Category Archives: Machans Beach

Torrie Banks …

In this shambolic township perched on the edge of the sea wall, the cottages along the waterfront are garlanded with prayer flags and windchimes and studded with mosaics made of shells. Tess thinks the cottages probably started as holiday shacks, but now they are homes for the dreamers, the hippies, the artists and the others who are running from somewhere else and are starting again. Tess is none of these things, but she and Bill retired a year ago and bought one of the cottages on a whim whilst visiting. It is small and white, and a street away from the Esplanade. Because they had never before taken risks or done anything particularly impulsive, Tess still can’t believe they are actually here.

Tess walks along the sea wall most evenings. The breeze from the ocean cools her skin where the sweat of the day has dried and itches and irritates. She likes these cottages; the imperfection of them, the way some of the foundations sink into the ground as if being reclaimed. Dust to dust, and all the rest of it. She likes the tin rooves pocked with rustholes and the overgrown gardens. Too hot to do anything. She and Bill renovated madly for the first few months, until the weather became steamy and intolerable. They sit on their verandah to make the most of the breeze and wait out the wet season. The locals sit along the sea wall with glasses of wine at the end of the day. They wave at Tess and raise their glasses and smile.

Halfway along the Esplanade, there is the house Tess calls the Time Warp House. Not very original, she knows – but what else is there to say? At first, she supposes it is abandoned. Its symmetrical facade is made of peeling, horizontal boards and there are two sets of French doors nailed over with plywood sheets. Against cyclones and thieves, maybe – sealed tight as a drum. Along the front, a narrow verandah runs the width. There are three wooden steps down to the front garden. No lawn, just weeds and a jumble of pebbles and shells and broken paving stones. There is a strange silence in front of the Time Warp House. The ocean hisses and foams beneath the sea wall, but the air seems closed like a vacuum.

One evening when Tess is walking, she is stopped dead in her tracks. She can smell, inexplicably, lemon delicious. Did people still make lemon delicious? She is standing in front of the Time Warp House and the French doors are open like the front of a doll’s house, the rooms inside laid bare. The kitchen has apple-green paintwork and ancient cabinetry. Tess sees battered wooden chairs and a table on which an orange woollen tea-cosy covers, presumably, a teapot. An elderly lady stands by the stove. She wears an apron with a bright paisley pattern and her hair is a fluff of white perm. Her husband is sitting at the table with a newspaper and teacup. The old people look out at Tess. They wave and smile.

.oOo.

There are drifts of dried leaves under Tess’s dining table because there are no insect screens on the windows of the little white house.  Bill says screens would stop the sea breeze. Tess used to mind, but doesn’t now. She loves the house fiercely, even the bathroom and toilet which they haven’t got around to renovating yet, and which are outside on the back verandah. At nights during the monsoon, the rain blows in under the corner of the verandah, and Tess goes back to bed with wet feet after a nocturnal visit. It isn’t like the house they used to have, in which they’d lived for over 30 years with an ensuite bathroom within a few steps of the bed. This house is not new, like their first home. This house breathes with other people’s lives.

.oOo.

The night following the lemon delicious, the old lady is cooking a beef stew. Tess stands on the sea wall and somehow knows there are also dumplings. It reminds her of her childhood, and the smell of the school dining hall when she was five. The rest of the houses along the Esplanade smell of lemongrass and curries and oriental spices.  The old man rests his hands on his newspaper and nods at Tess. The orange tea-cosy has a bobble on top, and zigzag stripes in Hunter green around its girth. Tess also knows the biscuits in the glass jar will be homemade. She raises her hand and the old man smiles.

She doesn’t see the old people again after that. The next night, and afterwards, the Time Warp house is closed up tight. Although Tess always hopes, the two symmetrical French doors remain boarded tight as a drum.

.oOo.

There is a garage sale at the end of the Esplanade. Trestle tables in the driveway hold piles of ragged books and dented kitchenware. There is a box of LP records and an old rug laid on the grass with some rusty tools and fishing reels. A middle-aged woman in a batik skirt sits on a garden chair with a coffee mug in her lap.

‘Hiya,’ she says to Tess. ‘Nice day for it.’

Tess smiles and sorts through the books. The usual offerings. Stephen King and Harold Robbins and children’s books with Bible stories. She finds a tattered cookbook with a picture of lemon delicious on the cover. It seems to tingle in her hands as she holds it. The woman on the garden chair inclines her head.

‘She used to live here, you know. The woman who wrote that.’

‘Really?’ Without her glasses, Tess cannot make out the author’s name.

‘Torrie Banks,’ the woman says helpfully. ‘They lived down the Esplanade further, at Number 302. She was pretty well known back in the day. For writing cookbooks. But the house is all boarded up now.’

‘They’re back,’ Tess tells her. She holds the book tightly against her chest. ‘I know the house you mean. I saw the lady and her husband – they were there last week.’

‘Nup, that couldn’t have been Mrs Banks.’ The woman shakes her head. ‘She died when I was a kid, but I remember her coming round and having a cuppa with Mum. Funny …’ she tilts her head. ‘They’d sit right about here, where I’m sitting now. Mrs Banks used to bring ginger biscuits in a tin. I remember that, because my brother hated ginger biscuits and used to chuck them over the fence into next door’s pond.’ She smiled fondly. ‘The bugger.’

‘It must have been a relative, then,’ Tess says. ‘The old lady I saw. I saw them two nights running, a lady and man. She was cooking, and he was sitting at the table. ’

The woman shook her head again. ‘Not in that house, love. It’s been boarded up for … geez, probably more than 50 years. Mrs Banks and Harry didn’t have any kids, so Harry lived there by himself for a while after she passed, then I think he went to a retirement home. We thought the house would go up for sale, but it never did. Weird, really.’

‘How much is the book?’ Tess holds it out. ‘I don’t have any money on me at the moment, but I’ll bring it tomorrow.’

‘No worries,’ the woman says. ‘Two dollars? The recipes aren’t very modern. Nobody cooks that kind of stuff anymore. It’s all Jamie Oliver and Nigella, eh?’

.oOo.

It is possible, Tess thinks, that the garage sale woman is talking about a different house. But she isn’t surprised to see the number on the mailbox of the Time Warp House is 302. Still clutching the book to her chest, where she feels her own heart beating against it, she pushes the wire gate open and walks up the path.

Down the left-hand side of the house, Tess picks her way through weeds to a bank of dusty louvres. She puts the book down in order to pile three bricks up and stand on them. She scrubs at the dirty glass with the bottom of her T-shirt and presses her face to the window.

The apple-green cabinetry is covered in dust and the table and chairs can be picked out through dust motes and gloom. Tess sees that the tea- cosy, which had been such a bright orange, is faded and tired and swathed in cobwebs. There is a yellowed newspaper beside it, and a glass biscuit jar. Tess knows the house has not been lived in for a very long time.

Out on the waterfront, the sea is crashing against the sea wall with a relentless beat. Birds wheel overhead, over the rustling palm fronds. Tess sits on a bench with the book in her lap and watches the Time Warp House for a long time, until the day starts to fade away.

It is going to rain. The air smells of ozone and treacle tart and warm custard.

…oOo…

And so, the story never really ends …

An attempt to have a crack at a peaceful holiday in Cairns last February ended up being a six week invasion of Roo’s apartment complete with ambulances, paramedics and finally a trip to Townsville for the Hunter Gatherer to succumb to a heart operation – after which the rest of the year continued to deteriorate miserably as the HG lost both parents in quick succession and chaos descended on what hadn’t ever been a particularly peaceful existence in the first place.

Towards the middle of the year, Rocco decided to leave home and move to Melbourne for work. Being the final chicken to leave the nest, one would think Rocco’s mother would have wept and gnashed teeth – and that might certainly have been the case had there not been so much other stuff going down. There was certainly no time for Rocco’s mother to blog or write or even think straight – so it is with a certain amount of surprise she finds herself thinking reasonably straightish  once again, though astounded to find herself relocated halfway across the country in a partially renovated beach shack located within a flood’n’cyclone belt (but that’s another story), and far, far away from the softcock option of New South Wales’ idyllic south coast where she had become ensconced in arse-inflating comfort in a cosy room overlooking a nice garden, contemplating chocolate cake and the HG’s impending retirement and not thinking of weather conditions in every waking moment and having one foot permanently poised to flee.

How did all this happen?  Who knows – but it did. In July, after a harrowing few months of disarray, the HG and Rocco’s mother decided to take a short break to visit Flygirl in Darwin, returning via Cairns to re-visit Roo and get it right this time. The idea was to not have a medical emergency for a change, but to check out real estate with a view to maybe relocating ho-hum soonish whenever. Rocco’s mother didn’t at any stage imagine they would really be relocating. She and the HG were not, and are not particularly to this day, renowned for snap decisions, change or risk taking. Rocco’s mother is, however, a sucker for old Queenslanders (the houses, not the geriatrics), and spent many happy hours looking through the real estate liftout of the Cairns paper and even attending Open Houses. After a few of these, where various ‘renovator’s delights’ and ‘handyman’s dreams’ were offered for twice the price the present home in NSW would be worth, the HG informed her he wasn’t a fan of Queenslanders anyway and that there was too much work involved. In a way, this came as a relief to Rocco’s mother, who was already contemplating going home and resuming her arse-expanding sofa activities and not having to worry about termites, woodrot or, indeed, having to spend every waking moment of every available day wandering around Bunnings. Which is what eventually happened. It turned out the HG’s lack of enthusiasm for old Queenslanders was merely a matter of location. He didn’t want to live in the city – he wanted to live by the beach.

And so it was, on the final day of the holiday, Roo took the HG and Rocco’s mother to a northern beaches suburb where they phoned a real estate agent on a whim, and inspected what could only be described as a shack. Rocco’s mother wasn’t even taking much notice. There was plenty of termite damage, woodrot galore – one bedroom and a small alcove which didn’t have any business being called a bedroom but optimistically had been – and an outdoor dunny located on the back verandah, which tilted away at a crazy angle and felt as if it were about to collapse into the ground. Rocco’s mother was surprised to hear the HG asking animated questions of the real estate lad – and mildly alarmed when the RE lad informed them he’d had a quote for ‘around $10,000 to have the roof replaced’ – which would, of course, be immediately necessary for the unlucky purchaser to undertake prior to habitation. Alarm bells gave a distant jangle when the HG whipped a tape measure from his pocket – but Rocco’s mother knew their flight was booked for the next morning.

Imagine then, how fate intervenes and changes the course of people’s lives. At the airport the next morning, Rocco’s mother and the HG were bumped from their flight, and the afternoon saw them returning to the beach shack with an even more rigid tape measure and … whatever.

So it came to pass. The termite infested shack was duly purchased, the cosy home in NSW disposed of, and nothing will ever be the same again. As we speak, Rocco’s mother is sitting in the small room which could never possibly be considered big enough for a bedroom and which is, surprisingly, just perfect for a computer and not unlike the small office she had ‘back home’. Maybe things will be written here.

But that’s another story …

.oOo.