Today I wrote a letter to an unknown person living in a house across The Ditch in New South Wales. It was like the proverbial message in a bottle, washed up on a beach years after it had been thrown into the sea. My letter, and two old photographs, should arrive in Armidale some time next week. Let me explain.
A while ago I wandered around Google Earth looking for places I’d been. I found Armidale! The street! And the house! Not, of course, the house we had lived in (pictured) but a smart new one. On a whim, today, I decided to write to the owners or occupiers of this new house and tell them about the old one, and about the people who, for a year or so, lived there once.
In early 1941 mother, my two brothers and I were evacuated from Japan to Sydney. Later that year we moved up to Armidale with another woman and her two young boys. All of us shared this old house – two women, five children. The house was fairly primitive by today’s standards and neither mother was accustomed to cooking, managing a house, or looking after their children full-time, and in war-time. But they learned, and they managed, while their husbands were who-knows-where.
The house had four bedrooms and an inside toilet – a fact that the landlady apologised for. It seems that in those days toilets were relegated to the back porch or even the garden, and having one inside the house was cause for shame. The water was heated by a wood-fired copper, and I remember that my mother chopped the kindling for it. We kids were bathed in the laundry tub. The back garden contained this massive old willow tree which gave us shade and something to climb into and fall out of. There was an old shed containing firewood and junk, and my brother and I used the roof as a snail garden – yes, a snail garden, with paths and everything. Did we really think that keeping snails as pets was a good idea, and that they might co-operate by slithering along a path we had made for them? My brother pushed me off the roof one day and I’ve never let him forget it.
At some point, as the war heated up and Japanese midget submarines were seen in Sydney harbour, men arrived to dig an air-raid shelter at the back of the garden, half-underground with steps going down and a domed top covered with earth. Luckily we never had to shelter from bombs but we often used it as a playhouse.
The house was old then and has long gone. I remember it though, and I wanted the owners of the new house to know that the place had a history. Of sorts.