By Andrew Piper, 75. Woodcroft, SA
My story recounts memories of Semaphore and environs of the mid-seventies and a character I knew well who lived on the Semaphore Esplanade. Let’s just call her Ester for the purposes of our story.
I have flighty memories of people and places of that time, and my impressions of Ester — her habits, her friends, and the moods of the environment she lived in — colour many of my reflections.
Semaphore Road of 1975 represents a time before its gentrification: before alfresco coffee shops, tearooms selling crafty crafts and organic toppings, and certainly a time before LGBITQA+ staffed secondhand bookshops.
Semaphore Road of ‘75 was a confusion of decaying boarding houses, raucous but non-pokie pubs, people-filled banks, an uncoordinated mix of high street shops, and a few long-established features like Hoffs Cinema and Chiminents hardware.
Meanwhile, the drearier, eastern end heralded tiny, narrow streets and cramped houses and the mini suburb of Exeter; a suburb which was my home for five years.
Down Semaphore Road ran an abandoned, weed-infested rail line, still a couple of years away from decisions on its fate.
Semaphore Road at this time was a down at heel place; crouching shame-faced in the shadows of its more illustrious and prosperous counterpart that was Glenelg’s Jetty Road.
Beachside Semaphore continued this lacklustre tradition. Gloomy Sunday winter afternoons with mounded rotting seaweed sending forth its unmistakable odour. The low sun casting long shadows as a howling southerly pushed browning foam accentuating the desolation of Semaphore Road.
Evening walks along the road in winter would bring their own discomforts. The dry, clinging air emanating from the mix of fertiliser and chemical plants fringing Birkenhead and the Port River left an irritating tickle in the throat.
In summertime, there was the long trek out through lukewarm shallows to finally — disappointedly —reach thigh-high water an exhausting distance from the shore.
Drunks and down and outs could sometimes be found sheltering in shop doorways and boarding house verandahs. The fenced-in hulk of the Annie Watt (an old ketch) in the yard of a disused church conveyed an atmosphere of quaint oddity and neglect at the east end of Semaphore Road. The hung portraits of Mick Young at election time along the high fence a ready discordant.
The clanging of boom gates heralding Glanville station was a routine sound of my time in Exeter.
But I’ve digressed somewhat, because at the heart of my story are the family and friends of Ester as they paraded through her life in this interesting, if downcast, setting.
Down the sun-washed long hallway of Ester’s home on the Esplanade hung a disjointed mix of cheap reproduction religious pictures and porcelain beer jugs on the wall and mantle pieces of many of the other spacious rooms that strung out either side of the broad hallway.
The electric bar heater in the tiny kitchen would fight a losing battle to heat but a few feet in front of it, leaving the rest of the house to the mercy of biting draughts — a familiar winter experience.
It seemed strange that this large house was seldom occupied beyond the cramped kitchen. Although I do remember a dignified Englishman, a Mr Jolly, a long time boarder, occupied one of the rooms for a number of years. The odour of stale tobacco smoke and a faint brown tint on the high ceilings a reminder of his presence years after he departed.
Special events, however, did bring everyone together in the large family room at the rear.
Christmas dinner and then a nap before Christmas tea was always a tradition. Ester’s habit of bringing a lost soul she had found in the street to sometimes share our Christmas feast was a habit, sometimes causing embarrassment. But after reflection, it is now something we could admire about Ester’s generous nature.
The windowless blue north wall of the rear family room unfortunately meant that it never felt the changing light of the seasons. Two narrow, south-facing windows and the constancy of overhead tube florescent lights largely insulated the room from the outside world. This insularity, in another form, also impacted on the various occupants from time to time.
Christmas would always bring her three daughters and their partners together.
Her rear garden was always a challenge. Ester was no ‘green finger.’ A small lawn centred by a lopsided and battered Hills Hoist always ready to thrust a punishing jab to the temple for the unwary was the key feature. In summer, the sandy boarder of the lawn yielded only giant sunflowers and water stressed perennials. In winter, a swarm of butter tipped sour-sobs covered everything bar the Besser block incinerator in the far corner of the yard.
Meanwhile, at the front of the house, the rush of traffic along the Esplanade presented a challenge to cross and reach the reserve and the strip of untidy dunes that headed the beach. But it didn’t stop Ester on her daily morning swim in all weathers, even as she approached her early seventies. It was a habit which held little interest for her daughters.
Ester was also dutiful in her daily commitment to religion and the rosary. After her morning swim, she would mount her ageing bike and ride to St Dominics, the local Catholic church, for morning Mass.
Other rituals besides religion played their part in Ester’s life and that of her children and grandchildren.
The traditional Sunday roast was a commitment that was hard to break. It was always a rush to prepare given the length of time devoted to churchgoing. Ester’s habit of of overcooking the feast become more regular as time went by. The strict observance of her wider family to the demands of Christmas, New Year, and Easter were sometimes occasions when family stresses were at their most tender.
As an observer of these times, it seemed Ester would sometimes stoke any distension she saw between her daughters. But, of course, most times her courageous enthusiasm and generosity came to the fore.