Raised in Whyalla and now residing in Adelaide, Justine Vlachoulis studies literature and film at The University of South Australia. She endeavors to explore the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the contemporary sex industry, while also sifting through the past to discover and retell the comical and thrilling stories of her Greek migrant family. When not rambling to anyone who will listen as to why Anton Chekov and Thomas Hardy are her literary heroes, she enjoys baking, photography, and short walks.
I Found You in the Supermarket
I’m in a supermarket trying to find you. This was one of the last places I saw you. I drift past pyramids of orange and avocado and stare across at shiny packets of red meat. My legs carry me to a loaf of Wonder White bread. All the voices start singing in my head. All the voices wishing you weren’t dead…
‘Agapia Mou, my love,’ she whispered.
In the village, Agía Eiríni, Saint Irene, in a crumbling house, alone in the dark, a mother held her baby and prayed.
The baby still wrapped in it’s amniotic sac, a caul of hunger and want, was doomed by the poverty WWII brought as German and Italian soldiers filled their bellies while waiting for war.
The next morning the mother filled threaded bags with olives from the family grove. Beneath the shade of a nearby tree, baby George lay asleep.
Mother Adrian wasn’t lean and tall like the women from Athens or Thessaloniki. Rather she had wide hips and a beaming mouth that stretched across her square jaw. Under the beating sun two rows of perfect white teeth flashed bright, as sweat seeped its way into her short black hair. It never aged white or grey.
After George, she gave birth to another boy, but before them, there were seven more. The first son Andrew died, and when three girls followed, Olga, Ketie, and Reubina, Mother Adrian and Father Gerasimos despaired. Who was going to work? But five babies came along, and they were christened Danny, Andrew, Thomas, George and Sammi. All the children were blessed with mesmerizing hazel eyes, but from their heads grew unruly tangles of dark brown frizz. George’s hair grew to be closer to black then it was brown. The day after each birth, Mother Adrian laboured in the groves wearing her thin floral dress and brown leather sandals.
There was a year when all the Vlachoulis children went to school at the same time. They’d leave in the morning and return in the afternoon and they’d each wait their turn to use the household pencil to do their homework.
In the mornings, the three youngest, Thomas, George, and Sammi would sprint through blades of grass to suckle on hard rough udders and in the evenings steal fruit and scamper home to offer their treasures.
The Vlachoulis house was small, so the boys shared a bed, and so did the girls. They lived in an area of Agía Eiríni called Vlahoulata, and Vlahoulata was small, so the village rooster’s song carried far enough for all to hear. Thomas, George and Sammi called the village rooster ‘rooster clock’.
One morning, when the sun hadn’t yet stretched its rays, and the world was still painted in pastel hues of purple and blue, tiny pairs of feet crept through Agía Eiríni’s empty streets. Three small figures darted from one house to the next, bare little tummies holding their breaths. The boys were all the village had seen since their Father Gerasimos had stumbled around drunk a few hours earlier.
Asleep inside the shade of a wooden hut, was their rooster clock. His scraggy feathers and clawed feet were whisked away by a child’s sturdy hands. With heads held high Thomas, George, and Sammi walked in a line, and George held rooster clock clamped to his chest.
They went to a clearing, and the sun rose higher, casting olive tones on their skin.
George gave the orders.
‘Thomas hold the neck.’
Thomas secured the neck.
Sammi secured the feet.
Then George swung an axe he’d stolen from Father Gerasimos over his head and brought it down through the bird’s stomach. The boys watched with gleaming teeth as rooster clock’s insides showed. They stroked tentative fingers over dripping red feathers and then dug determined thumbs into slimy pale guts, each of them searching for the round prize with ticking hands.
The minutes dragged on, but eventually, each boy had to stand back.
Sammi frowned, and pointed a gunky finger at the bird, ‘Where is it?’
Thomas shook his head, ‘I don’t know.’
They both looked up to George, who stood with the axe over his shoulder, but he looked back at them, just as confused.
With a shrug, he said, ‘I don’t know where the clock is. Maybe the head?’
Maybe it was there or maybe it was lodged in the rooster’s heart, but the boys would never know. Hearing the stomps of Mother Adrian’s feet sent them scurrying away like the street rats they were. When her screams replaced rooster clock’s song all the villagers gathered to watch as George tugged his brothers back to publicly face the burn of their mother’s left shoe.
At night, when she thought all her children were asleep and her husband Gerasimos had passed out from too much to drink, Mother Adrian prayed. She fell to her knees and the flame from the kantili, oil candle lamp, flickered like a body that hangs from a noose, throwing the deep shadow of a cross over the warm red walls. Her prayers raised a storm of desperation up to the heavens, and God held back tears as he observed the long-suffering woman.
That evening George had given his share of fruit to Sammi and now his rumbly tummy made him crawl over his brothers’ limbs in search of his mama. George found her descending and stood still as he watched her large back curl over in defeat, a black aching mountain standing alone under a red burning sky. Then her lips murmured a prayer that peeled childhood clean off George’s bones.
‘Please Panagía, most blessed. Virgin Mary, pray to your son. Intercede and ask him to kill someone in the village so one of mine can take their place and receive prósfora, the communion bread.’
On Sunday George emerged from church with a tiny square of bread and a cup of koliva, a wheat dish made to honour the dead. He couldn’t concentrate seriously to the priest’s sermon, for rather that image of his mother down on her knees praying, submitting herself completely, memories of his father coming home and giving her a beating, taking all the money they had to fill his glass flagon, those were things young George took seriously…
The wonder white bag is cool beneath my fingertips. Reminds me of the chilled dead forehead that once frightened my lips. Long black skirts and buttoned-up shirts cast shadows longer than the Eucalyptus trees over burning Whyalla red dirt. Can you miss someone you’ve never known? Is memory the lingering of a still loved soul? My giagiá, grandmother, my theíes, aunties, my theíoi, uncles, my father, painted the white walls of my childhood home with their memory’s song.
I veer from the bread rack and venture to a tower of tomatoes. I reach out my hand to the plump, firm fruit…
As George finished primary school, the island of Kefalonia was shaken by an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the surface wave magnitude scale. The 1953 Ionian Earthquake left the Vlachoulis household without bread for six months.
George had to leave. He ventured to Kefalonia’s main town, Argostoli and earnt enough money to send home by rebuilding the earthquake rubble into homes. A couple of years on, with the houses complete, he opened a café, and it was there he heard about a ship that’d be coming to the main port.
At 17 years old, with his hair freshly trimmed, George shut up shop and rode his bike up the dirt path that ran parallel to the shining Ionian Sea. As he expected a ship was at the main port, and a long line of men waiting to board. At the start of the line, George could just make out a freakishly tall and flailing figure.
A man in white pressed pants and brown polished shoes stood on top of a crate and flung his arms around, like a red-faced demon, sweating, and agitated by the heat and something else that George discovered as heard him bellowing, ‘I need a volunteer! Errands must be run, or this ship isn’t leaving!’
As round hazel eyes doubled in size, George pedalled vigorously, the muscles in his stomach clenching tight as he yelled, ‘I can do it!’
The red-faced man snapped his neck down to see swift spinning wheels cruise past a line of unmoving men. He darted his eyes between George and them and then he barked, ‘Get over here!’
For the next two days George’s deep-set eyes beamed with their natural smile while he rode hungrily through the Argostoli streets. He picked up food, dropped off clothes, and collected supplies for the man he discovered was the ship’s medical officer. The medical officer had grown fond of George, and the evening before the ship was to leave, he asked, ‘When we arrive where will you go?’
The medical officer thought George was waiting to board with the rest of the men. He thought George to be well over 18, with his completed military service and the papers signed and stamped to prove it.
Calmy, George responded with, ‘Sir, I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know? Are you unsure?’
George shook his head, ‘Sir I’m 17. I can be 18. I can be anything you want.’
No signed papers, and not even a boat ticket! George had no chance… but in a crisis of conscience the medical officer said, ‘You’ll need signatures from your village leader and your parents showing that they support you coming to Australia.’
‘How long have I got to get these to you?’
‘You have the night.’
So, bound for Agía Eiríni on his rickety old bike George peddled, grabbing hold of the back of the bus heading for Poro Port and then the mainland to help him along the way. The mayor and his parents signed the papers, but before George left Mother Adrian passed him a brown suitcase that held a small icon of Ágios Gerásimos, Kefalonia’s patron saint, inside. He smiled at her with two rows of perfect white teeth, and when he left, her own didn’t shine under the sun for what might have been weeks.
When he got off the ship George found himself in southeast Australia at the Bonegilla migration camp. From there he was shipped to Whyalla and put to work as an indentured labourer in the shipyards. He worked for a few years, but he barely made enough money to buy new clothes, let alone enough money to send back home.
So, he took a risk. He went into business with a man called Elias Stamoulis, and on the corner of Essington Lewis Avenue, they opened a shop called Pan Continentals. Their supermarket was small, but George would drive to Adelaide to purchase special salamis, sauerkrauts, and gherkins and all the immigrants would flock inside, as the standard supermarkets, like Woolworths, neglected the gourmet needs of the immigrant population. They also sold golden crumbed fish and hot salted chips to the cinema patrons, who would come during the 15-minute intermissions from the open-air cinema from across the road.
The day George married, straight off the train from Melbourne, he brought his wife to Pan Continentals and with a sorry smile put her to work in her nice new wedding clothes. She stuffed white bags with boiling hot potatoes and burnt the skin of her small tender palms.
Angelique came from Yianakata which was the neighbouring area to Vlahoutlata in Agía Eiríni. In the schoolyard, George would find her and bounce the curls that dangled around her head. Both children had to leave Greece, George to Whyalla and Angelique to Melbourne. Then in June 1959, the man whose photograph Angelique secretly kept tucked beneath the elastic strap of her bra knocked at her front door.
They had a son, and he was christened Gerasimos.
It was now 1965, and 18 people were living in one house on Gowrie Avenue. George and Elias had made enough to buy a home and sponsor some of their family members from Greece to come over to Australia.
One of these family members was the eldest Vlachoulis brother, Danny. Danny didn’t know a lot, but what he knew, he knew well, and he knew how to tend a garden; so, on the right side of the yard, he made a garden bed. His skin was as brown as burnt butter from spending weekends out in the yard and from the kitchen window, all the wives would see Danny hunched over, his spine sticking out from beneath a cream linen shirt. Hanging above him were bright red plump tomatoes, teasing to be plucked, washed, and cut fresh for a salad. Danny gardened so diligently he was soon able to sell some of his produce to the locals.
At the time, Elias Stamoulis had a younger brother who was also living at the house and one morning when the kitchen was empty, he snuck into the garden, stole Danny’s tomatoes, and then sold them for himself.
When Danny came home from work and saw the vines stripped back and no fresh salad in the fridge, he whispered to George that there might be a thief in the area. George told Danny to have a shower, it had been a long day and then he went and asked Elias for a private word.
The two men walked outside and stood at the foot of the garden bed, with their hands resting deep in their pockets. Their bodies lightly swayed.
George repeated what Danny had said, and Elias came back with, ‘Well this is my garden he’s planting those tomatoes on. So, we should get half of what he makes.’
The Whyalla air, thick and sticky, poured around the men’s figures like cement as big black flies buzzed around their slow-beating chests.
A minute passed and then George said, ‘You want to live in halves now Stamoulis?’
In comparison to George, Elias was taller, darker, and more rounded in the middle and he slid his hands out his pockets and placed them firmly on his hips.
The two men faced each other, but after a minute of silence, George dropped his head down to the garden bed. Big black flies darted around his thick lashes, but it wasn’t their irritating buzz that made him snap his face back.
He declared to Elias, ‘This will be our half of the garden,’ and Elias frowned as George bent down and drew a line with his finger in the dirt between their shoes.
George stood back up and smiling with his perfect rows of teeth, said, ‘And that’s your half,’ and then with a firm point behind Stamoulis’s back, he shouted, ‘And this!’ and lunging over, gripping the thick green vines into his tanned hands, yelled, ‘Is YOUR bloody tomato BUSH!’
George yanked the plant from out the Earth and the two men watched the dangling ugly roots dance in the air before crashing down onto Stamoulis’s side of the garden.
Years later Mother Adrian would arrive in Australia.
George was now living in his own house on Hincks Avenue, where in the backyard, he had planted an orange grove. It was in that yard that Mother Adrian showed her grandchildren, Gerry, and Helen, how to chop off a chicken’s head. Not a rooster’s head, but a chicken’s.
She raised an axe over her head, and as two round pairs of hazel eyes stared at the chicken, Gerry’s alarmed, Helen’s calm, Mother Adrian remembered Thomas, George, and Sammi trying to find the clock in Vlahoulata’s rooster. She remembered the sight of George tugging on his brothers’ arms, as he forced them back to face her fury, and she remembered that he was one the to step forward first to face her…
I stare down at the tomato I’ve cupped in my palms, and whisper, ‘Pappous, Grandfather, George.’
After the tomato incident, you walked out on Stamoulis and marched over to the bank asking for a loan. It was risky because you didn’t have any money, but your determination would lead you to build your own supermarket, which you called 5%. It would go on to become South Australia’s first smart scanning supermarket, which ran live in 1983.
As I’m getting older, I’m having to shop at the supermarkets more and more by myself. With a small shopping list written for one, I go in to buy the week’s loaf of bread and select myself glossy tomatoes that I can toss into a Greek salad. My dad Gerasimos is no longer the one holding the list and my Giagiá Angelique isn’t dragging me to the confectionary aisle and yelling at me until I’ve picked myself a treat.
Your wife, your sons, your daughters, your grandchildren, all the people you left behind would tell me that, ‘You were, you were, you were,’ and as they did your life would sit on the tip of my tongue and say, ‘You are, you are, you are.’