Of the six of us, Rick and I were the most frequent visitors to our new home on Mitchells Island. We had always enjoyed being on the road together, so the four hour drive was no object. We loved escaping from the city, the traffic, the busy-ness of the weekends. But most of all, the new property was getting under both of our skins.
Every three weeks, we would slip out of work early on a Friday afternoon and head north up the Pacific Highway. Hours later, when we had taken the exit ocean-ward, a transformation would begin. I would sit forward in my car seat. My senses would come to life and I’d notice the hills in the distance disappearing into the dusk, a pond glittering at the side of the road, the skitter of rosellas near the car. In the winter months, when much of the trip was in dark, I’d be enthralled by the intensity of the stars in the night sky. If there’d been recent rains, we would scan the little highway for potholes or frogs suiciding in the glare of our lights. Once we had turned off Old Bar Road for the twenty kilometre run to Mitchells Island, we had the world to ourselves and a blanket of tranquillity would draw over us.
When we’d arrive at The Shed and switch the headlamps off, it was absolutely dark. We would sit for a moment, allowing our eyes to become adjusted, then dash through a cloud of mosquitoes to The Shed door. We would flick on the lights, turn on the hot water heater at the electricals box, unload the car, check the bedroom for huntsman spiders. My breathing would come deeper and more slowly. I would make a cup of tea while Rick set up his laptop on the coffee table, both of us commenting on the quiet. Eventually Rick would tuck in a DVD and we’d curl up on the big grey sofa (a recent second-hand purchase, well up-market of its pink foam predecessor) to unwind, sometimes falling asleep mid-movie.
Saturday also had its rituals. When I woke, on a foam mattress on the floor in one of the small bedrooms, my eyes would fly open and my heart would thump in anticipation. I’d slip out to the sliding doors at The Shed’s entrance, pushing open the curtain to relish the hills in the distance. And the birdsong! – I loved the warble of the magpies, the screech of the black cockatoos, the toot-toot of the pheasant coucal.
After Rick got up, we’d hop in the car and cruise the seven minute drive to Manning Point where we’d buy the papers at the general store, squeezing past the fishing gear, shelves of white bread and coffin freezer half full of ice-creams. We’d have breakfast a half block up the road at the Blue Water Café, owned by Cynthia. More often than not the coffee would be strong, the eggs soft and the dolphins on the move in the river.
The general store, the café, the bait shop and the caravan park constituted the entire business district of Manning Point. It was a place you could get your head around.
Once back at The Shed, I would often put on my boots and take a walk down the hill through the pine forest to check out the lower part of the property. Sometimes it was dry and I could cross to the back part of our property; sometimes the whole area was a swamp. I loved the paperbark groves that thrived in the damp conditions, and the startling red mushrooms. There was an old well at the lowest part of the property; local legend had it that a neighbour had once lost a cow in it, though I privately thought it must have been a very small cow to disappear into that small, shallow circle.
On occasion, we would encounter a neighbour.
One afternoon we were paid a visit by the farmer who grazed a few dozen fat cattle on the property lying between us and the river. We’d heard he and his wife were reclusive so hadn’t gone out of our way to make their acquaintance.
“John,” he introduced himself, not holding out a hand. “John Scott.”
We invited him in, out of the mozzies, but he declined, which left us speaking through the screen door.
“Notice you got Noogoora burr down the bottom. Thought I’d let you know before I reported it to Council.”
I swallowed a number of opinions about someone who would even consider reporting someone to Council without a negotiation first. I asked him what he was talking about and was told our lower area was rife with a noxious weed harmful to cattle. Rick asked him to describe the weed and some possible ways of handling it. John opened up a bit as he saw he was not going to be shot at, eventually coming to stand indoors where he was safe from the mosquitoes. By then, I had developed some empathy and saw how difficult it must have been for him to approach a new neighbour with a problem like this. It gave me a deeper respect for what it was going to take to live in harmony in the country.
The conversation with Farmer John pointed many of our subsequent Saturday afternoons in a new direction. We’d head down to the lower part of the property, identify the broad, maple-shaped leaf of the offending Noogoora burr, pull out the weeds and stack them in mountainous piles. Over time we got the invasion handled and never heard from Farmer John about that offence again. Before long, he began waving at us when he opened and closed the gate at the entrance to the long driveway leading down to his home on the river.
I found that a Saturday on Mitchells Island was the perfect way to get my oars out of the fast-moving city water. I could shed the city, the email deluge, concerns about which client might object to the rate rise, which staff member was on the verge of quitting, which printer to contract to do the new brochure. These day to day concerns were instead replaced with less mighty ones: What could we scavenge for supper? Should I read the bridge column or a chapter of a novel? Should we dig in the potted plant we’d brought along or leave it until tomorrow? These weekends were refreshing.
And always Rick and I were looking to the future. If the house were built on the space levelled by the previous owners, would we get maximum views of the mountains? When might we start building? What would the views be like if some of the pines were removed? Where should we locate our first shrub garden?
Often we took Monday off work as well, using our Sundays for exploratory drives. Soon we knew every inch of Mitchells Island – its two cemeteries with graves dating back to the 1800s, the extraordinary mangrove swamp, its hills and valleys, the handful of well-designed houses, the state rainforest reserve.
We would stay as late as we could before driving back to the city. And each time, it was a case of “au revoir” – until we see you again. The Shed was becoming a permanent feature in our lives, weaving itself into the fabric of our future.
* * *
Often we came up to Mitchells Island with other Shedders, in clusters of those of us who were available for a weekend away. One Saturday morning, we were dangling our feet in the water off the pier at Manning Point with Michael and Judy when Rick’s mobile rang. It was Bob the real estate agent.
Rick put the call on loudspeaker. “Hey,” Bob said, “there’s a big barbecue at my mate Lorne’s tonight. I thought if you all were around, you might like to come along.” We gave Rick the thumbs-up and he captured the details. We reckoned it was all part of getting to know the community here – and becoming known in it.
So that evening, after a day of Noogoora burr warfare, the four of us got the dirt out from under our fingernails and, with our sausages, a package of chocolates and two bottles of wine, headed off for the barbecue.
Our host Lorne and his mates, with their families, were an interesting lot. Most of them were teachers from Taree High School, all morphing into retirement. Retirement in their case seemed to look like joining the construction industry, as they were all building their own houses or each other’s. A lot of the conversation was about such things as where to get good timber or who had a pallet of old bricks to get rid of. We listened avidly, aware that the time was coming when these things would be important to us.
If we were curious about our new neighbourhood, it seemed the neighbourhood was also curious about us. There was a perpetual stream of questions between pulls of beer. I could see people forming opinions about our backgrounds, the likelihood of our project’s success, the amount of money we were bringing into the district, our suitability for the country.
I liked Lorne. He took Judy and me through his house, and with no small pride, showed us the little studio he’d added on, his balconies without railings and an unorthodox exterior staircase he’d built out of driftwood. Council approval was the farthest thing from his mind. To the contrary, you could tell he took great pleasure in flaunting what he regarded as unnecessary regulations. He was a man after my own heart.
Judy, my fellow Shedder, was a little shocked at the anarchy. What about the safety regulations? What about the insurance? What happens when he tries to sell? Lorne grinned and shrugged off the questions much as other guests were ignoring the handful of mosquitoes that had joined the party.
Later in the evening, Lorne lifted a large painting from a wall where it had been leaning. A friend of his, a local artist, had recently painted it and given it to him for helping him add an (unapproved) second floor to his house. The painting was a landscape in the country tradition – strong colours, romantic, realistic. Not unlike Lorne himself.
For me, it all added to the appeal of this little community. I don’t know if we passed their inspection but they passed mine.
* * *
One weekend, we encountered a strange coincidence. Rick walked over to say hello to Mandy, Steve and the triplets, neighbours from the yellow house just across the fence from us. The triplets had become an item of interest to life on Scotts Road. We couldn’t tell them apart (though in fact only two were technically identical, Mandy informed us); they shared the same mischievous smiles, skinny frames, curly hair and dauntless courage on their dirt bikes.
On this particular occasion, the purpose of Rick’s visit was practical. He was curious about how they were managing their internet broadband, and wanted to know how easy it was going to be to get on-line at The Shed once we made our move to the country.
Rick relayed the story when he got back a half hour later.
“I asked them about their internet,” he said, and Mandy had brought out a recent bill to verify their provider and monthly rate. In the process, Rick noticed their last name was Kingma – an unusual name and one we knew well.
“Do you by any chance know George Kingma?” Rick asked them.
“George was my father,” said Steve.
“Used to live in Forestville?”
Intrigued. “Yes, he did.”
“20 Wellman Road?”
By this time, Steve and Mandy were both gaping at Rick.
“Yes, that’s right….but….?”
Rick informed them we had lived in that house from for sixteen years, raising our family there. We had bought the house from Steve’s parents, after renting it for a couple of years, and in the process got to know them well.
Steve replied that he grew up in that house, that his family had owned it for some twenty-five years. So between us we had lived for a total of forty-odd years in the same house in Sydney, ending up next-door neighbours 300 kilometres away.
What are the odds?
An addendum to the Kingma story: I remembered one long ago night, in the early days of living in that house in Forestville, when a bedraggled and tearful young couple had arrived late at night in the rain, carrying a small package which, it transpired, was their old cat, recently dead. The cat had spent almost all its life at this house, they said, and they wondered if we would mind if they buried it in our flower garden. My brain had short-circuited for a few seconds, after which I’d replied, “Sure; go for your life.”
And of course when I spoke to Steve and Mandy about it, it turned out the young couple had been none other than themselves, in their pre-marital days. They were a bit sheepish about their youthful idealism, and for myself, I was very glad I’d handled the feline incident matter-of-factly.
You never know who you’ll end up being neighbours with twenty years down the track.
* * *
There was also our new friend Trevor, who lived across the road with two horses, a big Labrador – and a cockatoo.
We liked Trevor. He was friendly and helpful, with a dry sense of humour and a quiet wisdom. He was a respected mechanic, able to keep anything with wheels moving. He was responsible for the twenty or so cars – a colourful potpourri ranging from rusted hulks to mysteriously abandoned recent models – that lived on his nature strip or just inside his fence.
The horses we also liked – two of them, an old black mare and a younger white gelding. As a matter of fact, after we got to know them, we encouraged Trevor to agist them on our property, thus helping to keep the grass and weeds down. As the horses tore out the buffalo grass and ignored the blossoming fireweed, we lost the manicured look of the lawns that had surrounded The Shed when we first bought the property. Still, the new look was preferable to the foot-high growth of which the land was capable between our visits.
Kelly the Labrador we liked. She was a big smelly old black dog who warmed to us and helped keep foxes and rabbits off our property.
And best of all there was the cockatoo, Sammy, Trevor’s mate for some thirty years. For several months we’d wondered where Trevor’s third horse was pastured. Then we realised that the mysterious whinny emanated from Sammy’s large bird cage. He was also responsible for lawnmowing, old cars with flat batteries, barking dogs and shouting children – not to mention a very cheery “hello” as you’d walk by him up the road.
* * *
One rainy day late in the year I came to understand how much the property was beginning to mean to Rick and me. It was a Friday afternoon, and we were on our way up the Pacific Highway to The Shed.
We’d been on the road for over an hour, fighting heavy rains that threatened to overwhelm the windscreen wipers, when I received a phone call from Michael, back in Sydney. He was concerned about us, saying he’d heard there was flooding around Taree and motorists were being warned to stay off the roads.
I thanked him. “How bad can it be?” we said to each other, and kept driving.
We were quiet, absorbing the sound of water pounding on the roof. “I’m going to phone Trevor,” I said.
He answered on the first ring. “What’s the score up there?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
Trevor was undaunted. “Well, I was out in the truck a couple hours ago – the road was under water but you can navigate it easy enough with a 4-wheel drive.” He paused, no doubt thinking about our family sedan. “Hmmmm. You probably wouldn’t want to tackle it without a 4-wheel drive.” He concluded, “Well, let me know if you need some help when you get near.”
We drove on in silence for awhile. “I don’t care,” Rick said. “We’re going. We’ll work out something when we get there.”
The windscreen wipers whipped back and forth. Fate sent us a heavy torrent of rain; we and many other cars pulled over on the shoulder until the worst was over.
Finally I surrendered to the inevitable.
“Rick? This is crazy. We’re going to get there after dark; we would have to stay in a motel in Taree overnight…it doesn’t make any sense to go on.”
Heavy with disappointment, Rick turned the car around.
How could we be so upset? I thought. How could this place have got so under our skins that we would think of risking our lives to get there?
It felt as if I was being forcibly kept away from home – a home that was no longer in the city.