Monday, 19 February 2018

My father’s favourite charity

When I was a small boy I remember one Saturday or Sunday mum asked me to go to my father’s study to ask if he wanted refreshments. His friend Peter Daly had come over to discuss real estate with dad and they had secreted themselves away in the study where they would have privacy for the important conversations that would lead to new acquisitions. My memories are fragmentary but I would have knocked on the wooden door of the room, then waited in the cool silence of the hallway until I was called inside. I would then have opened the study door and made the offer that I had brought from the kitchen. I remember that dad, whose name was also Peter, said to me, “Thank you, no” in a kindly manner that nevertheless punctuated the silence of the room where the two men sat on chairs next to dad’s wooden desk with the filing cabinets standing in the corners. His words were meant to include me in the restricted society implied by the room itself, as well as to include mum who had sent me as an emissary. All were included within his broad purview at that moment.

On weekends, dad would from time to time drive in suburban streets in the company-supplied car looking for bargains. He called the car “my floaty boat”, and it was a big Holden of a kind that performed best at moderate speeds. He bought and sold real estate at different times over the years in order to better provide for the family’s needs. The family was “my favourite charity”, he would say when an opportunity arose for him to make some sort of personal ideological statement.

His own childhood had been marked by severe financial constraint because the family had been very poor. He told me on at least one occasion that his parents always paid the rent with coins. In his memoir, which he wrote after he retired from full-time work, he tells of when they established a vegetable garden in the backyard of their house during the war. His mother would routinely take in work and repair or make garments on order for people in families in the neighbourhood. His father made his own fishing rods in the living room, and would walk down to Port Phillip Bay to catch food for the table from a pier there. At the time that his mother – who we always knew as “granny” – moved from Melbourne to live with us in Sydney, leaving her husband in the process, she handed over to Joao Luis her share in the milk bar they jointly owned, putting all her belongings in dad’s car and going north without, I guess, a backward glance.

In Sydney, where dad earned a new job in his chosen field of industrial automation and control, he bought some land from a woman named Bennett on a battleaxe block on Hopetoun Avenue in Vaucluse and built the family a house. It was built on two storeys on a hillside, with the bedroom shared by the boys – my brother and I – down a spiral staircase on the same level as granny’s bedroom. My parents’ bedroom was upstairs at the front of the house, looking over the trees of the park that sits behind Parsley Bay. Through a trapdoor downstairs you could reach the solid sandstone foundation upon which the structure was set, and the cat would get in there and catch the mice that lived under the house. Possums would run around on the roof over my parents’ bedroom, making thumping noises with their feet as they ran about with what seemed to us to be wild abandon.

One year during a period of speculation, dad bought a milk bar somewhere out in the suburbs of Sydney and he got the family to come out with him to sell the store’s remaining stock to local residents. We boys stood behind the counter dispensing lollies to children who came in to get bargains. We were used to making change for customers because mum and granny ran their own shop where we helped out during school holidays. In this old milk bar there were crates for soft drinks with the names of the brands and manufacturers printed in coloured inks and stylised typefaces on their wooden sides.

I went with dad to an auction on one occasion. The sale was held in the backyard of the house being sold. I remember the fences all around the grassy space and the forest of legs belonging to all the men standing there waiting for the auctioneer to call for bids. Dad stood quietly for a long time as the silence of the afternoon was punctuated occasionally by a voice here or there, before he made a bid of his own. “Dad,” I piped up, looking up at him, curious about what was happening, “did you say that?” When he told family friends this story in later years he would emphasise that he thought he lost the chance to buy that property because of my interjection. People laughed.

Mum and dad had bought a shop in the Vaucluse shopping centre on the corner of Petrarch Avenue and refurbished and improved it, putting in keyhole-shaped windows as a feature, and building a standalone apartment on the top floor that had its own entranceway to the street so that it could be rented out to paying tenants. Near where the stairs came up into the apartment a kitchen with a pass-through at chest height was built so that the residents could conveniently entertain guests in the living room without leaving the kitchen. From the living room, over the roof of the shop they laid out a balcony that had views over the harbour. A senior nurse who worked at a Sydney hospital and her boyfriend, who was a barrister, lived up there, I forget their names, but I would get a job to serve drinks at a party if they held one for friends, and I remember how kind they were to me.

They had a good relationship with my mother, who with granny ran the shop on the ground floor during the daytime. Mum and granny alternated weeks on duty in the shop, with the one off duty cooking the evening meals at home for the family.

There was also a studio office off the doorway leading to Petrarch Avenue that was rented out to a middle-aged Jewish man who imported and sold tiles for residential construction. In his showroom, the richly-coloured tiles were arrayed in all their glorious diversity around the walls and he would bring builders in to see his samples so that they could buy supplies from him. Mum told me later, before she died, that she had continued smoking cigarettes even into her fifties, and when she was at the shop she would secretively pop out into the stairway leading downstairs to keep the smoke out of the retail space where it might offend the sensitive noses of her customers.

The gift shop had started in Melbourne before the family relocated north after granny’s second son, Paul, was killed by the driver of a car in a drunken hit-and-run. My grandfather never got over the death of this son, and eventually what was considered his excessive mourning would contribute, with his philandering, to his wife leaving him. But she also missed Paul, and dad and his new wife established the shop in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, and named it after granny ‘Miss Phyllis Caldicott’s Home Accessories’, to help take her mind off the loss of her beloved child. Some of the things they initially sold in the shop were painted metal tins to be used in homes for garbage. There were also tins with lids used by customers for storing bulk supplies in the kitchen such as flour and rice. Mum had trained as a commercial artist after leaving secondary school and she painted stylised dogs on some of the tins.

After they moved the shop to Vaucluse, mum and granny sold a dizzying array of gifts, from candles to crockery, and from jewellery to Indian-print silk scarves. They would even make toy clowns to sell in the shop. To do this, granny would collect old bits of plastic that had been washed in the normal washing cycle and dried on the line outside the kitchen door downstairs. Using her sewing machine, she would make up the parts of the body, such as legs and arms, which were articulated so that they would flop around when children played with them, and stuff them with the clean plastic filler using an old screwdriver with a yellow handle. The body parts were made using pieces of scrap cloth that were bought in bulk, by the box-load, from a wholesaler in Sydney. Mum would take me out to visit the wholesaler on occasion and I got to see all the coloured prints that were made in the textile factory. The flat feet of the clowns were stuffed with pieces of foam cut with a knife to the desired rectangular shape. The hair was coloured wool and the clowns had cone-shaped hats attached to their heads with thread. When their bodies had been finished with their arms and legs and heads and hair and hats attached, granny would put the unfinished clowns on the staircase to be taken upstairs where mum would use a needle and thread to embroider the faces on. The eyes were shaped from four-pointed stars and were cut from pieces of black felt. The noses were made from tiny round pom poms that were sewed on with thread. Bright red thread was used to make the lips.

By this time, dad had sold the first house and bought another house in Vaucluse further around the bay on Watsons Bay proper because he had decided to sail a Hobie Cat from the yacht club there and needed a convenient place to keep it. The boat sat on its trailer in the bottom garden of this house. One person could wheel the boat out and slide it off the trailer onto the beach if he wanted to go sailing.

My parents developed the house in two stages. Initially, before we took occupancy in 1969, dad built a second floor for himself and mum to live on. The two boys had bedrooms downstairs that gave onto what was called “the rumpus room” which had a toilet and shower in separate rooms leading off it. Granny, as before, also lived downstairs, in her own bedroom and en-suite bathroom.

The second round of renovations took place at around the same time I left home to study at university, and involved putting up a kitchen and a workroom in the empty space over the carport at the back of the house. The kitchen to that point in time had been at the front of the upper storey, looking out over the harbour. A reinforced concrete slab was laid on bare steel columns that were painted a dull red, jutting out into the space where the cars were parked, and forming a roof over them when they were not in use. The resident of one of the apartments in the block of flats behind the house didn’t like the new structure, and one night when it was finished, and there was an electrical storm, he threw a jar of olives through the window of dad’s new study, which was accessed through a doorway on the stairs leading to the top floor of the house. I was home alone that night, and kept the unbroken jar of olives to give to dad when he and mum returned. Dad provocatively kept the jar of olives in the fridge as proof of ill intent but nothing further came of the episode.

One particular item that was sold in the shop I remember well. It was a white plastic deck trolley with metal struts and two plastic wheels. My brother and I would assemble the units from kits that came from overseas in brown cardboard boxes with printed assembly instructions, downstairs in the rumpus room before they were loaded, complete, into the back of mum’s bottle-green Toyota Corolla station wagon or, later, into the back of her white Commodore station wagon, and taken to the shop to sell. Locals would buy the trolleys to put around their pools to serve food and drinks from at get-togethers or on weekends.

For his estranged father to live in, when Joao Luis became too old to earn money to pay rent with, dad bought an apartment in a Melbourne retirement village. From time to time dad would go down to visit the old man, and he talks about some of those visits in his memoir.

Dad also bought real estate in America. One summer when the family was staying in Honolulu, as we used to do regularly during school holidays, he got me to type up a buyer’s guide for Australians wanting to buy Hawaiian property, which he dictated to me as I sat at a typewriter in the living room of the apartment mum and dad were staying in. My brother and I were in a separate apartment in the same block called the Ilikai Marina just opposite the Ala Wai Boat Harbour. He owned at least one condominium in this block that he rented out to people wanting a place to stay while they holidayed on the island. You walked across a short pedestrian bridge spanning a quiet street to get to the lobby of the Ilikai Hotel, which is situated next door to the building right on Waikiki Beach.

When I decided that I didn’t want to live anymore at the residential college I had moved into immediately after school ended, dad bought me a unit in Glebe near Badde Manors cafe. I had stayed in the college for all of 1981 but I didn’t like the boisterous, alcohol-saturated culture. Living in a studio apartment was much more my style, and I found I could do whatever I wanted there. I used my time to quietly read American fiction, listen to Mahler and Bruckner records, and to make linocuts using a set of sharp-edged knives made for the purpose and blocks of oily, brown linoleum that had a loose-weave cloth backing for support. You would use a small rubber roller to apply the black ink to the cut lino, then smooth out the sheet of paper required for each print using the back of a table spoon. One print I made was of a street-wise tomcat I dubbed Sylvester after he had one day adopted me, stalking through the bars mounted over the kitchen window on his black paws as though he owned the place.

My apartment had a large room big enough for a dining table and dining chairs, a desk and a captain’s chair, a couch, a rented piano, a stereo, a bookshelf and a single bed, as well as a kitchen leading off it with a window looking out onto the parking area at the back of the block, and a bathroom with room for laundry equipment. I used to shop for food at Grace Bros on Broadway and walk home through their carpark. The unit cost $30,000 in 1982 and I sold it in 1989 for $90,000 when I needed money to buy a two-bedroom unit in Bondi.

There were also two units in Elizabeth Bay, in Sydney, as well as one he owned on the east side in Vaucluse, on the cliff overlooking the ocean. I would go down on weekends to meet the tenants in the Elizabeth Bay apartments on occasion if I was not busy doing other things. I painted the inside of one of these apartments white one year with rollers and brushes and in exchange for my labour mum and dad gave me mum’s Corolla, which I had learned to drive in in an earlier year. The two apartments were the only units on one floor of the building, which also had parking in the basement. The tenant of the harbour-side apartment was a young executive from a country in Europe, I think it was France, who rode a pushbike for exercise and would go long distances during the summer months in the daylight hours after work. In the rear apartment the tenant worked for the US consulate in the city, and she was from Austin, Texas.

When dad retired he decided that he and mum were going to go travelling around different places, staying in temperate zones where he could go for his daily swim, because of his bad left leg. He asked me before they set off if I wanted to live in the Vaucluse house with my new family, but I had other ideas. I had organised to work in Tokyo for a manufacturing company doing their English-language PR in a small team led by a journalist, which sounded like fun compared to the desktop publishing I was currently doing in Sydney. So instead he gave the job of looking after his investment properties and also granny to another family member.

One year after I had moved with my family to Tokyo and we decided to visit mum and dad in Hawaii, we stayed in one of his Honolulu apartments. Mum made some disparaging remarks to me about the previous tenant suggesting that his residency had not been entirely successful. I remember that there were fishing rods in the apartment when our small family rocked up to move in for the two weeks or so we were slated to stay in the city.

There was also at least one condominium in Florida my parents purchased at some point. Before mum and dad finally ended their travels and settled down in Maroochydore, in southeast Queensland, in 1999, they sold all of their properties in Sydney and overseas.

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