“Really Papa? Why don’t you tell us again the story of those days?” Maria asked, while murmurs of approval rose from the others.
“Well” Sergio started, pausing briefly to recollect the old memories.
“Well, I was a thirteen-year-old boy at that time, and the Second World War was escalating around Europe. The able men were away, fighting on different fronts and in town there was left only the women with their young children, and old people.
“Food was scarce and only the rich could afford to buy it on the black market.
“Our mother could scarcely provide a meal a day for us, and I can’t deny we were hungry. Suddenly luck came my way and I started my fishing career with Tony.
“He was the oldest fisherman in Santa Margherita. He was eighty years old, and age had deprived him of the strength to row his fishing boat out to sea.
“One day I was down at the fishermen’s jetty, looking for some bait for my fishing line. Tony came along, and said to me,
‘Hey boy, you are big enough and you look strong enough. Why don’t you come out at night on my fishing boat? I cannot offer much for the work, but I can guarantee your family will have enough fish to survive during these miserable days.’
And that was the way I started my fishing career with him. His promises were good, we never caught much, but at least since that day till the end of the war we had enough to survive. That’s why the nets are hung there, to remember the past and the long way we have come since then.”
Luca, the younger son said, “Certainly Papa, you have done so much for all the family. And still now you are the first to get up at dawn and go to the jetty, waiting for the fishermen to come in, so you always get the best of their catch.”
“Well it’s not time for me to retire yet, but it is time for you, Luca, to follow my steps. I’m used to working hard and long hours. All of you have to learn that also. Only hard work and the desire to succeed can produce wealth.”
“Yes Papa, we know that, but we live in different times now.” Carlo said.
“What you say is true” Sergio continued “I just remember my first days in Australia, when I came from Italy with only a few personal things, but with big dreams for the future. I wanted to get rich, not because of greed, but for the security that money can provide and because I always wanted to give more to my kids than I had in my younger days.
“That was the reason I spent my first three years in North Queensland as a sugar cane cutter. In the past days cutting was done only with a machete, there weren’t harvesting tractors. It was the hardest but the best paid job in the country. People are getting lazy today, they rely only on machines doing the hard work, but in my old days, only the ‘desperados’ like me did that kind of work. You had a machete in your hand from sunrise to sunset…”
“I heard about it, but please Papa tells us more.” Carlo interrupted.
“We worked in gangs of six people each. And by night we had cut ten tons of cane and loaded it into the tramline’s trucks. It was a slave’s work. Sweat poured out of our bodies like rivers and we did not rest all day, only fifteen minutes to eat a sandwich and drink water. At night, after dark, we had a large steak and chips and we only bathed in the dams used by the cattle. We slept in the barns on beds of straw. The cutting job normally lasted seven months of the year. Then, when finished, many returned to their families, but for people like me with nowhere to go, we remained on the farms, to plough and plant the new cane for the next season.”
“And for how long did you do that harsh work, Papa?” Maria asked.
“I was there for three seasons, and in that period, I saved enough money to venture down to Brisbane. Fortune took me to this part of the city. At that time, just here, where the restaurant is, was an old timber building, with one dark shop. The smell of mutton fat saturated the air around and the greased atmosphere impregnated the clothes. The building faced the street with one of those typical Australian bull nose verandahs. It was an old fish and chip shop. When I first stepped in, it was early in the morning, and there were no other customers around.”
“And what made you buy that place?” Luca questioned.
“When I entered, two fellows were quarreling at the back of the shop. I heard them well but I couldn’t understand much, they were talking in Greek. Apparently, they were very upset. One of the two finally came and served my breakfast and then he spoke to me, ‘Hey you, Italiano, you want to buy the shop? It is good and you will make a heap of good money. You see, I keep quarrelling with my brother, and I’ve enough of him.’
“I thought it was a joke but within the month I was the new owner and I traded there for the next five years, till the night the shop burned down.”
“Really Papa? And what happen then?” Maria asked.
“I was married then to your mother, and you, Maria, had just celebrated your second birthday. Your mother was pregnant again, and we were living in the back of the shop in a tiny flat.
“It was night and just before dawn, smoke suddenly filled the room. I smelled danger, and wrapped you in a blanket and called your mother.
“We escaped in time. The flames were quickly reaching high above the roof and before the fire brigade arrived it was all burned down. It left me penniless. The place wasn’t insured.
“The incident let me on the verge of despair while your mother was crying loudly, poor, dear Milena, I remember her so vividly in her agony.”
“Poor mum” Said Maria “I can hardly remember her; I was only five when she died.”
Luca asked. “But then, what happened to you, Papa?”
“Well. As I have told you many times, on occasions like this you mustn’t panic. You have to roll up your sleeves, and go and work harder. So that’s exactly what I did. Milena and our little daughter returned to live with Milena’s father, and I moved once again to North Queensland. I worked again in the sugarcane farms, to earn the money I needed so badly to be able to start the business again. It was two long years. I missed Milena and my two little daughters, but I kept the miseries to myself, and never told my wife of my suffering. I worked hard and saved every cent to get back what we had lost.”
“Well Papa, and then?” They asked together.
“With the money I saved and with a bank loan I started again. I bought the vacant block of land next to the shop as well. I liked the position fronting the river, but fifty years back this suburb only had a few scattered houses. I had the feeling then, that soon the area would be part of the city. As you can see this has been a good investment. Then I built the first section of the restaurant. The rest came later, a section at the time, and all of you should remember that well.”
“Yes – Maria said – I remember. We were here when Mother died, I was five then, and that has been the only occasion I saw you crying.”
“Yes Maria, I loved her very much. In her last wish she asked me to promise that I will remarry again. She wanted me to form a family, so you girls would not suffer without a mother. Often, even now after so many years, I spend time at Milena’s grave and I talk to her with love, as I used to in the old days. She has been an inspiration to me through time and seems to understand my thoughts.”
“Is that the reason why you married mother’s younger sister?” Maria asked.
“Yes Maria. Teresa, who was your new mother, came over to look after you when your mother was critically ill. Soon after Milena died, I became emotionally aware of Teresa. I liked the way she loved you girls. One day, I asked her to marry me and she has been my wife for nearly forty years now, and I have never regretted that, have I Teresa?”
“Yes darling, I have been happy with you all this time. You have always been good to me and to all our children.” Teresa agreed.
End Part 2