The Hermit Lady – Part 1

She was 80 years old and she lived on her own in what was once a mansion, but was now a pale shadow of what it once was. June Evans’s mansion had succumbed to the elements in what was, as far as I could determine, a relatively short time – 5 years or so was my guess. The encroaching bush had surrounded that once proud English home, blocking all view of it from the nearby road. The access track to June’s place, a good 200 meters long, once plied by the cars of many visitors, especially in summer, had become a quiet lane. The descent from Social Queen to Hermit Lady had been as rapid as it was pitiless. How quickly the life of wealth and privilege had vanished and like in a classic English novel, left her as a recluse who needed to watch her every cent.

For a while, it was a mystery to me how she and her husband John had managed to squander their once considerable fortune.

The only thing I knew was that she needed every dollar she could get.

 

I first met June in early 2016, after I placed an advertisement on the online site seeking accommodation for the following summer on the coast south of Adelaide. Anya and I were due to fly to Europe and we wanted to arrange a place to stay near the sea for when we came back to Adelaide in November. We were keen ocean swimmers and to be in Adelaide during the summer meant: swimming.

I didn’t get any reactions to my add. I’d pretty much given up hope of arranging accommodation for the following summer when one day, I got a call from a well-spoken, elderly, English woman. She said she lived not far from a very long stretch of beach – Sellicks Beach – and had a dwelling she wanted to rent out which she referred to as ‘The Barn’. She told me it had a TV set, air conditioning, a dish washer and a stove. Sellicks Beach was a bit remote – 50 kilometres from Adelaide – but Anya and I knew that it was an excellent swimming beach. So we arranged a time to go out to June’s place.
We were in for quite a surprise.

Before Anya and I went out there, we imagined a house among many others hugging the coast. We got a number for a road called Button Road. We caught a bus out there, got down and followed Button Road towards the coast. It was a dirt road. There was wide open grazing land on one side and vineyards on the other. Nearing the coast, we couldn’t find the number or see any signs of a house. We turned back and walked to the intersection where we had got off the bus. Then we noticed that on the other side of the intersection, Button Road continued – as an asphalt road which rose gently upwards. Where ever this old lady lived, it was good distance away from the beach.

Walking up the asphalt road, we finally saw a number on a wooden board at the edge of the road; but finding her place was something else again. There was no house to be seen. Looking along the road, there was a wall of bush. We phoned June and asked her for directions.

Following a narrow track which wound its way among trees and high grass, we wondered where we were going. The sounds of native birds filled the air. Finally, we reached the end of the track and came to an open area on the right of which was a rundown, off-white, two-story house built in a Spanish style; there was an inbuilt garage housing a beaten-up old Mercedes car. Along the edges of the walls were areas of dead, yellow grass, dotted with all sorts of strange detritus: an old wooden ladder, window frames, coiled up rope, broken wooden chairs – and so on. On our left was a view of flat, open paddocks, dotted with bales of hay and covered in yellow stubble. A short distance in front of us was ‘The Barn’: it was an off-white building with a red-tiled roof and had a large almond tree in front of it.

One thing was sure, this place was isolated.

A breeze whistled through the trees.

There was no one around.

Where was June?

We walked along the side of June’s house. It was bizarre.

One didn’t need to look around too much to detect an atmosphere of decline, of lost glory, almost as if one was inspecting the ruins of ancient empire. There was a tennis court, its undulating surface covered in a thick mat of pine needles; nearby were rotting tables and chairs, marble statues hidden among overgrown palms and stained by the elements; a dilapidated sun room crammed with all sorts of junk. The house was behind a high wall and along the wall, were more piles of disused objects and high grass.

Then June appeared out of a cast iron gate in the wall.

She made a strange sight amidst that scene of neglect and wilderness: a petite woman with shoulder length blond-grey hair wearing an ostentatious blue dress, stockings, and high heels. But any immediate impression one might have got of her being eccentric was soon dispelled when she began speaking: she spoke clearly, and her voice radiated intelligence.

She led us over to The Barn.

It was a single area; there were no rooms, no dividing walls. There was a kitchen, a bed behind two long cupboards, a polished wood servery bar, some couches, a pine wood table and chairs. We didn’t realise then that the TV set was old and didn’t work, ditto for the washing machine and vacuum cleaner. It was an odd place. It was very run-down. Furthermore, there was a bit a walk to the beach – over 20 minutes. Still, by this time – it was late March – our flight to Europe was only days away and we didn’t have too many options. No one else had reacted to our advertisement. And in terms of location, The Barn was hard to beat. There were no other dwellings, besides June’s strange house, within a kilometre.

This place was going to be quiet!

 

Nine months passed before we were back in Adelaide.

Within a couple of weeks of arriving in The Barn, we got the place the way we wanted it (shifted out a lot of trinkets and junk and put them in the shed) and got into a daily routine: every morning we walked to the beach and went for a swim.

Irrespective of where we go ocean swimming, be it Greece or Spain, Turkey or Thailand, we always go early in the morning. This is the time of the day when the sea is at its calmest. At The Barn, we got up before sunrise. Partly it was a habit and partly it was because of the magpies. Usually we left the door to our side veranda open at nights to let the evening breeze in. Just outside our veranda, in the adjoining paddock, were the remains of windless from an old windmill. It was a tall and wide metal frame. The Magpies loved sitting on the very top bar of the windless and singing, especially at first light. They became ipso facto our alarm clock and what a wonderful alarm clock it was too – the song of the Magpie is one of the most beautiful bird songs in the world; it’s a mixture of intensely musical fluting and gargling and yodeling, sometimes mixed with intermittent stretches of chirping which sounds as if they are talking.

With the singing of the magpies, we got up, applied UV crème to our faces, arms and backs and then put on our ‘beach clothes’ and walked to Sellicks’ beach. We soon got used to the 20 minute walk to the beach.
The ocean in South Australia is cold, but in terms of swimming, Sellicks’ was a good place because there was long, relatively straight, stretch of beach, the likes of which can be found in very few places in the world. I know what I’m talking about here because I’ve had a lifetime of swimming – or trying to swim – in oceans in Asia, Europe and North Africa.

Good swimming beaches are hard to find and Sellicks’ was a good one.

 

Once she had been a person who mixed with others and enjoyed the spotlight. Now she was alone in that abandoned house in a remote area well beyond the suburban limits. She sought no one ‘s company and didn’t welcome intrusions into her solitary existence:

‘I’m English’, she said, ‘and I love my privacy.’

I guess we had been living in The Barn for about a month before June began talking to me, I mean really talking. It happened like this: on the Sunday of every second week I phoned her up – all initial contact with her was via the phone – and arranged a time to go over there and pay the rent. The Barn, I might mention, was at the most 20 meters away from her house. After I’d been admitted to her study on the ground floor, I gave her the money, she entered the amount and date in a small book and gave me a receipt.

On my second or third visit to her place, she began talking to me and I, as is usual for me, asked a lot of questions. A routine was established: paying the rent meant a talk with June. She was a very private person but that didn’t mean she didn’t like talking to people, it’s just that she needed time to work out whether she wanted to talk to someone or not. Once the walls of her reserve were breached, she talked gladly.

One Sunday, after paying the rent and talking for a good long while, June showed me around the inside of the house. I was surprised by what I saw. There was a high-ceilinged room with a long mahogany table with chairs on both sides; it was like a medieval banqueting hall and it reminded me of scenes I’d seen as a kid in the British series ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, where the Sheriff of Nottingham was dining in his castle with his knights and ladies. Then there was a room with a bar and billiard table and paintings on the walls; it was bigger than a lot of cafes. There was another smaller dining room with a view of the swimming pool and palms. The swimming pool was kept clean and the filter and pump regularly checked although June never used it and neither did anyone else; the money she wasted on it was just another part of her regime of ‘keeping up appearances’, along with now and then, sweeping the pine needles off the tennis court, the surface of which was undulating and in places, broken. She lived in the past and this was all a part of helping her to survive in the present, to give meaning to a life which was as empty as the gathering ruins around her.

During my tour of the house, I noticed that there was a flight of stairs leading to the second story, but June didn’t invite me to look up there. Only later did I discover why: this was where the most precious part of her life was kept, inviolate, like priceless relics under a sheet of glass at a museum.
Everywhere you looked around June’s house, you saw faded glory.

 

You saw the ruins of a once opulent life; a life of wealth, of never having to worry about money.

The remains of a once well-tended garden now overgrown.

Statues hidden by foliage and discoloured by time. The tennis court, once a place of laugher and fun, deserted. There was junk lying around. The sun house near the pool was very much worse for wear.

But June saw none of it.

She didn’t see what had become of the once fine house and its trappings.

She had lived with the process of decay and dilapidation for so long. She was used to it. She still imagined she was living in a mansion, a kind of Australian version of an English castle.

She was determined she would never leave it: ‘Even if can only live in a couple of the rooms, that’s what I’ll do’.

 

During my four months of living in The Barn and paying the rent every two weeks, I got to hear the outlines of June’s life story – and it was, for me, in any case, both fascinating and tragic: 

‘I grew up in Chesire and raised as a Roman Catholic. My life was very restricted. The only time I was allowed to leave home was to go to school and to church. I had no friends. My father was a religious fanatic who ruled our family life with an iron hand. He turned to religion after he came back from the First Word War. Others like him turned to drink, but his ‘drink’ was God.

We lived on a well- known road in Chesire called Roman Road. It wasn’t named after the Roman Catholic church. It was named after the Romans who built a fort and city there in olden times. Deep in the ground, under the buildings and roads, are caves which were used by the Romans. When the Second World War came, they were used a bomb shelter. When the sirens sounded, my parents, my older brother and I used to go down there. They were much safer than lots of the other bomb shelters because they were deep. There were beds down there and everything, but my father never let us kids sleep in them because he said that other people had slept there too so he didn’t trust how clean the sheets and blankets were. What he really meant was: Heathens had used the beds so they were ‘unhygienic’. Every time there was a German air raid, it meant a sleepless night for the family.

I’m like you, I don’t believe in God. Why should I – after what I’ve been through? My brother was blond and a very good looking boy. He went to a Catholic seminary to be trained as a priest. One day he left and came home and said he didn’t want to be a priest. My father beat him but he didn’t relent. Something happened to my brother and today, I keep thinking that he was you know, abused. He never talked to me about it, not even before he died. I think the shame was too much and with our generation you know, we were raised not to talk about that kind of thing. The British stiff upper lip I suppose.

I met my husband John one day when I was riding my bike to church. He collided with me and I fell off my bike and hurt my ankle. I’ve still got a scar on my ankle from that fall. John was a Catholic too and went to the same church but his parents were nowhere near as strict as mine. He loved dancing and he was very good at it and so was his mother – she had won competitions and all when she was younger. John invited me to a dance but I couldn’t go because my father would never allow it. Dancing was sinful. The only way John and I could have our own lives together was to get married. He was 20 and I was 17. We had to get permission from the priest first. Ridiculous! Permission from the priest!

After we were married, I started to learn dancing.

John was a carpenter and we were just another couple trying to keep our heads above water in post war England. One day I was in a hair salon and I was asked whether I wanted to have my photo taken for an advertisement. I had very thick blond hair you see and I was young so I was ideal. I said yes and then afterwards I thought ‘why don’t I start up my own salon? They don’t do anything here that I couldn’t do myself.’ In those days, you didn’t need to have any qualifications. Anyone could start a hair dressing salon, just as long as you had insurance. So I started my own salon and it went along quite well. But outside of work, my life became a tragedy. John and I had three children. We lost our third one, when she was a baby, to cot death. Then our second boy, he was a lovely looking lad, was run over by a car. The local priest refused to preside over the funeral because our son had never been baptised. The priest said he would go to hell. It was then we decided to leave England and go to Australia with our son Steven. We sold our house and the salon. We wanted to start of new life. Funny to think that if we hadn’t lost two of our children, we would have stayed in England. Still living in Cheshire.

We came to Australia in the early 1970’s. John got plenty of work in the building industry and I started another a hair dressing salon. It went well. I started another one and another, after that. Within 10 years I was running 8 hair salons, including a big one in the city centre. I was employing 43 people. John quit his job and helped me run the business. Steven helped me in the salon. The women loved him. We were making a lot of money but we hardly had any time to think about what to do with it. The three of us were getting up early every morning and going to work and coming home late in the evenings. Then we decided to take a break. We needed a holiday. John and I flew to London, saw our friends and family and got on a very upmarket cruise on the Queen Mary. There were film stars and artists on board, it was very upper class. We loved it. When we got back we thought: why spend the rest of our lives working? We began selling off our hair dressing salons. Eventually we sold all of them. We were millionaires. We bought 20 acres of land right out of town and arranged to have a large house built complete with a swimming pool and tennis court. It was secluded and it was near the beach, which John and Steven loved. Steven went to work for a luxury car company – he loved cars – and later, he got divorced from his first wife and married a woman who was high up in the travel company American Express; she was moved to Singapore and he went with her. He got a good job with a car rental company. John and I spent the summers in our house at Sellicks and in the winters, we lived on cruise ships.

Yes, it was dream life, but it came to an end.

First John died and later Steven, so here I am, all on my own….’
It was a memorable summer that one, the summer we lived in The Barn.

I got to hear June’s story from June, but also, another version of her story from a former friend – which cast a very different light on the life of The Hermit Lady and helped me understand a bit more about this strange and enigmatic woman.

 

See: photos accompanying this article:

Living with the Hermit Lady – Part 1

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