IT WAS A wooden thing on stilts, my father’s childhood home. The front yard was kept pristine with a trimmed lawn and pruned rose bushes, but out the back custard apples fell from the trees into clumps piled high by the fence. We always seemed to arrive in the late afternoon, dragging the pink blush of twilight along behind our station wagon.
The house was a typical Queenslander and my father’s family was typically Catholic. Five children meant the verandah became a bedroom and the beds all varied in size. When you outgrew one you moved on to the next and when there were no beds left you moved out. When we visited the house I would claim the smallest one, the bed that my father spent the most time in as the youngest. Out the window, in the park across the road, was a water fountain. Come nightfall, it was lit up with fantastical flashes of colour. The water spurted high into the night sky turning red and then green and then blue, orange, purple. With the colours dancing on the insides of my eyelids, I would sink beneath the quilted covers and pretend, for a little while, that I knew what it was like to be my father as a child.
There was a man who lived under the house, my grandmother’s cousin or some sort of distant relation: Noely Ryan. He claimed that sleeping under the house was his choice, despite the four empty beds above, but family legend says my grandmother banished him there because he smoked cigarettes in bed and she didn’t want him burning holes in her carpet. He had his own bed down there, and a mirror, a wardrobe, a sink. The cockatoo underneath the house next door kept him company and the night breeze that swept through kept him young. The cockatoo ended up outliving him.
For the first few years my father’s mother would greet us at the doorway. She was not an unkind woman, but she was ‘Grandmother’ not ‘Gran’ or ‘Nan’ and under no circumstances was she ‘Nana’. She was a woman with red curls and milk-bottle glasses and a bony knee upon which we sat each visit. For the first few years she was there in the house and then one day she fell down the rotting back stairs and never woke up.
The wooden thing on stilts no longer stands, but I remember sprinting, adrenaline pumping, to the letterbox during games of ‘44 Home’ with the younger cousins. I remember sneaking my hand into the lolly jar in the kitchen when my grandmother wasn’t looking. I remember stories from my uncles about smoking pawpaw tree leaves behind the garden shed. (‘Did it taste any good?’ I’d ask. ‘It tasted—excuse my language, dear—like shit.’)
And on our final visit, as the house was being picked clean by scavenging relatives, I was told to take a memento. ‘To remember her by,’ they had said.
All I could settle on was a brown china horse, mane cascading down its back as it reared on hind legs. ‘It’s so ugly,’ my mother said. She wanted me to choose another. But it was the only thing I would take. I was not even fond of horses.