– by Tom Brown, SPP Writer in Residence
Photo credit: Tom Brown
My father lived in a concrete bungalow duplex at number four Tench Street in Kingston. The building and its neighbours were scheduled for demolition, which was why he and his friends could live there so cheaply.
He moved to Canberra in his late teens from rural New South Wales, the same as me, though I’ve stayed a little longer and he’s settled back there, close to where he started from. Growing up, I picked up scraps of information about his time here: ‘we used to go…’ or ‘there used to be a…’. I guess that those little pieces of information have built to a point of critical mass, as I find myself wanting to go and see these places, whether they’re still standing or not. I have a strong feeling a lot of them won’t be. Some will have been taken in the fires, some by development. Some are in the city, some in the suburbs, and a few are in the mountains and forests that ring this city. I imagine some of those places are reserves now.
I’ve always been interested in how my family lived, mostly the male members thereof – grandfathers, uncles, cousins. Most were remarkable men in some way or another; some went to war, one was a combination stockman, musician and leatherworker. I’ve admired them all in some way, often felt intimidated by the things that they’ve done. Knowing that I’ll never work leather or serve in New Guinea I’m left with writing about these people – I guess in an attempt to disseminate the components of their character worth emulating. This residency will be about the way Dad lived, and the places in which he lived in Canberra, at this time in his life.
4 Tench Street Kingston
He told me that he and his housemates lived on Weet-Bix, sausages and onion gravy, and that at twenty two dollars a week his was the highest wage. They furnished the place with pieces from St Vincent’s and treated themselves once a week to a T-bone, chips and coleslaw. The early seventies: forty years and share-house living has barely changed.
I went to the address fully expecting to find some sleek glass apartment block or a shopfront, a vacant block even. Instead I found a building that I thought was, if not the original, then something remarkably like it: three floors, beige-yellow bricks, small windows. Uninspired, overbearing, and cloned a few times to create a tiny apartment community. Tench Street has a few of these along it, all variations on a boring theme. At one end, on the corner the apartments look like bunkers, all gray, rounded concrete. The front of the building falls away toward the road in a trickling gradient. The standout building along the street is just opposite the site of Dad’s old digs. It’s a glassy-white monstrosity that looks like it probably employs a doorman, and probably has Gatsby’s landscape architect out the back putting up a big tent.
Taking an interesting photo of the place was like trying to take an interesting photo of a blank wall or a blank piece of paper, but that’s of little consequence. What matters is that the building represents a mode of existence I can look to when uncertain, which is often. Live within your means with good friends, drink only when you can afford it, and understand the magic in leaving these streets behind to go trail biking through those distant mountains. He hasn’t said any of this to me, but I know it now.
When I arrived home from taking poorly lit, poorly framed photos of the building at Tench St. he called me. Earlier I’d sent him a picture of the building from my phone.
‘Yeah. Looks nothing like it,’ he said. ‘If it had looked like that I’d probably still live there.’
I was surprised. Not that the building was, beyond any doubt now, not the building he and his friends had lived in, but that he thought what stood in its place seemed so comparatively appealing. I listened as, for about the fifth time he described the building for me – concrete rendered, double brick etc. I’d heard him talk in the same tone when describing friends from that time who had died. Not that the two were in any way comparable, Dad’s just very matter-of-fact. His eyes rarely glass over, not for building or body.
Still, all the inferred wisdom in the world doesn’t make up for, or even recognise, how shitty that bungalow must have been. Dad maintains that ‘we had good times there’, but they had barely stayed a year before they packed up their furniture and moved. But after forty-odd years he has only good things to say about the place, good things too for what stands in its place. Yesterday when I sat in the sun writing in our recently renovated rental in Kaleen beside a pool in a paved courtyard, I felt pretty good about things, but wondered if after forty years I’d remember just how good.
Tom’s originally from rural NSW. He’s just finished a Bachelor of Writing at the University of Canberra and hopes to commence Honours in the New Year. He writes fiction, non-fiction and, occasionally, poetry. His work has been published in Burley, and he currently writes reviews and commentary for Dirty Gal.