In the 1960s, the one-bedroom ‘home’ behind my grandmother’s haberdashery shop was typical of the area and era. A strip of old red-brick shops, about a dozen in all, were all joined together at the front, but a corrugated iron fence separated the dwellings. Each like a capital ‘T’, the eaves were, at best, less than a metre apart, the rooms one after the other like a train carriage.
After locking up for the day, we’d make our way into the house, Nan hitting dark round switches with a little brass knobby bit in the middle, ‘clink’, through each room. Then it was all hands on deck in the kitchen for a cup of cocoa for me and a whisky for her — Black & White for daily tipples, Johnnie Walker for ‘best’.
We’d adjourn to the living room where a mammoth rosewood dining room table with a lace cloth claimed precedence. Nana assumed her position beside a faded standard lamp; on with the green Astor Mickey wireless to get ready for the trots; light up a welcome Rothmans then position her cigarette stand just so beside her with the neat little whizzy thing you pushed to make the cigarette ash disappear.
If I had been ‘good’, Nan would pluck the music box from the shop window and bring it in. You had to wind a big brass key underneath, and when the lid was opened, a tiny plastic ballerina would spin around in her stiff lace tutu in front of eight tiny angled mirrors to the tune of ‘The Happy Wanderer’ (as an adult I found this choice very strange). I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in my short life.
In the dank bedroom with its corded carpet, there was a double bed perpetually covered with a heavy faded damask spread printed with full-blown cabbage roses. Beside it was a small window covered by an old brown Holland blind with a crochet string hanging down, tied onto a brass ring. Come bedtime, once Nan turned the light off, it was scary — the corrugated iron fence, the feeble moon barely visible in the gap between the buildings, the stupid blind, the dark furniture with its curlicues and carvings.
As there was only an outside dunny, we had a ‘guzzunder’ each, as my Dad used to call them — a china potty for Nan, a pink plastic one for me. A large bedside-table sported a beige wind-up alarm clock with huge bells on the top. It had the loudest tick, it was hard to get to sleep.
In that gloomy room was a huge, freestanding mahogany wardrobe. Its two brass locks and keys seemed like eyes in the night to me. There was also an immense chest of drawers, once again, dark wood, ornately carved with grapes and leaves, but which held, delight of delights, a hidden drawer! It was ‘Nan’s and my secret’, and after more than a few whiskies and water, Nan would occasionally bring the drawer out to the dining room table to regale stories of the contents.
Old coins, including her favourite, the 1939 crown, were mixed up with an assortment of marcasite brooches and rings, pearl necklaces and earrings, strings of jet beads, and numerous bejewelled hat pins. In amongst this treasure were many newspaper clippings of various people’s births, deaths and marriages; ration coupons from the war; and faded photos of sundry relatives in Nan’s family.
Off the kitchen was a dull green-painted bathroom with visible pipes to the tap from the hot water service on the wall — the gas pilot light always a-glimmer. No shower, just a big, deep, chipped bath tub. Although dismal like the rest of the house, the bathroom always smelt nice — Nan always used yellow Velvet soap to wash, and applied Oil of Ulan religiously. I’ll never forget those Nana smells. And, surprise, surprise, the bathroom boasted a front-loader washing machine! Wow, Mum would’ve killed for that. We only had a copper and concrete tubs in our laundry.
Nan’s toilet was outside, way down the back, the classic Australian ‘dunny’ replete with a chain-pull cistern and a piece of wire to hold toilet paper. She had a stubborn, spindly Hoya in a brass pot outside the toilet door, but that was IT for anything green. The tiny yard was just dirt and screenings. Behind the toilet was a shed with one corner of the floor covered in some very old, smelly straw. It was full of fluff and webs, and seemed to be the local haunt for alley cats to give birth to repetitive litters of kittens.
Although the mother cats were scrawny, filthy, with torn ears and pus-filled eyes, the kittens were in my child’s mind, just gorgeous. The mother cats somehow knew I was not a foe, and were very grateful for the milk and food I’d sneak out with a kind word and pat. Nan was mortified. “If you ignore them, they’ll go away. Now come inside this instant and wash your hands,” she’d demand. “Your mother will have a fit!”
As regular as clockwork, Dad would arrive to pick us up on Sunday morning so Nan could have a roast lunch with us, stay to watch the Sunday night movie, then drive her back to Brunswick later that night. What a caring son-in-law he was.