphrases was 'just relax.' Of course, this only applied when he was able to relax. Alas, back to the fiddly stuff. Back to the 'damn' muffler that just doesn't want to seem to fit. Back to the grease stained trolley he lies on, its squeaky wheels grinding into the concrete, dust and sunlight in his eyes, his sore back, neck and arms and that damn 'stinking' muffler. The weather is warm. Dad wants to relax. He craves to sit at the back of the yard under the trees with a cold beer and just 'be'. But this 'miserable prick' of a muffler has to 'shit him up the wall'. My family knows this process all too well. Dad's boiling point. The tension is building up and there's only so much more 'mucking around' until he spits the dummy. Then, cover your ears kiddies, because the 'shits going to hit the fan'. Here come the curses.
Ah the curses. It starts with the most typical, harsh insults, building up to a most offensive height.
"You miserable prick!" A startled passerby quickens their pace down the street. "Jesus Christ!" Dad's wide feet, trapped in steel capped boots, are praying for their brown slipper retreat. "Fucken slut!" Dad, don't say those words in front of the cat, you might offend.
"Jesu Christo!"…What? Oh I see – the transformation begins… the segment that illustrates his racial background. As Frank's blood boils, it steams Italian.
"Santo Antonio!" Hmm, maybe the Italian saints could help fit that stubborn muffler.
Dad was always a religious man at heart. He would call upon Saint Christopher, (the patron saint of travel…car – travel…that could work ;) Saint Michael, Saint John and all of the patron saints to roll up their sleeves, fold down their wings and give him a hand.
Lucia watched attentively from the kitchen window, as her father eventually called upon all of heaven to fix her car.
She turned to me and teased, "He hasn't said 'God, bugger me dead' yet;" (which was the expected rage-peak catchphrase.)
There was a moment of silence and "GOD, BUGGER ME DEAD!" blasted from the garage.
Moments later, Aunt Shirley strolled down the driveway in her usual calm and collected manner; her amused smirk mirroring her brother's, that is, when he is in a more pleasant mood than the present.
"Hey Brodo" was her usual greeting for her big brother; sounds like brother – 'brodo' is Italian for 'soup'. I don't know how that one started, but it just seemed to stick.
Suddenly the muffler fit into place. Dad scrambled out from under the car and stood to greet his sister. "You know I've been trying to fit that damn muffler all afternoon?" he said, with a powerful slap on her back. They cackled with laughter, flashing their identical wide toothy grins, and strolled inside.
One might call it coincidental. Others might say that his sister's presence brought good luck. Or perhaps Saint Christopher showed up to finish the job.
I sat beside Dad, in ward fourteen. I watched his chest heave and cave. His eyelids fluttered every so often, but otherwise remained shut. He had been in a semi-conscious state since the previous night.
"If you could hear any song right now, what would it be?" I asked him. I used to ask him that, when we were out in the backyard, on a warm Sunday afternoon.
I smoothed the hospital blanket round the edge of the mattress and stared into his face.
I raised my pitch. "What would you like to hear?"
I held his hand so that it rested in my palm. I thought I saw his forefinger twitch.
"How about…" I chewed my lip, "How about My Way?"
A crease appeared between his eyebrows.
"Ok," I wound my fingers around his hand, "What about Honky-Tonk Man?" I smiled, recalling the song.
Two of his fingers twitched, almost clasping onto my hand. I leaned forward.
"Yes? Honky-Tonk Man?" I said.
He mouthed the song title. My eyes grew wide and filled with tears.
"Honky-Tonk Man it is then" I said, as I wiped an escaping tear. I noticed Mum was sitting in the corner of the room.
She smiled at me.
* * *
The following evening, Lucia and Nella decided to go home and get some rest in their own beds. I opted to stay and keep Mum company.

I shut my eyes and tried to block my ears, with one ear pressed against the armchair and my arm stretched over the other. Mum was lucky enough to fall asleep. Ironically so, for at home Mum is known for being a light sleeper and I can sleep through thunderstorms. Though eventually we got up and alerted the hospital staff.

"They call it the death rattle," one of the nurses explained to Mum. I frowned.
Dads breathing had taken on a gargling sound in the last few hours.
"It might not be long now," another nurse said.
It wasn't long before Mum said to me, "I think you had better call your sisters, tell them to come back."
Slow and steady drops of warm rain fell in patterns upon the courtyard ground. I tip-toed back onto the steps and made the calls under the doorway. After I spoke with them, I remained there for a few moments and the thick, heavy air settled around me.
In the foyer, the Christmas tree warmed the atmosphere with its Christmas lights and the soothing scent of pine.
I sat next to it and memories poured over me, of our lounge room when I would curl up under the tree and stare up at the branches. The lights and decorations twinkled as I gazed at them, eagerly awaiting the morning; searching for the presents marked with my name. The warm summer night breeze drifted softly through the screen door, and the trees swayed gently outside in the balmy night air.
Projections of Christmas Eve flickered in my mind: Santa in red flares and a red, felt overcoat; striding through the group of kids sitting cross-legged on the lounge-room floor. His white beard was not nearly as fluffy as the Santa at the shops – it was quite flat, like a white, wooly blanket. His nose was round and porous with feint scaring on the bridge. When he talked and chuckled, as he called out each gift receiver's name, his teeth looked long and broad, just like Nonna's teeth.
One Christmas Eve, Santa stayed for a beer with my Uncles and Aunties. I called out for my father to come and meet Santa – but, as usual, my father was in the toilet with bad stomach pains and possibly 'the runs,' and so he couldn't come out. He was going to miss out on seeing Santa – again.
My cousin Lucy and I approached Santa. Lucy, Shirley's daughter, is two years younger than me and stood about 6 inches shorter, with dark blonde hair cut into a dead-straight long fringe and jaw-length bob – identical to my dark brown bob at the time. Her cheeks were freckled and her lips always looked like she was wearing dark pink lipstick.
We had short discussions with Santa previously, within the last few years. Well, not so much discussions – they were more like interrogations. The information collected so far was:
1. Santa parked his sleigh on the roof .
2. His reindeers stayed on the roof with the sleigh and did not want to be seen. (Sometimes they were shy and sometimes they were invisible).
3. Santa visited everyone's house in the world on Christmas Eve as well as deliver presents during the night – these great tasks were achieved by pure magic.
4. Even though he parked on the roof, he always arrived through my parent's bedroom door and into the lounge-room. If Christmas Eve was held at my Auntie's house, or Nonno and Nonna's, he would arrive through their bedroom door. This was an unquestioned, accepted fact.
This Christmas Eve, Lucy and I were eager to find out why Santa was wearing brown slippers – 'Grosby' brand, just like my father's.
Santa paused and stole a few side glances at the other adults at the dining room table. There was a wooden bowl brimming with beer nuts, a wooden platter shaped into a leaf holding an assortment of nuts, dried fruit and pretzels, two ashtrays and several glasses of beer and lemon squash set around their circle. It was the adults table. The kids sprawled over the lounge-room couches, carpet and into the hall; amongst baskets of chips, Barbeque Shapes and plastic cups of soft drink.
Santa opened his mouth before any sound came out. "Well, my boots get pretty muddy…so Frank gave me a lend of his slippers, so I don't get mud all over the carpet."
Lucy nodded in agreement and I smiled, overjoyed that my Dad had spoken to Santa and even gone so far as to lend him his slippers.
Santa rapped his fingertips on the table top. He must have been fixing the sleigh today, because his fingernails had grease under them. Second to that, he was wearing a gold wedding ring…
"Santa, why are you wearing my Dad's wedding ring?" I asked.
Santa smiled. "He gave me his ring, just to hold it for him while he isn't feeling well."
Lucy smiled and nodded. I frowned. I stared at Santa's hand, Dad's ring, his grease-stained finger nails, his strange-looking jacket and flat beard, his nose, his mouth. It may have been the 80s, but it certainly did look out of place for Santa to be smoking Camel cigarettes.
This was no Santa.
I understood that I shouldn't share this new knowledge with my little cousin Lucy, as she gazed in awe at this pretend Father Christmas. I suddenly realized that every adult knew, my sisters knew and all of my cousins who were older than me knew that this man in red flares and brown slippers was Frank Napolitano; otherwise currently known by my cousins as 'Zio Frank' or 'Zizi Frankie' and known by my sisters and I as 'Papá'. And that mysterious looking plastic bag that Nonna brought to every Christmas Eve was indeed her home-made creation for Santa to wear.
At this point, this did not mean that Santa Claus, the man himself, did not exist. It simply made more sense to me that it was impossible for him to visit everyone, so fathers around the world dressed up as him to share the load; and the real Santa stuck to delivering presents for Christmas morning.
For every Christmas Eve with my family, it had been my Dad dressed as Santa all along. I was so happy: the two bearers of presents and funny jokes had suddenly been fused into a grinning, brown-slipper king.
He probably won't make it to Christmas, Dad's doctor had said earlier, with his chin lowered and an air of professionalism that overshadowed the weight of his words. These words wedged in-between empty thoughts in my head, which dangled like fishing lines attached to something else. We were already into December. I wasn't sure what date or day it was. Dad came to this hospital on the 6th of December. We had been there for a few days – days that dripped down and built up, like a blocked sink filling slowly.
I leaned forward, cradling my head in my arms, bracing myself from the waves of distress crashing over me; each more intense – like a dull stomach pain, aching muscles and a migraine headache all at once. My eyes fused shut from the stinging sensation. My face was dripping wet with hot tears. My chest grew tight and sore. I lifted my head, gasping for air.
I forgot to breathe.
* * *
I climbed the stairs and re-entered the room. Mum informed me that she had arranged for reception to call the rest of the family. They arrived moments after my sisters. We all crowded into the room, greeting each other with brief hugs. We didn't speak.
We surrounded Dad for hours, occasionally swapping seats, taking turns to stand, and consoling each other with gentle pats on the back.
I began to drift to sleep, leaning forward on my chair with my head resting on the edge of Dads pillow, my hand clutching his arm. Eventually Lucia nudged me and I stumbled to my feet, walked over to the stretcher bed and fell fast asleep.
I woke to the aroma of toast and coffee. The rest of the family had left. I glanced at my watch. It was about 9am and I had been asleep for four hours. My gaze raced over to Dad and remained, until I saw his chest heave another breath.
The room was stuffy, and the smell of Sorbelene cream and disinfectant was getting up my nose. I felt like there was a thin layer of dirt, like a pale grey film of dust, coating my skin. My clothes were creased and slightly clammy and my hair needed a good wash.
Someone speaking drew my attention to a cluster of three elderly women. They were seated in the corner of the room, nearest to the door. They were dressed similarly to each other, in dark coloured dresses, shawls and ornate brooches. I supposed that they were either relatives or friends of my grandmother, judging by their thick Sicilian dialect.
In room fourteen it was just me, Dad and the Sicilian women.
I smoothed down my greasy fringe, trying to conceal it behind my ears. I peered at the women. My senses were still coming into play. I yawned. They seemed engrossed in their conversation.
I sat on the edge of the mattress and realised that the meal table was sitting under my nose. Someone had left me a plate of toast and a variety of little fun-size spreads. Sometimes I wonder if I should have taken the time to remember what exactly I ate that morning – was it raspberry or apricot jam on my toast? Did I have one or two sugars in my coffee?
I munched on a piece of toast, with the unsettling thought that I had been in that room without a break for over twelve hours. On top of that, these women sitting in Dad's room unnerved me. My limbs ached. Lucia and Nella must be outside. With that in mind, I hurried the last piece down, grabbed my cigarettes and escaped down the stairwell and outside to the courtyard.
* * *
The nurses said the same thing on the following night: "It might not be long now."
At nine pm we sat around his bed and talked. We talked like we were sitting at the kitchen table.
Then, I began to sing to him. Mum, Lucia and Nella joined in. We sang his favourite songs. Out of time and out of tune, it didn't matter. The hospital was peaceful and the lighting created a warm, familiar atmosphere. It almost felt as if we were home, sitting around the old record player, singing along to Dads old 45s.
I held Dad's hand. It twitched. Suddenly he began to cough and splutter.
I stood, stumbled a few steps back, and slouched on the armchair. I rested my head on the left arm, my mind projecting images of the garage and the kitchen table and the reclining chair in the lounge as I watched my older sisters work in Robot-mode. They sent the nurse out of the room, insisting that they would rather clean the bile spilling from Dad's mouth, than have a stranger standing closest to him in his last moments. They each stood on either side of the bed, passing tissues back and forth without skipping a beat. The nurse checked in every so often, commenting each time on how strong Dad's heart is and departing with "I don't think he'll last the night."
My mind continued to weave through time.
'He won't be at my twenty-first birthday. He won't be there when I graduate. He won't meet who I marry or hold my first child. He won't be there when I need advice for my car or about life. What about all his tools in the garage? What do I do with them, how do I find everything? Why can't I ask him these things any more?'
I stared at the knee-high plastic bin overflowing with tissues, my older sister's enduring what I could not possibly cope with, and my mother sitting beside them, clutching her rosary beads in silent prayer.
This went on for hours.
I had to escape for some air; I couldn't breathe. I stumbled out to the stairwell, and sat on the cold concrete steps. My watch read 5:30am.
With my palms pressed firmly on the concrete and my fingers clawing over the step's edge, I fired a look to the ceiling, my mind screaming.
I stood up and walked back into the hall. Mum was lingering at the doorway of Dad's room. I ran towards her, feeling like I had been pushed from behind.
"He's stopped breathing" Mum said, clutching my hands.
The four of us gathered around him. I placed my hand on his chest.
"His heart is still beating," I said. I could feel it. One… Two…
I dropped my hand to my side.
Nella burst into tears and kissed his forehead. Lucia held Mum.
He was beautiful. He was peaceful. He breathed no more.
Chapter 4
"I can see the writing on the wall."
As a child, sometimes I would pause between my cavorts and scampers between the cubby house and the back lawn, as the image of my father would catch my eye and I would stand, hands by my side, and stare through that side window of the garage.
The concrete was hot beneath my feet and, doing a little jig, I hopped onto the lawn under the lemon tree where the grass was cool and the scent of lemons made me crave an icypole.
I could see him, standing at the tool bench, leaning on one elbow. Every pause presented this image. It seldom wavered.
* * *
"Stand back, Mickey," he said, one foot balancing on a weathered plank of wood. Holding the axe, his arm swung high above his head as it flew down with a heavy blow and split the wood in two.
I watched my father stack the freshly chopped wood and set up the shallow tray barbeque on the lawn. There was a cool breeze as the sun disappeared behind the heated tin roof of the garage, and the smell of fried tomatoes drifted from the back door as mum brought out a plate of chops and sausages to be cooked.
We gathered around the warmth of the fire in shorts, t-shirts and thongs, seated on the chipped wooden chairs with the rusty metal frames.
The fizz-click of a stubby echoed in the quiet summer night, as we listened to Dad's stories about his grandfather- a wise old man in his days, who he admired dearly. As the night grew chilly, Mum, Nella and Lucia would disappear one by one, to attend to washing dishes, watching T.V or studying; and I remained, yearning for more and more stories.
I would wait until dad fell asleep, his head leaning forward with chin to chest as I watched the embers smolder and crackle, the air smelling of charcoal smoke- feeling sleepy myself from dad's rhythmic snores.
* * *
A piece of cement would chip away from the mailbox every time I let it slam shut- a bill for dad, a bill for Lucia, a letter for Nella, and something from the Salvation Army.
Mortisha meowed to get my attention as I approached the front door. I picked a cobweb from her whiskers, 'where have you been today?' patted her and went inside.
I made a couple of sandwiches and parked myself in front of the television. My art folio leaned against the lounge room archway. 'Just an hour to relax', I thought, 'and then I will work on my assignment'.
I sat at the dining room table with my artwork spread before me, as the aroma of frying onions and garlic sailed through the kitchen door. My eyes stung, mostly because of the onions.
Dad walked through the back door, set his workbag down, kissed mum hello, called out hello to myself, said a few words to mum, and disappeared outside.
No sooner did I organize my piles of drawings did I have to pack them up again and set the table for dinner.
Dad returned and switched on the television to watch A Current Affair while mum called my sisters to eat.
We sat in silence and spoke few words during commercial breaks. I felt heaviness in my stomach- not fullness, but an empty feeling that was weighted. As I filled my plate with a second serving of lasagna, I thought about my schoolwork, and whether or not I had a chance of passing year 12.
I switched off the television and the heater, and ventured towards the kitchen to get two Panadols and a glass of water before bed; the ticking of the heater cooling down rung out in the sleeping house. Through the kitchen doorway I could see the ever-present image of Dad's elbow leaning on the kitchen table and a dense white cloud of tobacco smoke hovering at eye level.
"You going to bed yet?" I said.
"Nah, not just yet", he said. Fizz. Click.
"Ok, well, goodnight," I said.
"Goodnight sweetheart," he said, "sweet dreams."
Trying not to feel the full force of the guilt because I had stayed up watching a movie instead of doing my schoolwork, I climbed into bed and switched off the light. Lucia had retired half an hour ago.
I lay in bed and tried to quiet my thoughts by reciting song lyrics in my mind. As I was slowly drifting into dreamless sleep, Lucia said "Michelle?"
'Shh!' my mind strained, as I desperately tried to grasp on to sleep.
"Mmm," I murmured.
"Do you think Dad is drinking too much again?"
My eyes opened and I stared into the blackness of our room, eyeing the stream of light running along the blind of the casement window.
"Yes," I said.
Lucia said nothing more, but I thought I heard her sigh. I wanted to crawl out of bed and hold her, but I was exhausted.
I cried myself to sleep.
* * *
Dad's health suddenly took a turn for the worst. The doctor prescribed tablets that would slow the build up of fluid in his body, and he was ordered to quit drinking.
I remember walking into the hospital ward for the first time, to see a bright-eyed Frank sitting up in bed. He smiled and told me a story about a lion and a well. The lion passed the well every day and drank a bucket of water. But one day he decided to drink all of the water. He jumped into the well and drowned.
I had to think about that for a moment or two, but then I gave him a hug.
Days passed, months passed and my father became a different man. No, perhaps not different, but more himself. The outer layer was stripped away to reveal Frank.
His face was clear; he drank lots of water and went on long walks every day. Mum cooked lots of vegetables for him and stopped buying red meat. She threw out the salt shaker.
* * *
I sat on the cold steps of Flinders Street Station and adjusted my long skirt, stretching it over my knees and arranging the fabric to sit around my ankles. The streets were alive with groups of nightclub goers, couples walking arm in arm, and families joining hands. There was upbeat, soulful music blaring out from speakers set at the foot of the stairs, and a food van parked to the left of me. People in dusty overcoats, holding plastic bags crammed full of clothes gathered around the van, receiving coffee in polystyrene cups and hot jam doughnuts in white paper bags.
A tall, lanky man crouched down a few steps below me, placed a ceramic bowl and a bong on the step below him, and sat back on a step, turning to face me.
"Excuse me miss, but do you have a cigarette?" His salt and pepper beard was curled and matted like steel wool; the many lines in his face told a story of days both happy and sad. He also had a plastic bag full of clothes, which was on the step tucked under his bent long legs as he sat.
I smiled and handed him a cigarette.
He thanked me and dug into his pocket, I supposed he was looking for a lighter. His outstretched hand presented a dollar coin, and I looked up at his weathered face.
"No, that's okay, I can't take your money," I said, waving my hand towards him.
"I insist," he said, placing the gold coin at my feet, "the name's Loopy," Loopy held out his hand.
"Hi Loopy, I'm Michelle", I smiled and shook his hand, as my eyes dropped to his bong and bowl sitting visibly on the steps of Flinders Street Station.
He followed my gaze and chuckled, gnome-like with his beard.
"Don't worry Lass, I only smoke tobacco," and he said raising his eyebrows, "and I always like to watch people's expressions as they walk past and see me smoking my tobacco with a bong. It's interesting to see how most people just assume things."
He glanced around and nudged me; "See!" he said with a glint in his eye as he lifted himself to his feet and crouched again on the lower step, "See the look on that guy's face?"
I laughed.
The city was quieter now; the nightclub goers had gathered in the nightclubs, the couples were walking along the Yarra and the families were home asleep. I walked from the Frankston platform where I had seen my friend off and after the discovery that I had missed the final Epping train, I climbed down the Flinders Street steps to hail a taxi. Each one that passed by was filled with nightclub goers.
I phoned Lucia. I was surprised that her tone of voice was not sleepy and muffled, but alert and fast-paced.
"Michelle, wait at the steps and I'll be there in forty minutes, but I'm not taking you home," she said.
"Do you want me to stay at your house?"
"No," she said, "We're going to the hospital, Dad's there."
"What happened?" I put my hand to my throat, as the night's chill seemed to coil around my neck.
"I'll explain on the way," she said.
Another nurse glanced at me as she breezed past in the emergency hall. Then I realized that I was dressed rather oddly, head to toe in black with a large furry jacket.
It was two' o'clock in the morning and despite my sleepiness earlier in the night, I felt wide-awake; the kind of wide-awake you derive from too much sugar and caffeine.
The curtains of dad's cubicle were shut and the doctor's watery voice was too difficult to comprehend. Be it that or my senses were blurred.
I sat with my legs draped over the plastic arm of the chair, so they dug into the back of my knees. Mum was speaking to the doctor. Lucia and Nella stood like a chain between mum and I.
I thought about the dish of chicken and potatoes in the fridge at home, left over from the dinner I skipped in my haste to go out. My tummy rumbled.
I looked up and saw Lucia walking towards me, realizing that she and Nella had just been talking with Mum.
"Mish," she crouched beside my chair, "Dad has to have an operation, tonight."
Nella sat crouched in front of me, balancing herself with her hands on my knees, "Michelle, do you know what happened?" Nella said.
I frowned at them both, "No, can someone explain to me, and Nella don't use any of your medical jargon, dim it down and speak in plain English, please" I said.
"I guess it's lucky that you weren't home tonight," Lucia said, pulling up a chair.
"Dad was losing blood", said Nella, "through vein endings in his stomach that had burst…probably from the pressure of the fluid. He woke up tonight coughing, and when mum turned the light on, there was blood all over the bed."
My hunger pains disappeared. I felt ill.
"How much did he lose?" I said, trying to breathe in. My chest felt tight, and the smell of the hospital was beginning to sicken me- the disinfectant smell, the weighted energies surrounding me of sick and injured people.
"Three litres," Lucia said.
"How many litres of blood do we have?" I asked.
"About six," said Nella.
I pictured the scene in the Godfather when the big shot film producer wakes to find a horse head in his bed, covered with blood all over the gold silk sheets. I could imagine the crescendo in the soundtrack as he peels back the blood soaked sheets to discover the severed head.
The operation only took about half an hour, as we waited in a 'special' waiting room next to the operating theatres. There was a Nestle coffee and hot chocolate machine- I must have drank about five hot chocolates.
We were home by nine 'o' clock in the morning, Dad had to stay another night in hospital. But he was fine. He had already told all the doctors and nurses his 'she was only the woodcutter's daughter' jokes by the time we went to see him in the emergency ward.

Chapter 5
"I am a rich man. I have a beautiful wife and three daughters, a house that I own and a car that gets me from A to B…that is what makes me a rich man."
Get your kicks on Route 66 blared through the front-of-house speakers; guitars twanging and the tambourine ringing throughout the hall. Bright blue balloons bounced about; amongst pointy-shoed feet. Couples joined hands and swung their arms from left to right. The girls did pirouettes; the boys clicked their fingers and tapped their feet.
The stage was fringed with red tinsel; left over from the Christmas festivities. The singer marched across the stage, dragging the microphone stand with him. His white t-shirt was tucked in to his dark blue jeans with the hems turned up. He pouted his lips and puffed out his chest.
The air was thick with the smell of beer and tobacco smoke. Different brands of aftershave and perfume wafted through the heavy air.
Frank stood to the left of the stage, tapping his foot and smiling. Ben sidled up to Frank with two tinnies. Lanky Ben, who was a foot taller than Frank, looked bushed. Ben's red hair, that usually fell into a neat part, was flicked this way and that.
The sweat stains around Ben's arm pits and neck made Frank laugh. Smiling and shaking his head, he accepted the beer from Ben and took a swig.
"What's so funny?" Ben smirked and placed his beer down on the edge of the stage. He tapped a cigarette out of his soft-pack with exaggerated concentration. Frank supposed that Ben had knocked back a few in his absence.
"You're sweatin' like an ape," Frank said, grinning. He took a cigarette and leaned towards Ben's lighter. Ben lit up and looked around the hall, exhaling as he spoke, "Yeah, well, you should be dancing too, mate." Smiling, he picked up his beer and looked at Frank.
Frank half-smiled and dug his hands into his jean pockets. "Where's Martha?" he said.
The band began playing Under the Boardwalk and Ben started to nod his head to the beat.
"Gone to the dunny," Ben said as he glanced over to the hallway that led to the toilets. "Why don't you ask someone to dance?" Ben took a swig of beer, "There's a lot of good lookers here."
Frank stared at him. He and Martha had been together since high school. Frank used to jeer at Ben, referring to the relationship as the 'ball and chain'. Lately though, Frank felt different. He didn't want to ask 'some girl' to dance.
Ben stared at the stage, nodding his head. "These guys are alright, hey?" He sculled half of his beer.
Frank looked up at the singer. "He's a dickhead though, have a look at him," Frank raised his chin, "Thinks he's the singer of the Rolling Stones."
Ben chuckled. "Shit! You're right – he looks like him!" He slapped Frank on the back and glanced behind him again.
"Hey there's my sweetie, she's looking for me." Ben sank the last few drops of his beer and patted his shirt pockets to make sure he still had his smokes. He stumbled forward slightly, grinning at Frank. Franks face seemed to have dropped.
"You'll be right mate," he clanked his empty beer can against Frank's. Frank forced a smile, raising his eyebrows at Ben.
"One day you're goin' to meet a real nice girl," Ben said, now starting to slur his speech. "One day soon I hope – 'cos you're a good bloke. You're a good mate, and you deserve it."
Frank watched Ben stumble over to Martha, but quickly looked away as they began to kiss. Their other friends were at the bar, drinking and talking with a group of people – all couples. Everyone seemed to be paired up. Frank sighed and turned his attention to the band. They were finishing up Under the Boardwalk. The crowd cheered.
The guitarists relaxed their arms and looked to the singer. He wound the microphone lead off the stand and held the microphone high in the air. "Is everybody having a good time?" he shouted. He held the microphone out over the crowd and cupped his hand to his ear. Frank searched the crowd as they clapped and cheered. He couldn't see Ben and Martha.
"Okay now, all you cool cats, do you know what time it is?" the singer strutted around the stage as he spoke. "It's time to count down the last seconds of 1966, that's what time it is!" A wave of shouts and shrill whistles filled the hall. Frank stepped back and leaned against the wall. The ledge of the waist-high wood paneling dug into his back.
The singer's voice rose above the crowd. "Ten! Nine! Eight!" He punched his fist in the air to the beat of the countdown as the crowd joined in, "Seven! Six! Five!"
Frank sculled the rest of his beer.
"Four! Three! Two!"
Frank flicked his cigarette butt on the floor.
"One! HAPPY NEW YEAR!" The crowd roared and the band began to play a rock'n roll version of Auld Lang Syne.
Frank scanned the hall for his friends. Balloons, floating mid-air, were being kicked and punched and popped. People were racing about, shouting 'Happy New Year!' and babbling cheerfully about New Year's resolutions. Couples were embracing each other and getting their 'lucky New Year kiss.'
Frank took one last look around the hall and walked through the entrance. The wind had picked up and turned cold. He stopped on the front steps to light a cigarette. A thin layer of blue-grey cloud spread across the sky.
* * *
Young teenage waiters were awkwardly weaving in amongst the tables, collecting dishes of food scraps from the last course. The band was playing the Tarantella; the dance floor was alive with couples and family linking arms and spinning clockwise.
Tina was delicately picking out the glazed cherries with a spoon, from her melting slice of Cassata. The candle in the centre of the table, in a green glass wine bottle, was burning slightly lopsided; beside it, a crystal vase of plastic pink and yellow Carnations. The absent six dinner guests from their table were either dancing or mingling.
"Tina," her mother, Nella, said with a strained whisper, "there's Sebastiana's son." Nella pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at her daughter. "He works in Real Estate. Very nice boy; he drives his mother to the market every Saturday. He always says hello to me; helps me carry things…"
Tina pushed her plate away.
"Excuse me Signorina, are you finished with that?" The waiter's voice cracked and changed pitch as he spoke.
"Yes, thank you." Tina said, as she leaned back in her chair. She smiled at the boy as he nodded.
"Happy New Year," he said, avoiding eye contact. He continued to collect the plates.
Nella sighed impatiently and Tina's smile disappeared. She tilted her head and looked at her mother.
"Mamma, I'm sorry, I'm just not really interested."
Nella abruptly placed her glass down, and a drop of wine splashed out and onto the tablecloth. "What? Why?"
Tina picked up the napkin from her lap and placed it on the table.
"I'm sorry, Mamma." She folded the napkin over twice.
Nella gaped at her daughter. "What's wrong with Real Estate?"
"Nothing is wrong with Real Estate. I just…I don't think he's right."
Nella shook her head, frowning. "I don't understand."
"Mamma…" Tina twisted in her chair and faced her mother. Nella stared at her.
"I'm sorry." Tina sighed and gazed at the plastic carnations. She thought it was such a pity to have plastic flowers, carnations especially, because they are such a lovely, fragrant flower.
* * *
The queues at the bank decreased after eleven am, roughly – the usual calm before the storm. Tina stood before the pigeonholes of the Batch Department, with a wad of cheques in her hand.
Grace suddenly appeared. Grace was very quiet – in her speech and her movement. Her size five feet seemed to glide along the beige linoleum. Tina jumped in fright and dropped the cheques she was sifting through. She 'tsked' and crouched to pick them up.
"I'm sorry, Tina!" Grace helped her collect the cheques. "Mr. Jenkins said that I could take my lunch break now, but I can go after the rush if you've finished your mornings work," she said as they stood up.
Tina paused. "No, that's okay, you go ahead."
It was hard being the newcomer. Tina used to work at the city branch, but when she came back from overseas they transferred her to the suburbs. So far, Grace was the only co-worker who made her feel welcome.
Grace's eyes lit up. "Ooh, I had a quick look at your photos that were being passed around this morning!"
"Italy photos, yes."
"How long were you there for?"
"Six months."
"Wow, that's a lengthy holiday!" Grace giggled. "Were there some photos of your birthday, too?"
"Yes, my twenty-first." Tina beamed. "That was at my uncle's house, in Sicily."
"Twenty-one, `ay?" Grace grinned. "I've got a brother who's twenty-one."
Tina raised her eyebrows and smiled shyly.
"Twenty-one, twenty-one – good match!" Grace winked at her.
Tina blushed and looked at her feet. Grace clapped her hands together and giggled.
"And I know just how you can meet him!"
Tina went pale. "Oh no, no, Grace, don't arrange anything! That's too embarrassing and plus – my parent's wouldn't let me!"
Grace waved her hand and laughed. "I know, I know. The Christmas party is coming up – you arranged a lift with me, remember? Frank is going to pick us up, and we'll drive you home."
"Oh, I…I suppose that will be okay with Papa," Tina looked worried, "that is, of course, if you will be in the car…"
"Of course," Grace said.
The door swung open and a co-worker breezed passed them. Tina quickly continued to sift through the cheques.
Grace smiled, nodded and disappeared.
* * *
When the Christmas party wrapped up, the girls said their goodbyes, grabbed their bags and coats and walked to the entrance. A brand new, white XP Falcon with a sky blue roof was parked out the front.
'There's Frank's car," said Grace, waving in its direction. Tina squinted at it, spotting a tiny red glow inside the car. It moved and the driver's door opened. The tiny red glow belonged to a long white cigarette. The long white cigarette belonged to a young man. In the street light she could see that he had slicked black hair, long sideburns and a 'quiff' rocker fringe.
"Frank, this is Tina," Grace said, as Frank strolled casually around the front of the car.
"How're ya going," Frank said. "Do you need a lift home?"
"Erhm, yes, thank you, I mean – if that's okay with you," said Tina, fumbling with her overcoat and handbag.
"If it wasn't okay, you'd be walking," Frank said, in a stern voice. Tina quickly pulled her coat on and hooked her handbag on her arm. She stared at his face in disbelief. She could feel her cheeks flush crimson. He didn't look a great deal like Grace. Their hair and eye colour were similar – but his face was rounder and he had a cleft in his chin. Grace didn't mention that Frank was so rude.
Franks' face altered, his eyes lit up and he started to laugh. It looked as if he had high cheekbones that suddenly appeared when he smiled. His laugh was quite nasally and he had big teeth.
"Don't look so upset, Tina, I was just pullin' ya leg."
"Frank!" Grace turned to Tina. "He's always like that, always the prankster, aren't you Frank?" Grace opened the back door of the car.
Frank fidgeted with a coin that he plucked from his pocket.
He looked at Tina. His expression was sullen. "Are you two sitting in the back?" Tina shrugged and glanced at Grace, who was motioning her in. For a brief moment, Grace's expression reminded her of her mother.
Tina climbed in the back. Frank smiled and closed the door.
Grace leaned towards Tina, her hand cupped over her mouth.
"You can't be seen sitting in the front with a boy!"
Tina's eyes widened and she nodded in agreement. How could she have forgotten?
She took a deep breath and felt her cheeks with the back of her hand. They felt hot. She looked up, to see if her face was visible in the rearview mirror.
Tina caught Frank's stare in the reflection. She quickly lowered her eyes and turned away.
The car smelt like cigarettes and engine oil. A Ford catalogue was at her feet; with black, greasy finger-prints smeared on the cover.
Between Grace's bubbly comments about what this and that co-worker were wearing at the party; street directions and comfortable silences filled the gaps. Tina watched rain drops fleck the side window. The night had turned muggy and she felt the sleeves of her overcoat stick to her. She glanced at the Ford catalogue again.
"Erhm… Frank?"
"Do you…do you like…Kingswoods?"
"Oh yeah, they're alright." Frank said with a smile, as he glanced over his shoulder.
"My father drives one."
"Fair dinkum! What year?"
"Ah…I'm not sure. It's in mint condition. It's dark red, with white interior."
"Nice. I worked on a Kingswood last week." Frank said. "I'll have to have a look at it sometime." He glanced over his shoulder again and winked at her.
Tina smiled nervously at Grace. When Grace was excited about something, she would smile with her entire body – her shoulders would hunch up, parallel to the corners of her mouth. At this point, her shoulders were touching her ears.
The rain pelted at the window for a minute or two and then ceased. Tina pointed out the red brick fence with the white railing. Frank slowed the car to a stop. He put the car in park and hopped out. Tina looked at Grace. She smiled back at her.
"I'll see you at work," she leaned over with her hand cupped over her mouth, "And you can tell me what you think!"
Frank opened the door and held out his hand. Tina quickly climbed out, petrified that her parents could be looking out of their bedroom window. She was so nervous that she shook his hand as she stood to face him. He chuckled. Her face flushed bright red and she said goodbye and ran inside.
She parted the drapes at the lounge room window. Frank was just getting back in the car.
She watched him drive off.
* * *
Michele, Franks' father, sat him down at the kitchen table with a beer.
Michele migrated from San Marco, southern Italy when he was fourteen years old and worked on his family's tomato farm in country Victoria, until he married and moved to Melbourne when Frank was five. He had worked in every trade since- bricklaying, concreting, carpentry, you name it. At the moment he was driving a truck, doing deliveries from Sunbury to Melbourne for a wood chipping company.
Michele's face was harsh, weathered from his years of outdoor labour. His nose was long; and he had small, blue, close-set eyes that were underlined with prominent bags. His dark thinning hair was combed back into a quiff; his graying sideburns showing the first markings of old age.
Michele gritted his teeth and said at the top of his voice, "I don't like the sound of your boss, he sounds like a crook." He slammed his fist on the table.
"Pa," Frank said. "The other bloke has been there longer, that's why he was made foreman before me, that's all…"
"Bloody crooks!" Michele topped up his son's beer. "I bet he paid him!"
Frank sighed.
"Ay, I gotta story about that, listen…" Michele leaned forward, grinning. He would always turn his volume down a notch to tell a joke.
"This fellow, he wants to get the promotion, okay? So he asks his boss, 'Hey Boss, I work hard, give me a raise.' So the boss says 'here's your raise, you bloody bastard!" Michele stuck his middle finger up at his son, and leaned back with a roar of hoarse laughter.
Frank laughed and shook his head, "Ah shit, Pa – I've heard that one about ten times before."
"Nah, Frankie – it's new!"
Frank chuckled. "Alright, alright, it's new…" Frank took a few gulps of beer.
"So, Pa…" Frank swallowed, "Remember how I told you about Tina?"
Michele sat forward and stared at his son. "The Sicilian girl?"
"Yeah, yeah the Sicilian girl…"
Michele glared at his son. Frank could almost hear the wheels and cogs ticking in his head.
The metal legs of the chair scraped along the scuffed linoleum tiles as Frank shuffled forward. He reached for a cigarette from the resident packet in the centre of the table. Michele sighed and struck a match.
"This girl is from a Sicilian family, so you gotta be careful," Michele said as he lit his son's cigarette for him.
"Pa," Frank furrowed his brow, wiping the fallen ash off the laminex, "what do ya mean 'be careful'?"
His father tightened his mouth and let out a heavy sigh, gritting his teeth.
"You gotta be careful! You either serious or nothing, capisce?"
Frank nodded, exhaling tobacco smoke, "A capito. I understand." He flicked the tip of his cigarette into the ashtray, his eyes fixed on the table, "I am serious."
Michele leaned back in his chair, hooking his thumbs onto his braces. The two sharp creases between his eyes softened. Frank picked at the chipped tables edge, a cloud of cigarette smoke hovering above his head.
"Well if you're serious," Michele said, "then you go speak to the father."
* * *
Frank parked out the front of eighty-three, Eren Street, smoothed the sides of his hair back and walked to the front step.
A middle-aged man with slicked back, dark hair opened the door. He was small in build but had a guarded, brooding look about him. He was dressed quite stylishly with a wide collared, deep red shirt and black tapered slacks. His neck was adorned with gold chains bearing charms, heavy and bold that matched his thick gold pinky ring. Frank noticed the nail on that finger was much longer than the others, like a woman – or a flamenco guitar player.
He introduced himself as Enzo and welcomed Frank in with quiet, reserved speech that made him feel nervous. Enzo asked Frank about his Ford parked out the front as they walked through the foyer. He was led past an open room to the left, which was furnished with casual red vinyl couches. The room was decorated with several family photos, framed and mounted on the wall or displayed on the television set and record player. They continued down the hallway, which lead into a large, elegant room that made Frank wish he had remembered to wipe his shoes on the mat.
The couches in this room seemed to Frank to be more like thrones. They were of deep red velvety fabric bordered with dark wood carved into an intricate and decorative design. There was a large, red Persian rug in the centre of the room, beneath a coffee table that matched the decorative wood of the couches. On shelves and glass cabinets lining the walls were delicate porcelain statues of people dressed in 18th century attire and graceful animals, such as wolves and horses. Beside the many other ornamental clocks amongst the statues, an impressive grandfather clock that almost reached the ceiling stood solemnly in a corner.
A woman of equal size and age to Enzo walked in and greeted Frank as she set down a tray of freshly brewed coffee on the table. She was wearing a large diamante brooch pinned below the neckline of her dress. She had short dark curly hair; parted on the side with delicate curls framing her rather large forehead. She introduced herself as Nella.
"Tina!" she said in a sweet, high-pitched voice, "Franco is here."
She stared at Frank and his nerves wound tight. She stared and said nothing. Enzo seated himself on the more elaborately framed, high-backed armchair and crossed one leg over the other. Frank pretended to be engrossed with the grandfather clock while they waited for Tina to appear. It ticked loudly and time seemed to slow down as Frank watched the second hand move.
Frank looked up to see Tina standing under the archway of the lounge room. Her long dark hair, which was usually coiled up in a high bun, was splayed over her shoulders, thick and wavy. She wore a delicate white cardigan over a dark blue, knee length dress, with tiny white polka dots. She looked like a star of the silver screen.
"Hello Frank." She nodded and walked straight past him. Her mother silently gestured to him to sit on the sofa next to Enzo. She and her daughter sat on the sofa across from him.
"So, Franco," Enzo handed him a short black from the tray and grabbed one for himself. "Can you speak Sicilian with me?"
Frank's eyes widened. "I understand Sicilian, but I can't speak it well, Signoro."
"Va bene, va bene," Enzo winked at him, "Well, I'm not too good with San Marchese, so we'll speak English then."
"You're English isn't too bad anyway, Signoro." His smile appeared and faded with Enzo's stern expression. Frank sipped his coffee.
"You can afford to buy a new Falcon on your wage?" Enzo hardly opened his mouth when he spoke, like a ventriloquist. This resulted in his voice being a bit garbled.
Frank's hands clenched. "Yes Signoro, well…" He swallowed, "My father helped me." Frank glanced over at Tina before darting his eyes back to Enzo, as Tina's mother glared at him.
"Is your work as a mechanic stable?"
"How long have you worked at the place you are now?"
"About five years now, Signoro. Bayfords' – same place I got my apprenticeship." He looked over to Tina's mother. She nodded. Her expression softened a little.
"Five years – that's good, Franco. You work hard?"
"Si, Signora." He said, nodding.
She raised her chin. Her eyes narrowed. She clasped her hands together, her eyes fixed on Frank. Tina looked at him with hopeful eyes.
"And what does your father do?" Enzo said.
"He drives a truck."
"What's his name?"
"Michele Napolitano."
"And your mother?" Nella asked.
Frank stalled. "Lucia. Napolitano. She doesn't work."
Enzo and Nella looked at each other.
"That's okay," Enzo said. "You got a brother?"
"Two sisters: Shirley and Grace."
"No Signoro – I'm the oldest. Grace is engaged to be married."
"Enzo, Tina's friend at the bank," Nella hissed.
"Ah, yes. Nice girl."
Frank nodded and forced a smile.
Enzo sipped his coffee. He tapped the side of the cup with his long nail.
"Do you have a house?"
"No, Signoro."
Enzo and Nella looked at each other.
"Can you afford a house?"
"I can afford the deposit, Signoro." Frank said.
This was taking too long. This bloke was worse than his own father when it came to interrogation.
Enzo licked his lips and shrugged. His voice, while maintaining its volume, became strained and grating.
"Deposit's not going to buy you a house, just like that. It puts you in debt. Can you pay off a debt?" He pointed to himself, "I started with nothing and I've worked hard all my life to buy this house for my family. Nella's worked hard too. And we saved every penny. What about your savings? Why haven't you saved enough money? After five years of work, what have you done with your money?"
Frank went white.
Enzo sipped down his short black coffee, staring at Frank as he placed the cup back on the saucer and leaned back in his chair. Frank looked at the carpet.
"Franco," Enzo's voice regained its calm note; "I don't mean to push you, I just want what is best for my Tina."
Frank sat forward on the sofa. His hands were moist with sweat. He smoothed down his slacks and held out his hands; palm-up.
"Signoro," he said, "I truly love your daughter, and I promise you that I will look after her. Now, I have to be honest with you…" he said, nervously glancing over to Tina and her mother. Her mother's squinty expression had dropped to a look of bewilderment. He made eye contact with Enzo. "I don't have much to offer," Frank glanced at Nella, "I don't have any money."
Enzo raised his eyebrows and pouted his thin lips. "But," Frank said, feeling a renewed sense of ease, "I do work hard, and I'll work even harder." He looked Enzo straight in the eyes, "all I have are my hands."
Enzo lowered his eyebrows, and sat forward in his chair. The corners of his thin lips up-turned ever so slightly and his eyes twinkled. Frank noticed a fleeting image of another side of Enzo, a jovial, almost cheeky character.
"Franco," he said, "In my life, I never thought I would hear someone say that to me."
Frank felt his shoulders sink. He thought he had messed things up for sure.
Enzo poured himself another coffee. "Let me tell you a story. It's very sad."
Frank watched Enzo stir the sugar into the black liquid, tap the edge of the cup with the spoon, and lean back into his chair.
"When I was a boy, my mother was very sick; she was dying." He pressed his thin lips together and let out a long, drawn-out breath.
"My father died before she did, because he was so upset. Then, a year later, my mother died. I was seventeen." Enzo's eyes filled with tears, "My older sister married and moved away and I raised my three brothers by myself."
Frank's mouth hung open. He looked over to Tina and her mother. Their heads were bowed solemnly. He leaned forward with his hands on his knees and cautiously stared at Enzo.
Enzo went on: "I knew Nella's family. To her family, I was nothing but a gypsy boy – an orphan that had nothing to offer. And I went to her Papa, and I said to him just what you say to me."
Enzo's eyes twinkled again and he revealed his teeth. He had a slither of gold, to the left of his grin. "Tuttu chiddú chí caiú sunu chistí manu," he said softly, "All I have are my hands." He held his hands out in front of him and examined them for a moment.
Enzo looked up at Frank, and smiled. He stood and walked, hand out-stretched, over to Frank, "I would be proud to have you as my son-in-law."

Another Straw for the Camels back
"I can see the writing on the wall."
Days passed, months passed, and Dad's health was gradually getting better. He hadn't worked in about 2 years. He was 54 years old, and had adopted the healthiest living habits he ever had. He was eating loads of fresh vegetables and fish, drinking lots of water and walking every day. He would wake up at about 6am every morning and go for an hour long walk. He would entertain us with stories of his new found friends that he met on his walking route. I thought he was making it up when he spoke about a man he crosses paths with who walks his dogs, but the dogs names are actually Rupert and Sedrick; Labradors.
Dad still had to go to the hospital every few months to drain some of the excess fluid from his body, but those hospital visits seemed scarce and insignificant. He was feeling fit and more active than ever. He even considered joining up at the gym, but dismissed the idea when he dusted off his old bar bell set and homemade dumbbells (made from two iron rods and four tuna cans filled with cement). He pulled apart the metal frame of the swing we used to have out in the backyard, crafted a bench out of a plank of wood, some padding and a vinyl cover and built a bench press using the weights from his bar bell set. He called me in to the garage the day he completed it, gestured to it with a sweep of his hand and explained in detail his method of construction.
"The Italian kid's done it again" he said as he winked at me and began to bench weights. That was the expected catchphrase when he had invented or built something that he was proud of. I could almost mouth the words along with him to the much anticipated line.
Meanwhile, I was still working part time at the toy store between school hours. A toy store to me is the pinnacle - as far as retail work goes. I get payed to play with kids toys. Customers bring a toy straight from the shelf to the counter and demand 'show me how this works'. Out comes the tray of various batteries and Philips head screwdrivers from under the counter. I pull the thing apart, put it back together and demonstrate why this particular toy is great and lots of fun for their kids. This was effortless for me, because I am and always will be a big kid. "Yay, how great is that?" I'd shriek in genuine excitement as I made the remote control fire truck flash it's lights, sound it's siren and race forward, crashing into the box of Pokemon cards on the counter.
"This telescope doesn't work," a short, high strung woman with Pauline Hansen hair said to me one day, "I want a refund."
I've already sussed this customer out. The fact that she has already asked for a refund before giving me the opportunity to give her the option for me to either get it working or exchange it for her with one that does work means that she simply wants her money back. Most probably the kid who she bought it for hated it.
I took it out of the packaging, put it together and aimed it across the shopping centre walkway to the supermarket; with a sudden vision of an enormous tin of baked beans the size of a small car idling along the conveyer belt urging me to loudly exclaim "wow, this telescope is pretty bloody good!"
She pursed her lips and tapped her acrylic nails repeatedly on the counter.
"Do you know what a telescope is used for?" she said.
I could see where this was going. "Yes, as a matter a fact I do. But don't trust my knowledge, let's read this and see what this telescope promises to do." Holding the package, I began to read the writing presented in the coloured stars aloud.
She slapped her hand on the counter. "You are supposed to be able to see stars and planets through a telescope" she pressed her chin to her neck as if to convince me. I looked up to the skylights out in the shopping centre, then looked down at the plastic, forty dollar telescope I held in my hands.
'If you want this telescope to do that, why don't you fly your broom up into the atmosphere and star gaze from there?' is what I bit my tongue not to say.
Of course she ended up exchanging it for a Lego set and left without a smile or thank you. I banded the EFTPOS receipts and shut the cash drawer, as my mobile started to vibrate in my jeans pocket. I looked about the shop and, seeing the void of customers, checked my mobile to see who was calling me. 'LUCIA' displayed on the screen, and I quickly darted behind the shelf to the left of the counter and answered the call.
"Mish, Dad got results from the fluid tests," Lucia said in an odd tone.
"Yeah...so, he always gets the fluid tested," I said, peeking round the shelf to make sure there weren't any customers, "hang on," I picked up a pricing gun that was left sitting below the action figures, "tested? What do you mean?"
"They found cells...malignant cells."
I dropped the pricing gun and the roll of stickers unravelled across the floor.
"Malignant? What the hell does that mean?" I forgot that I was at work. I paced up and down the aisles between the shelves, forgetting that I was running the shop on my own until Philip came back from his coffee break. Of course I knew what malignant meant, but it still didn't make sense at all, why would Dad have malignant cells?
"Cancerous cells" she said in a little voice. I continued to pace up and down. I looked out into the shopping to centre, to the café across the way. Where was Philip? Why does he always take so bloody long to have a coffee? He orders short blacks and they're simply a shot of coffee- shouldn't take long at all.
I stopped pacing. "So Dad has cancer."
The pressure behind my eyeballs was building up alongside the pressure at the front of my brain. Something had to break. I was about to kick the pricing gun across the floor but Philip walked in seconds before my brain sent the signal off, so the floodgates burst open instead.
I assured Lucia that I was okay, said goodbye and placed the mobile in my pocket, gazing up at Philip.
"They found cancerous cells in the fluid," I said, wiping my face with my sleeves.
He stared at me with a seemingly blank expression, but his physical awkwardness said otherwise. I can't recall if he even said anything in reply. Perhaps he said "he'll be okay," or something to that effect.
* * *
Dad came back from the Oncologist with a cardboard envelope crammed with papers and booklets. There was loads of information about cancer support groups and details on chemotherapy, radiotherapy and the type of cancer that Dad had.
Apparently there wasn't any kind of tumour at all, but cancerous cells had somehow spread through the lymphatic system. Nella attempted to explain exactly what the lymphatic system was, but it didn't seem to sink in. I couldn't remember what it was five minutes after she told me, and I can't remember now.
The first and most prominent page in the folder was titled 'The 12 Commandments'. It was a list of commandments for cancer patients to live by. The first commandment was 'cancer is just a word', and some further explanation along those lines that basically explained that just because you have cancer, it doesn't mean you are going to die. It explained that cancer doesn't have to be a terminal illness; many people have survived cancer and have been completely cured.
Dad seemed pretty positive about the whole thing. He had already begun to cut down on smoking as if by some strange phenomenon; now he was down to smoking one cigar a day. He joked about his oncologist being bald, and that he too now would be bald like him. Dad said he was going to shave his head as soon as he starts the chemotherapy; he wasn't going to wait until his hair starts falling out.

Chapter 9
Tina's voice trailed out into the darkness. She carefully propped herself up on her elbows. She squinted towards the window. Her eyes adjusted to the moonlight streaming through the gaps between the Venetian blinds.
She could see Frank, heaving another breath and smacking his lips together. She could certainly hear Frank, as his bellowing snore reverberated off the mirrors on the wardrobe.
"Frank!!?" she said a little louder, but her thin, hoarse voice was no match for the sound emitting from Frank's throat.
She placed her hand on his shoulder and delicately nudged him.
Pain shot through her again. She clenched her fists and gasped, shutting her eyes tightly.
"Frank!" his name shot through her teeth as she ground them together, twisting and winding the sheets through her fingers and pulling them towards her face. She wanted to bite down on the rope-like twists. She relaxed her facial muscles and focused. Breathe. Inhale. Inhale some more. Exhale. Focus.
The pain passed.
Tina grabbed Frank's nose between her thumb and forefinger. He grunted and turned his head away from her.
"Frank wake up!" she raised her tiny voice, pressed her hand flat on his chest and shook him.
Like a vampire he sprang into sitting position, eyes bulging and wide.
"What, what's going on what's the matter!?" he boomed and lurched over to the bedside lamp, flicking the switch as the lamp toppled over, creating a theatrical lighting effect in their bedroom.
"Christ, there goes the lamp!" Frank fumbled with the lampshade, gritting his teeth.
Tina eased herself up and leaned with her shoulders against the headboard, her back arched and her pointy chin aimed upwards.
"Get the car out, I'll call mum," she slowly peeled the bedclothes down, "Drop the girls off. Get the overnight bag. Get the car out. Call mum." Tina wiped an escaping tear from her cheekbone, "number three wants to come out."
Frank turned towards her and sat still for a moment. His arms were stretched out and hands were palm up, as if Tina were about to fall towards him. He was ready to catch her. He swallowed and placed a hand on her bloated tummy.
"Mum doesn't need to be called; she'll be ready to take the girls," Frank sounded like he was speaking through a megaphone. The volume always rose when he was keyed up. He got up, crouched beside the bed and dragged the overnight bag out from under it.
"Will you be right if I got the car out and came in through the front to get you?"
Tina nodded hastily.
"Are you sure?" Frank's voice grew louder. He clutched hold of the bag under one arm and walked backwards towards the door, his free arm still stretched towards her, ready to embrace.
She balanced herself with a clenched fist on the bedside table, twisted her body and swung her legs off the bed, her feet barely touching the floor. She could feel her nightgown clinging to her skin. Inhale. Inhale. Exhale.
"Are you going to be all right?!" The wardrobe mirrors shook
"GET THE CAR!" Tina's voice pierced through him, he frowned, pivoted on his bare feet and started up the corridor. He returned a few moments later, cursing under his breath. He fell to the floor beside the bed and pulled out his slippers, jumped up, threw them down, walked his feet into them and scurried out the door.
"Girls, Wake up! Nelly, Lucia, up!" Frank paced around the room, collecting their dressing gowns and fiddling with the cigarette packet in the breast pocket of his robe.
The 100 watt bulb fused their eyes open and they squirmed and murmured as their heads disappeared under the blankets.
"C'mon, I'm taking you to Nonna's," Frank flung their dressing gowns at them as they peeked out from under the bed clothes and stared listlessly at him.
"Quick, put these on. Put your slippers on. Your mother's in pain," he stormed out of the room and they could hear him unlock the back door. Not a minute passed and the car engine started. The rumbling revs traveled through the floorboards, followed by the car horn sounding repeatedly.
Lucia flinched like she'd been woken out of a trance and turned to her sister.
"Nelly, hurry up! Didn't you hear what Papa said, mum's in pain!" Lucia jumped up out of bed and reached for her slippers.
Nella crawled out of bed and knelt on the floor, her head disappearing under the valance. "Is mum having the baby?"
"Der!" Lucia draped her dressing gown around her as she rolled her eyes and snarled.
"Hurry up!"
Nella disappeared further under her bed, "I can't find my other sock," said a muffled voice.
"Why do you need socks for? Idiot! It's too hot for socks, put your slippers on and let's go!"
Nella reversed out from under the bed and sat up for a moment, the corners of her mouth turned downwards and her chin quivering.
The thundering sound of the sliding back door predetermined their father's overpowering voice.
Nella and Lucia stared momentarily at each other, wide eyed, before scrambling about for a few belongings, (Nella clutched holding her orange teddy bear; Lucia grabbed her pillow,) and racing out the door.
* * *
Frank hesitated before changing gears. He looked back towards the emergency entrance once more. He wanted to see Tina walking robustly towards the car, healthy baby cradled in her arms. Then they could all go home together and he wouldn't have to spend the next few hours of his life worrying, his stomach burning with acid.
He put his foot to the floor and headed towards his parent's place.
The outside light came on the moment he pulled up in front of their house, as if they had been expecting him.
He picked up Nella and swung her onto his hip and held Lucia's tiny hand. His father stood waiting on the front step.
"Did Tina call you?" Frank said as he handed Nella to Michele's anticipating arms.
Michele scoffed; "no, why you say that?" He simultaneously kissed Nella on the forehead and ruffled Lucia's hair.
"Because it looked like you were waiting for us," Frank said as he followed his father in to the house.
"No! Don't be stupid Frankie, Tina didn't call us."
Frank's mother Lucia sat the girls at the kitchen table and handed them hot café lattes in mugs with a fun-size Kit-Kat each.
"Ma, don't give 'em chocolate and coffee now!"
"Doesn't matter Frankie, they're not going to sleep anyway," she laughed heartily and slapped her son on the back.
Frank rubbed his forehead and stretched his eyes wide open. He grabbed his cigarettes and stuck one in his mouth, grabbed the match box from the kitchen bench and struck a match. A foul chemical smell wafted from the cigarette. Frank stammered and let it fall to the kitchen tiles.
"Fuck! I lit the damn filter!" he stamped the cigarette out with his slipper and pulled out another one.
"Frankie! Fungulo! Don't swear in front of your daughters!" Lucia slammed the cupboard door and placed the sugar bowl on the table. Her frown evaporated and she smiled, "You want a coffee?"
"Nah," he said, picking up the crushed cigarette. He sighed, examining it.
"I better call the hospital."
Frank disappeared into the hallway and seconds later the whirring of the dial phone split the silence. Whir-click, whir-click, whir-click, whir…
"Fuck! Why the hell am I ringing home?" Slam.
"Sorry Ma!" Frank called out from the hallway. Whir-click, whir-click, whir…
"So, Lu-Lu," Michele sat opposite his granddaughter and leaned towards her with a Cheshire cat grin, "You happy your mummy is having another baby?"
Lucia threw her head back in an exaggerated nod. "Yes Nonno," she said as she tore open her Kit-Kat. Nella took a sip of her latte.
"And you, Nelly? What do you think?" he pinched Nella's cheek and vigorously shook it, causing her to spill some drops of coffee.
Nella smiled sheepishly and nodded while inconspicuously shifting her Kit-Kat to conceal the drops.
Frank returned and sat at the table with them.
His parents glared at him. He crossed his arms and put his head down on the table.
"Frankie!" Michele gave his son a violent nudge. "What's happening?"
Frank slowly sat up with a pensive expression.
"Nothing, nothing's happening. They told me to go home and wait for a call." He pulled out another cigarette.
Lucia slapped her hands down on the table, "well is she in labor or isn't she?"
"Yes… and no. They said the contraptions have slowed down, that the baby won't be born for hours now." He held a lit match to the correct end and puffed on his cigarette.
"Apparently the kid keeps moving about, not staying still," he smiled and winked at his daughters. They both grinned at each other.
"Ah," Lucia joined them at the table, wiping the seat with her hand before she sat down, "that's what you did, Frankie," she laughed. "It's gonna be a cheeky boy just like you!" She picked up Lucia's discarded Kit-Kat wrapper and began folding creases into it.
"A boy! Did you hear that Lu-Lu, you're going to have a little brother!" Michele chimed in, twisting the top off a long-neck and flicking it into the sink.
Frank furrowed his brow. "Pa, we don't know what it's going to be…"
"It's gonna be a boy," Michele said as he tilted a glass and poured a beer for his son, "It's gonna be a boy, and his name is going to be Michele."
He nudged Nella with his left arm, almost knocking her off the chair, "Michele! That's my name! In Italian, Nelly, Michele means Michael," he flashed a toothy grin and poured another beer. He held the glass in the air and looked at his son. Frank raised his glass and toasted.
"To little Michael!" Michele roared, sculling his beer and slamming the glass down.
Lucia scowled "Michele, they don't know if it's going to be a boy or not!"
"It is a boy!" Michele pounded his fist on the table, "you know why? Because I say so, and he will be named after me!" Michele gestured to himself with a dramatic sweeping of his hands, before picking up the long neck and pouring the remainder into his glass.
Lucia pointed her finger at her husband. "Don't act so smart Michele, or I put a curse so you never have a grandson named after you!"
"Ah, bullshit Lucia, bullshit," he said between gulps of beer.
Lucia tilted her head back and sneered at Michele. "Ok, you'll see…"
"Argh," he snorted, dismissing her with a sweep of his hand and turning to his granddaughters.
Frank looked at his mother and she smiled at him knowingly.
"What are you going to call it if it's a girl?" she continued folding and re-folding the chocolate wrapper.
Frank glanced at his father, but Michele didn't react. He was too busy making silly faces to amuse the girls.
"Michelle," Frank said, amidst cackling munchkin laughter.
"Michelle?" Lucia stopped fidgeting with the wrapper and looked at him in disbelief.
"Whose that named after?"
"I like the name" Frank said, as Michele stood up and led the girls into the lounge room.
Lucia's eyes followed them out of the room and she looked back at her son.
"But who was called Michelle?" she said, screwing her nose up as if reacting to a bad smell.
"No-one!" Frank said before sculling his beer and slamming the glass down. He wiped the froth from his moustache, "I just like the name, okay Ma?"
She shrugged indifferently. "Ok, ok whatever you like, Michelle is ok."
An infomercial blared from the TV in the lounge room.
"Michele! There's nothing good on TV now for the girls, it's the middle of the night!" Lucia abruptly pushed her chair back and exited the kitchen.
Frank sighed, looking at the clock above the sink. It was almost two AM.
* * *
The sheets felt rough against Tina's skin, and she heard the rustle of plastic every time she made a movement. A moist towel trickled water down the side of her face, and she breathed and thought about Frank. Breathed and thought about Lucia and Nella. Breathed and thought about Frank.
A midwife came in and placed a stethoscope to Tina's exposed navel. She looked up to the ceiling as she moved the cold instrument across Tina's skin.
Tina would often think 'what would Frank say if he were here?' In this instance, she thought he would describe this midwife as 'built like a brick shithouse'. She was a huge build, not to mention the rather menacing look about her.
The midwife's thinning hair was a mixture of ginger and grey, pulled back and clasped so tightly that her eyebrows tilted upwards at the ends. Her nose was angular and rather sun-burnt, and she pressed her thin lips together and then pouted, pressed then pouted.
"You can call me Sergeant Major" she said in a gruff voice.
Tina hesitated.
Sergeant Major smirked, her thin lips disappearing around her pale yellow teeth.
"Everyone calls me that 'round here," she winked, and continued to move the stethoscope.
"That's funny" Sergeant Major said. "I got a heartbeat for a few seconds there…ah here we are," her mouth hung open as if she was silently laughing. "No, there it goes again!" She frowned and let the stethoscope dangle from her thick neck.
"I think it's doing somersaults in there!" she gently patted Tina's tummy.
"Why do you say that?" Tina craned her neck forward.
"Keeps moving about, ha!" she barked loudly, placing her hands on her wide hips and heaving a chuckle.
"Cheeky thing, doesn't want to come out yet I don't think!" Her voice trailed out of the ward and Tina sighed, exhausted.
* * *
Frank left his daughters in the care of his mum and dad and drove back home. He'd phoned the hospital again before he left and they said that nothing had changed; still advising to go home and wait for their call.
When he got home he sat up for an hour at the kitchen table. The knots in his stomach pulled on his insides, rendering sleep impossible. The clocks in the kitchen and the lounge room ticked; echoed throughout the empty house and Frank felt alone. He butted out his cigarette and stumbled, exhausted, through the lounge room, placed his wallet and keys on the mantle piece and walked, leaning forward, into his bedroom and fell fast asleep on his bed, still dressed in his Robe and slippers.
He woke up a few hours later from the sunlight streaming in through the window, the room gradually brightening as the heat penetrated the glass. He sat up on the bed and lit a cigarette, lifting the ashtray from the bedside table and inspecting it. It was dark purple glass with tiny bubbles. It was no bigger than his palm, and filled to the brim after a few cigarettes, but it served its purpose. His sister Shirley had bought it for his birthday before Lucia was born; intending for him to keep it in the bedroom.
He carried it with him to the phone table in the hall, and phoned the hospital.
"She's fine Sir, she's been resting and there is no sign of urgency at the moment. I'll call you when her condition changes."
Frank sighed as he hung up the phone, dropped his Robe, his pyjama pants and shirt and strolled into the bathroom to stand under the surge of steaming hot water.
He'd just begun to soap up when the phone began to ring.
"Shit!" he said aloud. He grappled for the taps, turned them off and stumbled out into the hall, dripping mounds of soapy suds all over the carpet.
"Yes!?" he shouted into the receiver.
"Franco? It's Nella. Your mother called me," she said, causing Frank's ear to ring. Nella's voice was much to shrill and loud for 9am in the morning. Frank held the phone a measure from his ear.
"Ah yeah, yeah Tina's still in the hospital, no news yet Signora," he clenched his teeth as he saw the mess of bubbles on the carpet.
"How's Tina?" she raised her voice to an even higher pitch, and Frank shuddered and held the phone out further still.
"She's okay; I'll call you when it's time! Sorry, Nella, I have to go, I was halfway through having a shower," he looked anxiously around the room half expecting one of the girls to burst through the doorway. The house was already starting to warm up, the sun was brightly stinging through the windows and it looked like it was going to be a stinker of a day. Nonetheless, Frank was dripping wet and freezing.
He quickly got off the phone and jumped back into the shower; the sensation of hot water on his cold skin soothed his nerves and he rubbed his face and began to soap up again.
"Fuck!" Frank tore through the shower curtain, this time leaving the water running, skidded on the bathmat, tripped back into the hallway and grabbed the phone.
"Yes!?" he said, catching his breath.
"Oh," Frank sighed and pressed a clenched fist against the wall, "hey Ma."
"Frankie why you haven't called, we're worried, how's Tina?" Frank recognized voices in the background and he guessed that the rest of the family had showed up.
"Ma, listen to me, I don't know, I mean she's okay, I'll call you if the hospital calls me, alright?"
He heard her breathe loudly down the phone.
"Alright, ciao."
Frank dawdled back towards the shower, running his hands through his hair and cursing up at the ceiling. This time he didn't bother soaping up again.
He had just finished rinsing the soap out of his hair when the phone rang yet again. He turned off the taps and walked briskly to the phone.
"Hello?" he drawled.
'It's about bloody time!' Frank thought.
It was the hospital.
* * *
Frank followed the nurse from the information desk, around the corner and down a long hallway. He could hear a woman screaming. He thought this must be the childbirth section of the hospital, and that the woman screaming is some other woman. It couldn't be Tina.
The screams grew louder as the nurse led Frank through a doorway, where she stepped aside; revealing Tina, laying in bed at a 45 degree angle, legs roped up to the ceiling and all. She was screaming her head off.
Then a midwife put a plastic mask that was connected to a tube, over Tina's mouth. She looked up over the mask and lifted a hand towards Frank. Shit.
Frank walked over to her and held her dainty hand flat between his hands. He tried to smile at her, but his nauseous stomach fought the smile away, and all he could manage was a nervous smirk.
Frank thought back to when Lucia and Nella were born. Lucia popped out almost instantly; Tina was hardly in any pain at all. Nella wasn't too much trouble either. And he couldn't understand why they had led him right into the centre of the action – wasn't he supposed to be out in the waiting room?
Frank kissed his wife on the forehead as she began giggling between gulps of whatever the mask was breathing into her, and headed for the door.
"Where do you think you're going?" boomed a haughty voice.
Frank turned around to be face to face with Sergeant Major. She was built like a brick shithouse and was definitely more man than woman.
"I'm going to the waiting room…"
"Oh no you're not, you're staying right here, sonny boy!" she said, towering over Frank as he paused, his hand gestured in the direction of the waiting room, not sure whether to start laughing or trembling.
"But nothing – what are you, weak? Can't handle it!?" she scoffed at him, making eye contact with another midwife bustling past, who returned her smile and winked at Frank.
Frank was stunned. He stood there and stammered, laughing on the inside at himself for feeling scared of this woman.
He swallowed and pushed his shoulders back, in an effort to force a cool composure. His stomach was twisting and turning though, and he felt his insides drip with acid.
"Look, I just came in to see how my wife is," he said, raising his chin in Tina's direction.
Sergeant Major's eyes narrowed and her thin lips disappeared between tightly pressed folds of skin and ginger stubble.
"You want to know how she is?" she place her hands on her mammoth hips and leaned towards Frank, her face inches from his face – he felt as if he were at boot camp.
"Well, I'll tell you how she is, she's in pain! Get it?" she snapped her pale yellow teeth at him; "do you hear me, Pain!"
Frank nodded cautiously, sidled over to the bed and sat beside Tina.
He focused on her face as it contorted; held her delicate hand that showed a sudden bout of brute strength as it dug and cut and held his flesh to the bone.
She gasped as her head fell back on the pillow. A new sound interrupted her rhythmic heavy breathing. It was the sound of a baby crying.
"Congratulations, you have a healthy baby!" someone shouted. Frank kept his gaze locked on Tina's face.
Sergeant Major carried a bundle of immaculate white cotton cloth in her oafish hands and placed it in Tina's embrace. Frank sat forward on his chair and peered into the centre of the coiled cloth.
A little red face the size of his palm peeked out, two tiny eyes staring up at Tina's face.
* * *
Nonno and Nonna were cooking up a storm of pizza in the kitchen; where the uncles sat at the table with cold beers. The rest of the family sat in the lounge room. The smell of Fresh parsley, garlic and homemade parmesan cheese wafted through the archway.
The volume of the kid's voices rose from a murmur to a babble. Nonna came striding briskly through the archway, wiping her parmesan cheese peppered hands with a tea towel. The aunties sprang to their feet and began hushing their kids. Lucia and Nella were already standing near the hallway door within ears reach of the phone. Nonno and the uncles strolled in and formed a wall at the kitchen archway.
Nonna hissed a final 'shush' before picking up the receiver. All was silent.
"`Allo?" Nonna stood at the phone table with one hand on her hip, clutching the tea towel. The front pocket of her apron had sprigs of parsley sprouting from it.
"Yeah?" a smile stayed fixed on her face.
"Alright." Everyone quietly leaned towards her or turned their heads to aim their good ear in Nonnas direction.
"Tina alright?"
She nodded."Ok. Ciao."
She hung up the phone and stepped into the lounge room.
Everyone stared at her, eyes bulging, mouths gaping.
She grinned and shouted "It's a girl!" followed instantaneously by shrieks and squeals.
"Oh no! Not another one!" Cousin Manuel dramatically held a hand to a pretend feverish forehead and fell to the floor; playing dead. The family was charged with excitement and they stepped over him, ignoring his performance.
Nonno flicked an infuriated hand in the air at Nonna; and walked back into the kitchen to collect fresh 'celebration' beers for the men.
"Ma, have they picked a name?" Aunt Shirley raised her voice above the kafuffle.
"Michelle," she answered.

Chapter 11
"It's no use getting upset."
Michelle, I am with you, for friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies. Not even all the cancers or all the failed livers in the world could take away your father's spirit, and even as he departs, he departs surrounded by love. I wish I could thank him for blessing me with my oldest and bestest friend. You are an angel. As for your dad, he already has his place carved out in heaven. And remember, fathers like him are one in a million. Find solace in the fact that you shared a relationship that was rare and magical. I am here for you always.
Love, Anna
I was wordless in reply. Thank you, I love you, I typed on my mobile phone and hit 'send'. After thinking for a moment, I scrolled back to 'create new message' and wrote: I am going to read your message out at the funeral. I couldn't have worded it better myself.
As I dawdled in the lounge room, anxious for my friends to arrive- mum, Lucia and Nella sat at the dining room table with the woman from the funeral parlour. They were discussing coffin lining. I grabbed my packet of cigarettes and walked out the front door, to see Anna, Jon and Tania strolling up the driveway.
We sat cross-legged on the warm concrete footpath as they fanned away my cigarette smoke and smiled, patting my hand. Staring at my toenails, I suggested purple polish and they smiled and nodded in unison.
Upon hearing Nella calling out to me, I butted my cigarette on the brick fence and galloped inside.
"Michelle," Mum said as she pulled out the empty chair beside her, "this is Annetta, say hello."
"Hi." I stood behind Mum.
Annetta smiled at me with sad, glassy eyes.
"This is the writer," Mum said to her. "If there's anyone who can come up with something, its Michelle," Mum grabbed my hand. "Okay, Mishy, write something nice to put in the card, maybe a poem, okay?" she rubbed my hand, her sand-paper skin smoothing mine, warming me; making me feel ten years old, walking to the local shops hand in hand with Mum.
"Okay," I said, "but not here, I need to go outside – give me a few minutes," I grabbed a pen and a sheet of paper from the desk and ran out to meet my friends; but I sat a length away from them, calling out to them in hurried explanation. They smiled and nodded and continued to talk amongst themselves.
I placed the sheet of paper on the concrete in front of me, after flicking away pebbles and small twigs to smooth the surface.
His spirit is far greater,
For death to take away.
He is with us every moment,< I>
Every hour,
Every day.
Wisdom and humour in his words,
His heart full of love,
His face shining with character,
As he watches over us from above.
I folded the sheet of paper neatly in half with a sharpened crease and ran back inside.
"Here you go," I let go of the sheet with a gentle flick, causing it to sail on the air and land in the centre of the table.
I paused under the archway for a moment while the four of them huddled over it. After a minute of reading it over, someone said "that's beautiful," and I handed mum the pen and went outside.
* * *
"Is that who I think it is?" Nella said as she nudged me. I followed her gaze over her shoulder to see a tall young man walking up the aisle, with a dark ponytail – who was barely recognizable as our cousin Vince, dressed in a gray suit and black tie. He paused for a moment, gazing at the front of the church where the altar below the crucifix confronted him. He put his hand to his forehead and to his left shoulder, glanced around him quickly, and sat down on the pew across from us.
"Oh my, look at Vince!" I said, turning back to Nella, "that's so cute, he went out and bought a suit."
"Well, he was probably honoured that we asked him to be a pall bearer," she said.
"Eh," I shrugged, lowering my face to disguise my smirk, "I wouldn't have minded if he wore one of his heavy metal shirts." Nella nudged me again and covered her mouth, her eyes twinkling.
I looked over my shoulder to view the many faces seated behind us as they stared ahead in soulful unison. I felt a strange feeling of comfort that was so intense; in some moments I felt I had to force a sad expression. I wanted to let my facial muscles relax, and allow my mouth to smile.
I could see myself seated in the front pew of Saint Sebastian's church. I looked pale and grey-skinned; black clothed. Before we left for the service, I considered applying make-up, but quickly dismissed the idea, just deodorant – not even perfume.
We were driven to the church in a silver limousine, and given plastic cups of water along the way. There were dark blue, gold-fringed boxes of tissues fixed in gray pouches on the inside of the doors. The car stereo played somber, uplifting tunes.
I watched six of my male cousins stand, solemn and as well-groomed as I have ever seen them, walk towards the front of the church and stand on either side of the coffin; three and three.
The first note of Honky Tonk Man played, and they crouched in unison, clasped their hands around the gilded handles and lifted the coffin onto their shoulders.
There's not a hell of a lot we can do,
But cling to each other, 'till the hurtin' is through,
You know the hurt, can only last for so long…
I heard a sniffle beside me and turned to see Nella, her face covered with her hands, as we were motioned to stand and exit the church. I put my arm around her and guided her down the aisle.
Throw your arms 'round this Honky Tonk Man,
And we'll get through this night, the best way we can…
People stood, lined up in the pews, facing us as we walked past. Some people threw out their hand to shake ours or pull us towards them for a brief but profound hug.
It's the best ol' pain killer, since hurtin' began…
Throw your arms 'round this Honky Tonk Man
Throw your arms… 'round this Honky Tonk… Man…
The last note rang out under the bright blue sky, as we stood in our skirts and suits on the church steps like black shadows in the bright sunlight.
"Michelle," cousin Joe hooked his hand onto my arm, "I was doing okay until you read out that poem, then I lost it…" he smiled, "thanks a lot." I stood on tiptoes and hugged him.
"I'm glad you liked it."
* * *
My Father, My Friend
My father, my friend
We were with you 'till the end
Loving and proud and strong
My father, my friend
Though I cannot pretend
That days without you aren't long.
The bench in the garage
The chair at the computer
The head of the kitchen table
The reclining chair in the lounge
The backyard chair under the trees
Barbeques, Thursday dinners, Christmas Eve…
My father, my friend
All of this cannot mend
Will always have an empty space
My father, my friend
This is not the end
You are forever with us
Here in your place.

- Michelle Napolitano 2001/2006...