06 June 2018

As the liner passed into Sydney heads, a young woman on the second-class deck held her new-born to her chest and closed her eyes. The sea breeze whipped at her coat and the baby’s blanket, and out of habit, she touched the inside of her wedding ring round with her thumb. She inhaled, the sea air, the salt, a hint of the ship’s fumes. For widow Jennifer Panagopoulos wanted to remember this moment. She was home. Things would be better.

In Brighton, the sea had smelled different, briny and brisk. It had looked different too, silver-grey like the wet slate rooves of the houses on the seafront. They’d met, both foreigners there, and had such a wondrous, happy time, with a new life ahead. Then after what had happened, she’d not wanted to stay. Still, she awaited their baby boy there, not risking the voyage. Those months were the blackest of times; she grew large and awkward, fearful for the future, grieving for the father her baby would never know.

The ship’s foghorn sounded and she jumped, the baby startled too.  But her little one didn’t cry. John was ‘a good baby,’ they’d said in Brighton, in hushed tones, glad at least of that. It was as if they thought her life’s bad luck had been parcelled out in one portion, done and over with, at age 21, ever after shaped by it. Jennifer’d decided then: she would not be one of those people.

As she went down the gangway to the quay, she took a deep breath, and composed her features for the engulfing family, so joyous and sad at the same time. Poor Jenny. They were cautious, and it was so hard to absorb their silent pity.

Perhaps she really turned her luck then, for her baby grew and thrived. He laughed and climbed and yelled and filled her life with noise and joy and work. And people were kind, respectful of a widow. They were poor but just as he was a good baby, so he was a good son. Oh, he was a handful, but they managed, with help from her cautious family. But it was mostly just the two of them, accepting of their lot, and of their blessings.  She worked as a filing clerk, and its order appealed to her: all things away neatly out of sight, in their rightful place.  Their life was like that too; respectable, orderly, quiet. Sometimes you make your own luck; she’d say to her son.

John would startle her occasionally, though. He’d smile or laugh and suddenly, she’d see his father, right there, in front of her and it would take her breath away.

‘What’s that, Mum?’ he’d ask. ‘You being a bit of a sook?’

And she’d smile, and so would he.

The Woolgrower's Companion

He never asked about his father. Not really. Perhaps he understood that it was too hard for her to talk, even after all the years of his young life.

He never asked about his father. Not really. Perhaps he understood that it was too hard for her to talk, even after all the years of his young life. He was matter-of-fact about it. Where’s your Dad? she’d heard one of his friends say once.  Dead, he’d replied with a shrug.  She’d been shocked at first, but relieved that he was accepting of it.

Then as her boy grew into a young man, she started to think she should talk to him about his father. After the thought came to her, it took hold. Soon, it was eating away. She must talk to him. It was only fair. But how to do it, when their lives had been without these conversations? Every day, in her lunch hour, she’d sit in the park, her homemade sandwich uneaten on her lap, and she’d try to imagine what she might say. The words would not come. In the end, she decided she must do it; she would press ahead with whatever came to her.

That night in the kitchen, she was shaking as she tried to speak.

‘Spit it out, Mum. What’s got your goat?’ John's last school exams were at the end of the year and his eyes were on his textbook.

‘I need to talk to you. About your father.’

He leaned across and put his hand over hers.  ‘I already know, Mum.’

She stared at him. 'What do you mean?'

‘Here, have your tea,' he said.

She could not move.

‘Tell you what: I’ll talk and you just say yay or nay? What do you reckon?’

She nodded.

‘This is about my dad. Isn't it?’

She inhaled.

'About marrying him and having me. Thing is, I reckon, you never were married. That’s it, eh? Mum?’

The air was sucked out of the kitchen.

‘I reckon, you got to England, fell in love with this Greek bloke, got pregnant with me. And he couldn’t marry you, for whatever reason. That’s right, eh, Mum?’

It took all her effort to force a nod.

‘Good-o.  Next: being the smart cabbage you are, you decided there was no way you were going to give a bugger of a life to a child born out of wedlock. So you had me, bought a ring, and booked your passage home as ‘Mrs Panagopolous.’

‘Ashamed,’ she whispered.

‘Ashamed?  Strike, Mum. You’re a legend.’ He was grinning.’ Coming up with that? Pulling it off? A-bloody-mazing.’

Still, she couldn’t move.

He got up, gave her a quick hug, and sat back down to his books. ‘Drink your tea, Mum.’

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