|My Young Italian Land-Lady
Long time ago, I fashioned a sweet little home at 4 Abbot St in a cosy suburb called New Farm in Brisbane city. Rented though. It is still there perhaps, unless Sofia, my young Italian land-lady tore it down because it was getting old.
A beautiful curved internal mahogany wooden stair used to take me to upstairs to my one-bedroom unit. The wooden stair rail was so shiny dark brown, it reminded me of the skin of an African Mamba snake. My unit had a so-called sun-room too, with all around external glass-walls that allowed in morning sun-light like waterfall. I went to the sun-room not for sun-bath, but for vacuum cleaning. Because New Farm had so much open places, gardens and parks by the Brisbane river to busk in the sun! On a sunny day, you just go there, close your eyes and feel the warmth of the sun shine on you.
During the week-end to buy my weekly fruits and vegetables, I went to the farmer’s market that would take place on the riverside. With so many fruit and vegetable makeshift shops, quite a number of boutique coffee shops, antique stalls, the market had the outlook of a festival. One or two singers singing country songs with guitars; people stood in long queue leisurely with children in strollers to buy coffee and home-made cakes, muffin, cookies. The farmers who came from far-off places to set up makeshift shops glowed with pride when they showed their fresh and exotic produce from their farms and gardens! Believe me, life sparkled all around in the market! I thought New Farm is the best suburb in this world to live in.
During the week-end I would vacuum clean my unit and wash my clothes in a community laundry room underneath the wooden ground-floor. The laundry room was dark with worn out floor slabs. We all had to light up the room while running the washing machine. Sofia my land-lady thought the laundry room was spooky enough. After cleaning I would hang my washed clothes on a circular stand that you could rotate with a slight push. On a windy day the stand would rotate by itself making tinkling sound. It would remind me of small towns on the Denmark coast (where I lived for one year): Every house of those towns had cloths stand in their backyards that could be seen from outside; and the cloths on the stand would flutter in the gale wind blowing from the sea, and made sound shat…… shat. I am not sure if I could replicate the fluttering sound now.
Sofia my land-leady lived in another unit opposite to mine. I spent time chatting with her in her unit occasionally during week-end. She would offer me sausages or salamis and black coffee, and I would listen to the story of her Italian grand-parents’ migration to Australia across the continents at the onset of World War II. One day, she took me to a vacant but well-organised bed room in her unit which used to be occupied by her maternal grandmother long time ago. She died in an old-home at the age of ninety five. The get-up of the room gave me the feeling that it was still being occupied by someone, not there at the moment. Perhaps he or she was in the toilet, and would appear any moment. An old fashion antique looking hand telephone set sat on a table. Sofia rang a number on the phone to be sure if it is still working or not. “It works,” Sofia exclaimed. But she was not sure about the person on the other end, so she hung up. I too found it crazy enough. It is possible that Sofia pretended the phone still worked. May be she wanted to entertain me, and why she wouldn’t!
During my last days in Brisbane, a severe thunderstorm hit Brisbane city. The storm hurled hails of such big size from the heaven that the tiled roof-top of the whole building was perforated, Sofia confirmed me, at forty places. “You know, Faruk, I could literally see the starry night sky through the holes,” she said. The roof-top could not be repaired immediately. Sofia could not start roof-repair on her own, because the building was insured, and the insurance company could not mobilize soon enough because it had a long list of perforated rooves in the city to settle the insurance claims. She gave me a bucket though to collect rain water that seeped through the polythene sheet cover on the whole roof-top. Thank god, my queen size bed was just one meter away from the point of roof leakage.
At that time, Brisbane city was experiencing moderate to heavy shower almost every second or third day because of the La Nina weather phenomena that took the east coast of Australia under its spell. After that severe thunderstorm, at my sweet little home I had a number of guests who flew from Sydney to watch the 2014 ODI World Cup Cricket match between Australia and Bangladesh scheduled to be held at Brisbane Gabba Cricket Stadium. Because of the intermittent showers throughout the day, the start of the match was delayed couple of times and thousands of Bangladeshi cricket fans at the Gabba anxiously waited and waited for the rain to stop, while the team of bored commentators relayed what was happening in terms of the ground conditions. My guests and I, we all sat on my bed and gossiped about people we knew or met and situations we thought funny but could be serious for who were in. At the same time we munched Mushuri Dal Piaju with puffed rice. And I kept watch on the proceedings at Gabba time to time on TV. While, the bucket went on to collect rain water from the leaked roof drop by drop.
In the middle of our gossip, Sofia came to see us, she apologised for not being able to fix the damaged roof yet. “I am happy to let you use my Grand Maa’s vacant room in my unit for sleeping as
long as your guests are in Brisbane,” she as the landowner of the building tried to communicate her concern about the roof leakage issue as well as her offer to compensate us. “We will see, Sofia,” I said. Then I offered her one Mushuri Dal Piaju from our platter, which she accepted gleefully.
“Delicious”, she exclaimed after having a few bites at the Piaju. I gave her another one. After minutes five, she returned with tearful eyes. “Faruk, it’s very hot,” she complained like a child. We understood what happened: Sofia chewed one or two pieces of the shreds of the green chili in Piaju. I apologised to her for not warning her of this possibility beforehand. “This will calm you,” I offered her a chocolate then. Sofia joined us in our gossip and I related an anecdote about Sofia’s culinary mis-adventure with Bangladeshi food prepared by me: One day, I intentionally offered her the bitter Corolla Bhaji in addition to Mushuri Lintel Dal, which she was very fond of. As expected Sofia stopped eating bhaji after one or two mouthfuls. “It’s disgusting,” that was her reaction. “What is it,” she wanted to know. “It’s one of the tastiest vegetable fry curry from Bangladeshi cuisine,” I assured her. “What!” she couldn’t believe it. Everybody laughed a lot at the misery of Sofia; she enjoyed too my telling the story.
When the ODI match was finally declared abandoned after the Magreb time, I was relieved because I didn’t give Bangladesh any chance to overcome a strong and thorough professional Australian team in a rain curtailed match. Now the points would be shared between the two teams, bolstering the chance of Bangladesh moving to the next round, hopefully.
Then everybody was speculating what we should do now to spend this evening. “Let’s go to movie,” suggested Era, my ever exuberant niece from Sydney. We all came out on the road with a hired four wheel drive jeep. Then we watched the movie “The Theory of Everything” in a cinema hall, the biopic on Stephen Hawking who made a ground-breaking discovery of Blackhole Radiation but failed to fetch for him a Nobel prize in Physics for reasons not clearly understood by me. This guy in spite of his serious physical handicap lived his life full, married twice and fathered two children - I still wonder how it was possible for him with such physical handicap.
I can’t remember if I had seen Sofia at 4 Abbot Street without her half-pant and ….. sleeveless t-shirt that made her look like a young boy. Sometime she carried spanner, hammer, screw driver in a leather holder around her waist, in the lookout for fixing a leaking tap or broken pipe.
Since I moved back to Sydney to my family, I saw Sofia again when I and my wife were visiting Brisbane to catch up with my acquaintances during my five years stay in Brisbane. We were in Brisbane city and I gave Sofia call, if it would be possible to meet her. She readily obliged and she waited for us at the entrance of the Brisbane city hall. I saw her from a distance working on her mobile phone. And I was receiving her text messages instructing me where to find her. For the first time perhaps I saw her with a proper attire covering her body. She had put on a trouser and half sleeve shirt, looked beautiful too and not the same boyish Sofia, I used to know. I tried to perceive her in a romantic sort of way.
We exchanged greetings and spent some time together, then departed. Due to our tight schedule we could not say yes to Sofia’s offer of a cup of coffee.
I kept in touch though with Sofia over phone occasionally, when I thought about her and felt the urge to reconnect with her. Last time when I talked to her she expressed her delight that I still remembered her, although many years have passed between us. I told her she was important to me because of the unit she rented to me which was my little sweet home in Brisbane for more than five years. “You were the nicest land-lady I had and I was drawn to you in a friendly way,” I added. “Really? But I didn’t see you that way Faruk, frankly speaking. I reckon you could have been a good friend of mine,” she said. “Doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Faruk, see me next time you come to Brisbane,” she said. “You can stay at my grandmaa’s vacant room, and you would cook Bangladeshi foods for me,” Sofia sounded very friendly to me. “Thanks, Sofia, I would keep it in my mind,” I said.
Then I casually asked her about her boy-friend. I didn’t know if she had one at that time and who he was. Sofia had a casual way about life. Over the years she had a number of boy-friends, that didn’t last long. She said she broke up with her last boyfriend from Peru with whom she was living together too.
She didn’t sound sad at all to me.
Faruk Kader, Sydney, Australia