Sydney Stories – 1971 – The Boarding House Queen

Mrs. Barstow (which she insisted on being called) and her husband, Bob, ran their boarding house in Chatswood as a very tight ship. Bob was a tall, tanned, muscular man who rarely spoke and never smiled. He was given to stripping to the waist while keeping the grounds so meticulously that every blade of lawn and every shrub was trimmed within an inch of its life.

The Queen of Sheba, as Mrs. Barstow was known privately amongst the boarders, was a harridan of the first water. Her queendom was based on a grand old two-storey home set in expansive grounds. Part of the property had been converted into a separate single level wing, comprising a row of jerry-built rooms, each with just sufficient space to accommodate two single beds, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. No heating, no cooling. House rules included no cooking, no women visitors, no loud playing of radios (remember this was long before the days of cheap portable TVs) and no sounds of any kind after 10pm. The only thing missing was the central switch for lights out and the clanking of doors.

That said, Barney and I were grateful to find the place after enduring a couple of weeks in a Kings Cross ‘hotel’ that was infested with cockroaches and had ladies of the night plying their trade under our window until the early hours of the morning. Having survived our interrogation by the Queen and promising to commit to memory the myriad rules of the establishment, we installed ourselves in our cubicle. ‘Listen’ said Barney. Silence. At least until our neighbour in the next cubicle broke wind.

Our fellow boarders tended to be quiet, solitary men. Mostly in their forties and fifties, usually as well-groomed working class as the circumstances allowed, stuck in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, no car, and often functioning alcoholics, who carried their full bottles in and the empties out in their gladstone bags. When asked where they came from, a suspicious number of them seemed to hail from Mudgee. We often wondered if this was code for something but we never cracked it. What united them was a terror of being evicted and a determination not to be associated with anyone who was flirting with being evicted. Like me and Barney.

The communal ablution area included two showers, both heated by gas and probably pre-dating Noah’s Ark. Three minutes of hot water required the insertion of sixpence into a meter box, the ignition of a swivel arm with a match and insertion of said arm over the gas ring beneath the heater. If you were lucky, the explosion that then occurred might leave you with eyebrows and you might get a hot shower.

As part of the bed-and-breakfast tariff, a hot breakfast was served in a communal dining area on the ground floor of the main house. The invariable menu helped the older men to remember the day of the week. The Queen was in constant attendance to ensure there were no attempts to gorge against later hunger and to prevent any sly trousering of bread rolls.

In the evenings, the room would become a communal TV room, over which the Queen would continue to preside, including having control of the channel and the volume. Her nightly game was to invite boarders’ suggestions of viewing fare, wait until there was a consensus and then choose something entirely different. The crawlers amongst the residents would praise her wise choice. The others would simply leave. The larger number, the more active the twitch in the corners of the Queen’s mouth.

Now, in a grand multi-roomed house one would be forgiven for thinking that the Queen and Bob might have had their own private lounge area to which they could repair in the evenings. And they may well have had such a room, given that Bob never came in to the communal area at night. However the crown rested heavy on the Queen and her responsibilities (and her need to demonstrate that she had the power of continued residency) were endless it would seem.

None was more blatant than the swimming pool. The boarders’ rooms were connected by an open covered walkway that looked out onto the garden. And the pool, which (naturally) boarders were not allowed to use. On warm weekend days, as the men lounged on the verandah, chatting or playing cards or listening to the races on the radio, the Queen would emerge from the main house and head for the pool.

She never actually swam in it (her professionally coiffed locks could not be disturbed) but she would briefly wade in, emerge and then drape herself on her padded banana lounge. This would be followed by an elaborate ritual of applying suntan lotion to her still taut limbs. Early to mid-forties most men guessed; too old for a bikini but still a respectable figure in a one-piece. The final flourish was to rake her eyes across the verandah to detect any evidence of unseemly perving and then take up her book. (Barbara Cartland was a regular in this scenario.) After she judged she was sufficiently baked, she would arise from her outdoor chaise longue, ensuring to expose maximum cleavage as she gathered her belongings, rake the verandah again witheringly, and then return to the house.

After a few weeks at Mrs. Barstow’s version of Balmoral, with regular pay now coming in, I teamed up with another mate from home, Fergus, and rented a flat in Blues Point, from where I could walk to work. Barney decided this was a good time to return home to free bed and breakfast at his parents’ home and to study the perfection of his betting system.

The Barstows are almost certainly dead now, or at least gaga in a nursing home. At least one of them thoroughly deserves either outcome.

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