Every morning, for 4 months, our routine remained unvaried, as immutable as the magpies warbling and gargling at sunrise; the day started with a long swim.
At the end of the 20- minute walk to the beach was an old, disused concrete boat ramp. The local council had erected a few iron poles to prevent SUV drivers from using the ramp to access the beach. The boat ramp, cracked and broken in sections, became a permanent fixture in our morning routine. We took our clothes off at the side of the ramp, put rubber plugs in our ears (to keep the water out), rubber caps over our heads, and then we hit the water. Anya usually swam for half an hour, whereas I swam for an hour or even longer. We swam together along the coast in a southerly direction; when Anya turned around to swim back towards the boat ramp I accompanied her. Then she swam into the shore and I continued. Anya got out and dried herself off and walked back to The Barn and half an hour later, I did the same.
One morning, after I’d got out of the water, dried myself off, put my clothes on and was sitting at the edge of the ramp putting UV cream on my face, an elderly lady with a dog came over and introduced herself. She was lean and obviously kept herself in shape (noticeable in a country where obesity has become normal). Like other people living in the area, she had noticed Anya and I appearing every morning from behind the wall of shrubbery at June’s place and walking to the beach.
We began chatting and it became a long conversation.
I spoke to her several more times during that summer. She had a store of memories from times long passed when the Evans’ place was much visited, much spoken about, and very popular:
‘The Evans’ came out here in the 1990’s. In those days no one came this far south of Adelaide just to live. Hard to imagine eh? What with all those new mansions going up there at the outskirts of Sellicks town and all the new houses being built along the coast? Yeah, they were different times alright. In the ‘90’s, if you came this far south it was because you were doing something, you were grazing sheep or growing wheat or hay; you were a farm hand or a tradesman. You didn’t come down here just to well, hang around. The wealthy people built their mansions closer to the city, near the beach or up in the hills. It was bizarre having these English people turn up in our midst with no plans to do anything. Bought up 20 acres of land, built a large Spanish style house, a swimming pool and a tennis court, and drove around in e-type Jaguars – bloody three of them! One each for John, June and their son Steven. You’ve got no idea how strange it was to see people driving these super luxury cars over dirt roads! God did that get the tongues wagging! It took time, but we slowly began to realise that the Evans were damn nice people. They lived in this English castle, like aristocrats, but they were friendly.
I don’t know when their place became open house, maybe in the late ‘90’s, something like that. Every summer, it was the great event, visiting the Evans’s place. June and John were the perfect hosts. John was always up for a bit of joke, always laughing. She was quieter, more reserved, but very chatty, you know what they say ‘still waters run deep’, that was her. The Evans’s place, you were always welcome there! We played tennis and afterwards had a dip in their swimming pool. Sometimes we stayed over for dinner – 10, 20 of us. It was always nice, everyone enjoyed themselves. June and John had it all: a big house, lots of land, lots of money… you wouldn’t believe how wealthy they were! Besides the e-type Jaguars, John had a big collection of antique cars – Bentleys and Rolls Royce. Every winter they went off on luxury cruises, nothing like cruise ships now, they were very exclusive, very upmarket, mixing with the rich and the famous…
There was a community out here then. There were far fewer people living in the area, nothing like today. Everyone was welcome at the Evans’s, didn’t matter who you were or what you did. It brought everyone in the area together…it was a real community thing. We had so many wonderful times at the Evans’ place. How many years did this go on for, you ask? Ten years? No, it was longer I reckon. Like it was timeless, that’s how it seemed. Best years of my life.
Then one day John was diagnosed with some kind of dementia, it wasn’t Parkinson’s’, don’t know what it was, but it was really aggressive. It was weird what happened then. John turned into another man, a very unpleasant one. He refused to see anyone. Absolutely refused. The years of playing tennis and socialising every summer came to an end, just like that. The friends he had made, the people who cared about him, meant nothing to him. He didn’t want to see them. He demanded that June not see anyone and she went along with it. Some weird things happened. He sold all his antique cars. They were kept in what is now The Barn. After he sold the cars, he had the garage converted into a place where he could live on his own. He said he needed his own private space. June lived on her own in that big house. It was ridiculous. She came over to The Barn to look after him, feed him, and give him his medicines, like he was a baby. Well in a way he was: a baby tyrant. She lived in the house on her own and he lived in The Barn and this went on for a year or two. I don’t know why she stood by him. It was then I reckon that June turned into a …. what did you call her? …yeah, ‘a hermit lady’.
You asked where their fortune went. Huh! That’s an easy one! John controlled the finances.
Would you believe it?
She had built up the business, earned the money, but he controlled it and he controlled the finances. If he’d wanted to, he could have left her at any time and legally taken all her money. She had the brains, he was just a hanger-on and he knew it.
Why did she go along with it, you ask?
Search me. Theirs was a traditional relationship. Yes, and they were Catholics. The man was the boss. Even when the man was a moron, he was the boss. She accepted it. Probably right what you say, that’s how things were then, it was very sexist, but I can tell you something, I’m an old lady and I’ve never kow- towed to my husband and he wouldn’t want me to either. You know, for all her intelligence and business acumen, June was submissive. For years, John squandered their money on these upper-class cruises and on luxury cars and all sorts of dumb stuff. He lent money to so-called ‘friends’ who never paid him back. One scene June told me about was when she came home from the shops and John, well he was as mad as a snake by then, was thrashing away in the swimming pool and when he saw her, he yelled out ‘I’ve just agreed to lend 200, 000 dollars to Ron Jenkins, ha! ha!’ This Ron Jenkins was a used-car salesman and a shark. He knew John controlled the finances and was mentally disturbed. ‘Course he got in there and grabbed all he could, all of it stolen under the guise of ‘loans’. Wouldn’t you know it? Ron was a bloody Christian, he belonged to a weird American mob.
Anyway, you know what I think?
John lent all that money – June’s money! – to that god-bothering bum as a way of getting revenge on June. He could never forgive her! He had ruled her all his life but now she was going to outlive him. He must have felt jealous too because he knew that he hadn’t done a thing to earn that fortune. So he made sure that before he went, he left her skint.
Eventually John had to be institutionalised. He died a few year later. I always thought that June would leave after John’s death and move into an apartment or a unit in the city. But she didn’t. I went around there a few times. June was always glad to see me but after a while, I noticed that she never encouraged me to come back. I couldn’t understand it. We used to be such good friends. Two years ago, her son was killed in a car accident in Singapore. I thought she’d leave then, I mean there wasn’t much out here for her anymore. But she continued to live all on her own. She’s an odd fish. The house and land is worth a fortune. She’s got two grown up adult grandchildren and four great grandchildren who live in the suburbs. She could sell up and move tomorrow to be closer to them. But no, she stays there. She’s asset rich and income poor so she has to rent out The Barn to make ends meet and she never has enough to maintain the house.
All on her own. ‘I like my privacy’.
Yes, she was a strange soul, our June. Now and then she got in her old Mercedes sports car – it was close to antique now – and drove to the shops or to see her grandchildren who never came to visit her.
She swept the pine needles off the tennis court, she walked around in the bush, made up, in fine dresses and high heels.
Whenever she wanted me to help her with a small job around the house, she phoned me up. At nights she read and watched the TV; we could see the lonely glow of the TV when we went on evening walks.
Ah! The Barn!
Few of our friends understood us living out there in that place. It was too basic, too primitive, too far out away for people living in the suburbs. They probably thought we were as eccentric as the Hermit Lady.
How could we explain that there good reasons for living in that place?
The silence. The night skies, unsullied by the electric lights of the suburbs, sown with glittering stars. The kangaroos appearing in the paddocks outside our veranda early in the mornings and late in the evenings, feeding and rollicking. The birds; always the birds, from the galas and corellas, to the colourful parakeets and rosellas; from the ibis and plovers to the currawongs and native ducks and of course, the magpies – every morning being woken up by those lyrical jesters ….and the ocean, the sound of water, waves, wind, the feeling of swimming, of being reunited with the watery origins of our species …
‘How can you live in a place like that?’ they asked.
It wasn’t too difficult, tell you the truth.
The summer passed quickly. One Sunday, late in March it was 37 degrees and I can remember it well because it was on the morning of that day that I had my last swim and it was a beautiful one – the water was flat and blue and I swam for 1 hour and 15 minutes. On the Monday, a change swept in from the north and for the rest of the week it was bad weather, with strong winds and temperatures hovering around 20 degrees. We knew then it was time to start the next part of our life journey….bike riding Australia.
We began gathering up our belongings, the few we had, in preparation for storing them at my brother Dave’s place. We drove our old car, borrowed from Dave, out to his place where it was arranged that he would service it and check it for the long journey ahead.
One day, about 2 weeks before we were due to leave on our bike trip, June phoned up.
‘Peter, can I talk to your wife please?’
I was taken aback. She had never asked to talk to Anya – ‘your wife’- before.
I called Anya over.
She was as surprised as me.
June wanted her to come over and help her with some ‘ladies’ business’.
Anya was gone a while.
After she came back, she had quite a story to tell.
‘June led me up the stairs. There was a big passage and an enormous bedroom. All along the passage and in the bedroom, there were floor-to- ceiling cupboards filled with hundreds of dresses, very old style, with frills and bows and so on. There were hundreds of hand bags and shoes! She had more shoes than Imelda Marcos! June wanted me to help her try on some dresses. She had put on a bit of weight and she was worried she wouldn’t be able to get into her dresses anymore. So we tried on lots of dresses. I helped her get them and zip them up. She offered to give me one of the dresses, which put me in a difficult situation because I didn’t want to offend her so I pointed out that they couldn’t possibly fit me because I was so much bigger. Then she offered to give me a hand bag …
We chatted whilst we tried on the dresses. She talked about the days when she and John went on the cruise ships. They were cruises for people who loved ballroom dancing…’
‘Ballroom dancing?’ I asked.
‘The ships stopped in foreign places and there was lots of sight- seeing trips, but everyone who went on these cruises went to dance. They were dancing cruises. June took along lots of dresses and hand bags and shoes so that every evening, when they went dancing, she could wear something different…’
Ballroom dancing cruises.
The notion seemed bizarre in the context of today when cruise ships were like floating high- rise apartments and could accommodate thousands of people.
Anya continued: ‘John, she told me, was a magnificent dancer, a dream on the floor…. after he died, she joined a ballroom dancing club in town and went dancing every week, but no one was a patch on John and ballroom dancing is partner dancing she said, and she could never get used to being with a different partner…’
For all his transgressions against her, June was still prepared not only forgive John, but even more, to idolize him. He had ruled over her like a petty potentate. He had squandered the fortune she had created. By today’s standards he was a misogynist bully. Yet there was June, mind wonderfully intact, living alone in the ruins of once proud mansion, lost in the memories of dancing with her loved-one, that dreamtime dancer.
When we said goodbye to June, she told us she would miss us.
Ever the picture of British restraint, she showed no emotion and we knew that under no circumstances could we give her a goodbye hug or even, shake her hand.
It was not done.
For the 4 months we had lived at The Barn, I had associated the Hermit Lady’s dilapidated house with an English castle. But as we drove down towards new horizons, another metaphor appeared before me: every time she made herself up and donned her outdated dresses and shoes, she was reliving the times when John was still alive and of sound mind and the two of them were dancing.
June was on a ship, and that’s where she would be until she died.
Accompanying images at: