Saturday, July 16, 2022



“When Tasia came to Australia in the mid-sixties, it was at the invitation of her newly married sister. The plan was for Tasia to help her sister with her baby that was on the way, settle, and then when the time was right and the village politics negotiated in the appropriate way, to invite a certain gentleman with whom she had an understanding, to join her in Australia and start a new life together.  

That is not what happened, however. Tasia was raped by her brother-in-law. Her sister either knew or suspected but did nothing until such time that it became apparent that Tasia was pregnant. Then, she took Tasia to someone who illegally performed abortions and compelled her to “throw the child” as the Greek expression goes. Once that was done, she kicked her out of the house. Some people said that she ended up in South Melbourne, living alone. Others, less kind, said that they saw her on the street corners of St Kilda. No one really knows. She vanished. What else could she do. That’s what things were like in those days. No one sympathised with her in public. They all said that she must have brought it upon herself, provoked him…. ” 

The elderly lady, a member of my local community who revealed this story to me before her death over a decade ago, signed as she took another sip from her cup of tea. The side wall of her living room was festooned with silver icons that glowed burnished copper through the reflected light of the kandili, the sole source of light in the room. Next to her, a small table was filled with faded photographs of her grandchildren, long grown up.  “There are many other stories like this one. Lodging further down the street from us there was a girl, recently arrived. About a month after her arrival, she began to act strangely, couldn’t keep down her food. She told everyone that she couldn’t get used to the food in Australia but I began to suspect differently. It turns out that she had met a young man on the ship, coming to Australia and had fallen in love with him. He spun the usual tale; he loved her, his intentions were honourable, he was going to marry her as soon as he wrote to his father. All rubbish. When the ship docked at Fremantle, he disembarked and left her with no forwarding address or anything. 

When her landlady realised that she was pregnant, she evicted her. That is how it was then, you couldn’t be seen to be condoning this type of behaviour and no one really cared about the circumstances. My mother had told me, before I left my home country: “You only have two things: my blessings and your honour.” The sad thing is how she left. The landlady threw her suitcase out onto the street and all the housewives came outside and banged pots and pans and ridiculed her.  Village people were harsh back then, you know. 

Eventually, she was taken in by a Greek couple who agreed that she could rent a room but the wife insisted that she could not have the baby and stay with them. Instead, they arranged for her to have an abortion. After that, they managed to find someone to marry her in Sydney, so she left. Apparently, there were complications with the abortion process and she was unable to have children after that. Her husband left her after five years.” 

The old lady’s large frame was draped in a shawl that in the gloom of her living room, makes her look like a mountain range, immense and imposing and yet soft and pliable. She dipped a teddy bear biscuit into her tea and nibbled at it greedily. “I came here in the fifties. There was no Greek coffee back then, so I got used to drinking tea. Tea with biscuits, preferably Monte Carlos, but I rather like Teddy Bear Biscuits as well. It was Ourania who introduced them to me. She lived a few streets down. I would visit and we would take our tea and Teddy Bear Biscuits together. She was a very good cook, an amazing housewife and very irresponsible. Never kept a proper lookout for her daughter. As the story goes, she got mixed up with some young guy, not a Greek and got into trouble. Some people say he was an Aboriginal but I don’t know. What I do know is that the girl’s father beat her black and blue so that she can reveal who the father was, so he could go and kill him and wash away the shame but she wouldn’t say a word. Anyway, the family couldn’t countenance their daughter bearing a child out of wedlock and they would not let her marry someone who was not Greek because of the shame, so Ourania arranged for the daughter to have an abortion. On the morning that she was supposed to have undergone the procedure, she vanished. They didn’t look for her and no one knew where she went. I saw her, years later, at the Victoria Market. I recognised her instantly and I’m sure she recognised me. She was holding a blonde blue eyed little girl which must have been a grandchild, as this was twenty or so years later. Wherever she is, I hope she is well. Hard times these were.” 

The old lady’s hand had began to tremble and she set her tea down slowly as it spilled over the rim of the cup, into the saucer. “The world has always been unkind to women,” she wheezed. “Always. No mercy. And sometimes it’s the women themselves who are unkind. There was a woman a few streets away who just before she arrived in Australia, fell in love with one of the local boys in her village. He didn’t seem to be interested in her however, he had eyes for another. As the girl was a friend of his sister, she asked her what she could do to get him to her brother to like her. “Well, if you lie on his bed and take your clothes off, he is not going to say no, is he?” she told him. And the foolish girl that she was, that is exactly what she did. She left for Australia and expected him to follow her and he never did. Luckily for her, even though she fell pregnant, she didn’t show. She arranged to have an abortion and ended up marrying someone else. Obviously people knew but she got married and washed away the shame, so they didn’t say anything. That’s how people thought in those days.” 

I began a discussion about the abortion debate, mentioning how the positions are polarised between pro-life and pro-choice and the old lady waved her hand at me dismissively: “What pro-choice?” she exclaimed indignantly. “Go and tell your husband back in the day, who uses your body for his pleasure on demand about choice. Do you know how many women were forced to have an abortion back then because they already had a handful of children and their husbands would not adopt other methods to prevent conception? There are even cases of women being forced to write to their mothers back home in Greece seeking money to pay for the abortion. Think of it. We came to this country to feed our families and instead our husbands were making our families pay for their lack of restraint.” 

“These are the things we don’t talk about,” the old lady observed, a tone of anger rising in her voice. “We all like to assume an air of respectability but there is so much that is hidden. And it is better that way. Best to keep silent rather than stir up the past. No good comes of it. And don’t think that these things just happened back then when we were new and vulnerable. Do you know how many girls still get into trouble and are forced to have abortions because their boyfriends won’t take responsibility for their actions and pressure the girls to go through with it? Especially in the conservative families. They fear their parents and their peers. Even today, where you can supposedly do whatever you want. Consider that,” she thundered. “Consider that! Choice? When did any of us ever have a choice in what we did with our lives?” 

I sat on the couch, stunned. Never had I turned my mind to the circumstances i just heard described with such vehemence and never had an elderly lady of my community spoken to me of things largely unspoken of for young males, with so much candour and openness. For a long time, I said nothing, turning her words over in my head as she picked up the crumbs of biscuit in her cup with a spoon. Eventually, I summed up the courage to ask: 

“Auntie, these are sensitive matters and I can understand why they weren’t and aren’t spoken of. But if they are so secret, how is it that they appear to be common knowledge?” 

“Nothing is hidden under the sun,” she replied, conflating Ecclesiastes and Luke. 

“Fair enough,” I continued, “But you don’t just know the broad schematic of the stories, you know intimate details. How broadly did these stories travel? How is it that you know so much?” 

The old lady’s lower lip began to tremble as she took short raspy breaths. Her eyes welled with tears and flowed down her creased cheeks. Amidst sobs that grew ever more violent, she looked up at the icons and then at the photographs of her grandchildren. “Because they came to me,” she sobbed. “They came to me.”  



First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 July 2022