Wrecked on Rakia

By Ian C. Smith,


I didn’t yet know what the obscure legacy of becoming a mature-age undergraduate would mean.  For a first-year history assignment I chose to research immigrants’ difficulties with assimilation in Australia.  Familiar with hard-slog picking in a drained swamp where magnificent vegetables grew in thick mud like black treacle known as Millionaires’ Mile, I drove there in my blue MG Midget, top down despite bone-cold winter, hair in a frenzy, grown long, an accessory to my new life, as was the car, to interview a picker, a refugee who lived alone in a mildewed hut owned by his boss, an underworld millionaire.

Dragan, from old Yugoslavia, eyed the tape recorder as one might regard a pointed loaded pistol, hobbling the interview.  Asked to switch it off, I tried forming questions while jotting notes but only produced sweat soaking my new surf shirt I wore on campus.  My ingratiating reassurances only increased his fear of sinister communist vengeance.

Then he uncorked a bottle, home-brewed, clear, bitter, so strong I – no virgin drinker – coughed, grimacing when I attempted a watery-eyed grin of approval.  The rest of the interview went well but with little recorded; machine, biro, interviewer, all useless, atmosphere rosy.  When I drove off fast along those flat swamp roads the cool airstream through my damp shirt made me shiver as if escaping over a perilous border as dusk fell.

I forgot Dragan, forgot how I retrieved my MG from the pungent ditch after I aquaplaned it on a bend that loomed surprisingly, but I think a vehicle stopped, willing workers heaved, lifted that toy car out, me unhurt, mudguard, and the interview, misshapen.  A panel beater and editing would sort that lot out.  Turmoil ahead, that gradual turning against my own kind, guilt, blame, clemency – those eggbeater days – as I struggled to assimilate in the foreign country of my new academic world, venerating my tutors, I knew the relief of survival, but benign tumours of the past would ambush me from time to frayed time, like now, recalling that earthy smell, that strange episode of wretchedness and laughter.



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