The Riff, Part 2: the stories we tell ourselves

The mallet 

Mario was an old carpenter from Calabria. He was one of the thousands of refugees that came to Australia at the end of World War Two. His body was bent and stiff from a lifetime of manual labour. It was mid-summer and lunchtime. We were sitting on some pallets in a small shed on another part of the construction site.

I watched as he cut a wedge of cheese and thick slices of tomato then broke his crusty loaf into sections. He set them out next to the prosciutto on his board. All his food was home made or grown. 

He ate these items sequentially, a bite at a time, starting with the bread, mixing the flavours in his mouth. He did this with a quiet joy and love that was hard to explain. It was as if, in this simple act of movement and making, he was conjuring both culture and memory.

We ate in silence and looked out as the sun scalded the site. Mario paused and drank from his flask. His fellow workers knew it wasn’t tea but homemade vino. All the old Europeans did it. Nobody said anything. It was a small mercy granted by the foreman.

Mario reached down and pulled up an old timber mallet. ‘You know Marco,’ he said (all the Italians called me ‘Marco’), gesturing at the mallet with his bread and cheese filled hand. 

‘Forty five years, I hadda this mallet.’

‘I been make-a-the new head and the stock for it a coupla times, but f-o-r-t-y, f-i-v-e years I hadda this one! I made a-him when I was an apprentice, just-a-like you.’ He looked at the battered timber mallet with pride.

I nodded and Mario passed it across. I laid it in my hand, then hefted it’s elegant simplicity, perfectly weighted and balanced. I returned the mallet and he placed it back in his toolbox. 

We went back to eating in silence, my head spinning from the lesson. 

Key collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Key collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.