REPORT A PROBLEM
What is a home? To be sure, it’s more than bricks and mortar, but at the risk of sounding clichéd, what exactly is it that makes a house a home? I do know that we spent four good years here. I remember the week that we bought it. We saw it in the paper on the Tuesday, checked it out on the Wednesday and by Thursday it was ours, which is probably some kind of record for a house purchase. The thing is, we fell in love with it the moment we walked inside.
I guess it just felt like home.
How did I get home last night? I was out at a friend’s place for dinner and I remember having an excellent evening – good company, good food and lots of alcohol – but I have no memory of leaving or walking back again. When I awoke I managed to swallow some Nurofen and then crawl back into bed. When I finally crawled out of bed a few hours later I was still reeling though thankfully headache free.
Needless to say, the drinking session with Ben and his friends this evening at a beer barn in Brunswick Street was curtailed somewhat earlier than planned.
“This house is going to change my life,” he whispered, in awe at the prospect of living within spitting distance of some of Melbourne’s most well known gay pubs, clubs and saunas. There was little doubt that he and his friend were sold on the place. They’re going to move in at the end of the month, which means I can stay here until I fly back to London. After they’d gone the urgency to renovate deserted me so instead I headed back to stay with my friends in Coburg in preparation for my flight to Adelaide in the morning.
She didn’t notice me at first. She was sitting staring at the television, although I don’t think she was paying much attention to it. When she did notice me she peered curiously, here eyes oddly enlarged by her glasses. I could tell she was trying to work out who I was. When the nurse told her it was me she looked a little baffled. I knelt down beside her and took her hand.
“It’s Terry, your son,” I said. “Do you recognise me?”
“No,” she replied simply.
So I pulled up a chair, sat beside her and held her hand . . .
My mother has dementia. She can no longer remember the person she once was, or the parents whom she so dearly loved, the children she raised or the husband she married. When I tell her about her life she sits quietly for the most part. It’s as though she’s listening to a story she suspects has something to do with her own life but is unable to connect to it in any meaningful way, while I her son am merely some kindly gentleman who sits and holds her hand, feeds her chocolates and makes her feel a little less lonely.
Mum used to dread the idea of getting old and losing her independence. She boasted for years of still being able to do cartwheels across the lawn, a claim that became increasingly untested.
“If ever I get to the stage where I’m a burden to everyone then for heaven’s sake put me out of my misery,” she’d tell us. She’d also bemoan the stranger staring back at her in the mirror with growing dismay. “I feel the same inside as I did when I was 26,” she'd say.
I wonder what the 26 year old would make of her now.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in Narooma.”
A few moments of silence.
“But where am I?”
“You’re in the lounge at Narooma.”
“It’s where you live.”
A look of horror; incomprehension.
“How long have I been here?”
"Fifteen years? Who put me here?”
“No one put you here. You and Sid moved in here in 1993.”
“Yes, you remember Sid.”
Another long period of silence. Then . . .
“Where am I?”
“You’re in Narooma Mum, in the lounge.”
“Who are all these people?”
“They live here too.”
Another protracted period of silence. Then . . .
“Where am I?”
Before he passed away on Valentine’s Day in 2002, I remember Sid telling me about his concerns regarding Mum. For all that he was an opinionated bully of a man I’ve no doubt that he genuinely cared for her despite having to constantly live in my father’s shadow, whom you’d think from listening to Mum had acquired some kind of posthumous sainthood.
“She’s becoming increasingly erratic,” he’d whisper when she was out of earshot. He was genuinely fearful that she was losing her marbles.
As it turns out she was. We just didn’t want to face it at the time.
Sitting in the car outside of Narooma I find myself hesitating to go in. This has become more challenging than I’d thought. I begin to question whether my visits do more harm than good. Along with the flashes of recognition come the inevitable questions: Where am I? Why am I here? Will I see you tomorrow? This isn’t my home! interspersed with Who are you? Are you my son? The rest of the time she simply sits staring into space, an empty vessel afloat on a sea of forgetfulness while I quietly sit quietly holding her hand and feeding her chocolates.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” she whispers.
“Let’s say see you later then," I suggest gently.
“Okay, see you later.”
“See you later. I love you.”
“And I love you too.” Her speech is slow and slurred yet it’s the most lucid she’s been since I arrived.
Driving away, hot tears begin to burn my eyes. I do a final drive by of all the old landmarks of my youth – the old school, our old home, the local shops. In my heart I know it’s the last time we’ll ever see each other.
How do I know?
I just know . . .
Flying back into Melbourne this afternoon the plane was completely enshrouded by cloud for most of the descent. For the last five minutes or so before landing however the cloud cleared to reveal a brightly lit patchwork of green fields positively glowing in the late afternoon sun. Enormous tree shadows were being cast by the low-angled sunlight and I found myself enchanted by the canvas-like effect created. It then dawned on me that what I was looking at was an enormous Hundertwasser painting stretching as far as the eye could see, and I smiled, appreciative of this artistic epiphany.
I’ve decided I’m not going to bother. I don’t see the point. It’s taken me a year to arrive at this decision but now that I have I feel at peace. You said it yourself: you know how to get in touch with me. And the door will never be closed, but as for me taking the initiative, I think not. And it’s not about fear of rejection or rebuke. It’s about acknowledging what is and moving on. There are no hard feelings; no recriminations. I regret nothing.
“You turn a corner and things change, like wrinkles turning into dimples . . .”
Writing late into the night, anyone watching us would think we do this all the time. We do, but not like this. Usually we’re separated by distance, time and preoccupation. Our words take shape in very different environments under very different circumstances, yet against the odds we’ve managed to make it work. It’s something we’ve dreamed of doing for as long as we can remember yet who would have imagined it would be like this? Had someone gazed into a crystal ball all those years ago and told us, would we have believed it? I suspect not.
But we have.
An evening in Castlemaine with my dear friend Donna: a wonderful meal, some quality local wine from a friend’s vineyard, the easy flow of conversation as we catch up on all the gossip from the past 12 months plus the prospect of a good night’s sleep and the promise of a cooked breakfast in the morning. I am blessed with wonderful friendships and time spent with Donna is always satisfying. And as she shares her delight at the prospect of starting a new job in a new school, her pleasure is my pleasure. Such are the simple joys of friendship.
I’ve waited a long time for an evening like this. I always knew it was just a matter of time. You sit across from me and for the first time we’re able to engage in an adult conversation. More than that, it is a moment of connection; of recognition of the love that exists between us, a love that’s always been there and always will be. You share with me your sadness and frustration over things you cannot control and I listen, earnestly wishing that I could wave a magic wand and make it all turn out okay for you.
Having had no great expectations about what the evening would be like, I wasn’t disappointed. Ben had described it as a warehouse party. It was in fact a studio shared by various architects and designers. There were some wonderful people there. We all talked, danced, drank and towards the end of the night popped some pills. I felt like I was in my twenties again and when I asked Ben and Sren to let me know if I started to behave like the proverbial embarrassing uncle Ben simply laughed, hugged me and assured me there was no chance of that.
Still buzzing from the night before I decided to don the iPod earphones and step out into the day. On a musical whimsy I found myself heading down towards St. Kilda and before long I was sitting out on the rocks gazing across the bay, completely immersed in the music of Faithless and feeling more connected to Melbourne that I have done for years. On the way back I sat and ate chicken and chips in a cheap sidewalk café before heading home to Prahran feeling elated in a way I haven’t done for ages, completely surrendering to the moment.
I was really pissed off when the prospective tenants informed me the other day that they wouldn’t be able to take the house after all but upon reflection I think it’s probably for the best. I’ve decided to put it in the hands of an agent and with any luck once I’ve finished bringing it back up to standard we can pretty much forget about it until we move back and start the re-build. I’m meeting with some architects later this week to discuss our ideas for the place. It’s all beginning to seem very real. It’s really going to happen.
People don’t cater for the cold in Melbourne in the same way they do in London. Having lived with central heating for eight years now there’s no way I could live back here without it. Reversal cycle air conditioners are all very well but they’re no match for radiated heat. This house has been pretty damned cold, although I’ve started to make the adjustment. I've found working late into the night cleaning and redecorating is an effective way to keep warm but I still find climbing into a freezing cold bed at the end of an evening a real killer.
I’ve enjoyed the time we’ve shared together since I’ve been back in Melbourne. We go back a long way we two and to be honest, in recent years I’d begun to question whether our friendship had perhaps run its course. It’s heartening to discover it hasn’t. After such a long and successful corporate career the friend I once knew and valued so highly is re-emerging. Life leads us down a variety of paths. Over time these have taken us in very different directions, yet today they’ve converged here in this restaurant, at this table and in front of this fireplace.
It’s rather strange to think that within a few short hours the bed I’m sitting up in, the drawers beside it, the table at the bottom of it, everything, will be taken away.
I came back into this house feeling like a stranger in my own home but I will be leaving it with a sense of having reclaimed it again. This was our first home. It seemed like such a lot of money when we bought it. Now it’s quadrupled in value and we own it outright. Soon it will be home to someone else.
Until the next time.
My last act of renovation was to give the front door a second coat of paint. I could have gotten away with just one coat but I couldn’t resist finishing the job properly. It’s been good to spend time back here again, for not only have I reconnected with the house but with Prahran itself. Everything one needs here is on tap. It’s become one of the funkiest parts of town and with each passing year it seems to get better.
Closing the door behind me to head back to Coburg I couldn’t help but feel pleased with my efforts.
I hadn’t anticipated such a positive response. After spending so much time focused on getting the house back into shape and looking pristine, the sight of so many strangers walking through inspecting it was a little surreal. I joined the throng, pretending to be just another prospective tenant. Skulking around the perimeter I listened attentively to the appreciative comments and the nods of approval and took heart from the number of people asking the agent for an application form. It wasn’t until I’d popped the key through the agent’s letterbox that I remembered that I’d forgotten to clean the blinds.
Over a beer at the airport bar I tell you I’ll miss you. You say the same. The reciprocity makes us smile. It’s remarkable the way we’ve grown so close. Looking at you now I find it strange to reconcile the man you are with the boy you once were, but I know he’s in there somewhere. Perhaps you view my aging face in much the same vein. What I do know is there’s a depth of love and mutual regard I never anticipated when I drew your portrait all those years ago and a friendship that I’ll treasure forever.
Standing in a pressurized cabin gazing across at so many passengers slumped in the darkness with faces illuminated by the in-flight monitors before them, it’s odd to think we’re all so high above the earth while down below others are also sleeping, oblivious to our brief trajectory across their skies. And all around the planet are others similarly napping, whiling away the hours in a dark dreamland high above the clouds at speeds that defy the imagination: so many people, so many journeys, so many bodies in transit trying to somehow make themselves comfortable while journeying fitfully through the night.
Ever since I first became aware of it I’ve held out against joining, but with so many in Melbourne asking whether I was a member and explaining many times over my concerns over privacy and the potential for an inordinate amount of time wasting, my great niece Jenny finally tipped the balance for me last Saturday and talked me into it. So I’ve finally gone and done it: I’ve joined Facebook. Having done so I have to confess I’m rather hooked. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the site’s potential but I suspect I’m going to have fun doing so.
It’s no longer a question of if we move back to Melbourne but rather when. I always enjoy coming back to London and there’s no questioning the fact that I will have severe withdrawal symptoms when we finally leave. London does that to you. But there are things we want to do that we can’t do in London Spending time back in Melbourne, and more specifically Prahran, sharing quality time with friends and family, I found myself reconnecting to the idea of living there in a way I haven’t done since we left.
Basically, it’s simply a question of timing.
I’ve been lying low these past few days, barely stepping out the front door. As for talking to anyone, apart from Teddy and a few real estate agents who have been round to value the flat and give me an idea on what kind of rent we could achieve on it, I’ve been spending long hours in complete silence. I haven’t felt inclined to put the radio on or listen to music, preferring the ambient sounds from the street below to anything more deliberate. My days will become busy and noisy soon enough. For now, complete downtime is what’s needed.
There’s a lot to be said for doing nothing, especially after being so busy for so long. It’s curious the way a part of me kicks against it though. The protestant work ethic is deeply ingrained in my psyche and when it’s tested by that other part of me that’s unreservedly a lazy bastard the potential for conflict and irresolution is high. I’m pleased to note however that since coming back from Australia the lazy bastard seems to be winning the day and for good reason: I really need to chill out and rest up awhile. No question about it.
I’m not quite sure why, but as I was lying half awake in bed this morning with the weight of some half-remembered anxiety intruding into my semi-conscious state, a moment of clarity emerged like sunlight unexpectedly illuminating a darkened room and I felt a loosening of tension in the pit of my stomach I hadn’t even realised was there. It dawned on me that everything is going to be okay; that whatever life might choose to send my way I’m more than capable of dealing with it, and that despite any uncertainties I may have, everything's going to be fine.
I’m looking forward to going back to work. I’d be quite happy to have a few more days of doing nothing before I do, but the idea of going back on Wednesday doesn’t fill me with dread - quite the opposite in fact. Having taken time out to put myself both mentally and geographically in a completely different place for the past few weeks, I feel ready and able to take on the challenges of another school year. Unlike a few weeks ago when I felt completely wrung out and brain dead, I now feel I’ve got something to offer again.
The Tip Jar