It was just before nine o'clock on a winter Saturday morning in 1971. I was a teenager. I stood before an enormous old house, a late Victorian in central Essendon, near the station. It had verandahs all round and a soaring roofline, and it was set back from the street behind a front garden lined with mature shrubs.
I pushed open the gate, walked up the tiled pathway, took three steps up to the verandah and pressed the bell-push set into the stained glass panel beside the front door. A muffled chime echoed somewhere inside, as if far away. Time passed. Eventually the door opened, seemingly by itself.
The woman who stood there was ancient and massive, like the house. She had requested someone to do some weekend odd jobs in her garden, and I had been nominated; but I cannot remember how it came about. It is one those circumstances lost in the mists of time. It was my first job.
I announced myself. The old woman led me down a gloomy hallway, through an enormous kitchen that still had a wood stove, and out a doorway into the back garden. It was slightly overgrown, but still quite neat, with Victorian-era stone pathways, shrubberies, a central lawn and trellised vegetable garden at the back, accessed by a gate that felt like it hadn't been opened in any recent time. She showed me the garden tools in the cobwebbed shed. They were covered in dust, as if untouched for years. There was no evidence of any human activity anywhere; and, for some reason, it seemed miraculous that the woman was still there, alive. She would have been well into her nineties. Her children must have left and her husband passed on decades earlier.
Suddenly, I was alone in the silent winter sunshine. The woman had disappeared back into the house. I weeded pathways and turned over rock hard soil in the flower beds that no longer had any flowers. A couple of hours passed and I was in the vegetable garden, weeding in profound silence, when the gate squeaked behind me. The woman appeared, with a plate. Morning tea: biscuits and a piece of fruit cake. They were old and stale, and I felt a rush of pity. She must have had them in an old tin or barrel for months, ready for visitors who never came. So I got them. I worked for three hours, nine to midday, and she paid me at the end, extracting coins with leathery hands from an old purse.
Every Saturday through that winter of 1971 she appeared at the same time with the plate of morning tea, and I made the same pretence of eating as she vanished back into the house, and I continued making progress with the weeds. But then the job ended. Apparently she died.
It was definitely 1971. My diary records it. But decades later, the house came up for sale. I attended the auction and inspected the record of title. There had been several owners since I had worked there, but the title registered the original sale as 20 October 1970, the property passing from the executors of the estate of a ninety-year-old widow by the name of Mrs Fleming to a young family, with a settlement of 12 months. The house had lain empty for a year.