The immigrant’s love song 

2014

He had long, long fingers; suited, I decided, to playing classical piano. They danced a little nervously across his forehead, playing with a long curling tendril…

Bah, what was I thinking… Get a grip, Rani Silva. It’s Tuesday 10:15 a.m. and you’re in a modern history tutorial supposedly learning about how changes to migration policies in Australia affected our national psyche, not ogling some cute young man who is here delivering a talk.

Maddi, my best friend, was grinning at me. She knew me too well and had caught me regarding our tute guest, not listening to a word he was saying.

‘Sprung,’ she whispered.

‘Shut up. I’m trying to listen.’

‘… part of the Colombo Plan, which kicked off, as you already know, about 1951.’

He looked nervous. Why not, I figured, with 13 females and just two other males watching him. We all wanted to be history teachers and we all knew just how embarrassed we’d be feeling if roles were reversed.

He cleared his throat… the silence drew out. Go on, go on, all the girls were silently begging him (after all, he was damned cute) while our resident males looked critical…

‘Look,’ he finally said, ‘I don’t want to tell you the history stuff you can all Google anyway. That’s not why I’m here… I’m here to tell you a love story that begins in 1952, just after the Colombo Plan started.  I’m here to show you how migration — and that love story — has affected this country… In fact, I’m here BECAUSE of that love story…’

1952

The coffee house, Victor Amaradeva decided, had been modelled on American diners, like the ones he’d seen in American movies back in Colombo. Victor held his breath, paused in the doorway, looked around to see he was not stopping anyone else getting in, and just took it all in. Nat King Cole sang a song he did not recognise from the juke box… Burgers and ‘fries’ were being carried on trays, and milk shakes in shiny new aluminium ‘glasses’ were being drunk. Yessiree, just like the good ol’ US of A, Victor said in his best US accented English in his head. But the voices he heard in the babble all around him, inside, were not American voices.

In a booth near the back, Ivy Foxleigh admired the trim young man, who stood – apparently with baited breath waiting for something, what she did not know – in the doorway. His long thin artist’s fingers danced all unconscious across his forehead, tidying a wayward tendril, then, smiling, he advanced inside. He took a seat in the one unoccupied booth near where Ivy sat with her two friends, smiled at no-one in particular and then looked… lonely.

Where were his friends, Ivy wondered? He’d have friends, she decided; he looked friendly. And a young man who was so so so obviously not from here needed friends with him… The voices in the café had dropped – just a little – as the crowd took him in. Yes, Ivy thought, he looked lonely and a long way from home.

She stood, suddenly, and told Mary and Elizabeth that she – and they – were going over to sit with that nice new young man who’d just walked in (oh yes, she knew they’d also been watching) and introduce themselves and make him feel a good old University of Melbourne welcome.  Without waiting for a response, Ivy moved. She knew they’d follow. Like her, both were as curious as cats; anything new was good for them all.

Victor wondered whether it was the custom here to go to the counter and order or were those girls whizzing about on roller skates (yes, skates, J) taking orders? And suddenly a vision appeared (so Victor would later tell his son, Sunil; a.k.a. Sonny): all blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes and willowy figure and a big radiant smile. And, oh yes, there were two other girls with her.

1953

Of all the students in his electrical engineering course, and not, as he wrote to his mother and father back home, just the foreign Colombo Plan students, he had topped the year… And some of that –he knew – was  because Ivy had helped him; his English had not been up to the texts at first, but she was a brilliant writer doing English lit at uni; brill’ was the way she said brilliant; Victor smiled, but he did not write of Ivy and her brill English in his letter. What he did write was that Australia was glorious and the people friendly, and he had made friends with a boy named Jock and another one named Angus (photo included  of him with them both, and wasn’t it funny how many Australians had Scottish names). By the way Angus’s parents owned a huge sheep and wheat property out near the Murray River…

Victor told his mother and father not to worry about him; all the things they had warned him about with Australia and its whites only policies had not come true. He did not mention the young whip-thin man at the local pub who’d spat at him and called him nigger – and nearly hit Ivy when she took to him with her brollie[1] – and he did not mention Ivy. He knew his parents had arranged a match for him at home (where he would come with his degree in order to make Ceylon[2] better than it was, more modern) and he did not tell him his heart was here, in a foreign land that officially welcomed only whites.

‘But it’s changing,’ he told Sunil Avarata and Francis da Silva, his two main Sri Lankan friends. ‘it’s changing.’

1954

‘Mother,’ Victor wrote, ‘I have a picture in my head, which I will tell you about. I see you in the courtyard, sitting on the bench beneath the trimmed red bougainvillea, with this letter in your hand. You have a cup of tea in the Wedgewood you love. You have a sandwich; cheese with a little pickled mango achar on it on the matching Wedgwood plate.

Have I got it right, mother? I hope so, for I have something of great import to tell you…

I wish to marry, here, in Australia. And yes, she is an Australian girl… Before you cry out and drop your cup, mother, let me say that I love her more than life and yes, even more than home. And yes, I know I have probably broken your heart and ruined father’s plans, but this must be mother, so please give me your blessing, please… I know you, mother, you have a good heart and you want what is best for all your children. This is for my best…’

Victor held his pen and wondered if this letter would do it. He wanted his mother’s blessing, he wanted it. But he wanted Ivy more, he knew.

‘If I don’t get your blessing, mother and father, I will go ahead anyway,’ he told the unfinished letter. ‘I have money, I have an offer of a job from Jock’s father when I finish my degree… I have a life here… But give me your blessing,’ he said.

What can I tell you, he thought? His eyes lit on The Age, the very paper that had finally prompted this letter, a letter which Ivy had been telling him he needed to write for weeks now. They were sailing in less than three weeks – the letter would only just beat him there.

He sucked up more ink with his fountain pen, paused and then wrote.

‘I know that you have heard bad things of some of what has happened here. To Ceylonese students. And yes, I will admit that I have suffered one or two insults. Yes, Australians can be racist, but can we also not be racist. Have I not heard diatribes at Tamils at home? Has not father railed at our own petty jealousies and hatreds?

I have had insults, yes, but no injuries. No real harm has been done to me or any of my Ceylonese friends. That in part is because I – we – also have the love of many Australians. I have a very, very good job offer from Jock Inglis’s father. I have been doing work already for him, for which he has paid me the going rate. I have the respect of my fellow workers… Australia is changing. It is growing up. I want to be a part of that. I want to help it grow.

Listen to this; it is a letter written in to the main paper in Melbourne, The Age. She is a lady who is boarding two of my Ceylonese friends; you know them because I have written of them before: Sunil Avarata and Francis da Silva. Here is some of what her letter said: “Our contact with these young men proves to us that they are normal, natural boys from good homes. They have [a] distinct personality, are generally of excellent character, good intelligence, fine sensibilities and very likeable … We find that to know these students better is to regret very much that we are debarred by our own immigration law from having them as our real next-door neighbour…”

Do you see mother, do you see. This is meant to be and Ivy, whom I love, well, you will love her too.

I am bringing her to see you, before we marry. Her parents, Marjorie and Ivan Foxleigh, they are in favour of this marriage. They are paying for us to sail back home and you will meet her. You will love her too, mother, I know…’

2014

‘Well, I’m here,’ said our tute speaker, finger idly playing with a wayward tendril of hair (a message across time) ‘so you can see that approvals were given and that the marriage went ahead. And yes, they did make Australia a better place. For instance, I, Sunil Wilkes (Sonny 2 to my Dad and Grandpa) have been given the opportunity to do medicine at this fine university and also to talk to you… And you’re listening. I’m not too certain that would have been the case back in 1952 for my Grandpa.’

I leaned over to Maddi and said, ‘let’s take a leaf out of Ivy’s book.’

‘What?’

‘Let’s ask him for coffee at the rec.’

Maddi smiled. ‘Go ahead… make my day.’ She winked. ‘And yours.’

[1] Slang word for an umbrella

[2] Ceylon was the colonial name for the modern country of Sri Lanka when under British rule.

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