12 edmondstone street, p.1
12 Edmondstone Street,
About the Book
About the Author
Also by David Malouf
12 Edmondstone Street
A Place in Tuscany
A Foot in the Stream
The Kyogle Line
About the Book
Each house, like each place, has its own topography, its own lore. A complex history comes down to us, through household jokes and anecdotes, odd family habits, and irrational superstitions, that forever shapes what we see and the way in which we see it.
Beginning with his childhood home, David Malouf moves on to show other landmarks in his life, and the way places and things create our private worlds. Written with humour and uncompromising intelligence, 12 Edmondstone Street is an unforgettable portrait of one man’s life.
About the Author
David Malouf is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s finest writers. His novels include Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Harland’s Half Acre, The Great World, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger in 1991, and Remembering Babylon, which was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize and won the inaugural IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1996. He has also written five collections of poetry and three opera libretti. He lives in Sydney.
ALSO BY DAVID MALOUF
An Imaginary Life
Fly Away Peter
Harland’s Half Acre
The Great World
The Conversations at Curlow Creek
‘Interiors’ (in Four Poets)
Bicycle and Other Poems
Neighbours in a Thicket
The Year of the Foxes and Other Poems
First Things Last
Baa Baa Black Sheep
FOR MY SISTER, JILL
12 EDMONDSTONE STREET
MEMORY PLAYS STRANGE tricks on us. The house I lived in as a child is no longer there. Like most of old South Brisbane it has been torn down and a factory stands on the site, part of a process that had already begun when I first knew the area more than forty years ago.
Edmondstone Street even then was ‘mixed’. Beginning at Melbourne Street, not far from the Bridge, and skirting the south side of Musgrave Park – a dark, uneven place, once an aboriginal burial ground but later redeemed and laid out with Moreton Bay figs of enormous girth and a twelve-foot checkerboard – it consisted chiefly of old-fashioned, many-roomed houses from the days when this was the most fashionable area south of the river; but there were factories as well, Simpson’s Flour and the Vulcan Can Company, and a private hospital, the Yasmar, so called because it was the matron’s name spelt backwards. I was born there, so was my sister; and in due course, after the fashion of those times, we went back and had our tonsils removed.
The Yasmar was pulled down in the sixties, along with two houses, the grandest in the street, where I had sometimes gone in the afternoons to play. They were houses like our own, but belonged to families who were better off than we were and could keep them up. One of them had a tennis court that was still mowed and rolled every Wednesday afternoon, with a formal garden and orchard beyond. Only the sagging wire fence of our tennis court survived. Behind it my grandfather had a vegetable patch and a dozen noisy chooks.
Nothing much remains of Edmondstone Street, and our house, Number twelve, went ages ago, though I recall it well enough; I can feel my way in the dark through every room. The trick of memory I refer to has nothing to do with that. It concerns the work my father did on the house towards the end of the war.
12 Edmondstone Street was a one-storeyed weatherboard, a style of house so common then as to be quite unremarkable; Brisbane was a one-storeyed weatherboard town. It stood on low stilts at the front, high stilts at the back, and was essentially a nest of open rooms surrounded on three sides by wide, cooling verandahs, ironwork to the rails, in a pattern of interlocking circles, and rolled venetians above. The ironwork was cream, the venetians ochre, the square wooden supports with their branches and volutes a spanking white, and the roof, which was of iron, that dull ox-blood colour that is so peculiar to Brisbane that it seems more dominant even, in the long view, than the green of the enormous shade-trees – mangoes, hoop-pines, all the varieties of subtropical fig – that darken every backyard.
South Brisbane then was already disreputable, too close to the derelict, half-criminal life of Stanley Street where the abos were and to Musgrave Park with its swaggies and metho-drinkers.
When they first came to Brisbane in the 1880s my grandparents lived in Stanley Street, in one room below street level. My father remembered the place and spoke of how they had been driven out of it in the ’93 flood, when all the south side of the river was under water; but this must have been a memory by hearsay; he wasn’t born until 1896. Later the family moved to a shop at the corner of Melbourne and Edmondstone Streets, a big general store and milk bar with high ceilings made of beaten tin, electric fans, soda fountains and several marble-topped tables on wrought-iron feet.
One of these tables, in the corner by the door, was my grandfather’s. When he was not working in our back yard, turning a bit of suburban South Brisbane into a Mediterranean garden, he would hold court there; and I use the phrase ‘hold court’ not as an empty metaphor but to suggest the dignity with which he waited for his adherents to appear, and the kindly condescension with which they were received: people from the community who were seeking advice or asking for letters to be written to the Old Country; others, old men like himself, very formal in collarless shirts and suits, who wanted to hear a story told by someone who was educated in their language and skilled in the art of narration. The stories were like poems, full of repeated figures and odd rhetorical questions to which the listeners sometimes, like children, would call out the answer and then shyly laugh. They all knew the stories by heart but only he had the skill, or the right, to tell them. Listening at the edge of the circle, with my chin resting on the bent cane back of a chair, I would get so lost in the telling that I almost understood: not the words but the tune. Though it was really my grandfather who interested me, and he remained unknowable since I could not speak to him; close, even companionable when he called me to help him dig, but a mystery.
Sometimes unshaven, often collarless, but always in a three-piece suit with watch chain and walking stick, he had a dignity that was disproportionate here; disproportionate as well to the shop and its suburban comings and goings. Unless you thought of him as the exiled ruler of a minor kingdom still receiving courtiers in a far-off place. Or unless you knew, as I did, the portrait of his brother the Bishop, which hung in my grandmother’s sitting-room among the buttoned-leather chairs. It had been presented to the family when that prince of the church, a Rasputin-like figure, long-bearded, black-gowned, with a high oriental hat and a pectoral cross, had made a visit to Australian Maronites in the early Twenties. The image was hieratic. You saw that immediately
Meanwhile my aunts, his three unmarried daughters, would be dealing with grubby message lists in the hands of toddlers, weighing out lollies in little white packets, scooping ice cream from frosted tubs; or to the old man’s infinite disgust, entertaining nuns in the downstairs kitchen. He didn’t care for nuns, and these were from St Mary’s. Irish. His girls had abandoned the Maronite church for the local Catholic one. The saints they invoked he had never caught breath of in the Old Country. He stuck to his old men and his tales from the Arabian Nights.
My father too had betrayed him; or had, in his quiet way, adapted himself so completely to this new place that there was no link between them. But then, my father was born here, had grown up ‘Australian’ in the rough South Brisbane ‘pushes’ before the Great War: a clean-cut Catholic boy working for the St Vincent de Paul on Saturday mornings, playing League on Saturday afternoons, and on weekdays driving his own horse and dray – which would later become a truck, then a whole fleet of them.
My father had had to leave school at twelve. He was the only support of his mother and six children. What, I wonder now, was his relationship with the old man (who can’t have been old then) whose temperament, or aristocratic pride, or lack of English, or contempt for the conventions of the place, made it impossible for him to take employment, but who saw nothing shameful in having his wife drudge sixteen hours a day in a shop, and his children, one after the other, go to work as my father did, selling newspapers at tram stops, running messages for people, saving up to buy the horse and dray. My father, I think, was too dutiful, too deeply imbued, for all his Australianness, with Old Country notions of filial piety, to be critical of his father – though I can’t speak for his feelings. He never expressed them. He didn’t show them either. When he married he bought a house two doors from his mother’s (he was, by then, thirty-eight), and my grandmother, a small, fine-boned, demanding woman, was a heavy presence in our house, though she never in fact entered it. She sent her daughters up each Friday, in the early years of my parents’ marriage, to see that the ‘girl’, Mrs Hall or Nan or Reenie or whoever it happened to be, was frying fish in oil rather than fat and that there was no meat in the house. My mother lost several good housekeepers in this way till we got Cassie. Cassie could stand up for herself, and being Catholic, unlike the others, was aware at least of the rudiments of the faith.
My father had never strayed far from where he started – that arc of the river between the city reach at Victoria Bridge and the West End reach at Davies Park. Our house was at the very centre of it, a low part of town in every sense, which is why immigrants settled there, and why abos, swaggies and metho-drinkers were about. When Brisbane became a garrison town in 1942, the jumping-off point for General Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific campaign, the city was segregated to propitiate American fears of race riots, and the South Side, our side, was declared black. Our grand house, which had always been on shaky ground, became an island of light in the general blackout and we were forbidden to play outside the yard. More and more it was a little world of its own, to be mapped, explored, re-mapped, interpreted and made the repository of its own powerful mythology.
First houses are the grounds of our first experience. Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large; and who is to say if our notions of space and dimension are not determined for all time by what we encounter there, in the particular relationship of living-rooms to attic and cellar (or in my case under-the-house), of inner rooms to the verandahs that are open boundaries?
Each house has its own topography, its own lore: negotiable borders, spaces open or closed, the salient features – not Capes and Bays in this case but the Side Door, the Brass Jardinière – whose names make up a daily litany. A complex history comes down to us, through household jokes and anecdotes, odd habits, irrational superstitions. Its spirit resides in ordinary objects that become, beyond the fact of presence and usefulness, the characters in a private language – characters too in the story we are living. We hear our first folk tales with a start of recognition, since what is enacted in them is general to every society, even the smallest, and our own has already revealed to us the magic that glows along a threshold or round a forbidden biscuit tin. The house is a field of dense affinities, laid down, each one, with an almost physical power, in the life we share with all that in being ‘familiar’ has become essential to us, inseparable from what we are. We are drawn back magically, magnetically, to our own sticky fingerprints. Even in their ghostly state, on objects long since dispersed. They haunt us. Set loose in a world of things, we are struck at first by their terrible otherness. It drives us to fury. For a time, while we are all mouth, we try to swallow them, then to smash them to smithereens – little hunters on the track of the ungraspable. Till we perceive at last that in naming and handling things we have power over them. If they refuse to yield their history to us they may at least, in time, become agents in ours. This is the process of our first and deepest education. A ‘secret machinery’ gets to work in us, ‘a hidden industry of the senses and the spirit’ whose busy handling and hearing and overhearing is our second birth into the world – into that peculiar embodiment of it that is a household and a house.
But 12 Edmondstone Street as I remember it was really two houses: an earlier one, almost unchanged from the beginning of the century, and a later one as it was ‘done up’ during the war.
Like most people in those days, my father was ashamed of our house. He would have preferred a modern one made of brick. Weatherboard was too close to beginnings, to a dependence on what was merely local and near to hand rather than expensively imported. It was native, provincial, poverty-stricken – poor white. Real cities, as everyone knows, are made to last. They have foundations set firm in the earth. Weatherboard cities float above it on blocks or stumps. Weather-board houses can be lifted if necessary, loaded on to the back of a lorry and set down again two suburbs or a thousand miles away. They have about them the improvised air of tree houses. Airy, open, often with no doors between the rooms, they are on such easy terms with breezes, with the thick foliage they break into at window level, with the lives of possums and flying-foxes, that living in them, barefoot for the most part, is like living in a reorganised forest. The creak of timber as the day’s heat seeps away, the gradual adjustment in all its parts, like a giant instrument being tuned, of the house-frame on its stumps, is a condition of life that goes deep into consciousness. It makes the timberhouse-dweller, among the domesticated, a distinct subspecies, somewhere between bushie and brick-and-mortar man.
As for verandahs. Well, their evocation of the raised tent flap gives the game away completely. They are a formal confession that you are just one step up from nomads.
As soon as it was possible under the building restrictions, a weatherboard house, if it was not to be demolished altogether, should be closed in; and so it was, late in the war, that my father ripped out our verandah lace, dismantled the venetians and, after ‘boarding in’ to rail height, installed louvres in galvanised frames. At the same time the house was divided into flats. My sister and I got a bedroom at last on the side verandah, our spare room became a dining-room kitchen, and newly weds (a nice quiet couple in their forties) moved into the rooms at the back. The one surviving room from what had been the coolest, closest, most lived-in part of our house was the bathroom, but we entered it now from the other side.
Impossible, of course. But I hang on hard to this failure of memory, this impossibility, because it allows me, almost by accident, to keep my larger memory whole. So long as that door remains blank, and our handyman, Old Jack, has not yet taken his hammer to the wall, I can keep our first house undivided, as it was in my earliest experience of it, when I was not yet eight years old; and it is this whole house I want to go back to and explore, rediscovering, room by room, what it was that I first learned there about how high, how wide the world is, how one space opens into another, and from the objects those rooms contained, and the habits and uses they were caught up in (including the forbidden ones), what kind of reality I had been born into, that body of myths, beliefs, loyalties, anxieties, affections that shapes a life, and whose outline we enter and outgrow.
YOU APPROACH IT from the street via a set of concrete steps. Stained ox-blood red, they rise between grass slopes, no more than twelve feet wide from verandah stump to low street wall, green from constant sprinkling and perfectly trimmed at the edge. The wall has pillars topped with painted spheres and linked with chains that passing larrikins are inclined to swing, though we, obediently, do not.
The verandah door is of lattice, brilliantly white. It is closed but not locked. Inside, three squatter’s chairs with extended arms and striped canvas seats stand on one side of it, with a wickerwork chaise, known as the Cane Lounge, on the other. When ladies come to morning or afternoon tea my mother wheels a traymobile out of the Front Room, draws all the chairs together, wrestles with the chains of the venetians, and the Front Verandah becomes a tolerably comfortable place of entertainment; cooler, lighter, certainly airier than the Front Room itself. I cannot imagine circumstances under which daytime visitors would be taken there. Visitors are entertained on the verandah and family and close friends in the kitchen.