The Tenant

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October 25, 2019

It’s 33 degrees today and my kitchen is smelling pungent. There’s a possum in the closed off chimney of the old coal range. It’s a feral creature and feral creatures tend to smell. It’s been living there since I moved back to Sydney in May last year. At nightfall, I sometimes hear it climb out and land on the kitchen roof with a thud before setting off on its nocturnal foraging.

A couple of months ago, I was cutting a particularly crusty loaf of bread with a serrated knife. The sound this made must have mirrored a possum call. From inside the chimney, I heard the possum challenge me with a loud ‘shick-shick-shick’.

The demolition man visited the house a few days ago. I told him about the possum and explained that I wanted it handled with care when the chimney, indeed the whole back structure, is demolished. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘I’m an animal lover. I’ll be very careful.’ He took out his phone and showed me photos of his poodle. He told me it weighs 16kg adding, ‘But he doesn’t look fat.’ I agreed. The dog looked merely chunky. ‘He’s the love of my life,’ he said.

I now want to hire the man purely on the basis of his compassion for animals.. 

 

The Nose

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October 22, 2019

I call my 86-year-old mother every day. It’s as much for Mum as for me but Marion likes to make out I’m doing it purely for my own gratification. As soon I call, she wants action. She wants entertainment. She wants a nugget she can sink her teeth into, something she’ll have an opinion about, a platform from which she can tell me that I’m doing it all wrong and that if the shoe were on the other foot she would do it better, a hell of a lot better.

Inevitably, she asks, ‘So, what’s happening?’ and if I don’t come up with something snappy, she’ll dismiss me with, ‘So, nothing then’. The thing is, she’s usually right. Not a lot happens in my little but reasonably happy life. My cat yawns. The greengrocer gets in new season nectarines. I write 1,000 words. My cat yawns again and I find myself fascinated by the sunlight shining through her ear. All those tiny veins.

The other day I was talking to Marion about the renovation work that will soon start. It will be tough, I said. They’ll be building a new bathroom while I’m living here. Then, of course, there’ll be the demolition of the back of the house and the rebuilding, all happening in the scorching heat of Sydney midsummer.

‘Well, you chose to live in Sydney,’ she replied. ‘It gets hot here, too.’

Today, once again, I found myself under pressure to deliver something to prove that damn it, I do have a life. So I told her about the woman in my yoga class, the one with foot odour. She’s new to the studio and wears shoes without socks, those odd, individual-toe things. The smell once these shoe things are removed is intense and putrid.

‘I keep moving my yoga mat around the room, trying to create distance between myself and the feet,’ I say.

Mum inhales noisily. ‘You should tell her,’ she says.

I reply in my wishy-washy way that it’s a sensitive matter, that it’s not my place. I mean, what could you say to the woman?

‘Tell her that her feet stink and she should wash them. It’s very unpleasant for everyone,’ says Mum. ‘That’s what I would do.’

The Elevator

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October 12, 2019

When I lived in Paris, my apartment building had a small two-person elevator that had been installed inside the old stairwell. My apartment was on the fifth floor so it was helpful when I came home with 15 kilos of produce from the Belleville Market, one of the biggest fruit and vegetable markets in Paris. Most of the Belleville stall-holders were from the Magreb, mainly Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Much of the produce came from these countries. It was fresh and delicious. I always bought too much.

You get to know your neighbours when you live in a French apartment building. You might think they don’t know much about you but they do. Some if not all your windows will face a courtyard and unless you live with your blinds down, people will be watching what you do. But while your neighbours probably monitor you, for the most part they will leave you alone. This is French politesse. Neighbours are polite to your face but do the decent thing and leave unpleasantness until you are out of earshot.

It’s obligatoire to say hello when you pass a neighbour in one of the common areas but a chat is generally taking things too far. I was new to this game so I chatted and invited neighbours in for tea. While people were friendly to me, the general feeling was that I was a bit simple.

On the fourth floor we had a neighbour, a man who must have been handsome in his youth. Indeed, he still had something of his looks when I moved into the building. By then he was already on the slippery slope and over the next couple of years, he slid into a desperate, destructive alcoholism. He stopped washing. His body bloated and his face became ragged and puffy. He would stand in his doorway and shout filthy things at his neighbours. He was nearly always drunk and angry. I didn’t want trouble with him. I kept my distance.

After another year or two, he started urinating in a corner of the tiny elevator. At first it happened occasionally. A small damp path that left you wondering. Then it became a regular thing, something I’m sure he did to upset his neighbours. The elevator started to smell. A corner of the coir mat rotted and the mat was replaced. It rotted again and a corner of the mat was simply cut off, French fix-it style. This exposed the metal base of the elevator where a patch of rust had developed.

By this point, I was actively avoiding the man and had stopped greeting him. People made complaints to the management company and building committee but the man kept shouting and urinating. His sister owned the small studio where he lived so eviction was virtually impossible.

Then one day, the man disappeared. By now, I was sick of the pissy bastard and happy to see him go. The studio, which was jammed with rubbish, was cleared out. It was given a lick of paint and sold. The mat inside the elevator was replaced.

A year or so later, my partner was hailed on the street by a familiar looking man. The former neighbour was slim and healthy, almost unrecognisable. His greeting was friendly. He’d stopped drinking, he explained, and was doing well. He said he wanted to thank my partner. ‘You were the only one in that building who was friendly to me.’

Bikini Wax

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September 30, 2019

There are two types of people: those who apologise when they cause inconvenience to others and those who don’t. Within this second group, there is a sub-category: those who not only don’t apologise but go on the attack when challenged. Let’s label this subcategory ‘arseholes’.

I met one of these nice types yesterday on the 13-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney. We were 12 hours into the flight when the one-hour-before-landing queues started forming outside lavatories. The cubicle I was standing outside was occupied when I arrived and stayed occupied for 10 minutes. At the 11-minute mark, I gently turned the handle, code for ‘We know you’re in there but we’re pretending we don’t understand the red occupied sign’. Several minutes passed. I turned the handle again. Nothing.

Several minutes later, the queue had become a crowd that had ballooned out of the aisle and was now taking over the flight attendants’ kitchen area. We were told to disperse. There were only nine oxygen masks in the kitchen zone. Health and safety, etc. The last to arrive were driven back to other queues further down the plane.

Still the toilet door showed no sign of opening. I asked the man beside me if I should knock. He nodded. ‘Go on,’ he says. ‘I would.’

I knock.

There’s a flush and a few minutes later, a very pretty woman in her twenties bursts out of the toilet and shouts, ‘DID YOU KNOCK?’

I look at the man who is now pretending he’s never spoken to me in his life before admitting with a nod, yes, I did it. That was me. Moi.

She points a finger, teacher-like, before ranting, ‘I have been flying for 11 hours… blah, blah, blah.’ It has actually been over 12 hours at this point but I don’t correct her because in all fairness, she might have entered the cubicle at the 11-hour mark. As she lectures the queue about her right to occupy the lavatory, part of me wants to apologise for inconveniencing her. Hell, it really IS annoying when someone knocks on a toilet door, especially if you’re in the middle of a bikini wax on a long international flight.

Somehow, I manage to suppress the urge to apologise. I tell her that a huge queue had formed. I want to explain that a flight attendant had dispersed a massive crowd, that we were about to be tear-gassed.

The young woman cuts me off with a shout, ‘I don’t care!’

At this point, something inside me, some small defiant grub wriggles to life. ‘I think that’s enough now,’ I say, and gently nudge her aside.

Before entering the cubicle, I turn to the man who is still pretending he doesn’t know me and tell him that I won’t be long.

A Big Family

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When I arrived Athens, a taxi driver called Stavros drove me to the Plaka from the airport. I told him I’d been to Skyros and he mentioned the wonderful, small horses on the island. The screen-saver on his phone was a photo of a horse belonging to his brother. We chatted about animals.

He told me in basic English that he has two horses, a rabbit and a 15-year-old husky. I asked if he had children.

Many, he said.

‘Four?’ I asked.

More, he said.

‘Eight?’

More, he said.

‘Ten?’

Almost.

‘Twelve?’

Yes, he said, nodding proudly in the mirror.

How does a taxi driver with two horses, a rabbit and an old husky support 12 children, I wondered. I asked if he’d had two wives.

He shook his head, confused. His dog had given birth to 12 pups.

Swimming Through Stars

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September 19, 2019

Last night a group of us (six women) walked down to a small pebble beach here in Atsitsa. When we turned off our torches, the massive light show of the Milky Way seemed to sag over our heads. We took off our clothes and as we stepped into the water, so velvety and gentle, the tiny bioluminescent creatures of the ocean exploded around us, bursting to life against our moving limbs. I’ve done this night swim five times here at Atsitsa but last night the sea was alive with bioluminescence. It was like swimming through stars. Thousands of them.

The Horizon

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September 14, 2019

I called my mother this morning to tell her about last night’s visit to Skyros village and today’s boat trip. It will be an all-day voyage around the island with food and drinks.

‘Do you have to pay?’ Mum asked.

Yes, I replied but it’s an all-inclusive deal with vegetarian options.

‘Well, you’d better eat a lot then.’

I mentioned that I’m worried I might get seasick, a theme of my childhood, one she always ignored when the family went boating.

‘Don’t talk yourself into it,’ she said. ‘Just look at the horizon.’

I asked if she’d ever experienced seasickness.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘But I know you just have to look at the horizon.’