Last Updated on June 9, 2021 by Helga Dosa
Follow the fingers of sun from the sky to the pavement where a lifetime of furniture waits to be tossed into a truck and trundled away. Ducking under a wobbling mattress I grab a couple of cases to add them to the pile as a clasp cracks open and papers flood onto the driveway.
I’m left with half a suitcase swinging in my left hand. I swear under my breath. No matter how many suitcases you destroy, swearing in front of parents is always poor form.
“Good one, Anna” my brother grins, watching from inside the truck. I take the mangled suitcase inside, away from the chaos of boxes, brothers and dad’s Bocelli CD on repeat.
Cerreto family today
Nonno died last year. Although I know his stories well enough, I’ve never seen anything like this. They were first-hand accounts; all type-written papers. I retreat to the house and dig through my yellowed find. The bustle outside fades as I drift into recollection. It occurred to me for the first time just how much he would be missed. He belonged to us, our patriarch.
A photo of Nonno and me flops onto the floorboards, a snapshot of my earliest memory with him. Perched atop the front fence, covered in not quite rubbed-in SPF 30+ and a hand-me-down hat. I revelled in the height and power the fence gave me, a rare feeling for the youngest of five kids. Proud that I could climb the fence needing only the letterbox as a foot-hold, there I’d sit to a soundtrack of mandolin and singing in a language I didn’t understand, enjoying my Nonno’s feigned distress at my singing “O Salty Cheese” to his “O Sole Mio”. I’d explore the mandolin, above, around, below and through the mysterious dark rosette sound hole, guarded by arthritic fingers plucking and picking away as the sun seemed to centre around our street stage.
Thinking about it now we must have been a weird sight. A three-year-old and an 83-year-old on the fence. Singing. Family and neighbours remember Nonno Clem, serenading the sun or any unsuspecting pedestrian. That makes him sound like some sort of loveable village idiot. Harmless, but seriously lacking in marbles.
But in doing what he loved without reservation, he was more sane than anyone. I’d like to think that music was the key to that sanity. The mandolin was one of few possessions that withstood the seas from Naples to Swanson Dock and the sands of Mallee internment camps where, deprived of papers, photos and history, he was another ‘Tony’ because every wog’s called Tony.
Sitting cross-legged surrounded by towering boxes, I delve deeper into the suitcase: “Internal Aliens Service. Clemente Cerreto arrived: 17 August 1937. From: Italy. Vessel: St Viminale.” Though I knew his story briefly, Nonno had always been more interested in talking about my future than his past. His freedom of spirit, so infectious, had always engaged me.
New evidence like this about the boat trip added precious detail to my tapestry of memories of his life. I was transfixed. I imagine the belly of the mandolin as a miniature of the ship’s hull as it rocked on the salty deck, keeping time with the groans of rigging against the wind. For Nonno, doubt had choked the stomach harder than any sea-sickness. It was too late to turn back to see the faces of his parents, hidden on the photo in his breast pocket – the unmistakeable grin of his mother, and solid smile of his father, vino in hand -“Salute!”. He had described this photo to me many times.
The spiralling steps were sanded down after centuries of barefoot boys bolting down for fishing and music. Lost in sepia pigments were memories of Lipari paese, water washing the pumice stone shore, and the purple flesh of the Fichi d’India bleeding juice in the heat while its sweetness took the sting from the cactus’ revenge of prickled hands.
Letter about the fine
This often-traced photo had been his prized portal to the past, already creased and fading; the original image was irrevocably grainy. Like all aboard the St Viminale, Nonno told me he clung to the hope of recreating that sense of place in the New World. They floated adrift in no-man’s-land singing to the cloaked sky while the stowaway sun travelled aboard in photographs, suitcases, music and memory.
“Can someone give me a hand with this couch? It’s bloody heavy!” dad grunts, before a dull thud of couch-meeting-driveway. Footsteps beat towards him and someone laughs.
From my cardboard sanctuary inside, a new document reads “Unsworn evidence. Internee CERRETO: “I am not a fascist. I have never been a fascist.”
While the stories he told me had a larger-than-life, rehearsed feeling to them, this evidence, given to a Lt. Col. Chambers, was desperate and real. The idea of my fence-singing Nonno as a fascist was far from anything I knew about him.
Renunciation of citizenship
“Salute!” they would cheer (on the second or third glass of rough Sicilian wine). Cards and music played, stories shared in a flowing common tongue. In those days the Fascist Club was the meeting point for Italians. Its joyous chaos bore the closest resemblance to home, even though it served VB in place of Birra Moretti.
Their makeshift ‘little Italy’ grew up that day. The din of lilting language and music was silenced and marched into a truck. As ordered, they were searched, one by one. Nonno’s passport and papers were taken; his physical freedom officially forsaken. The photo of his parents was tossed away in a hessian sack.
Through grainy sepia, Nonno and his fellow inmates of the camp Music Club look gaunt but happy. These men had the capacity to belong, to have an identity, wherever they were. Their freedom of spirit prevailed over their physical isolation and entrapment. Nonno and his paesani created an oasis of Italy in the South Australian desert. The nemici stranieri with black eyes and olive skin lived amongst friends, able to reconnect with remembered sanity. The red dirt that infiltrated everything also turned the colour of his meticulously pressed suit from cream to burnt porridge. He felt like the ‘dirty dago’ that gli Australiani told him he was.
Finally. If I heard Brightman and Bocelli do “Con te partirò” one more time I was going to scream. There are only a couple of boxes left in the room – my fortress is dwindling. Nonno’s escape was one of those family stories we’d all heard about. The camps were low security – no solitary confinement or great escape tunnels but still, his escape was pretty gutsy. De-strung, the mandolin’s rosette sound hole was perfect for concealing food. Its belly filled with dried meat and stale bread, the eight strings were refastened.
I imagine Nonno standing, dusting away the layers of red dirt. Adrift in a sea of red, the camp looked like a haven for travellers, but internment after the allied victory in ’45 was too much for him. The neglected southern fence was his ticket out. He ran. The desert’s lack of hiding spots made it all the worse. Freedom was won as the train departed for Adelaide. The alien was safe.
Instinct told him despite its immediate comfort, the makeshift home of the camp could not satisfy. So he chose to leave it in order to forge something solid and lasting. Through choosing a lifetime of sacrifice and effort, he would find his place and forge ours; somewhere to belong in a permanent sense.
The house is finally empty, the move finished, papers and mandolin neatly packed away. Fingers of sun have slid aside to reveal a shirtless sky and the smell of burning bricks.
Leaning against the fencepost, my lyrics to ‘O Salty Cheese” play on a loop in my ear. I feel the burden of Nonno’s absence and his sacrifices he made for the life we have just crammed into a truck.
Whoever he was – musician, fascist or local eccentric – I know that nobody will take his place. I hope I can honour his legacy in a world where sacrifice comes second to the modern illusion of absolute freedom.
I hope I’ll still hear him when the real world, the insane world, clouds his sound.
By Anna Cerreto
Star of the Sea College