By John Dickson

    There’s an expanding hole in The Old Suburb which we are shoring up with money. Growing hordes of consultants, architects, surveyors, suppliers, tradies and contractors are finding ingenious ways of relieving Bestie and I of the burden of savings. And there is little that is glamourous that we receive in exchange for our hard-earned. I saw some leave the block in the trays of a procession of stumpy dump trucks. Quite a bit is buried in what little earth is left behind. More vanishes behind walls, in ceiling cavities and under floorboards. Even the Parish Council has its hand out for an ‘asset protection’ bond which will be returned to us provided not a crumb of the streetscape is disturbed by our ‘project’. We failed that test in the opening over. There are licenses, guarantees, certificates, options and variations that can only be fed by money. There is even a Drainage Performance Solution Application with a modest fee attached, you know, to cover overheads. A realisation is starting to take hold: when finished [in by November!] we will have built a future-proofed, state-of-the-art 21st century home, that we can’t afford to live in.


    The invitation arrived with Monday’s post. Handwritten on white parchment in an envelope with a wax seal. There it was, inked in careful script from the beak of a quill pen, no doubt: Ms Mary Aspinall-Firth and Ms Colleen Treadwell AO request the pleasure of the company of…us! 

    From time-to-time, out in the street, a few houses down on the left, we had exchanged pleasantries with what we assumed were an eccentric geriatric couple, a bit down on their luck. Always sheltering outside a substantial bluestone wall replete with embrasures – the cut outs that allow archers to hide while raining death on the enemy below – Mare and Col could be relied upon for ‘a view on things’.

    Neither of us had connected the dusty pair with the sprawling sandstone pile that wandered around the two acres that lay beyond the bluestone ramparts.

    Handsome Bruce [neither handsome, nor ‘Bruce’], our genial giant of an immediate neighbour, giggled when he saw the missive in my hand. Unexpected from a man whose bald pate scrapes the measuring stick a finger under two metres and whose width is measured only in axe handles [1.787]. He has the physique of a tent fighter, but the demeanour of a hospital chaplain. 

    Bruce was in his garden, scissor-handing his roses with a pair of hedge clippers. Tiny in the massive meat of his mitts, Bruce waved the shears about in something of a dance of joy celebrating us. He knew the invitation was a signal moment. We had been invited into The New Suburb’s inner sanctum!

    ‘Big night coming,’ he beamed, showing quite a bit more toothless gum than his usual loopy grin would allow. Then, intriguingly, ‘things will happen!’

    Scarcely able to contain himself, Bruce laid out a brief history of our hosts.

    Mary was Western Districts royalty. Born into scads of dosh as the world girded its loins for a bit of biffo with Bad Hitler, Mary’s keen intelligence insisted she lay waste to the ‘society’ of the landed gentry in which she found herself. Here the last echoes of mother country aristocracy were furiously clung to by the colonialists as they strove to out-pom the poms. Mary would have none of it. If she wasn’t tearing up the backroads astride her Vincent Meteor [499cc of lunatic power], she was buzzing the tower at Essendon aerodrome in the cockpit of the Tiger Moth her father taught her to fly, letting flight control know that she was back to resume her studies at The University.

    Mary scooped up a Doctor of Medicine specialising in obstetrics. She then spent the middle of the century fighting a one-woman war with the medical establishment [read ‘men’] who thought they were better placed to decide how women deployed their own bodies. They soon learned to fear the sound of her brogued stride as she hunted down yet another recalcitrant medico issuing forth to a group of rapt juniors on how a woman must accept the superior knowledge of the [male] healer and ‘just get on with it’. The lecture Mary delivered them was sharp, erudite, accurate and public. Their embarrassment was complete.

    Exhausted by the continuing intransigence of her colleagues, she retreated to India where she set up a clinic in Old Delhi, training local women to assist with difficult pregnancies and to provide contraceptive advice. Again, she was not popular.

    Mary used her considerable social clout to badger the diplomatic community for coin of the realm to keep her program afloat. It was at one of her reluctant glad-handing appearances hosted by the Australian High Commission that she met Colleen Treadwell.

    Brought up on a war pension by a single mother, her dad having succumbed to Germany’s careless deployment of ordnance, Colleen was the third of five children. The other four were boys. She quickly learned how to occupy the middle ground. 

    Colleen was told by the Careers Advisor at Coburg High School [lost to the mists of time], that she would make a great diplomat. This advice was based wholly on her reputation in the school for having resolved a territorial dispute between warring offspring of recent migrants, ‘Wogs’, and those of the more established interlopers, ‘Skips’. Col remembers it as getting ‘all a bit West Side Story’ but without the songs and the knives. She claims she gave one side a packet of cigarettes and the other a box of matches. Peace restored. Them were the days.

    A considerable intelligence and indefatigable worker, like Mary, Colleen also spent too many years battling to subdue the enthusiastic entitlement of her male colleagues. A ferocious advocate of the ‘hands across the water’ approach to diplomacy, time and time again she encountered the mouldering crumbs of the colonial past, tucked away in the dusty outposts of diplomacy where she was obliged to serve her apprenticeship. These relics’ insistence that the ‘other’ was a slightly less representative of the species homo sapiens sapiens and that her sole job was to bring these heathens into the light of democracy under the protection of the Christian church, infuriated her. 

    So, she set about the exhausting challenge of disrupting centuries of privileged, condescending paternalism. No small task.

    When the furious whirlwinds of Mary and Colleen met in India, a calm arose at the centre of these two storms. They were rarely apart from that day to this.

    ‘That house,’ said Bruce with barely contained mirth, waving his hedge clippers at the bluestone wall, ‘was a faux manor built by the very imperialists Mare and Col despised. The ladies bought it as a distressed sale after the owner lost his fortune when the country he had exploited took its independence and immediately nationalised all his assets!

    ‘The house is open to all who need shelter, companionship or just a decent glass of wine and a chat.’

    Saturday night

    It wasn’t insisted upon, but Bestie and I dressed for the occasion. Then New Suburb’s op shop had yielded up a kilt, complete with Australian styled sporran, mismatched socks, a dirk, and a pair of laced dancing pumps favoured by highlanders when attending a ceilidh. The British army pith helmet seemed right.

    Bestie favoured a sari-adjacent garment of orange cotton with a peacock blue lining. Her leggings, in the same blue hue, could be glimpsed above a pair of orange Chuck Taylors. She arranged her hair in a beehive and decorated it with small, highly-coloured origami swallows.

    We were ready for anything.

    The grounds of Harrington Manor [this title bestowed on the ladies’ abode by way of a rusting nameplate welded to its iron gates] had been allowed to find their own way. The remnants of obsessive manicurings were lost to a collection of random native plantings, unplanned growths and topiaried hedges converted from precise chess pieces into amusing effigies of native animals and birds. It reflected the couple’s distaste for the order favoured by the rigid regimes that had haunted their careers.

    Handsome Bruce greeted us at the door barefoot, wearing denim bib overalls and carrying a tray of fine crystal stemmed glass fizzing with sparkling chardonnay. This nod to quality and wealth took me by surprise. I had thought beer in old vegemite jars might have continued the theme. 

    Not so, as Bruce explained: ‘The girls believe that there is no joy in life that eclipses a fine wine. To truly show respect, one must serve it in glassware that enjoys a similar level of craftsmanship and care.’

    Our hosts then erupted from behind Bruce’s considerable frame with laughing welcomes. Even in their dotage, both retained the tall athleticism of their youth and, had they chosen that path, would have made for elegant and stylish guests at any table. Instead, each was wearing a onesie, both of which I had seen for sale in the New Suburb’s Two Dollar shop [where nothing costs two dollars]. Judging by its tail and a pouch revealing a range of stuffed toys, Mary’s was a kangaroo. Colleen’s was harder to place. It was a pink affair, slightly too short in the legs, but with no other clues. Colleen had added to the confusion by wearing a Russian ushanka on her head that she had decorated with red plastic horns. She agreed that she had no idea what her onesie was supposed to impersonate as the packaging had fallen victim to Mary’s propensity for instantaneous tidying and was lost to Tuesday’s recycling collection.

    Our immediate neighbour but one, George Peter Georges was already seated at the table. His patrician features, impeccable grooming and ramrod posture were entirely appropriate to the naval mess jacket in red with black lapels he wore over a crisp white shirt and black bowtie. While the sprinkling of miniature medals across his left breast completed the military picture, they were later revealed to be part of his very impressive button collection.

    George’s partner sat opposite him in complete silence and remained mute for the entire evening. Clad in black from head to toe, one might have been forgiven for guessing she was in mourning. One would have been wrong, as Bruce later explained. Penelope Franks had selected her widow’s weeds a decade earlier as a one-person protest when she became overwhelmed at the stupidity of the human race. She decided she would no longer participate but instead bear silent witness – proof that absence can still be a mighty presence. While initially unnerving, her benign companionship became strangely comforting as the evening wore on. Bestie and I agreed that we had both checked for Penelope’s wordless approval, revealed through a fetching tic when she would twitch the tip of her nose, as we offered up opinions on this and that.

    The food had been delivered earlier in the day from a New Suburb restaurant that Mary and Colleen had identified as worthy of their patronage. A young energetic chef was making bold seasonal food, sourced locally and harvested responsibly. The small team that supported him were paid properly and enjoyed excellent conditions. Because of this determined decency, M+C had realised that without substantial ongoing local support the restaurant was probably doomed, so they cobbled together a consortium of moneyed food lovers to delay that inevitably as long as possible.

    The accompanying wine found its way to the table via the ministrations of Handsome Bruce, something of a competent amateur sommelier, from our hosts’ bountiful cellar. Many bottles were opened under the welcome rationalisation of: ‘if you liked that, then you will love this!’.

    The conversation roamed far and wide. From the initial rounds of polite inquiry, ‘where are you from?’, ‘who do you know?’, ‘what have you done?’, to the real stuff as the food warmed and the wine eased the brakes.

    Colleen revealed that she delayed acceptance of her AO gong until that ‘duplicitous little second-rate suburban shyster’ had been bundled out of office and a more worthy candidate had shifted into The Lodge. She nursed an exquisitely be-jewelled Persian cat a little too fiercely as she shared this anecdote.

    Mary once dined with dimming artist Salvador Dali who would announce a new direction in the evening’s conversation by loosing off a shotgun loaded with confetti and rice into the night sky, like some perverse wedding celebration.

    The remainder of the evening is a blur in a fog, shrouded in darkness with occasional bursts of light. The soundtrack is of bottle-clink, glass-splash, and raucous laughter.

    George may have been confronted by a ten-year-old drug dealer on a bus in Afghanistan; Bestie revealed a penchant for rearranging novels in book shops to hide those she thought unworthy; Bruce thought he once had a frog he had taught to sing in French, and I lied again about a debauched evening in 1976 I didn’t spend with Ginger Baker, drummer for that exquisite band, Cream. 

    Or maybe none of that happened. It was one of those nights. 


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