The property at number 49 Alwyn St was set back from the street frontage and fence line, almost reclusively set amongst the sprawling plot of land that easily accommodated the large rambling old double storey Edwardian house as well as the caretaker’s cottage.
The garden layout was generous, if a little in need of a strong dexterous green thumb. It was obviously maintained to a degree of pruned and mown verges featuring a mix of traditional flora and more exotic examples of wishful thinking.
The yards were dominated by a tall centrally placed Canary Island Date Palm in the front and a jungle like border of large pointed fronds spanning the rear of the equally large back yard, almost like a perimeter defence. These hung over the lawn and swayed like a huge massed squad of scarecrows on the breeze, threatening to overtake the space unless they were kept cut right back or trussed up as one might the legs of a big game bird.
Agapanthus and hydrangeas featured as a foil to the eye in a bid to achieve a display of conventional familiarity, while defiantly flying the colours of the women’s suffrage movement.
The Loquat trees that bordered the long driveway proved equally popular with the birds and burdensome to the task of sweeping up the fruit dropped on the flagstone paving. An assortment of other plants including jade, miniature conifers, liquid amber trees and pine adorned the block and kept alive the mystery for the casual observer as to who the visionary original landscaper might have been.
As property owner, and manageress of the rooming house facility that occupied the main building, Margaret Hornsby-Smith knew very well who was responsible. Her first husband Lars had bequeathed the place to her after his untimely death saw his wife left a widow in her mid-twenties.
It was Lars who had renovated the old house and seen to the creation of the garden using what could be reclaimed from the formerly neglected mature vestiges of European and subtropical plantings. However, nary a single eucalypt had had a look in. Compared to the some of the neighbours, this was one reason number 49 stood out as unusual.
Another alleged difference could be said to be the existence of the detached cottage where Margaret lived with her two children. Except in days gone by when a property might have had a stable, no other houses could claim the existence of a separate dwelling, unless in the form of a so called ‘granny flat’ or bungalow more commonly used as a poolside retreat or pad for rambunctious teenagers.
A nuclear family was another proposition altogether. And what detonated this idea was the fact that Margaret lived alone with Anne and Antony. At 10 and 15, they were wise beyond their years; certainly considering their being half siblings neither of whom had grown up with a father figure. Yet it couldn’t be said that they had lacked for others in close quarters who had opened their eyes to individual quirks.
For a suburb like Camberwell in the well-to-do eastern suburbs of Melbourne during the 1980s, such comings and goings witnessed at number 49 did not go unnoticed; but, then again, this didn’t seem quite so unusual as to be at odds with the prevailing winds. Certain trends could not be denied or viewed as contrary to what was coming to pass as its own affirmation of things that abide.
Not that there were any complaints of a nature to foster much animosity, but there were murmurings in terms of just how and why a single mother would turn her estate into the equivalent of a halfway house. Economic sense was only just coming into its own as something fashionably viable beyond the pages of Vogue.
The difference was that Lars Mansion catered to clientele who had to vouch a clean and reputable record enough to deflect any suspicion of character. Not exactly itinerants or reprobates in the eyes of the law, the inhabitants of the mansion had justifiable cause to call it their home away from home.
“Did you see the bats last night?”
Antony was doing his bit to help with the maintenance of the garden and stood beside the hydrangeas with hose in hand and struck up conversation with Bert as he strode up the driveway to go and get his lotto ticket.
“Bloody feral pests if you ask me. You know they can spread disease? Rabies. You don’t want to get bitten by one.”
Antony adjusted the spray control on the hose nozzle and redirected his stream.
“They’re not exactly vampire bats, you know. More like flying foxes. Although, they do cause a riot in the botanic gardens. What we see every night in summer is the colony from Yarra Bend flying out for a feeding frenzy. Still kinda spooky when you see them with a big full moon for a backdrop.”
Bert scrutinised the spray of water over the abundant plants.
“I think you missed a clump there.”
Antony was tempted to again redirect his stream, this time towards Bert’s sandal shod feet, but thought better of antagonising this long standing resident. Even though the natural habitat for this prickly pear of a pom seemed to be immersed in liquid – more of your amber fluid variety – and having the good cheer to indulge the kids in water fights on hot summer afternoons over the school break, the sobriety of the situation warranted respect.
Antony saluted the former navy diver and aimed his spray where directed.
“You’re a cheeky know-it-all, aren’t you? Flying foxes? What next? Flying pink elephants, I’ll bet. You won’t read about that in National Geographic. I’m off to get a Tattersalls.”
With that Bert continued on his way, while the resident bat watcher continued watering the plants.
Antony knew exactly why Bert didn’t need a sports bag to buy a lotto ticket and paper. And he knew where he stashed the long neck bottles of Fosters and VB so his wife Sybil wouldn’t find them. Which isn’t to say she was none the wiser to his carry on. It just seemed to Antony that this behaviour belied the apparent bliss conveyed in the wedding photo they had propped on top of the sideboard in the communal lounge. She was dressed all in white with a demure veil while Bert commanded your attention dressed in his naval uniform.
It had been Margaret’s idea for the residents to share a part of themselves by choosing a special photo to put on display and no one seemed to bat an eyelid when the suggestion was made. It made sense because you really couldn’t hide from anyone in this house, so you might as well conform to tradition or confirm that you might be hiding something.
In Bert’s case, he was. Apart from the beer bottles, Antony knew the couple slept apart; she in the bed and Bert on the fold down couch.
Sybil had confided in Margaret who let it slip to the kids. They hadn’t thought it so unusual, given their own previous sleeping arrangements – Antony on the divan in the family room and Anne sleeping with mum until she was nine. The cottage had been a cramped affair until an extension had been added and two extra rooms gave the kids their long sought after privacy.
The layout of the house consisted of four bedrooms on the first floor and four on the second level. The kitchen and communal living room were also on the first floor, with another multi-purpose area upstairs. Two bathrooms were shared upstairs and downstairs with two separate toilets apiece. Privacy was not an issue for the residents who respected their fellow householders’ right to personal space and valued the need for the separation of engendered modesty; almost akin to the separation of powers and mutual independence of church and state.
The atmosphere was a mix of school camp dormitory and hotel. A sense of holiday makers making do with their circumstances en route to a better alternative permeated the building and infused the attitudes of the occupants with a conviction that they were the fortunate key holders to a future domain reserved for them as a reward for their travails.
Bert and Sybil’s room was downstairs along with those of two females and an older male. Four males resided upstairs as conscripted brothers in arms who did not begrudge their service to a higher common cause of avoiding being homeless.
A duty to get along with one another was conditional on them actually finding each other interesting and supportive. They didn’t consider themselves a charity, but invested a tolerance necessary for such a social experiment to succeed and minimise any discord.
The smooth operator upstairs was Matt, who was an exchange student from a college in Arizona. He had originally been with a host family, but issues with a sibling caused enough friction for him to decide that he was better off out on his own. He only had another nine months to go so the mansion seemed like a practical and affordable solution.
At twenty he still retained enough adolescent enthusiasm and lust for life to be able to relate to Antony who, in turn, thought of him as a temporary big brother on loan.
Margaret fondly agreed to take him in after he had been referred by a friend of the family who worked at the university campus where he was placed for the exchange program. She occasionally thought of him as an adoptive son and for all intents and purposes considered him a member of the family. Just as she did not only a couple of the other young ones, but all the tenants, short term or long.
Antony was hosing out the rubbish bin when Matt came jogging by on his way for a run down at the local reserve.
“That looks like fun. Wanna come for a run?”
“Hey, Matt. Nah, I’ve got to finish a few things for mum. Maybe a hit in the nets a little later if you like.”
“Sure thing. I think I’m finally getting the hang of your cricket game.”
“You’ve definitely modified your stance and it’s not so much a heave-ho swing any more. I can help you with the bowling action if you want.”
“Yeah, my pitch is a bit off the mark. I feel like a windmill.”
“It might not be second nature just yet. You’ll get there. You’ll have to find a local club back home so you can impress them with your own take on the game.”
“You know I think there are some clubs. Not sure about Arizona, though.”
Matt had been lightly jogging on the spot throughout this exchange.
“Anyway, I’m set to run off last night’s takeaway. I’ll see you later if you’re up for a bat and bowl.”
“Yeah. Definitely. You know where to find me if I’m still not outside enjoying this warm weather.”
“Will do, bud. Catch you later.”
And he was off.
Antony knew Matt’s father worked in real estate, or advertising, or something that meant he was not short of spending money. No wonder he ate out so much. He liked a good night and asked Antony if he could recommend any good bars.
He was nonplussed to learn that they were living in a dry area and would have to go to a pub in another suburb or to the CBD to get away from the bylaw’s curse. Alcohol influenced anti-social behaviour was not tolerated in this neck of the woods. The suburb’s protective affluence and century old temperance movement held sway.
Antony had seen him studying Kate when she wasn’t looking; in such a way that he could only be entertaining certain intimate prospects.
Not that he really blamed him. She was 18 and from Sale in country Victoria where her family ran a dairy farm. She had come to Melbourne to study nursing and was waiting until the new term began when her aunt, uncle and cousin would return from overseas and she would go to live with them.
Antony suspected that she was not quite so innocent as she gave you cause to believe. There was a hint of anxious desperation just beneath her concealing foundation and which presented itself in the way she preened her long hair while talking to you, or the way in which she took such pride in hanging all her delicate scanties on the communal washing line as if an invitation to be ogled.
Margaret had spoken with her about this. The main line was really supposed to be for larger items like bedding, towels and heavy clothes like jumpers or jeans.
There was a dedicated smaller extendable line either side of the old shed that now housed outdoor furniture, barbecue equipment and bags of old potting mix.
One line was for the men of the house and their personal garments, the other for the ladies and theirs.
Kate had been apologetic, but Margaret did not want to unnecessarily embarrass her if she continued to peg up the occasional pieces of aerobics gear. After all, it had already been several years since the Let’s Get Physical fad. And besides, she had been sweet enough to give Anne jazz ballet lessons out on the back lawn before she started her own as a way to help her gain a little more confidence.
Antony had decided to turn his hand to the cottage guttering and give them a good clean out before any summer thunder storms hit, and had removed his shirt in the late morning sun. He stood on the extension ladder in an old pair of shorts, cricket hat and tennis shoes.
The first part consisted of going round with a bucket, small brush and old barbecue spatula to dislodge and remove the build-up of leaves, their decomposed matter and granular deposits of clay-like debris that had come away from the grouting around the tiles.
Next would come the hose to finally clear away the residual trace elements. Antony took great satisfaction from his honed methodical approach and applied the same ritual processes in the garden whenever he mowed the lawn, pruned the shrubs or swept up the driveway. If only he could apply the same approach to his studies. He was able to get by without doing too much study outside of classes, but he would need to overhaul his practise before he started the Higher School Certificate in the next couple of years. At the moment he was on cruise control. Still, he always looked forward to the summer break when he was able to read the prescribed English texts for the next year. His mind had turned to the book Fly Away Peter, by David Malouf, when his attention was distracted from below.
“Planning on scaling the heights are we?”
It was Kate with Anne in tow, heading for the backyard rehearsal patch.
“Don’t fall, Tony”, warned Anne in a teasing tone.
“You’re just lucky I don’t have the hose turned on.”
“You wouldn’t dare. We’d squeal so loud to your mum your ears would bleed.”
A silence, rather than a body, fell from the ladder.
“Tony has selective hearing.”
“Thanks Anne for the diagnosis. I must admit that was an interesting image coming from a farm girl training to be a nurse.”
“I still reckon you wouldn’t have the guts.”
Anne begged to differ.
“I still haven’t got him back for tipping a bucket of water over me as I came down the drive on my bike at the back of the house.”
“I couldn’t waste the car washing water now, could I?”
“Don’t worry, Anne. We’ll think of a plan.”
The girls walked off dismissively.
Antony had remained composed during the banter and had made a concerted attempt not to let his eyes fall from Kate’s face. She had made a definitive statement by choosing to wear a pink Day-Glo boob tube paired with her leggings, leg warmers and sneakers. The attention seeking was not lost on him, however much he managed to resist lowering the tone and giving into what he knew was her intention.
He would have to see to it that Anne wasn’t unduly influenced by her newfound role model, while at the same time avoid giving into Kate’s need for the thrill of the lure.
Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table when Antony came inside the cottage after finishing the gutters.
“Thanks for all your hard work, darling. You must be hungry. There are some Vienna sausages from the deli in the fridge if you want to make a couple of hot dogs. The fresh rolls are in the pantry, so help yourself.”
“Perfect, mum. Just what I feel like. Have you eaten?”
“I have, love. Just some herrings in tomato sauce on Ryvita. And now the cuppa I’ve been craving since getting back from the junction. Do you want one?”
“Nah, I’ll be fine with some milk. What about Anne?”
Antony moved about the kitchen as he prepared his lunch.
“Been and gone. She finished her routine with Kate and said they’d get something to eat on the way to the pool.”
Antony came and sat opposite his mum while the sausages simmered on the stove.
“She’s spending an awful lot of time with her. What about her own friends? I haven’t seen Diana in ages. Do you think it’s such a good thing to encourage her dependence on someone twice her age who will be gone in a matter of weeks?”
“I don’t see the harm. It’s just innocent fun with someone who’s like a big sister. You’ve got Matt to play with. What’s the difference?”
“Play with? I’m teaching him the finer points of cricket. How long should I boil the frankfurts?”
“Can you boil an egg?”
“Well that should do it.”
Antony got up and applied himself to the task of assembling his hot dogs, complete with sauerkraut and mustard, while he kept up the conversation.
“She’s an awful tease.”
“And who would that be?”
“Kate of course.”
“Well, she’s young and full of spirit, I guess. It’s quite natural. Don’t tell me you don’t get a little thrill out of it yourself.”
“But, I’m a younger man.”
Margaret almost choked on her tea for laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“You, my son. You. You should take it as a compliment.”
Antony sat back down at the table with his lunch.
“What if she tries something with Matt or someone?”
“Do I detect a little jealousy?”
“No. I’m just concerned for the state of the house. We have a good name to uphold. She could set a cat amongst the pigeons if we’re not careful.”
“Well, just remember she also has a reputation to uphold. Wouldn’t want word getting back to the farm or for me to tell it like it is to her or her aunt.”
“Are you gonna read her the riot act?”
“Don’t worry. She has her wits about her. Remember that appearances can be misleading.”
“Well, she should think about the signals she gives off. You don’t want Anne to get the wrong impression and follow her lead.”
“Anne’s got more sense than you give her credit for. Let her enjoy the company and the school holidays without making her feeling you’re spying on her. Remember, she’s only ten years old. We all need a someone to take our mind off ourselves. We should be grateful she’s not dwelling on Puss.”
Antony dropped the subject and finished his lunch.
“Are you going to spend some time with Des today?”
Margaret was staring at her son’s back as he stood at the sink to rinse his dishes.
She discerned a visible tension come across his shoulders, the running water covering for his tentative reply.
He placed the dishes in the rack and turned to face his mother.
“I suppose I have to, don’t I.”
Margaret shifted her weight and lifted the teapot to gauge its level of abiding comfort.
“You don’t have to really do anything you don’t want to. You’re not really a child anymore and have to make your own decisions. But, just think about how he must feel. If you think about it, we’re all in this together. Just check in with him and see how he’s doing.”
Antony had folded his arms as she spoke.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to be the cause of any disharmony, would I.”
“Is that a question or a wish?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll go. I’m surprised I haven’t already seen him today. Isn’t Saturday when he washes the car? I just hope he doesn’t ask me to play a round.”
“There you go with your wishful thinking again. How bad could it be?”
Antony had changed out of his guttering gear into more leisurely summer attire less immediately recognisable as befitting the characteristics of self-imposed labour.
He had headed up to the house but only got so far as the front porch where he found Xu apparently waiting for an expected visitor.
“Ni hao, Simon. How is your Saturday going?”
Xu had chosen Simon as his English name after all the Simon Says games he had played learning the rudiments of the language.
“Ni hao, Tony. I am going. I wait for Raff to pick me up. Have extra class to go.”
“Oh, right. OK. I thought he had the night shift and would still be in bed. That’s good of him. Not that he would turn down a fare, even to a friend.”
Xu craned his neck to see behind Antony at the sound of a car. Not the taxi he was expecting.
“He go to car wash first then come back for me.”
“Car wash, eh? I’d do it if he wanted.”
“He is fair to a friend. I happy to pay. Not far to go, but it is his job.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
Xu was a pharmacology student from Xi’an and was furthering his studies in Melbourne at Swinburne Institute. He was a serious, erudite young man in his mid-20s who was eager to share his knowledge of his home. Antony had been just as eager to learn about the Silk Road and the Terracotta Army as they chatted over games of chess, Chinese chequers (by which Xu was most bemused as they hardly held any resemblance to the Xiangqi game he had been taught by his grandfather) or being taught by Xu how to play Mahjong.
“Argument is won before speaking. Or no talk keep you safe.”
“I’ll remember that. Maybe we can play some chess tomorrow if you like.”
“This would be good. I go now.”
Raff pulled into the drive and nosed his Silver Top towards the porch.
He claimed to be between his real job of surveyor and was supplementing his wherewithal with a stint as taxi driver until a new opening in the Pilbara, where he had joined a regular crew each dry season for engineering projects in support of the mining industry.
He was a larrikin with a penchant for football and horse racing. He had been flush since the Cup but had still been driving every second day or night depending on the needs of the car’s owner. It suited him.
Antony wondered how he could sustain his energy levels and be so quick to drop everything to give Xu a lift. The fare went some way to explaining it.
“G’day Tony. Going to be a warm weekend.”
He had hopped out of the car and come round to the porch. Xu opened the back passenger door and placed his satchel and book bags on the back seat. He stood by impatiently, checking his watch and squinting up into the sky.
“Hi Raff. You off for the rest of it?”
“Nup. Going to pull a double tonight but will have tomorrow off. Might go to the races out at Werribee. You can come for the drive if you want.”
“Thanks, Raff. Think I’ll have to stay around here. Getting stuff done before Christmas. You know. Car looks good.”
“Yep, the car wash at the junction does a pretty good job. I notice Des hasn’t washed his yet. I can always tell. He loves to paint his tyres as the finishing touch, eh? Bet your mum will have a fit if he ever gets any on the drive.”
“I reckon she’d let him know. Anyway, I don’t want to keep you two. Simon has to get to an extra class.”
Xu ever so slightly bowed at the neck and impulsively decided to readjust his belt and did it up an extra notch.
“OK, prof. Hop in. I’ll get you to the lab in time.”
Raff acted the part of chauffeur and opened the front passenger door.
As he moved away from the car to make his way round to the driver’s side, he stopped momentarily and imparted a gem of wisdom under his breath to Antony.
“The way things are going in the mining boom and the projected terms of trade, he and his compatriots could very well end up making all the difference to the economy. Let’s hope Hawke and Keating have their finger on the pulse.”
He patted Antony on the shoulder and jumped in the driver’s seat.
Antony looked in at the taxi’s passenger who acknowledged him with a sidelong glance and smile.
Raff revved the engine a couple of times and cruised up and out of the driveway with a couple of quick toots of the horn.
Something he’d heard a little while back suddenly passed over Antony’s mind as a cloud would the sun on an otherwise clear blue sky day.
Matt had said in passing that he was positive he’d seen Raff involved in some kind of transaction in a lane close to the Greyhound Hotel over in Kew.
He couldn’t be sure, but it looked very much like Raff was either buying or selling something not quite legit.
Antony dismissed it as a matter of mistaken identity, wanting to believe in the rough though cultured persona he saw in the flannelette shirt wearing and Asimov reading individual he’d assembled in his mind’s eye. He’s said as much to Matt and to keep it under his hat; which had confused him no end as it was evening, they were under cover and he’d left his cap in his room. Yet another idiom to be explained.
He couldn’t help now but think that perhaps there had been a grain of truth to Matt’s observations. If he was the seller it was in keeping with his commercial interests. Alternatively, if he was the buyer then this might explain his wide-eyed fascination with double shifts. Either seemed plausible.
As did the prospects of setting foot in the house.
Antony went in and did not have to search far to find Des. He was sitting in the downstairs communal lounge reading the Sun News Pictorial.
“Hello son. It’s a late start to the day, isn’t it?”
Antony stood opposite the couch and peered into the dim corner only illuminated by the standing lamp. He had the urge to go and pull back the curtains to let the sunlight in, but restrained himself out of courtesy to the shadowy figure addressing him.
“I’ve been on bin and gutter duty. Only just had lunch. I didn’t see you washing the car.”
Des put the paper on the coffee table and readjusted his glasses.
“Planning to do it this afternoon. Played a round of golf this morning instead. A better way to start the day I cannot conceive. You can join me tomorrow if you want to improve your game. Can’t play cricket all the time, you know. Anyway, it’ll improve your hand-eye coordination.”
Antony had moved over to the small bird cage and chirped at the budgies.
“I’m playing in the practise nets this afternoon with Matt. He’s a fast learner. Still tempted to pitch the ball from time to time and his batting stance could still use some work. Not bad considering his very late intro.”
“You go ahead. As I said, I plan to wash the car and make an early start on tea. Your mum would like a hand, I’m sure. Any plans for tonight?”
Antony had turned his attention to the other couch that formed an L shape in that same corner. He busied himself rearranging the cushions.
“Not really. Might go to Edward’s place to watch a video or go see a movie.”
It was then he noticed that someone had left the VCR turned on and went over to make things right.
“What, not Crocodile Dundee again? That Paul Hogan makes me laugh.”
“Nah. Once was enough. Either Ghostbusters on video or there’s a new music movie on. Stop Making Sense.”
“I wish I could, son. I wish I could…”
“Spinal Tap looks good too.”
Des stopped in his tracks.
“That’s sounds gruesome. I hope you’re not thinking of taking up learning surgical procedures by watching do-it-yourself programs. I wouldn’t trust that quack! Wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the way education goes. As far as I’m concerned every student, no matter what they want to be, has to be well grounded in the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. That reminds me – how is school going, alright?”
Antony had gone over to the other side of the spacious room to pull back the curtains on the north side of the house. Less chance to upset anyone and the birds liked the light.
“Yeah, fine. Done with Business Maths. Got an A in English. Legal studies was good too.”
“Fancy yourself as a lawyer now? I thought it was Journalism. Just remember though, you can’t get through life simply by relying on a calculator.”
Antony was now inspecting the potted palms to make sure the soil wasn’t too dry.
“Bet you didn’t end up doing what you imagined when you were 15 or 20.”
Des caught himself reaching for another Lions Club mint in the little ashtray on the table. (Smoking was restricted to outside, on strict orders from Margaret who had enough to contend with her chain smoking sister.)
“I don’t think any of us do, son. Don’t forget that you’ve got it pretty lucky, without anything like growing up during any hardship. I was just grateful for the chance to get on. Never one to get ahead of myself, either…”
He chuckled once more to himself.
“I might take these outside and give them some water. Do you want me to leave the hose out for you to wash…?”
“So, this is where the handsome men are meeting. I thought I heard voices.”
It was Vivian who made her typical grand entrance. A former show girl who had tried her hand at local TV, she was an old friend of Margaret’s family who had taken pity on her after she’d had a rather emotional turn following her husband’s fall from grace and suicide.
Des was quick to assume a more rigid posture as he sat up and then half stood in acknowledgement of her arrival on the scene.
“Please, please, no formalities on my behalf. I need a sit down anyway. I just got back from the follies rehearsal at the bowls club. My feet are killing me. I can only trust that the civic centre is true to its word and we can get into the space at least a week before we kick up our heels for real.”
Antony was torn between getting the plants outside and waiting to see what would unfold.
“Please, take a seat Viv. I’m glad you were able to sort out an alternative rehearsal space. Can’t wait to see the show. When is opening night, again?”
Vivian positively glowed in the attention.
“We’ve had to put it back to the end of January. Not that it matters. The show will go on. Let’s just say we’ve encountered creative differences of opinion before, but this adaption of the play has really tested our collective resolve not to let such things get in the way. It is musical theatre after all.’
Antony groaned inwardly at this display.
“Dimboola, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I may have mentioned it. Do you know it?”
“It was my introduction to this country when I first arrived. A colleague took me to what I thought was a real wedding of his niece, only to find out it was a play. I must say it almost had me fooled. Not a backward way of putting you forward as a new member of the community. The joke was well and truly on me.”
Vivian had imperceptibly slid further along the couch to creep closer to Des.
“Oh, you poor thing. How cheeky of them. I can’t imagine that it would be that easy to get the better of you. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say.”
“Well, I haven’t been to a wedding or seen a play since. So I guess that is saying something.”
“I dare say. Well, I insist that you come to see our interpretation. I bet you couldn’t begin to imagine it as a musical theatre tribute. Each dance style has been created to represent the personality of the character.”
“And you are?”
“I play the mother of the bride, so you can expect nothing short of elegance and dignity.”
“Do you dance, Des?”
Antony had picked up a pot plant and begun to slowly back away towards the door, but froze to catch the answer.
“Well, Viv, I have been known to grace the parquetry in my time. Nothing too fancy. Just something simple for the good old cheek to cheek.”
“I picked you for a sensual traditionalist.”
Des coughed and automatically reached for another mint.
“If that means that I’m not one of those break neck dance kids, then I guess I am.”
Vivian trilled excitedly and the budgies chirruped in accord.
Antony slowly shook his head and still managed to resist the urge to exit the scene playing out before him. He cleared his throat to announce himself, as he got the distinct impression he’d actually dematerialised in their eyes.
“I think you mean break dancers. You know, like we still see on Hey, Hey, it’s Saturday or Countdown from time to time.”
Both Vivian and Des looked at Antony as if he had reappeared from a far off war.
“Well, I dare say it’s not variety television the way I’m sure we both remember it.”
“At least Darryl can sing. I can’t understand a thing Molly says.”
Antony determined that he had to take his leave or he’d be stuck in what felt like a weird alternative dimension that was just too much like the real world, only with no sense of relief from the persistent nagging nausea brought on by obliging adult obliquity.
His head heaved him away and he left Vivian and Des to regale each other with remnants of accumulated finest moments past.
Made superfluous to this contorted tete-a-tete, he managed to inconspicuously drag the potted palms outside where he set about watering them and left them in partial shade to revitalise their sagging fronds.
It was in this tranquil setting removed from the frisson of the lounge room interplay that he encountered Paul.
Hailing from Horsham in the west of the state, Paul was studying veterinary science and wanted to get his degree and return to the country where he felt he could make a difference to the needs of folk reliant on animal husbandry. There was also the hope that he might meet a nice girl who would qualify as the marrying type he could persuade to go back west with to settle down.
“Beaut day, eh?”
“Bet it’s not going to be anywhere as dry as the Wimmera.”
“You said it Antony. At least you guys get a real decent cool change here in Melbourne. When the weather can make up its mind was season it is, I mean. For us it’s either just hot or cold.”
“Fair enough. I can’t argue with that.”
“I meant to ask how your sister’s cat is going. Is it still at the vet’s?”
“Yeah, something to do with its kidneys. Crystals or something, I think. He’s staying in over the weekend. Anne was upset, but we’ve managed to keep her mind off it. Well, Kate has. Plenty of dancing and swimming to keep her occupied.”
“I saw that from my room earlier. Some pretty flash moves.”
“Huh! Flash in the pan, if you ask me. I think it’s just another fad.”
“Hey, your sister’s just a kid. I meant Kate. She’s even got the Jennifer Beals look happening.”
“I was trying not to.”
“Yeah, right. Don’t want to give her the satisfaction, eh?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, you can’t deny the obvious. I think she’s single, isn’t she?”
“What would I know?”
“I thought you were the eyes and ears of the place.”
“Well don’t look now, because here they come.”
Paul turned to see Kate and Anne strolling down the driveway towards them. They both had wet hair and carried colourful nautical themed tote bags.
They squelched to a flip-flop stop in front of Paul and Antony.
“How was the swim?”
“Very refreshing, wasn’t it Anne?”
“We did water ballet and sun baked on the grass.”
“I hope you don’t mean synchronised swimming which means you have to smile the whole time. You’d end up looking like the Cheshire Cat.”
“Nice one, Paul. And for your information, no it was not synchronised swimming. We are interpreting the old and turning it into the new.”
“We are mermaids.”
“I hope you put sun screen on. Mermaids can still get sun burnt. Mum would be furious.”
“Relax, Antony. I was responsible and made sure we slip, slopped, slapped. I can get a tan on my own.”
“Yeah, relax. I wonder how Puss is? Should we ring the vet?”
Paul quickly took the lead.
“I wouldn’t worry. It’s a common condition. Almost just like a cold. Most cats get it.”
“But what if he gets worse when the vet goes home tonight and I’m not there?”
“I’m sure he’s in very good hands. Puss would have got used to being there last night. And it’s not the first time he’s been there. Think of it like sleeping over at a friend’s place.”
Paul winked at Kate.
“Yeah. Paul’s right. He is training to be a vet, after all. He should know. Right?”
Kate winked back at Paul.
Antony began to feel nauseous for the second time that day.
He could only hope that if this was the beginning of a dalliance that they would keep it discreet – for Anne’s sake as much as his.
Anne had been keen on Paul since he arrived and had started watching repeats of All Creatures Great and Small. She would always turn her developing cow eyes upon him from near or afar when she spotted him or managed to find herself in his presence.
Antony recognised the symptoms. Puppy love.
He smirked to himself at the endless array of Disney possibilities and tacky pop songs.
(He would later consult the World Book and dictionary to learn another word for his ever expanding vocabulary –‘zoomorphism’. “Could come in handy one day.”)
And there was only so much disgust he could afford to suffer in response to the human condition.
Time for Anne to report in to mum; Paul wanted to know more about the farm in Sale; Des had appeared to wash the car; Raff had returned with Xu (who had uncharacteristically got the times wrong); Sybil had appeared in her housecoat to wait for Bert who had still not returned from the newsagent; Vivian was practising her scales on the upright piano in the lounge room before tea time announced itself with a gong of self-reliance in the communal kitchen; Matt sallied forth intent on coming to grips with a forward defensive stroke of good luck.
And Antony took stock of the day before the hours could slip away.
Christmas arrived not so much with a ring of the bell but a resounding clap of thunder.
Just as well Antony had seen to the gutters.
The thunder storm had hit at dawn and shaken the house awake.
Margaret had reverberated with the shock in the cottage and had arisen to make a trip to the loo. As she sat on the Caroma and pondered the day ahead, she felt a keen sense of the moment being charged with an almost electrical essence.
There had followed a blinding flash which invaded the privacy of her thoughts and lit up the smallest room in what Anne had described when a toddler as “the doll’s house”, to the extent that she thought that the light bulb had exploded.
The effulgence had just as quickly dissipated as though absorbed by the room’s interior, but left no discernible trace other than the hairs raised on the back of Margaret’s neck and the goosebumps that speckled her arms.
Please don’t tell me I’ve become a lightning rod.
Upon the bolt’s tail trailed another resounding clap of thunder and the heavy rain began to scatter like pebbles on the carport’s corrugated iron roof.
Margaret gathered herself, splashed some water on her face to convince herself she wasn’t dreaming and took a quick look in at the mirror for reassurance (or “reinsurance”, as Antony had been fond of saying when a little boy and a hug was on the cards).
I wonder if that qualifies as an out-of-body experience?
With that detour to her pondering, she had switched the light on and off again just to make sure and returned to bed where she hoped she could gain an insight into what had just happened. Going back to sleep and dreaming an answer, as she found was more often than not her favoured methodology when she encountered one of life’s mysteries, was to be the route to reconnecting with a renewed conviction.
The newly minted tradition was for whoever remained at the house for the occasion to assemble by mid-to-late morning downstairs in the lounge.
There, they would put on old Christmas records, exchange Kris Kringle presents, enjoy some of the previous night’s leftovers and watch the repeat of carols at the bowl.
Then it was down to the business of Des’ stock in trade Christmas lunch.
He had volunteered to cook up a storm (now wishing to have chosen a different expression) for the house in thanks for the community spirit and welcoming of strangers.
Margaret was simply relieved she didn’t have to do anything but set the table with the good crockery, polished silverware and remaining unchipped ‘special’ glasses.
Bon bons and napkins, a centrepiece of hydrangeas and placemats woven in the New Hebrides completed the setting.
All that was missing from the extension dining table that was moved out from the wall and into the centre of the room were the plates piled high.
A feast for twelve. Plus, one Puss.
All were present and accounted for.
The seating arrangements had been Antony’s idea.
Margaret sat in pride of place at the head of the table, with Anne to her left and Antony on her right.
Next to him was Des, then Bert and Sybil; by her side was Vivian and Matt; Raff was next in line followed by Xu, Paul and Kate.
Above each place mat was a folded name card created by Anne in her distinctive cursive script. Inside was a number for the prize draw to be called after pudding was served.
Antony was to act as stand in waiter, assist Des in the kitchen and help bring out each dish with a practised flourish of his apron and snap of the tea towel.
Drinks comprised apple cider, mineral water, wine and beer and people could help themselves by making a selection from the drinks trolley parked to one side of the upright piano or the esky sat on a strip of cork sheeting beside it.
Bon bons were cracked, coloured paper hats worn with observant aplomb, trinkets swapped and jokes delivered in tones of "I can tell one better then you", only to be received with cries of mercy or well-intended mockery.
Electric fans at either end of the room and an evaporative cooler kept the atmosphere circulating on a day that had been forecast to hit a top of 35 degrees Celsius. The outside blinds were closed and the curtains only partially open to help minimise the rising temperature.
The lights were dimmed and candles placed at intervals along the table to keep visual cues on course and help set the mood as suitably festive.
At a nod from Margaret, Des took a butter knife and gently tapped the side of his glass to grab everyone’s attention.
“Thank you all for making the effort today. It has certainly been a fun start to proceedings. I would like to thank Kate for the lovely gift of the shaving mug, brush and bag of utensils. No excuses for not looking freshly scrubbed. I hope you’ll find the Pat Benatar cassette will hit the mark when doing the dance routines. Thanks to Anne for helping me choose this.
Now, the menu for today. Those of you who are not born and bred here may think we have lost our minds to be cooking and consuming a hot meal on such a piping hot day.
Well, some traditions are hard to beat. Remember, Australia is still influenced by Great Britain, where it is now winter after all. So, a roast would not seem out of place. Even so, we still make allowances for uniquely Australian fare like a Pavlova. Although, New Zealand might beg to differ. Anyway, we’ll top the turkey and pork off with fruit galore. No wonder pineapple goes so well with ham. Again, some may beg to differ. Kiwi fruit! What is it really? Looks like Martian wombat poo.”
There descended upon the table an amused though perplexed tittering.
So, you have the choice between plum pud and a pav. No contest. If you ask me.
I know, I know, you’re not asking me, but I feel under the circumstances that the spirit of sharing is as strong as truth itself.
That being said, I feel it is my lucky place to offer thanks to our lovely landlady and her two lovely kids, for making us all feel welcome.
Thank you Margaret for taking us in to your home and making us all feel a part of the extended family.
Join me in charging your glasses and raising a yuletide toast to Margaret and Lars Mansion - to Margaret, Anne, Antony and the house!”
Des raised his glass and prompted the response which came in immediate heartfelt unison.
Des resumed his seat, seeming rather chuffed with himself.
He nodded at Margaret and gave her a reassuring smile.
She waited until everyone had settled and her silence commended their attention.
Once they had composed themselves she stood at the head of the table like a bowsprit figurehead and surveyed the gathering before she began her thanksgiving.
“Thank you Des. That was very sweet of you. Your contribution today is greatly appreciated. Hot or not, the roast with all the trimmings is your signature dish and I’m sure will satisfy even the hungriest of us. I would like to thank Xu for the beautiful Chinese fan as well as the back scratcher and meditation balls. You will have to give me a lesson in how to use them. It is very generous of you.”
At which point Xu rose and bowed ceremoniously before resuming his seat.
Raff patted him on the shoulder and gave him the thumbs up sign.
“And very gracious, too. Thank you to everyone for joining us here today at the time of year when it is all too easy for a lot of people to feel lonely. You are not on your own and your presence here in itself makes us all feel less alone knowing that you wanted to be together and celebrate the gift of sharing. Something that Des said about the spirit of sharing being like truth can’t be denied. It rings true to me, as I’m sure it does for each of you.
You see, I have had a kind of epiphany. Something I wish to disclose, which, I must confess, is an amusing choice of words when I consider where it came to me.
Whether you have been with us for a while or are just passing through, I want you to know that we all regard what you bring of yourselves to this house as valuable beyond the facts and figures of our modern lives.
Ours is a close-knit family and has been made stronger by knowing you.
We are grateful for your helping to create a good-natured atmosphere of respect and understanding. Your support for one another is plain to see and restores my faith in those human qualities too often taken for granted. I know it seems pretty obvious to say it, but we are all in this together and need to rely on our common bonds, no pun intended, as testament to the realisation that we are blessed. For this we offer our thanks and can take comfort in the knowledge that this is our home.”
All that was missing was the incense from a thurible swinging to and fro in this take on a nave, where the congregation had captured the embodiment of a hallowed intimacy, like a Polaroid snapshot of the occasion’s aspect preserved to test time’s authority.
Antony seized upon the novelty of the moment and gave a triple toot upon the little kazoo he had scored from his cracker, as if to show up the significance usually embodied by the ringing of the Sanctus bells during mass.
The table erupted in appreciation of both Margaret’s heartfelt words and the zinging underscoring of the sentiments expressed by a plastic toy. Catholic upbringing or not, everyone seemed to get the joke. Margaret could only smile and shake her head, while Anne demanded a go and proceeded to serenade her audience with a sliding rendition of Ding Dong Merrily on High.
Dinner was served. Between Des and his assistant, the big bird was carved and served, the sides dished and drinks topped up as a reward for the diners’ well placed faith.
Then there was pause for thought. And Margaret asked the question.
“Who would like to say grace?”
Xu was quick on the uptake and responded in kind consideration of the chance to contribute his perception of such a concept.
He cleared his throat before uttering what would be recalled as the immortal words worthy of a commemorative house plaque’s footnote.
“Grace is what we embrace.”