CHAPTER 1. SONIA.
Decades before the fire, Sonia sat on the window seat gazing out at the long narrow backyard. It shimmered in the midday heat, the warm sun pouring through the window making her drowsy.
The once bountiful rose bed was now a thread bare collection of frizzled buds that hung withered, brown, and crisp. The wire fence to the chook run, once as straight as a sentry and so clean and shiny was now bloody with rust, bent and twisted into grotesque shapes. It was certainly no longer capable of restraining the feisty Isa Browns that had once pecked and scratched the earth for juicy worms and fat bugs.
Tall grey wooden stakes that had hung heavy with vines of plump juicy tomatoes and majestic stalks of sweet golden corn were now sun bleached, splintered, and leaning against each other like fallen soldiers. The old rich soil, so carefully nurtured under the watchful eye of her papa now lay hidden beneath a thick cracked crust baked hard by the sun.
She twirled the ends of her thick black hair between her fingers feeling its softness, sniffing the lavender scent of her conditioner. Her eyes focused on a faraway place. The flicker of a small smile creased her lips as she relived the memories of childhood games and forbidden moments played out amongst the hidden nooks and crannies of the backyard.
In the long scorching summer months Sonia and her older siblings, Rena and Tony would help her dad strip the vine ripened Romas ready for his famous sauce. The firm sweet flesh, the high pectin, the low juice, and the absence of seeds made them the perfect tomato for sauce. The thought of her mother’s pillowy, soft, and buttery gnocchi floating in that rich sweet sauce made her start to salivate.
Her eyes wandered to the sturdy confines of the chook house. A lone tear fell and rolled down her cheek. It was a regular point of teasing that papa loved his chooks more than his kids. And to house his precious hens he had created nothing less than the Taj Mahal of hen houses. There were no odd planks of wood thrown together with random corrugated iron sheets plonked on top. It was a castle befitting his plump, gorgeous Isa Browns and they rewarded him generously. An egg a day of the firmest whites and the brightest yellow yolks for all but the very last days of their lives.
She recalled the first time he made her collect the eggs. She had watched her older brother Tony and seen the large hens cluck and peck at him with they’re long sharp beaks. He had recoiled with the pain. She was terrified but her papa insisted. It was her time. She had crept slowly towards the custom-made nesting boxes. A large Isa Brown stuck its neck out pecking curiously near the entrance. She reached slowly, hesitantly, inside, her eyes, large as saucers, locked firmly on the beady black eyes of the hen as they stared each other down. She felt the crisp strands of dry yellow straw tickling her wrist and placed her small hand around the smooth warm orb of the egg.
So fixated on that one hen, she had failed to notice the other that had slowly pecked it’s way around from the other side of the box. Her hand slowed to a halt, hovering, and shaking as it passed the hen at beak height. She winced waiting for the inevitable stabbing. But the mother hen just stared blankly back at her, its little feathered head bobbing and weaving on its thin gaunt neck.
When the other charged, it struck out with a mighty flap of its wings and a fierce clucking, digging the blunt edge of its beak with all its might into the soft flesh of the back of Sonia’s hand. She screamed and flung the egg to the ground, watching horrified as the bright yellow yolk oozed from the cracked white of the shell and disappeared into the earth. She recoiled, looking desperately to her hand expecting a wound oozing red, instinctively rubbing it before realizing, there was no pain, no blood, just the tiniest little pink mark that quickly faded to nothing.
She turned, still breathless, to the sound of her brother Tony chuckling: ‘Nice one sis,’ he said, a big grin plastered across his handsome brown face. Her papa stood at the entrance with his hands on his hips and shook his head, a wide weather-beaten smile beaming love looked back at her.
The family home, set on a large block was typical of the old three-bedroom one bathroom weatherboards of the day. Not large but large enough. Long summers and mild winters meant that most living was done outside. The majority of cooking was done on the old Rheem BBQ and meals were often taken on the long-weathered jarrah table under the trussed grape vines. Sleeping for the most part, at least for Tony and Sonia, was better in the sleepout. The odd mozzie would get through the gaps in the flywire but the cool evening breeze on their sweaty skin made up for it.
Sonia shifted a little uncomfortably in the narrow window seat, recalling the memories of whispered conversations with Tony that often ran late into the cool summer nights. Her mind drifted to the forbidden games of discovery they played out amongst the tool shed, the fruit trees, the veggie garden, and the hen house. Over the road from their house lay a hundred acres of paradise.
An expanse of native bushland full of every sort of wonder, delight, and danger that a kid could hope for. Groves of wattles and gum trees perfect for climbing and making tree houses in. Banksias with their grenade shaped cones and blue tongue lizards, dugites, and race horse goannas to chase and torment.
Sitting there now, a young woman of eighteen, her knees pulled up to squeeze into the small window seat, she wondered how a family of five could have shared their lives in such a small place. But she had no memory of ever wanting more, of feeling claustrophobic. They had grown into the space together and shared it easily, graciously. Routines for bathing and the use of the toilet evolved organically.
Nobody ever took more time than they needed and nobody ever rushed anyone else. Dinner times were 6pm sharp in summer and 5.30pm in winter. Chores were always done straight after school and before they took off to play. Everyone did their bit, although Rena, the oldest, would always try to delegate her share if she could get away with it.
But today those sweet childhood memories seemed no more than a dream and this house like a favourite T-shirt that no longer fit. She swept the lush mane of her hair over her shoulder as she turned to look into the crowd. There were too many people gathered in here today. She knew they had a right to be here. Antony Snr was well loved and respected among the Sicilian community. He had come here after the war and worked hard. He was generous, wise and a friend to all who would seek his counsel. And many had done just that, showing their respect and gratitude in many different ways. He had gone too soon, taken by the same foul cancer that took his father before him.
He had fought it of course, like he had fought every battle in his life, tough, belligerent and determined. Twelve months he had battled and everyday till his last he said he would win, he would beat this cunt disease. ‘No one touches my garden, I will be back, I will make it right’, because that was what he did, Antony Formosa one way or another he would always make things right.
Tony appeared beside her placing a large muscular hand lightly on her shoulder then bent and took a big sniff of her hair. ‘How’re you going sis?’ he said gently
Sonia reached a hand over, resting it lightly on top of Tonys. She looked past him to the crowd sipping tea, drinking beer and grappa, and eating small slices of lasagne off the good crockery.
She turned and looked back to the garden. ‘I wish they’d all just leave’ she sighed.
Rena was hovering beside their mama, doing what she does best, taking control, directing, and redirecting. This was how she coped with stress. Block it out, redirect her own feelings. She had a firm hand under her elbow as though her mama wasn’t capable of standing without her support. Rena seemed uncomfortable with the throng of women crowding around offering commiseration’s, meals, and hope for the future.
‘Elena, I’m so sorry for your loss,’ ‘Elena we are here for you,’ ‘a great man’, ‘he shall be missed,’ offers of all kinds were made.
Tony glanced around looking into the faces of the assembled mourners. There was genuine remorse and sadness here. Every single one of them, in one shape or another, had owed a debt to Anthony Snr. Tony rubbed Sonia’s shoulder affectionately, ‘he was a popular old bugger, they’re just saying their final goodbyes, besides’ and he took a look over his shoulder back at his older sister, ‘Reen I’ll have ‘em gone soon enough’.
He left her and walked over to a group of men who immediately surrounded him, patting his back, rubbing his shoulders, and whispering condolences to him with small respectful nods. Sonia watched him disappear into their midst, his powerful body standing tall amongst them. He was beautiful she thought. Embarrassed by the familiar tingle she turned back to the garden. Renata watched them from the other side of the room absently squeezing her mother’s elbow too tightly.
‘Rena, please!’ continue reading.............