Many memories-sad, gay, tender- danced through Plinio’s mind whenever he looked at his father’s knife. That knife was his most definite link with home. A well-knit, good-looking young fellow of twenty-three –the new kitchen-hand at the café Milano – he had come from a poor village in Calabria, in a very desolate part of southern Italy. Most of the men had emigrated to America and Australia; women easily outnumbered tem in the villages. And many a mother had to bring up children without ever hearing again from a father who had vanished without a trace into one of the new lands.
No Plinio’s father who had died in his native village nearly fourteen years before. Old Bonelli had never cared to leave his wife and his large brood of children even for a week. For them he had worked hard as a day labourer on the roads and in the fields, and in his spare time he had carved things with the knife that had come down to him from his grandfather. It was his most valued possession, his mark of self sufficiency, a symbol of poverty, yet a very proud poverty.
Now in Melbourne, Plinio always carried his father’s knife and he wore his father’s black corduroy trousers. In the new land, lonely, pining for the village he had never before left, Plinio thought more than ever of his father; it was as if the new country had made him conscious of being an orphan. As vividly as if it had happened the day before, he could remember his father dying; he could remember the dying man’s continuous cries like an endless litany of anguish.
Christ save me. Bring me a doctor. Christ save me. But there was no doctor for kilometres around. Before a doctor could be brought from the district centre his calls had changed to a death rattle. Plinio could remember seeing his mother and sister close the dead man’s eyelids, and then begin their lament declaiming in high voices the death story. From time to time they put their heads out of the window to announce the death to the world and then they drew back into the room to continue their lamentations. They were joined by other women from the village and the wailing lasted for two days without stopping until the funeral.
The memory of his long-drawn-out, repetitious, agonizing lament always filled Plinio with a feeling of physical distress; it brought a lump to his throat and he could hardly keep back his tears. And with that came more recollections. He recalled how his mother Maddalena, went out to work for a stonemason, a relative of hers, and how she had carried great weights on her head, bags of sand and even ceiling boards. Yet hard as she worked she earned very little and her children lived in daily need of food. Their most constant meal was black bread made of hard wheat, in great round loaves weighing four or five kilos. A loaf would last a whole week. On the few holidays, as on the feast day of the Virgin Mary, the bread was spiced with a little garlic, dipped in oil and eaten with pieces of the ferociously hot Spanish pepper. Sometimes there was also a thin broth. These rare feasts were among the happiest of Plinio’s childhood memories. He had not had a long childhood. A year after his father’s death, when he turned ten, he began to work as a day labourer on farms around the villages.
It was then as a symbol of his coming...