I grew up in the same house in the same street where my dad grew up. Our beautiful little street was lined with well-mown lawns and a giant Oak tree outside every second house. We knew they were planted in the early 1930s because Ina moved in to her house in 1935 and she said the City Council put little saplings in during that same year.
Climbing these trees took great skill for my 7 year old self as the lowest limbs were out of our reach at 6 or 7 feet from the ground. My brother’s dragster was the biggest bike in the street and we positioned it up against the tallest tree so that it became our ladder. When standing on the bike seat, our arms stretched up so that we could hug the lowest limb. A quick kick off the bike seat and swing of the hips brought one leg up over the limb we were holding. The inside of our forearms and thighs always had lines of scabs and scratches from heaving ourselves up and over the first branch like that. There was always an unspoken hierarchy of climbing the tree. First my brother, and the other older boys – who showed off by going right up the top; then the girls; and finally the littlest ones who stayed on the lowest branches.
One at a time we all got up the tree. There were lots of branches to wander about and sit on and we could go as high as thirty feet high. There was plenty of room for all eight of us and the only sign that we were up the tree was the lone dragster propped up against it, down below. Besides escaping from the grown-ups, the tree was also a good vantage point for watching them, and there was normally plenty to see.
We spied on Fred, who lived in a red brick house with a red brick fence and was visited by young, big busted, sexy looking ladies in very, very short dresses and platform shoes. We whispered our secret chant, ‘Shave your head… Just like Fred!’ Fred was an unfriendly man with a mysterious lifestyle, so all we got to know was that he lived alone, he was old and bald.
Fred died when I was ten years old. The adults in the street were gathered around the ambulance, speculating on the fact that he had died on the couch while entertaining one of his lady visitors. Hmmm, we didn’t even notice he had a visitor! Then the ambulance officers asked our parents to take the kids inside while they brought the body out to the ambulance. George and his little brother lived next door to Fred and saw what the mystery was all about from their sunroom window. He reported that the lady was either a spy or a murderer, because she was handcuffed to Fred’s dead body and had to get into the ambulance with Fred. We all thought the ambulance officers were really clever to detain the murderer by handcuffing her to the body. Mum gave us the true version of events when we were old enough to understand.
Perched high up in our trees, we could also see over Otto’s high fence, which was further along and opposite to Fred’s house. Otto was the only neighbour with a bitter disposition, so he was the only other neighbour we knew absolutely nothing about. We sat up our tree, looking over his very high fence – but never caught sight of any of the cricket balls or footies we’d lost to his high security. He was a self-confessed child hater, who lived alone in a house we could hardly catch a glimpse of behind his very tall, black fence. Otto discouraged us from playing anywhere near his place by denying knowledge of any of our balls landing in his yard. It took us too many years to figure out not to kick the footy near Otto’s house.
Our favourite tree was near the corner of the street, outside the house of an ancient lady we called Queenie. She also lived alone and she never, ever had visitors. She wasn’t bitter but she was sad, lonely, and usually drunk. We watched, captivated, as she wandered around her front yard in all sorts of dress – and undress. Years went by and I doubt I ever saw her sober.
Queenie was on her worst behaviour on hot summer evenings. After drinking all day, she stood at her broken down picket fence wearing her summer nightie, calling obscenities to get the attention of who ever happened to be passing by. She even shouted when there was nobody about. We children were impressed by her vocabulary of swear words and curious to see her ‘vulgar ways’, as my nana called them.
Queenie didn’t often see our gang lurking in the bushes, but her hearing was perfect. It didn’t take long for one of the younger kids to giggle and Queenie fell silent, moving her head from side to side like radar, trying to pick up the slightest sound of a stray child. The young kids ran home, screaming (she was in their nightmares). We older children didn’t want to be scaredy cats, so we stayed hidden for as long as she stayed inside her front fence. Once she staggered out through her front gate we scattered and met up outside my house – which was the furtherest away from Queenie’s house. None of us ever wanted to find out what Queenie would do with a child once she had caught one, but one awful day I was the poor child who found out.
One afternoon I was alone, up the tree out front of Queenie’s place, talking to Janine on the walkie-talkie set. Janine was up the tree across the road, outside her own house. She sent me a whispered warning, “CQ CQ I’ve eyeballed Queenie, front garden.” I knew I’d be safe if I kept quiet, but my brother’s bike at the base of my tree was a dead give-away. I was a goner, and had no choice but to sit tight. I moved to behind the thick, upright, central limb.
Queenie began to water her garden, and then she watered her lawn. This was taking forever and I became bored, so relaxed back into the cradling branches of my familiar tree. The water began to sound really nice. The strong sunlight shone around the leaves of my tree, giving each one a bright halo and illuminating the leaf’s thick veins. My eyes were getting sunburnt, so I closed them.
Janine’s voice broke the beautiful serenity with a frantic scream over the walkie-talkie: “CQ Shit. Susan! Look out! She’s gunna get you!”
I jumped so hard that my walkie-talkie went crashing down to the grass below. I stood stiffly on the big branch, hugging the main central branch and looked down in time to see a powerful stream of water coming at my face from the firmly adjusted nozzle of Queenie’s hose. The most terrified sound came lurching from my lungs, which turned out to be a scream for Mum.
Most of the oldies in our street rushed from their homes and stood at their gates, looking in the direction of my screaming and saw Queenie. Then they looked toward my place – for a sign of mum. Panicked, Janine stood in the middle of the road, not knowing where to go or what to do. My screaming continued until I saw Mum striding up the footpath, she heard my screams but couldn’t see where I was. She saw Janine pointing up the tree.
Queenie stood with her feet shoulder-width apart, bellowing out her usual obscenities while trying to shoot me down from the tree with the blast of water. My wet hands got slippery, and I thought I was a goner until I heard Mum shouting something as she rushed towards Queenie. Mum stood on the footpath beside the tree, obviously angry, and said, “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”
The water cannon was suddenly directed to the footpath just in front of Mum, and it splashed Mum’s orange slacks. Swear words flowed from Queenie’s mouth as freely as the water flowed from her hose.
Mimicking Queenie’s stance, Mum also stood with her feet apart and hands on her hips and I thought she looked like Superman. Mum stood in silence, probably summing up what to do. I stood up in the tree, hugging the limb, thinking about how fantastic Mum looked down there however, neither Queenie nor Mum seemed to know what to do next.
Mum then stepped forward into the flow, and water pounded onto her feet quite hard. Unfazed, Queenie moved the hose up, so it was hitting mum’s thighs. Mum stepped forward again. Queenie directed the hose up again, this time squirting mum in the guts.
Queenie was standing right at the bottom of my tree, using the handlebars of my brother’s bike to steady herself. I had climbed up as high as I could go, with no plans of coming down just yet. The neighbours seemed quite entertained by this unique standoff and watched our scene in anticipation.
Janine crept through Queenie’s front fence and turned off the tap and sprinted her way clear of Queenie’s front yard and across the street again in no time, standing safely next to some of our audience.
Mum took advantage of Queenie’s stunned silence and wagged her finger and cursed at the poor old woman while I climbed down from the tree. We turned for home when Queenie staggered back towards her tap, threatening to give us our just desserts. Poor Queenie never knew when to call it quits.
Mum was dripping wet and shaking. So was I. Our place was only eight houses away, but this short walk felt very long. Our audience complimented us on our bravery, and a job well done as we took the walk back home.
I felt glad to have such a heroic friend in Janine and a champion Supermum.