Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Secluded mystery

Mrs Mascord’s flaking once-painted-white brick house next door was always a secluded childhood mystery.

Brooding and heavy on its unkempt block, a seeming maze of overgrown, crumbling greenhouses and sheds out the back, it begged for exploration.

Thick, shiny vines smothered the dank walkway sheltering its back door. The main delinquent greenhouse was always humid and richly rotting, with countless plants jostling madly in whispering chaos, seeming to hold its fragile glass sheets aloft.

I always knew when Mr Mascord, a brooding, grey, thickset man, was working to assemble the evening’s firewood. His humming bench saw, set in the darkest recess of the adjoining garage, would screech as each fresh lump was reduced to manageable lengths. And the tang of freshly wounded wood and swirling sawdust would waft out the open tilt-lift door, up and over the weathered paling fence marking our boundary.

I’m not sure when it dawned on me that Mr Mascord was no more an addition to his household than the gleaming cream Rover car he’d ferry Mrs Mascord around in. A ‘Poor Man’s Roll Royce’ Dad always called it; a way of hinting at having money without overstepping one's mark.

Mrs Mascord controlled her inherited fortune, being a younger sister of Edwin Street, the Corrimal store keeper who’d created a far bigger fortune from Streets Icecream, and the factory he’d built to produce it on the corner of the Princes Highway and Tarrawanna Road. It was Wollongong’s first building with a blinking neon sign – a huge polar bear licking a cone.

Mum and Dad had bought our house from the Mascords. And when we could least afford it, in our early, thin financial days, Dad suspected Mr Mascord of relieving us of a bag of cement resting under our back awning. They never forgot how 'miserable' they thought he was.

But Mrs Mascord was a round, happy woman, always smiling behind her glasses. She – unlike her stone-faced husband – liked us kids.

She’d always conjure up some ‘surprise’. Sometimes from her gloomy kitchen. Sometimes from even darker recesses. Once, inside her home, I was aware of its fallen glory, of windows that always seemed drawn and of that vague, sweet smell of aging newspaper print.

I remember her giving me a small rag doll one day, and clinging to it until Dad came home and took it off me.

Later, after Mr Mascord had died, and Mrs Mascord sank further into the dark folds of her flaking fortress, my brother John and I would crawl through a broken window pane of her back shed and explore its rusting, dust-covered marvels stacked inside on sagging, mummified shelves. Or push our way around the tight, choking confines of the steamy, crumbling greenhouse.

I’m not sure how Dad negotiated use of Mrs Mascord’s detached garage, long after her Rover disappeared. But in short order, he’d fashioned a crude gate into the fence, immediately behind the tilt door, giving us access to the space we then used to house our first car.

But Dad never touched the bench holding Mr Mascord’s electric circular firewood saw. Years later, it and Mr Mascord’s final small pile of sawn timber still sat there, slowly succumbing to the same weight of dust burying everything next door.

At some point, Mrs Mascord disappeared to a small retirement unit in Corrimal, continued exploring the wider world with a series of personally funded travelling companions, and appeared briefly in a WIN TV regional support ad.

Then she, too, died.


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