As The Husband and I once again contemplate moving house, I find myself wondering what kind of living place I really want. What makes me happy?
I’m compiling a wishlist in my head, which more often than not contains a strong element of: ‘if only I had THAT house again, on THAT street’. Or something like it.
My son, aged seven, has inherited my raging nostalgia for past houses.
One Sunday night a few weeks ago, with just the two of us for dinner, I put on an old home video tape I’d discovered. We sat companionably on the couch, hands and mouths full of home-made hamburgers (higher than F’s mouth is wide), equally entranced by the sudden vision of four-year-old F in the bath.
My heart melted as he squirmed around, lisping a little (I’d forgotten he lisped at four!) singing the theme from Lilo and Stitch: ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’. To me, on the other side of the camera. Seven-year-old F was gleefully chuffed at his follow-up performance, solemnly miming ‘I think you stink’.
Then it was dinnertime and he was pouring sauce onto a hot dog on his plate. He tipped the bottle upside down and shook it. A red torrent drowned the hot dog bun, lapping at the broccoli and carrots sitting beside it. F stuck his fork into the mess and lifted the whole bun to his mouth. He licked it and put it down.
‘Don’t you like it?’ came the voice from behind the camera (me again).
‘No. There’s too much sauce.’
‘Do you think Mummy should have done it for you?’
The screen fuzzed black and white for a second and then filled with water and the sound of children shrieking. The camera zoomed in to reveal F again, chubby and lively in royal blue Speedos, jumping from the pool steps into the water as an awed little girl stood by, watched, then followed suit. It was the now-defunct Footscray Pool, where we used to swim every week or so. It was a fifteen-minute walk from our old house.
The Husband (then De Facto) cooked dinner as I filmed him. A close-up of the meal, one I’d forgotten was on his repertoire. I remind myself to ask him to cook it again. F’s beloved Cheer Bear (now face-down in a toybox) ‘talks’ to the camera and conducts a tour of the house. On the couch beside me, F giggles. He has abandoned his burger and curled up on the cushions, glued to the screen. I threaten him with ‘no TV’ and he wriggles back towards his meal.
He’s at the Show, stumbling in fake snow, throwing ‘snowballs’ at the camera. The screen goes black and I hear my own squeal. He’s hit me. Then he’s eating hot chips in the sun, the Ferris Wheel in the background. His Action Man vest, now worn, and faded, is proudly new, the colours bright. He shows off his Action Man compass and Action Man walkie-talkie. He waves his Action Man rifle in the air and takes imaginary aim.
‘I’m shooting helicopters,’ he says. ‘They’re the baddies.’
F perches on the end of his bed, impossibly small and chubby. A red cap partially obscures his face. A Spiderman backpack sits on one knee, his favourite Care Bear (Tenderheart) on the other.
‘You’re not going to kinder today,’ I say.
‘Really? Yes!’ he says, punching the air.
‘I thought you liked kinder.’
The camera is approaching the house from the street. Tendrils of jasmine embrace the frame of the porch. My old bike sits beside the wheelie bin, sun-bleached silver and purple streamers at the handlebars. I loved that bike. (Stolen) There is, for once, no F on screen. Stevie Wonder wails plaintively from deep inside the house. The hallway fills the screen, jammed with boxes and bare bookshelves. The virtual tour of the house continues, lingering lovingly in each room, pausing at the back door to take in the courtyard, F’s treehouse, even the outside toilet. Finally, the tour ends in F’s bedroom, stripped of its toys and posters. Painted stars and planets dance along the walls. Tenderheart lies abandoned on the bare mattress. As the closing bars of the song sob: 'this time could mean goodbye', the lens zooms in on the bear, closer and closer, pausing on his absurdly cheerful face before the screen goes black and the scene shifts to our current front yard.
F has abandoned his burger again. A corner scrap sits on his plate.
‘I’m feeling a bit sad,’ he says.
‘I’m sorry. Do you think it was the music? Mum was being a bit silly.’
I pat his shoulder, and am shocked when he crumples into a sob that racks his little chest, bursting from within. He is a dramatist, but not now. He’s seriously upset. I grab the remote and press stop, then gather him into my arms and let him cry.
‘I miss my old house,’ he gasps. ‘I want to go back there.’
‘I’m sorry honey, we can’t. The owners moved in.’
‘I want my treehooouuuse …’
I’m sad, too. I loved that house. I moved into it on my own: just the two of us, moving from a tiny flat (no yard) in North Fitzroy. I had believed that I would never afford a house for us and a yard for him. I had some truly awful times in that house, but I didn’t blame the house. I also had some great times. And we were happy there.
I managed to console F with an ice cream for dessert and a story about how his Poppa once built us a platform when we were young, which was like our treehouse. It had a sandpit underneath and a rope ladder on the side, and once, in a fight, one of my brothers threw the other off it.
Now he wants Poppa (who lives in Adelaide) to build him a new treehouse.
I spoke to Poppa this afternoon. He’s thinking about it.