* This is a story for my dearest friend, Gina, who has found true love again after surviving what can only be described as a calamitous divorce. What Gina has taught me is that it is very important in life to never give up hope, especially when it comes to the big things like career, family and maybe the ultimate big one – love. This one’s for you, Gina.
It was when I started to do all the things I really wanted to do, had always wanted to do that everything changed. That starlight and shimmering moonlight and sunlight bright as the stories of childhood happened.
It all began with the red door.
When I was five years old Carmelita Del Santo moved into Mrs. Dawson’s house across the street. Mrs. Dawson liked things plain and simple, she had an old weatherboard house painted off white with a beige door that was only just beige; in fact, it was such a pale form of beige that it could have been mistaken for off white if you didn’t know better.
I liked Mrs. Dawson because she paid me five dollars to rake up all the leaves from the gum trees that stood astride her garden and gave me a lemonade and a Violet Crumble bar afterwards. I liked the smell of eucalyptus that rose like a perfume you would only find in Australia – a bit like orange zest and vinegar mixed together- as well as the crunch of the leaves as they were put into the compost bin. Mrs. Dawson composted before it was fashionable to. She knew so much about nitrogen-rich material, mulch and the different types of worms in her flower beds that the gardeners from the Council would come around pretending to check that her gums were a safe distance from the telephone wires while really trying to get a sample of her top-dressing.
I liked Mrs. Dawson even though she favoured the plain and simple look. She thought that people who painted their houses bright colours were posing off. When Sharon Monroe at Number 34 started to follow a tropical theme after her second honeymoon in the Fiji Islands and put curtains patterned with palm trees in her kitchen Mrs. Dawson believed it was the beginning of the end of sensible society. The downfall.
Mrs. Dawson went to live with her daughter because she began to lose her eyesight. I thought it was kind of a good thing that her eyesight was failing becsause if she had seen what Carmelita Del Santo had done to her front door she would have had a fit.
The first thing Carmelita Del Santo did when she moved into Mrs. Dawson’s old house was to paint the front door red. Bright red. Like a fire engine all polished and gleaming. I nearly had a fit on Mrs. Dawson’s behalf when I saw it. But at the same time I loved it. I couldn’t stop looking at that door or at Carmelita Del Santo.
She was so beautiful with her blue black hair and her peasant skirts and enormous hooped earrings. ‘Spanish,’ said the women in the street by way of explanation when Carmelita sunbaked on the front lawn as the men of the street tried to stop their jaws from dropping. She lay right on top of the leaves and gumnuts, not caring, her colourful blankets like a birthday party.
In addition to the red door Carmelita Del Santo put out turquoise garden furniture with a beautiful tiled wooden table I immediately fell in love with. ‘It’s a mosaic,’ Carmelita said in her husky voice. Mosaic. It sounded like something only people with bright red doors would know about.
‘I’m going to be just like you when I grow up,’ I said to Carmelita one day. ‘I’m going to have a red door and a table with a mosaic on it.’
‘Just be yourself, querida,’ Carmelita said. ‘You are beautiful as you are.’
I forgot about Carmelita and her red door as the years passed. I got married to a man who took Mrs. Dawson’s plain and simple living to a different level. John’s philosophy was if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Actually, it was more if it’s broke, don’t fix it. We lived in a rundown terrace house in the city with a brown door, a peeling paint brown door with a latch you had to twist three times to the right just to open.
When you live in a house where everything needs to be mended, when you stagger into the laundry in the dark banging your head on the dryer for the fifth time that week because the broken light fitting won’t hold a light bulb any longer, you start to get sick of things. Really sick. Excessive restriction is not good for the soul.
You start to realise that ignoring all the broken components of your life means you’re stuck, held in some kind of stasis by the windows that won’t open and the door that lets the rain in and the stove switch you have to bang with a hammer to stay on.
After a while the broken things acquire a power of their own and you begin to feel that you might be the next broken thing to join them and you know that if you do it will be all over for you because broken things that never get fixed can’t move forward or back, they just sit there chained and crumbling.
I left John. Too many broken things filling up the shadows in the house. I was glad to get out when I did. My spirit was fragile but not yet broken.
I got a bit of money from the divorce settlement – the broken house made a profit which just goes to show that if you get in the right street it doesn’t matter if your windows won’t open – and I bought a little two bedroom semi in a trendier part of town. I liked the cafes and the bookstores and the people in their hip, vintage clothing and even though my house was near the train line I didn’t mind; the swoosh of the trains was comforting compared to the sound I was used to – a house falling into fragments.
I suppose that buying my own house was the start of my doing what I really wanted to do but on the day it really kicked in I thought of Carmelita Del Santo for the first time in twenty years. I saw a house with a red door. It was the kind of red that makes you think of only good things like apples, ribbon on presents, lipstick from the 1940s and strawberries freshly picked. I saw that door and I wanted one too. I ordered one that day.
On the day my red door arrived a new shop opened round the corner. I saw it as I walked to work – full of cobalt glass, wrought iron chairs and tables with mosaics. It was as if the spirit of Carmelita Del Santo had ridden into town.
A wind arrived with the spirit of Carmelita Del Santo – a frivolous, frenetic wind – that stayed around the streets for days. I could smell the scent of it hovering in doorways like jasmine filling the night during summer.
That wind affected me. It’s quite possible it infected me because it made me feel not quite like myself. I started to do things some people might have thought were ill-considered, perhaps a little immature. I started, in earnest, to do the things I have always wanted to do.
On the day Robbie finally opened the door to his new shop around the corner he caught me running, running with the trains. The 10.15 from Petersham, to be exact. I thought of Carmelita Del Santo’s flowing peasant skirts as I ran and I almost beat that train, I almost outran it; but the sight of Robbie standing in the entrance to his shop holding a lovely piece of blue handblown glass distracted me and I lost my momentum. The 10.15 chugged off to victory.
‘So do you race the trains often?’ Robbie asked.
‘Not often enough,’ I said.
Robbie was a painter. He painted scapes, as he called them. Landscapes, city scapes, vision scapes, future scapes. Images full of colour and emotions like crying and joy.
He gave me a painting on our first date on a canvas as small as a kitchen tile depicting the train line near my house with a woman in the corner, coloured skirts gathered, poised for flight.
It made me cry, that little painting, because there I was caught in a moment the way someone else saw me, a moment full of passion and fun and enjoyment, a carefree moment, a moment of wanting something more and striving to get it.
I hoped that Robbie would always view me the way I was in that moment. I hoped he would see me as Carmelita Del Santo had – beautiful just as I was.
My red door casts a hue along the garden path, both celebratory and consoling. It stands like a talisman, an embodiment of zeal yet to be realised. It opens me up to the world but also protects me from it. And I know that no matter which way I walk through it, either out or in, it will bring me closer to myself, it will keep me running with the trains.