Short Story: Home

By Marie McLean

Short Story: Home
Nicole was battling to complete the renovations on her 1930s home when out of the blue, a ghost from the house’s past showed up on her front porch.

To the untrained eye it’s just a pile of junk, crammed into an oversized vase. Stiff hinges, broken Bakelite switches, bent picture hooks, dented door knobs. Crooked nails and rusted screws filling the gaps. Delicate window handles, their original finishes painted over long ago, say much about the home’s previous owners and their hurried fix-it jobs.

To me, however, the collection is beautiful. Muted browns, shiny chrome, yellowed plastic and pops of cherry-red. The home’s discarded DNA. Each item dating the house, much like the rings that age a tree.

We once called this place our forever home. A financial leap so large we justified the purchase by saying we’d never have to move again. But the joke was on us. Work took us overseas and it became our sometimes home; a place we’ve moved into three times now. Four, if you count the kitchen fire and six months of temporary accommodation.

It had been John Taylor’s forever home though. He built it in 1937 and lived here until he didn’t; dying in the front bedroom the day before his ninetieth birthday. One of the home’s secrets I wish I didn’t know …

All sorts of things were revealed the day Frank, John’s son, turned up on our doorstep out of the blue. It’s because of Frank that I started the collection.


I was outside, struggling to remove a stubborn hinge from a small window beside the fireplace when I heard the door bell. Well past another coat of paint, the frame needed stripping back to bare wood. The putty had all but crumbled away, compromising the leadlight panel, and with the hinge screws refusing to budge I’d decided to use a crowbar to set it free. The distraction came at the right time.

Dropping the crowbar, I walked around the back and headed inside, relieved the sea breeze had begun to flow through the house. I’d left the front door wide open for that very reason and, waiting patiently behind the security screen, was an elderly gentleman, slightly stooped and smartly dressed. He appeared to be at ease, studying the porch with a gaze so intent that I stood there for a moment, curious as to what was so fascinating.

The man’s hands were clasped behind his back and he started to bounce on his heels, radiating a boyish energy.

“‘Hi,” I said, reaching for the keys on the hall table. “Can I help you?”

The old gent turned and doffed his cap, bowing slightly. “Good afternoon. I hope I’m not intruding.” He pulled an envelope from his shirt pocket and tapped it against his thigh.

“Not at all,” I replied, unlocking the security screen and stepping onto the porch. “I could do with a break.” I gestured towards my paint-smattered clothes. Faded pink cotton shorts, saggy with wear, and a grey souvenir t-shirt that was older than my marriage. ‘Alcatraz Swim Team’ it declared above a caricature of a woman gripping prison bars.

“My name’s Frank Taylor,” he said. “My father built this house. Here, I have a photo.”

His hands shook a little as he removed a black-and-white image from the envelope. He examined it while slipping me short bursts of information. “It was taken early in 1937. Just before my parents moved in. A few months before I was born.” He looked up and smiled, then offered me the photo.

“I’m Nicole. It’s lovely to meet you, Frank,” I said, taking it from him. “Do you still live nearby?”

“No, I live in Bordeaux, in France. I’m here on a short visit. Age is catching up with me I’m afraid. I don’t get back often.”

I gave a sympathetic nod and studied the photo. My house sat in the middle of a giant sandpit; an only child. Beyond the home’s neat perimeter, tufts of spiky weeds sprouted here and there and the verge was a thirsty desert, years away from becoming the lush green this garden suburb was now known for. There was no footpath and the road was unsealed. Everything outside the home’s boundary screamed ‘bush’, including the mature tuart trees in the empty lots to the sides and rear.

In sharp contrast, the house was pristine. Crisp lines, fresh render that reflected the sun, and wooden picket fences long since eaten by white ants. A low brick wall enclosed the front garden and an embryonic row of roses. Short, woven-wire gates opened onto a driveway – two long strips of concrete running all the way to a carport at the rear. I couldn’t imagine driving a bulky Holden over all that sand, getting bogged trying to line up the wheels with the driveway. The Taylors must have waited ages for the road to be tarred.

It struck me that I’d always viewed our home as though it appeared in a vacuum, with neighbours and schools and a tennis club already well entrenched. A small pocket, close to the city, full of life and colour, people and conversation. However, in my hands was a lonely house, waiting for the years to unfold in and around it. Once young and modern, it was now prized for its age and character. It had outlived its original owner. It would long outlive me.

“Wow, the house has hardly changed,” I said, looking up at Frank and out onto the street. “You must have seen some things over the years.”

Frank focused on a car driving past, giving his answer as he watched it disappear into a neighbouring garage. “Yes, there was a lot of change around here growing up, but not so much after I moved overseas. It’s the first time I’ve been back, to this house,  since settling my father’s estate 30 years ago.” The neighbour’s roller door closed and Frank turned his attention back to me. I paused. How to reply to news of someone passing away long ago without sounding trite?

“We’ve been here for 15 years. We fell in love with it the second we walked over the threshold. They certainly don’t build homes like they used to!”

He laughed. “You’re right there. My father had a workshop out the back. He fashioned all the woodwork himself. Architraves, plate rails, windowsills. Even the mantelpiece. He had a hardware business, but this house was his passion,” he said.

The workshop still existed when we bought the property. The giant shed would have made a great artist’s studio with its exposed beams, rustic floor and voluminous space. But it was clad in asbestos and had to go. John’s woodwork inside the house however, that was everywhere, and had been replicated in the newer parts of the home.

“Please, come inside. Have a look around,” I said, holding out my arm towards the open door. “I’d love to hear more.”

He jumped at my invitation. “Are you sure? I don’t want to put you out.”

The hairs on my arms prickled. It had to be kismet, our paths crossing like this. “Not at all,” I replied. “Excuse the mess though, we’re renovating.” We had a lot to offer each other, Frank, chasing his childhood, and I, contemplating life after 50. The house, observing it all.

Frank stepped into the hallway, falling silent. Glancing this way and that, his expression hinted at memories I hoped he’d share. I led him into the formal lounge and we chatted at length about the coffered ceiling and the old-fashioned method of fixing it to the rafters with plaster made from horsehair. I pointed to the small leadlight window I’d been trying to remove. “I’m guessing your father put the first coat of paint on that?”

“Yes, I imagine he did.” Frank circled his palm on the deep windowsill. “It took me forever to reach this high. Mother used to display figurines here. I remember her taking them down one by one on dusting day and letting me hold them.” He looked around, fixing on one feature, then another. “Father was always tinkering around the house. He kept it in tip-top shape. And then there was the garden, of course. Flowers for Mother, and a vegetable patch. Everyone had them back then. We had chooks too. It was my job to feed them and collect the eggs for Mother.”

I listened to more of Frank’s stories and we exchanged email addresses, promising to keep in touch once he returned to France. After he left I returned to the window and tackled the stubborn old screws with a newfound respect. It would be the first time they’d been removed in 80-odd years, no wonder they didn’t want to let go.

As if guided by Frank’s father, I picked up the Stanley knife and carefully sliced through the build-up of gunk caught in the screw head. I slotted in a flathead screwdriver and banged down hard against its solid plastic handle with a hammer. A single, sharp strike. Then two more for good luck. I put the hammer down and gripped the screwdriver with both hands, twisting it slowly, keeping up the pressure until the screw started to give way, thread by thread.

With each turn, I pictured Frank’s father installing the window. What was he thinking back then? Was he excited about becoming a father? Was he happy with the home he was creating? The screw was a direct link between us. We’d both held it, more than 80 years apart. John, at the start of its shiny, long life. Me, at the end, rusted, clogged with layers of paint. I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I thought a lot about Frank and John during the renovations. The collection of discards grew. Vintage keys, frayed sash-window cords and obsolete Telecom sockets. They filled empty Vegemite jars that crowded the mantelpiece like a corner-store lolly counter. When the work was complete, I bought the largest vase IKEA sold and arranged the collection in it, mixing textures and colours so that the longer you looked, the more there was to see. Perched on top was the brass doorbell, the word ‘Press’ curved around a small button. It had been a temperamental thing. Thank God it had rung for Frank that day.


I still get the weekend newspapers delivered, keeping alive the memory of carefree, pre-internet days. Leisurely breakfasts in a rented flat. A small dining table strewn with weekend lift-outs. A ‘homes open’ list taking shape as we pored over the real estate section. I’ve thought about updating to the online version but it wouldn’t be the same. Where’s the texture? The smudge of ink on fingers? The page-turning crinkle? And you can’t clean leadlight windows with a balled-up iPad.

A year after meeting Frank I was surrounded by the Saturday paper. I’d made it through to the classifieds and the name, Taylor, a long list of them, stared back at me. My heart raced and my finger sped through the alphabet, stopping at Frank. A new listing. Minutes passed before I could read his single entry. I swallowed a mouthful of cold coffee and winced. I’d lost of track of time, busy with things that didn’t seem so important now. I’d promised I’d stay in contact. Send photos of the completed renovations. But it was too late. I’d let him down. Let the house down somehow.

The following day I cut Frank’s notice from the paper and carried it to the front lounge. A room where Frank and his father are in all the details. The stippled wall-plaster; the bevelled mirror above the fireplace – its slight arch following the Art Deco lines of the wooden trim beneath it; floorboards that have creaked under the weight of generations; and the vase, proudly celebrating the unassuming bits and pieces that have helped make this house a home.

I tucked Frank’s clipping under the old doorbell, thinking of the many fingers that have pressed it over the years. John’s. Frank’s. Mine. And all the others in-between. This was once someone’s forever home; the rest of us are just custodians. Lucky to live here. Destined to pass it on.


Author: Marie McLean

Marie’s primary school teachers spotted her knack for creative writing early, often commenting in their reports: ‘Marie has a flair for story writing and an imaginative mind. Very mature in setting down sentences.’ They also wrote: ‘Periods of silly behaviour, however, tend to affect her work.’ The silliness never really went away, but Marie wishes she’d done something more constructive with her writing talent. She believes it’s never too late and is giving it a red-hot go now. She receives a lot of support from Karrinyup Writers’ Club, and lives in Perth with her husband and two teenagers.


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