IT’S 2am. Gino stood on the empty wharf staring at the crow-black river below. Its oily surface unruffled in the early morning stillness. A damp, grey, saltwater mist, a reminder of the frantic afternoon sea breeze, oozed up onto the wharf suffocating the road between the hulking sinter plant and where Gino stood. Across the river, Kooragang Island mangroves gurgled with a rising tide. An orchestra of night life chirped and croaked.
Gino’s work clothes, three shifts in and heavy with coal, iron ore dust and sweat, shrouded his small, wiry body. A hard hat lay abandoned upturned at his feet. His battered steel cap boots untied as if he was ready to undress.
The sinter plant conveyor belts hummed with the burden of iron ore and coke before they dumped their load into hoppers the size a small car waiting to be moved to the nearby blast furnaces. A shrill metallic clang of a grab inside the plant, scooping minerals off the floor cracks Gino’s deep contemplation.
He looked to his right at the heaving, steaming blast furnace factory where he should be working. A small pair of flickering lights emerge from the grey, wet haze. Gino took a deep breath and wished he was invisible. Who was it? Who knows he was outside and not at his work station?
“Hey … hungry Gino! What the hell are you doing out here? Slacking off as usual! Get back to work or I’ll cancel your overtime.” Gino’s English was poor but he understood the venom in the angry words fired at him. He looked up and watched his foreman drift past on a forklift and disappear into the vapour.
It had been five years since Gino landed in Newcastle after a few lost years in an Italian refugee camp. And 10 years since he witnessed the murder of his parents and only brother in his village town square. He sees the black uniformed and cold-hearted faces of the German SS soldiers. Their unforgivable cruelty tattooed forever in his memory. A blackness he recognised as he turned and stared at the languid river drifting east towards the ocean.
Gino took a deep, slow breath. The rotten egg stench of sulphur gas mixed with burnt bitumen cocooned the vast BHP factory. It stung his eyes and burnt his airway.
Without warning, the bony fingers of grief reached out and squeezed his throat. His tear ducts filled but he refused to let them burst. Weakness was never an option. He couldn’t, wouldn’t surrender to shame … but for how long? Self-pity was no homage to dead family. Without thinking he took a step closer to the edge of the river.
“Mamma, Papa, have I honoured you? I’m sorry I argued with you and ran away that day. But I’ve tried so hard to make it up to you. I want you to be proud of me. I work every chance I can. I think about you every day. I love and miss you so much. What more can I do for you? Please tell me. Please tell me. I will do anything to for you,” he wailed.
In that emotional moment Gino drifted back to his family home. Mamma stood at the kitchen bench under the small quartered window that opened out onto the well-kept vegetable garden. He watched her forearms bulge with every thrust and pull of the mound of pasta dough she kneaded in front of her. She stooped, looked up and smiled. She did not speak. Gino’s senses flooded with the aroma of his childhood: burnt timber, sizzling onions, crackling ham and fermenting garlic and olive oil. He felt alive.
Mamma stepped around from behind the bench, her arms outstretched, inviting Gino into her warm embrace. He felt safe, unafraid and saturated with joy. But just as he was about to touch her, she began to fade.
Gino pleaded, “Mamma, wait. I’m here. Don’t leave, please don’t leave.”
Sulphur gas invaded his nostrils, shattering his hallucination. As he gasped for air, all hope and resistance ebbed away.
Without thinking he stepped to the very edge of the wharf. In that moment of complete defeat, he let his body fall forward.
“I’m coming Mamma, wait for me … wait for me.”
An angry, shrieking voice pierced the mist, “Hey, Gino. What the bloody hell do you think you are doing? I told you to get back to work and stop bludging. I’ve had a gut full of you hungry wogs taking all the overtime. You are a bludger like the rest of your mates. Now, I won’t tell you again. Get your lazy arse back in that shed and do what you’re being paid to do and that’s work. Now move it! Right now!’
Gino stumbled backwards almost falling on his backside on the timber wharf. Confused, he looked to his right. He thought he saw the foreman’s forklift disappear into the mist but wasn’t sure. In that same moment he thinks he felt a firm; familiar and reassuring hand take hold of his arm and pull him away from the coaxing river.
He turned, trembling and stepped off the wharf onto the narrow road. Defeated, sad and completely lonely he shuffled back to the blast furnace about 500 metres down the road. His only consolation was this shift would end in a few hours and he knew he would be back at the same place tomorrow.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Gino’s work clothes, three shifts in and heavy with coal, iron ore dust and sweat, shrouded his small, wiry body. A hard hat lay abandoned upturned at his feet.