‘There was a beautiful white Azalea in this garden. Where has it gone? Do you live here?’ An elderly, smartly dressed, woman is talking to me outside my house on Alice Street. She’s smiling broadly, wearing a little makeup, her hair is perfectly set. She’s leaning on her upright shopping trolley. It’s the kind trolley typically used by elderly women, but that has recently become popular with inner city trendy types too. Hers is not the traditional style, in tartan fabric. Its colours are bright, modern. It has chunky wheels and a thick rubber handle. This is a woman that’s ‘on trend’.
Her name is Margaret. It transpires she regularly walks past my house on her way to the shops. In the past she would stop and chat to the previous owner of the house, an ‘older gentleman’ she said. ‘He was a nice man. I knew his first name but not his last name. We were friendly but not really friends. He was always happy to chat but he was never a gossip’.
‘I was very jealous of that white Azalea’ she beamed. The old man had passed away a few years ago. She’d often see him pruning and watering it. ‘He would be so upset to hear it had been dug up’ she said. I felt guilty, awkward. Like a naughty schoolboy.
I’d removed the Azalea several months earlier. It was diseased and ugly. The green leaves were mottled brown and the flowers would shrivel before they had the chance to open. I replaced it with a native plant. A healthy, fresh-faced upstart from the garden centre.
The Azalea did not easily relinquish its prominent position in the front garden. Its roots were thick, deep and woody. I tried digging it up with a spade but barely made an impact. I had to use an electric saw to sever the stem from the deep roots. More guilt. I didn’t just remove the Azalea. I mutilated and murdered it.
I was grateful when Margaret changed the subject. ‘Do you live here now?’ she asked again. I’ve lived in this house for 2 years. The sale was organised by the old man’s grown up children. When I moved in there had been a shabby old chair outside, next to the front door. It had a thick metal frame with fake plastic wickerwork forming the seat and the back. I asked Margaret if the old man liked to sit at the front of the house. ‘Yes’ she said ‘He’d sit and watch the cars and people pass by’. He chatted to people who, presumably, stopped to admire his Azalea. Margaret confided that he liked to walk over to the Golden Barley Hotel to ‘put a little something on the horses’ then come home and resume his sunny spot in the chair. She lowered her voice ‘he wasn’t a gambler though. It was just for fun.’
Margaret said the old man had a horse shoe over the front door ‘for luck’. Her tone suggesting that we had got rid of the precious horse shoe as well as murdering the man’s Azalea. Fortunately we hadn’t. It was still there balanced on top of the light fitting. She was delighted when I pointed it out.
Margaret is 90 years old. She’s moved to Newtown from Bega in 1944. There was a shortage of work in the country towns so she moved to the city. She bought a house in Newtown with her late husband for $30,000. Houses now sell on her street for $1.1million, which she thinks is ‘ridiculous!’ She loves living in Newtown. It has everything she needs. ‘The shops are close, you can catch a bus to Coogee Beach and even the hospital is nearby, which is important when you get to my age’ she said. Her daughter wants her to move in with her, further out West but Margaret can’t see the point when she is happy here. She has lots of happy memories and ‘when you reach my age memories are all you have. Isn’t that right?’
As we chatted I couldn’t help noticing her perfectly straight, white teeth. False perhaps? No, she had a tiny gold filling between two of the front teeth. They were real. Margaret had been looking after herself.
The murals and graffiti around Newtown do not impress Margaret. ‘Awful!’ She says. Newtown’s status now as a fashionable suburb is bewildering to her. ‘As for those cafes on King Street… I don’t know why anyone would want to eat there. All that pollution while you’re eating. It’s not healthy!’
We’d been chatting for about 10 minutes when Margaret said she mustn’t hold me up any longer and turned towards the shops. As she walked away she laughed shouting ‘next time you come out of your house and you see me coming down the street you’ll know to go back inside and hide until I’ve gone passed!’
(Margaret’s name has been changed to preserve her anonymity. Although her fabulous shopping trolley is something of giveaway).
1. Azalea: http://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/3462/bloom-a-thon-white-reblooming-azalea/
2. Alice Steet: https://www.google.com.au/maps
3. The Golden Barley Hotel: my image