In a street of warm sunshine and thundering semi-trailers carrying smelly sheep, is a house numbered twenty one. It has a little rose garden, a red iron roof and a bull-nose verandah, which blends easily into its neighbourhood of well kept sandstone cottages, well-cut lawns, chimneys and quaint window trimmings. Everything in this town is lovingly chiseled, manicured and moulded. Even the bridges—except for one lonely foot-bridge strung across a weir—look so solid they might have grown out of bedrock. In this very Australian place, Europe has asserted its loving self upon all things earthy, stone and painted: Germanic Europe that is.
Inside the house: a parrot whistles and talks incessantly on the back verandah; a phone rings frequently but no one seems in a hurry to answer it; a young male voice sings, and others laugh or tell a joke; a back screen door squeaks open and a visitor with a Wessex accent joins in on the laughter and then begins to speak in that quiet and steady tell-tale streaming chatter of gossip. Then the voice suddenly goes quiet and changes to concerned and kind.
A man resting in a bedroom near the back door has a sudden urge to try to overhear what is being said and then laughs at himself. Then in quick succession, the visitor leaves, the singer ceases and footsteps are heard walking about in the kitchen, which is close to the man’s bedroom. A tap runs, there’s a dull clunk of metal on ceramic, and since it is late in the day, the man concludes that this is the one rostered on to cook dinner.
The man adjusts the position of a heat bag underneath his back, pushes a pillow up behind his neck and lifts the screen of his note book computer. He tries to write, but his imagination is somewhere else. He recalls countless other moments like this, year-in and year-out, when he was welcomed into the life of this house with it’s young men and young women in this very neighbourhood. All of them launching out on a spiritual trek, which CS Lewis describes as ‘attempting to rip open an inconsolable secret that hurts so much we then take revenge on it by calling it names like nostalgia, romanticism, and adolescence’. Some of that pain, mixed with joy, is already apparent here, but the cynicism-that-wants-revenge, not yet. Normally that is reserved for middle-age.
His reverie is interrupted by a knock at his door and then the face of young woman telling him that dinner is ready. He climbs carefully down off the bed and walks to the dining room where an immaculately prepared baked dinner awaits. Everyone wants to know how his back is going. Grace is said and then they eat, quietly and thoughtfully at first and then the one who laughs starts the others off and they forget their troubles.
Over the next seven days he attempts to listen and to live inside their worlds as closely as he can, for he is—as he tells them—’supposed to be of some use’. And they are pleased that he has come, for, they admit to him, that they have heard it said on the grapevine that not much is expected of them. In fact, that mostly trouble is expected and they are the horse with the long odds in some race to impress God.
As the days, long conversations and moments of out-poured hearts, pass, he notices that they talk glowingly of one particular middle-aged business lady who owns a coffee shop just around the corner. And one afternoon he is taken there for coffee. A young and feisty one from the house works behind the counter and is soon joined by another (who does not work there) but who can’t resist getting behind this counter which they feel is ‘theirs’. The man wonders what the boss would say, but is quite sure she would laugh and love it, for the music in the pretty house and in this shop have met.
He feels so at home, he might be sitting in someone’s lounge room in this rare breed of shop, which doesn’t seem like a shop at all. Hand-knitted woollen rugs hang overhead on cross beams of solid timber and customers sit at tables made of slabs of wood. And everything so close that it’s impossible not to literally bump into other human beings—to hear their voices, to smile and to touch and be touched. A film director might concoct such a lovely place for a scene in a movie.
He now understands why his friends feel such an affinity with the lady and her shop. That inconsolable secret longing lives here and will not be made to feel ashamed. His young friends are not the only ones who sense that this town is more than just a pretty place with good coffee. It is as the song says …
Later that night, as the man curls up under warm blankets in his bed, he—the one who has come to help—feels proud of this little household of ‘lovers of their neighbours’ who are struggling with their own human frailty, and he knows that he himself has been deeply blessed by each one of them and their friends and wants to be a better man tomorrow.