I take my time opening the box. Inside are my mother’s photos, her life’s story. Even though she was buried two weeks ago now, her voice is still crooning around my ears and the aroma of Greek Pita baking in the oven is still wafting throughout every nook and cranny of the house. How I wanted to hold her just one more time. She needed that always. This split-level brick veneer home I am now standing in alone, built by my parents bare strained hands, is as solid now it was back then, uncrackable, here for me always; for ever. I slowly sit down at the mahogany dining table and finally pulling back the cardboard lid I fish out a picture. Around me stand empty chairs that used to seat so many family members, always, for ever and I hear their noises, their laughter, their anger, their secrets, their betrayals all played out in this well lived room.
Staring at the picture in my hand I remember now. In the background an empty quarter acre block with some newly built timber framing and newly built floor joists resting on the ground shining in the October sun of 1964. Standing on the joists is a solid, very muscular dark-haired man, 30 years of age, wearing sleeveless blue singlet and navy yakka trousers, holding a grinder. My father. In the foreground is my mother, young, also wearing navy trousers, half smiling, half smirking, skinny, her brown hair held back with a shiny red scarf and bare thin arms holding a shovel out in front. I study this picture now with new lens, lens of an adult, lens of a daughter now much older than her own mother in this photo, a woman with children of her own, a husband of her own and a home of her own. My adult response to their adult life is emotional. What was I doing at twenty-one years of age? Certainly not building a house in a strange foreign land, slaving in a factory by day, raising children by night a and learning a new language in the in between. I baptize the photo with another down pour of tears, another loving ceremony honoring the complexity and depth of their courageous existence. I am still coming to terms with their lives now over, for ever gone, for ever buried. I realize it will be another harrowing day for me when the SOLD sticker is finally plastered across the real estate board fastened to the front fence, quickly made a reality by my brother not four days after mum was buried. Suddenly, I am a child again living in this house, and want this box to stay here. I want time to go backwards. I ask myself how can I remove this box from this home? These pictures and their stories deserve to be buried here where they were conceived, their rightful resting place is surely where they lived and died? No one else belongs here. I am struggling with finality, with change, and it hurts I am no longer anyone’s child. I flick the photo over to check if there is any writing on its back.
“To Costas, with love from Anna.” Costas? I have never heard of a Costas. I have never heard anyone mention his name, ever. Who is he and why no date on the back and why this particular photo? I continue with the sad happy task of inspecting each and every other snap packed within this container, I am hungry for answers about Costas. But scrounging through the pictures holds me in suspended animation, holds me here, to this place, where I want to be for ever, and never want to leave. I remember a time when I wanted to grow up so fast and leave this place as soon as I could, but now, reliving these amazing memories, I would give my right arm to return to that time and place. I underestimate the liquidity of hours and minutes and the room is dark as I screen the last picture left in the box. I find no clues as to the identity of Costas which leaves my heart empty and as cold and dark as the night outside. I return all items to the box, re seal its lids and take with me this one package, all that is left of my unforgettable childhood, and head for home. Driving is slow in the dark rainy evening and it gives me time to decompress and fully process that nothing is more constant than change itself.
“Are you sure you have no clue?” crumbs fall to my lap as I chew breakfast toast pleading with my cousin over the phone for help about Costas. Helen is as ignorant as I am on the subject of this man, but just as curious about him though. She promises that as soon as she can she will hunt through all her photos, talk to brothers, cousins and all family members here and in Greece and see what she can come up with “In the meantime, you go talk to any Skips that knew your parents and see what they can come up with. What do you think? A lover, an illegitimate child?” Helen’s phone dies in my ear before I can reply and whilst I understand it is time to get kids to school, still, I feel a little dismissed spilling my guts out with such personal stuff only to have the phone killed in my ear. “Will I ever really know everything about my parents anyhow” I ask myself staring out my car window parked along the side street of my children’s school “and is it that important? and do I really want to know the truth?” I am cold and fed up already and with so much else to think about I turn on the engine and head home. Over lunch I find the phone number of old friends of my parents and give them a call. Joy is so delighted to hear from me and I begin to cry for her love and warmth. I promise myself and Joy I will pay them more attention in the upcoming future. “Oh, don’t be silly girl, we understand you’re busy, and you’ve just lost your mother for god’s sake, too young both your parents really.” I thank Joy so much for her kindness and speaking of my mother, I bring up the subject of Costas. Joy and Lenny could offer me no information on Costas, other than to suggest, maybe he was one of the drivers’ dad had employed when he was running his interstate trucking business. I didn’t think my father had employed any Greek drivers, but I doubt I would ever know for sure. I also wondered why would a driver be receiving a photo with love from my mother inscribed on the back of it? I promised Joy I would come and visit her soon and certainly keep her posted on any new developments. It was a possibility Costas could indeed have been a driver for my father, but his record keeping was very minimal back then, I doubted very much I would ever be able to confirm one way or the other.
“OK, you guys, dishes to the sink and free play for a while” I have survived another week of ringing around and searching through deaths births and marriages and company history and finally feel glad to be focusing on simple but important things like cooking and cleaning and playing tickle to death with the three men in my life. My phone rings just as it’s my turn to cop the next round of torture, “sorry boys, just a sec, my phone.” “Hellen, hi, how are you?” “Listen, I have some news.” I could hear the high pitch excitement in her voice “Oh, really.” “Yes, I’ve spoken to Aunt Olga in Athens, she knows who Costas is! Or probably is.” “You’re kidding me!” ‘No, I’m not, this is how it goes. Costas was a friend of our Aunt Olga way back then when our parents came to Australia, he wanted to come here to.” “Ye?” I fall onto the couch struggling to contain my impatience. “Well, Aunt Olga had told her friend Costas that she had a brother-in law in Melbourne Australia who has just started a trucking business and maybe he would sponsor him over to Australia.” “Ah Ha!” “Olga rang Costas and told him about the photo you had with love from Anna written on the back of it.” “Oh my god you’re kidding Helen!” “Stop telling me I’m kidding! Anyhow Costas gave Olga his phone number and asks Olga if she could pass it on to you? He wants to talk to you, he has more information” Helen gets no reply from me and yells down the phone “did you hear me, Athena?” “I’m, terrified!” “Ye, me to. It’s about seven am in Athens right now, so, write down his number and ring him. Now. Then ring me back do you hear! I want to know what he tells you. I’ll be waiting!” “But but…” “Just do it!” My family huddle around a stunned terrified looking mother and ask what’s wrong. I tell them nothing is wrong and grab them to tickle them until they scream for me to stop, then allow them to extract their revenge and torture me until I can’t breathe.
The midnight sky is starless and black as I sip my tea, debriefing with my husband, the rest of the night’s conversations with Helen, Aunties and infamous Costas. David is being very patient with me as he sits through the whole tedious story. “Well, Costas was really lovely when he picked up his phone and was really glad to hear from me. Made me promise to come and visit him if ever I came to Athens.” David laughed “of course they all want us to visit them.” “Well, apparently, dad sponsored Costas to come out here and work. And you won’t be surprised to find out he was a complete ass hole to Costas as he was to most people.” “Nope I am not surprised” David is fidgeting less than I thought he would “In the end, Costas went back to Greece, penniless and in a worse position than when he left. Now here is where the story gets interesting. Mum felt so ashamed about how dad treated Costas she kept in touch with him and secretly sent him money every month for two decades in recompense for what dad had done to him.” As a man who understood exploitation and loved redemption my husband laughs until tears fall down his cheeks. “Mum stole cash from the cash tin every day and put it away to send to him.” “It never amazed me just how clever and stupid your father could be all at the same time” David was still drying the tears off his face. “Now, it gets even more interesting love. Costas tells me, mum wrote to him many times via my Aunt Olga, and, in these letters, are you ready for it?” I check to make sure my husband is listening “In her letters mum tells Costas she was stacking cash under the house for a rainy day, and if it all became too much for her, she might even return to Greece and see him again. Also, Costas told mum to stop sending money a decade ago as he had saved enough with that money and bought a small successful small business.” “Holy shit! Cash under the house!” David was no longer fighting his yawning.
The fog and mist whirling around my mother’s front garden and up the driveway half covers the car windows as we pull in. It’s only seven am but we just couldn’t sleep wondering about Costa’s story. We step out into the freezing morning, head for the garage, unlock its door and pull, then close it behind us after we find the switch for the internal light. We are skeptical about finding any money, and remember my brother had done some major cleaning out down here some months ago and would certainly not tell us if he had found any cash. “Not much down here at all, don’t know where the hell it might be” I feel foolish flashing a torch around brick and concrete with no idea where or what I am looking for. David goes to one side and I to the other. “I am freezing, what’s the time?” I don’t know why I am whispering but David hears me. “It’s only been ten minutes since the last time you asked.” “I am freezing down here!” “I know, you keep telling me that, but we’ve only been here an hour. Let’s go through that door right under the house, maybe there’s something under there.” “Lots of spiders and spiders’ webs. Aughrrr I am going to scream!” “You’ll be right, and just remember, you would never forgive your self if you hadn’t bothered to look.” “Ye, right now, I am not so sure” I complain allot when the going gets tough “where are you going now, don’t get squashed.” The ground slopes upwards and the gap between the dirt beneath our feet and the floor boards above us begins to shrink. I am now flashing the torch around more than I am moving. “Found something!” David is sticking his hand above a joist and pulls away a small brown leather bag. “
“I’ finally know what I am going to do with the rest of my life” I smile as I tell David and he wraps his arms around my waist and we exit the doors of the bank and walk into the afternoon sunshine “what’s that?” “I am going to start a ‘not for profit’ organization investigating dodgy employers who won’t pay poor immigrants. “Well, two hundred thousand’ should be a good start” David laughs as he picks me up and swirls me around glad for my happiness.