When Beata arrives at her cousin’s grocery store on this particular morning, it is just before ten a.m. and there are already some customers in the shop. Her first cousin Luisa and husband Matteo arrived in Melbourne five years before Beata, directly after getting married in Italy. They have no children and are buying a shopfront with a dwelling upstairs, in Fitzroy. From here, Luisa runs a successful Italian general store where many inner city Italians buy their imported specialty foods and newspapers: their pasta, parmesan, and prosciutto; the foods that help them observe their traditions, like the Christmas panettone and the rich chocolate Easter eggs; the imported and local Italian dailies and weeklies that keep them abreast with their old and new countries: ‘Il Corriere della Sera’ the Italian national newspaper; the locally prepared papers, ‘La Fiamma’ and Il Globo’ and some magazines. Beata shops here too. Its a bit hard to get here in person because of work, so she borrows the telephone from the nearby hairdresser and rings through her order on a weekly basis.
As soon as Luisa spots Beata, she calls out in their local dialect ‘Ey, chi sa’rvede!’, something like ‘look who’s here’ and then immediately switches to standard Italian to her shop assistant, directing her to take charge of the shop and customers. She walks over to greet Beata with a warm hug and the customary twin kisses. Right now, Beata wants this embrace and tenderness more than anything on earth but she is rigid and withdrawn behind her sunglasses. Luisa folds her into her arms, squeezing gently. She kisses her right cheek, still holding Beata’s arms and moves her face to the right to kiss Beata’s other cheek, and sees the bruising. She pushes Beata back a little as she stands square on to her looking past the dark glasses into Beata’s eyes. ‘What did you do?’ she demands. Beata’s throat had clamped shut from the moment she’d heard her cousin’s greeting. She can’t reply. She can’t speak. She is not breathing. Two warm, fat rivulets open their way under her glasses and roll away under her chin. Luisa hooks one arm under Beata’s and uses her other arm to grip it from the front. Holding Beata firmly like this, all the while looking at her face, she guides her towards the door leading to the storerooms and the stairwell. Beata concentrates on placing each foot securely on each step while her tears continue. As they reach the top of the stairs, Beata forces the words to come out of her throat: ‘It was Federico’, she croaks softly.
Luisa’s tone is clipped as she mutters about how a father of two beautiful children, the spouse of a hard-working woman, could do such a thing. However, she switched quickly to a more resigned, placatory tone: ‘Va bene’, ‘ok’, she says. ‘Lets get a quick brandy into you. And then, Ill make you coffee and we’ll eat something’. She had been delighted when she had first seen Beata in the shop but now she felt angry and less powerful, somehow. She was efficient in finding the brandy and shot glasses. She poured the brandy, placed it in Beata’s hand, and then wanting to be certain of Beata’s grip, she enclosed her other hand around Beata’s and the glass, guiding both to Beata’s mouth. ‘Come on, drink’ she directed. ‘Drink it all… It will give you strength.’ Beata drank.
‘Go and wash your face in the bathroom; I’ll put the coffee on…. And you might as well take your glasses off; it’s only us here’, Luisa reasons.
Beata looks at herself in the vanity mirror. She thought she was pretty once. Now she isn’t. Thirty-one years old: ugly, stupid and sore. Behind her, in the mirror, she sees Luisa’s expensive looking, fluffy, pale pink bath towels, which Luisa has embroidered over. Luisa had always shown a passion for housekeeping, for weaving and embroidery and Beata remembers how pleasing it was to visit her house in the Lunigiana region, where they were all born and had grown up. Beata loved spending time with Luisa’s mother, Anna, her favourite aunt, who was her mother Celia’s older sister. She loved hearing Anna’s stories about her mother, when she was still alive and well. She loved being held and kissed by her aunt, who spoke so affectionately to her, using the many local endearments, ‘Mi ninnina; tesorin’; my little one; my little treasure. Luisa’s house in the Lunigiana was sensually pleasing: apart from the love that coddled her, there was almost always a homemade cake to be eaten during the visit and the house and all of its rooms were tidy and beautifully adorned with homemade linens and laces decorating furniture surfaces, beds and windows, all mostly made by Luisa. In the post-war poverty of the rural Lunigiana, Luisa had worked on the farm, like all her close and extended family. She helped her mother with keeping house and cooking for her father and five brothers. And Luisa’s hands produced beautiful artifacts. An excellent organizer; she was tidy in the extreme and had an eye for presentation and display, and these skills she’d brought with her to Melbourne.
Beata admires, perhaps even envies, a little, Luisa’s capabilities but most of all she envies her good marriage. Luisa’s husband Matteo works at a small engineering firm in Richmond by day, and in the evenings and on weekends he does the phone order deliveries for the shop. Neither Luisa nor Matteo had any previous experience in shop-keeping but they had both seen the opportunity. They were good with people, good with numbers and good with each other. As she turns on the hot tap to splash her face, Beata feels the tenderness and inflammation in her throat. Probably from her screaming last night. Both her eyes are swollen and pink from crying and her left eye and cheek are purple from the bruising and she has rarely felt as ugly or as stupid. Her arms ache from her wrestling with Federico. She had used all her upper body strength in the struggle to keep him from punching her again and she doesn’t know where she gathered the notion to knee him in the groin or even how she landed so precisely but suddenly he had pulled away and crouched down to the ground, wailing loudly and beginning to cry.
She had wanted to run when he went to the ground, but… there were so many buts. It was late and she would have to walk alone in the dark to any of the main roads. Neither was there any guarantee that a taxi would pass soon. And where would she go? It was after 11:30 and her relatives would be asleep. She had felt ashamed. She felt it again now as a flaming in her face and a sickening in her abdomen. Of the beating. Of telling people (sure, they were relatives but they didn’t understand or know what it was like). Of appearing in the middle of the night (who turns up in the dead of night? Thieves, prostitutes, refugees fleeing from the war?)
The worst was the shame she felt about her boys. Her beautiful, precious children. She remembered her little Luca crying and shouting at Federico to stop: ‘stop it, you’re scaring me’, and wrapping his arms around Federico’s leg, trying to wrench him off Beata. She recalls getting angry with fear for Luca and shouting at him to get away: ‘Vai via, Luca!!’ and spitting at to Federico: ‘Disgraziato! Non vedi che fai paura ai bambini?’ Bastard. You’re terrifying the children. From her peripheral vision, she had registered Carlo, her eldest boy, terrified and paralysed at the door, who had found the courage to come to pull Luca away from Federico who was promising to kill everyone.
When Federico was on the ground, holding his crutch, whimpering words about himself: being a hard worker, being a good father, she knew all the bluster and storm was spent, and she could turn her full attention to the boys. Their little faces awash from crying, they looked pale and pinched from dread. Of course she had wanted to run but she couldn’t leave them and she couldn’t take them, so she had decided to stay that night. She had washed their young, worried faces and taken them to bed. She had laid on the bedcover, next to Luca, who wouldn’t let her move, and in the morning, got them ready and walked them to school, nearby. Then she had made her way to her cousin Luisa’s, who worked from home. She had hoped to get advice and an invitation to stay a few days with the children to work out what to do. Her shame wrings tight her gut and strangles her heart and lungs.