This being human is a guesthouse
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness
Comes as an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
— RUMI 13th century Persian poet
If a fortune teller had told me that one day I would own a guesthouse I would have shaken my head in disbelief. Such an event did happen, though, in August 1973 when my husband and I signed the legal papers for ownership of a guesthouse called Poi-Poi in Toowoomba, Queensland. One may ask: what had led us to buy a guesthouse?
We bought the guesthouse because we were desperate and fed up with living in rental accommodation. We had two pre-school children; my husband worked at the then Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (which later became The University of Southern Queensland) as a Lecturer in Psychology. His annual salary was $6,180, with most of it going to the landlord. Our house in 17 Benjamin Street, Mount Lofty was put up for sale shortly after our son was born. Prospective buyers arrived on the doorstep at all times of the day.
Once the house was sold we were immensely relieved. The new owners continued our rental arrangements awhile before increasing the rent. I vowed to escape the rental trap. We had little capital saved and weren’t eligible for the First Home Owners’ Grant. Nonetheless I continued looking for low-cost homes in Toowoomba.
Midyear 1973, a guesthouse named Poi-Poi was advertised in the ‘For Sale’ pages of the Toowoomba Chronicle. Such is life: a serendipitous glance at a local newspaper provided us with a window of opportunity to improve our lives. Prior to contacting the owner we took a peep at the house. It was a late nineteenth century weatherboard building situated on the corner of Russell and Cory Streets, in close proximity to the CBD area of Toowoomba. Unlike foggy Mount Lofty, the guesthouse was located in a sunny area of the city. The outside walls were painted white and were offset by a faded orange roof; its windowsills were painted the same colour. The architecture was impressive: a large bay window dominated the front area and an enclosed verandah skirted the house. It had a neat little garden with a brick path and a spacious backyard.
The elderly owner told us he was in a difficult position: he could no longer cope with the onerous duties associated with the running of the guesthouse and caring for his invalid wife. When we told him we could only provide $500 for a deposit he said he would lend us the balance so we could receive a loan from a bank. We were absolutely stunned by his altruistic gesture. The only condition he placed was that we pay him back by January 31st 1974. His loan ensured a mortgage from our bank. Subsequently we bought Poi-Poi and its contents for $16, 500.
In early August 1973 our young family moved into Poi-Poi with Saba, our pet dog. We admired the spacious hallway, the high walls with decorative pressed-tin ceilings and the impressive cedar skirting boards and solid doors with brass fittings. The hallway led to a spacious living room for the guests. We had a private living room with a small, tiled fireplace, and three bedrooms. The kitchen was roomy: it accommodated a large wooden table; an Aga stove; a communal fridge; and a kitchen cabinet with sufficient space for each guest to be allocated a cupboard area for their groceries.
Once we moved in, the full responsibilities of running the house were daunting: it was my job to supply and wash bed linen and towels for the tenants on a weekly basis; also to clean the three toilets and two bathrooms, the hall, the kitchen and living room as well as our quarters. In addition I was responsible for tending to the slow-combustion stove in the kitchen. Early 1973 I had taken on four hours of part-time work per week tutoring students in Business English at the Institute. Our daughter attended the nearby Lady Gowrie Centre three afternoons a week. Due to our parlous financial position we joined a reciprocal babysitting club so our son could be minded while I was teaching during the day.
The guests were an interesting group: two females and one male in their eighties; another in her seventies and two females in their twenties. They had resided at Poi-Poi for some years and were territorial about their bedrooms. Immediately they made it clear they didn’t want us poking our noses into their rooms — even to clean them. Each bedroom had its own sink so a lot of their washing was done there. They paid $3 weekly for board. When, after two weeks, we put up the board to $5 we weren’t so popular.
On removal day, we placed our lovely Silky Oak sideboard in the living room to keep our kitchenware separate. The remaining furniture was squeezed into our private quarters. Although the kitchen had a gas stove it was seldom used; instead the guests preferred to use the wood stove that provided hot water for the entire household as well as heating the kitchen. It was my task to have the stove fired up by 6.15 am. Our first electricity bill for $60.00 was a pleasant surprise.
Slim and blonde, Estelle was the first guest up to have breakfast. She was a cheery person who loved to chat. Estelle worked in a bakery. Next to use the kitchen was Jeanette, a surly, dumpy young woman who worked at a meat-processing factory. Around 7.30 it was our turn to use the kitchen. Mrs Harrison entered next. She was a stoic who had spent most of her life living in a tent in outback Queensland. For breakfast she would make porridge, tea and toast.
Then around 9.30 it was Mr Gourlay’s turn. He was a sprightly, well-dressed, elderly recluse. With a newspaper tucked under his arm he marched into the kitchen and proceeded to cook fried lamb chops, egg and tomato. Any leftover food he gave to our dog. Grumpy Greeta was the last person to enter the kitchen. She was in her seventies, thin and bony like an emaciated sparrow. All she required was a cup of tea and toast spread with vegemite. Once she had finished she shuffled back to her room.
Our most interesting guest was Miss Boucher, an octogenarian who cooked all her meals in the bay window bedroom that overlooked the front garden. Miss Boucher was an avid Christian Scientist and was forever pressing religious brochures in my hands. At night I would hear her murmuring prayers when I passed her bedroom.
Our guests loved Saba, our part-Collie pet, for she was a gentle, and loyal dog that seldom wandered from her sunny spot at the top of the steps. Regularly I would tie her leash to the stroller whenever I walked down to the Coles Supermarket situated in Russell Street. Come Spring I noticed she had company: a large red-coloured dog was courting her. She was so happy! Endlessly they chased each other around the garden until worn out. Then, head-to-tail, they stood, as if glued together, panting and smiling, and looking so proud of themselves and full of life and the rapid swelling of Saba's stomach. Her life abruptly ended after someone threw a bait over our fence. It was heartbreaking to see Saba’s mate sniff the area for three days before he twigged that she had died.
Inevitably, problems manifested at Poi-Poi. On one occasion, around 2 am I bumped into a stranger in the hallway. He had come out of Jeannette’s bedroom. As the outside doors were bolted from the inside, he must have gained access through her window. Jeannette was given a week’s notice. We did not advertise for another guest; it was difficult enough to cope with the remaining ones.
Our vague, befuddled Miss Boucher was caught using a ladder to climb into her window, too. The sight of those skinny, stocking-clad legs scampering up it was hilarious. She had locked herself out of her room and didn’t want to disturb me. Repeatedly I assured her it was no trouble for me to unlock her door should she forget her key, and that I would rather do that for her than have her fall off the ladder and injure herself. She never asked for help. Some weeks later, George saw her using a wooden fruit box—upended to give extra height —to claw her way into the window. Increasingly, Miss Boucher’s forgetfulness was becoming a worry.
We were also having trouble with Mrs Harrison who seldom left the house. She was forever interfering with our children’s discipline and chastised them for what she thought was inappropriate behaviour. After Saba’s death we had given our daughter pet mice. Whenever the old woman set eyes on the rodents she shrieked: ‘Take those mice away. I can’t stand the sight of them!’ I thought Mrs Harrison was about to have a heart attack and told our daughter to desist. Now that she had the measure of the woman, she received fewer reprimands. Our son was also experiencing disapproval for his actions. Although he was only seventeen months old, it didn’t take our son long to suss out that Mrs Harrison disliked him. Therefore, whenever he saw her, he would make multiple charges on his four-wheeled, plastic horse. Affronted, Mrs Harrison left the room. Other than Grumpy Greeta we had no problems with the other guests.
By November, George had had enough of the Institute’s policies and applied for a lecturing position in Tasmania. In January 1974 we received excellent news: his application for the lecturing position in Tasmania was accepted. Immediately we called a meeting to tell our residents we would be putting Poi-Poi up for sale.
Our guests were distressed. We had three weeks in which to sell because George was due to commence work in Hobart on 6 February 1974. It was a bad time to sell as heavy rain pelted down witout let-up. During that time the Brsbane River had burst its banks and there was wide-spread flooding of many surbuban areas Nonetheless. after ten days of the house being on the market two groups were interested in buying: one was a local doctor who thought the house could easily be converted into a surgery; the other a couple from Tasmania who were interested in converting Poi-Poi into full-time hostel accommodation for students attending The Institute. In the end, we sold the house to the Tasmanian couple.
When I informed our guests that our house was sold and they could remain provided they paid the new price of $21 for accommodation they were distraught. One by one our guests departed. The last to leave was Greeta. Finally I discovered why she had been so grumpy all those months. When I entered her bedroom for the first time, it was impossible to see out of her window because of the tacky, nicotine-stained glass. Empty brandy bottles were haphazardly stacked in the wardrobe. No wonder Greeta clinked when she walked inside the house; no wonder her large handbag looked so heavy with its secret load of bottles.
The next daunting task was to arrange a removalist to pack our furniture and transport it to Tasmania. I phoned business after business without success. ‘Impossible’ they tersely responded because they were booked to the hilt with desperate requests from people in Brisbane who urgently needed removalists to move their possessiond to higher ground. Finally a company agreed. When the van arrived it was too small to accommodate our possessions. It was too late to try for another company. Our furniture and household goods were crammed into the van.
Overall, running a guesthouse was a positive experience: it involved planning, settling disputes and trying to please our guests. As well as the routine jobs of cleaning, washing, cooking and caring for our children we tried to have a normal family life but we still had the guesthouse to run. In that process we developed new skills: George learned numerous house-renovating skills while I learned to manage and cook on a slow combustion stove. We both learned to interact better with people who came from all walks of life. We gained empathy for the wellbeing of elderly people and their vulnerability when their families abandoned them.
On reflection, it was fortuitous to buy and sell the guesthouse when we did. After we had reimbursed our benefactor we were left with sufficient capital for a deposit on a suitable house close to The University of Tasmania. Our time at Poi-Poi allowed us to escape from the rental trap — forever.