The factories rang their end-of-shift sirens, and herds of workers dashed through cyclone-wire gates towards their cars and bikes, or the narrow footpaths that lead to railway stations and bus stops. Sweat dripped from foreheads and armpits, down the backs of their necks. Trailed by the stench of rubber and glue, of animal fat, of burnt metal and sawdust, the women turned their thoughts to home, to dinner, to gathering scattered children, while the men headed straight for the pub.
Antonello changed into jeans and a t-shirt, grabbed his satchel, and clocked off. His mates, Sam and Slav, called after him, keen to entice him to the Vic, to a game of pool and a few drinks before dinner.
‘You’re not going home? Henpecked already,’ Sam yelled. Antonello laughed and shook his head. Since he’d confessed he preferred to spend his evenings at home with Paolina, Sam teased him at every opportunity.
‘Newlyweds. It’ll wear off,’ he heard an older bloke telling Sam. ‘Give it six months.’
But he wasn’t going straight home. Today, as had become his habit of late, he walked north along the Yarra, almost to the point where it met the Maribyrnong.
At the riverbank he sat on a boulder and watched the descending sun rain silver and gold on the river. From Coode Island and the dockyards, he could hear the distant rattle of chains, the thump of hammers, and the groan of motors as cranes hoisted containers on and off ships, on and off trucks. In the distance, the city centre, flat and one-dimensional, faded behind a soft mist. Nearby, the leaves of the ghost gums fluttered, and two adolescent fishermen laughed as they chased squawking gulls away from their bait bucket.
In his notebooks, amid sketches of the river and birdlife, his family, Paolina, he’d rendered the West Gate Bridge under construction in all its various stages and moods, with and without the tons of building equipment and the piles of raw materials sprawled around its base on both sides of the river. The bridge, with and without the builders, all men — riggers, carpenters, boilermakers, ironworkers, crane drivers — in their overalls or shorts and blue singlets, steel-capped work boots and hard hats; an army at its beckoning. There were detailed pencil and charcoal sketches of the bridge in the daytime, caught under a blazing Melbourne sun, the two spans towering over the river like prehistoric reptiles with mouths agape. There were quick, watercolour drawings capturing the bridge at either end of the day — at dawn and at dusk — when in the soft light it rose from the earth, grey and ethereal and indistinguishable from the clouds.
From a distance the bridge, so diminished, reminded Antonello of a high-wire on which a tightrope artist might balance; a thin line across a blue sky. That bridge bore no resemblance to the one he was working on, with its eight vehicle lanes ready to bear the weight of the city’s progress. Up close, when he was standing under the base of one of the 28 piers, each a massive tower of concrete — that bridge was sometimes monstrous.
The two arms rising from opposite sides were advancing towards each other; soon the West Gate would span the Yarra River. Soon.
Antonello began sketching the bridge long before Premier Bolte signed off on the contracts. Studying the artist’s representations and architects’ blueprints printed in the newspapers — the solid piers, the long roadway, the spires, the snaking expanse across the water — he drew his own bridge: lines, curves, shadows.
He imagined driving over the West Gate. He imagined flying.
To bridge a river, especially one as wide as the Yarra, was a grand ambition.
Once, when he was a boy, his grandfather had taken him to the wharf the bridge in Messina to see the ferry leave Sicily for mainland Italy.
‘They say they’re going to build a bridge so that we can walk across the sea,’ said Nonno Giovanni.
‘Who is going to build it, Nonno?’ he asked, awestruck. ‘What kind of man can build a bridge across the sea?’
‘It’s nonsense,’ Nonno Giovanni said. ‘Impossible. The sea can’t be conquered, and only Jesus can walk on water.’
Just after five o’clock, Paolina snuck up behind Antonello, slipping her hands over his eyes.
‘Cara mia,’ he said, folding his hands over hers.
She sat next to him. ‘The bridge looks gloomy.’
‘It’s the clouds,’ he replied, turning his attention to her. Paolina wore her blonde hair in one long plait, but strands had escaped, and floated in the breeze. He paused for a moment and smiled. She moved closer and kissed him. He didn’t want her to stop. Before he met Paolina, public displays of affection between couples embarrassed him. With past girlfriends, he’d controlled his desires, waited until they were able to find a quiet, private place, but not with Paolina. Not even now that they were married and could go home and make love whenever they wanted to. He searched for her hand as they walked; if they were sitting, he pushed his leg against hers; if they were standing, he wrapped his arm around her waist. His body gravitated towards her. He loved to touch her hair, her skin, the soft hollow of her neck. He hadn’t known it was possible to spend so many hours kissing.
One of the boys fishing downriver wolf-whistled; they stopped kissing and laughed. Paolina rested her head on Antonello’s shoulder. ‘I think you are in love with that bridge.’
‘Maybe,’ he admitted. ‘You know it’s going to be the biggest —’
‘Yes, yes,’ she interrupted, ‘I know.’ She stretched her arms wide and grinned, and Antonello watched, captivated, as the dimples transformed her face. ‘The longest, most amazing bridge, higher, taller, more spectacular than the one across Sydney Harbour … You’re lucky I’m not one of those jealous Sicilian women.’
There was a maternal indulgence in Paolina’s voice, making her seem older than her twenty years. Antonello assumed it was an attitude primary-school teachers cultivated. He assumed it was her training, that she acquired it along with the ability to organise whole days into a series of learning activities she mapped onto a weekly grid.
A container ship slid silently under the half-made bridge. Grey foam splashed onto the bank. The tugboat guiding the ship down the river blew its horn, and the punt travelling across from the east side stopped and waited. Antonello reached for his pencil again: his hand danced across the page, and the lines transformed into a ship stacked with containers floating on the rippled water.
‘You’re so talented. You’d make a great art teacher,’ Paolina said, running her hands through his thick black hair.
‘I’m happy being a rigger,’ he said without looking up from the sketch, absorbed in capturing the smaller details now — the masts and towers, the flags.
When he first told his brothers that Paolina was a teacher, Vince asked, ‘So she’s clever?’
‘Yes,’ he’d confirmed, with pride.
‘They say a man should never marry a woman who is smarter than him.’
‘Are you saying I’m dumb?’
All three brothers laughed.
‘Well, maybe not as smart as Mamma thinks you are,’ Vince said, grabbing Antonello in a playful stranglehold, as if they were boys playing on the street in the village.
He proposed to Paolina six months after their first date, and when she said yes, he asked her again and again, ‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I’m sure,’ she said with a laugh as he slipped the gold ring on her finger. ‘You’re the most handsome man I know.’
‘More handsome that Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita?’ he teased. They had seen the movie at La Scala in Footscray, with Sam and his fiancée Alice, and the two women had declared Mastroianni a heartthrob.
That Paolina chose him was a miracle. He still said thank-you prayers at night before he slid into their bed. Bellissima e molto buona. Would
Paolina one day regret marrying him — a labourer with no education?
‘Come on, let’s go,’ Paolina said. ‘It smells like dead fish and burnt
Antonello raised his head and sniffed the air. ‘You have a better sense of smell than me. Working down here, I’ve stopped noticing it.’ Before he closed his notebook, he gazed at the completed sketch: the bridge, half-made, reaching across the river from both sides. A promise not yet fulfilled.
But they were close to finishing. In a few more months, the bridge would be whole, and when they relinquished it to the city, they’d make history. A bunch of working blokes would forever be part of Melbourne.
It was late Thursday morning during Paolina’s third week with her Grade 3 class. This was her fourth appointment as a replacement teacher, her second at the same school. Agnes Hunt, the permanent teacher who was now on maternity leave, had warned her that there were several mischiefmakers who needed constant surveillance, and they’d already made themselves known: Marisa Percelli had twisted her ankle doing back flips between the desks, the Papageorgiou triplets had brought matches to school and set the bins on fire, and Gary Dyson spat hand-rolled paper missiles across the room whenever she wasn’t looking. But more concerning to Paolina were the students who were struggling and found every activity a challenge.
Terri, whose turn it was to read, was short and shy, with pale skin and green eyes that she hid behind a long fringe. She stood up as one of the Papageorgiou boys — Paolina hadn’t got as far as telling them apart — passed her the book. She was trembling and already her face was turning red.
‘Oh no, not her, we’ll be here all day,’ yelled out Willie, the class talker, from the back of the room, where he was supposed to be facing the wall with his hands on his head in an enforced five-minute silence. Giggles rippled along the desks.
Paolina ignored him and focused on Terri. The girl’s tongue flapped about, her lips opened and closed, she alternately sucked and bloated her cheeks, but nothing came out. It was as if the words were glue in her mouth. When she finally found her voice, some words came out in a rush of spit, while others were stretched beyond recognition as she painstakingly sounded out each letter. Around the room students were twitching and fiddling, and some were sniggering. Paolina was thinking about how to help the girl, how to spare her any further embarrassment, when she noticed Jimmy, a smallish boy she’d caught fighting the day before, scribbling in his book. She tiptoed across the room and stood by his desk. In the margins of the novel, there were pencil sketches of birds — not the stick-birds other children his age drew, but fully formed sparrows, and seagulls, and a half-drawn heron, its long sharp beak protruding from a small head with, as yet, no body. She hesitated for a moment, then snatched the pencil out of Jimmy’s hand. Startled, he knocked his book and it tumbled to the floor. Around him, the students laughed. Terri continued stuttering and stammering through her allotted page. Paolina gave the class the stern look she’d been practising since her lecturer at Melbourne Teachers’ College told her she needed to be more serious when disciplining her students. Firm but fair.
A few streets away, Emilia washed the coffee cups and put away the single remaining piece of lemon cake. Both her son Antonello and his father, Franco, had been too nervous to eat their breakfast before their meeting at the bank. But of course they were famished afterwards.
‘Asking for a loan feels like begging,’ Franco had said days earlier, trying to convince Emilia to come with him to the bank.
‘Wait until we save the money,’ she insisted.
But Franco refused to postpone buying a new car. ‘I earn the money, and I’ll buy a car if I want to.’
Franco was a firecracker, too easy to ignite. When they disagreed, they could argue for days. Emilia knew that Antonello hated his father’s inability to control his temper, and the ease with which she goaded him, so to put an end to the ongoing battle he’d volunteered to take the morning off and go to the bank with Franco.
The bank manager, a benign middle-aged man in a grey suit who apparently thought getting his message across to a migrant required long pauses between every word, happily agreed to the loan, and now Franco was working in the garden and, Emilia assumed, dreaming about his new car as if it weren’t going to cost them a small fortune, with the interest and bank fees.
Emilia stirred the pasta sauce simmering on the back burner. Garlic and onions, basil and chilli, homemade pork sausage and tomato passata, a pinch of sugar and a splash of their own wine — well, more than a splash, but she wouldn’t tell her daughter, Carmela, who, since the maternal and child health nurse at the council told her even one drop of alcohol could damage a child’s brain, had been on a constant campaign to stop Emilia using wine in her cooking. Carmela was trying to be more Australiana, and as a result, she had eliminated wine, and garlic (bad breath) and chilli (too spicy), from her diet. Carmela’s food was bland and boring (though Emilia couldn’t blame Australia; her oldest daughter was a terrible cook), so most days Carmela came for lunch, with her children and her husband, before Marco’s afternoon shift at the foundry. Emilia didn’t mind: all her married life in Italy, she’d shared the cooking with her mother-in-law and youngest sister-in-law, and even though they had their own kitchens in their own separate sections of the three-storey house, all three households ate together.
When Emilia had suggested to Antonello that he and Paolina might move in with them, at least until they had saved enough for their own house, he’d laughed.
‘I don’t think that would be a good idea,’ he said finally when she asked him what was so funny. ‘You’re too bossy.’
She’d thrown her tea towel at him, but she knew he was right. It was nostalgia. She was grateful to no longer share her kitchen.
As she set the table, the sun streamed in through the louvre windows, creating soft, warm stripes across the room. It was 15 October, her mother’s eighty-fourth birthday. She’d sent her money and later, after dinner, she’d call. Her mother’s hearing had deteriorated and Emilia would have to shout. The thin phone line was an inadequate channel for the weight of their emotions.
Emilia checked the sauce once more. It was spicier than, and not as sweet as, her mother’s. The memory rolled in: she a short ten-yearold, standing on a stool so she could look into the pot. ‘Attenzione a non troppo peperoncino, basta, basta! ’ Her mother pinching her arm to stop her adding the extra chilli.
Just after 11.40 am, Antonello arrived on site and made his way to the lift, where he’d arranged to meet Slav and Sam. Even though drinking before a shift was against company policy, almost everyone had a liquid lunch on payday. To avoid problems, the workers went to the Vic and the Commercial, leaving the Railway to the engineers. Most of the workers from the local factories and refineries were paid on Thursdays, so all three bars would be crowded until the clock hit one, when the men downed their pints and rushed back to work.
Des, a boilermaker, tapped Antonello on the arm. ‘Wouldn’t go up there if I was you — it’s a fucking circus. They reckon they can’t get rid of the buckles caused by those heavy blocks you guys heaved up there, so they’re going to take the bolts out. Bob’s real fucking pissed, but they’re the bloody bosses.’
Des belonged to a group of Australiani who kept their distance from the dagos and wogs. He’d never spoken to Antonello before. ‘Bob said they did it on the other side,’ Antonello said.
‘Yeah. So they say, mate,’ Des replied. ‘I reckon it’s time to look for another job. Those engineers are losing it.’
Antonello watched Des until he disappeared into the portable where they clocked on and off. He scanned the site. It was busy. As well as the normal clutter of materials — steel rods, sacks of concrete, boxes of bolts, spools of wire rope and metal chain, enormous pipes and poles — there were several workers manoeuvring cranes and forklifts around the site and its many obstacles.
Antonello thought back to the first time he strolled along the river with his brothers. They’d only been in Australia a few days. No running motors, no horns, and no shouting. No stench of burning diesel. No bridge. He remembered watching the fishermen — young men and boys, mainly, but a couple of older blokes too — casting their lines into the water and then wedging the rod into a pipe hammered into the ground so their hands were free for a cigarette and a beer. The water was a murky brown — so unlike the rivers in Sicily — but the fish swam in it and none of the fishermen’s buckets were empty. They’d felt hopeful for their lives in Australia.
Over the years, Antonello and his brothers had spent many hours fishing along the river. The Yarra, one old fisherman had told Antonello, was called the Birrarung, once, long ago, when his ancestors had the run of the place. He’d taught them how to catch eels. ‘You Italians are the only white people I’ve met that understand they’re good eatin’,’ he said. The brothers took the eels home to their mother, who cooked them in a soupy stew the family loved.
Most of the fishermen resented the bridge and the way their river, their favourite fishing spot, the one their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had fished during the tough times when there was little else to eat, the one they had discovered as kids with their mates, the one where they had taught their sons to fish — the sons who’d come back from Vietnam without an arm, without a best friend, who were themselves only when they were fishing — was being destroyed. ‘Who needs a fucking bridge anyway? We don’t want those rich bastards coming over to the west,’ was the general sentiment.
‘You can’t stand in the way of progress,’ Bob had said when Antonello asked what he thought, even though Bob too enjoyed fishing.
When Antonello checked his watch, it was 11.45. Sam and Slav should’ve been heading down. He looked up at the men on the span. Bob was surrounded by his crew, including Ted, a new rigger who was saving for a surfing trip to Bali and had volunteered to replace Antonello on the morning shift. Bob was pacing. He seemed agitated. Des had been worried about the bolts, but surely, Antonello thought, they wouldn’t take the bolts out unless it was safe. Not unless all the engineers and foremen agreed. He knew that Bob would not agree. ‘Shortcuts are never a good idea’: Bob’s golden rule. It was annoying sometimes — Antonello and the other riggers in Bob’s crews, especially the younger ones, often tried to sway Bob, but he wouldn’t be swayed. Once, after a long disagreement, Bob lined up the crew and, like an army sergeant, marched along, pointing at them and yelling, ‘My responsibility isn’t just to get the job done. It’s to your families, to make sure you . fucking morons get home in one piece at the end of every day.’ They grumbled. One of the blokes called Bob ‘an old nanna’, but they followed his instructions to the letter.
It had been a tough couple of months on the job. Cantilevering the box-girders, a half-span at a time, manoeuvring them into position on the piers, supporting it with trusses and cables, was a slow and delicate process. The spans had given the crews trouble on the east side, and after the last box was lifted into place, buckles had appeared in the steel, leaving the whole east side unstable. ‘They shoulda fucking lowered the span back down, but no, no, they put in some braces and had a go at strengthening it while it was still up in the fucking air,’ Bob reported when he came back from the east side.
It had been mid-morning, and Antonello and the others were sitting in the crowded lunchroom, waiting for the rain to ease.
‘But of course, later the spans didn’t join up as they should’ve.’ Bob used his hands to show a gap between the two sides of the roadway. ‘Never seen buckles like that, like fucking tumours suddenly popping out … So what did they do? What ya reckon? They took out some bolts. They took the fucking bolts out. Can you believe it?’ Bob glared at the men. No one responded, and he continued. ‘First I thought, what fucking idiot came up with that idea? I was worried the whole thing was going to come down. I was ready to fucking run for my life. But it worked, it fucking worked,’ he said, grinding his cigarette butt into the ashtray. ‘They took thirty bolts out, like pulling teeth — like pulling Frankenstein’s teeth out with tweezers — but it fucking worked, and no more buckles.’
‘My son, Freddy, when he was a nipper, tied a string around his tooth and tied the string around the door handle. That worked. Might suggest it to the engineers,’ said Johnno, one of the older riggers. The men laughed, and Bob shook his head. ‘It was me old man’s idea — he had dementia, kept telling the kids stories about the old days,’ Johnno added.
‘Bet the tooth came out alright,’ said Sam with a grin. ‘Sounds like your old man, even with dementia, got more know-how than most of those engineers.’
‘Wouldn’t surprise me. And the tooth fairy gave Freddy his penny, no question asked.’
‘A penny! Strewth, no way a kid would settle for a penny these days,’ one of the other blokes said.
‘Yep,’ Johnno responded, ‘even the Tooth Fairy has put her prices up.’
The laughter swept through the lunchroom like a cool breeze at the end of a hot spell, and the conversation moved on. Johnno began his usual rant against the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign, which was being supported by the unions, including his fucking union. And no one was thinking about the soldiers who were conscripted and were taking the brunt of the blame. Bob, like many of the other blokes, was actively involved. Antonello watched him move away to avoid an argument with Johnno.
When it came time to lift the last spans onto piers 10 and 11 on the west side, they’d been extra careful, pulling each box as close to the concrete pier as possible, inch by inch, like children might pull a go-cart up a steep hill. Once it reached the top, it was lowered onto rolling beams and slotted into position. But the two half-boxes weren’t the same height. It was a repeat of the problems on the east side. The engineers ordered huge concrete blocks. The riggers hoisted ten of them, each one weighing 8 tons, up to the top and spread them across the higher span to force i down. It hadn’t worked: the spans buckled.
Bob wouldn’t want them to take the bolts out, not unless it was safe. But up there the engineers were the bosses.
On the span, several men were working frantically; he couldn’t see what they were doing, but he could sense the urgency of it. And the despair — whatever they were trying wasn’t working. Something was wrong, very wrong. As Antonello whispered a short prayer, Please God, keep them safe, and made the sign of the cross over his chest, there were a series of loud eerie pinging and popping sounds, like shots from a rifle, and the men on the span scattered.
‘What the bloody hell was —’ yelled a man standing next to Antonello, but before he could finish, the massive span shifted. Men struggled to keep upright. The span groaned and screeched as metal scraped on metal. There was a thunderous crack, followed by more screeching and rasping. And a hailing of dust and concrete and sharp flakes of rust.
‘Fuck, it’s going to fall, the fucking bridge is going to fall …’ The voice came from behind Antonello. ‘We need to get out of here!’
Around him men were yelling and looking up, beginning to run, but Antonello was too stunned to move. He couldn’t make sense of what was happening. What was happening? Was the whole bridge going to collapse? How could they get the men down?
‘We have to do something,’ he said to the men around him, all of them staring up at the bridge. ‘We have to help.’
‘It’s too fucking late,’ someone said. ‘They’re goners.’
There was an agonising groan as the span the rigging team had spent the last few days hoisting up moved again. It was caving in the centre now, and the men were trapped midair. They stumbled, slid, and slipped. They were bashed by the flying debris; their arms reached for the sides of the girder, for something, but there was nothing. Gas bottles, drums, pieces of timber, chains, and bolts spun and rolled and fell over the edges, turning into airborne missiles.
Another jolt; the span was almost vertical now. A stiff-legged derrick loosed from its mooring catapulted towards the river, its long metal arms flaying violently, a giant possessed. And now the men: the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air and into the river below. They were screaming, but their cries were muffled by the bridge’s own deathly groans.
As soon as the span left dangling seemed to slow down, to stop, Antonello moved towards it. And towards the river, praying, Mary, mother of God, please let them be safe. Chanting it over and over again. Thinking of Sam and Slav and Bob, hoping they were in the water and that they’d surface and swim back. They were strong swimmers — he’d dived with them at the local pool — and they’d be safe … they had to be safe.
As he moved closer to the bridge, he noticed cracks forming two- thirds down pier 11. It had been a solid column of concrete, built to hold up tons of roadway, tons of traffic, but the small cracks were quickly widening and expanding. The pier was crumbling. There was a jolt and the span slipped further, slowly at first and then faster, and faster again. The pier could no longer support the weight of the collapsing span. Soon it would plummet to the ground. He was in its path.
‘Run, fucking run! It’s coming down.’ The scream came from behind him.
‘Bloody hell!’ More shouts and screams. Everywhere, men running. ‘Move. Run.’
A hand grabbed his arm. He turned and ran with the others away from the bridge, towards the road. It was difficult to see; the air was thick with dust. A sudden gush of wind smacked him hard — he stumbled, fell, his left knee bashing hard against the sharp edge of an overturned bench. His leg ached but he stood up and ran, and ran until he reached a crane and crawled behind it. Concrete and steel hurtled downwards, heavy and hard. As it struck the ground, there was a thunderous crash, the ground shook, and the crane rocked back and forth and almost toppled on top of him.
There were several explosions, followed by the roar of flames. The stink of burning diesel, of burning steel, of burning flesh. His throat stung. His eyes were gritty and sore. There was a loud, piercing buzz. For several seconds he held his breath; he shut his eyes tight and didn’t make a sound. Crouched against the crane, he waited for death to claim him. This was surely the end of everything. The tons of concrete and steel he’d spent months hoisting up were crashing down towards him. He would be crushed. This was the end. He would never see Paolina again. A policeman would arrive at their small bungalow, and she would open the door, smiling, but she would know even before they told her that he was dead, and her smile would disappear. When she was sad, her face lost its animation, her lips shrunk until they were a thin, pale line. He’d vowed to give her a happy life. When he proposed to her, on a picnic by the river, the half-made bridge behind them, he promised to make her smile every day, many times a day. He promised they’d be together forever. Please God, he prayed. Please God.
A crash. A loud and thunderous boom resounded across the neighbourhood.
In Emilia’s kitchen, the floor vibrated; a ceramic Sicilian horse and cart that had made the long journey with them on the ship slid off the edge of the dresser and hit the floor, shattering. In the cupboard, glasses clinked and rattled as they fell against one another. Emilia reached for the crucifix on the wall above the door and steadied it, made the sign of the cross, and said a quick prayer: ‘Ti prego Sant’Antonio mantenere la mia famiglia sicura.’ She turned off the gas and ran out the door.
Standing at her front gate, watching the billows of smoke and dust over the bridge, Emilia knew something awful had happened. Franco ran towards her from the back garden, a shovel in his hand.
‘Was it an earthquake?’ she asked.
‘It sounded like a bomb,’ Franco said as he threw down the shovel and they both started to make their way towards the river — neither of them mentioned the bridge or Antonello, but that’s where they were heading.
In Paolina’s classroom, the windows rattled. Children screamed, pushed their chairs back, and raced to the window, to the door, spilling out into the yard like locusts. She was powerless to stop them.
In the yard, Paolina ran over to the principal. ‘Please look after my class. That came from the direction of the West Gate — something’s happened to the bridge, I have to go.’ She didn’t wait for a response. Onceoutside the school gates, she ran as fast as she could, trying not to think. She could taste the bitter panic in her mouth; the foreboding, the dark future snapping at her heels. She ran past workers pouring out of local factories, past mothers with babies and toddlers on their hips, and shift workers in pyjamas standing at their front gates, all of them staring in the distance at the furious black smoke threatening to devour the city.
‘Fuck, the bridge fell!’
‘No, it couldn’t be the bridge …’
‘Was it a bomb?’
She knew the way without thinking, without looking, so many afternoons she’d walked it, alone and with Antonello. Twenty minutes, longer if they strolled, stopping to kiss, to catch each other’s eye, to admire a house or a garden, to build a fantasy life in which they might own a house of their own. Now she was running, running down through the main street of the shopping centre, running towards the bridge, towards the smoke, running around people who now clogged the footpaths and the road, who were standing still, who weren’t moving fast enough.
‘Was it an explosion?’
‘Was it the West Gate?’
‘Not that bloody bridge.’
‘It hasn’t even been finished yet —’
‘Please God, not the bridge.’
One woman, catching Paolina’s eye, called out, ‘Can’t imagine anyone surviving, can you?’ Paolina resisted the urge to stop and slap the woman. How could people say these things, how could they voice them? Her parents’ friends and relatives did it all the time when they talked about Vietnam. So many of our young men getting killed. All the ones coming back are so damaged. Did they forget her brother was one of those soldiers? Those words pricked at the fear and the anxiety, they prodded at the pain. Somedays those words pierced all her resolve until she was immobilised by it.
Didn’t they know that to speak of death was to call it forth, to bring it into being?
Paolina ignored the voices and the questions, and the smoke, now a long towering mushroom in the sky, and focused on getting to the bridge.
‘Mrs … Mrs.’ There was a child tugging at her dress. He grabbed her arm and she almost tripped. It was her student, Jimmy.
‘What are you doing here? You were supposed to stay at school.’
‘But Mrs, you said it was the bridge. My dad works on the bridge. I want to make sure he’s alright.’
‘I don’t know what’s happened,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if it’s the bridge.’
She should take him back, but they were already closer to the bridge than to the school. He barely reached her waist, a skinny boy. Skinny as a rake: silly phrase, but it described him perfectly. They kept moving forward. And now they were part of a thick swarm of people heading for the West Gate. As soon as they turned onto Hyde Street, the crowd gasped. A huge span had fallen and crashed, a concrete column had collapsed. The air was dust and smoke and grit. And thick with the stench of diesel and petroleum. She could see flames and flying sparks; the riverbank was a mountain of mangled steel and concrete; there were crushed buildings and overturned cranes. Mud from the river flats was splattered on the road, on the cars parked along the street, and on the weatherboards of the small row of houses across the road; the thick black sludge hung from awnings, windowsills, and fence posts like sleeping bats from trees. Windows and windscreens were shattered. The ground was littered with debris, and they had to watch where they walked. In the distance, sirens and alarms, as police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks sped towards them. A TV news helicopter circled above. The emergency workers were already rushing onto the site.
One young policeman was left to manage the crowd. ‘Get back, stay back,’ he said, waving them across the road.
Jimmy and Paolina stopped. Even over all the noise she heard the voices of men, shouting, screaming, wailing.
‘My son works on the bridge,’ an elderly man said as he moved towards the policeman. ‘I have to find him. Please, they’re calling for help.’
‘Please stay back.’ The young officer put his arm on the man’s shoulder and softened his voice. ‘We need to let the rescuers do their job. You’ll get in the way, and it’s dangerous. They know what they’re doing. They’ll help your son.’ The man inched back.
A small group of men carrying sledgehammers and shovels pushed
to the front.
‘Members of the public, please stay back.’
But the men didn’t stop. ‘We’re from the foundry and we’re here to help.’
The officer let them through.
‘What happened?’ a woman called out.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Please move back.’
‘We’ll have to wait here,’ Paolina told Jimmy. They struggled to see the site through the smoke, but they could hear the cries for help, the calling out of names, the calling out of instructions and directions.
As the first of the men, covered in dust, in mud and oil, came stumbling through the rubble and smoke — ghostly figures, disorientated and dazed — the crowd gravitated towards them. Some of these men were limping; they had broken arms and legs, dislocated shoulders; they were bruised and bleeding. But they were finding their way out, helping one another to find a way out.
Slowly the more seriously injured appeared, carried on stretchers, groaning and howling. Paolina drew Jimmy closer. They both examined each man. These were living, the survivors. No sign of Jimmy’s father. No sign of Antonello. Where was her husband?
Antonello, my husband. She’d become accustomed to having a husband. To introducing him: my husband. This is my husband, Antonello. Il mio marito, Nello. He promised they’d be together forever. That they’d make a beautiful life together, buy a house, and have children. He was dependable. He kept his promises. He had to be safe. He had to be. Jesus, please keep him safe.
She didn’t know what to do. Anchored to the spot by Jimmy’s small hand gripping her wrist, she chanted a prayer in a low whisper. Hail Mary, full of grace, Our Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
‘Have you heard anything?’ Emilia asked when she caught sight of Paolina.
‘I’ve seen some men stumbling out, but I don’t know who to ask.’
‘Do you know what happened?’ Franco asked.
‘No, lots of speculation, but nothing … I’m hoping …’
‘Sant’Antonio will look after my son.’ Emilia made the sign of the cross over her chest. She coughed. ‘I can hardly breathe.’ Floating around them were flakes of rust and ash, as well as the thick smoke from the fires. Paolina’s throat was scratchy and irritated too. Emilia coughed again — she seemed to be choking — and Franco rubbed her back with his hand.
‘You go home,’ Paolina said. ‘I’ll wait.’
‘Not until I see my son.’ Emilia held her handkerchief over her mouth.
As the first dead appeared, bodies on stretchers covered roughly with white sheets, an eerie silence fell over the crowd. They stopped asking questions and shouting speculations, and even the most boisterous lowered their voices to whispers, which were drowned out by the noise of the helicopters and sirens, by the shouts of rescue workers and police.
Like everyone else, Emilia, Franco, and Paolina, with Jimmy holding onto her hand, stared at the bodies lined up on the road. Paolina was close enough to make out the shape of each man, to see the hand or foot the ambulance officers failed to cover. She didn’t turn away until she was sure each time the body wasn’t Antonello’s. She scrutinised the injured; she scanned the wreckage over and over again. Fear thrashed against Paolina’s chest, it pushed against her clenched teeth. She refused to give it voice, to abandon herself to it.
Around her she heard the cries and screams of family members — wives and parents, children — as they recognised a familiar scratched wristwatch, a pair of steel-capped boots, a red sock, the shape of a body under the white sheet now stained with blood. She imagined those men would’ve been up on the top of the bridge and didn’t stand a chance. Where was Antonello when the bridge collapsed?
A group of older women, most of them with their aprons on, took their rosary beads from their pockets and formed a circle. Emilia joined them. She brought her own beads to her lips, kissed the small silver cross, and began to pray. Each woman chanted low prayers in her native tongue — in Italian, in Greek, in Maltese, in Spanish.
Paolina noticed Franco standing alone and glaring at the broken bridge, his face sagged, deep furrows marking the corners of his mouth. He chain-smoked his thin, tight, hand-rolled cigarettes, the small grey butts littered the ground around him.
When Jimmy’s hand slipped away, Paolina grabbed him by the shoulder, but he shook himself free and was instantly out of reach, lunging towards a man so covered in mud and blood he seemed, at least to Paolina, unrecognisable.
‘Dad, Dad! It’s me.’ Jimmy wrapped his arms around the man’s legs so they both almost toppled over. The man took several seconds to react, to recognise his son. Then he patted the boy on the head and embraced him; they inched towards a gutter and sank together to the ground. Paolina reached for her gold crucifix.
‘Paolina,’ Carmela, Antonello’s sister, called out as she pushed her pram towards Paolina. ‘Nello will be okay,’ Carmela sobbed when she reached her. ‘Mamma says he’s the lucky one.’
She rocked the pram that held her youngest child. Paolina squeezed her sister-in-law’s arm. Luck was fickle; she didn’t want to depend on it.
‘He wasn’t supposed to be on site. He took the morning off to go to the bank with your father. He went in early to meet Sam and Slav for lunch.’
Was that bad luck?
The baby began to cry and Carmela picked him up. He had brown eyes and olive skin. His head was covered in spiky black hair, as dark as Antonello’s. Paolina wanted children, but they’d decided to wait until they saved a house deposit. Now Paolina wished she was already pregnant and Antonello’s child was in her belly. What if something happened to him? What if he were dead? She might’ve lost him and their future, the family they were going to have together.
She’d foreseen the bridge falling. It fell in her nightmares, collapsing over and over again. It fell on those days when he was late home, when the wind turned into a gust. He told her she worried too much, that the bridge was safe, he was safe. She closed her eyes. Nello, please be alive.
One hour and then a second hour passed, and with it Paolina’s anxiety rose. One old woman howled as her son limped towards her. A younger woman knelt by the body of her brother. ‘I can’t go home and tell Mum you’re dead,’ she cried. ‘I can’t.’ A woman dressed in a Salvation Army uniform gathered the sister in her arms. ‘My mother loved him best,’ the girl wailed.
They waited. Some paced. Others leant against fences and cars, talked in soft whispers to the strangers they found themselves next to. The road transformed into a large waiting room, each person praying that their son, husband, father, brother would be the lucky one, the one who defied the odds and survived.
Paolina closed her eyes to stop herself crying and recalled sitting with Antonello on the banks of the Yarra, watching him draw the bridge. Witnessing the pleasure drawing gave him. He found pleasure so easily. She knew what trauma could do to a man: her father suffered from depression, a result of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Russia. He sulked for weeks, even months, at a time. Her mother coped by keeping the house quiet and dark and still. Blinds rolled down. Doors closed. Television and radios off or barely audible. It was as if the sunlight were scalding, all sound deafening. She and Giacomo spent their childhoods orchestrating outings to escape, to find places out of their parents’ reach where they could play with abandon. Now Giacomo had returned from Vietnam, withdrawn and depressed, all joy leached from his life. Antonello was content and uncomplicated. Not boisterous, just quiet and warm and full of a naïve delight. She loved how he surrendered to life, whether it was dancing at the San Remo Ballroom, going to the movies at La Scala, or taking the train and the tram all the way to St Kilda for a picnic lunch under the large palms.
‘Paolina.’ Bob’s wife, Sandy, tapped her on the shoulder and she opened her eyes. They embraced. Paolina sank into Sandy’s shoulder and they both wept.
The last time the two women had seen each other was at Paolina and Antonello’s wedding. Sandy had danced all night. She was vivacious and funny. While all the other women her age were dressed as Queen Elizabeth lookalikes in their pastel two-piece suits with matching box hats, Sandy wore a flowing purple kaftan, and Paolina recalled the swirl of her dress as Bob spun her around the dance floor.
Sandy’s face was red and blotchy, and even in her flowing skirt, even with her silver bangles and large shell earrings, she looked old. ‘Any news on Nello?’ she asked, hooking her arm under Paolina’s.
‘No. Any news about Bob?’
‘No, no news, but I know … I can already feel he’s gone.’
‘We can’t give up hope, Sandy.’
‘He’s been good at staying out of trouble, but not this time,’ Sandy whispered. ‘He’ll have done everything he could for the crew, especially Antonello …’
There was nothing more to say, and they both fell silent. Nothing to do but wait.