Named by my grandfather for his wife and daughter, Shirlyn may have been a vast, white colonial edifice, but it was also a much loved family home.
With covered verandahs stretching the length of the house, a car porch extended the upstairs verandah, providing us with the perfect location to sit out on cool, dry evenings. There, during family visits, we’d chat or listen to the BBC world service, while my grandfather got to smoke his pipe in peace.
The main body of the house was split into three. The rooms on the outer edges were cavernously long, while the middle ones were square and positively homely in comparison. I say in comparison, as each comfortably housed four large sofas, giving my sister and I every opportunity to bicker over who could sit where.
Downstairs provided the perfect base for entertaining – a favourite pastime of my grandparents. That middle room held not only those four sofas, but a magnificent sideboard for turntable and speakers, coupled with a gorgeous dark wood sprung dance floor. Absolutely perfect for a time when having the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep in your repetoire was commonplace; of course my sister and I preferred to experience the spring as we jumped on and off the sofas while playing badminton.
One cavernous room contained a vast dining table, the other my grandfather’s bar. The bar had been made in rattan and dark red leather, and held every drink you could possibly imagine – and then a few more. Six or eight matching bar stools ranged in front of the bar, where family lore places my mother drinking Martinis on her 21st birthday, two days before my birth. This was my grandfather’s domain, where relaxed entertaining took place, where he could wear a bush shirt, and mix drinks as he chatted and laughed with his guests.
My grandmother favoured the formal dinner party, although the size of their dining table and her preferred grand style, meant these were more akin to banquets. Off the kitchen was a locked storeroom, bursting at the seams with wooden packing chests. Inside those chests was the most extraordinary array of crockery, silver and glassware, everything painstakingly packed away in straw between uses. During each family stay, my grandmother would arrange a storeroom visit, imperiously instructing staff to unpack different items for our careful and awed inspection. As a child I remember most the sparkle – everything from from the gilding on the dinner service, the buffed and polished silverware, to the carved facets of the crystal glasses. With age and the passage of time, grand dinning happened only rarely, and I came to realise that my grandmother loved her beautiful things and needed an appreciative audience for them.
The kitchen was the domain of Cookie – a one-legged master chef. He ruled the staff with a rod of iron, yet was patient with my mother despite the hours she spent by his side, painstakingly transcribing recipes. Those hand-written recipes were scribbled over and much amended, for Cookie wasn’t traditionally trained. A pinch of this and a handful of that was easy enough to translate, but his method of indicating measures using the knuckles on his fingers caused my mother many a headache.
Shirlyn provided the perfect venue for the reception when my parents married. The long staircase with its intricately carved dark wooden balusters was the ideal backdrop for those traditional shots of father and bride. The long verandahs proved a wonderful venue for photographs of the wedding party, and the car porch the perfect place for their wedding gift – a small black car tied with a large white bow. Yellowing pages found decades later in an old leather suitcase contained local press reports of the grand event.
It was a different time. It was a very different life.
© Debra Carey, 2019