Leaving Norton Summit

Green door

All these tumbling days – hard to order my thoughts about my leave-taking. After 15 odd years, I’ve packed up my cottage and have left it for strangers.

The days were overshadowed by grinding exhaustion — I watched my body absorb an infection and keep stumbling along with it, as I’d given myself neither time to get properly sick nor time to get properly better. It was tiresome and lonely and disheartening, but I’d chosen this path, to go and live in another country, and so I continued on grimly.

On one of my last nights I went down to my local pub to have a counter meal, to save the fuss and bother of cooking, and to be among warm people. The pub was as it ever was: busy and warm, the fire crackling, friendly banter around the pool table, layers of coats and scarves and caps on hooks by the door, the bar staff in constant motion but somehow also in constant, meandering conversation with the locals. I hugged a few of them goodbye, surprised to find myself almost in tears. I walked home in the misty rain and did cry a little, feeling like a damp shadow in the soft mist.

The next morning I slunk away from the boxes for a while and stepped outside into the silent grey day, to slip into my memories and dreams of this place. I wiggled my feet into rubber boots, which were standing upside down near the back door, as they always did, and walked west, into the unused paddock next door.

Pines beckon

I liked the sound of the long wet grass crunching under my boots. Mishka, faithful hound, came with me of course, and fossicked around my feet. As though she were on to something (Mishka is a Hungarian Vizsla – this is pronounced veeshla, as though you were going to say Vishnu and changed your mind. Like one of those old jokes about dyslexia; God and Dog).

There were blackberry shoots in the grass, the hills-dweller’s constant harrier, but these gave way to more wholesome bracken as I made my way down the slope, heading for the nearest of several pine trees, solitary giants guarding my borders for as long as I can remember. I touched its crenulated trunk and gazed out across the valley, its heavy boughs dark above me, dripping. The wild forest on the other side looked as unknowable as ever, massing on the scalloped borders of my neighbour’s farm. Above the cherry trees and vines, growing in lines.

It was quiet and soft. Damp as it had been most days, in this long patch of winter. The cloudlets drifted up the valley in the way that I’d always loved, obscuring and revealing in turn the forest on the far side. Wintertime had been always been my favourite, wrapping my little house in thick layers of white and grey, like woolly scarves of water vapour. Such weather encourages you to stay warm by the fire, writing and reading. And glance up at the dripping leaves and the nodding heads of the fuchsias in their baskets, the odd Eastern Spine bill hopping among them, seeking nectar.

But this time the sullen weather had been no friend at all, hampering efforts to repair a retaining wall, and infinitely delaying plans for removing rubbish, shifting furniture and other things. It felt wrong to be fighting the weather, but I had no choice, having fixed my course for a life in another hemisphere.

Under the pine tree there were beaten down patches. I imagined it a secure resting place for that big male kangaroo I’d seen out in the grass on the furthest hill, and his harem. I walked on, and turned back to gaze at my little house, small and insignificant now, on its perch on the high side of the valley. My eye followed the line of tall pines along the road on the ridge, then down along the hawthorn hedge, planted 150 years ago by the farmer in the valley, to my neighbour’s place, with its green paddocks, kept tidy by their several sheep. From this distance they seemed like manicured lawns.

Writing place

My own little cottage looked nothing special, a low stone house with pink stone walls, a tin roof and a rambling garden. The glory vine, a green ceiling in summer, was now just dried canes twisted around the grey wood of the trellis. The deck where I’d spent so many happy hours in gentler seasons, the little brick patio that I’d laid myself, with its solitary chair and low stump-table were invisible. But I knew they were there and I sighed with tender feeling.

In recent years I had been working on the bones of the house, mostly with the help of a sailor-builder friend from Melbourne who would come for a week or two, so long as he had some time off to watch the occasional football match. He also taught me to take morning tea on the roof, which, after all, had the best view.

Reading place

We replaced the rotting deck, laid splendid Tasmanian oak floors in the bedrooms, installed French doors in the little yellow room, built and reshaped cabinets. After years of living like a renter, with bits of old furniture collected randomly, I had finally started feeling like the owner, a feeling enhanced by the arrival of a few good pieces: elegant wooden Chinese furniture, shipped from Shanghai, pretty objects and pictures, my splendid big red daybed – perfect by the fuchsia window.

This developing cosiness has been halted now, my belongings divided up and packed away in boxes, or sent like parentless children to stay in other peoples homes, hopefully well treated and not in the way. But I know the house will stay its warm golden self, even though all traces of me are gone: a clean canvas for someone else. This is as it should be, I knew, and tried to feel good about it.

It was a sad time to leave the garden, but maybe that’s a good thing. The roses had been cut back to stout stumps, the little trees leafless and the spring bulbs – hundreds of daffodils, tulips, irises, snowdrops, hyacinths – were still just clumps of slender leaves. The faithful jonquils did make it out to cheer me, their little star shaped faces in cream and yellow constant witness to my comings and goings.

I wished that I might see the royal colours of the irises once more: their grey green blades seemed to promise a great display. And enjoy tea outside among the masses of summer flowers in golden summer light, and watch Mishka gallop on the fresh grass, or snap at the dizzying bees in the catmint. When would we ever be able to do that again?

Shall we play?
Summer flowers

Yes, the garden felt so unfinished, but I think they always do. I regretted that I had not been able to do a little more: adding more trees and shrubs to fill in gaps and add more colour and shape, to make a finer, more exuberant garden. I have very grand plans of outdoor rooms built above water tanks, of pools and streams and waterfalls, a studio with its wooden deck and folding glass doors looking over an oriental garden to the borrowed landscape beyond – a place to contemplate skeins of mist silently ascending the valley, the tinkling of the stream, the cries of birds. I can see that garden as clear as memory in my mind’s eye, but I must put aside such castles in the air for the present. The best I can hope for now is that someone would love it and tend it, and make it their own. And it is all right: sometimes you have to move further away from something to get to it.

I noticed lots of droppings as I walked back, and decided that these were left by the kangaroos. I’m amazed at how frequent the deposits were, and how close to my property — maybe only two or three metres from the vegetable beds at the side of my deck.

No wonder Mishka always liked to run out into the night, barking furiously.

Garden memories