Vito dreams. Mishaps and terrors rage through many of his nights, and early in the mornings, before they can glide from his memory, he tells them to his wife. Beryl. They lie in bed and the soft drone of Vito’s voice seeps into the dawn. Later, when he goes to make the tea. Beryl, who has no dreams of her own, writes his down, before she forgets them, in the little notebook from her bedside drawer.
She wants to keep the dreams. They seem to say so much about him, about his life in Europe many years ago as well as here in Australia. To Beryl, Vito’s dreams are a guide to the landscape of his being. She realises that she never considered that until recently, his being. Now they are retired there is time for such considerations.
Vito comes back with the tea, and as she sips Beryl reads aloud what she has written.
He is lost and looking for her. He has been to Sydney.
‘Sydney? Did I say Sydney?’ he interrupts.
‘You thought it was Sydney. From our holiday there last month.’
She holds to the premise that dreams must surely relate back to reality. ‘Sydney,’ she insists.
On his back is a haversack with a few clothes in it, and his money, $300. A heavy bag weighs his right arm down. He hitch-hiked up and the driver put him off in a strange suburb. Not far away is the main road. From there he can catch a taxi home, but he cannot reach that road. He must struggle through narrow creeks and over gullies, through clumps of bushes and under fences. The haversack catches on barbed wire; he has to free it to wriggle through. In the paddock people are working, digging with hoes and picks, but when he asks them for help they shrug and grimace and spread their hands. Nicht sprechen Englisch, they cry. He is tired and sits down with his back against a tree-trunk and falls asleep. When he wakes he knows, even before he looks, that he has been robbed. Everything is gone and the main road is even further away. Beryl likes the dreams. Though each one is unique, she sees recurring themes. The dreams are clues to that puzzle of his being. His stories are a different matter. Since they are his facts they never change, and she has heard them all so many times before. Now there is even more time for their retelling.
As Vito and Beryl sit on the front veranda, sipping afternoon tea, a plane flies over low. ‘Thousands come, flying low like that,’ he tells her. ‘The Mayor will not declare open city, so Nordhausen is bombed. Flattened.’
Her mind starts to wander, but she forces herself to listen.
‘Goebbels makes speeches still that they win and our foreman believes, so we go out still to collect wire. For the war. But soon he says, it is all kaput, boys; the Americans are coming. Our farmer, where we billet, gives us food, a couple loaves of bread, and tells us “Go away, you must look after yourselves now.” We are two of my country and two French. We live in a little hut on an allotment, and after two days the Americans come. Tanks first, then jeeps and motor bikes. We go into Nordhausen and a Polish tells us down in the cellars there is food. We find preserved fruit and vegetables and sausages. And mattresses. And many bodies, already they are stinking.’
His eyes glaze and she groans to show her involvement, though she has heard it so many times before.
‘A man stands in a tank on a goods train and people come with buckets and saucepans. He is up to his waist in Wehrmacht schnapps, ladling it out. We find a bucket; the grog splashes over the top. By the road some French tear meat off a dead horse; it is swollen, like a balloon.’
She groans again and he acknowledges her disgust with a nod.
‘A Yankee soldier takes my watch, from the uncle in Chicago. Prisoners from the camp stagger about in their striped clothes, looking for Germans. We go back to the allotment with all our stuff and live there, two, three weeks. Then the Americans make the concentration camp into a camp for displaced persons. We make little flags to show we are not Germans and sew them on our coats. In the ovens there is still ashes and Eisenhower makes the burghers of Nordhausen come and look.’
‘Write it, Vito,’ she begs him. ‘It should not be lost.’
But he shrugs and shakes his head, gestures palms up. ‘What use? Is all past now. No-one cares.’
‘I care,’ she assures him. ‘And so should everyone. Or at least know.’ Because it’s never past, that sort of thing, she thinks. It’s certainly not past for him.
Next morning he has another dream to tell her. They have gone on a picnic, all the family, by the Broadwater, at Southport. They are practising shooting, and she takes the gun and purposely aims it to shoot Don in the back.
‘Who?’ she asks. She is not sure she has heard right, and is laughing.
‘Don,’ he repeats. ‘That no-hoper who deserts Margaret and her children.’ His mouth is sucked in as he names the man who was their son-in-law, whom they have not seen now for four years.
The gun was supposed to be loaded with pellets, but there must have been bullets. Blood pours from Don’s back and chest. She is calm, tells them It’s all right, just pour cold water on him. The bleeding stops. Shaken, Vito goes to buy a daily paper, to see if the shooting is in it. He has taken his bag with him and it is heavy, weighing down his arm, his right arm, making him tire. It’s a bloody long way, he tells himself. He seems to walk and walk; she could have come with him, it’s her fault, he’s looking round for her as he walks but cannot see her.
While he is making the tea she writes this dream in her notebook and then, as the morning lightens, lies in bed considering it. From the kitchen the rattle of cups and thump of kettle and teapot, even the rushes of water from the tap, sound louder than usual.
‘I still worry about Margaret and the kids,’ he tells her, when he comes back with the two cups of tea. He gets into bed beside her, as he always does to drink his tea. ‘And the boys, come to that,’ he adds. The boys are their sons, Ron and Alec, who are back-packing overseas. Vito shakes his head. ‘How long can they go on like this? They must settle down, establish themselves.’
She knows there is danger here for her. Even the dream had warning, but she cannot resist saying ‘They’re only young still.’
‘Nearly thirty,’ he says.
‘Twenty-four and twenty-five,’ she corrects him.
His eyes narrow and glint. ‘I blame you. You’ve always spoilt them. They have no idea what the world is, what a place it is.’
She can feel her own anger rising. ‘And we were a fine example, weren’t we? Look at us: living on a pension, poor. We should have piles of money, but we didn’t have a clue what it was all about. Until it was too late. What can we expect of our kids?’
She hates herself as she speaks. He has always worked so hard, always tried; to have come with a small cardboard case and done all those things, a milkman, a newsagent, even selling real estate in the seventies, despite his accent. The Greeks used to like him, they’d come to his boss and ask for him especially, to show them milk bars and corner stores.
‘We should have made a mint then,’ she says, and becomes angrier as she remembers: the chances missed, the petty economies now. ‘We should have been wheeling and dealing ourselves, but we didn’t have the guts, or the plain horse sense.’ Meaning: he didn’t, he’s the man after all. ‘We should be well off now, but we were like the babes in the wood. How can we expect our kids to be any different?’
In his dream that night he is inspecting flats, with a view to buying. Two large men, agents, come out from a big two-storey block and talk to him in German. There has been a murder in there, they say, or a suicide. He goes looking for her to tell her, but cannot find her. He stumbles through a gap in a hedge; behind it a vast paddock of marijuana grows, like the crops his father used to grow for hemp for rope.
The crop is vigorous and a man is cutting it with a machete, slashing at it as at sugar cane. He sees her then, across the field, looking young and relaxed as if she has been smoking. She is holding the handlebars of a bicycle and he calls to her, Beryl, Beryl, but she gives him a stupid smile and rides away. It is sugar cane, seven feet high and brilliant green, that she rides through.
‘Some Italian gangs sleep in the fields,’ Vito tells her as they sip their tea. ‘Just a few hours’ sleep and they start cutting again while it is still not light. We are not that keen, but we start early. For the cool. . not cool, but not so hot. At first my back feels broken and my hands are blistered and bleeding and my arms – I think they will drop off.’ Beryl feels the muscles flex in the arm beside her, his right arm. ‘But I get used,’ he says, and broods a moment, and she is sure of what is coming next. ‘Young people now do not know — what hard life we have, what the world is. They have it too easy.’
‘They have their own problems,’ she murmurs, but he does not seem to hear, or has already forgotten the young.
‘After lunch we rest and then we go back and stack the morning’s cut and burn off for the next day. Saturday mornings we wash our clothes in the creek and in the afternoon we go into town.’ He is smiling now. It was not all bad. They were young and optimistic. ‘They know us at all the pubs, and the dances, the bloody Baits. We are always welcome.’
‘Write it down,’ Beryl begs him. ‘For the kids. Someone might publish it even — such a life,’ but Vito shakes his head. He does not believe it, that anyone but she would be interested. Even his children have their own lives to cope with.
Big changes are occurring in his homeland. It is in the news every day; protest rallies are shown on the television. He is excited and unbelieving.
Vito dreams he is in Telsiai, where he grew up, where his sisters still live. He knows it from the two hills with the city sloping down them into the valley between. He is in a bed in a dormitory in a boarding house on one of the hills. Out of the window he can see the city.
‘Am I there?’ Beryl wants to know. She is lying next to him; they are facing each other, lying close, legs entwined as they have lain for over thirty years.
No, there are only men, and this time he is not seeking her. He starts to get up but the man in the next bed says, stay there, you can’t get up until the gong goes.
‘It sounds like a gulag,’ Beryl says.
‘No, it is a boarding house,’ Vito assures her.
He goes outside to get breakfast: it is a lump of hard brown stuff like the porridge at the end in Germany, and he cannot eat it. They show him the tap: Run water on the food to soften it; but the surge washes it all into the ground. I have no breakfast now, he complains, so they give him some bread, but it is too hard to eat. Put it under the tap, they tell him, but he throws it away.
‘It sounds like a prison to me,’ Beryl insists, but he laughs. ‘No. It is a boarding house.’
He walks down the road to a large park. Hammered to a post is a notice board. The notice says, in English: FOR SALE. PHONE MOSCOW.
‘For Sale, Phone Moscow. That must be perestroika,’ Beryl says, and they both laugh.
In the post that afternoon a letter comes from his homeland and they sit on the front veranda while he reads it. ‘Daug Lietuviu atvazioja i Lietuva is viso Pasaulio,’ his elder sister writes.
‘What does it say?’ Beryl asks, and he translates: ‘Lithuanians are coming now from all over the world. Why don’t you come?’ The cousin from Chicago is going with his wife in June.
‘Bugger it all, let’s go,’ she says. ‘We’ve got the money.’ But not so much, she thinks; after the trip there’d be even less, and there’s their kids . . .
Vito must be thinking the same. ‘We want to leave something for the boys and Margaret,’ he reminds her.
‘They’re not children any more. They should look after themselves,’ she says. ‘And anyway, there’s always the house. They can sell that and share the proceeds.’ She wants it so badly for him, this trip home, after all these years. He deserves it. He’s worked so hard, survived so much. ‘Let’s go before it’s too late,’ she pleads, ‘while there’s still time,’ and they are silent a moment, as if digesting that word: ‘time’. She has never been so jealous of time. If only they could have their time again and she could love him this much through all of it. ‘Let’s go,’ she demands.
‘But we want to move to the beach, don’t we?’ Vito says. ‘While we can still afford. If we can. You always want to live at the beach.’
He dreams that they have gone with an agent to look at a house: a waterfront home, the advertisement says, and Vito cannot believe the price, it is so low. They have to pick a path through mangrove swamps to reach it. It is a sort of shed, and they stand on the rickety steps. You can see the ocean, the agent says, nothing between us and it, just a few mangroves, and there is a distant glimmer as of sun on water. Buy it now, the agent urges. It will never be so cheap again. Beryl is there too, but stands gazing at the water, only at the water.
Brochures arrive in every mail, even one from the cousin’s agent in Chicago. His offer is best: ten days in Vilnius, with trips to Telsiai and Kaunas. ‘But hurry,’ the American presses in his covering letter, ‘Places on all tours are filling fast.’ ‘We have to go,’ Beryl says, and is always bringing home more travel brochures, from every travel agent whose door she passes. She also brings home booklets listing houses for sale at the beaches; the booklets come from little boxes on the pavement outside local real estate offices. She enters Lotto twice weekly and buys Casket tickets whenever her palm is itchy. She has always dreamed of living by the sea.
He dreams he is on a train, looking for her. The train is packed, with people standing and sitting in the aisles. He suddenly sees her up ahead but cannot get to her through the crowd. He is pushing, distraught. Excuse please my wife, but when he reaches where she was, she is gone. He sees her again, she is leaving the train, and he is shoving, using his elbows, trying to reach the door, but the whistle blows, the train moves and he cannot get off to catch her. He is in a panic, crying and calling, no-one to help or notice him; he wakes in a cold sweat with his face wet from crying.
Beryl kisses his cheek, stretching up her chin to do so, and holds him with one arm across his chest. ‘I love you so much,’ she says. ‘More than ever, now.’
Under her pillow are the latest brochures: one, a glossy of a retirement village at Caloundra where units may be occupied while Ray White sells the present home; the other a dull green leaflet enclosing the forms of application (four pages in quintuplicate) for an independent holiday with family members in the Soviet Union.
Beryl kisses Vito’s cheek again and wipes the moisture from it with a fingertip. ‘Tell me, what was your latest dream?’ she asks him.
Betty Birskys is the author of At the Island and Homeland.