12 Giles Street and its Many Visitors
John and Liz Tregenza
Number 12 Giles Street was the home of “Granny Smith”. She was the first wife of D.D. Smith, the first resident engineer of the Department of Works and Housing. He ran away with his young secretary (not far; just around the corner to Sturt Terrace) and he built the “cottage” at number 12 for his abandoned wife.
We bought Granny Smith’s house in 1994 for $125,000, about half the price of an apartment in Melbourne, and planned to use it as a temporary base while we worked in Tennant Creek and on the APY Lands. We thought we might stay a couple of years.
The house was sold as a deceased estate. At the auction, our neighbor Russell Goldflam bid the price up to ensure that no developers bought the property. Another neighbour, ceramicist Pip McManus, who made the tiles for our bathroom, had known Granny Smith and told us a bit about her.
Granny Smith’s house was a simple, aluminium-clad cottage, painted white, with a red roof. The front garden was a kikuyu lawn, with three cotton palms and some pink oleanders. Out the back was a vine-covered, latticed garden room, where Granny Smith smoked and entertained her friends in the deep shade.
The house was on a large block, with a huge jacaranda, a kurrajong tree and mature orange and grapefruit trees. Tucked away at the very end of the block was the original, three-room daub dwelling, made by pouring concrete into a tin frame of flattened kerosene cans.
We’d been renting and living in the garage of a friend called Ushi, so it was liberating to have our own home at last. We pulled out built-in wardrobes dating back to the 1940’s, removed kitchen walls, ripped up brown carpet, built a new kitchen fitted with Roger Hammond shelves and cupboards, painted the walls white, laid terracotta tiles and hung paintings.
One evening, before we moved in, I was painting the ceiling in the second bedroom. I was standing on the third step of the ladder, with the paint tin on the top step. I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and turned to face my husband John, but there was no one there. Empty room. I wiped the brush hurriedly, smacked the lid back on the paint can and walked as quickly and casually as I could to the safety of 29 Giles Street, Ushi’s place.
After we moved in, I saw her several times, and came to understand the meaning of the old-fashioned term “shade”. There were particular places where a smoky shadow would glide — across the living room floor from south to north, across a corner of the backyard in the same direction.
Eventually I asked John, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
He looked up. “Well, the Pitjantjatjara do — they believe the dead simply exist in a parallel space.”
“I think that old lady is still here. I’ve seen something like a shadow travelling across the floor.”
John grinned. “Yeah, I’ve seen her too, but I didn’t say anything because I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. I didn’t want to alarm you.”
One evening, just on dusk, I was sweeping the paving near the back door when I looked up to see the shade gliding along her path. Damn it. I hurled the broom at her and yelled, “Go away! Please. This is my house now.” And she did. I never saw her again.
Later, I was telling a local Arrernte friend, Doogety Campbell about it, probably trying to gauge the degree of my insanity. Doogety was matter-of-fact. “There are ghosts all over Alice Springs,” she said, “particularly in East Side. But I wouldn’t have thrown the broom at her.”
We attacked the garden, chopping down lantana and hibiscus, mulching the lawn, pulling out cotton palms and cutting the ivy into submission. We wanted a semi-arid garden, in keeping with the local landscape. But John tended the citrus lovingly, deep-watering once a week. One morning our daughter Kirsten put her foot out of bed onto the mat, only to find it floating in 100mm of water. John had left the hose on the citrus trees all night. But his work paid off. We picked boxes of oranges and grapefruit and one year he won the prize for the best citrus fruit at the Alice Springs Show.
Out the back, for a table, I put a forged steel frame, topped with an old dunny door painted yellow. It had been made by a Melbourne artisan. “Very Alice Springs,” said Kirsten. Many visitors sat around that table, and many work meetings were held there. John and Ushi spent afternoons playing zilch and yartzee. And when we were working on the Mai Wiru (Good Food) stores policy Steph and Doogety came regularly and we would sit and analyse every aspect of trying to develop food security on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara, Yankunyjara (APY) Lands.
Of course, the people are what make Alice Springs special. It was town mythology that Alice Springs had the highest population of graduates per capita of any regional centre. And it’s true that we have an unusually dynamic, socially-conscious, creative community. In the early days, almost all our friends lived in or near Giles Street — the Davis family, Fiona Walsh, John Wakermann and Margaret Scrimgeour, to mention just a few.
Visits from our extended Pitjantjatjara family also became a regular, sometimes swollen, flow.
I come from the background where having visitors required a clean and tidy house and the provision of tea and fresh cake, or at least home-made scones. You know, you’ve got time to put a batch of scones in the oven between hearing the gate and the visitors arriving at the front door. Pitjantjatjara visitors, however, arrived at the back door, soundlessly, or would be sitting outside at the table, politely waiting. Cup of tea? Billy (wiretjara), more likely. Cake? Steak, preferably.
Our most frequent visitors were John’s niece Katherine and her children, Lazarus, Mantuwa and Jessica; Nita’s kids Cain, Elijah, Teone and Narelle; and Mintaya and her kids. Lazarus came every school holidays, with at least one cousin friend. Others followed. The kids would ask to play school, perform somersaults off the rock into the deep part of our backyard pool and form bands of high-energy musicians, using every available saucepan as drums.
One time, a number of people were in town – Mrs. Paddy and her husband, Molly, Mintaya and a pile of kids. The backyard and little guest house became a bush camp, run like an army bivouac. We had a row of swags and a couple of campfires, with women sitting in the dust, making ininti beads and punu. The meals were billy tea, porridge, weetabix, kuka, vegies; and start boiling up the billy all over again. One day, Mintaya came back from shopping. “Aunty, you’ve got to come quickly! There’s a parrot in the pet shop.”
“Mintaya, we don’t need a parrot.”
“But Aunty, you must see it. This parrot is so smart, it speaks English!”
Some visitors came for conversation, some for an extended stay. Ikuta, John’s brother, friend and teacher, who was stricken with grief at the death of his first wife and two children, and then the death of his second wife, lived for some months on a steel-framed bed, next to the orange tree. He was one of those people who made you see things differently. It was a precious, short time.
One year we stayed in Alice Springs for Christmas and I cooked all the traditional food. I started preparations early, with a plum pudding hung in the kitchen window, and on Christmas Day we cooked a large turkey in the drum oven, in 40-degree heat. Our guests surveyed the table of meats, salads, trifle and fruit salad. Shaking her head, Katherine said, “Aunty, you’ve got too much food — I’ll get some more people.” Twenty minutes later, she returned with another eight people from the creek, who would not have been having Christmas dinner that year. They were all family.
In all the time we lived in Alice Springs, we never used to lock the back door. But once, when we travelled to the Kimberley for a couple of weeks, we did, and returned to find a window smashed and blood across the living room floor. Indignantly, I reported it to the police, who rolled their eyes and said it would be impossible to find the culprit. “Needle in a haystack,” the sergeant muttered. Within hours, Katharine turned up, indignant that she and her partner, Andrew Ryder, had been forced to break in to get food.
Too many visitors can become wearing. Pitjantjatjara visitors are unfailingly charming, gracious and kind — unlike yours truly, the host, who could be strung anywhere on a continuum from delight to whimpering in the corner. Friends told me that sometimes, when they heard a cough at the door or even the sound of a car without a muffler turning into the street, they would drop to the floor and hide. There was a story of one Anangu man at Pipalyatjara who was so tired of visitors that he burnt his house down.
I was feeling a bit like that, one Sunday, and looking forward to a day in the garden. Kneeling on the red soil in the front yard, weeding away, I felt rather than heard a large engine stopping in the street, out front. I looked up to see what appeared to be an empty bus, save for the driver. As my eyes panned along the bus, they came to a diminutive figure with a beanie-clad head, sitting next to the window, in the middle. A hand waved regally. I stood up and walked out resignedly to welcome Tjungkara Connelly, who despite the barriers of age, illness and speaking English as a fourth or fifth language, had charmed an Alice Springs bus driver into driving her three blocks for a Sunday visit.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Tjungkara?”
Kipi Malu, the pet kangaroo, was near the back gate. Tjungkara followed me into the kitchen. I put the kettle on. My guest put her hand on my forearm, gently, and smiling, spoke in a low voice so that I had to lean towards her to hear. “You know,” she said, “I was born at Malu Piti, and when I was a young girl…” And she went on to relate a story of the Malu Tjukurpa, the creation story of the great red kangaroo of the western desert.
That was how it was in Alice Springs. One minute you could be on your knees weeding the garden, and the next you’d be taking tea with a senior custodian of the Red Kangaroo Dreaming. For, of course, most of us in Alice Springs were visitors in someone else’s country.
A few years later, John was attending a conference in Adelaide. He went for a drive in the hills and found a small farm in a secluded valley on the Finniss River. He rang me:
“Get on the next plane. It’s what you’ve always wanted.”
“No,” I replied. “I’m over that idea. I’m happy in Alice Springs.”
But we did buy the farm and moved there at the end of 2003, almost ten years after first settling in Giles Street.
Standing on the front verandah of the dauntingly derelict stone cottage, speaking on the telephone to a friend who’d also moved from Alice Springs, I admitted: “I hate to say it but I’m quite looking forward to some time without so many visitors.”
As I spoke, a white troop carrier, packed to the gunwales, rounded the corner and drove up the driveway. Out jumped Yami, Frances, Mrs. Connelly, Molly Miller, Narelle and 14-year-old Teone, who’d been there once, when we were buying the place.
“How did you find us?” I asked weakly. “Don’t worry. Would you like a cup of tea?”