At the main intersection in Bexley North, traffic snarls by, lurching towards or away from the M5 on-ramp on the far side of the Wolli Creek valley. On one side of the intersection are shops, built in the 1930s, when the East Hills railway station opened and the suburb with its rows of red-brick houses came into being. On the other side is the Bexley North Hotel, a supermarket, and a row of shops with a wide carpark in front of them, hidden behind a screen of trees, lawn, and overgrown garden beds. This, a sign indicates, is Nairn Gardens.
I wasn’t paying Nairn Gardens particular attention, apart from noticing it had a substantial sign for a small, nondescript park, but as I continued on the path through the gardens, something else caught my eye. A round bronze plaque with a colourful insignia on it, on the side of a concrete structure that enclosed a row of benches. From this, I learnt that the Gardens had, in 1966, won second prize in the Sydney Morning Herald Garden Competition. I looked up, across the overgrown rockeries, a tangle of rosemary, foxtail grass, and tall conifers leaning askew, and tried to imagine the prizewinning garden hidden somewhere within it.
In 1966, it was described by the judges thus: “Much thought has been given here, with a rather difficult terrain, to produce a delightful effect which will improve even further as some of the subjects mature”, and further, “Several young poplars form an attractive background to an Olympic torch fountain, while an outstanding soulangiana magnolia and crotalaria added their charm. A well designed rock garden, with rosemary, hebes, dwarf conifers, nandinas, goldfussia, diosmas, mesembryanthemums, sedums, and alpines, gave a great permanency to the display.”
The rocks were still there, in terraced rows leading down from street level, and the rosemary and the conifers had matured into unruliness. Essentially, though, the winning garden had disappeared, apart from the plaques that commemorated the prize. It felt something like coming across a trophy in an op shop, engraved with a name and achievement, but disconnected from its champion.
The fountain had been installed with great fanfare in 1964, in commemoration of Bexley North’s Olympic medallist, the swimmer Robert Windle, who had won gold in that year’s Tokyo Olympics. The fountain had a prominent position on the corner, instantly noticeable to anyone passing by, whose attention would have been captured by the sight of a giant metal tulip, with a curtain of water cascading down from its stem, rising up out of a concrete dome into which slabs of stone were set. I like to imagine that when, in August 1980, The Cure played at the Bexley North Hotel, Robert Smith might have wandered across the carpark to contemplate the fountain’s lonely prominence on the corner.
Vanished fountain, unruly garden, the mesembryanthemums long gone. In 1995, the fountain was removed, and replaced by lawn and a row of flagpoles, and the garden’s flowers were replaced by hardier species. I sit on one of the benches and look over a palm tree in a hexagonal concrete planter, set in the cusp of the park benches as an object of contemplation. The wind blows big dry leaves from the plane trees and wisps of trash across the lawn and the path. Occasionally someone comes past, carrying a bunch of Mother’s Day flowers or a bag of shopping back to the carpark. The sky is a bright blue, with big mottled stripes of clouds cutting across it. I sit on the bench in the late-afternoon sun and watch them move and disperse, slowly changing into different shapes altogether.