Of course, we used to visit relatives there. Still do.
The new freeways have cut the trip to the Dandenongs by about 45 minutes. My father used to take Elgin, Johnson, Studley Park, Barkers, Canterbury and Burwood; a tour of Melbourne’s Victorian and Edwardian streetscape and architecture. On the freeway, you get to look at these.
I took the Monash freeway to Eastlink, ignored the faux art, hooked off and under at Ferntree Gully Road and then up into the hills. Within twenty minutes, we were curving into the narrow main street of Belgrave, where the shops seem to lean into the road like eager spruikers trying to shoulder each other out of the way.
Past the strip, we turned south across the railway bridge, coasted down the hill into a long gully and turned into an unmade road that followed the bank of a creek towards a forest.
We were visiting a relative. I had had to consult a map, because the relative had recently moved house. We found the house on the high side of the gravel road, on a west-facing slope that dropped down to the street and Belgrave Creek beyond it. Behind the house, a 1960s timber cottage, the slope rose at an impossible angle through a terraced garden, overgrown with rhododendron, camellia, photinia and any number of natives. At the top of it all, along a high ridge, was a line of eucalypts and bare poplars. These would be invisible on a foggy day.
The car crunched to a stop on a gravel forecourt and we climbed the timber steps to a verandah. The front door opened. The relative smiled us in. “Like the house? It’s a bit of a mess. I haven’t finished unpacking yet.”
Does anyone ever finish unpacking? I’ve moved four times in ten years and I still haven’t opened boxes from the first move.
“It’s great. And the view!”
The relative smiled again. Happy in a kind of tired, relieved way. She looked around as if she couldn’t believe she was in a new house. Maybe she couldn’t.
They were divorced a year or so ago. Now the children travel to and from their father's house in a kind of a daze, and not just from being teenagers.
A lot of people in this situation. Careening through their thirties and forties, carrying the baggage of their lives, and several hundred books, and a brand new mortgage for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, to a new place; a bit quieter and a bit lonelier. Don't think about the mortgage. It will look after itself. Or not. But never leave the books behind.
We sat on chairs on the veranda at the front with cups of coffee and watched the kookaburras in the treetops, beyond the gravel road and the trickling water. A small valley with a stream running through it. Later, we walked along the pathway that follows the creek into the State forest where coloured birds – crimson rosellas – swooped raggedly, in groups but no real formation, through the clearings in stands of eucalypts. There were bellbirds as well. Their call is unmistakable. It whips and echoes. I remember the sound from years ago, climbing up a block in forested Selby, when there were no houses, just dreams.
The boys and I looked down from a ridge edged with treeferns. Down below, two women - sisters - chatting, out of earshot, at the edge of the trees. Laughing like the teenagers they were then, when they lived in the draughty house in the Dandenongs.