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A Half Australian
“I stopped doing arts when I was fifteen, and took up drugs. Well, at the time I
thought I’d chosen science but in fact it was drugs. It seemed the way of the
future.” Emi couldn’t prevent a bitter bark of a laugh, took a drag on his
home-rolled cigarette, and added as an afterthought, “Marco said we’d always
have money if we knew computers.”
Claudio led the applause. “OK, you’ve said it. You’ve got it out. Want to keep
Emi’s hands shook and he drew again upon the cigarette as though sucking through
it for his life. Making the words come out was like wrenching parts of his body
from his ribcage, each one dripping blood. Slipping and slithering, they were
not reliable; would not be disciplined. His eyes danced around the room like a
mosquito and alighted upon Claudio who nodded reassuringly. It had been Claudio
who’d got him through the first months of the program; most of all the night the
newcomer sneaked it into the dormitory and four of them were crouched in a
corner, one syringe between them. Claudio grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Don’t be a fool Emi. They will throw you out of the program and then what? You
will not survive.”
Emi glanced at the other three. They all shrugged and looked away. But Claudio
glared at him fiercely and Emi submitted to being marched from the dormitory,
out into the snow and down the mountain road in his T-shirt until the chill
penetrated his skin and numbed, ever so slightly, his cravings. They stood
around in the alpine trees looking over the distant lights of Turin until the
lights in the lodge came on and the shouting started.
Now he ran his hand over his closely cropped head and Claudio winked at him.
Even so, only by closing his eyes tightly, wrapping his arms around himself and
talking through gritted teeth was he able to go on. He could hear nobody except
himself, and excluding them allowed him to unleash the next sentence. “In the
beginning I liked the study, but it became very hard. I just didn’t understand
it. After a while, when it came close to the exams, I started getting some help.
It was Marco who showed me.”
No surprise there - Marco had always showed him. Emi remembered him, aged seven,
bouncing through the clothes hanging from the line, running his black hair along
the newly dried sheets as they cracked in the breeze in his Mother’s garden. Emi
laughed and did it too. That warm, enclosing smell hung upon them – the one you
got when you wrapped up in bed at night in a clean set. Sometimes on a sleepover
Marco would creep through from his room and they would huddle up together in the
solace of it and tell each other ‘Dylan Dog’ stories.
Claudio was watching him closely. “If it’s difficult to talk about Marco then
try telling us something else. Tell us how you handled the study.”
The cigarette was a smear in his fingers already. “Something else! Well Marco
knew this older boy who’d do homework for us, if he was paid. I didn’t mean to
do it but Marco had tickets to the Sampdoria game so I thought it would be okay
just once. I took some money from my Mother’s purse. She didn’t know it was
gone. She never did. She doesn’t know anything. So I paid this boy Alex a few
Euros and he gave me all the answers to the Physics homework. I copied most of
them - not all - so that it wouldn’t look suspicious. Well I was third in the
class for that homework, and the teacher was very pleased. My parents were
pleased too. I felt great.”
“Yeah, the Australian boy. Marco called him Testa Carrote – Carrot head. Only
half Australian really – Mama is Italian - but he spent a lot of time there.
Learnt a lot there he says.”
The story began to come more easily. Just by talking about what happened, the
events rather than the people and the emotions, he felt partly removed from it.
A few weeks later there had been a big match with Roma. When he again got good
grades his teacher took him aside and asked him, pointedly, how it was that he
didn’t manage such grades every week. So with a little experimentation the
unsecured purse yielded up enough for a weekly payment and Emi became a climber
in the class. His father slapped him across the back making him walk lightly,
and his Mother talked about him in the village butcher’s. The curious looks at
school didn’t go away though. One day he asked Alex,
“You must be rich man! What’re you going to do with all that money?”
Marco and Alex had looked at each other and sniggered the way – so it seemed to
Emi’ – he and Marco used to as they raced away on their bikes with the fruit pie
off Mrs Poggi’s windowsill. Emi didn’t like it when Marco sniggered like that
with someone else. With a brief shrug he accepted their invitation into the
basement and watched aghast as they shot up.
“Just try a little.” smooched Marco.
The floor on which Emi was standing seemed to shift sideways as the stranger
he’d played with since childhood offered it up to him and then lay back against
the wall, eyelids drooping, the present fading from his eyes. Emi peered into
his face for a moment before turning and scurrying up the stairs and out onto
the clean, clear street. He turned his face up to the warm rays of the sun,
inviting them to melt the grime from his hair and skin. But closing his eyes
didn’t erase the image of Marco’s face, and the warmth didn’t stop him
shivering. He wanted to go back but it was not Marco in there and Emi didn’t
know how to talk to the stranger. He wanted to go back and find it wasn’t so;
that it wasn’t Marco but some other school friend or acquaintance who had
magically supplanted him. His mind would not connect his childhood with the
present. It wanted things compartmentalized. So he worked his way down to the
marina, glancing back constantly, grimacing physically at his betrayal. He stood
watching the sea for over an hour, and the next time he saw them slipping off he
caught Marco’s arm.
“What about the movies they showed us? What about all the dangers? The
“Man you just like your safe little island, don’t you? The needles are clean.
Always. And I don’t do it much. I can stop whenever I want. It’s only addictive
if you let it. Chill out man.”
Before his exam his teacher took him aside. “There is something strange about
your work Emiliano. Your homework grades are good, but your work in class is not
consistent. You do not display a fundamental grasp of the concepts always, yet
your answers are often right.”
Emi shrugged. “Sometimes in class I feel inhibited.”
“Is that so? Well let’s hope you aren’t inhibited by the end of year
As soon as he disentangled himself he hurried to Marco. “Where’s Alex, I have to
talk to him.”
Marco’s grin became more snide and contemptuous as Emi explained. “So you fail
the exams. So what? You do the year again. Or go out and get a job. That’s what
I’m going to do. Plenty of money in your pocket. Impresses the girls. And plenty
for you-know-what. You know?”
“I don’t need you-know-fuckin’-what. You know?”
Marco understood well his horror at failing, the potential fall out with his
parents. Younger Marco had stopped coming around in the evenings knowing Emi’s
father would be there, unwilling to risk another diatribe about making good and
contributing to the community. More than with anybody else Marco presented his
angelic face to Emi’s father hiding, always hiding. So Emi could not understand
why Marco wasn’t more sympathetic. Marco’s own parents just didn’t seem to care
as much, didn’t even seem to realize what their son was becoming. Marco saw this
as a victory over them.
“She never asks. She doesn’t want to know. And she doesn’t even tell Papa she
gives me money.”
On the day of the exam he felt hollow inside. Though he did his best to
concentrate his teacher’s speculative eyes returned to him frequently. He’d been
placed up at the front of the class so there was no opportunity to slip out the
notes that Alex had prepared. Afterwards he paced up and down before going home,
preparing a brave face and an alibi of fever. Untypically his father was home
from work and he was standing with his arm around Mama who sobbed into her
hands, the open purse yawning as though spilling its secrets on the kitchen
Shame swept over him in waves standing weak-kneed in the garden afterwards, each
wave thrusting his intestines into his mouth and doubling him up in a quivering
ball of self-loathing. He hunched on the bench by the withering autumn roses
unable to think of where to start, how to right the wrongs. Stealing was almost
a fixation with his father, the great crime. His rage had been cold and hard,
but not extravagant. The banishment had seemed as nothing beside the
disappointment and contempt in his eyes, the curt, carefully chosen sentences
curling themselves like whips around him as they flicked and lashed. He rubbed
his forehead against his hands at the memory. And worse than all of this, worse
than his father telling him not to come back without the money he had stolen,
was his mother’s expression, her hurt silence as she gazed at the floor
throughout the interview. Then as he left she looked up calmly, unforgivingly,
and reached for her husband’s hand. If this came out in the village she could
not show her face.
Their expectations piled up like a stack of exam folders above him, leaning and
threatening to topple onto him. A physical spasm twisted him as he remembered
that they did not yet know about the exam result, the anticipation of which had
caused much excitement and discussion, not least in the village square.
Furthermore the teacher would talk to them about his suspicions once the result
unveiled him for the sham that he was. The corners of his mouth turned downwards
in self-pity and he tried to blank out the thoughts that caused the nausea to
rise in his gorge. But he could not see a way forward, or an alternative to make
it right. Things could only get worse. He had no idea how to get the money or
explain away his actions in class.
He did not mean to go and find Marco as he once might have, trudging instead to
the local park as the light faded and night spread itself over him like
smothering treacle. But there he was cross-legged on the grass, his hollow,
darkened eyes ignoring the kids running home for tea before him. Emi hesitated
only a second and then sat down beside him. Marco contemplated him briefly.
“You got any money?” Emi shook his head. “I want to have a hit. Can you get some
from your mother’s purse?”
Emi’s short laugh sent Marco scrambling to his feet. “Where are you going?”
“Find Alex. He’ll give me some on tab. He’s got to.”
Emi didn’t even know why he went with Marco. Part of him felt he’d be betraying
him if he didn’t, and part of him couldn’t bear to be alone with his parents’
disapproval any more. He watched Marco hurrying down the road and the night
seemed to weigh on his own legs and back, dragging him down. What, on his
Mother’s milk was he doing here? He could not follow and he could not stop, and
as he looked around he found that he had nowhere else to go. They arrived at the
basement and Marco urged him down with an impatient gesture.
Marco swore on his mother’s grave he would work for Alex the following night and
Emi again watched astonished as the weight of his life lifted from his face.
Alex swept his red hair over his head and patted Emi gently on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry about him. He won’t have much to say for a while. Can I get you a
beer or something? You look all in.”
Emi wasn’t very used to beer but he drank it quickly just the same, and then
another. It made him reckless. “Alex, how come you always look so calm. Not like
Alex grinned. “I don’t do it as much as Marco. In Australia it’s just for fun.
Sometimes it helps. Want to try it?”
And the half-thought that slid insidiously across an inlet in the back of his
mind was that if his parents ever saw him like this they wouldn’t be able to say
anything about the exam and the homework, the purse and the truancy. This was
something that overtook all of that. They’d help him. They’d take care of him.
Reconciliation! And so he nodded quietly and Alex fixed him up.
The following afternoon Alex was waiting for them both outside the school yard.
“Come on, you can help me sort out some business. That’s your work.”
They made their way to Alex’s ‘place of work’ and Marco was set to making
coffee. Downstairs Alex took out a suitcase and began to set himself up. He had
a table and chair ready when the clients arrived. They talked briefly and Alex
handed over a small bag filled with white powder. He received in return more
money than Emi would see in six months - even with the purse. When asked he went
and checked the street for police. Afterwards Alex said to them, “Hey, you want
a shot? I’ll give you a freebie for your help.”
As Marco rolled up his sleeve Emi shook his head, and said, “How long to work
like this to get fifty euros?”
Emi paused in his story, this new confession and the memory of his self-betrayal
making him flinch in spite of his momentum. Glancing around the group for
another cigarette he saw only sympathy or boredom, and Claudio passed him a roll
up. “And is that how you paid your parents back?”
Emi sighed, shoulders slumped. “Yeah, I went back home after a few days with the
money, but by then they’d spoken to the teacher, so it didn’t help much. I was
allowed back into the house but ……….
“Oh, the way they looked at me sometimes, the way my mother looked. Nobody else
knew about the stealing, but the exam results were plain for everybody to see
and I think people said things to her in the butcher’s. So I kept working for
Alex with Marco, and he mostly took his pay in hits, and I mostly took mine in
cash so I could pay into the household, but it didn’t make things much better
and, now and again, I’d take a hit too. It just made things better for a while.”
Claudio nodded. “You came here following a robbery. When did that come?”
Somehow, after what he’d already admitted, the robbery seemed easy, and Emi felt
his fear abate a little. They’d heard a lot worse than a robbery. He was tired
but now felt urgently the need to see this out to the end.
They’d worked with Alex for some months before the robbery but it had never been
easy at home. His grades were slipping now that cheating was restricted and the
late nights with Alex, and sometimes the drug, made him slide still further. He
was struggling to stay in school at all and he found himself listless,
apathetic. Sometimes his father would drink some wine at night and make his
feelings known. It quickly bored Emi to be told once more what he might yet
achieve, and such was the strength of his father’s will, the conviction of his
opinions, that there seemed to be no point in debating with him. Sometimes he
looked at his father and thought’ “if only you knew.” He would fantasize just
when and how he would reveal the true nature of his condition. He imagined the
penitence on their faces, felt the closeness grow as the family reunited in
refutation of the drug.
One night three men arrived. They were grey and silent, and unlike any client
Emi’ had ever seen. As Alex opened his bag a gun was produced. “All of it Carote”.
Alex paused for a moment before the weapon. Then, without comment, and without a
glance towards Emi, he handed the bag over. Afterwards he said to them, “That’s
me cleaned out boys. They got me at a bad moment.”
“So what will you do?”
“Might have to go back to Brisbane.”
Marco sank to his knees, and Emi felt the panic rise in his own throat. He’d got
used to the regular income, and still paid for a little homework assistance.
Even worse his parents thought his regular contributions came from labouring
down at the docks.
“We’ve got to get it back. We’ve got to.” gasped Marco.
Alex shrugged and began gathering his things up. Marco grabbed him and pushed
him against the wall. “You can’t just stop. You’ve got to get more. This is our
business. This is ……. Well, we’ve got to get more.”
“We need money.”
“I’ll get it. I’ll get the money.”
Alex smiled. “How will you do that?”
“I don’t know, I’ll find a way. There must be a way. There’s always a way.”
He looked erratically around the cellar as if the answer would be found painted
on one of the walls. Alex considered him as if, Emi thought later, he was
observing a fly trapped in a glass jar. “Well, you know, there is a way.”
Marco clutched him. What way? What way?”
“I know where those bastards hang out. I know where they stash their stuff. We
could steal it back.”
Emi had not seen these men for five minutes, but he knew they were in a
different league, a grey and dangerous league. Before the word insane could
escape his lips a bouncing Marco clipped him over the back of the head. “We’ll
steal it back. Ha. Yes indeed. Stick it to them. And then sell it. Ha!”
Alex had already begun sketching out the building and the route. As he explained
his plan and the window through which they could crawl his face was impassive.
Marco scarcely asked for clarification, his finger trembling as he traced the
route on the paper. When he finished Emi said, “And where will you be when Marco
Alex looked him straight in the eye, and there was no hesitation, not even the
slightest pretence. “I’ll be keeping watch at the end of the road mate. That’s
the danger spot, where the pigs’ll come from.”
Emi walked outside, slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. Marco was
going to do it. He was too desperate, and could not hope to see what Alex was
doing. There would be no talking to him, and no reasoning. Alex would not have
to encourage him further, could remain quite neutral and perhaps even mildly
dissuasive knowing it would only stir Marco the more. There would be no help
from that quarter. The folder stack threatened to come crashing down upon him.
For a moment he simply could not bear the weight.
Yet it was not the manipulation that made his eyes burn hot and wet. He knew
that when Marco came to beg for help he would be unable to turn him down. He’d
already left him to drift into the parallel world he now inhabited. Might Emi
not have avoided all this had he just made a greater effort to stop him in the
first place? Instead of slipping away that day? Now Marco could no longer be
left to his own, much impeded devices. So he, Emiliano Glauco, would be
committing robbery too, and this was not his Mother’s purse.
Then his lip sneered up his face a fraction. Imagine his father’s face if they
This was not a thought he shared with the group as he came to the climax of the
story, and to his relief Claudio did not push him. “I’m not sure if Alex simply
didn’t know about the alarm, or didn’t care. I think he was just using us. If we
got the stuff, well and good. If not … All I know is that we didn’t hear
anything and when the police arrived we were just climbing out of the window.
Alex was gone. The police didn’t mention him throughout our interview. It was as
if they thought Marco and I had acted all alone.”
Emi shifted in his seat. “It was clear to the Doctor at the police station that
Marco was heavily addicted. I mean you saw how he was when he started here! They
offered him a choice between prison and the program, and because I had a few
needle marks in my arms they decided to offer it to me too.”
He fell silent as the group absorbed the story for further explanation was
superfluous. Everybody knew the final scenes. It had been the scandal of the
program, and not just in this lodge. Except that on the night the four of them
crouched in the corner making up the smuggled syringe, nobody else was there.
They could never know what Emi saw in Marco’s face when Claudio grabbed him by
“Don’t be a fool Emi. They will throw you out of the program and then what? You
will not survive.”
Emi glanced at the other three. They all shrugged and looked away. Guided by
Claudio he stood up but as he did he leant down and caught Marco’s hand. The
clear blue eyes, unsullied by recent hits, snapped up and gazed into Emi’s own.
“Come with me. We have to stay in the program.”
Marco’s grip tightened and for a moment he seemed to acquiesce. He smiled and
Emi caught a whiff of mischief whisk across his eyes, the way it was before they
stole Mrs Poggi’s pies. He could almost smell the clean sheets again and for a
second it was as if none of the cheating, the drugs and the stealing had ever
happened, and their whole lives remained open and hopeful before them. He caught
Marco’s face in his two hands, pulled him close until their breath mingled,
noses almost touching. Briefly Marco seemed to relax and lean against him. Emi
said, “We can get work with my father.”
Marco’s face creased and his body shuddered, and he twisted out of Emi’s grip.
“For why? For what purpose? I am nothing. I have no parents that care about me.
Let me pass quietly.”
Brutally he wrenched away and the last thing Emi saw as he was led away was
Marco rolling up his sleeve. As they stood in the snow listening to the shouts
of discovery they could not know that Marco had not yet taken his share or that,
grabbing the syringe he would make a break for it, skidding across the
snow-covered road outside the lodge and plunging down the hill into the dark
through the undergrowth and trees. Nor could they be aware of how the other two,
locked in a holding room to recover, went into convulsions as the tainted drug
attacked their hearts. They saw the ambulance arrive and they rushed up, but
could only wait anxiously while the news filtered out. The two, it transpired,
had been pulled back from the brink and were recuperating. It was only when a
wide-eyed Claudio emerged that Emi’ gripped him.
“We have to find Marco.”
Which they did, but not until the following morning when his frozen, twisted
body was discovered by a dog on the outskirts of the village in the valley
below. Emi, though he felt he owed it to him, could not bear to go down and
identify the body, and the next day he told Claudio he was ready to speak.
A great sob burst through the silent ranks of the circle and Emi leaned around
Claudio who was seated in the middle, to view the hunched figure on the other
side at the back. The man was cradling his face in his hands, clearly struggling
to control himself. Stifled gulps and shudders racked him and Emi felt one last
little puff of satisfaction and vengeance before it dissipated into the
atmosphere. For he had learnt and now realized that it was not the figure before
him who had brought him to this, but he himself. He reached out.
“Babo. Babo don’t.”
What else would his father do? Albeit with an effort he stood, raised his
tear-streaked face for all to see, and held himself tall in his moment of shame.
He breathed deeply and looked around the room into the face of each member of
the circle. He spoke slowly.
“I have been a fool. Yes, an imbecile. I have placed more importance on certain
principles than on the life, the well-being of my eldest son. I have helped to
bring him to this – he paused dramatically – abyss! I have cared, and I have
loved, but I have allowed these sentiments to be shaped and moulded in the wrong
way. I have not listened, and I have expected too much.”
He marched over to Emi, grabbed him and held him tightly, and Emi could smell
the familiar mix of machine oil and fertilizer on his jacket. He clung to him
like a small boy, and buried his head in his shoulder wishing it could still be
that way. After a moment Claudio stood and conducted them, still arm in arm, to
Claudio left them there. He returned and talked briefly to the circle and then
dismissed them without further consultation. Something worried him and he wanted
to get back to Emi’, for he wasn’t sure what type of progress was being made. He
found Emi’s father talking excitedly. “It’s going to be all right. We are going
to work it all out. You’re going to come and work for me. Forget studies for a
while. Come back to the house, work for me and get yourself in shape again. Then
you can go back to your studies later when you feel like it.”
Claudio watched Emi scratch his head as if he wanted to say something, but then
change his mind. Claudio said, “It is important to understand that we all have a
role to play in the recovery here. But ultimately Emi must make his own choices,
must be allowed to do so without any sense of condemnation or judgement from
anybody he values.”
Emi’s father nodded briefly, blankly, and turned to Emi again. “Once you have
finished your studies the world will be your oyster. You will still make your
Mother proud. For my money you should get yourself into that engineering course
with my old company. You will do well with them, I know it.”
The bleak look in Emi’s face made Claudio feel suddenly very tired, as if they
were still in the circle, and the circle would continue endlessly. It had been a
long day and in the gloomy light of his office Emi and his father seemed hazy to
Claudio. His father’s words melded into a drone which had a soporific quality
about it and he could see the pair only as a blur. Strangely in the
semi-darkness of the corner a watery figure that he could not identify appeared.
The figure was red-headed. It hovered above Emi for a moment waiting, like an
antipodean angel, and then the father in a burst of emotion stood and paced the
room, and the figure disappeared.
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