This is a short story I wrote a few months ago – in a similar way to the poem I shared recently, I’m pushing myself to publish more of what I create.
I don’t have a first memory of being there. Instead, like most childhood memories, I have a compilation. A series of images that have strung themselves together in one long experience, helped along by faded photos taken by an analog camera.
In these images, the sun is always shining. The concrete always scorches my feet, but I refuse to wear any shoes.
To anyone else, it looks like a normal driveway, albeit unexpectedly steep and long. For me, there is no other sight like it in the world. My grandfather’s garden working its way up the hill alongside it, full of flowers that are beginning to fade in the scorching sun. The grass that was green now turning pale yellow as it admits defeat. The house is invisible, until the old van we’re driving tips up over the top of the hill, and it’s revealed. A white block of two stories with floor to ceiling windows, looking out over the greenhouse. And a smell of the sea.
At the top of the hill, nothing protects you from the sun. It beats down, making the sharp rocks on the driveway feel sharper, accelerating you forward until you come alongside the house and find the shade of the trees. Here, the concrete path shocks you with its coolness, but there’s no time to stop to enjoy it. Up a few stairs, and you’re almost at the brown wired front door.
I have run that route a thousand times, but I never tire of it. Australian summers are like that. Hot, bright, something you can’t look at for too long, but something you will always want to come back to.
Another driveway I love is far from the sea. In those images, I know it in every season. The toadstools that spring up under the birch trees in Autumn. The towering gum trees faintly scenting the air. The heart nut tree, covered in leaves, where we built our first cubby house one spring. The bare weeping willow in the middle of the driveway in winter.
Here, I learnt to wear shoes. Stepping on bee stings twice before the age of eight will do that to you. Here, I often walk more slowly. When you’re avoiding memories, it’s too easy to do that.
My favourite room has my piano in it. Faded grey blue carpet with a dining table, china dresser and white floral curtains. The best room for the afternoon sun. The best room to hear the rain. And the room where we heard the news.
When I think of it, I close my eyes and run back to the other driveway. The driveway that you had to walk down like a mountain goat for fear of falling and sliding the whole way. There are scrubby tea trees there that seem to only grow near the sea. You can hear the sea, sometimes, on a windy day. I never listened though. The driveway took too much concentration. But it was worth getting to the bottom, because there was sour grass there. Three children – brother, sister, cousin, scuttling down to chew on blades of grass topped with small yellow petals.
At the end of the other driveway, there are just two children. Brother & sister, trying to make money selling flowers. No sour grass here, only daisies strung into a chain. It’s summer again, and no one notices us or our flower stall. The black tarmacked road is much too hot to stand on to go for a walk and find us. In the distance, there is always the sound of a magpie warbling. I never listened though. Deciding how much we would sell them for took too much concentration. We gave up quickly that day, tossing the blue and pink bunches of flowers carelessly underneath the quince tree. When I think of those moments, I stay at that driveway, in that summer.
It’s the autumn memories that make me want to go back to the other house. Like the memory of when the brother had to go to hospital for the first time. Then I go back to where we raced for our favourite red spoon every morning. Top drawer on your right. The kitchen there had velvet like lino that prickled your feet.
In our room in that house, we would always fight about who would get to sleep closest to the cousin, because she was the favourite. When he won, it was okay. I still loved that room with the one tall window, the same deep green carpet as the rest of the house, the three beds & the book shelf. Even when I was small, I wondered if I loved it too much. Love is like that. Hot, bright, something you can’t look at for too long, but something you will always want to come back to.
In the other house, we stopped sharing a room when we were small. One Australian summer, when there was space left by an older sibling. We missed each other at first. In the morning, I would wake up, run down the long book lined hallway, almost tripping on the dress up basket, to play Where’s Wally before breakfast. On those days it felt like summer even though it wasn’t.
Then came the days that were summer but weren’t. The day in the kitchen, with sun streaming in through the high windows, when we heard the news that the cancer had come back for the fourth time, and this time there was nothing to be done. The day we moved the piano out of its room, because that was where the hospital bed had to go.
And the worst day. The day when we didn’t need to have the hospital bed in the house anymore.
Now that room is back to the way it was before. Faded blue carpet. Tropical fish tank in the corner. Dining room table. Piano.
Every Australian summer, that’s the room we celebrate Christmas in. It’s beautiful. Tree near the window, covered in too many decorations. A miniature village wrapping its way around the gas fire. And now, ten years since that hospital bed, I almost walk at a normal pace. I smile at the pictures on the wall, and laugh at the silly presents that my brother gave my parents for birthdays that still line the window sill.
I love both of those driveways. Because both of them hold memories in place of Australian summers that have been and gone.
Maybe grief is like an Australian summer. Hot, bright, something you can’t look at for too long, but something you will always have to come back to.
Jena Ren (Jenny Guilford) – 2019
This post was originally published November 6, 2019.