Years ago, I began to think a smaller house without mortgage could be the thing to do. Would be interesting. Would be a change, a relief, an adventure. My boys were old enough to move out; in fact, one of them often did.
Preston, roughly 10 km north of central Melbourne, was … all right, I guess. Certainly better than I’d thought it would be when I wandered northward from inner city Fitzroy all that time ago looking for somewhere I could afford to buy. There was space, and a garden to confuse a poor inner urban girl. (In fact, I began by thinking I could be radically different and encourage interesting weeds. They were duly encouraged, and I discovered why most people have at ‘em, like the Black Knight. Nothing else has a chance; finally they had to go. I also assumed rather more physical strength than I actually own in attempting, on a very hot day, to cut the entire nature strip with big hedge clippers. This was a mistake, too, rectified by my kindly neighbour who found me semi-prostrate and red in the face, and who then undertook to mow the nature strip up until the time when he judged the boys might be old enough to help, whereupon nobody did it.)
My inheritance had paid for buying and partly (aside from the mortgage/line-of-credit they really shouldn’t have given me in those heady, thoughtless days of the 90s) for restumping the house, redesigning and rebuilding half of it (and discovering the layer-cake of weird building decisions that lay at its foundations, as it were. There was a whole timber floor under the concrete – I kid you not. I later used the timber for kitchen benches). The laundry was at last an inside one and my older son had a room he could fit into. I’d made decisions I’d never had to make before; I’d painted and learned to sand and drill and nail to the point where I now have a great respect for sanders and carpenters. I’d watched the orbital sander leap from my hands as I tackled a timber floor and skitter across the room to neatly slice the telephone wire. I had banged my thumb with a hammer many, many times, and sworn at every inch of the skirting board at least as much as any genuine builder. I’d discovered vertigo as I wobbled on a narrow plank while trying to erect cornices on a very high ceiling, and again as I tried to paint an outside wall. I’d paid my then ten-year-old son to crawl into the narrowest space under the house to see if he could nail the timber flooring to something – somehow the flooring was attached all the wrong way and was consequently a bit bouncy at the edges – but he couldn’t, and was very stoic about the spiders he’d met there. I’d designed and replanted and then ignored my garden twice over at least. I’d designed garden paths with a cunning trompe l’oeil effect (narrower at the house and wider at the other end) – the one at the rear done in brick by someone who actually knows how to do these things, and the one out the front done in crazy paving made of concrete broken by me (dear god) and interspersed with bits of broken tiling and slate. I made the first version of this path myself but decided, when it promptly broke up, that I should get another person who (also) actually knew how to do these things. By the time I got around to the back garden’s artistic rockery, also made from broken concrete, I had generally decided that professionals are worth their weight in gold, and didn’t even attempt it by myself.
But a decade or more is well over my usual use-by date for abodes. I had, after all, spent my early childhood moving from house to house in country after country, and then my early adulthood from house to house in inner-city suburb after inner-city suburb. And Preston, by the time I finally left it, had been home for around twenty years. High time, I’d reckoned, even when I’d only lived there ten or fifteen when the idea first occurred. Particularly since the property boom meant my house was by then worth an absurd amount of money.
I did the sensible thing and mused about Coburg, the next suburb or so over, where the house or flat would indeed have to be much smaller, since Coburg is now probably more expensive than Preston. But it’s an interesting place, with mixed demographics and ethnicities, characterful and not far from the city. Sensible, really. Perhaps there might be enough change for one small, thrifty trip to Europe, where I’d never been. Then again, probably not.
Then again, I googled to myself, there’s England … I’d been wondering for some time by then whether I might actually be, by accident, British. When I was around twelve or so, my mother had applied to have me put onto her passport, and found there was some confusion about my status. My parents travelled at the time on some version of British passport, so could it be …? Well, no, as it turned out. An administrative glitch there had been, but I have always been, sadly in terms of repositioning myself in the world, Australian. However, I do now have a large and brightly coloured document declaring my Australian citizenship to anyone who wants to know. Anyway, I said to myself, surfing idly, English houses don’t look to be cheap. And it’s cold.
Back to thoughts of Coburg. Briefly.
As an occasional change from real estate ads about Coburg, I began to explore further, to France in particular. Whenever, in fact, I felt a little despondent, aimless, frustrated with life’s cul-de-sacs. The Australian dollar was growing wings then, so if you left out the centre of Paris itself, there was every possibility … And if you veered from Paris and went down south (where it is, to speak plainly, a lot warmer), it looked possible to buy something renovated and rustic but not far from anywhere, and have spare cash to live on, donate to my sons’ coffers, invest for my own looming old age ….
I’d never been to Europe and it didn’t look as though I could ever afford to be a tourist. But I had learned French at the convent school in Saigon in the ‘60s, and been obliged as a result to keep it up throughout school in Australia. My grammar isn’t flash, though it’s adequate, and my accent is still not bad. I still have my original second or third grade history book with on its cover Vercingetorix astride his rearing horse, in a swirl of dust, hurling his weapons at the feet of the conquering Caesar. I know, from chanting it, that Bayard was ‘un chevalier sans peur et sans reproche.’ I have long mystified Australians by writing out long division the French way. Of course I could move to France. I could then also hop in my clattering Renault and head for Spain, or take a train to Italy or Germany, or discover long-lost relations in England. I could.
Surfing downwards toward the Mediterranean, but well to the west of places like the Côte D’Azur (honestly, how do you speak to people who have butlers and yachts with carpets and inlaid benches?), I discovered the Hérault département of the Languedoc Région. Vineyards and olive groves; small hills with ancient villages, their narrow cobbled streets winding up to a castle or a 12th century church; the beaches of the Mediterranean less than hour from the crouching hills of the Cevennes.
Gradually, what had been mere fantasy evolved into possibility. In the end, the only thing in the way of achieving this thing was me. If I wanted it to happen, I would have to do it myself. People have called me stubborn before – though usually, I contend, those least likely to budge themselves on any given point – so now I would just have to call on all my best bullish tendencies.
It wasn’t sudden, this change. Some may have thought it was, but from where I stood it was humiliatingly slow; a process held up by … well … fear. Part of it was fear of myself, since I suspect I leap into impossible ventures when bored, and this, without a doubt, was, or is, an instance. Renovating the Preston house had been another example (I had thought, at the beginning, this might take six weeks); then there was standing for election to local government, eons ago, leading to three exhaustingly-hard years, a close view of the mindset of the Right that I could really have done without, and a new and lasting respect for politicians in general; and then deciding that 40 was the perfect age to start a career as a blues singer … sometimes, I do think I need restraints.
Yet. Yet there I was, an ageing woman sharing a house with two and sometimes three young men (my two sons and my tenant) for whom life has a quite different rhythm, not to mention noise level. For which I cannot blame them. With all four of us, shall we say, unskilled in basic tidiness. You can imagine.
I made my first step out of there when my friend Max replied to my gripes and my intentions by offering a room in his house for the duration. Until the big reverse emigration. And the difficulties would have been much greater without this. My heartfelt thanks, Max.
It still took months – a year at least, to be fair – before I started the process, and even then the signing of the contract to sell the house was a shock to many. I guess they just hadn’t believed me. It had begun. Not a fantasy, after all. Just do it and don’t think about it.
That way, terror lies. Believe me.
And, I told myself after a lifetime’s experience, expect everything to go wrong at least once. Best advice I’ve ever had. As an approach to life, it’s up there with Zen, meditation and Mindfulness. Honestly.
I even hired two teams – an inside team whose notion of renovating-for-sale was to cover everything with one coat (out of pride and possibly because I am an idiot, I redid much of what they had done), and an outside team whose razing-to-the-ground aesthetic distressed my younger son, and who were not, as it turned out, actual gardeners. I should mention our bees, which had turned up a couple of years earlier and moved into my mother’s Chinese-blue flowerpot stand. When reassured by a bee-man I had found online (The Bee Wrangler – he deserves a plug) that they would pose no threat and killing them would just be mean, we let them be. One day while we were doing all the final work before sale, I got a call from the outside team-leader, beginning: ‘About those wasps…’ Wasps? I said. Do you mean the bees? No, no, they’re wasps, he said. No, no, they’re bees, I said. Turned out he’d had a bad experience somewhere else, thought our bees were wasps, become hysterical at the sight of one and kicked the pot-stand over. Luckily this did not break and could be lovingly righted by my sons so the bees, hovering and buzzing sadly nearby, could move back in. Also, it was very lucky for the guy that the bees were not, in fact, wasps – who might not react so patiently to having home kicked over. (The bees have now moved a block to the house my older son is now renting, helped by The Bee Wrangler, who clearly is a great lover and protector of bees. My son may not have mentioned to his new landlords that he was bringing two hundred and one pets, if you count the cat.)
One other thing – with all that endless packing up, piling up of rubbish and tidying (endless, endless and very expensive trips to the tip), one other achievement could be counted. After twenty years of desultory fiddling, the house in Preston was finally finished, just in time for sale.
What happened next? See Part Two. (Oh, and you can ‘like’ this episode back on the main blog page.)