Memoir

The house of roses

The ‘new' stranger in Australia bears the burden of representing not only what ‘Australia' was but also what we might become ...

– Katrina Schlunke

I WAS IN my own strange country, our first Australian house – 10 Churchill Avenue, Bicton, Perth. It was a house, but was it a home? Was it our own personal culmination of great material ambition and success? It was a ghost house in some ways, a place we should never have owned. My father, a native of Melbourne returning to Australia from London and Kuala Lumpur after a ten-year hiatus, hardly ever lived there, and my mother, a Thai woman with a cosmopolitan background, hated it.

After attending a literary conference at the University of Western Australia devoted to spectral hauntings and the persistence of disturbing memories in history, I drove the hire car through my old suburb looking for the house, a picture on the dashboard. I found my old school. It had hardly changed, except for the effects of a tornado that had ripped its roof off a few months back. I was quietly pleased. The school had bad karma. Oddly, I couldn't find Churchill Avenue. I couldn't find the house either, only a few resembling it. I asked a postie on a bike whether there was a Churchill Avenue. No, she said. Had I made up the address? No, Churchill Avenue was the address on an envelope my father had posted to my mother back in that year, when he was in Perth looking for a job and my mother was still in Kuala Lumpur waiting for Immigration clearance.

I nearly missed the plane back to Sydney. On the flight, I could not stop weeping.

 

BACK TO THE picture. It was obvious from the clean, neat verge that everyone was supposed to tolerate strangers. The house surrounded itself with the correct public spirit: it was in the air that surrounded it. Public spirit hung in the sky above the trees. No stranger shall come against your will, said the trees. Tolerate strangers, they're not causing no trouble or nothing like that. But the idea only went so far. Strangers for sure behind those curtains, no doubt about it. We were invisible, but they still saw us. It was Western Australia, and now I always associate dry dusty heat with Perth.

I was eight, and it was 1968. I spent a lot of time in the outside toilet though I hadn't yet learned the word ‘dunny'. I retreated to the dunny to talk to myself, and to contemplate the wounds I'd sustained in school fights. Maybe that's why Dad bought it. This house was meant to make us feel more ‘at home'. London, like Mecca, was approximately north-east, behind those trees. Notice the garden? Dad loved gardening, but he never quite warmed to the floral barbed wire screen of roses that separated the private from the public. The lawn required constant watering. I became expert with complex sprinkling devices. Under that perfect imperfect lawn full of barbed grass seeds we called ‘bindi eyes' was a sandy desert. By pointing the garden hose at the sky, I could make it rain. When I was not crying for some reason or other, or when I felt like crying, I withdrew to the dunny and became mentally self-sufficient, a habit I still hold on to. I think this makes me a real Australian.

John Hughes writes in The Idea of Home (Giramondo, 2005), his memoir of Cessnock: ‘More than anything else, house and garden included, the quality of one's lawn signifies the intensity of one's commitment to civilisation. On the other side is only the dust and the wild.'

But before the child sees the wild, he must embolden himself in a dark overgrown garden behind the house. The dunny was infested with redback spiders. I went there for peace, and to pray to God to move us elsewhere. With father somewhere else, I relied on God most of the time for advice – the rather stern God of the Good Shepherd Convent School in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, which had left me, I imagined, with stigmata. I went to the dunny constipated and prayed to God to help me shit and to save my mother and brother from the freckly barbarians we fought off daily on the school football oval. I prayed to God to give me the ability to catch and kick an oval ball through two vertical sticks. I prayed to Jesus to help us defeat our enemy. My mother said, ‘don't fight, turn the other cheek', and began to read us Buddhist scriptures every night when she put us to bed.

The house was a façade in more ways than one. The garage had no car because my mother didn't drive and my father hardly ever lived there. Dad was literally out of the picture. For my father, Perth quickly became yesterday's news. He had left abruptly a few weeks before my mother, my brother and I had arrived from Kuala Lumpur. He had written to my mother to say he'd be going to Sydney, and when we got to Perth, there would be lots of presents – and a house! We were to go on to Sydney, where he would find an even better house.

My father had gone east. He had never been a mining man, but an ad man. Sydney was the obvious place for sales and marketing. He had driven across the immense desert in search of fortune.

ON A NINETY degree day in January, the blinds were closed to keep everything cool and calm. I had taken a day off school with a terrible case of 'flu. I was infectious. I remember the day was so dry my kid brother had nosebleeds and Mum wrapped wet towels round our heads. The lawn was covered in more drought-resistant bindi than usual. Walking barefoot was painful but the local kids all did it with ease, and that certainly distinguished us from them. My mother hated the barefoot-in-public habits of Australians – in Thailand, walking barefoot was a sign of destitution and shame. We preferred to remain invisible on days when people went barefoot. These were my delirious fevered thoughts as I lay in bed. Number 10 Churchill Avenue was an excellent house in which to have influenza, reputedly a killer virus from Hong Kong, the visiting GP had said grimly. I began my life in the ‘Lucky Country' delirious with a high fever. The doctor spoke a foreign language – Australian. ‘For all that, this is not an infectious country,' he said, trying to reassure my mother, who was convinced my flu was the start of a pandemic.

When I had recovered, we ate sad, lukewarm sausages at a foldaway Formica benchtop that seemed too high. I thought about my father. I didn't know whether a road to Sydney existed, but I knew my father had somehow, like magic, reached the other side of the continent.

Then the ‘great earthquake' (as my mother remembers it) hit Mekering. She had been sitting on the toilet when she heard glasses breaking. Mekering, the epicentre of the 5.5 Richter, became world famous for a day. My mother spent the afternoon sweeping up broken pieces of glass.

My brother and I endured a mean reception at school: ‘girlies', ‘wogs', ‘new Australians'. It was the Beatles haircuts from our time in London that did it, and the way we said ‘Australia' with a perfectly rounded set of vowels. We also knew too much geography and nothing about Aussie Rules. I was picked to trace out a map of Japan from our textbook as no one else in the class knew where Japan was. I looked Japanese so I was the obvious choice. We answered too many questions, pointed out too many cities and countries on the world map. ‘Teacher's pet, teachers pet!' ‘Know-alls!' We wouldn't be shooting at Indians no more, we were the Indians, always, and we lived at the bottom of the hill. We were ‘Chingchong Chinamen conceived in a pot'. We weren't Chinese or Japanese, though no one believed us.

Home is the happiest place in the world. The Woman's Day once put it to the woman of the house that the interior of the home is yours to play with. Your house is the expression of your ‘outstanding selfish individualism'. A woman's own creation. But the exterior? That belongs to your fellow citizens. My mother was still not sure whether she was a citizen. She was waiting for some papers from Immigration, not quite a resident, let alone a citizen. I liked to check the mailbox for her. She never had to do the dictation test. My mother once told me that at least the Immigration officer knew she could spell oka

We waited one summer and one winter to get out, like refugees in a detention camp. Another summer began and we packed up to leave. Go east young man ... The longest train journey we would ever experience; my mother spent hours, it seemed, staring out at the desert from the sleeper window. While she never seemed happy to be going to Sydney, for my brother and I it was exciting to be following Dad's route.

Sometimes we ventured out to the dining car. On the Indian Pacific, somewhere on the Nullarbor Plain, my brother and I played Snap with a dark young man in a neat blue suit. No one else in the dining car was talking to him. We liked him because he knew how to have fun on long train journeys. He liked us. He said he came from Kalgoorlie and he loved playing guitar and playing cards in the dining car. He taught us to play for matchsticks. ‘Where's Kalgoolee?' I asked. We shared the last of my chocolate tool set with him, chocolates shaped into screwdrivers, chisels, nails, a gift from a friend in Perth. He pointed to funny-looking animals bounding along outside the train. ‘Kangaroo. We eat them all the time.' ‘Yeah?' my brother and I replied, wide-eyed with amazement. ‘Yeah.' He mimed a spear throw, and we started throwing spears through the dining car. Then he showed us a new card game.

Near Port Augusta, my anxious mother dragged us back to the sleeper. Maybe we were winning too many matchsticks or becoming too adept at bringing down imaginary kangaroos. We never saw the dark man get off the train, certainly not at Spencer Street station in Melbourne. Maybe if he'd got off there with us, he could have helped Mum get the connecting train to Sydney. At the ticket office for connections to interstate trains, Mum became invisible again, ignored by the faceless men behind the counter, and before us a wall of people in grey raincoats and hats and endless queues. After being ignored by various ticket sellers and changing queues two or three times, we finally got our tickets. I spotted a dark-skinned man in a cowboy hat, boots and a suit carrying a battered suitcase and heading for a platform. I tugged at my mother's sleeve. ‘There he is! There's the man from Kalgoolee.'

 

MY FATHER ARRIVED in Sydney in late 1968. Immediately, he made himself at home. He had been a Sydneysider for a year before we arrived, and had been playing the bon vivant. Going for interviews with agencies inevitably led to a few rejections. A particularly ockerish boss famous for advertising discount whitegoods told him he didn't want ‘poof' British types and told him to fuck off. He recovered his composure – after all, it was Sydney – and realised he needed to aim higher. He found a more sympathetic agency in Neutral Bay where his pinstripe English suits and pink shirts were not completely out of place with the old school English boss. He took lessons in how to steer the boss's sailing cruiser in Kirribilli and hold a brandy-lime-and-soda at the same time. He considered buying an old Jag, but could not raise a loan.

My father had signed a lease on a top-floor apartment in a large Federation house in Neutral Bay (perfect for kids), then bought some mining shares, an antique writing desk, a revolving bookshelf, a divan with a broken foot and a probationary membership of a North Shore golf club. He quickly built up a cohort of drinking buddies. He began to collect – a wine cellar, more books, more records and more furniture. After a year in the sand dunes, my mother, brother and I arrived from Perth.

When we finally got to Sydney, on the last camel in the train, I learned that my father had driven to Sydney across the Nullarbor in a grey Fiat sedan. After Perth, the Nullarbor and Spencer Street, we were desiccated. Red dust in our hair. On the way from Central Station to the house, on a moonlit summer's night, I sat in the front seat of the taxi and looked up at the Harbour Bridge, the most enormous bridge I had ever seen. I became a new Meccano convert that Christmas – the kind of toy I could never have enough bits for – and built my first Meccano bridge and drove my fleet of Dinky cars over it in a long procession. The big house in Neutral Bay was full of the thick rugs and furniture and unpacked crates my parents had sent up from Kuala Lumpur.

‘Are we going to live here a long time, Daddy?' I asked.

‘At least six years. I want to live here six years.'

I'd also found my first ‘girlfriend', a blonde tomboy named Wendy Miller. The teacher, Mrs Linney, had picked out the vacant front-row seat next to this seeming giant of a girl. We were a good match. I was tiny and no one in the class seemed to care too much for Wendy, who was neither well kitted out nor as pretty as the other girls. They sniggered and Mrs Linney called for silence. Wendy lived in a block of high-rise units with her single mum, and very soon she came to our house for a sleepover and actually kissed me. I never wanted to move again. My mother was happy that all the furniture from Kuala Lumpur had finally arrived.

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