Extract – The Olive Sisters

When Rosanna was strapped by the nuns for speaking in her native tongue it confirmed Isabella’s belief that her origins, her language and, daily, her school-lunch conspired to shame her. It strengthened her resolve to quietly divest herself of everything that marked her as different.

Everywhere she looked she noticed details that didn’t fit. She and Rosanna were like a couple of walnut trees trying to blend into an apple orchard. The feasts their mother prepared for lunch were a smorgasbord of smells that invited snorts of disgust, whispered remarks and explosions of laughter from the other girls. She longed for flat white sandwiches containing nothing more offensive than a beige slice of devon. She just didn’t have the heart to tell her mother.

Mrs Martino took the high ground on these matters; her standard response was to her daughters’ humiliations was to quote an old proverb ‘L’ignoranza fa rima con l’intolleranza’ – ignorance rhymes with intolerance. Isabelle nodded her head in agreement but wondered privately what to do with this piece of information. She didn’t want to become ignorant or intolerant but more pressing was how to avoid the attentions of those who were.

Isabella severely angered her father only once. She was fourteen years old and he discovered she was calling herself Isabelle Martin at school.

‘Do you really believe this little ‘o’ at the end of your name is the villain?’ he shouted, striking her with the full force of his anger and frustration. For days he could barely meet her eye for shame. She lay on her bed and thought about those ‘little o’s’ and how they turned up in ugly words like wog and wop and dago and was determined not to take hers back.

The most cutting punishment for Isabelle, however, was to witness her sisters relentless efforts to be accepted. It wasn’t that she tried hard to fit in – it was that she was stubbornly oblivious to the fact she didn’t. Rosanna continued to invite girls home from school, who, despite their promises, very rarely came. And Isabelle hated it when they did come, because they gathered evidence that, sooner or later, would be used against the sisters.

‘Charlotte Furnell has only invited six girls and I’m one of them,’ Rosanna announced proudly over dinner one night. ‘ Mr Furnell is going to collect us in his car – it’s a Chevrolet.’

Charlotte was the most popular girl in school; everyone knew that she owned a horse named Bunty and had once flown in a plane to Queensland.

‘I don’t think you should go, Rosa,’ said Isabelle anxiously.

‘I am going and all the girls are getting new frocks, Mamma. We’re going to have afternoon tea at Charlotte’s house and then go to the pictures in Tindall and Mr Furnell has arranged to have a special birthday message for Charlotte up on the screen before the movie. She’ll be famous!’

Franco laughed. ‘Famous for turning 12?’

‘I can go, can’t I, Babbo? They’re very high-class people.’

‘What’s so special? We are very high-class people, child,’ said Adriana. ‘And we can’t make a new dress every time you get a party invitation. You can wear the white one you had for the school formal.’

Rosanna leapt up from the table. ‘I want a party dress, Mamma. Please. Blue with little white polka dots and a wide belt.’ She spun around, her hands clasping her waist. ‘And a swirling skirt. Just buy me the material – Bella will make it for me – won’t you, Bella darling?’

‘Sit down, girl, you’ll ruin your digestion. Bella can cut down my dress with the pink roses for you.’

Rosanna scowled.

‘Perhaps you shouldn’t go,’ repeated Isabelle quietly.

Rosanna pretended not to hear.

The day of the party Rosanna was up at dawn to complete her chores and boil up the copper for a bath so she could wash her hair and be ready for Mr Furnell’s arrival.

‘Ah, roses for my Rosa. What clever and beautiful daughters I have,’ said Franco when he saw Rosanna in her cut-down frock, hair smoothed into a ponytail. ‘And what time is the famous Charlotte arriving?’

‘She’ll be here at two, I’ll be the last one to be collected.’ She showed him the embroidered silk purse Isabelle had made from scraps of fabric as a present for Charlotte.

Isabelle sat on the front step with her as she waited. ‘You could still change your mind,’ she whispered. ‘I could meet them at the gate and tell you’re not well.’

‘Silly goose – stop worrying.’ Rosanna gave her sister a kiss on the cheek.

At two thirty Rosanna announced, ‘They’re just running late. I’ll go to the gate and wait there. You stay here.’ Isabelle watched her walk down the drive. She seemed smaller, as though she had lost her adolescent bravado and slipped back into childhood.

Isabelle continued to wait on the step, listening for the rumble of an approaching car. At four Rosanna came back up the driveway, chin held high. She was silent as she passed her sister. She went to her bedroom, took off the dress, rolled it into a ball and put it in the bottom of the chest of drawers they shared.

‘Mr Furnell’s car probably broke down,’ said Rosanna when she returned, sitting down on the step in her old work clothes. Isabelle nodded. She tried put a comforting arm around Rosa’s shoulders but was blocked by a black look and a raised elbow. Rosanna sprang up and ran – to the river or the fields – as fast as she could.

On Monday morning, as soon as they got on the bus, Marcia Simmonds slipped into the seat in front of them. She twisted around to look at Rosanna. ‘What a shame you couldn’t come yesterday, Rosanna,’ she smiled. ‘We were just turning into your road when Mr Furnell said, ‘She’s not one of those Eyetalians, is she?’ Of course Charlotte said you were and I hate to say that he was quite horrified. He turned the car around. Charlotte stuck up for you but he got really cross and said that everyone knew the Italians were thieves and he wasn’t having their kids spying in his house. So unfair.’ The sisters said nothing, their faces impassive. Marcia flushed a little. ‘I thought you should know, anyway.’

Rosanna lifted the lid of her school case and feigned absorption in its contents. Isabelle looked out the window. Perhaps now Rosanna would understand that in order to survive they needed to blend, to become as bland as devon on thin white bread.