Mrs Patroni’s boarding house was in the centre of Tower Street and home for between twenty and thirty single European men working on the mine. The standard of Mrs Patroni’s food made up for the lack of facilities. The dining room served three meals a day and a some of the surface workers came back for a hot midday meal. Full board included a crib or a cut lunch for the underground workers.
I often saw Mrs Patroni standing in the doorway on the front verandah watching the passing parade. With one hand on her hip, and the other resting high on the door frame it was an alluring sight. Whenever she saw me she waved, and invited me in to eat: ‘Ciao bello, vene qua. Vene qua per mangare.’She took a shine to me and I was one of the few kids allowed inside her boarding house. I found her irresistible and her spaghetti with pork chops was delicious. For a while Mrs Robinson, our next-door neighbour and Ollie Garbellini’s mother, was the cook at Mrs Patroni’s. Mrs Robinson was formidable, standing six feet two inches and weighing about eighteen stone. She was married to Pop Robinson, her second husband, who was more than a foot shorter and about half her weight. Mrs Scolari was the waitress. When we lived opposite I would see every afternoon setting off on her bike to the boarding house. There was something alluring – almost scandalous about Mrs Scolari. She was a slim, attractive woman with dark hair. ‘What are you talking about? Of course she dies it.’ Beria scoffed.
Together with her husband, Bonaventura, and their oneyearold son Macca, Dina Patroni landed in Fremantle in 1910. Her other two children, Italo and Ida, were born in Australia. The family came from Sernio, Lombardy, a small village nestling into the side of the Italian Alps. Bonaventura died in 1948 and from that time Mrs Patroni ran the boarding house alone. She had a boyfriend, Emilio Quislini, a miner who eventually went home to his village in Italy. Mrs Patroni lived in the two suitably decorated front rooms of the boarding house. Her parlour had beautiful curtains, framed pictures and comfortable chairs. Her double bed was made-up with fine lace-trimmed and embroidered Italian linen. One end of the front verandah was converted to a sleep-out, the other end was her kitchen pantry which Mrs Scolari’s son Peter raided – helping himself to the dried apricots. The boarders lived in two rows of single and shared unlined tin huts, measuring about eight feet square, made from corrugated sheeting and lined with hessian and ripple tin – a smaller gauge version of the corrugated form. They were furnished with a single bed, a kapok mattress and pillow, bed linen and blankets, a small wardrobe, a bedside locker, an overhead light bulb and a small window in the back wall. They were freezing in the winter and hot in the summer.
It was difficult to guess Mrs Patroni’s age. She was a shapely women with jet black hair pulled back off her face and fixed in a tight chignon on the nape of her neck. Always fully made-up, impeccably dressed in crepe with Italian leather high heels and a double strand of red crystals around her neck, she was an intriguing character. I never once saw her walking in the street but she did own a Vauxhall car which she sometimes drove to Leonora. Beria worked for a while doing the house washing – bed linen and the white linen tablecloths Mrs Patroni insisted should be starched. Beria couldn’t work out when Mrs Patroni had a bath. The only bathroom was next to the row of six pan lavatories in the backyard, ‘and I’m damn sure she didn’t use that’. The policeman Tom Clews correctly suspected Mrs Patroni of running a sly-grog shop, and a couple of times the boys from the Kalgoorlie liquor branch came to town to investigate, but she was too cunning for them and was never charged. She sold the grog at an inflated price to the men living in the boarding house, and anyone else in the town who came asking. Every week she took delivery of four boxes of beer from Kalgoorlie, which was stored along with other contraband in a square hole in the ground under her bedroom floor. The trapdoor entrance, which the police never discovered, was concealed under a rug. And Be Home Before Dark is available from direct from Roland.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30 with Edwin Cowlishaw.