Rick and I were hanging over our new balcony railing, trying to absorb the full beauty of this particular sunset. The hills in the west were sharp purple silhouettes against the red setting sun. Massed streaky clouds glittered orange and gold, while the river a few hundred metres away glowed deep ruby.
I would look at the sunset for a while, and then turn to look up the road where our visitors would be coming from.
Well, not visitors, really. My partners. My housemates.
Eve and Daniel and Michael and Judy were in their cars, only a few kilometres away. “On the homestretch,” Eve’s text message had said, meaning they had hit the Manning Point Road and would be here in minutes. They were coming home. For Eve and Daniel, it was lock, stock and barrel, moving in for good. Michael and Judy were still intending to work in Sydney for some time, but were bringing most of their possessions up to Mitchells Island with a plan to set up their personal area and store the rest of their belongings in their new garage.
Our partners were coming home, and it was time to share the house I’d been building. For many months, Rick and I had been involved in the day-to-day construction. We were attached to practically every molecule of it. Every afternoon at 3:45, by which time the builders had cleaned up after themselves and left, we had slipped into the house and wandered through, patting the beams and noticing what had been accomplished that day. Not only that, but over the past few weeks, we’d actively worked with the builders: cleaning, clearing, sweeping, sanding, painting, scrubbing and pounding – just as we’d promised Dallas.
So, with the imminent arrival of the rest of the Shedders, I felt conflicting emotions. On one hand, I wasn’t sure how I would go at sharing this accomplishment. The expression “bursting with pride” could have been invented for me; I felt a very deep gratification about what had been created here outside our Shed door, and the role I played in that. The more of myself I had invested in this wonderful construction, the more it seemed like “mine”. I could almost forget that it took six of us, stroking hard, to get to this spot in the river.
And on the other hand, I could taste how much I wanted the rest of the team to love it, to recognise it as their own success. I wanted them to be able to sink blissfully into a place they could call home. This was the fulfilment of a long, complex and sometimes stormy passage for all of us, and I yearned for everyone to experience the same quality of ownership that I did.
The last week in particular had been back-breaking, heart-aching work. I knew what Rick and I had gone through: Rick had made a thousand trips up and down the slope from The Shed to the new house, each time loaded to the chin with our boundless possessions. I had dusted, swept and scrubbed every inch of a big new house. But for our Sydney partners! In addition to packing up a household, Daniel had sold his share of his company and said goodbye to his business of twenty years. Eve had been fêted by the Sydney yoga community in acknowledgement of her thirty years of contribution. Judy and Michael had organised a week’s leave from busy jobs, packed up from Longueville, found themselves a bolthole in Sydney to work from, and helped their son Jess find his own accommodation.
Surely we were all exhausted from the packing, choosing, wrestling heavy boxes and furniture. From climbing hills and stairs and making trips to St. Vincent de Paul’s. From the parties, the real estate agents, the phone calls cancelling water, telephone and electricity. From the last dinners at favourite restaurants, the hugs, the tears, the thousand goodbyes.
Could anything restore us to the point of celebration?
The house had been finished for about three days, not even a week late on a ten month schedule. The paint was still drying on our bedroom feature wall as Rick and I, with occasional help from Matt or Mike or whatever burly guy happened to be around, set up our own suite. We’d spread out our clothing on long metres of railing in the new closets, pounded nails in the walls to mount our paintings, and set up favourite desks and easy chairs that had been waiting in storage. Matt had helped us install blinds in our personal area. We’d situated a picnic table and three comfy wicker chairs on our deck. The accommodation might still have been a little sparse, but it felt like the beginning of the real thing.
As a matter of fact, it felt fabulous. Over the last twenty months, Rick and I had lived in a two-bedroom shed, travelled Europe and stayed with my mother in Canada. It was a long time to wait, to be living a temporary existence. But one night in the new digs and it felt like home. I was putting my stake into the place where I might just end out my days.
And Rick! I could hardly believe him – or, put more accurately, he couldn’t believe himself. Notwithstanding a few sore muscles, he was a-tingle with joy and fulfilment. More than once he commented that this was the first time he felt like he’d had a home since he left his family in Edmonton at the age of twenty-one. It was a house he’d been involved in designing right from the start. He’d put himself on the line for it no end of times over the last few years. It belonged to him; more than that, he belonged to it. A man with very few possessions, he finally was owned by something that he truly treasured.
The removalists were coming in from Sydney the next day, bringing with them the whole Longueville household, but in the meantime we wanted to be ready for everyone to enjoy a couple of meals, an evening celebration and a good night’s sleep. So, in addition to setting up our personal area, we had moved enough furniture down from The Shed to get everyone through this all-important first night. We provided spartan furnishings for our housemates’ personal areas, and I put a stem of iris in each bathroom, along with soaps and towels, to give a small taste of the exquisiteness of arriving home. If a sprig of iris, looking like a little exclamation mark in its vase, could possibly provide the punctuation that denoted the successful end of this journey, then a sprig of iris we’d have.
In addition to furniture we had scavenged from The Shed and from storage for the communal area, we had hefted down our big dining room table – Rick on one end, I on the other – from where it had dominated The Shed for a year and a half. It was just a simple piece of wooden furniture, but substantial in size, over two metres long and capable of seating ten people comfortably. I’d purchased it at least six years ago, at a time when Rick and I were seriously downsizing and when the idea of a communal household was just a distant glint in our eyes. But all that time ago when I first saw that table in the shop I thought, this is the perfect symbol of our intention to make this mad thing happen. I suspect it was the first purchase for our future house, when it felt like we were light years away from sharing a meal in a new home. And now that guardian of our vision, polished and carefully set with placemats and candles, stood in our new dining area, awaiting its family – its intention fulfilled.
We were ready to celebrate the occasion, in a manner appropriate to its magnitude. The upcoming arrival was a very big deal, though I was trying to look as nonchalant about it as I could.
Back to our lingering sunset. The sun had done its last crimson flush before it disappeared behind the Tinonee hills. The lorikeets were settling down. We were about to head inside, where the house glittered behind us, every new light blazing its welcome, when we heard the convoy arriving. A car pulled up on either side of the driveway. Everyone got out, stretched tired backs, called hello, grabbed a bag or two and began drifting toward the new front steps.
It had been at least a month since the newcomers had seen it, and the house had transformed in that time. The wooden steps and balcony railings were shining from the final coats we’d given them a few days ago. The metal balustrade cables under the railings had been installed and were a lustrous silver. The eaves had been painted and the timber walls on the private decks given their two coats of stain. The front steps, with railings and cables, had gone up just over a week ago. The grounds, though weary from the heavy traffic of a year of construction, were cleared and tidy. Rick had mown the grass and in places it almost looked like a real lawn.
In the moment or two that it took for all those changes to sink in, our housemates slowly stopped. They stared. Michael put his cases down and said, “Jesus wept, look how this scrubbed up.” It was altogether too much for Eve, who burst into tears and had to sit down on the grass. “This is our house,” she said, barely able to speak. “I didn’t know it would be like this.” I had anticipated a hundred times the moment when they arrived home, but I was still blind-sided by a blast of something inexpressibly heartrending. I ached to think how it was for Eve and everyone else, climbing out of their cars and experiencing rawly this beautiful thing we had all built – with the future it implied and the past about to be left behind.
Eventually we drifted inside, where everything was fresh for the newcomers. The group stood in the foyer, stunned at the elegance of the large open plan room on display before us. I was mesmerised to see the room anew through their eyes, with its broad expanse of hardwood floor glowing with a golden hue. The kitchen, magnificent in size, modern colours and brand new appliances, dominated the left wall. And the dining room table lay waiting, with its colourful setting for six.
For a few minutes, we all stood there in our communal living area, unable to stop smiling, while quietly acknowledging ourselves for what we had accomplished.
Champagne went into the fridge.
And then everyone wandered off to their personal quarters. I stood in the entrance to our own suite, leaning against the frame of the doorway and tickling the ears of my little cat while excited voices drifted up the hallway. “Oooooooo, these colours came up beautifully.” “This bathroom trim is pretty schmick!” “Is the hot water working?” “How do you open these windows?” “Do we have any…?” “Where’s the…?”
An hour later, we were finally seated around the dining room table. Judy, who had provided the champagne, poured it into our motley collection of wine glasses.
Michael ceremoniously stood to make the toast. “Here’s to us,” he said. “Here’s to accomplishing something nobody – we included,” he laughed, “thought could ever be done. Here’s to the Shedders, and what we had to shed to make this happen! And speaking for myself, that was a truckload.”
Amid much clinking of glass rims, Judy interjected. “I’d like to add my thoughts,” she said. “I’m so moved by all of this; I haven’t had time to think about the house for a minute and I’m just astonished to be here and to experience this. I can see that until this exact moment, I’d been treating the whole idea as something that could never happen, at least could never happen for me.” She beamed a radiant smile that I thought we’d probably get more of in the future.
“But it happened! This is my home,” she concluded. “And you are my family.” Eyes glittering with tears, she added her own toast: “Here’s to the end of an era and the beginning of another.” It was an exhilarating – and a sobering – thought. We had made our choices, and along with them came a new direction and new constraints.
“Hear, hear,” said Rick, touching glasses again fervently. “We created this and it’s ours.”
Daniel sprawled back in his chair, relaxed as a cat. “We’ll no doubt find more stuff to shed tomorrow, but for tonight, let’s just have this.”
A sort of radiance shone off our little gathering. We are experiencing a lull in the search for belonging, I thought. Or better put, we have a crested a plateau. There might well be a mountain ahead of us, but we were planting the flag on this highland.
We all had had fierce, separate experiences in the past week or two, and yet here we were, so closely connected and so filled with anticipation. Here we were, ready to step into the unknown together, actors in a drama we’d written and rehearsed together, finally ready to move onto the stage. This was our opening night.
The dining room table gleamed quietly to itself. It had kept its promise. We had kept our promise. We were home.
(…and the beginning)