Number one story street
By Claire Baxter
I remember Christmas day. It might have been Christmas 1940 – maybe 1939 – when we all lived in Number One Story Street, Parkville. I remember lying there in my bed in the small, warm room next to the staircase.
‘Eyup, John!’ My father’s voice, hinting at mirth, gentle and lilting.
‘Eyup, John!’ he sang softly, ‘It’s Christmas!’
I remember sitting up, arranging myself on all fours, and sliding down off the bed onto the floorboards, turning, and running out of my room into the hallway. I chased Dad’s lingering presence, past all his paintings – canvases full of colour lining the hallway, from the skirting boards to half-way up the wall – into my parent’s bedroom. Dad was there.
‘It’s Christmas!’ he said and there was vibrato in his voice.
I ran to him.
‘Come!’ he said, and he held my hand, out past all of the colour and painting, to the living room.
A tall tree, dark green and smelling of earth, spread its branches in the corner of the living room. Beneath the tree present lay in red and green coloured paper with ribbon bows.
‘Look at the fire-grate, John! Father Christmas broke a branch bringing the tree down the chimney!’
I remember the broken tree branch lying across the fire grate. I remember the excitement on my Dad’s face. I remember his Leeds accent: his elongated vowels, and his wonderful round, deep ‘o’ sounds.
I was five years old in 1941, and we moved into a different house: Number One Hundred Gatehouse Street. Dad would come over on Saturday on his bicycle, with his top hat, and his bright blue jacket, and the leather band holding the cuff of his kegs tight against his right leg.
When I needed a haircut, Dad would place me on the rack on the front of his bicycle, and we would ride down Elizabeth Street and into the city. Dad would stand behind me as I gazed at the image of the barber busy about my head with scissors. I remember the image of my father in his top hat, fishing his gold watch out from the breast pocket of his blue jacket, regarding it solemnly, and when he returned it, he kept his hand over the little pocket where the watch lived. Once upon a time, I used to enjoy extending my arm across Dad’s torso, and fishing for that gold watch, but I was even younger then.
On other Saturdays we rode to the Melbourne Zoo. Queenie the elephant took fruit from my hand with her enormous, wrinkly grey trunk. Other children rode upon her back, but I did not. Dad was friends with Wilfred Lawson, Queenie’s keeper, who walked beside Queenie and prodded her with a stick. One time I hid a banana in my coat pocket and held out my empty hand. Queenie swung her empty trunk as if to say, ‘Well, where is it?’
Giggling, I drew the banana forth, and she gapped in amazement and took my offering. The next time I saw her, she grinned, and she extended her trunk past my outstretched arm to the pocket in my jacket and found the banana straight away.
‘She’s got a memory like an elephant,’ observed my father wryly.
Less often, Dad would take me back to Number One Story Street, where he sat me at the kitchen table and gave me biscuits and milk in the house filled with canvas paintings. Then he’d take me home, and he would take my younger brother, Brian, who was two and a half, for his ride. At one point, I simply understood that Dad didn’t live with us anymore.
One Saturday, I needed a haircut, but there was anger between my parents. Mum was breathing heavily in her apron, which was green and spotted with flour. Dad lifted me up and put me in the front basket, and Mum was full of rage. She rushed at us, and she stabbed Dad in the forearm with a kitchen knife. I remember the blood.
That was the last time my father turned up to take myself or Brian cycling on a Saturday. Three years later, Queenie rushed at Wilfred Lawson and crushed him to death. I learned the news via the lyrics of a school yard chant:
Was such a meanie,
Stomp you, make you teeny,
Like a beanie.
In 1977, I was in my early forties. I was the proud owner of my own butcher shop with salaried employees. I had worked for the Big Man for more than fifteen years before setting out on my own. I had come to realise that I had a choice: to keep waiting for the mentor who never seemed to show up in my life, or to become my own master. My mother, who suffered from a nervous illness that kept her in bed for days at a time, lived in a little flat in Heidelberg, which I rented for her, just around the corner from where I lived with my wife and two small girls. I visited Mum every other day.
One day in June, when I entered the kitchen, Mum looked up at me and pushed a letter into my hands.
‘What’s this, Mum?’
She nodded at me. Her tongue moved intermittently in her dark, weary mouth. Her eyes shone with the anxiety and pain that had become the way my mother wore her old age. I looked at the letter and began to read. The lawyers of Mr. Quinton Edward Hammond had written to advise that Mr. Quinton Edward Hammond was filing for a no-fault divorce.
On account of her poor health, my mother could not attend the divorce, but she was entitled to a representative. There was no question that I would be Mum’s representative. My brother, Brian, who was two years younger than me but twice as fast, had beaten me to matrimony and fatherhood – twice because he’d also beaten my father to divorce, and was busy with his second wife and the recent arrival of their first child.
I turned up at the Family Court on the corner of LaTrobe and William Street. A slender, quick man in his early thirties, and an older man in his late fifties approached me through the throng of people and introduced themselves as the lawyers of Mr. Quinton Edward Hammond.
‘Mr. Hammond,’ said the junior partner, ‘Would you like to meet Mr. Hammond Senior? You are under no obligation, but if you have the desire, it could be arranged.’
‘Yes!’ I said, and then coughed nervously, ‘I mean, I would be amenable to the idea.’
‘We need to ask you, Mr. Hammond,’ said the senior partner, ‘Do you have any violent inclinations towards Mr. Hammond?’
‘No,’ I said.
The partners nodded, and I was to follow them.
I did not recognize my father: he was an old man now, grey, and small.
‘Mr. Hammond, this is Mr. Hammond Senior,’ said the junior partner.
‘Hello, Mr. Hammond,’ I stammered.
‘Eyup, John,’ he said, and it was some time since I’d heard the ‘o’ sound in my name pronounced like that.
We went into court, the divorce was granted, and we came out.
‘Mr. Hammond,’ said the junior partner, touching my elbow, ‘Do you have interest in catching up with Mr. Hammond Senior?’
‘Yes, I would be agreeable to that,’ I said.
“We recommend the Rose and Thorn, just opposite the courthouse,’ said the junior partner.
‘Please remember, Mr. Hammond, that you have an appointment in our rooms at one o’clock,’ said the senior partner.
Mr. Hammond Senior and I drank tea at the Rose and Thorn.
‘Ey up, then, John?’ asked Mr. Hammond Senior.
I blabbered at length about my butcher-shop, and about living in Heidelberg.
Mr. Hammond Senior looked at his watch. ‘Well John, it’s near o’clock.’
‘Would you like me to accompany you?’ I asked. ‘I would be glad for some exercise.’
Mr. Hammond agreed, and we left the Rose and Thorn side by side.
We turned into Little Bourke Street, and I stammered out my desire. ‘Would you like to visit my family, Mr. Hammond? There will be nobody else there: just me, my wife and the two little girls: Queenie and Lisa.’
‘Yes, I’d like that,’
‘Mr. Hammond, do you still live at Number One Story Street?’
Mr. Hammond confirmed that he did, but I was suddenly overcome by shame, and I softened my invitation. ‘Actually, why don’t I give you my number?’ I drew out a business card. ‘Rather than me hassling you, you can call me when you are ready,’ I said.
Mr. Hammond thanked me, and he took my phone number and put it in his breast pocket.
I went home, and tended to my family and my business, and I waited. At one point over the next few years, I understood that Mr. Hammond Senior was not going to phone me.
In 2017 after my first year at the University of Melbourne, I moved out of Janet Clarke Hall with four other second year students. We’d had enough of compulsory tutorials, academic gowns, and the Vice-Principal’s oppressive pastoral care regime. Signing the twelve -month lease on Number One Story Street felt like a marker of adulthood. The house was large, and once upon a time it might have been grand. Whoever owned it in 2017 was capitalising on the demand for share houses that came from young medicos and STEM researchers who worked in the biomedical precinct, as well as second year Melbourne University students desperate to explore their independence.
I took one of the smaller, cheaper upstairs rooms with a walk-in-robe over the room with the window. As I began arranging my stuff, I discovered that the wardrobe was an archive of previous residents. I found hipster jeans from the 90’s, brown hiking boots with bright red laces, Porsche car magazines from the 80’s, and a forgotten stash of cannabis hidden carefully in a plastic Berocca canister.
Most intriguing of all were the paintings. Colour leapt from the canvas: blue, white-capped waves, and orange-yellow beaches. The paintings all featured a man in a bright blue jacket. Sometimes he was an old man with grey hair and a stooped back; sometimes he was a young man, slender and with dark hair. There was always a small, wooden boat battling treacherous seas. The same characters appeared in all the paintings: the frightened woman dressed in servant’s clothing, the woman in red with the angry face, the slender man with the black vest, the long boots, and the brimmed hat, and finally, the skeleton figure. There was also a boy child in the paintings: young and not more than four or five years old, but with an aura of wisdom and paternal guidance. He was naked, but not revealed, with soft, rosy skin. The man in the blue jacket was often at the helm of the boat, although sometimes the skeleton was steering. The boy child sometimes held a brown leather-bound book, and sometimes a large, gold key. The terrified, weary adults regarded him as if he was the last hope. In one painting, the boat had capsized, and the man in the blue jacket – this time he was middle-aged with a frowning face – was emerging from the water, dragging himself up the beach, gazing upon the little, glowing boy child, who sanding on the beach already, was smiling, and pointing to the land beyond the painting.
I gazed at those paintings for hours. ‘Q.E. Hammond’ was signed at the bottom corner of each painting. The name caught my eye: Hammond was my mother’s maiden name. That didn’t mean much: Hammond is a popular name, particularly amongst people with British ancestry, but the initials of the painter; ‘Q.E’ are also the among the first three letters of my mother’s first name; Queenie.