Down In The Valley

Words by Alexander Bennetts

Pictures by Alexander Bennetts

Published on August 22, 2016

The house itself is an old weatherboard thing, standing atop a band of red bricks. The wood is salmon-pink, the window frames and tin roof are painted a pale green. Beside the front door hangs a timber sign. I stand there, knocking, and read: TERRAPIN COTTAGE. I don’t know who bought the sign, or why it hangs beside the front door. It’s just an accepted fact: it always has been. The electronic doorbell stopped working years ago, and the age-old metal ringer has lost half of its mechanism, rendering it mute. I knock and knock, giving up when no one answers. I walk around to the back door, shimmying past the currently indisposed ute as I go.

Out back there’s a deck, built by dad’s friends when I was a child. It’s sagging now, weathered and past its best. But the mountain is still there, over the fence, in the background. The deck’s purpose is served. The view is reassuring: yes, it says, you’re in the right place.

 

Dad says the house moves in summer, that it expands like it’s sighing in the heat. In December, the front door jams against its metal frame; you need a strong shoulder to open it. “Any other family might trim off the bottom of the door, so it’ll fit better,” Dad says, “but come winter, it’s going to contract, and there’ll be nothing but a breezy gap.” Any other family—an invocation I hear all through youth. It’s that mythical thing, any other family—simultaneously better off and also unluckier than us. Any other family.

 

I’ve returned this year, like I do every Christmas, to my parents’ home on a busy street in Lenah Valley, Tasmania. Each time I arrive I take part in a well-practised dance. The first step: bearing witness to the galloping excitement of an ageing mutt, Katie, a crossbreed for the ages. There’s something Kelpie about her, someone says, but then there’s the ridge across her back, the hair going against itself, a whirlpool tuft. Rhodesian, maybe? We never work it out, or care to work it out. She’s just Katie, has been since her pound puppy days.

The second step: the acknowledgement of a year’s absence. I ask Mum, “what’s new?” There’s a vase in the dining room that wasn’t there before. They’ve got Foxtel now, toojust the basic set-up because they got a cheap deal. Things are changingslow, ambient changes. After visiting my sharehouse in Newcastle a couple years back, Dad discovered avocados, a fruit that he’s never eaten before. That he’s never even considered. This year, sitting in a ceramic bowl beside the apples and tomatoes, is a pair of Hass avocados, ripe and the size of fists.

Christ. I’m gentrifying my own father.

 

The door to the laundry (connecting onto the toilet and bathroom) still has its doorknob missing; I think it’s been that way for half a decade. Longer, surely. At one point in time an old stocking was tied around the hole as a makeshift handle. Pull tight to close.

The stocking loosens eventually, as stockings are wont to do. It becomes the only door in the house that Katie can unlock on her own. You open the bathroom door, and there she is, waiting, annoyingly loyal as only a dog can be.

 

I sleep in my old bedroom, which becomes more and more like a guestroom with every passing year. The spaces on the bookshelf where my CD collection used to live—wait, where did that get to?—are now occupied by Mum’s romance novels, and little knick-knack gifts that have nowhere else to go. The sheets are always pulled too tight on the single-bed frame, solid and well varnished, an inheritance from Nan.

Each night here I stay awake ’til four, circling around websites I haven’t visited in years. When I turn off the lights, I stare back at glow-in-the-dark ceiling stickers. It’s a lo-fi planetarium filled with stars, comets, planets, and then Power Rangers, who are stuck in a corner above where my top-bunk used to be. I’m 18, I’m 11, I’m 24. A certain variety of depression quickly reasserts itself. The anxiety that you’ve reached your limit, and life hereon is just rearranging the furniture around you. That you’re just a sequence of events waiting to unfold.

This is what returning home—or at least what night, in this house—feels like. That everything that’s gone before will inform what’s to come. The suspicion that everyone knows an out-dated version of yourself, one you can’t avoid reverting back to in this place.

The Power Rangers fade first, then the stars. It all feels like accepted fact.

 

The ceiling of the bathroom is decaying. As kids, my younger brother and I would sit in the bath and attack the ceiling with thumb-sized water pistols. The tiny black circles later grew into an archipelago of mould. ‘Getting the bathroom renovated’ is a long-standing project that never coalescesmoney has to be spent elsewhere. In my absence, the towel rack is moved, and then moved back again. Is feng shui a kind of renovation?

 

It’s my final day in the house. Mum suggests that I drive Katie to the creek. I think she suspects this is the last time we’ll be together—the dog and me, I mean—but she doesn’t say it in so many words. Katie is half deaf, and recently she’s been causing a ruckus in the middle of the night, spooked as if by spirits or her own old age. She is cautious, heavy-footed. I walk through the stream, and Katie follows. I lead her to the pool at the mouth of the creek, and I sit on a rock, eating blueberries pilfered from a roadside-bush, making a video on my phone: Katie stepping through the shallow water, sniffing at shrubbery, turning back to face me.

When we get back to the house, Katie wanders towards a hair-covered cushion and curls up, exhausted. I feel like we’re enacting ritual. With my infrequent returns, every act takes on a significance that makes me slightly uncomfortable. I try not to overthink it. I pack my clothes into the suitcase, and follow Mum through the front door.

 

Two months later: three phone calls in the same day.

 

When it was still summer: I take her for a walk. She can only manage a single block now. She slows down time by sniffing at a tree, fence, or indistinct patch of grass, thirty seconds for each. Thunder calls out from over the hill; I can see the forks in the sky forming above the old soccer field. We take shelter under a chip shop cornice and wait for the rain to ease.