Russell Goldflam and Pip McManus
3 Feb 2013
ONE GUM 10
It was a blisteringly hot February day, like all the other days that February, like the days of all the other Februaries to come. We’d seen a little ad tucked away in the classifieds for the private sale of a cottage in Giles Street, and so we ventured out into the afternoon glare to check it out. Back in 1982, it was just about impossible to find anywhere to rent in Alice Springs. The population was only 16,000 then but there was a chronic accommodation shortage.
Our plan had been to use Alice Springs as a stop-off for a few months on our way to somewhere more exotic. We had in mind a town in Peru, reputed to have cheese-flavoured ice cream. That would have been much more exotic than Sorrentinos’ white-bread schnitzel sandwiches, the best in haute cuisine that Alice had to offer. But despite the complete absence of fine food, Alice had got her hooks into us, and we knew we were going to be here for more than just a few months. That, combined with the lack of anywhere decent to rent, made us start browsing in estate agents’ windows and the Centralian Advocate.
In the afternoon glare, number 10 Giles Street was, well, very glary. The white walls, the great big galvo garage door and the low tin roof, the pale gravel spread in lieu of a lawn all glared at us. We found ourselves staring at this little house, hunkered down under the sun, accessorised with makeshift-looking pig-wire trellises on white-painted steel poles, designed to support vines that must have long since withered and perished in the heat.
Inside were Tom and Grace, who boasted that between them they’d clocked up 99 years in the Territory. Although Alice Springs was pretty quiet by just about anyone’s standards, it seemed the throb and hubbub was all too much for them and they had decided to retire somewhere smaller and quieter — Quorn.
Tom and Grace observed a fixed routine: up at 4.30, and get the woodfire going in the Aga for a cuppa. In an uncharacteristic concession to modernity, they’d moved the Aga out of the kitchen, and set it up in the back yard under a little galvo lean-to Tom had knocked up. Tom was an inveterate knocker-upperer. His preferred materials were (a) concrete and (b) steel. There were steel poles all over the property, sunk into the earth and secured with great chunks of concrete. He’d crazily paved half the back yard with pink cement slabs. Beyond the crazy pink paving was red dirt, and, right up the back, the old dunny, with its trapdoor opening out into the back lane for the passing nightsoil cart. Fortunately, in 1968, Tom and Grace had made one other concession to modernity when they partitioned the bathroom to create an indoor toilet cubicle. It even had a little dial on the door, reading “vacant” and “engaged”. Proudly, they showed us the Plan of Sanitary Drainage.
With the wood stove moved outside, they’d put a gas cooker in the kitchen, but they didn’t use it much. Instead, they did their cooking on the Aga in its little humpy outside; an ox-tail stew at the height of summer, simmering away all day long. Supper at sunset, and so to bed.
The bed, in keeping with the classic Alice Springs, arid-zone bungalow style, was in a centrally located room, designed to be a refuge from the extremes of climate, with no external walls. Natural light was provided by louvred windows opening onto the front sleepout and the back laundry. In fact, there was next to no light in the bedroom, as Tom and Grace had opted to hang all the windows in the house with double-layered nylon curtains, which were kept resolutely drawn throughout the day, presumably to ward off the heat. The curtains went well with the turquoise and chocolate nylon pile carpet, which covered not just the bedroom and living room, but also, rather oddly, the kitchen. The contrast between the high glare of the exterior and the deep gloom indoors was disconcerting.
Also off-putting was the junk. Tom and Grace’s excuse for having accumulated tons of junk, heaped up in mounds in the wasteland of the back yard, stacked to the rafters of the garage, piled in the sheds and backyard dunny and even stuffed in the chicken coop, was that they used to be junk dealers. They can’t have been very successful, judging by the amount of junk they had failed to sell. Before leaving, they held a lawn sale but that hardly made a dent in the junk. We hung some of the more appealing bits of rusting metal – assorted tools, signs, machine parts – on the pig-wire trellises, but it took us years to get rid of all the rubbish we didn’t want.
Despite the mountains of junk, the deathly gloom inside and the deadening glare outside, the plastic runners in every room to prevent the turquoise and chocolate carpet from getting soiled, the gravel instead of grass and the treeless back yard, despite everything, we decided to buy the house. We struck a bargain, more or less on the spot.
We were nearly foiled when we naïvely accepted the old couple’s suggestion that we engage their lawyer to do the paperwork. He turned out to be the notorious retired magistrate, Godfrey “Scrubby” Hall. There’s a well-established rule among lawyers that it’s a conflict of interest to act for both purchaser and vendor in a sale. Scrubby Hall was evidently of the view that this rule didn’t apply to him. He ushered us into his chambers, a dirty cluttered room at the back of his house, peered at us over his half-moon spectacles, and said, “My boy, I’ll give you blue-ribbon service”, before proceeding to stuff up our conveyance to within an inch of its life. Despite this, in due course, we found ourselves registered proprietors of Lot 601, Alice Springs.
Our first ceremonial act was to rip out the vintage Hills Hoist. This was when we discovered how serious Tom had been about knocking things up. The steel pole of the hoist was anchored to the earth by a lump of concrete big enough to tie up the Queen Mary. It took days to remove it, using a shovel and the giant crowbar Tom had left behind. It was important to us to remove the Hills Hoist, as it was such a potent symbol of the conventional suburban lifestyle we were determined (as young, suburban, first mortgage-owners) not to lapse into. We replaced the hoist with a young date palm to symbolise the exotic, multi-cultural oasis we envisaged for our lives. It withered and died. We bunged in another, which did OK until we ourselves ripped it out. Despite our best intentions, the conventional suburban lifestyle had taken root and we were embarking on our first lot of extensions. Not to worry — there were already two mature date palms, one out the front and the other out the back, which pre-dated Tom and Grace.
Those date palms were among the reasons we fell in love with Number 10. Plus the olive tree in the driveway, which bore fruit the first year but, thanks to our neglect, has been barren since. Not to mention the two acacias leaning over the front room that came down one year in a storm. But at least the two date palms are going strong and still bear beautiful, plump, golden fruit, when we remember to pollinate them, and if the weather’s right. As they say in Egypt, dates like their feet in water and their heads in fire. When we’re lucky to have a good season, we celebrate the harvest with a fête de dates for the neighbours.
We patched up the big, corrugated-iron shed in the back yard but later had it demolished. We bricked up the fireplace and replaced the blue-frosted louvres with clear ones to let in the light. Some things survived our new-fangled ways and radical renovations. We kept the welded name plate nailed to a beam: ‘ONE GUM 10’, a reference, presumably, to the solitary eucalypt on the front verge, or perhaps to “Ye Olde Gum Tree Café”, which Tom and Grace had run in the 1940s. As an obsessive, cryptic cruciverbalist, I planned to cut it up and rearrange some of the letters to spell out ‘IMOGEN’, which I thought might be a cooler name for our new home. But fortunately, all I had for the job was a blunt hacksaw, so we left the sign. We planted some more gum trees and got a pink cement flamingo, who we named Imogen instead.
We loved the ceilings, a kind of 1950s precursor to Masonite, secured with criss-crossing batons. Although every few years one of these fragile panels bows, cracks and caves in, depositing half a century’s worth of roof cavity dust on us, most of the originals are still in place, biding their time.
Even now, more than thirty years after we moved in, after all the improvements and refurbishments and extensions, the soul of the place still pulses. Every room is still lit by windows glazed with louvres, obstinately sticking in their antiquated metal frames. We’ve clung to the rather lurid aqua colour scheme in the kitchen and bathroom. The purple bougainvillea still screens the front sleepout in summer, and right in the middle of the front yard the odd little seedling that sullenly refused to grow for about fifteen years, and then suddenly shot up, turned out to be a rare example of the legendary waddywood, the Acacia peuce. I wonder if Tom and Grace got the seed from Molly Clark of Old Andado fame. She might have been a mate, as the three of them spent most of their long lives between Oodnadatta and the Alice. In the bush, the waddywood lives for centuries. Ours, a spiny, spiky five metres, dusted in spring with yellow balls of blossom, is still just a youngster.
A couple of years after we moved in, a notice in the Advocate announced that Tom had passed away. Hardly worth the Herculean effort of packing up and moving out of One Gum 10 and trekking all the way down to Quorn for two meagre years of peace and quiet. Still, he’d spent most of his life on the move. According to the Adelaide Advertiser, in 1932, when he was 36, Tom had been droving a mob of cattle down from Newcastle Waters when he’d found, half-buried by the trackside, an old ramrod revolver. The speculation was that it had been lost by someone in John MacDouall Stuart’s overland exploration party of 1859.
Grace, who was almost 20 years Tom’s junior, lived a good deal longer, until 1999. Tom and Grace left behind a shelf or two of books, ancient Boys’ Own Adventures and the like. One of them was Grace’s Bible, where someone, her mother I think, had started recording family milestones, in a time and place without newspapers; no columns of Births and Deaths. Grace herself is there: “Edith Alice Grace Dowler, Borne November 5th 1914”, reads the faded copperplate. Above this entry, a pair for the older brother she never knew: “George Dowler, Born July 6th 1907”, and, immediately below, in darker ink, “Died July 20th 1907”.
Inside the Bible, there’s another sombre clue. A certificate headed “Where there’s drink there’s danger” records that Grace, at the age of nine-and-a-half, has taken the “Pledge of Abstinence from all Intoxicating Drinks”. Being under the age of 14, she requires the consent of her parents. Her mother’s name is signed, in the same hand as the names at the back of the Bible. Above it, her father’s name is written, followed by the single word: “Dead”.
There’s no mention in the back of the Bible of the death of Grace’s dad, who had left behind a wife and three children. Maybe those who survived him had ceased to be so religious. Or maybe those who survived him had more pressing matters to attend to than writing in the back of old books.