It was isolated. It was by itself. It was by definition apart from everything else. It was small, though it wasn’t hidden, you were always sort of aware of it, though it was basically ignored. Yet it wasn’t far away. It was never locked, only latched. It was not off limits but rarely opened. There was nothing unique or special about it and it was known and referred to only by its generic name: The Shed. After all most Australian suburban homes have one; the backyard shed.
This wasn’t one of those fair dinkum sheds. You know the large shiny metallic corrugated brand named structures assembled to a plan on a concrete slab, with endless rivets punched in horizontal and vertical patterns. It wasn’t even the classic weatherboard, now considered too tedious to build in a time hungry world. Sheds that were constructed from recycled timber with a steady strong hand and a practical calculating eye methodically hammering, nail by nail. The only light: four small panes of glass in their neat cross frame, just like my granddads shed.
Now that was a shed. Pop could fix anything there from a broken kid’s trike to nanna’s antique furniture. Every tool ordered by its matching shadow on the long wall. A place for hammers, screwdrivers, chisels, hacksaws and equipment I don’t still know the technical name for to this day. The only item moved about and without a permanent home or shelf, a miner’s helmet. Pop was always fixing something. It was his special space but not a private retreat. Kids were always welcome. He would pause from his current fixated endeavour when we were young and whip us up a quick plaything on his wood turner.
To one side the shed was full of the bits and pieces that Nan threw out. To the other side, the higgledy stack of yet to be completed projects. How dare anyone claim they would never be finished let alone never be started? A venture was a labour of love. It was never about the hours, the days, the months or the years a task took because it wasn’t a chore or toil. It was an enduring epiphany of the value of the ordinary and routine that comes from creating or reinvigorating in a throw away world. Yet a damaged or busted child’s toy never had to wait, usually fixed in a jiffy or at worst the agonising overnight wait that is created by the deficient sense of fleeting time that accompanies childhood. As teenagers with no money we found alternative pursuits in a self absorbed world that didn’t stand still, where there were twenty five hours in a day as resins for fibreglass repairs to surfboards took their time but not ours. Time was for Pop, who repaired, then headed back to his tinkering and just a bit of drinking. What’s a shed without the aging bar fridge and the cool tinnies? The cricket on the radio, a chill beer and long hot summer afternoons, well they seemed just endless across the generational divide.
Anyway, back to the shed at our home. The big dictionary told me long ago: the word shed comes from shade and shadow. Very appropriate, as our shed was a dark place. I can still picture heaps of half and three quarter filled bottles and very odd peculiar shaped containers with homemade labels stating they were herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and super fertilizers. The domain of the previous owner, left by default on a wobbly askew shelf, that always looked like it would collapse, should have rotted or corroded away, but never did. The smell was pungent, harsh on the nostrils, mostly musty damp.
All the corners of this shed were large webs. Arachnids and sheds keep company naturally like a first-rate wine and well matured cheese. Silky barely visible active webs and dust covered cobwebs in a variety of spiral, funnel and tangled orbs. Dad said the shed was probably fibro sheets and that explanation was good enough for a kid. We didn’t know or care about the difference between asbestos sheeting and fiber cement cladding. Time and mates of Pop who died from asbestosis altered our view. When you’re young, adult table talk seems so disconnected from immediate realities and concerns like it’s just got to be fine on Saturday to play cricket then go swimming. Malignant mesothelioma, which sounded like you talking with your mouth full, kept Pop attending funerals for mates who had worked at Wittenoom, an asbestos mine in Western Australia. Geography for kids is their local area, the short cuts and alleys for bikes and where to grab fruit in season that was ripely hanging over back fences. In time, travel would take us to Wittenoom, a town whose name has now been removed from maps and local road signs despite a few people continuing to live there. The connection between unfamiliar names read out from the obituary column of the newspaper, Saturday funerals, missed Test matches and Pop drinking more than usual and the hazardous ghost town of Wittenoom were sparked by the lyrics of Blue Sky Mining by Midnight Oil at a concert. A connection established in unconscious memory through time and then a promise made in a mosh pit that took us to the site of a still lingering human tragedy. Pop coughed up blood in his shed and spent his final months on a respirator in the local hospital.
Our shed was full of stuff or junk or as mum said rubbish. A self enclosed world of discarded paraphernalia that no one had the heart or the plain simple inclination to throw away. It was easier to dump the accoutrements of misspent moments or embarrassing fads, than spend the time or money on a trip to the tip. So boxes of odds and ends piled in, more or less thrown or stuffed in as our lives grew adult and changed their direction.
Both Tim and I moved away from home after University. Time reducing childhood to a collection of distant memories as we both built careers and lives with partners and offspring overseas. Tim became an architect with a New York apartment. Like my spouse, I’m an international teacher, currently working in Dubai. Looking out from multi storey windows neither of us has anything remotely resembling a humble shed, anywhere within reasonable sight.
After mum died we made the binding final journey home and cleaned out the house. The last job and one that was almost forgotten and then not looked forward to, was the shed. As the trailer was backed up to the shed, the contents had already been consigned to the local waste centre even before the door was opened for the very last time.
Funny how you sort of know the contents of a box you don’t want. Well that was the reason why it was tossed in the shed in the first place. Yet you’re drawn in some perverse compelling way to open it, one final time. It’s like the past is actually calling out your name aloud.
“Sarah”, said Tim as he turned to me, “Look, your broken teacher Barbie doll.”
“Yeah”, I replied drolly, “Look, at all this Lego.”
A flare of childhood memories were gently rekindled and time paused, as an intense shaft of sunlight pierced, the dark neglected shed.