“You support the teachers right?” my sister Helen texts.
“Bloody oath!” I reply.
“Good. Well then you can look after Alexandra on Tuesday. There’s a teacher’s strike.”
Which was how I ended up spending a dreamy day dinking my bonnie 6 year old niece on the back of my hefty black Dutch grandmother bike through the blossoming streets of inner city Melbourne.
Think Helen Garner. Think Monkey Grip. Think Christos Tsiolkas. Think The Slap.
So my darling Alex arrived, pink tee shirt, ruffled skirt, leggings, iPad. We did some making. Ribbons, stickers, stamps, glitter and glue while she chattered away.
“My mum goes running and did I tell you I have a musical toothbrush?” All in one breath.
It was like being with the 6 year old me.
Then we move on to drawing. “What would you like me to draw Alex?” She responded immediately as if she couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to ask, “Me wearing a long sleeved short sleeved together top with two horses in a heart kissing”. Of course.
“Who’s Dana?” Alex asked.
“She’s our housemate.”
“What about Michael?
“He’s our other housemate.”
“Hop on the bike, sport,” I said taking off her Aliceband and fastening a helmet to her head, “We’re going to Brunswick Street for lunch.”
“But I don’t have my bike here.”
“I’m going to dink you.”
“What’s a dink?” she asked as I tucked a blue velvet cushion onto the pack rack.
“You’ll see,” I said as I plonked her on the cushion “Hold on to Cac’s waist.” That’s what she calls me. Cac.
And we were off.
Dink, dunk, drag. Dink, dunk, drag. Growing up in the 70’s in Reservoir. Slag, slut, scrag. Slag, slut, scrag. Growing up in the 70’s in Reservoir.
We wound through the streets of a warm and perfumed Melbourne morning. I couldn’t see her face but I knew she was smiling. I could feel it on my back. Alex is the oldest of three kids and was rapt to be spending a one on one day with a big girl away from her baby brother and sister.
Our destination was Mario’s Cafe in Brunswick Street where I’d taken her Mum, my sister, for her first cappuccino in her crumpled Macleod High School uniform when she was 14 years old. Sure I was trying to impress young Helen at the time. But what I really wanted was for her to see a life beyond the suburban, nuclear family we had been prepared for and were expecting.
As I cycled up Nicholson St. I told Alexandra that when I was her age my mum, her Nonga as she’s now known, would drive me along Nicholson Street on the way to the Iron Ear Hospital.
The Eye And Ear Hospital.
I had dodgy hearing and it was one of the few times I can remember being alone with my busy, harried Mum.
“I loved this street Alex. Because of the Rainbow Houses. See all those houses?” I said pointing to the double story terraces now gentrified to respectable greys, ‘They were all painted different colours of the rainbow. Pink, purple, blue, yellow, orange and green. They had “No Uranium!” posters stuck to the windows, flags and banners hanging from the balconies and twinkling mobiles made of mirrors and shells swinging from the porch’s iron lace and bikes tied to the fences. Odd looking people were always going in and out; bearded men in sarongs, women with long hair parted in the middle wearing head bands, people with afros in beads and flares carrying guitars. They looked so different and interesting. I would say to Mum “When I grow up I’m going to live in one of the rainbow houses”. And I did.’
We locked my bike up to a pole outside Mario’s and scoffed breakfast for lunch while I told her how I loved living in share houses. I told her about doing stand up comedy not long after I moved into Bell Street Fitzroy when I was 23 years old and how on hot days my housemates and I would take off our shoes and walk through the sweet grass in the Carlton Gardens and lie on blankets and cushions, drinking wine and throwing Frisbees. All the time convinced we were the heroes of our own novels. I told her about how much I loved being a waiter. How, even now I think it’s the only job I’ve been any good at. I told her about living in Japan, how the streets were lit with lanterns at night and the air smelt like fat frying and chubby humid clouds, the crazy people I hung with; the man who worked as a dog food tester, the deaf dancing teacher and the student who would always say “Pardon me for not connecting on you so long”. I told Alex how my name in Japanese meant ‘someone who goes out with people who look like dentists’ and the exhilaration of riding my motorbike through Tokyo.
I was running off at the mouth a bit but she seemed interested. “Everything I have ever needed to know,” I told my niece earnestly, “I learned from travel, working in catering and living with people”.
I have always lived in share households. Even when my son’s were babies we almost always had someone else living with us. Now it’s my boyfriend, my three sons and our two housemates Michael and Dana and me. Occasionally people refer to them as ‘borders’ or people who are ‘renting’. I correct them swiftly, “No, we’re housemates. We live together.”
You only get to know people by living with them. Hanging out in pyjamas, bumping into each other in the kitchen debriefing after separate nights out, cooking for each other, debriefing after triumphs and catastrophes, pegging up people’s washing, hearing about each other’s life and loves. Comparing and contrasting. I’m not into small talk, I’m into long talk and big talk. When I was Alex’s age I would be filled with glow if I saw a visitor’s car outside our house. Mum would be happier, she wouldn’t yell, there would be people pleased to see me and there would be biscuits. And sometimes cake.
My kids have grown up living with other people and it’s been great for them. When you live with just the people you are related to or in a relationship with you can get a bit slack. When you live with others it keeps you aware of yourself, your actions, your tend to present a better version of yourself. It’s a leveller. It’s one think to be told to keep it down so as not to wake your little brother, something weighter entirely to be reminded of your noise level so as not to wake your adult housemate.
Alexandra and I hopped back on the bike and treadlied over to the museum. The guide asked if she had been before. When she told him it was her first time he asked her what she was interested in ‘plants, bugs, dinosaurs, animals….?’
“People” said Alexandra, “I’m interested in people.”
First published in Paper Sea Quarterly 2013