Saturday, May 1, 2010

The home front

Last week was a time of a gigantic ‘autumn clean’ that left this blogger so exhausted she has not had to provide the usual excuses for her normally excessive telly-watching.

The clean-up was occasioned by a triple whammy: an annual property inspection by the property manager (usually presaging some kind of rental hike), a visit by a painter to give a quote on the ceilings (fear of the owners prettying the place up in order to sell it, and no, he wasn’t planning a postmodern version of the Sistine Chapel) and most serious of all, the owners themselves, asking politely (it’s their legal right of course) if they could come and have a sticky beak.

It was on for one and all. Well, not entirely. I didn’t clean the windows, and I didn’t dust the tiny horizontal surfaces that abound in this impossibly high-maintenance ‘villa’ (why have only one ledge on the skirting boards when you can have three!).

I damp-dusted everything else though, and rubbed grime off a series of cupboard walls and doors. But the most debilitating job was the garden. With a back and front yard, as well as a driveway, it’s a lot of work to keep it looking reasonably neat. The whole place is really too much for one person, and especially this person, who doesn’t have a lot of energy to spare at the best of times.

( I would be remiss here if I didn’t acknowledge that my dad actually provided mowing services gratis and even returned the next day to dispose of an unfortunate dead rat on the driveway that had somehow escaped both our notice – not a good look if left there for the owners to discover.)

The way I cope with the maintenance requirements of this place is to have a list of jobs that I work my way through but am always behind on. Thus, I am never living in total disarray and yet never basking in the sweet order that my obsessive personality adores.

Except for the last few days, of course. As I dragged myself around in deep physical exhaustion I was able to enjoy the sense of being ‘looked after’ – by me! Of course the house will slowly descend into its normal interim state of semi-dirty tidiness, but until then I’m enjoying the fresh aura of clean.

Even if I had the energy I don’t think I have the will to keep this level of maintenance up, but now I understand why people pay to have these services performed. I’ve also come to the conclusion that the results of zealous domestic work – this sense of being looked after and the visual effects of cleanness – are a compensation for living in unrenovated housing, and of course a way of exercising control over the space.

My mother was obsessive about housework. There was no question that it came first. I internalised this very early, and received her unalloyed approval only when I tried to help her in her endless quest against mess; how welcome were her happiness and attention on the rare occasions I felt motivated to ‘clean the kitchen’ after the evening dishes, removing the conglomeration of administration and junk that endlessly migrated to the kitchen table and benches.

Much of that mess would have been my father’s. He’s a hoarder, and I am only now beginning to appreciate the scale of the battle she has fought with his encroaching, largely paper-based chaos for decades. She’s been physically somewhat debilitated in the last few years, and it breaks my heart in a way that is no doubt excessive to see that his watercolour painting, small political battles and admin tasks now encroach on the dining room and sunroom of their house (his ‘study’ is so chock-full of boxes and papers that he can’t do anything in there besides use the computer).

In my twenties I was able to tolerate short-term messiness, as long as it was created by me and not an overly busy housemate. However, prolonged and extreme untidiness, I now realise, has always spelled chaos to me. I had a friend in primary school, T, whose parents were literary. The two front rooms were relatively tidy, but T’s parents were cheerfully oblivious to the accretions of long-term mess that beset the rest of the place. I once galvanised T and one of her younger brothers to join me in a clean-up of her bedroom; the strongest memory I have of this episode is determinedly sweeping marble after marble from under one of the beds.

Seven years ago I flooded my flat and ended up moving back to live with my parents for over a year, much to the chagrin of my mother. During this time her approach to housework became evident; I remember her once literally sweeping around my feet as I stood in the jarrah-floored sunroom. It seemed to me at the time that she would have loved to sweep me away.

Post-visit relief

After all that elbow grease, the house inspection went almost impossibly smoothly. The owners are an elderly woman and her husband, and the flat has been in the family for decades – the wife’s father bought the three adjoining flats new, and left one to each of his children. I knew all this already, but found out from the wife that the development, one of a small minority of art deco styled buildings in the area, was built in 1937.

I was very curious about who the first-ever tenants were, as I imagined them as some proto-yuppie couple moving into what would then have been a stylish ultra-modern apartment (the kitchen has a wonderful fold-out ironing board, complete with what appears to be original floral ironing board cover, that would have been cutting edge circa 1937). But the owner had no idea who they were, as she would have been only around six when the place was first tenanted.

Anyway, I’d only ever met the husband before, not the wife. The property manager turned up breathless at my door as the couple came up behind her, the wife helped along by her husband, the pair having inexplicably caught the tram. ‘She’s blind, you know’, said the property manager. As well as immediately obliterating my fantasy of this all-powerful landlord and inciting my compassion, the irony could not escape me – much of my cleaning had probably been unnecessary.

However, the husband and the PM both went away to have a good look through. It became clear that the only appropriate thing to do was to sit the owner down in the loungeroom and chat to her – she wasn’t interested in accompanying her husband on the inspection, and she was tired after the tram ride. She was frail and very cluey, with a guttural voice and a strong Australian accent.

I felt for her, because her blindness, seemingly acquired in later life, clearly annoyed her. As they were leaving her husband grabbed her arm and moved in the direction of the large spare room over the hallway. ‘There’s a front bedroom over here’, he said jovially. ‘Come on, I’ll show it to you.’

‘What’s the point?’ she responded angrily. ‘I can’t see anything!’

I have now got over my pathological fear of the landlords, and the whole episode did not suggest imminent sale to me, or a rental hike out of the ordinary. Also, the tattered ceilings are to be plastered and painted if an insurance claim goes through. So I think it’s safe to judge the visit a success!

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