I was hiding in the orchard, pretending to check for creepy-crawlies rutting on the beginnings of the fruit when the Italian prisoners of war arrived, descending from the sergeant’s green Chevy: one fella tiny, nervous, prancing sideways, shaking his glossy black mane, a racehorse of a man, sixteen if he was a day; the other bloke a walking pie safe, draped in a freakish magenta army uniform, complete with a pink blur in the buttonhole that I reckoned was an everlasting. Some prisoners. They looked more like two obscure French artists mincing along behind the curator of a museum of primitive art. The curator, my husband Toad, pointed to the house, and I imagined him saying, ‘And over here is the Toady masterpiece – The Farm House – painted in a mad rush in 1935 before the wife had her first child – notice the delightfully eccentric stone chimney, the listing veranda, the sunburnt children lurking under the mulberry.’ And the tame cockatoo, Boss Cockie, saw them coming and raised his crest in alarm and muttered under his breath. ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘Go away. Bad bloody cockie.’
I turned thirty the year the Italians came to our West Australian farm, and I was afraid of them, so afraid of those over-sexed men we’d read about, rapists in tight little bodies with hot Latin eyes, men who were capable of anything. Of course, we didn’t know much about them, just what we’d heard on the wireless or read in the paper, and if Mr Churchill had said donkeys were flying in Italy, I do think we’d have believed him. We women of the district, none of us wanted the Italians, but who were we to say? It was impossible to get help for ploughing and seeding and shearing, the young bloods gone to splatter themselves all over Europe, New Guinea, North Africa, and even the old retreads in the Volunteer Defence Corps were busy drilling on the football oval. They didn’t know that their crushed paper bag faces were enough to repel any Japanese invasion. Men were rationed, like everything else, and so when the government offered prisoners of war as farm labour, the control centres were mobbed from the first day by farmers in search of workers.
Oh, I knew those dagoes were coming all right, and that’s why I hid in the orchard, crouching there in Wellington boots, the hem of my dress bunched in one hand. Over sixty trees were in bloom, and I was busy brushing petals out of the valley of fabric between my knees, trying to breathe, because the scent of orange blossom was chokingly sweet. And the rabbits – the bloody rabbits – had ringbarked all the newly planted almond slips, their buds already wilting.
I didn’t want to put those men in Joan’s old room. I didn’t want them in my house at all. But we couldn’t keep them in the shearing shed like a mob of sheep, so I was forced to scrub her tiny room – really just a closed-in part of the veranda, a sleepout – and beeswax the jarrah boards, and spread the old hospital beds with sheets white and brittle as bones. And, as a final touch, a welcoming note that I didn’t feel, I stuffed some golden wattle in a canning jar and put it on a box between their beds. I’d cleaned the whole house too, so that if the prisoners killed us while we were sleeping, the neighbours wouldn’t have anything to talk about, and I’d sent my children, Mudsey and Alf, to pick up the wee droppings that their poddy lamb had left all over the veranda. And lamb chops were on my mind, with mint sauce, baby potatoes and – on the side – a fricassee of brains.
I had a fairly good idea why Toad wasn’t taking the Italians over to the room, and even though I knew it was wrong, even though what he was planning to do to them was possibly a breach of the Geneva Convention, I waited, gurgling with delight in the lusty orchard, attacked by platoons of bees drunk on orange blossom wine. All my senses were walking with the men, waiting for the sound of those baby-eaters howling when they were shoved into the sheep dip. They’d bellyflop into the stinking, arsenic-laden waters and they’d wonder about the greasy black pellets floating past them like mines and they’d be picking some of the sheep shit from their eyebrows right when Toady pushed them under again with his crook.
You’ll have to forgive me for my language. Gin Toad is no longer a lady.
Oh, those men would be unhappy to be deloused the way we out here in Wyalkatchem delouse our sheep. They might even complain to the authorities at the Control Centre, but it would be worth it, because it would make a good story. It’s a story we will be telling for years.
Toady told me that when he saw Antonio Cesarini’s cordovan wing tips, he gestured to the man to take off his shoes. This consideration didn’t save the men from a plunge in the long concrete cesspool that thousands of sheep had just swum through to rid themselves of fleas, ticks, lice and other blood-sucking parasites, but it did save their shoes, and especially the wing tips, which were such a luxury item, an Italianate extravagance. Toady had stroked those shoes while the men drip-dried in the hot spring sunshine; the leather looked as if it had been tanned in blood, and gave off a heady aroma reminiscent of the one and only cigar he had ever smoked. The soles were tissue thin, unscuffed, impossibly new. Toady had just resoled his ancient boots for the third time, with slabs of ironbark.
He tried to remind himself that the Italians were fascist pigs, cowards, and prisoners as well, lowly slaves in the Australian hinterland, but it felt more like jealousy speaking, so he kicked the shoes back to their oily owner, and satisfied himself by thinking he had bruised the bastard things with his boot.