As I was reminiscing with an old friend a few nights ago – and lubricating the mind with a pleasant Chardonnay – I realised how potent the street I lived in as a child has been in my personal mythology and my dream life, as well as in my verifiable memory.
Across the road was a family I now recognise as brutalised and dysfunctional. The kitchen always smelt of stale milk, the smell embedded I think in a thick plastic tablecloth. The father was a real estate agent who scared my mother by offering his protection when Dad was off doing country service in the fire brigade. He let my future mother-in-law's house to a very attractive woman, tagged by the neighbourhood as a prostitute. He disciplined his younger son by holding his head under a cold-water yard tap on frosty winter mornings. His older son, for a few years the reason for my eager watering of the front garden in the hope that he'd pass by and say hello, ended up the sad victim of a nervous breakdown.
Further down the hill was a sombre brick house where Jeannette lived. She was a girl with red curls that I envied, and a cheerful disposition, but she wore a clanking metal calliper because she had caught polio, the disease that terrorised families in the late 1940s.
Next door to her was an old house, hidden by a thick hedge and covered with vines. There lived the Miss Julianas, who taught piano. You rarely saw them, but you did see earnest young musicians entering through the squeaky gate, and you could hear music pouring (or stuttering) from the front room. I longed to learn piano, but it was beyond the means and the expectations of my parents.
The McMurdos had no father, and a fat mother. There were a lot of them, and occasionally the police would visit. Meals were a shambles, and we never played in the house. We sat in the grassy gutter for our games. Opposite them lived Ruth, whose family had arrived from South Africa and had a way of speaking English that was fascinating to me in my narrow Anglo world. Games we played there were more daring: games like spin the bottle.
The stretch of North Road down to Fiveways has been a frequent site in my dreams, usually involving darkness and pursuit. But it also carries the ghosts of myself when younger. An eager 7 year old on a celadon green pushbike with a semi circular cane basket, I pedal down to collect a dozen eggs from my grandfather's hen sheds and wrap them snugly in newspaper to carry them back up the hill to the ordinariness of home. As a teenager, I walk head down with a suitcase in one hand and a book in the other, heading off to catch the train to school and, later, university: that's how I learnt the whole of “The rime of the ancient mariner” by heart, and struggled through the four volumes of “Clarissa”. As a young mother, I run frantically down the hill to get the doctor when my tiny daughter convulses. And finally there's the ghost of my mother, walking down the hill to buy the Saturday Herald just before she succumbs to the limitations of Parkinson's. She sorts through the pile of pages, discarding cars, homes, sport, travel and classifieds into a rubbish bin before she walks home. She is within a block of her three homes: her childhood home, her marriage home, and the home of her old age.