One of the things I have always considered a piece of unmerited luck has been my good fortune to have been born and raised in Sydney’s North End, and more specifically, on Fairview Street in Sydney’s North End. (We North Enders tend to think of The North End in upper case letters; it’s part of The North End psyche).
My parents bought their house on Fairview Street in 1951 after my mother saw it being built in the late 1940s from the window of their apartment on George Street, and quite simply, fell in love with it. I’m not really sure why, since it had no redeeming architectural interest, character, or pedigree, rather like its inhabitants. But the house, mid-block on that part of Fairview between Amelia and Desbarres Streets, had a backyard that abutted the Louisa Gardens, or in neighbourhood vernacular, `The Louisa’ and we grew up with The Louisa as our backdrop, or possibly, `fair view’ – to differentiate it from being a breathtaking view or even pretty decent view. In this case, the name said it all.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, The Louisa was a year-round playground – part jungle, part bayou, part ice rink. Before any development had taken place, before there were swing sets or a tennis court or ball field, there was just an open meadow and body of water, and that water was a place of magic.
In summer it drew children to explore its murky depths. Algae and primeval sludge prevented any clear view of its bottom, so to the fevered imagination of a child, it might contain almost anything – treasure, serpents, old boots! It certainly had minnows, which in child parlance translated to mean ‘free pets’, caught in empty coke bottles and proudly carried home to their eventual doom. And of course, The Louisa had the additional bonus of being a place where we were guaranteed to ‘get polio’ if we ever fell in. Places just don’t get any more irresistible than that to a child.
In winter, The Louisa froze and provided a natural, bumpy ice rink. The “big boys” would clear off sections to play hockey and there was always an area for general skating, or, more accurately, general falling and getting back up – to the accompaniment of catcalls, jeers, and other traditional North End terms of encouragement/abuse. My mother would lace me into skates in our basement and I would totter through the backyard and gate that opened out onto The Louisa, (thus ensuring the dullest skate blades in Christendom) and go down to the pond. It was there that I learned to skate on weekends, and, because it was so close to home, I was even allowed to go down after supper on weekdays and skate in the dark while my mother watched from our kitchen window. It was a time of enchantment for a small girl, safe in the knowledge that I would probably not get polio even though I was in actual physical contact with The Louisa.
In late fall one year, a North End dog imaginatively named Poochie, grabbed a new pink and black striped cap off my head the very first time I wore it. I gave chase but Poochie disappeared in the direction of The Louisa. I searched The Louisa for that cap over the entire winter, but with the depth and frequency of snowfalls during those years of Big Snow, I was never successful in retrieving it.
That spring, however, I came upon a rotting, pinkish thing in the grass and muck that composed The Louisa’s greenery. The thing had been chewed and generally mauled, and I had endured months of admonitions from my mother to `be more careful’ lest roaming packs of dogs snatch still more caps off my unsuspecting noggin, as if I could somehow control such things. But I had beaten the odds, and, more importantly, Poochie, and found my cap.
The years have evaporated and I no longer wear a cap of any stripe, or even live in The North End. But I fondly recall those days at The Louisa, where fun was free and a dog might make a canine comment on your sartorial style in his own doggy way.
D. Chisholm is a freelance North Ender now sadly exiled to Sydney’s Shipyard area where she dreams of the glory of her former homeland.