Whoring in Fremantle and lamingtons.
As hinted earlier, the first Australian Port of Call, Fremantle on a February Sunday, 1956 was somewhat of a surreal experience. I am not sure what the Italian Luigis or Greek Stavrosses thought about it all. Despite my fifteen years of age or because of it, I needed to see and meet new people, our first Australians to be precise. After the whole ship donned Sunday best with coats and ties, pre-pressed and creased pants and frocks, the twelve hundred passengers could not get off the boat quick enough.
We all sauntered ‘en masse’ over a large steel bridge spanning acres of industrial rail-lines and rubble, walking for quite some distance when we finally found our way to Fremantle’s first row of houses. Perhaps because of the intense heat and distance we already encountered some passengers who were on the way back to the ship. One Dutchman who we knew from onboard proudly practised his English and said “kept left in Australia” to us, in a strong guttural accent, eyes sparkling. We of course still walked on the right hand side, but not him. He would definitely succeed in Australia! Our eight of us persevered but somewhat uncomfortable in the simmering heat and in all our finery.
Not a soul to be seen. Was this a practise run for a Neville Shute’s film set of ‘on the beach’? This might be the best way to describe what confronted our family walking through the deserted and weather board peppered street scapes, even though the ‘on the beach’ was not written till 1957 with its theme of an Australian town awaiting death from an atomic bomb. Perhaps the feeling of a town without people being visible often acts as a catalyst for many a book or painting. Did Neville Shute visit Fremantle on a Sunday prior to writing his best seller, I wonder? Apart from Neville Shute’s book and film with Ava Gardner, another example of the strange feeling of this typical Australian town on a Sunday, might well be in contemplating a painting by Jeffrey Smart. Of course at that time, those artists were totally unknown in Fremantle and no amount of clairvoyance of its people could have been responsible for the feeling of emptiness in those streets.
In fact, there were people there, with here and there a steady radio drone coming from within the cream painted weatherboards. Years later when I learned how to spot signs of life within those curtained and venetian blinded off houses, a cricket score then often betrayed life, even though the desire to be unseen and to remain private was strongly adhered to.
My dad and kids bravely walked on determined to finally say something to someone, preferably a real Australian. We walked up a hill with on top some kind of monument and even the so longed for palm tree finally in sight. Diagonally across from the monument and palm park we spotted a shop with doors open. We made a surge towards this shop, thirsty for any quenching liquid and first contact. We entered the shop and expectations of an introduction and possible handshake were foremost in dad’s mind.
A handshake was always done back home and as common as donning a hat to a passerby, or standing up for a lady in the bus or tram. Surely, anyone could sense that we were belonging to the just landed. The shopkeeper seemed totally unaware of our presence and did not even look around from where she was stacking a shelf with her back to us. The situation was not helped when the younger kids started to fidget and the thirst and promised quench was getting more urgent. We had no option though and surely with the noise and restlessness she would finally have to acknowledge us. Was she deaf or mute, possibly blind?
It was none of that, it was just that in that part of the world, customer service was still not to be given under any circumstance, a mere leftover from the days that it was common for people to disrespect authority and not to be seen grovelling to the gov’nr. A fair crack of the whip is all they could hope for and this shopkeeper and her ancestors had been taught and also learnt that the customer was now the person to be kept subservient and waiting. The shopkeeper was the Guv with the whip. Of course, my dad had no inkling at that time of those delicate cultural nuances brought out and exposed in those minutes of waiting for a response from this shopkeeper.
Yes love? Finally a response, but ‘yes love’, did he hear right? A question from female shopkeeper calling someone a’ love’, what was this now about? Dad and family went through war and hunger, changing and moving to other city, had a large family, took a boat to the end of the universe with a marriage and fine wife intact and so strong, and now, finally when on first walkabout in Australia and on a first meeting with an Australian and after a long and hot walk, he was called ‘love’ by a strange woman? This was too much to take in, he quickly pointed at some brown cakes sprinkled with some white flaky stuff, and two large bottles of a luridly coloured soft drink or lemonade. We all bolted as fast as we could. ‘Love’ indeed. It must have been a brothel. Those very first cakes were about twenty years later identified as ‘lamingtons’.
It was a slow walk back to the ship. There was a lot to think about and to digest. The lamingtons were eaten in silence and the soft drink shared amongst the eight of us. I remember being vaguely aware of my friends comments back home about Australia being closed up on a Sunday. I started to feel apprehensive as well as tired and mulled over the shop woman and her strange reluctance to serve us. It was way beyond my depth to accept the day as a rewarding experience in meeting our first friendly and welcoming Australian. I missed my friends