Our street is much the same as when we moved in, thirty years ago. The houses, although many have been extended a bit, remain quite modest in size. There’s room for a garden, if only more plants could be persuaded to survive the cold Canberra winters.
At our time of life, I suppose we should downsize, or move to a retirement village. But neither alternative appeals. Friends who have taken up apartment living profess satisfaction, then in the next breath complain about the body corporate. As for the retirement village, isn’t that for old people?
As in most Australian cities, there are flats going up everywhere. The ACT government would like people like us to move into one, so that “densification” can proceed. It keeps jacking up the rates to give us a push-along. My impression is that suburbia is even less fashionable among architects and town planners than it used to be.
I am not sure that I could live in an apartment, though. Apartments have balconies, but no back door: getting down to street level involves negotiating with a lift. You cannot nip back inside again if you have forgotten your brolly. The hallways remind me of cheap hotels—functional but alienating. And I have yet to see an apartment block with common areas that are actually used.
Apartment dwellers have people all around them, but no neighbours. There are walls, but no back fences. Suburban streets are where you find neighbours: not quite the friends you choose yourself, and certainly not family, these are people in a special category.
Of all the neighbours, the ones next door are the most vital. Some become friends, others you never see. Some next-doors look out for each other, others feud. I have known people who have been forced to move by the neighbours from hell. Even peaceful neighbourhoods breed disputes more rapidly than the Middle East, and sometimes as virulent.
Dogs bark and cats prowl. Parties get out of hand. Trees over-hang. Cars park where they shouldn’t. Some neighbours smoke fish in mysterious sheds in the backyard; others smoke other substances.
The street holds us all in its embrace. Some families have come and gone, but most have been here for many years. The kids take off early, which seems to be the norm in Canberra, forming mysterious networks that criss-cross the city. The adults remain, unless death or separation takes them elsewhere.
This essay first appear in the July-August edition of Quadrant.
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Just as you’ve got used to the extra room, the kids come back, sometimes quite unexpectedly, then they are off again. Suburbia, at least this form of it, holds few attractions for them. Once they are past the renting phase, though, young couples still want a home of their own on its own block of land.
As we know, for most, finding something affordable in their suburb of choice is way out of reach financially. Relentless population growth in the major cities and an insatiable appetite for investment property (aided by the tax system) push prices relentlessly upwards. It seems very unfair.
But to get back to our street. There are lots of women on their own. Our neighbour over the road has found a stylish solution to the partner problem. She and her friend don’t live together, but spend as much or as little time as they want in each other’s company.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, say the French. But in our street it is somehow the other way around. The more things appear to stay the same, the more they are actually changing. It’s a mysterious process. Take our neighbour opposite, for example. Angela runs a home-based hairdressing business. (Contrary to rumour, as Hugh Stretton once observed, suburbs are highly productive places.)
Anyway, one morning, one of the customers, admiring or possibly worrying about her new hairdo, looked a little too long in the rear-view mirror as she reversed out of the driveway, and crashed into Angela’s letterbox, one of those brick-pillar ones with a tiny slot for letters. Angela stacked up the bricks again, but her heart was not really in it. Why bother, when the only mail was catalogues? Finally she demolished the thing completely. No letterbox at all now. Who needs it when you can do everything online?
Further over, there is what is called a Mr Fluffy house. This is a house contaminated with loose-fill asbestos which at some point will be demolished, the block sold, and a new place (or places) built. It sits, apparently, unchanging. But when the time comes, everything will be taken away, even the top layer of soil from under the house.
And then there is the neighbour’s oak tree. It was the first thing we noticed after we moved in, a mighty tree with limbs stretching out over the fence, and a blackbird singing jazzily in the topmost branches. It was a tree that knew what to do about the seasons. The crisped-up winter leaves were pushed off by the new spring growth, and summer’s heat was echoed in deepening green.
Unfortunately, we were the beneficiaries of something we did not own. The mighty trunk which supported the greenery we loved so much was in our neighbour’s garden. The paling fence split the tree in two—its benefits on our side, its life force on hers.
Our neighbour, a widow we came to know as “Mott”, worried constantly that the tree was too big. “Are you sure it’s not overshadowing your vegie patch?” she would ask. “No, no, no,” we cried. “The vegies would not have grown anyway” (true). “We love the tree.”
The pruners, when they came, were a couple of cowboys in a beat-up ute, evidently the cheaper end of the market. They played a loud radio, to which the chainsaw added a savage ostinato. They did not so much prune the tree as engage it in a war of attrition. By the end of the day the cowboys were exhausted and the tree looked strange, like someone with a bad haircut.
Finally, Mott said she had had enough. The tree had to go. “I’ve left it there all these years because I knew you loved it so much,” she said. “But I’ve made up my mind.”
“If it’s too big, I’ll pay to have it pruned,” I said. She did not reply, and looked away. Money was not the point. It was a question of pride. She belonged to a tough generation—depression, war, a long widowhood. She did not like taking money from others. Even when I explained that it was not charity but rather payment for something which I valued, it did not help.
The day they came to take the oak tree down, I could not bear to look. The chainsaw whined for most of the day. Then it stopped. They had cut it off six feet above the ground. It was just too expensive to take out the bole and the roots. And now there was a hole in the sky. The harsh El Niño summer screamed through the gap.
But the tree would not give up. Its massive engine of roots caused epicormic shoots to spring from its side. Our neighbour, despite her failing strength, resolutely stripped off the new leaves. Why did she do it? She was over eighty, and the tree would take many years to reach its former size.
Then Mott started to fail. Her memory faded, and her face seemed to stiffen in what I now realise were the first signs of Alzheimer’s. She lost her driver’s licence and for a time went to her seniors painting class on the bus. Then she gave that away, and began increasingly to keep to herself, except in the evenings when, resolute to the last, she would reflectively hose her garden—the “hose dreaming”, we called it. Her family, professing worry, decided it was time for her to move. She fought them, literally, but she had no choice. Others would now decide what was best for her. She spent her last years in a nursing home.
Meanwhile, the house was sold, and a new family moved in. They were not gardeners, thank God, or they might have intervened. The oak tree began to recover itself, a bit uncertain about where its trunk was supposed to be. Over several seasons, its branches began to spread again, like a giant shrub. One year, the blackbird returned, although only briefly. Now retired, I find myself looking up at the oak tree as Mott used to do. Is it, I wonder, getting a bit too big?
Dr Jenny Stewart is a Canberra-based writer and former academic. Her most recent book, Inner Weather: Learning from Depression, is published by Hybrid Publishers.