If you swivel the map below around so that you can see the bright red, yellow, and green house, you’ll see a long driveway with a lone figure standing on it, holding a recycling bin, I think. (Weirdly, when I zoomed in I saw that the blurry figure resembles my mother as a young woman.) Our old house was at the top of the driveway. That’s our red letterbox. My brother JP once hit his head on it, somehow – I think I can remember him coming in the door with blood all down his face.
Me and my brothers, Neil and JP, went to visit our old house once. It was after school. My brothers were both in their high school uniforms; I was still in my primary school mufti. Neil was driving my mother’s white Nissan. It was very, very exciting.
We crept slowly up the driveway, past the Orams’s place (the red, yellow, and green house). The driveway was still just as steep, with crispy macrocarpa leaves still all over it. It went under some trees and then out into the clearing, and then the wooden house rose up in front of us. My parents called the house Toad Park, as if it was a house in a movie or a book. (However, they have also called every subsequent house Toad Park.) I saw the dark square grid in the triangle roof. That was supposedly the attic. Once JP and I tried to figure out how to get to it. I remember JP’s legs hanging from the trapdoor in my bedroom ceiling. The legs were kicking about and I could hear JP’s muffled yells from inside the roof.
The pear tree on the lawn was now a white-painted stump, a neat wound in the centre of the hill. The source of the crispy leaves, the macrocarpa, was still standing at the top of the ponga wall. Once I’d stood on the top of that wall holding a plastic New World bag in each arm, and jumped off, thinking I’d float softly to the ground. And once I’d stood on that wall and seen the neighbours’ boy – a blond kid called Matthew who always seemed to be howling – climbing in the tree that stood on the wall opposite mine. Then I’d seen him slip and fall straight down with a crack onto the driveway. I remember thinking how silent his falling was – fast but silent – until he hit the ground. And then it was silent again after he hit the ground.
(I was going to leave that hanging so you would wonder what had happened to him, for dramatic effect. But, I’ll be honest – he was fine. He’ll be around 26 by now. Maybe he has howling kids of his own who fall out of trees.)
The camellia tree was heavy with the same thick bitter leaves, and all around its roots in the same compost pile, there were the same rotting blooms. But something was different; the garden was different. There were visible emptinesses. Many of the plants were gone and the bush looked thinned out, contained, more like a patch of trees than a wild place.
As our car crept around the bend in the driveway, we saw a person. My god! I’m getting a chill right now. In my memory the person is walking up from the bush, striding over the hill toward the house, in gumboots, with a wheelbarrow. But I’m not sure – they might have been walking down from the house shading their eyes. But I am sure that wherever they came from, the person turned their head towards us to look at us and presumably wonder what we were doing, and at that point we all started shouting. Neil put the car into reverse and we flatlined it back down the driveway. He did a spasmodic 3-point turn at the bend. JP was shouting, ‘GO GO GO.’ I had my hands over my eyes and was screaming.
We would never have thought about just knocking on the door and saying hello to whoever lived there now. First, that would be very weird and the person might say no. Second, it would be seeing too much. We had to be spies. We had to trespass and see only the edges. We hadn’t thought that someone might be wandering around because someone else lived there. But of course there’d be someone. Thinking about it now, I’m glad there was, because it made our old house someone else’s house, and forced the realisation – just for a moment – that it wasn’t ours. But then, after a while, it went back to being our old house. It was too difficult to find new words for ‘our old house’ or to see the house as one in a sequence of houses that we and then other people would live in. It was always ours just because it was first.
JP sometimes says ‘visitation’ instead of ‘visit’. So (this is when we are grown-ups) he’ll say something like: ‘Would you be around for a visitation this afternoon?’ I like to think that the person who saw us fleeing in the car thought of us as a strange visitation, our white Nissan like a big ghost swan, or something.
Anyway, as we were rushing down the driveway, I looked out the back window and saw the house falling back under the trees. That was the last I saw of it. We were out of the shade and flying down George Street, shouting and heading back to the other side of town. What a relief it was to get out of there. It was like we’d escaped some horrible punishment. I remember feeling ridiculously happy.