Saturday, September 21, 2013

A grave pilgrimage - part 2

Visiting the Pyjama Girl’s grave at Preston Cemetery in Melbourne was a very different experience to visiting Antonio Agostini’s grave in Cagliari, Sardinia.

I had just arrived back in Australia, flying from Venice to Dubai and then Melbourne. A dear friend of mine, Petra, had volunteered to pick me up, and we met at Southern Cross station and then began driving to the cemetery. It was before peak hour and we were going against the flow of early morning traffic so we got to the cemetery much earlier than we expected, and stopped at a nearby McDonalds to kill time and have breakfast, and catch up. We talked theatre and music and life and I raved about Italy and talked more about how the Pyjama Girl play was developing.

We went to the cemetery, and I, with the slight tremors of sleep deprivation settling in, wondered if I would be nervous, and, realising I wasn’t, wondered if I should be.

But the experience was easy, the landscape was familiar, and with Petra at my side, there was a lightness to the experience. There were even a few laughs.

There was an information office clearly marked at the entrance to the cemetery, but we consulted the map closest to the car park first. I had a grave number this time, but the map didn’t give an indication of grave numbering. But just then, two groundskeepers, in fluoro vests walked past and said hello, and we enquired about the grave number. The men said we could get better directions at the office, but the men reckoned they knew which section was likely and explained how the numbering system worked.

‘Give us a yell if you get lost,’ they said, as we thanked them and wandered away.

‘Oh, but however will we find you,’ Petra joked, referring to the high-visibility vests.

Laughs all round, and quite relaxed, we wandered up a gentle hill towards the section the men had pointed to. We lost the numbers briefly, and I thought maybe the grave would be in the pauper’s area, which was missing many of the helpful bricks numbering each grave—and, more challengingly, missing headstones. The Pyjama Girl (buried as Linda Agostini) was recorded as being in an unmarked grave.

We decided to start working our way towards to information office, but then found the numbers again, and soon, the numbers were leading us to the row the Pyjama Girl is buried in. We walked, calling out grave numbers to each other.

‘She must be just down here,’ I said.

And she was. I saw the number before I saw the grave, but registered that it wasn’t, in fact, unmarked as I had expected. A simple white cross, made by hand, and not quite symmetrical with the name Florence L. Agostini handwritten in lipstick red. We stood quietly at the grave for a moment.

It was a warm day in Melbourne. The third day of spring. The sun was starting to creep up. I smelled gumtrees. Heard magpies calling.

There were even some artificial flowers left at the grave, and they hadn’t been discoloured by weather so it was hard to tell how old they were.

Either way, someone cared. Someone remembered. Maybe more than several someones. We spent a few quiet minutes at the grave. 

I had an impulse to leave something at the grave. A token of respect. It seemed unfair that I had left a badge at Agostini’s tomb in Cagliari, but nothing here.

I wished I’d thought to buy flowers on the way. In Cagliari, the cemetery had flower markets out the front. Here, no such convenience (we thought; we later saw there was a florist a block away). 

Hat flower in Venice.

I suddenly remembered the white fabric flower I’d been wearing in my hair. 

I bought it the week before I went to Albury to clip my fringe out of my eyes. I wore the flower in my hair, or pinned to my hat all throughout my time in Italy. It became my signature item at the playwriting retreat. I have photos of myself wearing it in Florence, in Venice, in Sardinia. It’s become imbued with me, with Italy, with this adventure I’ve been having as the play nears the stage.

It’s now nestled on the stones at the Pyjama Girl’s final resting place. 

Then, because Petra was curious, we went into the long brick mausoleum near the car park and it was like going back to Italy. Notices not to light candles or leave fresh flowers (ersatz only, due to occupational health and safety regulations) written first in Italian and then in English. Tombstones adorned with flowers and pendants of saints and photographs of the deceased. Some, still bearing handmade cards or letters from father’s day. An old Nonna, tending to the plaque of a loved one. We were quiet, hushed, as we walked through the hallways of the dead and tried to figure out how the artificial candles worked.

Thinking about it afterwards, I found it curious that my emotional response was so much stronger when I found Tony’s tomb in Sardinia.

In part, I know that’s because of the quest to find it. The journey. The possible failure. The high stakes, knowing I wouldn’t easily have a chance to revisit.

I was in an unknown place, an unfamiliar landscape,

Tony’s tomb was untended, forgotten, unlike the others around it, which were adorned with flowers.

I was relieved to see the Pyjama Girl’s grave was marked and not forgotten, even if it did have the wrong name on it. I think the name on the cross may also have affected the way I responded to it. I wasn’t there to mourn Linda Agostini, and it’s hard to pay your respects to someone when you don’t know their name.

Mostly, though, I think it’s because I knew what to expect when visiting Preston Cemetery.

I’ve travelled the road where the body was found. I’ve smelled the sterile antiseptic in the case where the death mask is kept at the LibraryMuseum. I’ve touched the lead-lined box where the Pyjama Girl spent ten years preserved in a formalin solution.

But still, as I farewelled Petra at Southern Cross station and boarded the train to take me to Albury, it was with a sense of disquiet about my response to the two experiences.

What did my experience say about feminism?

After all, it’s reasonably possible that Agostini did kill his wife. It’s just that she wasn’t the Pyjama Girl.

Yes, he would have been guilty of a crime, but if it hadn’t been the woman who became an icon—the equivalent of the unknown soldier for female murder victims—he wouldn’t have become a household name for all the wrong reasons. So what am I doing sympathising with him?

I think it’s because the storyteller part of me is upset at people getting the story wrong. The way Agostini is remembered is not necessarily true to his life. The man – now commonly documented as a waiter – also had highly ambitious, intellectual career as a journalist who started an Italian language paper in Australia.

While I was in Italy I saw other tombs. Machiavelli, Michelangelo, members of Florence’s Medici family, popes, martyrs. It wasn’t deliberate tombstone tourism, but history and memorials were everywhere I went.

So I’ve been thinking about how we memorialise people.

And I realise a play is a way to do that. I think that’s partly what the Pyjama Girl is all about – what drove me to write about it; that this story is about to pass out of living memory. The actors, aged under 26, had never heard of it, despite growing up in the area. Somewhere, in the few years between their age and mine, the story has faded.
When Petra and I were heading back to the car at the Preston Cemetery, one of the men wearing high-visibility vests waved to us.
‘How’d you go? Did you find what you were looking for?’ he asked.
I think I already had it. I don’t think I needed to go to the grave—to ask permission from this girl, to make sure I am doing the right thing by here—because I think that’s why I wanted to visit. I’m glad I went there all the same.

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