from The Australian 20.12.2003
Jill Mullens recalls a special childhood Yuletide surprise
They were three, two short and swarthy, one fair with long limbs and faraway eyes- Italian prisoners of war sent to help a rural Australian family whose men were on the other side of the world fighting, as they did in those long ago days, for king and country.
It was Christmas, harvest time, the busiest period of the year for farmers. The Italians, in their distinctive crushed mulberry-coloured boiler suits, looked bewildered and exhausted as they wrestled with searing heat and pitchforks, building stooks where brown snakes made their homes and frightened the wits out of them.
Sometimes we children would see the prisoners returning from cutting burrs at the back of the fire break, or out stick-picking when we were mustering on our ponies, but things being different then, we were kept well away from strangers. Occasionally, though, we heard the fair one singing in the dusk- plaintive songs that made us feel sad, though we couldn’t understand a word.
My sister and I never asked where the men came from-that was grown-up territory, so we had to make up a history for them. Were they spies caught red-handed by brave Australian soldiers? And, if so, where? (There were no soldiers around out bit of red, outback dirt.) Or had they been found on a lonely beach on our long coastlines, having paddled across from North Africa? (Our geography was very ropey then.)
At night, settling into sleep in our little beds on the wide verandah, we turned them into bogeymen who lurked in the shadows of the rustling oleanders.
Fitful starlight created puddles of paleness, all the better to see the imaginary figures in their mulberry suits creeping towards us, spectres that sent us wailing to our mother at the other end of the house.
As Christmas approached and anticipation gathered momentum, our mother and grandmother spent hours in the kitchen preparing for the big day.
1945, The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), 22 December, p. 30. , viewed 25 Jul 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page4726613
Sometimes, one of the Italians came to help, usually one of the shorter ones who winked at us children and tried to make friends. We would have none of it. To us, he was dangerous, the enemy, the shadow in the bushes and not just a lonely young man in the wrong country at the wrong time.
The tall pale one seemed taller and paler each time we saw him. My mother muttered darkly about “the doctor” and TB and sent him jugs of milk from the dairy where we skimmed the cream and made butter.
At night we would hear him coughing in the men’s quarters. We no longer saw him in the paddocks.
On Christmas morning a man wearing a peaked cap came to collect him and take him away to a place in the mountains where our mother told us he would get better.
Being children, we didn’t think much about it until it was present-opening time. Beneath the tree, along with the jigsaw puzzles, coloured pencils and subscriptions to The Girls’ Crystal Magazine, wrapped in silvery paper and tied with scarlet string, my sister and I found identical presents: perfectly plaited, perfectly balanced leather riding crops, made by a master craftsman from Italy.
1945, The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), 22 December, cover , viewed 25 Jul 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page4726613
Thank you Fran Musico Rollo for sending this newspaper article through.