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For Better or Worse, Moving on,
House-sitting, & The Hearth
[First Published in ADSR Zine, 2021]
The following four (somewhat truthful) micro-fictions were developed last year just after the Sydney COVID19 lockdown (which paled in comparisons to Melbourne) but nonetheless: here we are again in Sydney, July 2021. They are lifted from my diary with little to no amendment. You know, these crisis-times induced a lot of thinking and talking around family, grief, attachment, and death – and forced me to face my own biases, absurdities, rigidities - and all those weightless (but weighted) things I had been holding on to.
i. better or for worse
Last night, when Sien came home, slammed her bag on the table and confessed:
“I just spent the afternoon with rich people, James. I’m serious. They all went to the same school and her sister lived in Spain for two years.”
I understood her malaise and I felt it too: a sort of nagging, queasy feeling at having come to the limits of friendships with others (for superficial reasons or not) wherein the intimacy beings to retract – to go into itself – like a frightened sea mollusc or something.
“I really had the worst time and I’m feeling shit. I gotta do something – let’s go outside…somewhere!”
I had my apprehensions about leaving the house but did not voice them; I was very bloated from eating a large-serving of a Lebanese mixed-plate – gorging myself in bed while watching a Japanese horror film (my half-assed commitment to the Keto ® Diet was definitely not attainable). We got dressed quickly – turned off the house lights and sauntered down to the Taverner’s Hill light rail (for some: the equivalent of a tram, and others a shitty-train-substitute).
The tram started: I could tell she was tired by the way her head lay limp on my shoulder as we were jiggled along by the tram. I felt tired too – mainly from some of the anxiety I had around travelling around on public transport at night.
The tram stopped at Crown Casino – it was the end of the week, and a series of well-suited businessmen got into the carriage: beards trimmed and right-angled, all patting each other on the back – followed on by a group of women, whose soft pinkness flowed out of pastel and satin (who laughed, to each other at the men’s playful childishness).
A larger fellow, with a black facemask followed the party. He sat just adjacent to us in front of another fellow of similar proportions, who himself was in a long black jacket and a Manga print facemask.
The first guy in the black facemask said – just after he sat down:
“Sorry mate – not so much fun when two bigger blokes are squeezed together like this – love your funky face mask though”
The second guy just nodded and further buried his head into himself (we all had our escape mechanisms in place, and I couldn’t blame him).
I giggled – the first guy reminded me of a pro-gambler played by John Candy in some film I remembered (or fabricated). I could imagine him – sitting tense – in a clandestine, backroom casino – making millions at blackjack tables – intoxicated by the smoky visage – in a transparent green plastic visor – trying not to laugh but grinning internally as he knew, he truly knew: that he had a winning fucking hand.
I had also been aware of the second guy for a while – of his nervous, fidgety movements, and a generally hunched demeanour – such as having his head bowed towards what seemed like an overly-large smart phone – which illuminated his already phosphorescent skin. These contributed to an impression of coveted maladjustment -which both reminded me - and gave me solace in my own tremors.
The city looked beautiful though – those celestially singing lights – half-obscured through grey commuter-faces reflected in the windowpane. I felt excitement rising – the mad physics of this place always throw up something unexpected – sometimes even fear evoking.
Yet, these are the risks I had to take (the CBT therapists had said so); we need to venture out – to contrast the day-to-day sexlessness of trying to survive and make-it in an indifferent cultural late-capitalist terrain – and I console myself that the city, despite being arid as fuck – still possesses pockets from which fecundate opportunity grows and spreads – those are odds I’m still anxiously betting on (for better or for worse).
My two sisters moved house yesterday. It was a mad rush – boxes poorly taped together, which spewed ornamental crockery onto the sidewalk when you picked up the box the wrong way. Piles of clothing and bed sheets – and cooking books that hadn’t been used to guide any cuisine since 1995.
The house was gorgeous though – an old 3-bedroom art-deco apartment from the 40s (I think). With thick red brick and polished wooden floors – as well as a discontinued fireplace. My father was helping out with the moving and had driven down from the central coast (while my other still slept in). It was the first time he had visited Sydney in a long time. And it was nice to spend some time with him and my sisters.
As we set up my sister’s bed frame, we joked and competed with each other – who could attach the panel the fastest – or screw the bolts together – afterwards, nearly tripping as we brought in the giant television together. Something about my dad seemed brighter - more energetic or animated than usual.
And later, as we sat around my modest kitchen table back at mine – I felt that this could have been a reality for us – of a functional and present family – far away from the concern of a carer’s role; of post-addiction; beyond traumas and hurts; of illness – that had trapped my parents in a marriage they didn’t want any more – and which enabled the worst tendencies in both of them.
But, nonetheless, we chatted around the table, eating store-bought BBQ chicken, salad and bread – followed by sweet black coffee – and I stopped thinking about the future of this or that – and sipped in that moment: it was warm, and that was good enough.
I awoke in the attic room – it was not too hot, but I could hear the growing orgies of cicada wings starting their small invisible fires in the tree. She was gone – probably walking their dog. The house was hard to locate, historically and aesthetically, speaking – as its stone facade mismatched the wood panelling on the second half – which houses the loungeroom and bathroom – and all those strange paintings of suns and stones and stars – each small step, each doorway and corridor leading up the culmination of that attic room in which I slept.
[oh, an before I forget to mention, there was also giant red flower on the adjacent wall by the door.]
It was getting warmer as the sun rose: I was also directed to the sound of children laughing, erratically playing on the road – and was reminded that an artist used to live here, but that the new owners had ripped out the bamboo tree garden in the backyard. A small travesty – next to the price that that this house had sold for (close to a million or more). But that’s the price of houses in the inner-city these days – propped up by intergenerational loans or gifts from parents and the cycle continues onwards and we just resign ourselves to the fact we will never have a break from renting. The cycle is not like the one of the cicadas: seven years – but in human terms (proportionate to life expectancies) in multiple 30-year blocks – where the wealth gets buried and hoarded away.
Now: I’m not bitter – I do appreciate the opportunity to house-sit the home of an accountant and lawyer (if anything, it satiates my own aspirational vanities) - but I’ve truly never seen such a large television – and in nearly every room. The house is alarmingly absent of any emotionally significant ornaments – or even books – there is a pervasive (and oppressive) sense of functionality – but not in some neo-Bauhausian sense (like other small-b-bourgeois houses I had visited) but rather non-aesthetic, and yet still stripped of symbolic values – no sense of equity between sign and function – further still: the objects, when I approached, seem to retract into their own ugliness – withdrawing into their own bodies at the threat of skin-to-skin contact.
The only seemingly beautiful thing is that of the glass fish-tank whose billowing reef of underwater plants is lit up by that florescent backlight against the only ‘decorative’ brick wall – reminded me of something a 1980s film-pimp might own. There was a clandestine, perverse quality about it – and the small fished seemed to sneer as they swam – eerily and slowly past my gaze – as if they were assessing me in turn – reflecting back at me my own snobbish pretences – despite my obscure surburbanisms.
But yes: this was a house designed by a no-kids-couple in their late 20s – and a combined income of 250K (or more) – there was a sense that so much money might induce resentment in me, in others? – but what is there to resent in the incidental flotsam and jetsam which characterises our separate lives? I’ll just as soon forget about this place as I leave it – and turn my criticism to something else tomorrow morning and the next, and the next, etc. etc.
After we brought nanna back from the specialist, we sat in her loungeroom in her Lakemba house – which we often did when after these medical visits. I asked her - mid-way, through one of her anti-euthanasia diatribes – if she ever used her fireplace back in the day? And she said that there was a time years ago when, just after my Uncle Wally (her son) had committed suicide. He was 23 - having just completed a degree in ANU in zoological studies; the first in his family to go to uni.
His death left a big rupture in the family – and his younger brother Kenny looked up to Wally like a substitute father-figure – as his own father (and my grandfather) had left years ago to pursue a career in vagrant alcoholism. Kenny was 14 at the time – spending hours watching TV and he would scream if anyone tried to turn it off, change the channel or talk to him while he was engrossed.
My grandmother was so deeply distressed by this withdrawal and tried to think of a solution. She resolved to start preparing fires in the fireplace – and despite family and friends warning her not to (because of the house’s age and condition and risk of fire) she said she needed to “bring warmth” back into the house – and, in turn, induce Kenny out of his detached state.
Her stoic, working-class, Irish-Catholicism assured her that God would protect the house (later admitting to me that her conception of such a being was hazy at the best of times). But a miracle of sorts did take place – and slowly, Kenny transferred his attention from the television to the fire instead. She told me it “brought him back home, by bit bit) – this was both metaphorical and literal because, he had been getting in trouble with the cops from spending time out on the streets with other boys his age.
[Siena, who was sitting with us, interjected – saying that the “fireplace” was the human race’s first loungeroom (in hunter-gatherer or pre-modern cultures) and that it probably fulfils our oldest archetypal memories. We all laughed at the same time and agreed.]
Ironically, my nanna’s eldest daughter would come and visit during this “warming period” and remarked that the house seemed to be getting smaller and daker every time she entered the loungeroom. My grandmother found this confusing – but later realised that the smoke from the frequent fires had darkened the white roof paint – we all laughed in unison again.
Grief and loss are like that, I guess – complicated even through domesticity– of the Women who have to keep the ship running through the night - interspersed with the bittersweet warmth of consolation- of the memory of those lost forever in abstraction – which still manage to keep our hearths partly-full – something to redirect our focus in the face of the encroaching nothingness of death which lurks, behind the façade of doors, corridors, every laugh and every flickering evening smile, by an out-of-use chimney, in the dark.