Somehow we ended up in Cootamundra. I never plan, I just drive and arrive somewhere towards the end of the day. You often discover places you never knew.
I had known Cootamundra, of course, having been based there years ago when I was working for a research firm. I had to visit farms around the district and interview farmers. It was slow work. It is a very hospitable area and some days I ate several morning teas and two lunches.
This time we drove in before five and I stopped outside the tourist information office. It was about to close. What have you got, I asked the lady. What have you got, she countered. A wife and three children, I replied. Try the Elm and Wren, she said. They'll like it. Here, we'll get them on the phone. They’re very accommodating in the country. Wouldn't happen in the city. They'd throw a brochure at you.
Half an hour later. The Elm and Wren was a 1940s red brick two-storey commercial building. They were usually built as banks, with enormous double timber doors, neat sash upstairs windows and a squared-off design. This one had been built as a nurses' residential unit for the Cootamundra hospital. The south-west wing faced the street with a new double glass door in the centre and a walk-up pathway beneath a narrow verandah. Another wing stretched north behind, making the building an L-shape. The square severity was alleviated at the end of each wing by a series of panoramic curved glass windows, a last flicker of art deco amidst 1940s austerity.
The place had become the Elm and Wren guesthouse after laying empty and unused for some years. Having been built to house working nurses, the rooms were small and functional. It took three rooms to house us; adults in one, children in the other two. We were the only guests. If you're going to stay in a guesthouse, this is the way to do it. Book the place to yourself. It was enormous. The bathrooms were at one end of the wing; the dining room a two-minute hungry stroll down the other end; bedrooms scattered in between. A fully-stocked self-serve kitchen was adjacent to the dining room. I made myself at home. The children pretended they were in a haunted house full of empty rooms and secrets and went off to find ghosts.
Dinner was at a table large enough for twelve at one end of the dining room. It was like one of those old 1940s movies where the butler wheels the meal in on a trolley and the guests tinkle glasses and speak in low tones about serious subjects, like a murder in the vicarage. But there were no low tones here.
I was the butler. I served a simple meal of pasta in a kind of tomato-based tuna sauce flecked with chopped black olives and an optional touch of chilli for the adults, scattered with flaked parmesan cheese and basil from the herb garden I had found earlier when walking around the grounds before dinner. Green salad accompanied.
Some hours later, the children had vanished, never to be seen again until morning. We had moved to one of the enormous leather sofas on the other side of the fireplace. A couple of occasional tables were scattered with old magazines; not artfully like something out of a designer's office, but realistically as if several people had been reading them and had just left them there.
The clock chimed eleven. The fridge in the kitchen stopped humming and the silence was suddenly eerie. A lava lamp contorted soundlessly and ironically on the sideboard. Then, a noise upstairs. The house ghost? A dead nurse, murdered in the 1950s by a jealous boyfriend? Noises in unfamiliar houses always intrigue.
The Elm and Wren
37 Hurley Street
New South Wales
Kitchen Hand rating: Five Stars