I grew up in a speculation house.
The first time I saw the house, with its upper-storey windows looking out of fresh yellow bricks, it was teeming with strangers. Open house, my mother told me. This was what some called a display home, a place that builders constructed solely for the purpose of showing off to prospective clients. People looking to build a home of their own could push through the heavy jarrah door, walk along the polished marble floors, feel the thrill of the grand entrance that could one day be theirs (but nearer the beach, and in burnt sienna). Nobody lived in these model houses; they were aspirational only. I peered through the panelled glass doors that led to a dining room. A table with six high-backed chairs, set for no one. I shivered. Like the Marie Celeste, in one of my ‘unexplained phenomena’ books, I thought. Drifting empty in a drab sea.
The second time I saw the house we were moving into it.
It was set high in the northern coastal suburbs of Perth. The neighbourhood, Hillarys, had been a suburb for less than twenty years; before that, I don’t know. I read that it was named after a World War I vet who set up a shack on the beach and never left. The nearby main road, Marmion Avenue, stopped not far north of us. Just stopped and turned into sand. Most of the surrounding real estate was empty lots, waiting for owners to choose a blueprint and build. Flat, viridian squares, the white sand tinged green by weed killer. This was what our new home had been only a year before we moved in. Our builder set up his speculation house and then quickly sold it. They didn’t normally do that. His wife and he had even left the curtains and some furniture behind.
The day we moved into the Hillarys house, it had a sterile echo. The local kids told my brother and I that our new home was haunted. We believed them because, while we lay in our just-unpacked beds at night, the house would wuther. Perth’s wind roared constantly against the windows, and doors slammed shut in the middle of the night. The bedrooms were too large and the magnificent living room ate up our voices. Ours was the first house on this block of land, so our ghosts were unfamiliar; their voices were faint screams from people who had first walked the sand dunes.
The heart of the building was the living room with its two-storey-high ceiling and exposed-brick feature wall. An interior window into the mezzanine level—my parents’ upstairs sitting area and bedroom—made me feel always watched. I began to jump at nothing. Mum was puzzled by my brother and I both bypassing the main downstairs bedroom, with its ensuite bathroom, to instead claim the second and third bedrooms further down the hall as our own. Yet by some youthful instinct we shied away from the sombre room and it became storage for boxes and unused gym equipment. It had an unexpected second door, made of the same blood-red timber as the rest of the fittings, that opened into a dark corridor adjoining the labyrinthine entrance hall. If you can’t picture this, it’s because it’s ridiculous. I could never pass that corridor without walking a little quicker.
My brother and I had chosen bedrooms next to each other, with only a wall separating us, on the opposite end of the house to where our parents slept. In Cairns, our hometown, the family’s bedrooms had been clustered together in one wing of the house. Now, my brother and I clung to each other in this strange place, tapping Morse comforts through our shared concrete wall.
Venetian-style furnishings had characterised the display decoration, and left imprints everywhere: floor-length white lace curtains on the windows, an enormous ornate mirror over the staircase, moulded ceiling medallions encircling each light fixture. It was classic ’80s European-Australian architecture. My family, however, was classic ’90s American-Australian, in matching Red Dirt t-shirts. So the formal dining room quickly became the TV room, and the ‘powder room’ off the main entrance hall was just ‘the other toilet’. The formal office stayed the formal office, but it was also the room where my mum would curl up on the teal-coloured carpet, leaning against a Balinese cabinet, making long international calls to her sister in California.
We had arrived straight out of a cosy Cairns winter to Perth in the middle of record-breaking storms. I resented everything about it. First of all, the rain was cold. A brisk ocean wind plowed across our suburb at all times. We knew no one, and local kids flinched at my mixed-up accent. They called me dibber-dobber and sneered because I didn’t understand. The sky was a thick, impenetrable grey, except when it was a blank, unknowable blue. We read a Tim Winton novel at school called That Eye, The Sky, and I understood the title, and I hated it. The fruit bats and goannas and green tree frogs that had been my friends were gone, and Hillarys seemed absent of life. The only sign of birdlife was the yowls of ravens, and the occasional high scream of a black cockatoo, flying over us to some other destination.
Then, spring came, and the pool went in.
We watched the Bobcat bite into our back lawn, sinking further and further into cold shadow. My brother and I took turns running into the pit while the excavator unloaded at the skip, giggling, shrieking and racing out to safety when we heard it returning on its caterpillar treads. During these fleeting visits to the dig site, I noticed the walls of the pit were stratified. As the pit sank deeper, under a foot or two of rich, dark soil, it revealed that the earth was entirely pure white sand. I touched it, reverent: the packed sand was damp and chilled, cold like the storm-whipped waters we saw from our balcony.
While the Bobcat drove its shovel into the earth, I ran over to the skip to examine the cast-offs. Raised on tiptoe to see over the metal sides, I got a shock. Glaucous fingers emerged from the white granular mounds, from the deepest reaches of the pit. The earth wasn’t just pure sand: these were the corpses of coastal bushes. My stomach turned a little. They were whole, leaves and roots and all, pale from their burial. Our home wasn’t so much built into the land, as over it. Imported earth poured over and packed down, smoothed out for our brick mini mansion to go on top. I pulled my parents over to show them, and tried to articulate the growing fears in my mind. “Who lived here before? What was here before?” They only told me that we needed the dark topsoil so we could grow a garden, to grow daisies and snow peas and coral honeysuckle. Then they returned to watch the pool deepen, while I stared at the dead, upended roots as they grasped for the sky, the cold wind buffeting me.
Nothing grows in sand.