It’s fifteen days shy of twenty years since Liss and I met, and she’s finally made me the psychedelic shirt I’ve been asking for. The fine, light fabric shows a swirling pink fantasy garden, octopuses idly admiring the flowers of violet, vermilion and gold. The collar flares wide towards the shoulders and the tunic length drapes breezily past my hips. There’s a pearly sheen on the vintage buttons, handed down to Liss by my late grandmother, from one stitcher to another. I can picture Paul McCartney or Ray Davies wearing this shirt. We both want to show it off, which is how we came to sneak in to the cottage.
When we first moved here, the cottage stood discarded at the edge of a sprawling field. A sea of bright canola buds would drift in the wind, as if willing their tide to carry me closer, but a stern wooden fence kept me back. Walls of bluestone and red brick persisted against the clawing of peppercorn trees, the roof having long ago succumbed. Down a slight slope, edged by gnarled trees and blackberry thorns, sat a waterhole, where frogs growled and plovers shrieked kekekekekek as the ruinous building gazed upon them like a watchful groundskeeper. Eventually, inevitably, a land sales office appeared.
By the time the builders have left their work sites we’re in danger of losing the light, so we wait and then hurry. Eventually we’ll be able to walk there from our house but at present it’s a gauntlet of thistles, wire and high dirt mounds. Today we’re forced to drive, turning left at the end of our street instead of the usual right for schools or shops. Footpaths and gutters end as the asphalt dips, rising again to unkempt edges and scattered potholes. We skirt onto the grass to accommodate the departing utes while excavators slumber near crookedly stacked rocks, their prizes from another day of removing dust.
Inside the estate the streets are stifled by houses whose yards are too short to fit cars in their driveways. A few homes are occupied, incongruous between so many unfinished copycat boxes. The detritus of construction haunts the small spaces: dropped nails, spilled cement, crushed Styrofoam. We park on a vacant lot overseen by vigilant crows. They lurk in the frames of houses, on roof-tilers’ scaffolding, on the fences these neighbours will one day chat over. Gradually there will be trees for them, but not yet.
We dash across the street towards the cottage, undeterred by signs proclaiming NO GO ZONE. A neighbour stands watch from his fake lawn, the raised platform giving him the air of a sentry, or perhaps we’re just being paranoid. Who would he call to stop us anyway? Besides, the rain will move us on before anyone else can. There’s an opening in the temporary fencing, in a different spot than when we checked yesterday, but it’s an opening all the same. Some fast-food wrappers and cups are scattered inside but the grass is lush and vibrant and the plant beds neat, every block of bark just where it should be. We head to the archway, eager to start right away.
A cool damp wind tussles my hair as I inspect the inside of the cottage for the first time. Long steel rods brace the structure, sturdy and angular against the haphazard stones and bricks. The walls feel unnervingly smooth, sealed by a coat of slick gloss. The building’s only recognizable feature is a fireplace, now enclosed by a heavy steel mesh to prevent any visitor from using it as one. This was a farmer’s home a whole century before I was born, before they gave their name to a road, a housing estate, a shopping centre. Now it marks the end of a creek-side walking trail with fitness equipment positioned at regular intervals, leisure replacing survival. I sweep my long hair back from my face, lean through the doorway and smile. Liss begins to shoot. “This will be great for your album cover,” she jokes.
I do my best to follow her directions, waving my arms, leaping and spinning, always trying to keep my chin low and slightly forward. The vivid pink of the shirt pops against the increasing grey of our surroundings. As Liss leans in to the lens, I peer past her to an ibis rising from the water. Down the slope I can see a clear line where the mowing stops, quickly escalating from brush to brambles, weeds and reeds. There’s movement among them, nature fortified for a final stand against the landscaping on either side. As the clouds begin to conquer the fading sun, we pack up and scurry through the chill wind towards the shelter of the car and home.