THAT WAS THE day the garbage didn’t get picked up, and the day the house across the road burned down. Trish, whose flat shared a wall with mine, knew something was up.
‘Something’s up,’ she said, standing in her dressing gown by the wheelie bins that morning, when the house across the road was still there. ‘The garbage is always gone by sunrise.’
‘Maybe the garbage man called in sick,’ I said. I had a cold, and was trying to sound cheerful while sniffing violently and fumbling for my car keys.
‘Oh no, love, they all have understudies. Dale saw them all the time when he was with the council.’
Dale was Trish’s son and had worked on the council’s outdoor staff before moving back home last year. Whenever he saw me he’d ask whether I’d be trading my hatchback for a ute anytime soon. I used to have a ute, he’d say. Bloody ripper.
‘I don’t like this at all,’ Trish said.
‘See ya,’ I said as I unlocked my car.
‘Not one bit.’
When I arrived home from work that evening the house across the road had burned to the ground. Trish and Dale were standing in its driveway, hands on hips. Dale nodded in greeting as I jogged over.
‘What the hell?’ I wheezed. Trish must have interpreted my panting as shock or despair, because she rubbed her hand in large, rough circles on my shoulder and made tut-tutting noises.
It had been a lovely old house, which we’d all been fond of in our own way; made from timber, built before the war, it added a little old-world dignity to our neighbourhood of brown apartment slabs and pastel-coloured Lego bricks. It was a throwback to a time when our medium-density suburb had been a pastoral outpost, where households were large and noisy and warm. Now, though, the steeply pitched roof had collapsed, the bottle-green paint had boiled and flaked into a thin black crust and the polished hardwood deck that circled the house was little more than a charred skeleton. Only the wrought-iron fence and the rose bushes that wound around it had survived intact.
I asked how the fire had started, but Trish said she wasn’t sure because she had been on the toilet and only caught the end of it. ‘It was all very quiet to begin with, just the smell of smoke – then just like that, whoosh, the whole thing gone.’ The owners had fled, believing they’d incurred the wrath of an angry god, and refused to come back, even for their belongings. ‘I knew something was up,’ she said, shaking her head.
Dale moved over to stand close to me. He had a habit of looking me dead in the eye when he spoke, which left me with a strong urge to scratch my nose or put my hand up to my mouth. ‘Tax dodge, I reckon,’ he said in a hushed voice, looking around at the other houses as though checking for eavesdroppers. The three of us were the only ones outside; everyone else in the neighbourhood must have seen all they’d needed to see and gone back to their lives. Even the houses either side of the burnt building had their windows illuminated by televisions and kitchen lights. It was getting dark; Trish shrugged and wandered back across the road. I followed, Dale at my side.
‘Still got the hatchback then, eh?’
My flat seemed smaller and grubbier than usual after that. I’d never had a problem with renting, and in the six months since I’d become the flat’s sole occupant I’d felt a detached sort of okay about it. But now, eating my dinner in front of the television, my gaze kept snagging on the small rip in the carpet, the bare fluorescent lights, the cupboards in the kitchen held shut with blue-tack. It felt dark and empty and tired, and for the first time it began to bother me that it wasn’t really my flat at all.
NOTHING HAPPENED ACROSS the road for quite a while. The postman left catalogues beside the front gate. One of Dale’s mates at the council ran a yellow safety rope along the fence. A neighbourhood cat gave birth to kittens somewhere in the crumbling pile of wood and metal. The owners never came back; clothes, books and other personal effects could be seen amid the debris. Along with a few other curious neighbours I’d had a bit of a rummage through the pile, to see if there was anything I could salvage. My flat was becoming more and more cluttered. I’d seen magazines and television shows depicting homes – nice homes,proper homes – filled with useful, curious things, repurposed bric-a-brac intended to exude that welcoming, lived-in feeling. As a result, I’d started to accumulate stuff. A growing collection of glass jars and bottles, labels removed, stood empty on top of my fridge. I’d fashioned a lumpy and slightly-too-small bookcase out of milk crates covered in fabric, as well as a milk-crate telephone table. I still only had two plates, two mugs, two of each kind of cutlery, though one of each invariably remained unused; I still hadn’t got the hang of having a spare.
One afternoon I came home from work and the whole thing – the carcass of the house, the piles of debris, everything – was gone, with an enormous bald square of dirt in its place. Trish said a demolition crew had come by during the day and cleared the site in under two hours. ‘Barely had to knock anything down,’ she said. ‘More like scooping it all up.’ All that remained was the front fence and the rose bushes, and a Hills Hoist in the far corner. There was another house, which faced onto a different street, behind the one that had burned down; the shell of a Volkswagen Beetle sat rusting under a tree in the backyard. I shook my head and said it was such a shame that the last nice house in the street should meet such an undignified end.
Every day after that I expected to come home to a street filled with trucks and tradesmen, ripping up driveways, sawing and hammering into the wee hours. I took the glass bottles down off my fridge as a precaution, lest the inevitable vibrating machinery cause them to rattle and smash. I expected a For Sale sign to appear, real-estate agents with clipboards waving their arms in grand sweeping motions, filling the minds of prospective buyers with delicious fantasies about building a lifestyle, seizing the opportunity, realising dreams. But weeks turned into months without a sign of activity. Catalogues piled up by the gate, the roses kept growing, and the grass from the backyard crept steadily towards the front. Parents kept their children inside, and discussions between neighbours turned to whispers. It reminded me of the feeling you get when you’re waiting for someone important. Your head says, okay, they’re five minutes late, but they’ll be here any second now. Your gut says, fuck, they’re not coming. You’re left in limbo, not sure whether to move or stand up or breathe. Then they show up. Or they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Either way, you end up cursing yourself for being so stupid.
ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON I went across the road and stood in front of the empty block. The patch where the house had stood was now completely covered with grass, which congregated here and there in tangled knee-high tufts. I leaned against the wrought-iron fence and looked back at the building where I lived. Dale was pushing a lawnmower along the small strip of kikuyu between the two driveways. He saw me and waved, stepped away from the mower and crossed the road.
‘G’day,’ he said, leaning on the fence next to me. He tilted his head approvingly towards the unattended machine. ‘New mower.’
‘Thinking of getting a bit of a mowing business going. Just for the short term.’
I nodded. ‘Sounds good.’
‘Yeah.’ He kicked at the ground. ‘Mum says g’day. She’s a bit crook, hasn’t been out much. Arthritis playing up. She’s been wanting to come see you, actually. Wants to know if you’re, ah, if you’re eating, that sort of thing.’
I coughed in surprise. I knew Trish had seen the ever-growing clutter in my flat and been startled by it, but I didn’t think she’d actually read anything into it. Then again, I did have a stack of at least half a dozen unconnected stereo speakers near my front door, and a small collection of phone books which I had heard made good footrests.
‘What? Yeah, nah. I’m good.’
Dale nodded furiously. ‘Yeah, nah, course, yeah.’ He flexed his shoulder blades. I scratched my nose. For a moment we stood there, leaning against the fence. I became aware of the metal bars pressing uncomfortably against my elbows.
‘Huh. Look at that.’ Dale pointed in the direction of our building. ‘Behind the flats. You can see where they’re building that new tower.’
To the north, above the rooftops and TV antennas, I could see the fuzzy silhouette of a skyscraper, two cranes flanking it on either side.
‘Bloody hell,’ Dale said. ‘I knew the city was out that way, but that tower must be bloody tall if you can see it all the way out here.’
Seeing that building on the horizon made my insides tense. As Dale started back across the road, I called out to him. ‘Can I borrow your mower?’
The sky grew orange as I pushed the mower across the vacant block. The ash had done wonders for the soil; the grass was thick and green, and my arms and legs ached as I wrenched the struggling machine back and forth. As I went, I tried to figure out which part of the old house I would have been standing in. Even though I’d never been inside it while it stood, I imagined its walls and its roof surrounding me, the hollow thud of its timber floors. Following my hypothetical blueprint, I mowed the kitchen, lounge, three bedrooms and the veranda, expertly trimming around the timber and porcelain fixtures in the bathroom.
I cut every single blade of grass on that godforsaken patch of earth. After I was done I took off my shoes, lay down on my back and spread out my arms. I breathed deep, savouring for a few moments the salty, earthy smell of my sweat and my skin. The cool sap of the cut grass seeped through the back of my shirt. It was a beautiful afternoon; there were no clouds, no planes flying overhead, just a perfect void of blue turning into orange turning into purple. Lying there on my back, staring directly upwards, I could position my head in such a way that all the buildings and the trees and the TV antennas fell out of my peripheral vision, and I could pretend it had always been like this.
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