Steve Braunias finds his family home listed in the real estate section.
The family home is for sale. End of a private era, the real estate sign on the front lawn giving notice that it will no longer serve as Fortress Braunias, a house passed down from generation to generation, 70 years of mail addressed to the same strange and ungainly Austrian name. My father built it with his bare hands, which explained some of its eccentric features. But he was a gifted housepainter and as a wallpaperer he was without parallel. He put up a sign above the garage door advertising his trade. I always thought it looked incredibly glamorous, like a movie or circus poster – a show, starring Johann Braunias. For years I thought he was the most famous man in Mount Maunganui.
The house was up on a hill, with a thin grass strip like a green stripe in the middle of the concrete driveway. A line of feijoa trees twisted its branches around a white picket fence. There was the time my brothers played a great prank on the mailman. He opened the letterbox and our cat jumped out. He was a good man. I remember a long face, a short body, his back bent as he bicycled the long, flat road. He was a poignant sight after his wife left town with our father.
Sand on the pavements, the roar and rattle of the sea at night and the hooting train neatly stacked with logs from the wharf. There was a visit to a ship. My father knew the captain. His name was Carl. They had been in the war together, which is to say they spent five years on the penal colony of Somes Island in Wellington harbour as enemy aliens. Carl was massive, full of pork and schnapps, very entertaining. The accordion came out and there was always a faint suspicious taint of a Nazi reunion.
My mother came from faraway, too: Morrinsville. It felt as distant as Innsbruck. But she had a sister who lived around the corner and if it was incredible her husband was called Homer, it was spectacular that her name was Winkie. Winkie and Doris, at our house of an afternoon with tea and fresh scones on the lace tablecloth. Or they would sit in the shade of a sun umbrella on the back porch. I always preferred winter – football season, frost turning the thin grass stripe on the driveway into a white stripe – and the sun umbrella put away, meaning I could spend hours investigating the phenomena of a hole in the ground. The porch was made of concrete. A hole, like a tunnel, had been created for the umbrella. It was so black, and possibly bottomless; where did it go? Some said Spain, but my understanding was that it was the setting of my favourite book, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
I published my own books, too. Football scrapbooks, cut from the sports section of the Bay of Plenty Times, two devoted entirely to the misadventures of Manchester United star George Best, genius and drunkard. Essentially my entire career as a journalist and author was modelled on the assembly of those records of someone else's dramatic life. No doubt the real estate agent is right now engraving a plaque to fix above the front door. Something along the lines of BIRTHPLACE OF FAT OLD HACK.
Strange to think of a bunch of strangers moving in and marching around like they own the place. Strange to think they will actually own the place. Maybe they'll bowl it – big section, there was a chookhouse out the back, peach trees, grapes, a shed for firewood. It was passed to my brother Paul, who died two years ago. That's the way it goes, all over New Zealand, death or retirement bringing an end to the family home, the family holding, the family museum filled with the exhibits of memory.
RV $1.32m, 885m2. The sea, the train, the dark green hump of Mt Maunganui at the end of the street. I used to spend hours beside an ingenious kind of trapdoor at the base of the chimney. It was like a lid. I'd take it off and dig out the ash, sometimes still warm from the previous night's fire – winter has got everything. The chimney was near the sitting room. One day the windows were open, and I heard my mum asking someone, possibly the spectacular Winkie, "Where's Steve?" I can still hear her voice as I knelt on the path outside the chimney with a bucket full of grey, smokey ash.