War Tales from Sunny Brunny
For months I had hunted for something closer to the hub. In the far-reaches of Reservoir, I felt cut-off from the world, forever commuting to break the isolation. The unit in Brunswick was charming: a polished-floor, two-bedroom affair, awash with northerly light. Located at the rear of four cream-brick units, it was quiet. I liked the option of tucking myself away while still being at the centre of things. Being a ‘boutique’ complex – real-estate jargon for clusters of six or less – the new home I coveted was in high demand.
At auction I just scraped it in (note the ecstatic woman almost peeing her pants as she hugs and kisses total strangers). While you get less for your buck in sunny Brunny, I could no longer ignore the pull to be closer to friends and work.
There is no owner’s corporation at Number 24. The agent who handled the sale spruiked this as a massive plus: no annual owner’s-corporate fees, no need for consensus every time you fart. Sounded all right to me. I was also thrilled that the occupants of the other units were all women, hoping this might lead to a cosy community.
A few months in, I had settled nicely into my new home, mightily impressed by the solo-mum, Sally, in Unit B, who somehow managed to juggle a full-time midwifery degree yet still had energy to scoop up her two young boys and take them on frequent adventures.
‘Hold still, guys,’ she’d tell her sons, slip, slop, slapping the sunscreen. She would tug their hats firmly on their heads and set off: to the zoo, the National Gallery, Art Play or the Children’s Garden. Having single-handedly raised two kids myself, I am familiar with this no-man’s land. In Sally, I recognised a kindred spirit. She was resilient.
Now the problem with having no owner’s corporation is that the garden at Number 24 was a shambles. Outside each unit were three feet deep garden-beds, plus a large slab along the front of the property: the spread of soil masquerading as garden – overrun with spider plants, scrappy geraniums, enough succulents to rival a desert scape, a monstrous tree that dropped noxious red berries, and a prunus plum that splattered fruit resembling squashed cockroaches onto the concrete.
I am not one to shirk a challenge. The garden screamed to be taken in hand. I thought the potential was huge. Native trees and shrubs would break the starkness. I have always loved gardens. They help make a place feel like home. But being the new kid, I needed to proceed with caution, try not to ruffle feathers. I have a habit of ruffling feathers.
I did the research. If all four owners agreed, the cost to each of us would be $600, including removal of several trees, a root-digger, weed mats, new flora and garden borders. Thanks to excellent contacts, a bargain.
At a rare meeting of the owners, I presented my plan, along with tea and biscuits. All four owners attended: Soula – the woman from Unit A who never opens her blinds, Hitomi – the officious landlord who rents to Sally, Rebecca – the no-nonsense cop from Unit C, and me.
‘The garden is perfectly fine the way it is,’ said Hitomi. If she sat up any straighter, I was sure her impeccable suit would snap.
‘My sister helped me plant the succulents when I first moved in,’ said Soula, seemingly on the verge of tears. I wondered if she was a widow, the way she always dressed in black.
‘Julie’s just trying to make the garden look nice,’ said Rebecca. ‘I’m sure we could keep some succulents.’ I blessed all the cows in China that I had an ally.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘They can stay. It just needs more… variety.’
But Hitomi and Soula continued their assault, their volume increasing with every protest.
‘In the forty years I have owned Unit B,’ screeched Hitomi, ‘other than rates and insurances… I have never had to spend a cent.’ I didn’t doubt it. A quick glance inside her original-condition unit, had already confirmed this.
Neither of my opponents were about to part with a brass razoo. I later Googled Hitomi’s address and found that she lives at a property with an enormous garden in Kew. Lucky for some. The other owner, Soula, was simply broke. Fair enough. I get that. Visibly flustered, this woman of indeterminate age – at a guess I’d say late sixties – reeled off the list of repairs she can’t afford inside her unit before she even considers the garden.
Here I was on new turf (okay, concrete) making waves again. Visions of forging community while instilling a touch of beauty to our dwellings, smashed like falling cards. It wasn’t the first time I’d offended people. Stirred the pot. Or so they say. Like the time I unwittingly insulted an old writing friend: the flippant comment I made at a weekend writing workshop. How it forced her to turn the kaleidoscope lens just a smidge – enough to see me in a different light – one with dark edges. Melbourne’s writing community is tight, and this careless moment spurred a knock-on effect. You’d think by now I would have learned to shut my mouth.
‘I think it’s a great idea,’ said Rebecca, lamely, for without an owner’s corporation we’d be fools to proceed without full consent.
‘Well,’ I said, not one to give up an idea lightly, ‘what does everyone think about employing an owner’s corporation? They’d help us deal with issues like this.’
‘It is not necessary,’ Hitomi said sharply.
Soula gazed into her lap. I suspected that if Hitomi wasn’t being so vehement, we might have had a different outcome.
‘I’ve owned this unit since it wase built,’ hissed Hitomi, daggers firing at me. ‘We never had an issue like this before you came along.’
And there it was. Another queen wasn’t welcome. But it was never my intention to rule the roost. I wanted to bring people together, not fight.
Rebecca dared raise the possibility of replacing the cracked concrete driveway with compressed gravel.
‘Why don’t we put a pool in while we’re at it?’ asked Hitomi.
Weeks slid past. A recluse at the best of times, Soula now worked hard to avoid me. I’d be punching out words on my laptop, and then notice her furtively glance outside her door before dashing madly to stuff rubbish in our side bins. I hated that I had upset her – though chances are the origins of her malaise pre-dated my arrival. At night I felt her anger seething through the mortar. It made it difficult to sleep. I have never found it easy being the source of someone’s wrath. As a child I had been anxious, terrified by the prospect of stepping out of line.
In a bid to unplug the impasse, Rebecca suggested the two of us split the cost. Bizarrely, even this decision inspired ill-will from the other two.
‘What about on-going maintenance?’ I heard a hysterical note in Soula’s voice. ‘Gardeners, weed killer… that sort of thing.’
‘We promise the garden won’t cost you a thing,’ assured Rebecca. ‘Not now, not later.’ And with that, we proceeded.
Now, I’m not flush. Divorcing young is akin to being stranded at base-camp, leaving miles to catch up. But the garden really mattered to me. I yearned for a space that felt pleasing to come home to – a place I could plant my roots and feel part of something greater. Since my grandmother died and it came to light that she had been adopted, I had a sense of being unmoored; unable to locate our kin, a little weightless. Roots would give me anchor.
Twenty months later the flowering gums in our garden are now as tall as the roof line. Bower wattles, wispy acacias, tee-trees and princess gums, the proteas with their golden orbs, all lush. Wattle birds wake me each morning with their wonderful cock-carock. The bees have come.
There is something lovely about watering, the reward of watching trees grow, the first buds and blossoms – like a few months ago in early spring when I uncurled the hose, looked up and discovered two little green gumnuts, twins sharing a spindly twig. Days later, a cluster of soft pink bristles peeked out, like tiny fairies, or demented cat’s whiskers.
Over time, a kind of peace had settled between us ladies at Number 24. Even Soula was on speaking terms with me, conceding that the garden looked great. The block of units had begun to feel like home.
Now, at the rear of each unit is a sliver of land. You do with it what you can, which isn’t much. Certainly not enough for Sally’s active boys. Between the four units, we possess a total of three small cars, leaving plenty of space in the front concrete carpark for the kids to ride their scooters, chalk train tracks, construct tunnels, or splash in the plastic paddle pool. But it’s hot out there.
I have six grandchildren, four of whom are five and under, and they often stay with me overnight. With this in mind as well as Sally’s boys, a year ago I started creating a little sitting area on the concrete section where nobody parks. This, of course, with the consent of the other owners (no cost to them), and to the delight of Sally and her boys.
I sourced huge terracotta pots, filled them with black bamboo and yuccas – dragged home wooden bench seats. Soon, this lovely space complimented the new garden, while offsetting the ugliness of concrete. Sally and I often shared meals there, especially when my little ones stayed. We were proud of the festive space we had created, sprouted out of concrete. Our visitors enjoyed lounging with us there, too. And although we had welcomed the other two neighbours to join us – or to use the space at any time – neither had taken up the offer.
But recently the peace I was lulled into believing was the new status quo, banished with the arrival of a lengthy text – surprisingly from Rebecca: I am upset by the mess that has been created with the sitting area. Not least the new sunshade… (The sunshade: my recent bid to beat the radiant heat when the sun blasts the concrete.) I love children, but… and so on.
Sally and I were gutted. We loved this area. Still, I knew it was pointless arguing. There had been enough sleepless nights.
So with great sadness, one recent afternoon Sally and I dismantled the sunshade and drastically culled the communal space. It felt like dispensing with old friends.
I know I would miss our little oasis amid the sea of concrete, miss seeing this space come alive, when Sally’s boys would water the potted plants or drive cars in the sandy clam shell. But soon, I will abandon my laptop, brew a coffee, ferry it outside to the newly-culled sitting area. I will listen to the night in our communal space – modified, not swept aside.
War Tales from Sunny Brunny appeared in the Victorian Writer print magazine 2016 Feb/March memoir edition.