In 1963, my parents moved into a rental house in a dodgy inner-city suburb. My two brothers were four and three years old, and I wasn’t to come onto the scene for another six or so years. My Dad had been in a terrible accident a few years before, when he was hit and run over by a car which resulted in extensive injuries including a shattered pelvis. Because Dad’s injuries meant he couldn’t work for months on end, my parents plans to buy a house in a nearby street went out the window, and after living with my grandparents for a while, they eventually moved into the rental in William Street.
It was a tiny, two bedroom workers cottage, with a verandah at the front, a kitchen with a wood combustion stove, an outdoor laundry and toilet, and a huge yard with a palm tree in the middle. If you walked near the base of the palm tree the dirt would sink a bit beneath your feet, as the tree was planted where the house’s well had originally been, when it was built in 1900.
When I made my surprise entrance into the family in 1969, a bit of reshuffling had to be done to fit me in, which ended up with one of my brothers sleeping in a tiny enclosed entrance-way at the back of the house, and baby me in with the other brother. The house was not insulated, so we lay in pools of our own sweat on stinking hot summer nights, and shivered our way through winter nights with hot water bottles doing little to keep us warm. The combustion stove was replaced not long after I was born with an electric stove, which meant the only heating was from the tiny open fireplace in the lounge room. We three kids would all vie for pole position in front of the fire, and over the years also had competition for space with numerous cats, a Doberman, and even an orphaned baby kangaroo. On Sunday nights in winter we would have jaffles for dinner, which would be cooked in a jaffle-iron over the open fire. I can still taste my jaffle of choice – ham, cheese and pineapple – and still feel the third degree mouth burns I’d get from the scaldingly hot pineapple juice.
In the mid 1970s a massive storm obliterated whole sections of the city, and our house was badly damaged. The verandah at the front was closed in, and my brother and I had a bedroom at each end, with a wardrobe placed strategically at each side of the front door to afford us some privacy if someone came knocking. I remember the excitement of having my own space for the first time, with the particular luxury of a power point right next to my bed. In the rest of the house, there were only four power points – one in the lounge room, one in the kitchen, one in the main bedroom, and one in the laundry. Everything was powered from those three single points by a series of extension leads and double adaptors, so to have a power point of my very own was nothing short of wonderful.
As great as the power point was, the toilet was still outside, and when I was about six my parents started refusing to escort me at night, thinking I was now old enough to walk the five steps from the back door to the loo and back on my own. I wasn’t scared of the dark when I was indoors, but as soon as I set foot outside I was terrified. I developed the ability to pee with such rapidity that if it had been an Olympic sport, I would have been sent off to represent my country as a urinating child prodigy. The toilet itself was also a bit scary because it was of a very old style – the cistern mounted high on the wall, with a chain that you pulled to flush. Early one Sunday morning as I finished my constitutional wee and yanked down on the chain, the whole cistern came off the wall and narrowly missed taking me out as it fell down onto the dunny seat. I can still remember my father mumbling under his breath as he came out to investigate how in the hell a 6-year-old had managed to break the toilet at 5am on the one day of the week he got to sleep in.
By the time I was around eight, both my brothers had grown up and left home and so I took possession of a whole room of my own, complete with a doorway and an actual door. A couple of years later the owners of the house decided to sell, so my parents took the plunge and decided to buy it. They were both blue-collar workers, and in the late 80s and early 90s, mortgage interest rates climbed up around 17%, so rather than renovating the house, they concentrated on not losing it. Over the years, the house had bits and pieces done to it, but all by dodgy mates of my Dad who’d work on weekends for beer, or my Dad himself who was neither particular nor proud when it came to his own handiwork.
Just as the interest rates came down Dad became seriously ill and had to have a kidney removed, and on the back of that was made redundant. Owing to my mother’s working of double shifts in hard, physical jobs and money managing ability, they managed to keep the house and pay it off, but it began to fall to rack and ruin as they couldn’t afford any repairs. This continued for 20 years, with things only being repaired or replaced if they became dangerous. Despite this, my Dad loved this house with all his heart, which broke into a thousand pieces when he was taken away one day in an ambulance and was told he would never return.
53 years after my parents moved into the house in William Street, my Mum still lives there. The house is not comfortable, or probably even safe, especially for an elderly lady, but there is a magic about William Street, and the people who live there, that make her want to stay. In the past half century, the suburb has been gentrified, and her tired old tumbledown cottage sits amongst tastefully renovated homes occupied by professional families with children who attend private schools. But she is surrounded by the familiar, and the neighbours are incredibly kind and generous, and look out for and after her. Earlier this year she contemplated moving, because she cannot afford to fix the house, and whilst she made all the right noises when we visited modern brick retirement villages on the other side of town, her heart wasn’t in it.
I was at a loss as to what to do. I wanted my mother, a woman who has never had very much at all, to enjoy whatever remains of her life. She would learn to like living in the retirement village, and would make friends and maybe go on a day trip or two. She wouldn’t have the neighbours dog to pat (or chastise when it barks), she wouldn’t have the lady next door taking her to the supermarket every Friday, she wouldn’t be able to swap oranges from her tree for eggs from the neighbour’s chickens. She wouldn’t be the older neighbour that everyone kept an eye on, who loved chatting to the kids and noticing when they lost a tooth or learned to ride a bike. Part of her identity would go, and I felt helpless to prevent it.
And then, out of the blue one Saturday morning, Dave suggested that maybe we could buy the house in William Street from Mum, and fix it up and enable her to live there for as long as she wanted. And so we went to the bank, who said yes because my Mum, who back in her day had to drop out of school in year 9, had paid for me to go to university so I could get a well-paying job. And then the architect who lives next door in the impressively renovated house, that all through my childhood was the neat as a pin old joint owned by Bill Boyle whose only son had died in the war, said he’d do the plans. And the lawyer from the other neighbouring house, where an old lady called Mary lived until she died in the 80s, said she’d do the conveyancing. And so it unfolded.
Today, we have the final plans for Project Number 1608, and next week the builders will come. My beautiful Mum, who is without a doubt the most decent human being I have ever met, will come and live with us for the duration, and will no doubt shit me to tears by about day three. Possibly day two. Similarly, she will also have had enough of me by that point, but will have her beloved Hugh, and her almost equally beloved son-in-law Dave, as a buffer. We have a big house, and we will muddle through, and if it all becomes too much Mum can take her hearing aids out and we’ll all get along much better.
Fast forward a few months (please let it be a few) and she will be back in William Street, living for the very first time in her life, in a house with a new kitchen and a new bathroom. There will be not one, but two toilets inside the house! There will be multiple power points in every room, air-conditioning, a dishwasher (which will no doubt remain untouched), and big glass doors to let the sun stream in so she can sit in her favourite chair and do sudokus and crossword puzzles. There’ll be a little deck out the back where she can sit and admire her garden, where her orange tree will still grow, and where she will still be able to tell the neighbour’s dog Max to shut up. She will still be able to wave to the neighbourhood kids, get fresh eggs, cadge a ride to the supermarket, and be part of this beautiful little community that means the world to her.
My late Dad, who never wanted to leave this place, has not been forgotten in all of this. We will be sprinkling his ashes into the foundations of the rebuild, so he will always be part of the story of William Street, Project Number 1608.