A few years ago, after my marriage ended, I bought a little cottage in town, near the river.
When it was first built – in the early 1900s - it would have been a modest timber cottage with a half-closed-in side verandah, a dunny in the backyard, and a back lane for the night-soil man.
By the time I found it, the building had been thoroughly tinkered with. The house was clad in glossy white vinyl, the windows were aluminium, and on the roof were what looked like Pebblecrete tiles (which I later discovered had been nailed onto the tin roof).
Inside were spongy wall-to-wall carpets and 1960s net curtains. A tiny room for the toilet had been tacked on just off the kitchen.
But as soon as I stepped inside I felt at peace. It felt like people had been happy here. Which was more than I’d been of late.
I think the process of transforming a house is the perfect balm for that devastation particular to the end of a marriage. I had something practical to focus on: shaping the space where I would build my new life.
First, I pulled up the many layers of carpets and lino. The back porch had six, the bottom one a delicately patterned green lino that I really wanted to save. But it was brittle and broke apart even as I removed the chipboard above it.
I painted the walls white, with help from my dad. We worked into the night, Radio National blaring, hurrying to get the job done before the floor sanders turned up.
All the work was undoubtedly therapeutic, but I lay awake in my makeshift bed, unsettled by the whirlwind of renovation I’d unleashed.
I thought of Betty, who’d owned the home before me, and who’d moved to the local nursing home. In less than two weeks I had dismantled so many aspects of the home she had created. She had chosen that funny concertina door between the dining area and the back porch, she’d put her treasures in the little corner cupboard, now sitting in the garage. She’d picked the floral curtains and the green toilet, and she’d left crocheted coat hangers in the cedar wardrobe in the bedroom.
Betty had moved into this cottage before I was born and lived in it for forty years. Her sons had grown up here. Her husband died here. She faced the end of her independent life in these rooms.
What I was doing to the house – her house - was unseemly. Somehow wrong.
While the floor sanders polished the tallow-wood boards, my dad and I knocked down the brown Besser Block fence out the front, and I wondered if my discomfort was actually fear that I might be stripping away the peaceful, contented feeling in the house.
A couple of months later, I visited Betty at her nursing home, up the hill from the hospital and the cemetery, and took her out for a cuppa and cake at the fanciest café in town. Almost the first thing she said when we sat down was, ‘We were very happy there, you know.’
I didn’t talk much about the changes I’d made to the house and she didn’t ask, although she admitted that she’d heard I’d dug up the roses and given them to a neighbour. Those roses had been her husband’s passion, she said, and she’d felt bad for neglecting them after his death. Roses were not her thing and she seemed to understand that they were not mine either. She said she had loved the Poinciana she planted in the backyard, now a grand and beautifully shady tree dropping ruffled scarlet flowers onto the lawn. She told me about her two sons and towards the end of our conversation, talked of the baby she and her husband lost.
As I dropped her back to the nursing home, she grabbed my arm and said she was happy I had bought the house and liked the idea of a family there again. I was confused. Had she heard me when I said I was single?
The happy feeling in the house didn’t disappear, and as it turned out, three years later, against the odds, I was pregnant. In a well-worn - if foolhardy - tradition, my partner and I did major renovations before our baby came. By then I had no qualms about making changes to the house; it felt like mine. But at times I still thought of Betty and her family, as if they’d somehow left their impression there.
As our builder pulled up some rotten boards, he found an old leather child’s shoe resting on a bearer. He told us it was probably put there by whoever built the house, as a magic charm to protect the residents from evil or to promote fertility.
As I sat up at nights, breastfeeding, I pondered the layers of history in the house, and the dozens of people who must have lived here. I wondered what bad luck those first people had been afraid of, or what infertility they battled. Looking down at my newborn daughter, I wondered who might live here after us, and hoped they would sense the echoes of good fortune and happiness I felt sure my little family would leave behind.
This was first published in House & Garden early in 2017, when we had no thoughts of leaving this house. However, yesterday we moved out, to a beautiful new home in Mullumbimby so it seems timely to post it now.