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Historical Fiction Contemporary

A House for Our Time—Part One

It had rained for days. Their mother had forbidden the boys from sliding down the bank on Carew Street to hurl sticks in the swift-flowing brook.

“It’s too dangerous,” she said.

Fraser and Richard itched to disobey. Oh, the fun they could have. They’d throw sticks from the bridge, dash to the opposite side, and watch them emerge from under the girders in the swollen torrent. They’d bound up the track beside the brook to follow the sticks to discern their fate. Would they lodge in debris or find their way to the sea?

“But Mum,” they said.

“The answer is NO,” Catherine Butterfield said. “The current has probably swept the bridge away, and the path beside the brook will surely be under water. You can stay home until the rain has eased, and the water subsided.”

Perhaps Mother was right.

While the rain persisted, the boys lay on their beds reading their Queensland school readers.

Richard’s room was next to his parent’s bedroom and Fraser’s was where the front veranda had been. Their father, Henry, had boarded up the porch the previous year. The top of the entry stairs had become the front entrance and their mother left the proper front door ajar to catch the breezes when Fraser opened his louvres, which he almost always did.

Henry Butterfield had built the house in 1916. Back then it comprised the two bedrooms on the right through the front door from the spacious veranda. A sitting room lay to the left. Continuing ahead, through one of two entry doors crowned by an ornate leadlight window, a large room provided ample space for a dining table and the bathtub, when Henry brought it upstairs once or twice a week. Sunlight poured through four sets of arctic glass casement windows. A kitchen to the left was diagonally opposite a door on the far wall which led to the side veranda.

Catherine loved the house. She was proud of her husband’s work. Not only was the building sturdy and functional, but it boasted hand-carved filigree woodwork above most doorways and attractive joinery framed the front and side verandas (though Henry had removed some decoration while Fraser occupied the front veranda as a bedroom). Henry attached window hoods above the casements to protect the rooms within from the harsh sun. This was a Queenslander, built high on stumps to take advantage of the evening breezes.

Catherine cooked on a coal range in the kitchen. To the right of the range, a stable door revealed a small back porch with stairs that led to the washhouse below the main house. Two concrete tubs and a mangle provided Catherine’s laundry needs. Various tools and a large bathtub hung on hooks next to a push mower.

Henry named the dwelling Passchendaele after a battle he’d known. The house was a veritable luxury for a working man and his family in those early years. Now it was 1933, and the family was soon to grow by one.

It was fortuitous that Fraser and Richard were home that rainy day because their pregnant mother was feeling poorly by late afternoon.

Fraser stayed with his mother while Richard ran all the way from Carew Street to the Nundah Private Hospital on Sandgate Road.

This beautiful new facility was owned by three nurses, Misses Barclay, Bourne, and Bell.

“Yes, we can take her,” Miss Barclay told Richard. “There is accommodation for thirty on the ground floor and there are only eight patients in residence right now,” she added.

The progressive nurses had commissioned the building of a modern operating theatre with an anaesthetic room adjacent. The obstetric unit and nursery were next to a sterilising room down the hall. The nurses and their capable staff would care well for Catherine here.

And so, it was that a darling little girl was born to the Butterfield’s in the winter of 1933. They called her June.

June was a quiet and contented baby. 

“C’mon, Richard,” Fraser said to his brother one Saturday afternoon when conditions at the brook were ideal for fishing. Before casting their lines, they threw sticks from the bridge and rushed to the other side to watch their emergence from under the girders. But the water merely bubbled along over the rocky brook bed.

“Not much fun when it’s not flooded,” said Richard.

Henry and Catherine felt blessed. They had three beautiful children, Henry had regular work, despite the Depression, and together they tended an abundant vegetable garden out the back.

“Don’t dig too deeply, boys,” Henry joked. “The old coal mine shafts run under our yard.”

“I’m worried about June, Henry. She isn’t interested in anything I show her,” Catherine confided to her husband when June was about twelve months old.

“Maybe she’s different because she’s a girl,” offered Henry.

Catherine consulted a doctor but left his surgery angry and dejected. He was blaming her for June being unsettled.

“Mrs Butterfield, stop worrying about your child banging her head on the floorboards. She’s got a hard skull. Give her more attention and she won’t feel the need to harm herself and scream for hours,” the doctor said.

Catherine felt June was nowhere near ready for school when the time came. Her pretty face with faraway eyes melted her mother’s heart, and golden unruly curls framed the distant gaze. Catherine loved her daughter so much. But she couldn’t engage her child, and the little girl didn’t speak.

The screaming tantrums could persist for hours. Catherine ran herself ragged, trying to maintain a harmonious home. The boys expressed their distress by simply disappearing.

“Don’t go near the mine shaft, boys, and be careful if you’re going to fish from the bank,” Catherine called as they disappeared up Carew Street. June cried on.

‘How can such a sweet, precious child cause such heartache?’, Catherine thought as she lay down to rest in silent tears.

It transpired that June didn’t attend school at all. In fact, she couldn’t be left alone either. At seven, she presented with epilepsy, and the doctor finally concluded something was amiss. He advised Catherine to put her in a ‘Home’.

“I can’t do that,” Catherine bit back. “She’s my child. I love her as I love life itself. I refuse to give up on her. Teach me how to manage the fits and I’ll keep her at home with me.”

“You’re making a rod for your back, Mrs Butterfield. You have other children to care for and you’re still a young woman. You could yet produce more children,” the doctor said. “I’ll have a place organised for her by Thursday morning and you’d do well to take my advice.”

“Oh, Henry, I feel sick. How can we give our beautiful child away? This is breaking my heart.”

“I know, love. But we can take comfort in knowing she won’t be very far away. You’ll be able to walk there when I’m at work, if you want to. And we can both visit on the weekends,” said Henry.

But visiting June proved much more problematic than anyone had expected.

“We don’t know why she screams when you come, Mrs Butterfield. She’s usually quite agreeable. She has settled well into our way of life. I think she finds routine comforting. The convulsions knock her about, though. She can sleep for a day and night after a fit,” said the nurse.

Over time, Henry and Catherine simply had to stay away. The Home had a telephone and Catherine could go down to the phone box outside the corner shop and ring to see how June was. The answer was always the same.

“No appreciable change in your daughter’s condition, Mrs Butterfield. She’s still defective.”

A cloud of sadness fell upon the lovely Queenslander on Carew Street. It wasn’t until Fraser joined a city choir that Catherine’s mood picked up. Hearing him sing around the house brought her joy.

The boys matured and settled into stable employment, and Catherine could set the clock by Henry’s return home from work each day.

“Lovely tea, Cath, my girl,” he’d say. Whatever Catherine had prepared for dinner was always lovely to Henry.

When June was sixteen, the superintendent of the Home knocked on the Butterfield’s door.

“I regret to have to tell you that June passed away this morning after a prolonged fit,” he said.

Catherine fell to the sofa and wept inconsolably. With a heavy heart, Henry arranged a funeral. After a brief service in the chapel at Tufnell, the Butterfield’s buried June in Nundah Historical Cemetery.

In time, Carew became an affluent and pretty suburban street, with Queenslanders and busy families all along the road. There had been talk of reopening the coal mine beside the brook, but that meant new infrastructure at great expense - a railway line, for example. City officials announced the discovery of a new clean coal seam at Bundamba, further west, so the Kedron Brook mine remained closed.

Fraser and Richard married and brought their children to Passchendaele to the delight of the doting grandparents. When Henry and Catherine died, Fraser bought Richard’s share of the house and remained in the home until 1993. By then, the quarter-acre section with its magnificent gardens had become too much for Fraser and his wife. They put the house on the market.

Part Two

When Trudy Peterson walked into Passchendaele in 1993, she fell in love.

“This is the one,” she whispered to her husband, Christian, as they descended the back steps to look at the downstairs rooms Fraser had added in the 1970s.

“Can we afford it?”

“We can if we tighten our belts,” Christian told his wife.

Fraser, the vendor, had commissioned a builder to erect an inside laundry, a bathroom, and a large rumpus room in the space beneath the house. A tool shed with its own entrance from the carport on the western side of the dwelling ran the entire width of the house. Upstairs a bathroom and toilet with a bedroom on either side swallowed up the side veranda, with all rooms accessible by an ‘L’ shaped passage entered through a doorway crowned by hand-carved filigree woodwork.

Christian and Trudy Peterson paid $231,000 for the beautiful seventy-seven-year-old house. They moved in on December 23rd 1993, a month before daughter Matilda turned four.

“May I take the Passchendaele name plaque?” Fraser asked.

“Of course, you can,” answered the Petersons.

Christian ordered a new name plaque. It read ‘Butterfield’. Then the Petersons asked the Butterfields to tea. Old Fraser Butterfield ascended the stairs, saw the plaque, and his eyes welled with tears.

The morning tea signalled a farewell for the Butterfields and a new beginning for the Petersons.

In their previous home, the Petersons had sought a diagnosis for their younger child’s challenges. In Butterfield, they delayed unpacking anything other than necessities while they continued their quest.

“I think it’s Autism, but at twenty months he’s too young for me to be conclusive. Bring him back at thirty months and I’ll test him again,” the psychologist had said.

Trudy felt that was too long to wait. She determined to find ways to attract the child’s attention and to engage with him in whatever way he felt comfortable.

Trudy stayed at home to give her two offspring the attention they required. Both children presented with epilepsy and secondary neurological conditions.

Christian worked long hours. He provided support via the telephone and by rushing to the hospital when needed.

Having holidays was a logistical nightmare, so the family stayed home. Routine was paramount to give everyone a harmonious existence. Even taking the children for walks was difficult because each was an absconder and there was only one Trudy.

When the children were older and could better understand the danger, Christian and Trudy took them down to Kedron Brook to see it in flood. By now there were 62 concrete steps down the steep bank from Carew Street. So gruelling was this staircase, that locals used it for workouts instead of paying for a gym membership.

On this excursion, the Peterson family couldn’t even see the bottom of the stairs. The brook was in fierce flood. The water engulfed the concrete path that took walkers and joggers past the old mine shaft and down towards the coast. It swallowed vegetation partway up the bank and deposited debris in trees.

The council had replaced several bridges over the years. Now there was a steel structure with wooden planks for the walkers’ passage. The quantity of debris deposited by the torrent in the bridge’s steel side rails astonished Trudy. It reminded her of a wall of woven flax.

The Peterson’s fought for placement and support of their children in the local school. Politicians responded, albeit reluctantly, when Trudy quoted in her letters to them, the government’s own valuing policy regarding children with disability. Schools still did not acknowledge that disorders such as Dyslexia, Epilepsy and Tourette’s could affect a child’s ability to learn. Educators often labelled such children as disruptive and difficult. Trudy ardently continued to insist on an education for her children. 

She found solace in volunteering at an opportunity shop where she bought odds and ends of old furniture whose character suited their grand old lady Queenslander. Christian was adept at restoring whatever she bought.

The Peterson’s borrowed on the equity in their home. They hired builders and updated both bathrooms, built a study for Christian and three bedrooms where the tool-shed had stood. Young Jeremy now had a home for his engines.

Upstairs, where the back porch had been, a television room emerged. Downstairs, the original ‘L’ shaped space had become a music room with a hallway that serviced all the rooms including a book room under the TV room. The original carport became a study for Trudy and a bedroom for Matilda.

In the 1970s Fraser had restored the front veranda to its original configuration. He’d enlarged the master bedroom, eliminating the smaller room Richard had used. That left space for an internal staircase which the Petersons added twenty-five years later. This provided a storage room under the stairs, named Harry’s room for the fictional character Harry Potter.

The Petersons also erected a large back veranda with external stairs stopping outside the laundry door, much like the original stairs had taken Catherine to the washhouse. Trudy bought two sets of French doors at a builders’ reclamation yard. They had once served their purpose in the Princess Alexandra Hospital on the south side of town. Now they lead from the Peterson’s veranda to the television and dining rooms.

A friend with a large rubbish heap and an eye for making a dollar sold Trudy a broken leadlight window. She had it restored and built into the dining room wall opposite the front door. Christian replaced a section of corrugated iron roofing on the veranda with corrugated Perspex. As a result, the sun streamed through the Perspex, then through the leadlight window. If you ascended the outside staircase when the front door was open, it was a lovely sight to behold.

Eventually Christian removed the remaining arctic glass casement windows in the dining room and a joiner installed bi-fold doors across the entire wall from the lead light window to the sleeping wing wall. The family could enjoy inside/outside living all year round.

As the children grew, they elected to sleep in downstairs bedrooms, leaving the upstairs rooms for guests.

To build so many rooms underneath an existing structure meant raising the house for the duration of the build.

“After removing the temporary stumps and lowering the upper structure onto the new bottom level, it will take a few months to settle into its permanent place,” said the builder. “Don’t be alarmed if you feel the house wobble from time to time,” he added.

One morning while sitting on the toilet, Trudy felt a substantial jolt.

Oh, my giddy aunt. An earthquake, she thought.

Then she remembered she lived in Queensland, not her native New Zealand, and this had to be a settling jolt the builder had spoken of.

Oh, thank goodness for that. What an undignified way to die; sitting on the dunny, she giggled.

The additional space was a blessing. Everyone’s anxiety diminished, and the children flourished.

Trudy continued frequent blood testing to monitor the children’s anti-epileptic medication at Cadogan House, the former Nundah Private Hospital. And Christian bought a cat who proved a calming influence on everyone.

The children endured debilitating seizures and bullying and rejection from some intolerant people. But they also experienced triumphant highs culminating in the Queensland Certificate of Individual Achievement for Jeremy and a Degree in Nursing for Matilda.

Trudy spent her days helping other autistic families negotiate an often-inequitable education system. She wrote books suggesting strategies to assist autistic children to succeed in school and live a less anxious existence.

The family cat soon proved a useful barometer. Wherever she sat within the home indicated the proximity of inclement weather. The bottom of the internal stairs meant the kitty could smell an imminent storm, half-way up the downstairs passage showed she heard thunder and huddled up in Harry’s Room with the board games, suitcases and Christmas tree meant she was hiding from that nasty old storm as it roared and rained overhead.

It was a happy home, a home of triumph and tragedy as indeed it had been for the Butterfields a century before.

One sunny 2019 morning, when Christian and Matilda were at work and Jeremy was at his community programme, Trudy walked west along Carew Street, down the lethal staircase and onto the steel bridge. She picked up a stick and dropped it over the handrail into the water below. She walked to the other side of the bridge to wait for it to emerge. It didn’t.

It’d be much more fun if the brook was in flood, she thought.

Rhonda Valentine Dixon

March 15, 2021 05:48

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4 comments

Angel {Readsy}
19:32 Apr 09, 2021

Rhonda 's story description is like moonlight ‘turning harsh things to beauty’ makes it well worthy to read , my favourite line is " it was a happy home, a home of triumph" . I wish same for you, may you have all the blessings and joys in your happy home , may your home be a dream house for you ameen.

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01:51 Apr 12, 2021

Thank you for your lovely comments, Bia Jee.

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Johan Rosenblad
05:21 Mar 26, 2021

A very precise and realistic story, an aerial, time-lapse cinematic of the house that makes you feel like an observer, almost a scientist, studying the inhabitants (maybe with special attention to to the view on mental disabilities - but not overly so; it's just a bonus). I love it. (I know that it isn't unique, but it's funny how we both connected to the beginning of our stories in the last sentence, in much the same way. But - then again - maybe everyone did.)

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12:05 Mar 27, 2021

Dear Johan, thank you for your kind words. I think that what we did with our stories, beginning and ending with a certain 'thing' is called a 'framing device'. I wanted to capture the attitudes of the two eras with regard to disability. Whereas in the 1930s parents were advised to put their kids in 'Homes', these days there is valuing language and government legislation but there is still fear around diagnosing children very young. Inexperienced doctors fear reprisals if they are wrong. We have known the Age of Reason is seven years old si...

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