The landlord and I meet on the threshold like ex-lovers, avoiding the subject of his three-and-a-half-year absence. I don’t care if I am speaking for him, but it’s the oven that sits heavy between us.
He steps around me into the hall and gazes up at the circuit board, while I try to find the marks of whatever befell him the day he was supposed to turn up with an oven. He still looks like he’s in his mid-thirties. His skin is like a pan of Irish milk. I bet he doesn’t even have to shave.
I eye off the pile of VCAT forms sitting on the bookshelf. I am that close to lodging a complaint. It’s early afternoon, the temperature has hit thirty-six and I reek of Impulse. We haven’t had hot water for days and I’ve been sponging Jessie down in a bucket.
Three and a half years ago, the landlord was on his way over to bring us a new oven. He’d rung me from work on his mobile to tell me he was pulling an oven out of someone else’s kitchen and I guess this triggered his memory. Apparently, he said, you mentioned the oven on the agent’s half-yearly inspection report? I didn’t ask him which one of the five half-yearly inspection reports he was referring to since the landlord is RAAF-trained and doesn’t respond to sarcasm. He looks hard into the distance, minus the salute.
When my mother used to make cakes, I got to lick out the bowl and my older brothers got to lick a beater each. Jessie could have had all three for herself, but at six she has no recollection of me baking a cake. Each birthday she gets an ice cream one from Safeway.
The landlord is still staring up at the circuit board and I’m staring at the side of his face but he doesn’t turn to look at me.
That electrician came out last week, didn’t he?
Yes, I say.
I once concluded that the landlord only appears if the problem’s going to mean big money. But he didn’t show at all during the big cold last year when the knob on the Vulcan snapped after months of having to be taped down in the ‘on’ position. When the agent finally overrode the landlord’s ‘consult with me first’ stipulation, the legacy stood at fourteen used reels of packing tape, plus three weeks in July wearing a beanie day and night, except when I was in the shower. I wish I could top the story off by saying that Jessie was a wan child verging on pneumonia or risked chilblains, rather than being the fattish rosy-cheeked child she was then, and still is.
The estate agents had called the landlord’s home and mobile phones for weeks. You’ve been more than patient, they said. He doesn’t even reply to us.
I started imagining the landlord on a secret mission in the jungles of far north Queensland, flooded in, his plumbing skills useless in the big rains. The whole story about him doing an apprenticeship in the RAAF had never sounded right, somehow. When you think plumber, you think about the ground and the pipes under it, not planes in the sky.
Now I don’t know how much a reconditioned Rinnai is worth, but the way the gas bloke was joking around, slagging off fat property owners while he was fitting it, I reckon this heater must have cost the landlord at least two grand.
After the work was done, the gas bloke crouched in front of the heater for fifteen minutes, holding down the pilot button trying to get the heater to light. He said if you’re smart you’ll never turn the pilot off, even in summer. Then he dusted off the front of his overalls, collected his tools and lolloped out, leaving bits of broken plaster and dirt trailing behind him. When he got to the front door he said over his shoulder: if the landlord didn’t show for ten years, and if no one could find him, then the house would go to me.
Squatter’s rights, you know, that kind of thing. But it’s nonsense anyway.
I wonder how long the landlord is going to take to work out what went wrong with the hot water. Since I’ve had to take the day off from my respite care job, I’d like to pick up Jessie when she comes out of school, instead of her having to sit around in aftercare. I remember the argument I’d had with Stephen when I took the day off work to wait for landlord to turn up with the oven. My job was casual back then and so I’d lost the day’s pay. You look for any excuse to have a day off since you started back at work, he’d said. And Jessie’s booked in at creche and we still have to pay for that. I don’t see why the landlord needs a welcoming party for an oven.
Finally, the landlord turns from the circuit board and meets my eyes.
How many power points are there in the house, again?
Six, I say. Oh, hang on. Maybe eight.
Or there are nine and I’m hoping the landlord hasn’t got it listed anywhere. The electrician who came to replace a dodgy power point in my bedroom put in double sockets on both sides of the wall as well as slipping in an extra in the back room.
Still cooking your roasts with the door half-open? he’d jibed me. Ring the bloody tribunal. That’ll make him appear.
The man from VCAT said I could not only get all the repairs done but apply for compo as well because I’d been waiting so long. But I kept thinking about the Raymond Carver story where a mother orders a birthday cake for her son, but doesn’t pick it up because the boy gets hit by a car and ends up in hospital in a coma. The baker rings and when the parents still don’t pick up the cake, he starts stalking them on the phone. Anything could have happened to the landlord. Maybe he was in a coma, just down there, in the hospital. Maybe his girlfriend was.
I’m always careful not to abuse other drivers who make mistakes on the road. I think this comes from living so close to a hospital. Every day there are near accidents as people, while trying to find or leave a park, drive too fast or too slow from the panic and distraction of their visit.
The landlord does a reconnaissance of the power points with me tailing him. He inquires again about the electrician who came out last week. That was another agent override, this time over the Bakelite light switches that were coming loose and sparking. The electrician had submitted a report that the whole house needed rewiring.
When did you say he came to do the switches?
Maybe it was Wednesday. Or Thursday – I can’t remember.
And what day did the water go cold?
I can’t remember. It’s been days.
The landlord is back at the circuit board in the hallway and I’m dying to ask why on earth he’s so interested in that when the hot water service is in the roof. He starts stroking his chin and then he asks: does your smoke alarm work?
The first time the landlord came to check something in the roof years ago he didn’t bring a ladder. He sent Stephen out door-knocking the neighbours to find someone who had one. The landlord must have picked up that Stephen thought him incompetent. If Stephen answered when the landlord phoned, he would always ask to speak to me.
When we first moved in, he brought the landlady over to meet us. The four of us drank tea together in the kitchen and the landlady said she liked the oil I was burning. It was one of those blends: cedar wood, orange, lavender. I can’t remember the others. I let slip I was pregnant, and then – don’t ask me why – I asked her if that was okay.
I think it’s good, she said. She was smiling. And then she said she was a midwife.
What were you on about? Stephen said after they’d gone. It’s not like we’re an unmarried couple in the Depression.
But the lease said NO PETS and maybe not telling them I was pregnant was no different to lying about the cat or dog you were planning to sneak in once you secured the lease.
Back then, the landlord used to respond to calls within a couple of days.
The lease was only meant to be for two years because they were going to put units up. I guessed the landlady had left him and the landlord was strapped, paying off the mortgage alone.
We’re paying his mortgage on our own, Stephen said, while house prices creep up around us.
He wanted to move right out to the edge of the suburbs, find a place we could afford before Jessie started school. It’s time to settle, he said.
But the landlord never puts the rent up, I kept saying. Well, he did once – there was a letter after the heater affair – but Stephen had gone by then.
The landlord brings in an aluminium A-frame ladder, which he sets down in the hall. He clears the floor under the manhole, rolling my therapy ball into the kitchen and shifting the potted palm into Jessie’s room. He lingers, looking at her walls. After Stephen left I painted the room hot pink above the picture rail and purple below. I think about saying sorry, but the oven overrides me.
The landlord steps back into the hallway and sets up the ladder. When he reaches the top, he looks back down and asks: Is there anyone else in the house?
He disappears into the roof and I stand there staring up at the hole.
Bet it’s filthy up there, I call up, but he doesn’t answer. I wait a few moments and then wander into the kitchen. A Women’s Weekly is sitting on the kitchen table and I flick to the pages about Princess Mary of Denmark. I confess I have a thing for her woollen hats. Or am I just one of the 800 000 women Andrew Denton spoke about in his TV interview with the couple? Denton said that all those women fell in love with the prince because he started crying when Mary entered the church.
She’ll have to handcuff me then, the prince said to Denton.
Denton kept trying to pull the church moment apart while, on the other side of the glass-topped table, Mary’s eyes champed.
Unprocessed emotion, the prince offered.
I shut the magazine and light the stove to boil water for the dishes. I pull on my rubber gloves and sit back down at the table to wait for the water to heat. Finally, it boils and I pour it into the sink, adding some cold water. I start clattering away, scrubbing the plates and lifting them out, the suds sliding down the pink rubber.
I am at the kitchen sink and there’s a landlord in my roof.
I hum: I’m at the kitchen sink and there’s a landlord in my roof.
I am smiling now as I scour the inside of the coffee cups. When they are standing in a line along the drainer, I sneak a look over my shoulder.
What if I took the ladder away?
He’d have to beg me to let him come back down.
I start humming again: there’s a landlord in my roof and it’s not my concern. The knives, forks and spoons drop one by one into the cutlery holder. Clang-clang. Clang.
The landlord calls from the roof using my shortened name. I whip off the gloves and throw them on to the table as I pass, suds spattering the floorboards. At the bottom of the ladder, I stand at attention. The landlord is peering down.
You wouldn’t mind passing me up my tape measure, would you? It’s down there on the floor.
When I climb up, the landlord is squatting back on the beams. He is bathed in a dusty golden glow from the sunlight casting through the fine gaps between the roof tiles. There’s streak of grime at his temple and a hint of perspiration on his pale skin.
Is it safe up here?
It’s pretty warm.
Yeah, I bet. Can I make you a cold drink?
Oh no. I have one in the car.
When the landlord comes down, he says: When that electrician came out, did he turn off all the power?
I don’t know. I guess so.
I’m thinking about rewiring, the landlord says. His eyes travel down the wall to the Jessie’s Lego near the skirting. Mind you, we’re going to knock the house down in a year. Put apartments up.
Well, he says, and I swear that he almost chuckles. If I say a year that’ll probably be more like eighteen months or two years.
Would you sell up?
If someone offered $450 grand, maybe. I could fix the place up, I suppose. Have to spend $100 grand on it, I reckon. No. Not worth it. Just pull it down.
There’s something about the landlord’s chuckle or near chuckle that makes me feel that what I say is the difference between him selling or not selling, so I start telling him about the local history. How the Temperance Hall turned into a TAFE, and how the pub turned into the optometrist. How the sign for the old dairy is still painted on the wall behind the shops, but now it’s overlooking an alley. I tell him about the artists who came out with the train-line – McCubbin, Streeton, that lot – and the landlord is shaking his head. And so I push the story out to the hills, say how the artists who painted out there carried hatchets.
No, he says. I don’t know. I don’t know any of that.
He picks up his bag of tools and carries them outside. I tail him.
The bungalow next door went for half a million. And our land – I mean yours – is bigger than theirs.
No. They’re the same size.
Same length, but this is wider.
The landlord walks to the border of the properties and starts pacing the footpath in front of next door. He counts his steps aloud. At the fence-line, he does an about face and counts his way back. He repeats the process in front of our house. I sit on the low stone wall watching his legs swinging in his overalls. When he’s halfway back from the boundary I call out: How many?
He lifts up his hand. I’ve made him lose count. He retreats to the boundary and begins counting his steps again, mouthing the numbers this time.
They’re the same size.
But I’ve been in there. When Jessie’s balls go over.
Probably a bigger house. Makes the land look smaller. The landlord is staring at the fence. A branch bearing tiny red berries has wedged itself between the palings.
How old’s your daughter now?
I wait for him to inquire after Stephen, and then remember that his name hasn’t been on the lease for two, maybe three, years now.
How many apartments would you put up? I ask.
Four, probably. Or six.
With courtyards and balconies?
You like it here?
There’s the park across the road. And they’re extending the hospital.
So there’ll be more nurses around, the landlord says. Nurses like living close to work. You’re a nurse, aren’t you?
I thought you were.
No. I’ve never been a nurse.
Well, he says. I guess you’d know. I can see he’s about to smile but changes his mind when I don’t pick him up on the joke. His face softens.
The landlord tells me about his flat in St Kilda, how it’s on the fourth floor and doesn’t have a balcony. I tell him about my old flat down St Kilda way. It didn’t have a balcony but there was a palm tree outside and steam trains went past on Sundays. When the landlord tells me they paid only $150 grand for the house years ago, I start to feel like Christine Keeler. I wonder if I can bring him down.
We walk back into the house together and the landlord folds up his ladder. I ask if I can buy the art deco light fitting in the lounge room when they pull the house down. It has three flutes made of opaque glass. Jessie says it’s a bird with three wings.
You can have it, the landlord says. He stops in the hallway and points up at the circuit board. I think the electrician turned the hot water off. But I don’t know whether the off-position on the switch is up or down. So I’ll switch it the other way and hopefully the water will warm up by tomorrow.
You came all this way for that.
You weren’t to know.
I stand on the path while he hoists the ladder onto the roof rack.
Give me a call about the water.
You mean if it doesn’t heat by tomorrow?
Well, it should.
But if it doesn’t, shall I call the agent?
No. Call me. You’ve got my number.
He watches me across the roof as he tightens the straps on the ladder. This is the time to ask about the oven. But I leave it sitting inside my own head.
I brought you out in this heat, I say.
You weren’t to know.