Onions. The classic layered metaphor. On the outside the brown skin protects, flakes, peels, layer by layer the flesh falling away to reveal another and then another skin, working towards the centre until finally revealing, not a Chinese fortune message or a pearl but a void.
This house was like that. It was my home for over twenty years but there was a strange feeling of disassociation. The physical structure was as familiar as my own onion peel skin and triggered stories from the past but it had no value in itself. My parents had lived here for over fifty years and yet all that seemed to be left were memories. The spirits had fled. They existed only in my head.
My parents lived with very simple expectations. There was an austerity to their lives. They were working class, uncomplicated people with little ambition for worldly possessions or status. One was the daughter of a Sydney public servant, the other the son of an Italian immigrant fruit and vegetable merchant and failed farmer. They were content. Content with what they had, which in turn was all they needed.
Except. Except for my father’s love affair with driving and cars. And the occasional investment in something which, in retrospect seems odd, but which, at the time was about making life even more secure and content.
They decided to wrap this lovely little post war weather board cottage in aluminium.
As a sailor I myself have a fascination with this metal. A metal which is the most abundant in the earth’s crust. When in its industrialised form it is lighter than timber, impervious to weather, rust, water and decay. And it shines. It’s a magic product. Could it be related to uranium with a half life of thousands of years? Archaeologists in post apocryphal millenniums digging in coastal regions will unearth forests of aluminium masts, intact fishing tinnies and miles of salt resistant balustrading. And my parent’s house.
It could have been a wonderful experiment. Behold this shimmering vision in sensible brushed silver. Such a house would have made the family name notorious in Morningside circles. It would have been a brave statement about the glory of extruded metals and the place of the reflective war service cottage in the annals of architecture. My life would have become unbearably public as the son of this oversized silver cigarette box. Only in my confident middle years and in my eccentric dotage would I have reaped the rewards of this event. Infamy would have been my glorious inheritance and my father’s contribution to the world.
Sadly my father missed this opportunity and chose cream over silver. At that time aluminium cladding came in at least four colours – grey, blue, brick red and cream and was guaranteed for a lifetime. My father, who was committed to DIY projects, single handedly mixed and poured the concrete which created the mismatched patchwork under the house on which we chalked our hand tennis courts and was also the house painter.
Every five years he would spend his precious four weeks annual leave balancing and bouncing on five metre long timber planks stretched between cast iron trestles stalking the sides of the stilted house. This was all before power tools. Sanding a house was a manual task. I can still see him in his army shorts and navy singlet, a long cleaning rag hanging from his waist and on his head his trusty slouch hat – a remnant of the war.
After twenty years of painting he had succumbed to the door to door sales pitch of the man from Alcan. The idea of never having to paint the house again overwhelmed his better judgement.
Now twenty years later (as per the guarantee) this dusty cream aluminium mock weatherboard house sat defying time and the elements. The temptation to remove the wraps and expose the original weatherboards was tempting but my brother and I resisted. At one point we considered the price of aluminium on the stock market and dreamed of the wealth we might acquire by trading in this layer of the inheritance as scrap metal. But as with many of our good ideas it was discarded as impractical and ultimately a waste of time.