Mud House by Sharyn Belcher
Sharyn Belcher lives in Melbourne with her husband and three sons. She teaches piano part-time and is currently studying literature at Monash University. Her great loves are her family, nineteenth-century Realism, writing, and playing the grand piano she bought instead of replacing her worn-out car.
It was built of wire and paper and board, but we called it the mud house. It certainly burnt with an unholy rush like it wasn’t made of mud. We all stood up the paddock a bit while Dad and Uncle Ken poured kerosene inside the doorway and then whoosh, the old place—crammed with its ancient mattresses and broken bed-heads—went up in great fumy flames, and hundreds of rats and mice and a couple of snakes scrambled for their lives.
Grandad stood a little way from us all. Tall and bent, he seemed to be looking at the ground rather than the burning old house. My older sister Alison was hopping all around in the grass and ferns, fidgety like she always was, and Mum was telling her to look out for rats or snakes. I was amazed, looking from my vantage point of three, maybe four years old, that the grown-ups would do something as daring as burn down the old house. Even Nana laughed and took quick steps. Everyone was excited. Everyone except Grandad.
I was sad, too, to see the mud house go. It was old, old as the hills, and though they said it was derelict, with rotten floor boards and stuffed with rubbish, on tippy-toes I could peer through the dusty windows and see mystery and opportunities for exploring. The stripy and stained old mattresses leaning sideways, ancient chairs with legs missing and seats chewed out, and newspaper-stacked cupboards with their doors hanging open and crooked. The old place sat, brown and small, on Nana and Grandad’s land over the paddock from their own house. They all said it was a dangerous eyesore and a haven for snakes. If I was lucky I got to pick my way over the rotten verandah boards and poke my nose in the front doorway; if Mum and I were taking a walk in the paddocks, I would always lead her over to it. I was fascinated. It smelt like dust and ash. A chain with a hook hung down from inside the chimney of the fireplace. Mum told me it was to hang pots over the flames, to cook back in the days when they didn’t have stoves. I would ask, ‘Who lived here? Was it Nana and Grandad?’ but Mum would shake her head and say the house was from before Grandad bought the land, and then talk about something else.
Grandad was always as old as Methuselah, peering out under his bushy white eyebrows. He was sick. Most of the time he was in bed in his stripy blue pyjamas, an oxygen bottle nearby on loan from the hospital, and if he was up and about he was bent and slow. And stern. We kids would get shushed if we got too excited in our play, and I was always dying to plonk away on Nana’s piano, but I wouldn’t get too many notes in before I would be told, ‘Quiet! Grandad doesn’t want to hear that.’
Nana always had an apple pie ready when we came to visit on the weekends. Our Falcon 500 would scrabble up the washed-out driveway, and just as we nosed round to the back of the house Nana would rush out through the plastic door streamers onto the back verandah. ‘I thought you might turn up today,’ she’d say.
She must have baked a lot of pies. We always expected that Nana would be delighted when we arrived, and of course she never let us down. ‘Old Cinna! Old Cinna!’ she’d cry at our terrier Cindy, who would bend herself into ecstatic shapes and moan with doggy joy. We’d leap from the car, sniffing the eucalyptus and ferns, and then the peculiar old musty smell of inside Nana and Grandad’s house.
Their house was small. Just one main room, the kitchen, with four smaller rooms, two to the right and two to the left. One of the rooms didn’t even have floorboards. They had a pair of old wooden-armed easy chairs in front of their wood stove, and a green Laminex kitchen table with six chairs, those chairs from the 1950s that got so fashionable again. We’d all sit at the table and Nana would shake hot tea out of her enormous teapot into our waiting cups. If we stayed the night us kids would sleep on lumpy mattresses on the floor. During the night so many Christmas beetles would buzz their way in that in the morning Nana would brush around our beds with a broom, sweeping their curled up little bodies, with their legs waving faintly, out the door, off the verandah and onto the grass.
Nana had a slops basin. I was both fascinated and repulsed by the word ‘slops’, and by the basin itself. It sat by the sink, and all waste liquids, including the tea leaves from the teapot, were eventually slopped into the basin. When it was almost full, one of us kids could carefully balance it against our chest with our tummy bent underneath, fearing the increasing ripples bouncing from end to end of the basin, as we took careful steps out through the screen door and down from the verandah. Just before the increasing slops waves broke their bounds, we triumphantly dumped them in a crazy avalanche over Nana’s little plants.
One Christmas, some years after the old mud house was burnt down, Mum and Dad brought us kids and a caravan up to Nana and Grandad’s so we could stay for the whole summer holidays and Mum and Dad could work on finally finishing Nana and Grandad’s house. They pulled out the ancient wood stove in the kitchen and replaced it with a new gas stove, a sink with proper plumbing, built-in cupboards, and tiles on the wall.
Grandad was too sick to sit up for Christmas dinner, and on Boxing Day Mum called an ambulance to take him to hospital. I last saw him waving to us all as he was wheeled on a stretcher over the grass and into the back of the ambulance. I was sad because he didn’t get to unwrap the box of hankies we’d bought him for Christmas. The next few days the grown-ups were in and out of the hospital, and then Nana got a phone call to say she should come in straight away as Grandad was dying. But before she had a chance to even find her handbag they rang again to say he had just died. Nana cried and cried, and said there was no point us working on the house now. But Mum and Dad said she was the reason they were doing the house, not for Grandad.
The room with no floorboards was finished and carpeted, and became a lounge-room for Nana, a proper place for her piano which until then was in one of the bedrooms. Nana got to choose a lounge suite for herself, and one of the other rooms was turned into a bathroom-laundry. Nana actually had a toilet and a shower and a washing machine right there in her house. The old toilet had been a smelly tin box over in the disused dairy.
As I grew into an adult myself, Mum told me more about Nana’s life in the house on the hill, and about Mum’s childhood, too. I learnt how when Mum was nine, Grandad suddenly sold up their lovely suburban house just over the fence from the swimming pool in Pascoe Vale, and bought 100 hectares of bush in East Gippsland, looking over the lakes. How an old woman named Mrs Moss and her middle-aged daughter, Nell, were living in the mud house when Grandad bought the land, and stayed living there, renting it from Grandad. My uncle Ken slept in a small caravan, while Nana and Grandad and Mum and her sister were in the house Grandad was building but never finished. In those early days Nana cooked their meals on a little primus stove in the room that later became the front bedroom.
Later, when I was in my thirties, married with my own family, Mum told me about Grandad’s affair with Nell in the mud house. About Nana’s cry of grief when she found out, and how she ran out from the house, into the paddock and down the hill to sob alone. How Grandad actually made Nana and Mum and her sister and Ken eat their dinner each night in the little mud house, with his lover and her mother. Like he had two wives and one big family. And how one night, after their dinner in the mud house, Nana and the kids left Grandad there, as they did every other night, but instead of going back to their own half-built house, they packed the car, and Ken, who was just old enough to drive, rolled them silently down the drive and out onto the road before he started the engine, put on the headlights, and drove them to Nana’s father’s house in Melbourne. How, after some months making a new life in Melbourne, Grandad convinced Nana to come back, so they went back—except Ken, he didn’t go back—and there were still problems for years afterwards with Grandad and Nana and the women next door, who, at last, moved out and the mud house became derelict.
Children are surprisingly blind to the adult world. And just as well. I can still hear the pops and explosions as the mud house and its mattresses went up in flames, the grown-ups’ voices slightly raised in excitement and concern that we kids would get too close; and I can still see Grandad standing off a little on his own, his bent body pointing at the ground.