A GREAT CHEER went up suddenly in the Chepley Bowling Club house as if the calculated disgorgement of the poker machines was miraculous as manna from heaven. Excited men rushed about telling each other 'Seri's done it again.' Pats on the back for Seri Ayoun, and envious exclamations of 'Wish I had your luck.'
Seri, a squat, sturdy figure with swarthy complexion and close cropped black hair on a bullet-shaped head, emerged from the press, stuffing his winnings into his pocket with a triumphant but self conscious air. Beads of sweat shone on his forehead and he dabbed at his face with a highly coloured silk handkerchief as he made his way to his seat watched by most of the members; obviously he and his poker machine playing were familiar features of the club.
Twenty five years earlier Seri Ayoun had come to Australia as a steerage passenger owing his fare to his uncle who had already made a success in Australia as a dealer in sheepskins. He then was a dark, oriental looking character from Syria, with queer clothes that suggested a half civilized Arab to the passengers on the more expensive part of the ship. He possessed nothing beyond one shabby suitcase of unsuitable clothes; he seemed impossibly foreign to anyone looking down on him from the upper decks and his prospects negligible in his new country.
Yet now he was an admittedly wealthy man by country town standards he owned one of the newest and best houses; he always drove a big car of the latest model; his sons talked largely of the hundreds and the thousands they handled while they flashed their gold wrist watches with gestures carried over from their Mediterranean origin; his daughters went to a famous and expensive boarding school much patronized by the better country families. Everybody regarded him as a complete success, and only a few discerning people ever saw the soul of the dark, shabby migrant peering uneasily out of his dark brown eyes.
Seri's glances darted quickly here and there, acutely aware that everyone was looking at him; it worried him terribly not knowing what they were thinking. Did they look on him as a mug? Or a show off? Did they see through his prodigal poker machine playing? Would they want him in the club if he didn't do it?
'Double whisky,' he said to the steward in a husky voice, as if nearly exhausted.
It was the habit in Chepley to talk about Seri's passion for gambling, but there was little gambling about his poker machine playing. He knew that the most he had to pay into the machine he patronized before it paid out a ten pound dividend was eighteen pounds. By using his judgment he frequently paid in a good deal less; sometimes he actually made a profit. For the rest, it was a sort of self imposed blackmail which he was paying for the right of being accepted socially by the right people.
Presently his eyes began to search the room. He didn't like being alone. He could see none of the town's Syrians, and he hesitated to approach any of the other groups with their too familiar, self sufficient appearance. Habitually the never ending debate went on in his mind: Sit there alone? Play the poker machines again? Invite someone to join him in a drink? Get up and go home? He wanted very badly to go home, to be among his family, but it had been decided among them that this was a deplorable Syrian habit.
'Hello Seri, mind if I sit at your table?'
Seri's eyes darted round quickly, showing the whites which always gave him the look of nervousness. It was Johnston, the town's S.P. man. Seri's first impulse was to be grateful, even for this company; then he remembered how Johnston's admission to the club had caused one of the biggest storms in its existence. Immediately the argument began to shuttle backwards and for wards in his mind. 'Half of you bet with him, and you all talk to him in the street; it's only hypocrisy to keep him out of the club.' 'It's one thing to talk to him, but another to accept him socially.'
It did not please Seri that the only man who wanted to sit with him was one who had barely been admitted into that most democratic institution. Johnston was an affable, but self effacing man, as he undoubtedly needed to be to carry on an illegal occupation in a town where everybody, including the police, knew every one else's business. He lived in his own little world of nods and winks, but was credited by his clients with great subterranean influence in the town.
'I see that boy of yours has won two more races,' he said, after Seri had ordered drinks.
'Ah, that boy,' Seri said, immediately enthusiastic, 'he's good; he's strong; he's clever on that bike of his.'
'You're telling me,' said Johnston.
'But I tell you why he always wins. He never drinks or smokes he lives clean and always goes to bed early; every evening he does his training regular, hot or cold, wet or fine. We got two mantel pieces in our house full of the golden and silver cups he wins.'
Johnston watched him talking himself into a thoroughly self satisfied state of mind before he dropped one of his hints.
'A man who puts in so much work ought to get something more out of it.'
The slightly underworld flavour of the remark stopped Seri abruptly. He looked hard at Johnston, trying laboriously to work out what he meant.
'Cups are very nice to look at,' Johnston explained, 'but you can't eat them.'
'We have plenty to eat,' Seri said aggressively, 'you don't have to worry yourself about that. I can afford to let my family ride bikes for fun if they like it.'
'Of course, you're a rich man,' Johnston said in a voice so soft that it was a reproach to Seri's outburst, 'but you're a sporting man, too. Now tell me, what sort of odds do you get if you want to bet on Bob in a bike race?'
'Ha, not worth making the bet,' Seri said, restored to good humour again, 'last time I had to put on him twenty five pounds to make a fiver. And next time it will be worse because he wins again.'
Johnston half smiled so that what he was going to say could be brushed off as a joke if it misfired.
'If he was a good son he'd give his father a break some day.'
'He is a good son.' Seri was immediately indignant, but Johnston soothed him with a deprecating gesture.
'It was only an idea. We'll forget about it. A man with all your money wouldn't be interested in winning a couple of hundred. Or even four or five.'
Peering under their lids, Johnston's cunning little eyes saw the effect on Seri. He knew very well how important money was to the Syrians, even if he didn't understand that to them it seemed to be the one thing in their uneasy, transplanted world that promised security and social standing.
'That swell boarding school where you send your girls must cost you a packet,' Johnston said, with considerable insight.
As far as Seri knew, Johnston could have been at the railway station, too, at the end of the school holidays, watching the parents from all the best families in town seeing off their daughters. Seri carrying the luggage so unlike his when he had come to Australia, the newest and smartest obtainable; and then looking at his daughters, big eyed, dark and sorrowful among the fair haired, casual and happy girls of the other people. Among them, but not of them. Might they not be acutely unhappy at the school? And was their reluctance to return caused by a fear of things they dared not tell him? Could it be that he was inflicting unhappiness on them at an appalling expense?
Seri had never been able to adjust himself completely to the manner in which the Australians appeared to fling their money away. In the part of his mind he had to keep secret he despised them for it, even while he emulated them in order to be accepted.
"I can afford it, and they can't,' he often said to his wife, making an attempt to justify some extravagance which did violence to their tradition.
But he never did convince himself, and the cheque for each term at the boarding school was invariably followed by a period of parsimony in the home, and a determination to make up the loss somehow.
'You think it over,' Johnston said, with one of his half winks, and left to join the crowd around the bar with an ease that Seri envied profoundly.
Next morning at his place of business - a large galvanized iron shed that covered most of a building block, with a small office set into one corner of it - Seri kept leaving his desk to watch his son Bob sorting, stacking, pressing and weighing hundreds of sheep skins. Bob undertook this strenuous and disagreeable part of the work because it developed his muscles. It' was an attitude unlike that of the two younger sons, one of whom drove a motor truck on its rounds of the farms, buying the skins and delighting in outwitting his customers; and the other who did the office work and was dandified in his clothes and manner. Bob worked in only shorts and sandals in the warm weather, and every time he rolled the heavy bales or lifted bundles of skins he was winning bike races.
He had a beautiful, sun tanned, golden brown body. He was taller than his father, as tall as most Australians; he even had broad shoulders like an Australian, as if wishing and hard exercise had granted them to him. He was the only member of the family with whom Seri found it hard to carry on a conversation; often he would only grunt out inattentive replies, or remain completely silent, wrapped in mysterious thoughts of his own. He soon became aware of his father watching him and seemed to resent it. He went to work in other parts of the shed, not visible from the office door, but when his father made longer excursions to keep him in sight, he abruptly left the building.
Soon he reappeared, wheeling a bicycle along the side of the shed, having dressed himself for the street by adding an athletic singlet. His book keeping brother in dazzling nylon shirt and wide winged bow tie watched him through the office window with a deploring expression in his eloquent eyes.
Bob rode only a few blocks down the street, but in that short space of time several people hailed him eagerly and paused to admire his style of riding. When he got to his destination three small boys offered to mind his bicycle for him, regarding that as a supreme privilege. At the cafe he entered, a blonde waitress was talking to a couple of football players. They all greeted him as a friend and an equal, and he answered them in language as hearty and as slangy as their own, his face lighting up with pleasure. Declining the footballers' invitation to join them, he went and sat on his own.
'He wansta talk to ya alone, Blondie,' one of the men said, 'we better get outa here. Four's a hell of a crowd.'
The waitress hurried to Bob, full of amiability, but he kept up a studied moodiness, giving his order as if he hardly knew her. He drank two glasses of milk slowly (because milk was a good body builder), saying very little. Each time the waitress brought his glass she stayed near him until further customers or the proprietor demanded her attention. She was a very ordinary little blonde girl, slim hipped, long legged, small breasted, blue eyed with tip tilted nose; there was a slight chocolate box prettiness about her, but that was all. Suddenly she dropped into the seat beside Bob, and leaning close she said with familiar concern:
What's eating you, Bob? Come on, tell me.'
'Oh, nuthin,' he said.
'Your family been at you again?'
'They're always at me. If they're not trying to make me do something I don't want to do, they're watching me as if they don't trust me.'
'They still bringing that girl up from Sydney for you?
'Couldn't say. As soon as they start about her I just stop listening.'
'She might be all right.'
'Seen her photo; she's terribly dark, like an Indian.'
'Oh no, she couldn't be. Syrians aren't as dark as Indians.'
'Don't be silly. You're just like a nice, suntanned Australian.'
She put her bare forearm beside his on the table.
'Look,' she said, 'there's hardly any difference.
He made no comment, but he touched her arm with his, and it seemed to bring him some comfort.
'You know,' he said, suddenly eager, 'my cousin at the university says that if I married a blonde, the chances would be that all our children would be halfway between me and the girl in colouring. They'd be real Australian youngsters and nobody could tell the difference.'
The girl said, urgently:
'Why don't you leave them? You're well known; you could get a job easily. What about that offer you had from the bike shop?'
He looked at her surprised.
'Go and work for wages? I couldn't do it. There's no future in it.'
'But you're just working for wages now; nasty smelly work it is, too.'
He owned heavily, and she immediately put her hand on his arm, full of contrition.
'I'm sorry. I suppose it's different when you're working for your father.'
'I'm a sort of partner,' he said, 'I'll get the money to start a business of my own some day.'
'A skin business, I'll bet,' the girl said, still with a trace of distaste, 'and you're going to marry that Syrian girl too, because your father's arranged all your future for you.'
'I didn't say I'd marry her,' Bob said passionately, yet with a tinge of defeat in his voice.
She looked at him steadily, reading his strength and his weakness in his face. Then the telephone rang at the back of the cafe and presently the Greek owner called out to him.
'All right, Peter,' Bob answered him before he had given his message, 'tell him I'm on the way back.'
The sullen look came down on his face again, and he walked out of the cafe without a word to the girl.
Seri was waiting, scowling and agitated, when Bob returned to the skin store. He came out of his office and attacked him directly.
'You been down there again to talk to that girl. I tell you that's no good. Who is she? Just a cafe waitress.'
'She's a nice girl,' Bob said defensively, 'I get on well with her. We're just friends. You said we ought to make friends, with the other people. You're always going to your bowling club.'
'Yes, yes,' Seri said impatiently, 'but at the bowling club are the best people; the men who own the big shops, the lawyers, the doctors; the people who have as much money as I have. That's the people you should have for friends.'
Bob gazed at his father searchingly.
'Are they really your friends?' he asked with candid insight, 'you know how Mother hates to go there on ladies' night.'
Seri made an extravagantly despairing gesture. He saw his wife as clearly as he saw the images of people on the movie screen. He saw her in her new tiled, nickelled, cupboarded kitchen, guiltily cooking Syrian style meals rich in olive oil; he saw her with big dark eyes downcast, abashed and silent when he brought a neighbouring couple in for a drink and to see the new house; he saw her on the only occasion he had taken her to a social at the bowling club, pathetically alone most of the time, and distressed when anyone took pity on her and tried to talk to her. Then like a new reel coming on, he saw her animated, chatting volubly, eyes flashing and attractive when she was with their Syrian relations and friends.
'You've got to mix with those where you fit,' Bob suggested, watching his father's face.
'But that girl,' Seri said, recovering himself, 'is from a no good family that lives in one of the worst houses in the town. Her father drinks; her mother - she lets the house get dirty. I tell you it's no good wasting your time with her. You should be at the business. Look at your brothers. Do they waste time with no account girls and get themselves talked about? No, they're good boys. They'll go ahead. Before they're forty they'll be rich men.'
All the while this tirade went on Bob maintained a passionate, resentful silence, but he rolled the bales about at a furious rate, compelling his father to trot after him on his short, stout legs.
'You never think of ways of saving money in the business or making more profit the way they do. You know I want you to get married and start a branch of our firm in Dargedra, but what do you do? You won't even look at the girl.'
'Why do I have to marry that girl?' Bob said, protesting, but not really effectively. 'I don't like her.'
Seri was shocked.
'But she has the money. It costs heaps to start a new business. The shed to build, the motor trucks to buy, the scales, the press, everything.'
Bob's face took on the expression of a wilful child.
'But I don't want a branch of your skin business. I want a bike shop of my own.'
His father gave him another of his startled looks.
'But bike shops! That's chicken's business. Two or three go broke each year in this town: Yes: you have seen that. You stick to skins. Our people have got the grip on the skins. We help each other. We can never go wrong as long as we stick to skins.'
Bob, irresistibly impressed by the force and the truth of his father's argument, said wistfully:
'But I like bikes better.'
Seri suddenly lost his temper. He shouted at his son:
'All you think of is riding that bike and going to see a no account waitress.'
Then Bob burst into a Mediterranean rage full of wild gestures.
'Now you're finding fault with my bike riding. You never said anything against that before. You encouraged me and bought me that Italian bike. You won plenty of money betting on me, and you didn't give me much of it though I nearly busted my guts.'
Seri could barely wait until his son had finished; he kept making wounded gestures with his hands as if he were being beaten. Then he had his turn, while Bob listened, flushed and panting.
'I don't find fault with your bike riding. I say if you can ride well and win plenty races, O.K. boy. Make a good name and plenty friends with the Australians. And yes, at first I win bets with good odds. But what sort of odds do I get now? Two to one on. Where's the sense in betting that sort of money?'
Bob broke into a warm gratified smile, looking at his father quite affectionately.
'That shows what they think of me as a bike rider. They must reckon I'm just about unbeatable.'
Seri beamed at his son, and moved close to him with a hopeful expression on his face.
'You know, son, last night Johnston came to me with an idea to win hundreds of pounds on your bike riding. All you need is to lose a race.'
Bob's eyes flashed with a pained and startled look, and he sprang away from his father.
'Me! Lose a race? Mel I couldn't do it! My legs wouldn't let me. Once that gun goes off I'm out in front and no one can catch up to me. I'm unbeatable. Look at all the cracks they've brought here from hundreds of miles away; and I beat them all.'
Seri put on an uneasy, placating grin.
'You're unbeatable all right, son. That's just why we could pull off such a big win on you losing. Now if your brothers had a chance of winning hundreds of pounds as easy as this, would they miss it? Not a bit. They'd do it over and over again.'
'But all my friends,' Bob protested, 'all those people who always cheer me on, and pat me on the back, and congratulate me. What about them if I lost a race?
'They couldn't expect you to win every time.'
'But they do. That's why they make such a fuss of me.'
'Have any of them ever said you'll win all the time?
'Dianne! That waitress! Why bother about her? She wouldn't worry.'
Then Seri's expression changed dramatically.
'Look,' he said, 'I got an idea. You want a bike shop. All right, you can have a try at it if you make enough on your own to start one. I wouldn't give you the money because you might lose it.'
He stopped abruptly, seeing Bob's interest. Father and son looked steadily at each other; dark brown eyes probing into dark brown eyes.
'How much would I get out of it if I agreed?' Bob asked cautiously.
His father watched him as if he was making a major deal in skins with a big exporter.
'Twenty five per cent. That would be real money for you. Not the little pickings your brothers are scraping after. You'd soon get five hundred, or even a thousand pounds together.'
'Even if you made it fifty per cent I wouldn't do it.'
'Two hundred and fifty pounds in one night! You must be mad! It took me five year - yes, five year - to save that much after I came to this country, and all I bought for myself in that time was one suit and two pair of boots!'
When Bob Ayoun arrived at the Chepley sports ground, sitting in the back of one of the firm's utilities and holding his bicycle, the crowd made him feel it was a royal progress with their cheering and shouting. For reasons they did not comprehend, though perhaps the cunning Johnston could have explained it, everybody had come convinced that this was going to be a great night that none of them could afford to miss.
'Good on you, Bob,' they yelled, and Bob's dark eyes gleamed with pleasure as he breathed in their adulation.
'Don't let those bastards get near you,' a man called out, meaning the cyclists come from distant places to compete against him.
'Run them into the fence.'
'Sprag their wheels.'
'Just run right away from them.'
Some of the most enthusiastic ran beside him, clutching the sides of the vehicle while they bawled encouragement. Near the entrance to the arena was Dianne, now remote from him; just one of the admiring crowd.
'I'll put a pound on you in the big race,' she called out, in her high, thin voice.
Bob looked at her, half aware for a moment; then his brother at the wheel, the shrewd bargaining one, turned his head and sneered:
'She'll be flat out to win a shilling.'
They rode on, past the crazy, excited people.
A bicycle race at Chepley sports ground, where the lighting was barely adequate and most of the crowd concentrated on one side of the arena, tended to look rather like a great spider running around the track rather than a group of competitors. Only when the bunch of cyclists came down the well lighted straight in front of the spectators could individuals be picked out with any confidence. Then the screaming and the shouting seemed to throw into relief the uncanny silence of the cyclists as they flitted past into the half light again, to become once more the mysterious spider skating round the track, slowly moving up one leg as another retired. Each time they flashed past the lights, the crowd screamed out to their favourites, never sure if they were leading or not.
'No, he's just coming up.'
'The Bagtown bastard's got his nose in front.'
'Crash him, Bob.'
'Break his bloody neck.'
Then the last lap with the crowd shouting all the time while the spider went the round.
'This time we'll know.'
'Bob'll be right out on his own.'
'Come on Bob.'
'Come on Bob.'
'Come on Bob. Beat those bastards.'
Then uncannily swift and silent the spider swooped past again; all bunched together so that no one knew who was in front: the yells from the Chepley supporters died to a disappointed and apprehensive silence as they waited for the announcement over the loud speakers.
'First place: George Grant of Bagtown.'
A howl of protest from the mob. They won't believe it. The judge made a mistake. He was crooked. Then a slow realization.
'Bob didn't win!'
What happened to him?'
'Thought he was unbeatable.'
The cyclists, pulling up, drifted around again slowly, strung out and recognizable. Grant of Bagtown in front, then Bob Ayoun, watching the crowd with a deprecating smile. Some weak cheers for him, then a querulous voice:
'What happened to ya?
'Didn't ya try?
'What did they pay you?'
'You sold us! That's what you did!'
'You dirty dago.'
'Dirty dago,' louder and louder coming from the crowd as he rode slowly past.
In the dressing room Bob surprised and hurt to find that he no longer has any friends; all keeping away from him as if he had a big label on him. Hurrying out with his bicycle to find a bunch of louts encouraging each other to 'do him over.' His brother, the shrewd one, running back to get police protection. Bob still half incredulous until something hits him; they knock him down, punching and kicking him. The police escorting him to the vehicle; throwing his expensive Italian bicycle into the back as if he hated it; then behind the wheel and starting up while the mob jeered.
'Dirty dago.... Yellow dago ... How much did you get?'
A figure detached from the crowd, breaking past the police and running to the left hand door. Raising his arm defensively, then hearing the voice:
'It's me, Dianne . . . Bob, can I come with you?
In quickly and the car darting ahead, scattering the mob.
At the Ayoun home no one went to bed that night. Seli walked up and down the hall endlessly over the deep carpet in his socks; his wife lamented and shed tears without restraint in one of the new lounge chairs, indifferent to its condition.
'They got him; the mob got him,' she proclaimed at intervals, 'he never stays out late, never, so they must have.'
The shrewd brother, biting his nails with chagrin at having told his mother too much, said each time:
'Impossible, mother. I saw him get away in the ute.'
Then he'd go to the one who dressed well, now crumpled and untidy beside the telephone and say:
'If they got him the police would find the ute. You ring them again. Ring all the other towns as well. Someone might have stolen the ute. We don't want to lose the ute, too.'
Exhausted they dropped into armchairs, dozed fitfully, got up and rang the police until the police refused to speak to them. Then at last they saw that the night was over. They stood at the windows, staring unbelievingly over the quiet town where nothing eventful could ever happen; down the wide main street with its steady business places where the cautious people made and spent their money in restrained country fashion; even to the sports arena, an empty, meaningless piece of ground with a high tin wall. While they stood there the first motor vehicle of the day nosed its way along the main street from the south. They looked at it indifferently until they saw it turn into their street.
'It's our ute. It must be Bob.'
They crowded at the front door, but only his mother was impulsive enough to run out to meet him.
'You've come home,' she exclaimed, her arms open to receive him.
But he pushed past her.
'I haven't come home. I've only come for my clothes, and to see Dad.'
Then he marched inside, resolute. His father and his brothers made way for him, awed by the way he ignored them and their questions. When he returned with his suitcase he stopped.
'You can keep that money,' he said to his father. 'Yes, keep the lot of it. I'm going to take the ute instead. That ought to be fair enough, after what you've done to me.'
He looked at them hard; challenging the smart one to dispute his proposal.
'Where are you going?' his father asked at last.
Bob's eyes covered them all indifferently.
'Oh, anywhere. I'll just drive until I find a town where no one's ever heard of me. A long way out west where there are no Syrians. There I'll start something or get a job.'
Standing behind him apprehensively, his mother faltered:
'But all alone? You can't go and live in a strange town all alone.'
'I'm not alone. Dianne's with me.'
'But what are you going to do? You're not going to marry her.'
'Of course I am. I've got to. I spent the night with her.'
Seri, full of compassion, held up his hand protesting.
'It mightn't be necessary. We can buy her off. We can hush it up. You mustn't let her ruin your life.'
But Bob's eyes flashed.
'You talk about ruining my life! I'm going to marry her because I want to. I've got ideas about the future you wouldn't under stand.'
He walked out of the house and drove away without once looking back. His family watched him wide eyed with melancholy as if they expected never to see him again.
Australian Syrians and their Quest for Assimilation
E. O. Schlunke