I can still see it now – a large, proper china tea cup sitting on its saucer ever so gently shaking in her grasp. Her thin, spindly fingers are absent-mindedly caressing the flowers which encircle the cup, their interlaced folds of delicate petals surround the tight bud, blossoming, spilling outwards to unravel in an ordered chaos. Slightly shiny, crepe-like skin, so sheer I can see her veins. There is a small side table nestled up against the armchair but she is so focused on her tale that I think she has forgotten she is even holding the tea cup.
It is a day like any other in our house. My two young daughters are running around the garden picking flowers, chasing butterflies or something equally bucolic. I am pottering around my kitchen, baking biscuits for school lunches and getting a head-start on the week’s meals. The sun is streaming in the long windows, filtered through the over-hanging trees making it a place I’m very content to be.
It is through the kitchen door at the side of the house that people entered. In fact, when new people came to the house and approached the front door, they were stranded there for quite several minutes before we knew anyone was there. The wires to the front doorbell didn’t lead anywhere useful so it never rang even if someone managed to find the button.
The house had been extended multiple times over its almost one hundred year history so that its direction and focus had changed. With almost more hallways than rooms, the concept of good design had been bypassed as rooms were added one by one.
It is her firm rasping knock on the window, by the back door, that draws my attention. I hadn’t been expecting any visitors. Drying my hands on my apron, I shuffle to the back door. It’s the weekend and I’m wearing weekend-at-home-appropriate clothing. She isn’t.
‘Hello?’ I say upon forcibly sliding the reluctant door along its tracks.
‘Hello there,’ she replies.
I’m sure she would have introduced herself but more than ten years later I have no recollection of her name. I do, however, still remember being slightly mesmerized by her appearance. Multiple strands of pearls hang down from her neck, nestling into her rich velvet scarf. Layers of clothing in dark, gemstone tones jar at the bright sun in which she stands, leaning heavily on a walking cane. For a few moments we watch each other. I am wondering where, or rather when, she has come from. No doubt, she is sorting through her memory files trying to reconcile the many times she had stood at this door to be ushered in by her dear friend of many years. Not today though.
Although she knew the house had been sold, my strange face is still a disappointment. I don’t even have a chance to invite her inside, however. Stepping past me and into the kitchen, she explains how many years she has been visiting here. Not pausing in either the kitchen or the dining room, she moves deliberately and determinedly her 90-year-plus body onwards, so I have nothing else to do but follow.
As we arrive in the lounge room, she looks up and after a few moments, smiles. I can only imagine this room hasn’t really changed too much. The cherry-wood panels that line its walls, the large fireplace and mantle taking up an entire corner have not changed; only the furniture and its arrangement. Standing beside her, I can only wonder what she sees. I take the opportunity to offer her the armchair, its commanding position ideal to survey her domain.
Like a lady in waiting, I offer her some tea. She nods her approval and I disappear back into the kitchen to fossick for the supplies required – teapot, creamer, leaf tea, tea cup and saucer, a small plate of biscuits still warm from the oven. As the electric kettle takes its time boiling, I wonder who is this woman seated in my lounge room. Returning triumphant with my tray of tea supplies, I‘m unsure where to start but it turns out that doesn’t matter, as I’m not the one directing things here now.
‘I have been coming here for many, many years, you know.’
I had figured out my role as silent adoring audience.
‘Yes, I’ve known Nina and Clem since the early days. Stanhope was such an exciting place. The Russian Ballet would always visit when they were in town. The parties they would have,’ she pauses and points out through the west window. ‘Out there, under the cherry trees looking over Eltham. Tables laden with all sorts of food, they would play music and have outrageous arguments. So much life, so much laughter. I never saw Nina smile so much as she did then.‘ Her own smile slowly fades.
I hand her a cup of tea which is not so full that she will spill it with her trembling hands. I don’t want to interrupt her but I want to know who she is and what is she doing here in my house. Hopefully, we will get to that at some point.
‘How did you come to know Nina?’ I ask trying to steer the conversation somewhat.
‘My first husband and I moved in to the street behind ten years or so after the war. We knew everyone in the street back then. Stanhope used to be quite a large estate. It stretched all the way down the hill to the railway line. Being academics they never really had any money, so they would sell off a block here and there when they needed to. I can still picture them running down the hill to the station to catch the train into Melbourne University where they both worked. The driver would blow the horn giving them time to race down. Nina was head of Russian Studies and Clem edited the literary journal Meanjin.‘
She looks down at her left hand as if noticing for the first time that she is holding a cup of tea. I offer her a biscuit but she declines with a slight wave of her right hand. I feel obliged to take one as though that is the reason I presented them in the first place. My girls are a blur as they run past the windows, squealing.
‘Nina couldn’t have any children of her own but she would host birthday parties for the neighbours’ children. She loved having children around. She would be very happy to know that there is a family living here now.’
‘We’ve only been here a few weeks but we really like it here,’ I say trying to assuage any concerns. I bring the side table a bit further in front to make it easy for her to place her tea down. She pays it no heed. We both sit in silence and I think how to explain to this woman what I already know. I have met Nina. I can feel her over my shoulder, keeping an eye on me. “Just watching, darlink. Just watching.”
Nina is short with her long hair pulled back tightly in a bun. Always smartly dressed, she enjoys the company of me and my daughters. At times, she sits in the corner of the kitchen on the wooden bench next to my girls as they attack their afternoon snacks. In fact, both Nina and Clem love the life and energy we’ve brought to the house.
At some point, Nina became ill and with her strength ebbing day by day, she soon never left her bed. Clem would sit near her bedside reading as Nina dozed. She was grateful for the exciting lives full of love and laughter that she and Clem had shared. Sadly, too soon, she passed away.
Clem couldn’t cope with the great weight of sadness he felt at this enormous loss. He drank more and more whiskey from his favourite crystal low ball to help blur reality but upon waking each morning, the house was still cold and empty without her. Not too long after, Clem moved out and died a few months later. Colour had been gradually draining out of him without his Nina around.
I understand that our family moving in, with all the noise and light that a family with two young girls bring with them, stirred Clem and Nina.
It is only a few seconds between the sound of the back door slamming and my six and eight year-old daughters bounding into the room, puffing and laughing. But the spell is broken. My guest straightens up, placing her tea cup roughly on the table and starts her ascent out of the chair. I go to assist and get stuck not knowing how to help so just stand beside and watch.
Picking up the teapot, cups and tray, I follow her to the back door. She knows the way. I say goodbye as she disappears down the path and around the corner. I look down and see her still full cup of cold tea, untouched.