Tell tale signs

A chance encounter on a suburban street leads to reflection about how things change – and what gets left behind.

She grew up in a lolly-shop near the train station. She used to run with the harriers. She almost drowned at the local beach.

We are standing on a footpath next to a dusty demolition site where an old pub is being – you could say – reconfigured. I am wondering what will happen to the red-brick wall and the blue, white and yellow sign – painted onto the bricks – that reads ‘Jones & Moriarty, Lucas Powerstream Batteries’.

I’ve been taking photographs of such walls, recording the past in a new hobby that has spawned photos of old signs on the walls of milk bars, corner shops, butchers, cafes, chemists, takeaways, hairdressers, city laneways, service stations, engineering businesses, hotels.

She was simply passing by, a walking-frame steadying her, a small dog beside her. “They’re knocking down the old butcher’s shop,” she said, opening a conversation.

Only minutes before, when looking closely at the Jones & Moriarty sign, I had seen the faint black print below the blue, yellow and white paint: ‘Quality Butcher, phone W’n 125’.

I’d taken photos of the wall a few months earlier. I’d visited the sign since, in anticipation of the wreckers. But only now did I see that before the two auto-electricians – one with a very common name, one with a very distinctive name – there had been a butcher just behind the hotel. A ‘quality’ butcher at that.

“The Bristol used to be very popular,” the woman said, referring to the pub. “Much more than the other one,” she adds, looking toward The Rifle Range Hotel on a corner on the far side of the railway line. That pub had found new custom over the past decade or so, through gambling and gaming and dining and satellite TV. The Bristol, grey and plain, had stood still.

“I grew up in the lolly-shop,” the woman volunteered. She describes another corner of the five-road intersection. I had only known the site as a newsagency, a yard for second-hand building materials (with impressive green and cream signage), a playground for vandals, and now a fenced-off cleared block of land.

She turns to the south side of the four-lane road. “Up there – the hairdressers? That was the undertakers. And further up was the Wesley Church.” She is warming to the past now. I’ve hardly asked a question. The bulldozers have gone quiet, the workers in their orange vests standing in the dust. Jones & Moriarty and the butcher are safe for the time being.

I’m thinking of the young women at the hairdressers; wondering what they would make of working in the undertakers’ rooms. Some people make you pretty for day-to-day life. Some people make you presentable for the next life.

I’m thinking of nearby sweets shops: the quiet, neat man in the crowded tidy shop opposite the 24-hour supermarket, and the cheerful woman in the large shop opposite the new housing estate. One day, when their shop signs are faded, someone may take a photograph or two.

“Eighty-six years old,” my companion on the footpath tells me. A fact rather than a boast. “I loved to run.” Long distance? I ask. “No, a sprinter with the local harriers club. We ran around the football oval; used to be a track there. I’d run everywhere – to school, to church, home to the lolly-shop.”

I ask her about the beach, my favourite part of the suburb. “Nearly drowned there when I was a girl,” she replies. “I was bobbing up and down. My two brothers thought I was joking. Finally one of their mates saved me.”

The bulldozers are still quiet. Maybe the blokes in the orange vests have knocked off for the day. “My father tried to teach me to swim, once. ‘Stick to running,’ he said.”

Her father would have known this suburb in its horse-and-cart days, its gaslight days, its busy shipbuilding days. Maybe he worked on the docks before he ran the lolly-shop. I ask the woman about the little I know of the area’s history.

Yes, she says, there was a greengrocer up the road, and a racecourse near the refinery, and an abattoir near the cemetery.  “I worked at the abattoirs for a while,” she says, without elaborating.

The racecourse, I had read, was very popular 70 years ago. Now all that’s left is a pile of grandstand rubble beside a walking track and a sculpture that was vandalised shortly after being erected.

We are just two strangers chatting on the footpath, one joining the dots of a past the other will never know. It’s as if the woman is picking up pieces of a jigsaw and showing them to me. But the old shop across the road has got her stumped. It’s now a home, sandwiched between Federation renovations. She can’t recall what used to be there.

On the west wall of the building you can almost make out the faded letters that spell – at a guess – ‘dry cleaners’. I’d taken photos of it the same afternoon I’d taken the first pictures of the Jones & Moriarty wall. Soon this new hobby took hold of me. I started by photographing walls in my own suburb and then branched out – to other suburbs, the city, wherever I happened to be. In the inner west a wall celebrates the joys of smoking: ‘Temple Bar Tobacco, Mild & Mellow’. A wall of a nearby chemist reveals three generations of owners. In a country town a wall still advertises ‘Dr Morse’s Liver Pills’.

And here, across the road from Jones & Moriarty, was what might have been a dry-cleaning business. But before that? When the woman with the walking frame was a little girl, running everywhere? Neither of us know.

I’d like to ask her more about her life – Has she lived here all those 86 years? – but we are still strangers.

She is not so shy. “And what are you doing here?” she asks, directly but not rudely. I tell her I’m curious to see what will happen to the Bristol site.

Apartments replaced the woman’s childhood Wesley church. And, she adds, there are more apartments in her one-way street, just a stone’s throw from where we are chatting. I consider asking her to be in a photo, with the faded butcher sign behind her, but I don’t want to explain my hobby. Besides, I feel I would be intruding.

We part ways simply and easily: I head west on my bike; she  heads east, the walking trolley in front of her, the little leashed dog beside her.

A week later, more of the Bristol Hotel has been knocked down. The wall advertising Jones & Moriarty and the quality butcher is now a pile of bricks on the ground, a jigsaw that will never be put back together again.

I take some photographs, then find the woman’s street. A well-preserved weatherboard home has a walking trolley on the veranda and a pet-flap in the front door. The home is one of several such houses in the narrow street, most facing the road at a 30-degree angle. Opposite are the new apartments, tall and tucked in together. It’s as if there is a border down the middle of the road.

I imagine the woman in her lounge room, the little dog at her old feet. Maybe some family pictures on a mantelpiece. Perhaps some trophies from her running days. Signs of the past.

I head home, thinking of the racecourse and the abattoir, the cemetery and the church, the undertaker and the quality butcher (‘Phone W’n 125’). And I think of a girl running everywhere, up and down the streets and around the corners of this suburb, running for the joy of life, running home to the lolly-shop.

This story was first published in The Big Issue in February 2010.

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