Memoir: Urchins

Published 8 August 2016 in Stilts Journal

Like countless regional centres slightly past their prime, Grafton has a lot of old families with old money, living in obscene brick McMansions, all Doric columns and sweeping stairways. But if northern NSW has ever had a ‘type’ of house, it’s a fibro two-storey with seams on the outside and a massive backyard, built high to avoid the floods. The kind that looks a little run-down no matter how well it’s cared for.

My parents’ house in Grafton is one of these, built in the ’60s, the names of the original owners still written in chalk on the beams underneath. I was born into that house, and as my brother and I grew, the house grew around us; throughout my high school years, my parents renovated it room by room, the pink-and-grey bathroom, orange lino kitchen and threadbare brown carpet gradually giving way to something much more modern and comfortable.

Between my house—number 11—and number 13 next door stood a flimsy timber-paling fence that could be cleared in one jump, and would probably crumble if you put too much weight on it. Both houses were built around the same time, and would have originally been almost identical; their internal topography remarkably similar. They were the only two of their kind in a small horseshoe street otherwise filled with low-set brick bungalows and workers’ cottages for the old Tooheys brewery looming large and empty at the top of the street.

While my house’s evolution was fairly linear, number 13 had many different lives. When I was very young, it belonged to a tiny old lady my brother and I called Aunty Merle. Her house was kitschy, the large front room filled with glassware and porcelain animals, rose bushes winding their way up the front wall. I sat in the pink kitchen with my brother and drank tea with sugar in it for the first time.

After Merle died, the house was vacant for a while. Merle’s son moved in at one point, a middle-aged man with hair and a beard that were prematurely white. Later, a huge family arrived; I don’t remember much about them except for when we saw them throw all their belongings into a ute from an upstairs window and disappear in the night.

When I was maybe 11 a young family moved in, a couple and their three daughters. Jodie was the eldest, and already in high school; the other two, Katryn and Kelly, were twins around my age. We went to different schools but hit it off immediately, and were in each other’s backyards nearly every afternoon, either the twins or me and my brother scaling the fence, our dogs jumping excitedly at our feet. On our bikes we patrolled our horseshoe street as a kind of roving gang, managing to recruit pretty much every other kid in the neighbourhood: a girl from number 27 who went to school with the twins and had a pool; two manic younger boys from number 23; the grandson of the couple at number 6, an older kid who liked to break stuff.

Our escapades brought the rest of the street together as well—our parents chatted and had barbecues, and one year everyone coordinated a street-wide Christmas lights display, lining the road with tealight candles in painted milk bottles and handing out sparklers from our driveways. I dived into this world completely; my only real friend at school had left at the end of Year 5, so the social life in the neighbourhood was what I lived for. For a while, maybe two summers, we felt like urchins, living in and out of each others’ houses, masters of a territory we knew intimately.

Things were different after I started high school. I made new friends, spent a lot of time on MSN Messenger and felt embarrassed hanging out with younger kids. Teenage hormones knocked the wind out of me, and I was angry almost all the time. I developed a crush on Katryn that I didn’t know how to handle, and my sudden insistence on sitting next to her on the couch made things weird. My grandad fell sick so we spent a lot of time at his house. The twins’ parents split up and on the day they moved out, Kelly called me a dickhead for a reason I can’t remember. The neighbourhood barbecues came to an end. Everyone retreated indoors.

There are new people living at number 13 now, the family of a tough guy from my school who still utterly terrifies me. Their backyard is overgrown, full of rusting car bodies and too many dogs, the fence between the two houses now reinforced with corrugated iron and lined with hibiscus, bougainvillea and a book-leaf pine to obscure the view.

When I was home this Christmas just gone, I ran into Katryn and Kelly while out looking at Christmas lights in one of the newer McMansion estates on the outskirts of town. It took me a second to even register who they were, and the effect was jarring. It had been a while since I’d been back home, and I was rustled by the unfamiliarity of Grafton itself, my absence of affection for my hometown. My parents’ house at number 11 was its familiar self, but my old haunts—the school, the cinema, the shopping centre—have been redeveloped beyond recognition, and the ones that remained now meant nothing without the people who’d (literally and metaphorically) since moved on. 

Katryn is a police officer now; both she and Kelly have kids. I mentioned I’d moved to Melbourne, gave the abridged rundown of what it is I do; my brother introduced his girlfriend. It was nice to see each other, we said. We made small talk standing in someone else’s driveway, in someone else’s neighbourhood, as kids handed out sparklers and tended to the tealight candles.