Skip to main content

The empty house.

It was a hot summer morning and the gumtrees in the middle distance had that tick-ticking noise. I was sitting on a chair at a table outside the quietest café in inner Melbourne overlooking a golf course that stretched away up an incline bisected by a tramline. I sat and watched golfers in ragged groups making their way up the green and out of sight. Trams rolled by slowly as if reluctant to disturb the golfers. The coffee was OK, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it. The silence was enough.

The café was on the eastern end of a large square aged-care hospital building. After an hour I wandered around the corner and back into the sliding glass doors on the south side. She had just finished her occupational therapy lesson and was waddling down a long corridor towards the light accompanied by a therapist who looked like a sumo wrestler. Over the reception and waiting area hung a television broadcasting the Third Test, with subtitles misspelling Shane Warne's jokes. We walked slowly out into the sunshine and up a pathway, past a 1940s chapel building and out into Park Street. I drove her home.

*

I was between Parkville and Carlton all summer long. People complain about parking at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, but I know about a bank of free two-hour spots that are always empty within 300 metres of the front door. I used it a lot over summer. (Clue: behind the Old Melbourne Motor Inn or whatever the graffitied run-down mess is called these days.) Waiting at RMH is easy. There's always plenty to do. I had coffee in the canteen (it is still a canteen despite the baristas and wraps), read the paper, checked back to the ward, and then went out and moved the car to a fresh spot. Still no-one there; yet cars were driving around in circles trying to get a spot directly outside the hospital.

She had had three spells over summer; two falls and a fainting episode. She had stayed in for up to two weeks at a time; this time she was a day patient, to be scanned in one of those tank things. She was finished after a couple of hours and had to lie there for another half hour while the nurse gave her sweet tea to revive her. When she was ready, I brought the car back to the five-minute drop-off outside the front door, brought her down and drove her home.

*

While she was in hospital I kept an eye on the slanting old house I grew up in, and kept the wildly overgrown garden alive. I stood there in silence in the mid-morning sun watering pots; ancient orchids, geraniums, a rose, a cactus; and in one pot, a spiky grass thing that had not been the original inhabitant but had blown in, killed the first occupant and taken over.

Decades flashed backwards in a vortex. The house straightened up; the garden shrank back to a pleasing ordered geometric pattern, a hideous jungle of ivy sunk into the ground uncovering a garage which rebuilt itself; and a mid-blue Holden Belmont rose out of the ground. It was 1967. I was watering potplants. But they were not my mother's; they were potplants in a trellised outbuilding in the house next door. The owner was Mrs Snaith, and she was away on a summer holiday, probably at her daughter-in-law's beach house. She was very old, and she paid me to keep her pots alive and there were hundreds of them. I climbed the fence each day and walked into the kind of quiet I would never forget. Just the drip of the pots on their terraced shelves, and the hiss of the hose.

My own house had seemed a suburb away even though it was just over the fence. I could just hear the muffled throng of summer-holidaying children. I had wondered why I got the job.

Comments

  1. Poignant. I am going through something similar with my parents right now. My best wishes to your mother.

    ReplyDelete
  2. and ditto here too KH. Hope your Mum is OK...not an easy time though, so take care

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The fish that time forgot.

Smoked cod is still available in the fish section of the deli at the supermarket. You just don’t notice it any more. It’s the only fish that has been stocked continuously since the 1950s. I never see anyone buy it. People take numbers and line up for banana prawns and Tasmanian Atlantic salmon and ling and oysters and scallops and that rendered substance they call crab stick, but never the cod . Further, I’ve never seen smoked cod served outside my own kitchen. It is the world’s only food never to have been served in a restaurant . Nor have I ever encountered smoked cod at a dinner party. Plenty of other smoke; smoked salmon, smoked ricotta, smoked beef, smoked gruyère, smoked eel, and in the old days, smoke itself in a couple of varieties; but smoked cod, no. Most tellingly, my mother, who in 1968, when she had seven children at home aged from brand new to seventeen and used to buy several kilograms of the stuff she called 'Cape Cod' weekly, has not served smoked cod at her

The new house.

We picked up the keys last week. I had noticed there are no wire screens on the windows and no evidence of any having ever been there. Inside, the window furnishings are 1950s cream venetian blinds, side drapes of gold satin and filmy lace between. All in good order, just a little dusty. I raised the venetians with some difficulty, they appeared not to have been lifted for a long time. Behind them, the double-hung sash windows are original shellacked cedar, twelve throughout the house. Many of the sashes were stuck. I wrestled them for most of the day. Just one failed to respond. The rest eventually squeaked along their vertical tracks. Every counterweight cord was clean and in perfect condition. Regular use should grey the cords because of the oil or metal stain from pulleys. Amazingly, these windows appear not to have been opened for decades.

Sunshine in a tin: Orange Cake.

Late last week, we drove around the big circle from midday to six o'clock. Midday is Melbourne, six o'clock is the house at the beach and Port Phillip Bay is the clockface. (Ships sail in and out of the bay through a very small and extremely dangerous gap between six thirty-six and six thirty-nine.) The days have been cold and overcast. On Friday, the fog over Arthur's Seat refused to move but hung there as if it were loosely tied down, like a wet tarpaulin on a HQ ute. Later, the sun's rays tried a few exploratory pokes through the mist and then gave up. Saturday was brighter. Out early to the market where we bought a few things, bunch of carrots, bag of potatoes, an old book. It's a farmers' market but they have junk as well if you're bored by vegetables. Then an early lunch outside the Blairgowrie café in pale sunshine amidst the usual Saturday tangle of people and prams and newspapers and dogs. In the afternoon I mowed the lawn and pottered about and

Pug.

Nine-thirty on a glorious late-summer Friday morning, not a cloud in the sky. Twenty-five degrees, a nice fresh salty breeze, not much traffic about, a few shoppers here and there, a delivery van idling in the side street, children back at school, everything back to normal. A man was sitting at a table under a broad umbrella outside the Blairgowrie cafe. He was holding the morning broadsheet out in front of him and he was staring intently at the op-ed page with a deeply furrowed brow. The pug on his knee was also staring at the opinion page but the pug had a mad grin on its face. A waiter brought out a coffee. The man placed the dog gently on the ground with a look that said I'm really, really sorry but coffee is very, very hot and it could burn you if you knock it over. Then the man went on reading the editorials and the pug sat blinking in the sunshine on the end of its leash tied to the leg of the man's chair. The leash was one of those novelty ones you can buy from pet

Cheap vegetable peelers warming the globe: an exclusive Kitchen Hand insight report.

During my recent jaunt around the Victorian countryside, I found myself missing a vegetable peeler, one of the travel essentials I carry in a box in the boot of the car along with salt and pepper, tea and sugar, enamel cups and plates, basic cutlery and a corkscrew. I must have left the peeler in a camping ground or a hotel room. (Vegetable peelers are among mankind’s most lost items: I regularly find several each spring when I turn over the compost bin.) I called into a Coles supermarket in a medium-sized country town, I don’t know, Maryborough or somewhere, and bought a pack of three peelers. I had to buy three because they won't sell you one. The three peelers come affixed to a hanging cardboard display pack; metal-bladed and with red, white and yellow handles respectively. I took them back to where we were staying, untwisted the metal ties with difficulty, removed the first peeler – the red one - and started to scrape a carrot. The blade gave way, crumpling like the bumper

Anyway, they originated in Afghanistan. Or somewhere.

As part of my one-man global campaign to raise the public profile of the humble Brussels sprout, I present the recipe below. I’ve always loved Brussels sprouts. It’s the name I object to. They sound like diminutive Belgians instead of tasty green vegetables with an earthy but mild flavour and a texture that is kind of creamy-soft yet holds together beautifully. Brussels sprouts never go floppy and fall apart like some other vegetables I could name. You can depend on Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts with bacon and pine nuts on polenta. Boil, or over-boil, depending on your preference, your sprouts. Dice some very good bacon (as against bad bacon, of which there is plenty around) and sizzle it in a pan until it is almost crisp, at which point throw in some very finely chopped red onion and a handful of pine nuts. Take the pan off the flame after a minute or two or when the pine nuts are just starting to brown. Meanwhile, cook up a pot of polenta. Actually, start the polenta firs

Vespa or Honda? Astarra or VicSuper? Alessi orange juicer or me? I can't decide.

A buzzing noise, like a loud mosquito coming up the street, got closer and then stopped outside my house. The postman reached across the pelargonium hedge to the letterbox and then buzzed away again on his Australia Post Honda motor scooter. (A friend of mine has a Honda scooter; he loves it. He told me it runs on nothing and you don’t look like you’re pretending to be someone when you park it outside a Lygon Street café. You look like a postman going out for coffee instead , I said back to him. Better that than looking like a poseur, he said, and anyway, Vespas break down. We joke like this all the time. It doesn’t mean anything.) I fished the mail out of the letterbox and reminded myself to prune the pelargonium. The first envelope had the name Astarra on the front. The letter inside had a headline that read: Significant Event Notice . That means kiss goodbye to your superannuation in a language spawned by bureaucrat-enforced transparency laws. The rest of the letter was about

What if newspaper editors sacked their restaurant reviewers and employed truck drivers to write them instead?

There’d be less of this: ... the tiramisu is a studied but respectful deconstruction ... mains are artfully strewn ... the decent-enough $54 rib eye steak comes with a sauce (red wine) that I think we paid extra for. ... It's Texas meets Chiang Mai ... comes with mustard ice-cream ... the purist in me is screaming ... truffled butter with the house-baked rolls, an amuse bouche, a pre-dessert palate cleanser ... fish is a better bet if food miles are an issue ... Aztec-inspired dishes informed by his recent six-week field trip ... the menu doesn't follow the typical gradient of antipasti, zuppa, primi piatti, but respects its spirit by moving on to braised goat from the wood oven. And more of this: Bimbo’s is one of the old-timers among the eating places along the Hume Highway. It’s at Bargo, about 60 miles out of Sydney. The roadhouse is close to the highway but there’s a huge parking area alongside, and getting off the road is no problem. Day or night, you’ll always find a cou

A shorter history of the Sunday roast, with a recipe for a rainy Sunday night.

The Sunday roast was a childhood fixture. Let me qualify that. It was a fixture until I was about ten years of age, then it slowly disappeared, like the Latin Mass at about the same time. Perhaps there were too many children to feed. Maybe my mother went through a vegetarian phase, or just couldn’t be bothered doing it any more. I don’t remember. The era passed. While the tradition lasted, the roast was usually ovine. That is to say, sheep. But not lamb. This concept is completely foreign to modern sensibilities: Not lamb? What other kind of edible sheep is there? The same kind actually; just older. The roast we were served was often leg of two-tooth, two-tooth being a farmers’ reference (my grandmother was raised in southern NSW) to a sheep of more than 12 months, otherwise known as hogget; or sometimes leg of mutton, from a sheep older than two years. Lamb is generally considered more tender … but two-tooth, or mutton, cooked properly, had more flavour. And was larger. We were sti

The taste of tea in the morning.

It was still dark, but the birds were twittering and tweeting. I sat up and realised those verbs didn’t work any more. More perfectly good words gone forever. I felt my way to the kitchen, found the kettle and put it on. Then I switched the light on. I could have done that first, but I hadn’t been able to find the light switch, and the faint light from the east-facing window had led me to the kettle first. That’s what happens in when you’re in an unfamiliar house. At least I hadn’t clocked myself on an overhanging mantel, or a door ajar. The kettle hummed and then clicked off and I poured the water into a brown ceramic teapot over loose leaves of Tuckfields Tynee Tips tea, the name of which product once led to an alliterative jingle that once heard, could never be forgotten. I haven't. * We were staying in a renovated 1940s timber house in the middle of town. It had polished floors, an east-facing kitchen, two bedrooms, and a lounge furnished with comfortable chairs and a b