A mother’s grief, Sydney property porn and peeking behind the facade of a seemingly perfect family. To write Other People’s Houses, Kelli Hawkins drew on her own experiences of tragedy and starting over.
I’ve moved house plenty of times in my forty-eight years. Only a few times as a child, those instances passing me by in the that way moving probably does for most children, that is, without too much drama. Then, at twenty-one, I moved to the UK with my partner — who was to become my husband — backpacking and working in London, then the US. We returned to Australia, then went back to England again. When we finally settled in Australia for good, seventeen years ago, we chose Newcastle for its beaches and proximity to family and the bright lights of Sydney. We moved four more times, until five years ago we bought a place, for the long haul we thought, in the suburbs. A beautiful, big house with a pool. Five bedrooms. Room to grow and entertain and host our extended families.
Then, eighteen months ago, my husband died. I won’t go into details; I can’t. Suffice to say it was cancer. Sudden, brutal, terminal. Traumatic and terrifying and painful and dark.
After his death, it was just me and my two teenagers. Three of us, living in that five-bedroom house. One we’d planned to live in – if not forever, then for a very long time. But now, we found ourselves floating between the rooms. At a time when we wanted nothing more than to be together, to stay close, just the three of us, we had all this space.
The three of us decided to move. The house had played host to some good times, sure, but there were lots of bad times too. My husband’s agony of pills and needles and last moments and pain was all around us. There was too much sadness in the walls. Our beautiful house had been the place we’d lived as a family of four. Now we were three.
Moving was all on me. I mean, as the bossy one in our marriage – the organiser – I’d always been the backbone of any move we’d previously made. But now, it was different. Now, I was in charge of everything. Plus, we had to downsize. The kids and I decided to move to the city, where we could walk to the beach, restaurants and generally live in the moment. An apartment; somewhere smaller. Our big house – thank God – sold quickly. Now it was on.
As is the way when you live for a while in a large house with storage, we had far too much ‘stuff’. A lifelong hoarder, I finally felt ready to give up my precious ‘things’. Not all my things, but so many. My school reports and medals from swimming school, my 80s band fan club memberships and yellowing books I’d kept for thirty years. Mostly, I didn’t care. Things, I’d discovered, were not important. Family was. Having fun was. Being together was.
I didn’t get rid of everything. My children’s paintings and cards and stories written on scraps of paper, they all stayed. As did letters my husband wrote to me when we first started dating. For every ten things I threw away I kept at least one of everything. I kept a whole bookcase filled with books; I’m not a monster. And we still have too many boxes piled to the ceiling of our storage room.
As I walked around the empty rooms of our beautiful big house for the last time, I shed a few tears. Not because we were leaving, but because we were moving on. We were moving on to a place my husband had never seen, that he would never get to see. A place where I would look around and not be able to conjure up a memory of him – over there, pouring me a wine and adding the ice cube I always asked for with a shake of his head. Or over there, chasing the kids down our hallway, all of them shrieking with laughter. I’d never be able to turn to him and say, wow what a view, let’s have a drink on the balcony. Never grin at one of his jokes in the new place or dance to ABBA late at night.
After a nightmare week of screwdrivers and boxes and trucks and aching muscles, we were in. Our little apartment keeps us close. We laugh. We get on each other’s nerves sometimes, sure, but it is perfect for us right now.
So, we’ll stay a while, taking our time to work out what our next steps will be. Knowing that sometimes, moving on is the right thing to do.
Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins, published by HarperCollins Australia, is on sale from March 3 and is our new Book of the Month. Head to booktopia.com.au and enter code HOUSES at checkout to receive 30 per cent off the RRP of $29.99. And tell us what you’re reading at the Sunday Book Club group on Facebook.