You see all kinds of people in my inner-city Melbourne street, but my favourite is the elderly Italian guy a few doors down who is always at his rose-filled front gate with a cheery wave and a “ciao, bella!” for me as I pass by.
I’m usually in a hurry – as are all of us. I’m headed to kinder dropoff or pickup, and people hustle along not wanting to miss their trams, or just wanting to get home after a long day.
Friday morning usually sees me do a loop of the neighbourhood as I drop first one kid off at kindergarten, then the other at school, but this Friday was different. We were already late for school, as we’d stayed for the Mother’s Day morning tea. Bigs and I strolled the streets debating the merits of pancakes v. scones, and spirits were high. Mr Italian Gate Man was indeed at his gate this morning and instead of bowling on past with an apologetic grin and a throwaway line about his beautiful flowers, we stopped and said a proper hello.
We introduce ourselves and we talk about his house. “It’s very big”, he says waving in its general direction with his walking stick. “Too big for one person.”
“Do you live here by yourself?” I ask in surprise. For some reason I always imagined a matching little old Italian lady inside, with her sensible shoes and shopper trolley at the ready.
“You never see inside?” he asks.
“Well, no!” I say, thinking it was a funny question cos wouldn’t he remember? and also I don’t really go around wandering through people’s houses, but he opens the gate and motions for us to come in.
We tell him our names again after Bigs asks for his but he just frowned and said “uh?” because couldn’t really hear us and didn’t really care. He had friends coming over and that was all that mattered.
I’m going to call him Carlo, although that’s not his name. He asked me what I do and I told him I work on computers. I don’t think any of us is ready to try and explain the internet, let alone blogging to him.
The first thing he does is lead us over to a huge poster full of pictures of his family. “This my wife,” he says proudly, pointing with his walking stick to the biggest picture in the middle. “She was sick for 10 years. 10 years I never even look at another woman,” he says to me forcefully, grabbing my arm. “I never. She die, and four and a half years I not very happy.”
He points out his sons and daughters and their children and their children’s children. He tells me who was born in Italy, and who was born in Australia.
“Big famiglia,” he says. “Very big”. I ask if they all live in Melbourne and does he see them often? and he says they come every Sunday at 2pm. They used to come for lunch when his wife was alive, but now they say that’s too much work for him and only come in the afternoon. “We play cards,” he says. “They leave at huppas five”.
Our conversation is stilted as neither his English nor his hearing is very good. He shows me the rest of the house, the bidet he’s very proud to have had shipped over from Italy, his bedroom, his lounge room with another huge picture of his wife taking pride of place on the mantel, lit by a sole spotlight that he never turns off.
“I not come here so much,” he says of the lounge room. “When my wife die, I don’t come. No need. I not very happy, I think all the time about what I lost. I think all day. I go to bed, I think,” he says, touching his head. “When my wife was alive, I very busy, I work, I no have time to think. Then she die and I not very happy. I not do anything. I like conversation, I like company. I no want to watch tv, I want to eat, and talk. I like da company,” he says and I just listen.
He motions me out and asks me do I want coffee. He shows us the kitchen and gives Bigs some wafer sticks. “Take, take!” he says as she chooses one. He shoves the lot in her hand and keeps repeating “take! take!” so she does. He tells us to sit down and he busies himself putting the coffee on.
He comes out of the kitchen again with a huge box of Italian Easter cake, throws me a knife and says “cut! cut!”
I know neither Bigs or I will really like it (she’s fussy and I’m not real into cake in general) so I cut a small piece and while he’s gone tell her it’s ok if she doesn’t like it and to not say anything but just put it on the plate. She has a little nibble and I shove a piece down and hide the rest in a napkin in my pocket.
Bigs asks for water and he comes back with a 2 litre bottle of Coke and pours some into a glass. She’s never had Coke before and I’m wondering if this will be her introduction, he not understanding half of anything I say anyway and me not wanting to upset him. She looks confused and I hand it to her, asking did she want to just try it? “No thanks, mum, just water please” she says, wary of this weird, fizzing brown liquid, so I put it down and it’s now his turn to look confused.
“What she want?” he asks me. “Just water,” I reply. “Soda water?” he asks. “No, just water out of the tap,” I say with a shrug. “She likes it”.
He comes back with a glass of water and Bigs goes to drink it, freaks out, and spits it back in the glass. I’m hoping so much he didn’t see it, but he did. “Soda water,” he says to me, and goes off to get some plain water with a shake of his head. You can see he’s wondering what the hell is wrong with the weirdos from down the street who don’t like his cake or his Coke.
I drink my very excellent coffee and listen to him tell me about his sadness and boredom. “I not very happy,” he says. “I like da company”. I ask him questions but he doesn’t often answer them. He either doesn’t understand me or mishears a lot so I just smile and nod sympathetically. He just needs to talk. “I no tell my familia I not happy,” he says, waving his hand like that’s just not the kind of thing you do. “Before my wife die, I busy, I do this, I do that. Now all day I just sit, I go outside, I talk, but there no company”. I ask him if the steady stream of walkers on the street stop to chat but he says they just say “nice garden!” and run off. Just like I have so many times before.
He shows me the room where he makes his wine, and pours me a MASSIVE glass of last year’s batch to try. It’s 10.30am. As I’m drinking that, he brings me another glass of this year’s wine, which isn’t ready yet – he wants me to taste the difference. “Too sweet,” he says. “Not ready yet”. I spot two dead bugs in the glass of the new stuff and surreptitiously put it to the side. His wine is very good, kind of like port so still a bit sweet. Very drinkable. Even at 10 in the morning.
“I like to cook,” he says when I ask him what he likes to do. “Cooking all de time, I likea to make de spaghett,” he says. “My specialty spaghett.”
I say I like to eat spaghetti and that I’ll come and eat spaghetti with him sometime. “You come?” he asks. I say “of course I’ll come”, and his little old hands fumble over my arm to grab my hand in gratitude and he pulls me down so he can kiss my cheek with joy. “I makea you spaghett” he says. “My specialty. I use the good tomate, I usea da Carmelina, I prefer the taste, you know?” and he literally kisses his fingers like a true Italian stereotype. He also is at pains to point out he means the roma tomatoes “you know, the long ones?” he says. “Not the round. They no taste good”.
He tells me he has lived in this house “since before you were born” and I tell him I’m 36. “Ah,” he says, kissing his hand and waving it to me with a look that says “you’re a baby, that’s cute”. He tells me he’s been in this house 52 years and I wonder what that must be like. He also does that chin thing that indicates disgust, especially when talking about other men. He tells me “De wife, she is is da Queen of da house, you know?”, and that he’s not much interested in having man friends.
We talk some more, about making ravioli, about his grandchildren, about how he looked after his wife while she was in a wheelchair, and about his garden, but he always mentions his loneliness. The days are long when you’re old and live alone with a lifetime of thoughts.
A nurse arrives to give him a checkup so I thank him for his wonderful coffee and conversation and tell him I’ll be back next week to have some spaghetti with him. He waves me off with a grin. I go and immediately buy Carmelina tomatoes and eat ravioli for lunch. I’ve never craved pasta so much in my life.