I’ve been visiting a friend of mine down the south coast of NSW. Lou is a writer of non-fiction and poetry. She manages to earn a living from it. When times get tough she supplements her income teaching creative writing evening classes. I met her at one of her classes about ten years ago and we became good friends. She has been very encouraging throughout the years regarding anything I’ve written, so I love going to visit her despite always feeling I have disappointed her somehow because I haven’t yet had one of the many novels I’ve written published.
I am often attracted to quirky tales; it is no secret. Lou had a ready made one for me when I arrived. She lives very near a beach that is a popular spot for holiday makers. The shelter of a bay calms the waters for swimming. Cliffs rise like totem poles fashioned by the gods as the bay turns to meet the sea. On these cliffs sits the house where one of Lou’s friends, Griselda lives. Griselda’s tale is a very interesting one.
I was immediately captivated by Griselda’s name, plucked straight from the Brothers Grimm. I imagined long, plaited hair, petticoats and velvet bodices. Griselda didn’t disappoint. She was dressed in varying shades of layered green with leather clogs and long red hair bundled up into a scarf. She invited us for tea in her house perched on the headland, seemingly placed as precariously as a maraschino cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae.
The house on the cliff was snugly perched. Weather beaten as an old fishing boat, with windowsills peeling from the salt spray, its bricks were sun-bleached and crumbling, a fitting part of the landscape which evoked thoughts of Thomas Hardy or Emily Bronte.
Griselda told us how she watched the rough seas from her window, pounding against the gnarled outcrops of basalt, making the air white and cold. She could hear the melancholy crying of the seabirds, battered and half-frozen by the cruel wind, yet determined to fish. She could see the beach, sliced up by the tide like an enormous cake with only a quarter-portion left. And she could hear the shouts of the painters as they set up their easels, fighting over the position offering the best light, best perspective.
They came every morning, amateurs, wannabes, cramming their canvases with her beach, her seas, her craggy, ancient cliffs. They filled the local souvenir shops and galleries with their efforts, snapped up by ardent Japanese tourists and retirees in hand-knitted cardigans, keen to add to their cache of memories.
The painters irked Griselda more than she could say. She scoured the local galleries, searching; fastidious, obsessive, for one glimpse of her house on the cliff. One swirl of paint, a few rough strokes, a careless daub would do. But the painters continued in their collective conspiracy against her. Her house, her hearth, all that she loved, remained excluded from their creative fervour.
She took to joining the painters while they worked. The wind whipping her hair against her face, stinging, like the bite of insects on a humid night; words swallowed by the force of the wind. She pointed her house out to those who would listen. They shook their heads, ignoring her egg-white face, indicating the cliffs and the sea. Disenchanted, she left them, feet leaden as tin cans full of sand.
You can see from the photo I’ve taken that is very hard to see Griselda’s house. There is a safety barrier on the cliff which makes it difficult to photograph round the point. I’m sure a better photographer than I, with the right lenses could do so, but I found it difficult. On the beach side it is even harder to see the house – it is overshadowed by trees.
Lou and I went down to the beach and chatted to some of the painters, asking if they had ever noticed the cliff house. ‘Didn’t know it was there,’ said one. ‘I’m just painting the cliffs,’ said another. ‘I can’t see it,’ said another. ‘What house?’ said several more.
Lou told me a similar sentiment was echoed in the local galleries with many of the gallery owners unaware of a house nestled on the cliff. It seemed incredible to believe that in all the years people had been coming here to paint, not one person had included the house on the cliff in their scene. ‘Well, there is one person,’ Lou said.
Back at Griselda’s house, her roof looked like it was being swallowed by cirrus clouds. I felt like a princess in a tower built at the very edge of the world. We were invited into Griselda’s studio at the back of the house. She throws pots for a living which I think is a very whimsical way of saying someone is a potter. The studio was full. Pots, bowls, vases, sculptures, canvases were packed in from floor to ceiling, all sharing a similar motif – a quaint little seaside house held fast onto a cliff.
‘I know, I know’, Griselda said. ‘It would appear I have developed a bit of an obsession, but I love my house, it’s as beautiful as the cliff it belongs to. Someone needs to paint it. It looks like that someone is me.’
Griselda handed me a plate, hand-painted with the colours of the earth. The house stands in the foreground, the cliffs muted as if out of focus, the sky above a frail blue. ‘I want you to have this,’ she said. ‘I want you to see what others cannot.’
Lou and I sat in the garden. The rusty gray reflection of the raging water below dappled the sun-cracked ground. We sighed, drinking in the celestial beauty. The house was here, it was real, as sure and knowing as the heron circling a school of fish in the distance, as the burn of the brine on our tongues. We knew that whenever we saw the cliffs from now on that we would see it, with fresh eyes, what so many others missed; we would see as if some kind of spell had been broken – the house on the cliff.