‘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. The kind typically used by elderly women but has recently become popular with inner-city trendy types too. Hers is not the traditional tartan style. 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. Apparently, she regularly walks past my house on her way to the shops. In the past she would stop and chat with 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 a few months earlier. It was diseased and ugly. Its green leaves were mottled brown. Fowers shrivelled before they could open. I’d replaced it with a native plant. A healthy, fresh-faced upstart from the garden centre.
The stubborn Azalea did not easily give up its prime position in the front garden. Its roots were thick, deep and woody. Digging with a spade but barely made an impact. I’d had to use an electric saw, severing the stem from the deep roots. More guilt. I didn’t just remove the Azalea. I mutilated it.
I was grateful when Margaret changed the subject. ‘Do you live here now?’ she chirped. I’ve lived in the house for 2 years. It was a deceased estate, the sale organised by the old man’s grown up children. There’d had been a shabby old chair outside, next to the front door. A thick metal frame with fake plastic wickerwork formed 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’d often chat with 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 to resume his sunny spot in the chair. She lowered her voice ‘he wasn’t a gambler though. It was just for fun.’
The old man had a horseshoe the front door ‘for luck’ she said. Her accusatory tone suggested we’d got rid of that precious item too. 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. She moved to the city because there was a shortage of work in the country. 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 here. It has everything she needs. ‘The shops are close, you can catch a bus to Coogee Beach. 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, ‘out West’ but Margaret doesn’t see the point. 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 noticed 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 looked after herself.
The murals and graffiti around Newtown do not impress her. ‘Awful!’ She says. Newtown’s status 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!’
After 10 minutes of chat, Margaret turned on her way, saying she mustn’t hold me up any longer. Calling out, with a chuckle, ‘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