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Saturday, 8 September 2012

Grandy's House


                   Welcome!
heritage cottage
For a few days there last week we experienced the delightful side of spring – sun, light breeze, mild temperatures. By Monday it began to look like we’d skipped spring and launched into summer. Until Tuesday. And that’s why it’s called spring, I guess; the weather leaps about wildly, unable to determine which way is forward. Typical Adelaide to have Tuesday’s maximum temperature half that of Monday’s! Ah, weather – what would we complain about if we didn’t have it?

Here is a story set in the Coorong area of south-eastern South Australia, an area of rich natural and cultural history and few settlements. The Coorong is a body of salt water with high sand dunes on the coastal side and flat farmland and salt pans on the other. It flows from the Lower Lakes area near the mouth of the River Murray. Recent years of drought and overuse of the river all along its 2560km (1591 miles) length have seen the devastation of the Lower Lakes, and some restoration work is now being attempted. Such a beautiful, wild area, too precious to ignore.


Grandy’s House

Disappointment slammed into her like a personal tsunami. This was the house she had inherited, this the setting for her grandfather's stories? The hard, bare ground around the walls was littered with pieces of the white stone that looked exactly like lumps of stale bread. She wondered what kind of rats could chew out solid stone walls. Rhianna felt like vomiting.
            It had been difficult saying goodbye to her beloved Grandy. His death was still a raw wound, an aching emptiness. She longed for the hollowness to be filled, but she never wanted to forget him. He was the one who had given Rhianna, his only grandchild, a sense of family identity. She had thrived on the repetition of his stories. She could picture his parents, his siblings, his daughter – Rhianna's mother – as a child as if she'd been among them. But Grandy was the only one she ever knew; only a few ragged photographs existed of the rest, including the mother Rhianna had lost when only a baby. Grandy was her family.
            There was a photograph of the house Grandy's father had built south of the Coorong, with massive sand dunes behind. Grandy had spent his childhood there until the family had fallen on hard times – drought and debt had forced them to sell the old house for a fraction of its worth.
            She could barely see the likeness of this shell to that early photograph. Then the house had looked gracious with its wide stone steps leading up to a double wooden front door, the wide verandah all around. The steps were gone now, and the entrance looked secretive. There was no floor for the verandah, just rocky dirt and weeds. Windows were filthy and several were cracked. The house was on raised ground, facing east and overlooking a small salt lake. She had driven on a causeway to cross the salt, the only road access to the property. Stretching her imagination, she could picture it as an imposing but open refuge in the lonely wilderness. As it stood, she was more inclined to escape from what it had become.
            Shadows lengthened as Rhianna plodded around the house, trying to find the courage to enter it. Night time would only make it worse, she thought, so she unlocked the back door and stepped cautiously in. Feeling automatically for a light switch, she remembered that there was no power or water to the house any more. She backtracked and went to the car for a torch. No time for this messing around, she told herself sternly. I don't want to pitch a tent in the dark.
            There was no way she was sleeping in this creepy hulk. She couldn't get rid of the image of enormous stone-chewing rats, but even the ordinary kind gave her the horrors.
            A quick look through the house confirmed her fears – the place was entirely dilapidated. She couldn't imagine where she would begin to restore it, or whether she would even try. Think about it in the morning, girl.
            In the welcoming light of dawn, Rhianna woke to the sound of snuffling. Whatever it was sounded large, but the memory of giant rats seemed ludicrous in the new day. She rolled over in her sleeping bag to unzip the tent. A wombat! She'd never seen them in the wild before.
            Waiting until the animal had shuffled away, Rhianna dressed and went to the car for food. It promised to be a warm day; the morning was already heating up. She looked around at the open space, the low shrubby trees beyond the salt lake, and felt the presence of the dunes behind the house. Once she had satisfied her hunger, she took another look inside the house, this time noting the dark timber of the floorboards and the plaster patterns on the ceiling of what must have been a parlour or drawing room. The kitchen had an old wood stove – how often that had featured in Grandy's tales! She liked the idea of learning to use it.
            She'd known it would be a bigger job than she could handle when Grandy had told her about his desire for her to take it on. He had been ecstatic when the house had come back to him through a strange string of circumstances. He had fondly believed she was capable of anything, including the restoration of the family property. She was more realistic. Or perhaps he had not understood how run down it had become. Nothing of value was free, she reminded herself; even a gift costs the giver. This was a gift – how valuable it was to her she hadn't yet decided – but it was going to cost her plenty if she accepted it.
            The call of the Southern Ocean on the other side of the dunes worked its way into Rhianna's awareness. She grabbed her bathers, towel and hat, and headed up the gentle slope behind the house. Huge burrows pocked the ground, and prickly plants of various types caught at her socks. It was good she had not changed for swimming yet – this was not your suburban beach walk. She wondered about the holes until she remembered the wombat.
            The walk grew steeper and sandier, winding through stiff shrubs which blocked her view. She simply worked her way uphill and seaward, hoping it was that easy. And it was, although it took a good twenty minutes and a breath-challenging climb. The views from the top of the dunes reinvigorated her.
            At the first high point, Rhianna looked back at the old house to see how it fitted into its context. It was nestled at the bottom of a low, vegetated dune at its north-western corner – that would be where the kitchen is, she thought – and watched over cleared land to the north and south, as well as the stretch of pink, patchy salt to the east. It was not arable land; she had read that somewhere, and Grandy's stories had made it clear enough. Maybe she could keep a few sheep, and build up a vegetable patch to supply her own needs. She grimaced at her dreams, pulling back to remind herself that she had not decided to do it yet. She could just sell it and leave it in the memory of Grandy's stories.
            Rhianna turned and walked over the cool white sand to the next peak. There were clumps of reedy grasses growing in a few spots, and a groundcover clinging to other patches. She marvelled that life could take root with so little to nourish it. The sand was gently patterned with wind-sculpted ridges. Rhianna felt guilty for smashing the design, making clumsy footprints as if it were any old beach. And then she saw the ocean.
            There was something primeval about the feeling of standing alone in the breeze on top of a mountain of sand, and facing the ocean which came all the way from Antarctica. She felt as if she had been lifted out of historical time onto a plane of the eternal moment. The wind floated her hair around her face, twitching at the sand, inviting her to fly. A seagull dipped and wheeled on an air current not far beyond her. Rhianna spread out her arms and launched herself down the face of the dune, her feet running and spilling the cool sand until her shoes filled, wadded with accumulated sand. She skidded down the rest of the way, yanking off her shoes as she slowed. Dumping her gear, she ran, swirling and dancing along the long, flat, empty beach as the southern rollers roared in and out to meet her.
            That's done it, she thought, catching her breath. She dabbled in the icy water while her eyes feasted on the length and the smoothness of the beach, first in one direction and then the other. Sure she could see some litter here and there on the loose sand at the back of the beach. Other people came here, then. But it felt like hers. And it had invited her. She would stay.

Until next week
Claire Belberg