LIKE MOST OF the women I walked with in the park, I was renovating a house; getting it ready for sale. It's Melbourne and we were all caught in a-property-in-my-suburb-went-up-a-stunning-55-per-cent-last-quarter kind of talk. We used to talk about overseas trips but with the health scares and terrorism – even flying to Sydney you have to take your shoes off going through security – renovating and selling had become our thing. Instead of talking about travelling to Cape Town's Table Bay, the Red Sea or Bath we now talked about colour swatches, tiles and bench tops.
One of the girls, Sandy with her border collie, was an expert in kitchen doorknobs. She was an importer. Wendy and her black labradoodle drove the seniors' bus and taught art. She had a great eye for tones. Lila with her boxer was a computer expert who installed video security systems. Penny and her jack russell, the youngest in the group, bought property with her dad, a kind of father-daughter hobby. They specialised in East St Kilda and knew all the streets. And Trudy who had the red heeler talked about pools. You need a lot of land to put in a swimming pool and that kind of renovation talk was at the top of the chain.
We went to the park – the basic inner-suburban variety with a series of ovals and a few trees – because it was safe for the dogs. It was fenced, which meant we could let them run off their leads. Trudy and her red heeler always led the way. It was really Trudy's walking group.
The only one not renovating and still travelling was Veronica, who had a spaniel. She was the psychiatrist in the group, I'm not sure if that explained anything at all. Even Marianne was selling, although hers was a different story. Her business had gone down the drain and she couldn't keep up the payments. It was the alcohol and anything else she could get her hands on that tipped the balance. She'd seriously fallen off the wagon and this time got the shakes. Even in the park she was a mess. We tried to help but there wasn't much any of us could do. Her clients left in droves and it got so bad she couldn't even sell her business as a going concern. There's no getting around it, as a dominatrix you need a firm hand. We, of course, gossiped about her for a week or so, until we got used to it. She was probably the only sex worker any of us had ever met. Marianne had the great dane pup. It was nine months old, almost full size, but still in training.
I HAD THE Scottie, and I was transforming my backyard into a private courtyard. Just like a private education: it costs, it takes time and it requires experts. There were experts in tree lighting, landscape architects, colour consultants, pavers, plumbers, renderers, fence constructors and, of course, the artists for the trompe l'oeil. The initial quote, from a-friend-of-the-family-who-was-giving-me-a-good-price, made me realise that I was not the only one hoping to make a profit out of the sale. Taming the backyard came at a cost.
The team of experts moved in and turned their attention to the shade of yellow the feature wall should become and the exact image for the trompe l'oeil. I made a few suggestions, enthusiastic about a Rousseau-like jungle, but was ignored completely. Recent city water restrictions had, according to the designer, changed people's attitudes towards gardening and we were to have a mural of the central Australian desert behind the kangaroo paw feature plants. It was apparently all to do with auction psychology. We were planting for a sale in drought conditions.
Even though I had hoped for something a little more adventurous than the central desert, I was pleased about the trompe l'oeil – no one else was having one and it gave me a unique topic to talk about. It was a bit like going to a remote island off the coast of Greenland instead of the same old tour of the Great Wall of China or Yellowstone National Park to see the canyon.
BUT THAT MORNING I didn't get a chance to even introduce my new topic. When I got to the park the women were gathered by their cars, dogs all a-scatter, noise and dust everywhere. The council was tearing down the perimeter fences.
Trudy was furious and ready to throw herself in front of the machinery but we stopped her and the moderates took over. We organised and the next day pulled off a media stunt. The great dane pup, or Marianne in her skimpy top, took the fancy of the photographer and a colour shot appeared on page three of the local paper under the heading "DOG WALKERS DEMAND PARK RIGHTS". The mayor and councillors came down to the park the very next morning to discuss the issue with us, or at least with Marianne, and the work on tearing down the rest of the fences stopped.
We were assured that the old fences would be replaced with newer ones and we were invited to join a subcommittee to help with the new-look renovated park. It felt like a victory and most of us were happy – renovating was something we understood. And unlike our private renovations, if the council renovated a park it meant it wasn't about to sell. We began to walk the dogs in the area that was still fenced and went back to chatting about pavers and specialty companies who make the old paints.
Meanwhile the jack-hammering at home had ended and the backyard, still only a yard, was muddy and crisscrossed with ditches. For a city officially in drought it seemed to rain a lot. Perhaps the water restrictions were more to do with the number of people living in the city rather than the amount of rain that fell. Whatever, I was warming to the central desert idea. The agents had come around and a date was set for the auction. We were now working to a timetable.
IT WAS ALL going smoothly until the special-lighting engineer decided he would replace the tree with a new one – the existing tree, no matter how hard he pruned it, just didn't have the right bough structure. He ordered in the crane.
Have you any idea just how disruptive a crane in a suburban street can be? Apparently it's the powerlines that are the problem, those and any shallow sewers. Next-door's tenants were, I thought, unreasonable. That the crane slipped on the mud was unfortunate and not in anyone's plan. That another crane had to be called to rescue the first was not in the plan either. The cranes were only there for four days and some effort was made to recover their car. It wasn't possible at the time to recover the item from the glove box, no matter what it was, and insisting that the emergency workers went into the sewer was ridiculous, particularly with the powerlines as they were. What could have been of such value? Thankfully the car itself didn't take all that long to dismantle, those large saws do a terrific job, and we were reassured that the parts we couldn't get out would, given enough time, wash into the sea. I've since heard that a numberplate has been found on the back beach at Sorrento, which was really lucky because no one ever did find Harold Holt.
I was finding the whole process stressful and quite looked forward to my daily walks in the park. It was the day the third crane arrived that the ranger booked the lot of us. We tried to explain that without the fences it was impossible to keep the dogs away from the playground but she wasn't having any of it. Wendy, always trying to calm the situation, offered the ranger the mushrooms we'd just picked but that only resulted in another round of fines.
Then Trudy lost it completely.
What remained of the morning was spent trying to convince the two coppers that the mushrooms were just common field ones – we'd been picking them all season. Marianne didn't handle the questioning at all well and the dent in the top of the ranger's van was a little hard to explain. But we managed. You do, don't you? I spent the rest of the day collecting the dogs that, in a final act of spite, the ranger had sent to as many pounds across town as she could. I drove all over Melbourne while the others continued to organise the park renovations although they were upset and angry and not in the mood to help the council. Secretly, I didn't mind the running around. It kept me away from my street and whatever havoc the cranes were causing
BUT WE FELT as if the park was being taken away from us. We didn't care what fancy ideas some town developer had for it. It was our park: we knew this land, we walked it, we picked mushrooms there. If the women of Bethnal Green Common could do it, then so could we. We put our new renovation skills into action – organising, dividing large jobs up into small ones.
Someone remembered Veronica was back from Berlin so we called her. We needed as many ideas as we could get. Organising a demonstration was the easy bit, getting the media and putting public pressure on the council was the hard part. In the end it was young Penny who thought of it. We'd hook the national media by using our very own dominatrix and her great dane. After all, the local photographer had been taken with her in our first attempt at getting publicity. Marianne went quite pale but the girls gave her a hug and Wendy made her another cup of tea. We were all sold on the idea and set about convincing Marianne that she could do it – that it would be the making of her. She might even get her business up and running again.
Veronica arrived late. She'd brought us all souvenirs from Europe – tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall, officially stamped to guarantee they were genuine. She then offered to organise Marianne's detox – the full treatment – and Sandy, who was the best with dogs, took over the great dane for a few days and initiated some serious training.
Back at home the cranes had at last removed the old tree and a new, very Japanese-looking version had arrived. On my side of the fence things were now back on track. Thankfully, and I'd kept out of it, my team had finally agreed on the exact shade of yellow, which had to be specially mixed. The industrial chemist was ready and Bob, the renderer, was finally back from his hot-air balloon trip.
But things were not so happy for my neighbour, whose tenants had left demanding their full bond and compensation. Serge, the owner, was, I'm sure, annoyed with me but it was hard to tell – our language difference made it difficult to have anything but the most basic of conversations. On this occasion he needed to borrow a spanner to mend some plumbing before his new tenants arrived, so he was civil enough. Generally, he kept to his side of the fence and I to mine.
I left everyone to it and went back to my phone-around. The demo plans were going well. One mention of our dominatrix and her great dane and the media were as keen as ... Then I saw it. Serge had stormed into my courtyard-in-progress and had the whole team up against the yet-to-be feature wall. He was threatening my fence builder with my spanner. The noise, mostly from Serge, was terrible. And then the dog joined in.
Eventually someone arrived – to this day I don't know from where, possibly from the café at the end of the street – who could speak Serge's language. He was past being able to utter anything at all in English. We found out, between scuffles and spanners and pulling out of white pegs, that we had put the posts for the screen aka fence halfway on his land and halfway on mine. It was only a matter of centimetres but he wasn't having any of it. That was his land and he'd protect it more fiercely than any politician.
I WAS BEGINNING to understand about fences. Serge didn't see them as containers, as friendly bits of Tupperware to keep things in. He saw them as national boundaries. Centimetres mattered. They had been fought for in the long history of land and ownership. It was men like Serge who had built the Berlin Wall, men like him who had knocked it down again and men like him who had efficiently stamped the pieces as genuine, selling them in the marketplace.
The surveyors were recalled and new pegs put in. The fencing blokes disappeared for a couple of days and I heard later there was a WorkCover claim for stress. The rest of us moved the entire fence – posts, rails, palings, screens, the lot – over to my land.
It was my fence and it was on my land. Okay, I could handle this.
Just when I thought I'd calmed the world down Marianne escaped from detox. No one realised that she'd had an anchorman as a longstanding client and all the television interest was, in the end, too much for her. The memories were too hard. It was the usual just-one-drink story.
But we had a demonstration on our hands and a huge amount of media interest. We'd even set up an office in Sandy's back room and we were all part of the phone roster. It seemed impossible to turn back, and Trudy had no intention of it. Nothing would stop her now. She'd take over Marianne's role and while her red heeler wasn't exactly a great dane, none of us had worked out the dog's role in the act so we thought we could improvise.
The only problem was Trudy needed to rehearse. It's harder than you think being a dominatrix and none of us really knew what Marianne's act looked like. She agreed to help out, to be a consultant. She was conscious enough for that and Wendy was getting good at understanding her slurred speech.
The girls and dogs arrived. The security gate wasn't operating but it could be climbed over. And the walkway entrance made the area even more private. The workers had done a great job and I felt proud that it was my almost-completed private courtyard that was to be used. The girls really liked the trompe l'oeil desert scene and I gave Marianne a bottle of gin and a cocktail glass – every girl needs style. For the rest of us I made coffee. Trudy looked great in the gear. We hadn't figured out the dog's role yet but she was getting the riding whip action down to a tee and was a natural in the lace-up stilettos.
To this day I don't know if Serge was returning the spanner or if he had come back to continue the argument. But quite suddenly there he was in the walkway. I didn't have time to say anything. There was a blur of the whip, the dogs, Trudy's stilettos and Marianne's cocktail glass, and Serge was down. This ferocious man who had terrorised my entire building team was, in my private courtyard, kneeling on all fours – we now understood the role of the dog – and he was most definitely leaking from the trousers area.
I did not ask him for the spanner back.
THE DEMO AT the park turned out to be bigger than the Middle East peace rallies I'd been to. There were women and dogs and prams and signs and an awful lot of men, and a busload of sex workers had come up from St Kilda, which was a terrific gesture of solidarity for Marianne. Some local bikies had decided to support our cause and came in their colours. The Great Dane Club had come along and the Greens were there. There was a small Refugees Support Park Rights contingent and Architects for Fences wanted speaking rights on the platform, which was a little bit unfortunate as there wasn't space. At the back of the march was a group of people carrying teddy bears. (I never did get to the bottom of that.) It was quite a carnival. Trudy was magnificent. She took to the stage like primer does to wood and led us all in a chant: What do we want? Park rights. When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Fences. When do we want them? Now! In her mask not even her husband recognised her on the news that night. The mayor was there, of course, making his statement and saving face.
The fence reconstruction began the next day. They put back low designer fences but they were enough of a barrier to keep the dogs in. Trudy liked the dominatrix gear so much she bought it from Marianne, who had decided to open a cigarette shop in Frankston. All the fines were dropped, including the ones over the mushrooms, and my auction went off like a dream, topping the record for sales in the area. The agent said it was the private courtyard with its sensitivity to the current drought that made all the difference. It gave the place class.
Fortunately, no one had seen Serge, on his side of the fence, standing guard over the white surveyor pegs and muttering something, over and over, in his own language.