Cassie Hamer: By Proxy, highly commended
Cassie Hamer is an emerging writer from Sydney who tends to make up stories in her head while walking around the beautiful Centennial Park. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently working on a full-length manuscript. She wrote ‘By Proxy’ after a recent visit to Hobart where she was inspired by an exhibition of photos and mementoes, telling the story of women who travelled in the turbulent post-war years to the other side of the world to make a new life for themselves. Cassie remains in awe of their bravery.
It is Rosa’s last night on the MV Toscana, and she would quite like to die. The boiling sea has muddled her insides. Stomach in mouth. Heart in knees. The cabin is stifling and the vessel is in delirium, pickled by sea salt and alcohol.
Above her, from the dining hall, the piano accordion wheezes and gasps a slurred tune. Heels and toes keep syncopated time on the wooden floorboards. Below her, the bunk vibrates as the ship’s engines power and shudder through the swell.
‘Rosa! Rosa! Vieni alla fiesta. Addesso!’ Rosa, Come to the party. Now! Through the key hole slides Maria’s voice, lubricated by alcohol and hoary with cigarettes.
But Rosa does not want to go to the party. She wants to die. She wants Mama to smooth the hair on her forehead and bring her stale ciabatta and aqua minerale. She does not want to be this message in a bottle, at the mercy of tides and currents.
‘No. Sto male.’ I’m sick. Rosa rolls with the ship and her stomach heaves in time with both. Tomorrow night, he will be in her bed. Mama has said it will hurt, but she is not to cry. The blood will please him.
Her stomach reels again.
‘Va bene, Rosa.’ Ok. From the unsteady beat of Maria’s footsteps, Rosa knows she is stumbling down the hallway, lurching from side to side.
For Rosa, sleep is a butterfly beyond reach. Instead, she practices her English. Like a baby tasting new fruit, she lolls her tongue around the foreign words, tasting and testing them and swallowing the sound in her throat.
My name is Rosa. How you do? What your name is?
The words are a lullaby, talking her to sleep. In her dreams, the white caps are the ghostly fingers of souls lost at sea, pulling at the resolute little boat and trying to pull it under to join in eternal rest.
It is the stillness that wakes her. Are they still sailing? Rosa shimmies out of the bunk, past Maria’s pale and snoring face. The girl is nocturnal. For her, as for all the passengers, the voyage has been dream-like for its strange configuration of people and behaviours. On this boat, they are not themselves. There is no cooking, no cleaning, no work. They are between lives. Adrift.
Sitting on her trunk, Rosa pulls on the silk stockings she has been saving. The rest of her trousseau is stowed safely in the hold. There is Mama’s porcelain dining set, the lace tablecloth that comes out at Christmas and napkins Mama used for her wedding day. All that is new is a chemise, for later, and the stockings. Word on the boat is that one of the English ladies has nylons, but she has a cabin on the upper deck and it is only a rumour.
In the bathroom Rosa pinches her cheeks for colour. Maria has promised to loan her some rouge but there is no thought of waking her now. She adjusts the wool duster coat, the same one she wore for the photo she sent him. The one of him is in her pocket. She doesn’t need to look, for his face appears whenever she closes her eyes, pushing through the greeny-redness. She touches the picture, though. Rubs it like a talisman. The surface is even smoother than the silk lining of the pocket. She repeats the words mama said. Good hair. White teeth. Not too skinny. A good man.
Hopefully, he has not changed. She remembers him a little from childhood. Hide and seek in the olive trees with all the other kids of the village. But that was before the war, before all the men went off to fight and his family moved south to be with his aunt and cousins.
Up on deck, the morning is blue velvet. The ship leaves a caterpillar trail of smoke. A deck hand clears the streamers from last night’s party but stops when he sees her. He leans on his broom and points to the water. ‘Derwent… Derwent.’
She repeats after him. ‘Derwent.’ But perhaps her pronunciation is no good, for the young man shakes his head at her and resumes sweeping.
As the sun arcs into the sky, the ship’s occupants emerge slowly onto the deck –blinking like pipis brought to the sand’s surface. The river is wide and blue but the land is flat and unimpressively empty and disappointment ripples through the crowd.
They were expecting paradise.
With a gentle bump against the pier, the ship delivers Rosa into her new life. The dock is curiously empty. No streamers. No band. Here, they are not known. There is no family. They are new and friendless.
He is easy to spot. Dark eyes flitting across the deck before they come to rest on her. Slimmer than in the photo.
Through a scudding heartbeat, she smiles and he gives a half-hearted wave in return, his hand dropping quickly as Maria, now standing beside Rosa and smelling of musty wine, starts blowing kisses.
‘Smettila!’ Stop it, Rosa hisses.
‘What? It’s my husband.’
It is then Rosa notices the other dark-haired man running down the pier and waving his cap. The husband Maria has not seen in two years.
‘Cara, mio. Cara, mio!’ My darling, my darling, he shouts.
Tears have streaked Maria’s rouge. Her smile is tight.
Does she cry for what has been, or what is to come?
Rosa is suddenly aware of an ache in her finger where the cool breeze has settled on the silver of her wedding band. It is slightly too small but he has promised a new one for the ceremony tomorrow, before they leave Hobart for the hydro. There will be a priest and one family member, a cousin who works with him.
You do this for the children, says Mama. They will want the photo.
Her wedding dress is in the trunk, wrapped around the dinner setting. Her veil just fit inside the tureen. There is a small red wine stain on the hem where Papa was too excited. It is not every day your daughter marries, even if the groom is half a world away! But she thinks her husband will not notice the mark.
The gangplank is lowering.
‘Rosa, in bocca a lupo.’ Rosa, good luck! Into the mouth of the wolf. Maria will be staying in Hobart to live, and the hydro is two hours away. Rosa does not expect to see her again.
The pair embrace. ‘Crepi il lupo.’ And to you, Maria. May the wolf, croak.
With her bouncing stride, Maria makes the plank wobble to the point where Rosa must cling to the handrail. Her palms are greasy. Clicking heels will be the last she sees of the older girl.
For the first time in weeks, Rosa steps onto dry land and sways from the firmness. The solidity. She is not used to such steadiness and he rushes to take her hand.
‘I’ve got you,’ are the first words she hears from her husband’s mouth as she stumbles before straightening.
She drops his hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
The apology is shrugged away. ‘Is this all?’ He gestures to the small trunk in her hand.
‘No, there is another coming. The trousseau.’
The crew is starting to unload the hold and Rosa and her husband stand together in silence until her case is placed alongside all the others.
Their hotel is not far and he decides they will walk.
‘Battery Point.’ He nods over the pier to a small piece of land jutting into the river. ‘The Government.’ A brown-stone building. ‘Mount Wellington.’ He lifts his eyes skyward.
‘A mountain?’ It is nothing like the ones at home that are sharp edged and snow capped and graze the clouds. This one is squat and fat, with houses dotted into its protective foothills. An Italian nonna, with grandchildren coddled into the folds of her dress.
As they walk, she is aware of his breathing, laboured by the effort of carrying two trunks. She has never listened so closely to a person’s breath. The way it’s catching in his throat as it constricts with effort. She supposes this is what it is to really notice someone, to be married.
Their room is up a narrow set of stairs above some kind of public bar. As he fumbles with the key, she is sure he must hear her heart beating. Will he want it now, or will they at least wait until the sun has set? When the door opens and he stands aside to let her through, she can barely walk and her teeth chatter out of control.
There are two beds. Narrow, but definitely separate. The one foot gap between them may as well be an ocean and Rosa reaches for the wall to hold her up. He has not spoken since pointing out the bathroom on the landing.
‘I have a letter from your mother,’ says Rosa, and starts busying herself with the trunks that he has placed in the corner. The bed creaks as he sits frowning.
‘She is well, and your father too. Your little brother has a cough but it is nothing to worry about.’ She is babbling but cannot seem to stop. ‘The summer has been terrible. All the village is suffering. There is no water for anything. Since the war, you know. You are so lucky—‘
At that he sighs and Rosa falls silent. She concentrates on the clips and curses herself. No one is lucky. But here they are, alive.
Finally, the lid of the trunk is free and she opens it to find great creamy swathes of fabric – the wedding dress she swaddled so carefully about the plates and the tureen. She digs in her hands with archaeological purpose but instead of finding smooth porcelain, her fingers are met with hard, grainy edges that threaten to cut the skin. A vision of her trunk, being tilled about by the ocean brings a wave of seasickness that Rosa tries to swallow away.
The first plate is broken in three. The second is in four pieces. The third is shattered as well. They all are. The trunk is littered with shards. She bows her head and coughs, shamed by her tears. But silently, he kneels beside her and together they begin to arrange the pieces on the floor. They could be children doing a jigsaw puzzle but to Rosa, they are grave robbers, picking through the white bones of a skeleton.
In the trunk, there is one piece left. The tureen. To Rosa’s surprise, it is intact and she splays her hands around the cool base of the round basin and cradles it with the care of a new mother.
‘The letter is in here,’ says Rosa. ‘And my veil.’
He nods and she indicates for him to take it, which he does.
But the brush of fingertips is so unexpected, so warm, that Rosa lets go of the tureen and it falls to the ground with a great smash.
For a second, there is silence. Then, there is a howl of despair and Rosa is shocked to discover that it is hers. But what does it matter? There is nothing left now for her to lose.
At some point, she becomes aware of a hand on her shoulder. She looks at the man she does not know but is expected to love. His face is anguished. Pained. Gently, he pulls her head towards his chest and smooths her hair as she sobs into him.
‘Shhh,’ he croons. ‘We will make it right.’
And as she feels his heart, beating loud and strong, and sending blood to all corners of his body, she is inclined to believe him.