Monday, 13 April 2009

That Ordinary House 8 The Thunderbox

Ouch! Just the mention of toilets in that pre sewered era fills my nostrils with a pungent burning smell. No ordinary smell. A smell that didn’t invade the whole house but waited to catch you as you entered the bathroom. An acrid ambush which took your breath away.

There was a resident bucket in our bathroom every night for twelve or thirteen years until the city was sewered in 1962. I presumed every house had one but perhaps this was an old country solution to night relief which my father had brought from the farm. I never undertook a local survey.

Our’s was a fading yellow bucket with a white plastic handle and each morning it was my father’s task (later delegated to his sons) to empty the contents. A bucketful of urine. How it filled every night and by whom I’m not sure. My contribution was never a full quarter bucket.

In this modern era it’s unimaginable that you’d be greeted by such a sight and smell every morning. But there it was. The bladders of two adults and two children captured in a nine litre bucket.

Of course it had to go somewhere. Not in the storm-water drain and not down the sink. It made a journey through the kitchen down the 15 back steps and up the yard to join its cousins at the outdoor dunny. Not into the can sitting inside but behind the structure. It was poured, undiluted, onto the grass around the base of the structure, behind and out of sight. The scorched grass patch marked out the extent of the pour. It never occurred to us that this was anything other than routine. It never interrupted our games of cricket or caused us pause when taking cover behind the outhouse in games of tiggy or cowboys and Indians. It just sat there and fertilised the top of the yard and perhaps kept the termites at bay.

Of greater concern and interest was stepping inside this private space, the outdoor dunny. This was to enter a common but mysterious world. For a start it was dark no matter what time of day or night. There was no natural light entering this intimate space and it always took a moment to adjust and get one’s bearings. Of course, in a rush, it was amazing how automatic and complete was the blind knowledge of the mechanics of this place.

The large black, tar covered can sat concealed beneath the timber box designed to house it and designed into the box was a sturdy timber lid which flipped up to reveal the drop off point for number ones and number twos and flipped down to create a booming echo within that chamber of timber, tin and empty space. And thus its local name – the thunder box. On the left hand side another open box contained wood shavings which were used to cover the deposits after each visit, and attached to the wall was a thick wad of newspaper pieces – the Telegraph or Courier-Mail, torn into six inch squares and threaded onto a piece of wire which in turn was attached to the inside of the outside wall. Newsprint is not the most forgiving and pampering of materials to wipe one’s backside with but better than a handful of grass or the leaf from the closest tree – the staple of the bushwalker or bushman.

The worst moments were those which involved moonless nights or the dreaded maggots.

Night trips to the thunderbox were always challenging . On the nights when the sky was lit by the full moon there was a level of trepidation for a seven year old in crossing the 20 metres of no mans land. Once there, with the door held open by an outstretched foot, the dunny bathed in cool blue light and the night sky bisected by the foggy milky way, there was a sense of calm and of the world being a balanced and friendly place for a young tyke whose connection with nature was limited to annual camping trips to the beach.

On the other hand, on black black nights, the twenty metre dash to the safety of the cold wooden seat seemed like crossing through a world occupied by demons and creatures intent on the kidnapping and obliteration of young children. It was a fearful experience only undertaken when no other option was available. The twenty metres dash from the bottom of the back stairs was made only after a series of deep breaths and serious mental preparation to get the timing right for the race at full pelt towards the shadowed building at the top of the yard. Finally, when the inevitable could no longer be avoided it was on and with arms flailing to ward off the evil ones and with a prayer on my breath I ran the gauntlet. On arriving at the toilet, the door was bashed open and then violently flung shut to keep at bay the demons on my tail. Unfortunately this resulted in complete isolation in a pitch black hole with no escape. There was no time to be wasted and rather than my fear causing constipation, the opposite was achieved and if record books were kept I would be held in high esteem for my lighting fast process. The trousers were dropped before the door was shut; all muscle systems were released as my bum approached the seat and before I could tear a piece of the Telegraph from the wad at my side I was back on my feet and preparing for the return dash.

The only rival to this was the maggot infestation. This situation came randomly and always seemed to present itself on my more urgent visits to the dunny. Day was bad, night was unbearable. Always intent on play rather than purpose, I would be in a rush to beat the approaching bowel explosion. On pushing through the door, there, crawling over every inch of the place my feet needed to be, were hundreds of squirming, wriggling, rolling, fat, legless maggots. There was no option but to go on, so suspending my belief in gravity I would launch myself towards the seat seemingly taking flight. My one and only essential step would be taken, ballet fashion, with only the tip of my big toe making contact with the floor. Once on the throne my feet had to remain in mid air. From that vantage point I sat in panic watching this moving world below me. Every crevice seemed like a source of even more of the creatures. Moment by agonising moment more and more of them appeared from beneath the wooden box on which I sat, having made their escape from the can below me. I had the dread that any moment I would feel one on my backside, the intelligent one who had mastered the ability to cross the gap between can and seat or, the one who was not intent on escaping to daylight as were his brothers and sisters, but focused seriously on warm seats and human contact. Finally, and as quickly as possible, refusing to look back or down, gagging and in a panic, I would again launch myself into flight and regain the safety of terra firma.

At night, by torchlight, the experience was magnified ten times by the isolation and lack of visibility. There was no knowing how far this army of white wrigglers had spread.

I never shared my fears with my brother or my parents. This, I understood, was one of the fundamentals of human life and something which was meant to be confronted and survived. It was an essential step towards adulthood and the toughness necessary to triumph in the adult world.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

That Ordinary House 7 Verandah

Standing on the tiny back verandah (1m x 1.5 m) overlooking the yard I marvelled at how small it looked. How did it ever accommodate two cricket teams in summer and the gladiatorial football games of winter?

The cricket pitch ran downhill a decent 30 degree slope. It began at the top of the yard beside the weatherboard, gable roofed outdoor dunny and ran down beneath the wire clothes line, the four strands of which were attached at each end to an adjustable timber bar bolted to a vertical post. The effect was of a double crucifixion with adjustable arms - though we only ever thought of it as a secular nuisance. We were a catholic family so crucifixes were a dime a dozen and of such familiarity as to be invisible. At the bottom of the slope sat a concrete stormwater channel a metre wide running across the yard from west to east. This path carried fabulous raging torrents of water in wild tropical storms and cyclonic weather, threatening to inundate under the house or back up and fill the whole back yard.

On one side of the yard grew an ever expanding mulberry tree while the rest of the yard was bare of foliage. Grass was king except in dry seasons where it turned into a brown and dusty expanse and became rock hard.

In cricket season we belted down our best fast bowling efforts or tweaked the worn-out tennis ball with our nimble under developed fingers, coaxing it to spin and mesmerise the batter (batsman in those days).

Three stumps were banged in the grass just short of the storm water channel, bails gently set across their tips. A single stump was located between the loo and the top clothsline upright. The wicket keeper located himself behind the stumps on the concrete path and the clothesline was managed into an acute angle by adjusting the horizontal crucifixion arms.

The spin bowler’s run up was a simple one or two steps but the fast bowlers often commenced their approach out of sight behind the loo. They’d appear at the last moment, a flurry of arms and legs ready to let fly with their best, hoping to intimidate the batsman with their wild demeanour.

Over the fence on the full was six and out. The back fence was worth four and the side fences two. To speed up the game we often made up a new rule to suit the mood. Score twenty (thirty, fifty) runs and you had to retire; tip and run, where any contact with the ball required you to go for a run no matter what; stumps were live at both ends so you could be run out no matter which end you were running to; one hand one bounce catch was out; and maximum scores set for any side. There were lots of fights, regular pick up your bat and ball and go home scenarios, and some fabulous tantrums. But most of all it was hour after hour day after day of bowling and batting and running and drinking cordial and eating vegemite sandwiches. It was a great place to rehearse your silly walk or your wobbly run up or use any distraction possible to put the opposition off their game. The sun poured relentlessly down from the high Brisbane sky, the cricket pitch would be denuded of grass from the constant pounding of bare feet; the games would only end with sunset and often went after that, usually ending with a mother’s cry from the neighbour’s dark yard “Allen, Norman dinner”

We’d have spent much of the day on our backs rolling round laughing as much as scoring a century or even finishing a game.

This picture was vivid despite the overgrown expanse I now faced. Large trees dominated the top of the yard, a bougainvillea crawled and spiked its way along the eastern boundary and a sad vege patch sat where the mulberry tree once stood.

The dunny and the thunderbox had disappeared – physically at least. In my mind they were all still there.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

That Ordinary House 6 'Sadness'

Indecision doesn’t totally absolve one from responsibility. And so my brother and I would, from time to time, arrange to visit Moolabar Street together.

The grass still grew, the gutters still filled with leaves. Under the house was still an unfinished masterpiece of cracked, patched and mismatched concrete sections. Plumbing struggled to pretend it was from the current century. The collection of screws and tools from the 1950s still lined the back of the work bench recovering from the job for which they had once been indispensable. There was a sadness to them. Once caressed by hardworking hands they now looked neglected and forlorn.

Those days weren’t particularly productive but as we mowed the lawn and trimmed and dragged limbs from trees and rampant shrubs to the bin or the box trailer memories were being gently evoked. Each visit, each walk through the empty house brought back long forgotten images and more stories.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

That Ordinary House 5 'Decisions'

Too much time on your hands can be dangerous. The wise decision you made on day one begins to slip away as new options emerge – each one of which deserves serious examination and each examination reveals still further and multiple layers, each of which constitutes another possibility to be carefully considered. Of course none of these is ever written down. Eventually my brain becomes clotted with all these double cream possibilities until I begin to reinvent previously discarded options which again become possibilities – strangely familiar but not fully recognisable.

One of these options was for me to buy my brother’s share in the house. This would constitute both a broadening of my retirement investment portfolio and securing the family home for future generations.

But what, I thought, if my brother wanted to buy my half share. How would we negotiate that? Toss a coin? And what would constitute a fair price? Neither of us would want to pay too much. Neither of us would want to dud the other by paying too little. This circular thinking became ever more convoluted and unresolvable. My beloved was fully supportive of my thinking and yet, the mere conversation about the topic seemed to have the power to create tension and argument between us.

I felt pressured by my own arguments coming from her mouth and then felt aggrieved that it was not her place to agree with me or even dare have an opinion even if I did recognise it as mine from five minutes previously.
“I love my brother” I declared in a voice rather too loud than seemed warranted. She stepped back, confused, then fell into a silence – feeling excluded from my family business. What was happening? It was a most mysterious experience.

Possessions, greed, love, hurt, hate, anger.
This simple scenario wasn’t going as smoothly as I’d hoped.

Muriel, from the Public Trustee’s Office, saw her opportunity and asserted that they could sell the house for us. She had, after all, set in motion a valuation in order to establish a capital gains base-value in case we never made up our mind and our children inherited this whole disaster.

She’d arranged the valuation. Why shouldn’t it follow that she would arrange the sale. Wasn’t that why we’d gone to the Public Trustee in the first place? To minimise complexity? To make the decisions for us!