There’s a fireplace in every room, some with their original cast iron molded plates. The most recent version of wallpaper still lines the walls, and the beautiful detail of skirting boards and cornices that were crafted rather than mass produced is evident. A wood stove and tiny kitchen are built into the kitchen, which is directly next to the old fashioned pantry with its ice box and fly screen door.
There is one bedroom in rich dark wood with wine colored walls, and it feels like love– this was the master bedroom, obviously, and the couple who occupied it for most of it’s time were happy.
Ancient light fixtures and electricity boxes survive; as does as a tiny, screened out door area at the rear of house, with benches built into the walls– it would have been so beautiful out here in spring and summer, surrounded by rampant greenery, with that continual smell of malt in the air.
And the floors… I know how strange this may strike you as, but the floors in this house took my breath away– solid, shining Australian timber, red maple and dark eucalypt, all still intact without a touch of termite’s teeth. The wood alone would be worth a small fortune– even after years of mistreatment, the floors still shine when you rub off the dust. And the front hallway contains a proof of life so solid it makes me gasp– a stripe of that exquisite wooden flooring in the centre of the hall that is a slightly different tone to the rest.
It’s where a hall runner has lain for countless years, tracked upon by thousands of footsteps. It’s solid proof that, once upon a time, lives ebbed and flowed right here.
As Bunny and I had excitedly roamed our way through the first building, we had found ourselves unintentionally trailed by two women– one I assume to be my age, but I later discover she’s forty; the other is older– I’d guess sixty or seventy, but in good health and great conversation. We smiled and said hello to them, and assured them of the safety to the upper floors; they had arrived maybe ten minutes behind us, but weren’t as thorough in their expeditions; so by the time I was marveling at the cottage floors (and Bunny was outside playing with his phone, sick of ’looking at old crap’), they were looking around the tiny house too.
”Excuse me”, I say, unable to help my curiosity, “do you happen to know when it closed here? When did everybody leave?” It’s a fair enough question– such big, beautiful buildings in prime real estate position, in the midst of an area that prides itself on it’s heritage… like all the abandoned places I’ve been, there is an eerie feeling of surreality and encapsulation here– it defies the laws we live by, the corporate commons sense that boils down to greed and money.
The older lady smiles, and she’s quite lovely. I couldn’t see her drinking tea from a mug, or discussing anything as vulgar as menstruation or flatulence in public, in the way women of my age have no issues with. She has certain grace about her– she reminds me of my gran.
”The mid–Eighties I believe it was, dear”, and Google says she is correct, “but it’s been much longer than that since I was here. My daughter bought me down for the day,” she indicates the tall, pretty woman beside her. “I grew up here.”
”Here?” I say “In Mittagong?”
”Well, yes dear– I was born here, went to primary school here. But I mean to say, I grew up here– my family lived in in this house.”
I stare at her for a moment, wondering if either she’s senile and her daughter is about to take her by the arm and lead her gently away; or if I’m seeing a ghost or having some kind of PTSD hallucination.
Then tall woman pulls out her iPhone to start taking pictures. That pretty much spells reality to me.
But the serendipity of it is startling– what are the chances of that happening, of finding this women here on the random day, at the random nothing–ever–happens time of about two o’clock?
One in million, maybe? Higher?
I have so many questions I don’t even know how to verbalize the one. This woman doesn’t mind– she’s a story teller, obviously, like me, and she’s happy to talk through my slightly stunned silences.
The cottage was custom built for the caretaker of the Maltings, she said; he lived on the property year round. That caretaker was her father; and he and her mother, not long married, moved into the newly constructed building in 1908.
This woman grew up here– she played in the creek that runs under the little bridge we crossed betwee
n buildings. She remembers when this silent, overgrown yard was bustling with people; when this area was a major transit hub and twice as populated as it is now.
Her mother gave birth to nineteen children and raised them all in this tiny three bedroom house, luxurious as it might have been by standard of a hundred years ago. Nineteen. The cottage is lined with tapering pine trees– I imagine they once separated the cottage garden from the work yard and gave the family their own space. The woman I’m talking to tells me she has photo of her family, a portrait taken with them all posed in the front of this house.
The towering pine trees were just saplings.
I expect her to pull the picture from her sensible, sturdy hand bag– that would work just perfectly with the eerie sense of perfect timing that’s laced through this conversation. She doesn’t, of course. But she tells me that in this photo, the mother of the family is pregnant with her final baby. Her eldest baby is man now, and he’s in this photo too– it’s the last photo ever taken of him, because he went off to World War One just days later, and passed away in France two weeks before the war was over and a cease fire declared.
He left the country before that final baby was born. This mother never had all her children in the same room, at the same time… it strikes me as the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
That family did what families do– they grew up, gradually moved away, had families of their own. They spread out away from the Maltings. The last caretaker here was this woman’s uncle, who left here just a few years before the whole place shut down in 1981.
I say goodbye and thank her… I’m dazed, my heads still trying to stitch all these facts and stories together, and outside the house feels cold.
This place, it’s missing the dust and must of the house down the road, or even Shed Five… It’s been too long, too many people have trampled over the history that was here to find any real detail left in it.
But the woman, this serendipitous ghost… she makes the house feel warm, she fills this silent place with people.
I can’t help but wonder if it hurts her, or if it’s gratifying, to return here… she seemed as though she grew up very happy. There’s something about growing up here that’s left a pleasant, indelible mark on her soul.