Walk with me. Take that warm coat off your hook, for it is chilly and dusk sets in. We are in Windsor, almost at the corner of Hotham and Dandenong roads. Opposite the beautiful old red-walled cemetery are two white art deco blocks of flats. I don’t want to frighten you, and you may hold my hand, just to keep warm mind, but the left of the pair has ghosts aplenty. It’s best if you go on alone now.
If you walk down its driveway you’ll see at the end a two story flat. It’s new but tries in vain to repeat the swollen ship-curves of the original block. Can you feel it? There is an overlay that sits above and within this new structure. An old two-car garage has entries so narrow only a mini could fit, but there is Lisa’s turquoise valiant with its whitewall tires. She is a drummer in surf-rock band and has painted her damp flat in deep burnt red. On her shelves sit Barbies without heads, sparrow skulls, lizard skins, buttons and cans and chip packets from the seventies. She is a curator of detritus, a collector of what gets left behind: the ghosts of products, creatures, stuff.
Walk past the garage to the right. Here are the stairs, and at their end a wooden door. Emerge into the barnlike washroom, where an old copper and wringer appear as strange to us as medieval torture devices. Women may yet live who remember their red and chapped hands wringing out the baby’s nappies. Did they sing as they worked, or purse their lips with the effort? Through the door onto the garage roof. Ancient concrete and a lone hills-hoist strike a sombre bass-note against the treble of rooftops, antennas, elms and ivy-strangled grey walls.
This place where I would leave the world behind with beanbag, book and glass no longer exists, it is a ghost place. But you see it too.
In the same block of damp old deco flats: my first home out of home. One enormous lounge with a semi-circular window wall, and a narrow kitchen that always made people feel they were in a train car: wire fronted cupboards, an ancient aga-style cooker with gas-marks and a built in breakfast nook. Off the bedroom the mildewed, frayed and falling down glamour of a bath the size of a lap-pool, a Chrysler-building pattern of red and black tiles and a showerhead the size of a dinner plate. One morning as I lay in bed she emerged from the bathroom, an image of neat skirt suit and dark hair in a bun, an expression tired and a bit baffled to see me. Then I blinked and she was gone. Poof.
The new buyers ripped apart the kitchen to modernize, and removed the bath to accommodate a laundry. I wonder if the rising damp took the hint and retreated too. And doth my lady still linger?
Stroll downhill, perhaps along Alexander Ave and alongside the cemetery. On Inkerman Street you will find the Kimberly Hotel and beside it a large Jewish convention centre. The red brick flats that still pulse within its walls were completed on V.E. day. All six of these mansion apartments of two, three and four bedrooms with separate dining were already promised to returned veterans and their wives.
When I lived there amidst falling tiles, rising damp and threadbare rose-print carpet, June still lived there. The husband had left, but left her with four rooms, rent-controlled ‘for life’, and furnished in the calmly sparse and elegant pieces of the late forties. Whilst her flat was an understatement of olive and walnut, June wore sarongs, red lipstick and dyed her hair black on her back-step once a month. She swore like a trooper when her guaranteed home was sold out from under us. She’d never been told that the promise given her as a war bride was only valid if the husband lived there. You’d think they’d mention that. But she was still glad she’d kicked him out and emptied the teak liquor cabinet.
So now the Jewish community sings there within new walls, and my old neighbour Kerstin, a witch if ever there was, flits be-cloaked amongst her herb garden, calling to the corners and bedazzling the Autumn moon with her purely female smile. And in a gloomy central room I lay more logs into the tiny corner fire and pull my old red-velvet wingback chair closer in. The lover and I will drink Morris Pressings, eat pot-chilli and read. The kitten ‘X’ will soon jump on my lap, unknowing that after another twelve years of terrorizing small creatures and my hair elastics he will die peacefully in his new home, west of the water.
Sometimes when I walk these old places in my mind it seems my existence is being torn away behind me as structures tumble and are churned into the new. Then ‘I have fears that I may cease to be’.
I will cease to be. I will go. The Skipping girl may go, the Rialto, the clown-face of Luna Park, all may go. The icons, buildings and pathways of a personal history that trail behind me like a lost narrative seeking its author, all of this could go. And should my mind go, as well it may, even these tattered skirts of story trailing behind me will go too.
So take it all away. Stand me on the brink of the Western water. I can see the Dandenong ranges. I will find the known view and start walking towards my childhood, passing ghosts with every step.