Authors: Judy Nunn
When struggling young journalist Nancy buys a tiny rundown terrace in Surry Hills she knows nothing about the previous owner, other than the old lady died six months earlier.
But a dusty box retrieved from underneath the old wardrobe in an upstairs bedroom soon changes all that.
And the lives, loves and losses of Emily Roper and her best friend Margaret are tantalisingly revealed…
I bought the old house in ‘75, I was just twenty-two at the time. It was tiny. A relic of yesterday. Hard to believe it was mine. I hadn’t planned to buy a house – I was footloose and fancy free – but I know, as I look back over the years, that that old house was my destiny.
When Grandma Rose died and left me a modest inheritance, it came as quite a surprise. As far as I’d known, old Grandma Rose hadn’t been a wealthy woman.
There were five other grandchildren to be considered, so it wasn’t a vast amount, but in ’75 ten thousand dollars was not a sum to be sneezed at. Particularly not if one was a young, struggling journalist. A ‘freelance’ who commanded no more than the standard fee of eighty dollars a story and who scored, on average, two assignments a week. In fact, I doubted whether I would see such a lump sum ever again in my life.
The money was accompanied by a personal instruction, sharp and to the point: ‘Write that book, Margaret.’ Grandma Rose was as concise in death as she had been in life. The old lady had died in her sleep at eighty-nine years of age, so there was little to grieve over, but I would miss her sorely.
In the meantime, I was left with a dilemma. Ten thousand dollars. What to do with it? I was guilt-ridden with the certain knowledge that the book I’d always said I was going to write would not be forthcoming. Well, not immediately. One day perhaps, but Grandma Rose’s legacy confronted me with the fact that there was no point in my galloping off to a crumbling villa in Tuscany or a bohemian studio loft in Montmartre and dedicating myself to my art. What art? Now that I had the means, I was forced to admit that there was no book. For three years there’d been endless notes on scrappy bits of paper, but still there was no book.
I was depressed and rather wished that Grandma Rose had kept her money and I’d kept my romantic delusions. Then I took myself to task and set about addressing the problem. Ten thousand dollars. What to do with it? Not writing the book as instructed was bad enough, but to squander the money … That would be unforgivably disrespectful to Grandma Rose.
‘Buy a house,’ my friends advised me. ‘Ten thousand’s enough for a deposit, and then you won’t be wasting all that dead money on rent.’
Despite their nagging, I didn’t give much serious thought to becoming an owner of property. Having lived a hand-to-mouth existence for the past four years, never knowing where the next story was coming from, I found the prospect of heavy debt terrifying.
I have to confess however, that real estate siqns suddenly became more prominent. Through the windows of buses and trains, bright yellow ‘For Sale’ signs dominated my peripheral vision. And ‘Auction, Open for Inspection’ popped up regularly where it had never been before.
On my twice weekly token jogs through Paddington (‘four times a week, minimum,’ my fitness fanatic friend Sandra lectured me) I’d slow down when I saw ‘Raine and Horne, 3 bdrm, lock-up garage, spacious backyd’, or ‘LJ Hooker, 2 bdrm, ensuite, open pl living, sundeck with views’. Bloody stupid, I told myself, a lifetime of debt. And I’d jog on.
Then one day I saw it. In a grubby little lane in an inner-city suburb. I was on an assignment at the time. Walking purposefully down Ann Street in my best linen suit – my ‘reporter’s uniform’ – and feeling good. No wonder, I’d been commissioned by a fashion magazine to write a thousand-word ‘retrospective’ article on Surry Hills and the early rag trade days, and the editor had offered double the standard fee.
I’d done my morning’s quota of interviews so I decided to explore the suburb. Field research, I told myself, but it was really an excuse to stay away from my typewriter – it was such a lovely day.
I wandered around the colourful backstreets and up the hill, finally arriving at the old Clock Hotel on Crown. Then I turned the corner into Alexander Street and there it was: the tiniest terrace house in the worst condition with a siqn that read, ‘For Sale. Renovator’s dream. Ideal first home for imaginative buyer.’ The house looked a wreck, but it was within my price range.
My recent library research told me that it was one of the early workers’ dwellings. Probably built in the late 1850s. Around the time when Surry Hills was transformed from a fashionable suburb of mansions and paddocks to a network of alleys and laneways lined with rows and rows of tiny, two-storey brick terraces to house the workers in the new and thriving factories.
Despite its derelict state, the house was quaint and picturesque with its rusty lacework balcony and ragged grey slate roof. But there was more to its appeal than architectural charm and a sense of history. There was something personal. It beckoned. It compelled me to look inside.
Well, I told myself, an inspection wasn’t binding. A quick tour through the house would satisfy my curiosity, I didn’t need to buy it.
‘You can’t go wrong with this little gem, she’s a steal,’ the real estate salesman said as he tried the front door for the third time with yet another wrong key. Yes, yes, I thought, already wishing I hadn’t got into this.
‘Needs a bit of work, of course.’ Yes, I’ll bet, I thought. ‘Deceased estate, old lady died six months ago and her sons want to make a quick sale.’
Key number four fitted. He turned it. ‘Watch where you walk, the floors are a bit crook.’ He opened the door and I stepped inside.
There was a moment’s respite from the sales pitch while the man jangled his keys behind me. Key number four had jammed in the lock.
I was in a tiny room. The afternoon sun streamed through the front leadlight window, catching the dust particles that hung in the air. An old wooden hallstand with brass fittings stood beside the door, and to the right was a mantelpiece and an open fireplace framed in pretty blue and green tiles, a number of them cracked. A small iron grate sat within the fireplace, and on the slate hearth before it was a blackened old pair of tongs and a coal shuttle.
I crossed and knelt to inspect the fireplace. There was coal in the grate, and in the tray beneath were several inches of fine, grey ash, the residue of a number of cosy fireside evenings, I imagined.
‘Yes, these days people pay a fortune for mantelpieces like that.’ The man had finally conquered his keys and was standing beside me. ‘And those little tiled fireplaces are all the go now. Come on, I’ll show you the rest of the place.’
I followed him into a room of identical proportions but it seemed even tinier. A quarter of the space was lost to a narrow wooden staircase against the left-hand wall. It was two feet in width and led to the upstairs bedrooms. A small four-seater wooden dining table dominated the room. It was old and scarred and well-loved once. There was no other furniture, although it would have been difficult to fit in anything more than a couple of dining chairs.
‘Kitchen’s next,’ the salesman said and he led me through the door. ‘The stove’s an old one but it works a treat. Kookaburra. Gas, of course.’
I made a show of inspecting the old ‘Kookaburra’ – he obviously expected me to – but it wasn’t the stove itself that impressed me. It was the cleanliness. Beneath the fine film of dust there was not a speck of grease. I opened the oven. Scoured. Spotless. Nobody kept an oven that clean. The stove stood in the corner of the kitchen and, in the two-inch gap between the wall and the side of the old Kookaburra, I could see the connecting pipes. They were thick with the congealed grease and grime of a lifetime’s meal preparation, and I pictured the endless frustration for the hand that could never reach those pipes.
I followed the salesman up the wooden staircase to the bedrooms. He was into his pitch again, ‘best buy in town’, ‘great opportunity, ‘young person like you’, but I wasn’t listening.
Although the light was gloomy on the staircase and the uncarpeted stairs were steep and narrow, in climbing them I had a sense of sureness and safety. A shallow well was worn in the centre of each step and, beneath my hand, the railing was solid. Smooth and cool to the touch.
The bedroom at the top of the stairs was bare but so tiny it could contain no more than a single bed and perhaps a small chest of drawers.
‘Bit on the small side,’ the salesman admitted and proceeded quickly on. ‘Think you’ll like this, though. Come and look, the front bedroom’s a little beauty.’
It was indeed a pretty room. The plaster walls were painted cream, the same as the rest of the house, but the ceiling was molded in a floral design. Leaves entwined with roses and daisies, and, in the corners, sunflowers and poppies. French windows opened out onto the balcony with its rusty iron lace. The sun shone through the windows’ leadlighting, dappling the walls. With neither furniture nor dressing, it was a feminine room.
But there was furniture. Just one piece. Who could fail to notice the wardrobe in the far corner? It didn’t belong somehow. It was too big. Too square and bulky. Not ugly, but intrusive. It belonged in a different sort of room. A masculine room.
‘How come there’s furniture in the house?’ I asked. The first words I’d spoken throughout the inspection.
‘Deceased estate,’ the salesman explained. ‘If the relatives don’t want it, it goes with the place. Happens quite a lot.’
I nodded. ‘Of course.’ I hadn’t known that. But then I’d never bought property before. And suddenly, jarringly, I realised I was going to buy the house.
As I stepped out onto the balcony and looked at the street below, his voice followed me.
‘The old lady had two sons; their wives came along and took what they wanted. Chairs and the fridge and stuff. Don’t know why they didn’t take that old hall stand – those things fetch a price these days. Too old-fashioned they said, and the table too small. And this wardrobe, well …’ He shrugged. ‘How the damn thing got up here’s beyond me. It won’t fit through any of the doors. Must have been hauled up over the balcony.’
I didn’t say anything but looked down the road to the corner where the rows of terraces marched down Arthur Street. ‘I can get the stuff carted off if you take the place. For a modest fee,’ he added.
The sun warmed my face. ‘No, leave it here.’ Then I realised what I’d said.
The man sold me the house for twenty grand. It seemed a good price.. And I couldn’t be bothered pretending to haggle, I was too euphoric to care. There was only one thing in the world that mattered: the little old house was mine.
‘But it’s a dump,’ Sandra said. ‘An absolute dump. Good grief, Nance, what have you done?’ (My Christian name being Margaret and my middle name Anne, it’s a mystery how I came to be nicknamed Nancy. I can’t even recall whether it evolved from early family or school days but evolve it did and, although I’ve never particularly liked the name, I’ve allowed myself to be stuck with it.)
‘You haven’ t really bought the place!’
‘Yes,’ I said firmly, ‘I have.’
‘Surely it’s not too late to back out.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it is – the gas and electricity are on and the phone’s –’
‘Oh that doesn’t mean a thing, you can still –’
‘No, I can’t. It’s too late to back out and I won’t.’
‘Shit.’ Her muttered oath was one of resignation and I breathed a sigh of relief.
‘It was cheap,’ I boasted. Sandy was good with money, surely that would impress.
‘I should bloody well hope so.’ We were in the downstairs front room and she prowled about testing the floor’s weak spots, of which there were many. ‘You realise you’ll have to replace this whole floor.’
I nodded. ‘The builders are coming next week,’
‘And what about the roof?’ Before she’d come in she’d given the house a good ‘going over’ from the street. ‘Half the slates are missing.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘the roof people are coming next week too.’
‘So it’ll be ages before you can move in.’ She wandered through to the dining room, still stamping the floor with her designer sandshoes. ‘This room’s just as bad; it’ll have to be done too.’
‘I’m moving in tomorrow.’
’ Her face was a mask of horror.
‘Well, not totally, of course,’ I added. ‘But I want to camp here while I scrub things back, paint the kitchen and bathroom and stuff.’
‘Where will you sleep?’
‘I’ve got a fold-up bed.’
‘But they’ll be replacing the floors.’
‘Not upstairs. Upstairs is in very good condition.’
‘But the roof. What if it rains?’
‘Then I’ll come downstairs for goodness’ sake. Shut up, Sandy. Please!’
We’d progressed through the kitchen (‘That stove’s ancient,’ she muttered) and I held my breath as she walked out the back to the bathroom. As with most small early terraces, the bathroom did not feature in the original design. A hundred and twenty years ago, people bathed in their bedrooms from large china bowls on small marble-topped washstands.
According to the real estate agent, it was some time in the ‘20s when the weatherboard shack had been added. There was just enough space for the enamel bathtub and the small handbasin, no more. And a tin medicine cabinet with sliding mirror doors hung from the wall. There was no lavatory, but a wooden outhouse at the end of the narrow courtyard.
I jumped in quickly before Sandy could comment on ‘the dunny down the back’. ‘I’ll build a whole new bathroom, I swear, one day when I can afford it. Now just wait till you see upstairs,’ I added. ‘You’ll love the master bedroom.’
When the house inspection was finally over and Sandy had left for the gym, I was glad to be alone, just the little old house and me. I didn’t do anything. I sat on the floor by the fireplace and thought of … nothing at all. But I remember, as if it were yesterday, my feeling of sheer bliss. There was something so good in that little old house that it touched my very soul.
I moved my gear in early next day. Just the camp bed, linen and some cooking utensils – enough to boil a kettle and fry an egg – and, of course, the cleaning and painting supplies.
Then I started to explore the house in more detail. There were so many things I’d overlooked (which Sandy most certainly wouldn’t have). A severe shortage of three-point plug outlets, poor water pressure, the lavatory cistern that kept flushing unless one manually adjusted the ballcock. None of which mattered, of course.