• The Dusevic family on a picnic in 1969. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
As post-war refugees from Croatia living in Western Sydney in the 1970s, language was the final frontier for Tom Dusevic's mother and aunt. But there was one activity able to break down all barriers: shopping.
Tom Dusevic

13 May 2016 - 8:41 AM  UPDATED 13 May 2016 - 8:41 AM

During my second year at school I switched to thinking in English. It crept up slowly, like unexpected love, then became forever. For a while I was in language limbo. I spoke to my parents in Croatian, but ‘Sammy’ and ‘Tommy’ now only used English with each other. Unfamiliar thoughts stumbled in via new paths; there were feelings and ideas I couldn’t relay to my parents – hardly secrets – because the Croatian words I knew were inadequate to explain the world of school. How do you translate a ‘knock, knock’ joke?

At first, some things I wanted to say to friends, especially funny stories I’d heard at a family gathering, existed only in a Croatian context, through Croatian eyes. I was stuck. After a deal of frus­tration, I learned to get around obstacles by trying to manipulate an idea in different ways until it sounded right: variations on a theme. I found you could come to the same point in a number of ways. The words you knew shaped your thoughts.

More words = more ideas.

Sam and I already spoke better English than Mama ever would. When we were around other people I didn’t necessarily want to speak to her in Croatian. I wanted us all to fit in. Fitting in was what foreigners were supposed to do. Even I knew that.

‘Why don’t you go to school and learn English with us?’ I’d ask her, as if there were a place for her in my class.

‘Because I have too many things to do at home. Who’s going to do the washing, ironing, cooking? I’m too old for all that.’

I wanted Mama to be able to speak to the school mothers properly, to get to know more people than Teta and Croatian ladies. Plus I knew she was smarter than she sounded in English. Teta’s English was also poor, even though she had a job. She had come to Australia aged forty-five. Despite trying to learn she’d found that no matter how hard she tried it just wouldn’t ‘go’ for her. Just talking about it made her face sour up, like next door’s cat licking salt.

When Mama and Teta said English was difficult I didn’t quite believe them. Croatian is a much harder language. And if someone little like me could pick up English, they should be able to as well. I wished they’d just try. Teta worked in factories with Croatian, Greek, Italian, Turkish and Lebanese women; all the bosses were Australian-born or English. A new language was an optional extra Teta thought she could do without in the migrant world of process work.

But there was a domain where these two excelled: shopping. Experts at consumer arithmetic, they knew what they wanted and, importantly, the cost of everything. Money broke down bar­riers, especially when they held a purse. Mama did not usually exude confidence but she ruled supreme in retail. She stood up to the butcher, refusing to take inferior cuts of meat.

Money broke down bar­riers, especially when they held a purse. Mama did not usually exude confidence but she ruled supreme in retail.

‘No tanks,’ she’d say, scrunching up her nose and shaking her head as if the butcher were foisting dog meat at her. ‘Scuse me! Gimme better one pleez.’

To pay, she’d lick her fingers for better purchase on the paper banknotes, peeling off the required amount, checking the change to the cent. At the fish shop her eyes darted about the display window, she picked her own produce at the fruit shop, Tanks very march. Except for the butcher’s, cake shop, newsagent, supermar­ket, menswear, chemist and post office, Belmore’s businesses were run by Greek, Italian and Lebanese migrants and Mama could easily communicate with all of them through hand gestures and shop English.

Teta’s expertise was haberdashery. I knew this because I tagged along with the sisters on Saturday-morning expeditions to Campsie, the adjoining suburb whose shopping strip was three times as long as Belmore’s. The payoff was hot chips, cakes, lollies or a toy – if a cheap one could be found and the case to purchase made deftly. I was meant not to pester them while they were engaged in the serious business of buttons, fabrics, zippers and design patterns. Unlike me, busting to be out, Sam was happy to ‘mind the house’ and watch the cartoon shows on his own; noth­ing could lure him away from the TV but he’d invariably share in the booty I paid for in the blood of interminable boredom.

There were several frock and fabric shops along Beam­ish Street but one place near the theatre stood out. It was a semi-underground warehouse for do-it-yourself dressmaking – a women’s only club, save for greedy boys like me, or those under control orders, stuck in prams or straining on a leash. I found it impossible to stay still in the joint, especially when Mama and Teta started looking through pattern catalogues or rolls of fabric. Whenever they seemed on the point of purchase, one of them would say something, and they’d abort the transaction. Like Sam and me, they were couture twins, dressed in the same style of outfits, with only slight variations for size and age. Even the col­ours were almost identical. One of my cousins thought I had two mums – something I considered not only preposterous, but a gloomy prospect, to have mean, old Teta as my mother.

If the sewing sisters bumped into someone from the neigh­bourhood or Croatian church you could scrub an hour off your afternoon playtime, right there. They were oblivious to my pres­ence. So I’d slink away and wander around, checking out the girls (never as pretty as Ineska) and hoping the hope of the desperate and damned that a toy display or something not ‘ladies’ business’ would materialise in a nook of this vast emporium.

Belmore’s businesses were run by Greek, Italian and Lebanese migrants and Mama could easily communicate with all of them through hand gestures and shop English.

Without fail I’d become lost on these excursions. You’d think I could find one of them, but no. Like intercontinental ballistic missiles, once those two were set on a target – a bra, girdle, gloves or fabric – nothing could shake them off their ultimate mission.

The trick when lost is to keep panic at bay. Give it no atten­tion, no air. Sing a song in your head or hum a happy tune. I’d start with the last place I saw them and then go in ever increas­ing circles until I found them. That’s the sort of plan leaders like Professor John Robinson in Lost in Space or the calm dad in My Three Sons would come up with. I keep telling myself they’d never leave without me. That works for a few orbits of the floor. But dizziness creeps in. Once deliberate footsteps turn into a trot.

Then the crazy breathing starts. The head jerks about, eyes dis-oriented, the crowd becomes a blur. Sound is muted, now distorted, as if someone is playing with the volume control. The bazaar is a swirling mass of fabric colour and texture, of people, curtains and clothes, but all I can feel is the throbbing of my own heart. Where are they?

Finding them was an anti-climax but it required an immedi­ate makeover. I’d try to look composed, even though I was angry with them, just in case they tried to revoke my freedom. Once, most likely the last time I ventured out of the force field – danger Will Robinson! – I was in a full mental panic. It seemed like a whole hour had passed since I’d lost them – it had – when I saw Mama and Teta walking into the shop.

‘We forgot you were with us,’ Mama said, her high-pitched voice breaking into a laugh. ‘We’d gone to the dress shop near the station and were about to get the train home when I remembered.’


This is an extract from Whole Wild World by Tom Dusevic (NewSouth, $29.99). Available now.

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