Acheron – Chapter 2
Kerosene on the Fire
My name is Panayiotis Nikolaou Nikolopoulos. Just call me Pan.
My family owns a winery on the western slopes of the Acheron Valley. Fifty-four hectares. It sounds grand, but isn’t. My folks are hard-working farmers from Epirus, northwestern Greece. ‘Greek peasants with dirt under our nails,’ Uncle Andy calls us. ‘Just a big, noisy bunch of Wogs,’ says my older sister, Sofia.
My dad — Bampás, ‘Nick Poulos’ to you — came over on the boat in the late 1950s. He arrived at Station Pier in Melbourne with one battered suitcase and a head full of dreams, so he says. Frequently, to anyone who will listen.
He got a job at a fruit cannery in the Goulburn Valley; worked every shift they would give him. As soon as he had the money together for a deposit, he bought a sloping block of land here, thirteen kilometres out of Alexandra, with a weatherboard shack and an outside dunny. It took four years.
Then he sent for his wife Marina and daughter Sofia, five years old, bringing her to the other side of the world, away from her adored grandparents, to live in an alien land with a father who was a stranger.
Andreas, my father’s younger brother, was wooed by tales of opportunities in the Lucky Country and came too with his bride Yeorgia, ‘Gogo’. Dad got Uncle Andy a job at the cannery. The brothers and sisters-in-law planted rows of vines; fixed up the shack; extended it so that there was room — just — for two young families. With a plumbed-in bathroom and an inside toilet!
Aunty Gogo studied book-keeping at evening classes in Alexandra. Mum cultivated a veggie patch and got a couple of dairy goats, a flock of chooks. Alongside dented tins of fruit that the brothers brought home from the cannery, her efforts kept the whole family fed.
Later, after I was born, they built a new place, higher up the hill, with cooling breezes on a summer’s evening and a wing for each family. A metal shed was erected, shining steel vats installed for wine-making. A cellar was dug into the hillside and a tasting room built on top, with views over the valley.
Dad gave up the job at the cannery, where he had worked his way up to operations manager, to concentrate full-time on the vines. More land was acquired, as the local graziers sold off their steepest, least profitable pasturage. My three cousins Stella, Eva and Leo were born. Big sister Sofia went to TAFE to study Wine Technology, became our winemaker.
Aside from three years at uni in Melbourne, I’ve spent my whole life in this valley, looking out over the river flat to the jagged Cathedral Range in the east. Standing on the deck with a coffee in the morning or a glass of our Shiraz in the evening, I can see that bend of the inky Acheron River where Áine Doyle once lived.
Which brings me back to 1979, the arrival of the Doyles, and what I set out to write about.
It was the talk of the pub, the CWA and the footy club — so the whole local community — when those hippie mugs fresh off the plane from Ireland bought Old Man Wagner’s place. Twenty-five hectares of the poorest, shittiest land in the entire valley; a grazed-out parcel of alluvial gravel, gold-mining spoil and sour, quaking marsh. Scant soil to hold a fence-post in some parts; barely solid ground to take a skinny heifer’s weight in others.
Colm and Dearbhla Doyle had got hold of the newly published Permaculture One by Mollison and Holmgren. It was kerosene on the fire of their idealism.
They set out to find a scrap of land, somewhere in the world, cheap enough for them to realise their dreams of living lightly on the Earth: not just subsisting, but living well. Preferably somewhere with good weather, rather than chill winds and perennial drizzle. So, not Ireland.
They landed in the Acheron Valley, with little cash and even less experience of running a farm.
I couldn’t believe my luck, when I learned that Áine lived just down the hill from me. There she was, the next morning, waiting at the bus stop. It would be a cliché to say my heart skipped a beat as the bus drew in. But it truly did — I swear it. I looked up as she boarded, blushing but determined to catch her eye. Would she?
She would: I damn near died when she swung in next to me. ‘Hello. You’re Pan, aren’t you? I’m Áine. Pleased to meet you.’ A formal handshake! I could hear sniggers from the seats behind us, but I couldn’t have cared less.
The bus trip to school had been slow and tedious until that day. Now the damn thing had been turbocharged. I swear, the journey took half the time it should have. I felt cheated when we had to get off at the school entrance.
Days passed and I started to get scolded at home. I would arrive forty minutes late, my uniform sweaty and dusty. The reason: I now left the bus at the foot of the hill with Áine, instead of staying on board until it passed the end of our drive. The pretext I gave to Áine is that I preferred to ‘stretch my legs’. It was three kilometres home, uphill, but worth every step for the few extra minutes of her company.
I tried telling Mum that the schoolbus had changed its route. She responded that her eyesight was still fine, thanks. She could see the bus perfectly well from the house as it chugged its way up the hill, and it followed the same route and timetable it always had. So what was up?
I swore her to secrecy. She listened, smiled, pinched my cheek. ‘My little boy is growing up! Be careful, Pano mou. Treat this young lady with respect, yes?’
A fortnight elapsed before Áine invited me in for a glass of lemonade to fortify me on my long, thirsty trek up the hill. We set off down the winding, rutted track to her home.
Next week in ‘Acheron’:
Chapter 3 – Living Lightly
Pan has a slightly odd conversation with Áine’s Da, and another with his own Bampás.