Flashing back to 2012, on the day I first walked past that mansion in Glebe, one of the oldest suburbs in Sydney.
The magnificent old building riveted and mesmerised me. It was fronted by a brightly painted door, a glossy façade, and I began imagining what the door might mask, what it could have concealed over the last 150 years: nasty, shameful secrets, possibly a poor family’s misfortune and tragedy, rotten crimes and heaven knows what other unholy messes …
These are the first words I wrote … and where it all began.
“He strode past, all sun-burnished skin and bleached hair. It was his swagger which drew the eye: a compelling mix of insouciance and arrogance, achieved only by those who are either extraordinarily attractive, or very sure of themselves. I had secretly named him Harrison Ford, due to his startling resemblance to the actor. His old blue Falcon was parked at the kerb. He always parked in the same shady position, under the claret ash. Today he wore a tight green T-shirt that read ‘What Cup?’ He nodded a casual hello and bounded up the steps, two by two, into the main house, leaving a tantalising trail of fresh cologne. I gaped as his cheeky bottom in his cheeky jeans vanished from view.
‘Gorgeous!’ breathed Anne into my ear. ‘If I hear another word about that bloody America’s Cup, though …’
I jumped. ‘Where did you come from?’
‘So, who is he?’ Anne asked instead. Her cheeks were rosy and a mischievous glint shone in her eyes.
Anne was a joyous creature, brimming with an energy and effervescence that I’d never seen in a woman her age; she had easily ten years on me, but I marvelled at her ability to run circles around me. She popped by every other day during the building project; the builders adored her, and Anne adored them back. Especially Antonino. They flirted shamelessly, and she would swing her hips as she passed by him, giving me a secret wink.
Purchased as a deteriorating dump two years ago, several well-meaning people suggested I demolish Rosalind and build modern apartments. Level the house? I despised the idea. It was the charming sandstock brickwork, the bay windows and the gracious staircase that originally drew me – the detail in the arches and the cornices, the old elegance. The tower. It was once a prestigious home, but in the last century Rosalind had functioned, amongst other things, as a schoolhouse, a guesthouse and finally a low cost boarding house. When first I saw the old place, it was practically unliveable.
Four flats, two up and two down – a ground floor wing extending to the western side, previously used as a coach house. Part of the roof was missing and water leaked from somewhere through into the stairwell. Mould was creeping up the walls, and torn and discoloured linoleum covered all the floors. The kitchen cupboards were rotten and dirty, with cockroach and rat detritus in the corners. I couldn’t even bear to remember the condition of the bathrooms, especially Number One’s, which had an unidentifiable brown stain in the ceiling. It was squalor. And the smell!
James, the owner of the construction company, introduced his hotch-potch team of builders and they swarmed in, oozing confidence, happily swinging tools and cursing – a United Nations of trades. Antonino the foreman, smooth and Italian. Danik the beer bellied tiler, leering and saucy. Bryson the charming Welsh electrician. Jim the plumber, jolly and convivial. Teddy-Have-A-Chat, the painter. And Johan the carpenter. He was Danish, or Swedish or Finnish – I couldn’t tell which – and it made no difference anyway, as he left the job months ago in a cloud of uncertainty and disturbing rumours. It had been all been exceedingly bizarre.
James extolled Johan’s workmanship from the outset and particularly wanted to bring him in to restore the intricate timberwork of the balustrading, skirtings and doorways in the entrance and first floor gallery of the house. It was specialised work, and James was insistent on using Johan’s expertise. Then, an inexplicable series of unhappy accidents befell the tradesmen working at the top of the stairs. Johan’s assistant was hospitalised several weeks into the job with a dreadful injury to his arm, and replaced with a gruff Italian named Giosofatto. Not a month passed and this man walked off the site, waving his arms and babbling in a continental fury. Teddy told everyone who would listen that he had seen Giosofatto standing at the gates afterwards, staring up at the gallery window and crossing himself. James then called in a favour from an old friend, a skilled artisan who was working on a magnificent old mansion in the prestigious suburb of Vaucluse, who agreed to assist Johan in completing the joinery. He lasted a whole week. After complaining about his power tools shorting over and over, and that he didn’t appreciate being “watched” and “laughed at” by the tenant who lived on the second floor, a sudden debilitating migraine overcame him and his wife turned up to collect and take him home. Within days, Johan resigned from the job and the story which swept amongst the gossiping tradies was that he had assaulted his wife’s employer, been arrested and then admitted into a psychiatric care facility.
What remained of the restoration work was completed by Antonino. A few more of the tradies working inside the house sustained minor injuries, and poor Bryson managed to electrocute himself while attending to a recurring fault in the lights above the gallery. But James reassured me, saying it was all par for the course. ‘Bound to happen on a big job like this,’ he said.
Finally, the building was stripped back, re-plumbed and re-wired. The roof was repaired with reclaimed slate tiles, and wonderful wood floors revealed. Modern kitchens and contemporary new bathrooms were installed, the interiors painted and the floors sanded and polished.
On some days I stood at the front of the house, looking critically at the building, almost giddy with the magnitude of the project I had taken on. At last, the place looked like the elegant residence and coach house it was meant to, and not the wreck of the Hesperus. A glossy red door now fronted the main building with the original granite steps leading down onto the courtyard. Standing beside the resurrected stone fountain, I surveyed Rosalind with an empowering sense of pride and ownership. My chest throbbed with a warm bloom of well-being and, dared I hope, happiness?
Anne and I goggled as Harrison Ford’s figure disappeared through the red door and then craned our heads up, mouths open, to Number Four’s window on the second floor. There was no movement, and no sound.
‘Worked it out yet?’ Anne persisted. ‘When are you going to ask your tenant who he is?’
‘Well, I’m not going to ask her something like that! That would be too blatant,’ I changed the subject. ‘So, what are you up to today?’
Anne gave me a peck on the cheek and a pat on the bottom, and then bustled out through the wrought iron gates, letting them slam behind her as she trotted off towards the village. I winced. Those gates are worth a small fortune, please stop slamming them.
The fountain bubbled, young water plants waving and crystals of light glistening as the water spilled over the edges. It had cleaned up beautifully, the cracks and missing chips adding to the fountain’s charm and I trickled my finger along the fluted edge. The new border of young native rosemary rippled in the breeze and the gravelled courtyard shone in the sunlight. As Mary Poppins might have said, it was practically perfect.
Except for Number Three. Taking one last glance upwards before I went in, my eye was inevitably drawn towards the dowdy, yellowed lace curtains. Had they moved? I was sure they had. They were now slightly pulled to the right.
‘He’s watching me.'”
Book Two is in final editing stage, no release date yet, but I’m getting excited! Do feel free to subscribe for immediate updates.
In the meantime, if you missed THE RED DOOR you can head over to Amazon or iBooks to grab your copy now! Rx