We were grateful for a place to stay, and the house-sitting duties were few and easy (water the plants, feed the fish). The house belonged to a friend of my partner’s younger sister, May, so we regarded it as older siblings might, giving certain decor a pass – the hanging seashells, the excessive macramé – and noting with pride the abundance of the veggie garden, which put our own to shame. As she handed us the keys, May pointed out the FOR SALE sign across the road and told us the happy family that lived there had not been happy. “But he’s in jail now,” she said, as if that fixed things.
The house across the road was actually two houses, a kind of symmetrical duplex split down the middle by a common wall. 34A and 34B. Only 34A was for sale. There were no cars in either driveway, but a dinky green boat sat marooned in one of them. The shared front yard was otherwise sparse. Our view of 34A was framed by a large window at the front of our house, and by the drooping pot plants that hung from the verandah. From behind the silhouetted plants, we could watch without being watched.
We unloaded the car and set up our bassinet in the room where May’s friend’s baby slept. The house had a caravan park feel to it, airy with exposed brick and torn lino. There were bright plastic toys in every room and dozens of black-and-white photographs of the young couple and their child. Back home, we had a single photograph of ourselves on display, a postage stamp-sized image of my partner kissing my cheek as I pretended to wince, taken years before we got together. We often wondered if it was too much.
Beneath the back patio, a sort of floating plastic chair surrounded by plush toys and scratchproof mirrors and noise-making gizmos shuddered in the breeze. The washing line was strung with brightly coloured baby clothes like garish bunting. Our baby wore mostly muted tones with names such as cement and oatmeal. We knew it might look like we were being too precious, and yet we couldn’t bring ourselves to buy the cutesy prints, the disposable toys.
A small white car pulled into the driveway across the road. Its driver, a woman, opened her door but did not get out. She was talking loudly on the phone. After 20 or so minutes, she left. Shortly after, a jacked-up ute with monstrous wheels and a bumper sticker that read “Rest in Peace Travis: 1992–2019” pulled into the recently vacated driveway. A shortish young man got out of the ute, followed by a larger, older man. The young man looked through the windows of both 34A and 34B. The older man walked around the back of the duplex and returned wheeling a red motorcycle. He and the younger man wobbled the heavy motorcycle up a steep ramp and onto the tray of the ute. The men then went inside and brought out to the kerb a battered three-piece sofa, a fold-up stroller, an inflatable pool (deflated), a wooden cot (with snapped uprights), a child’s bicycle, a washing machine, two jerry cans, a gas barbecue and a metal clothes rack with a black-and-white wig snagged on it like a trophy scalp. The stuff was all a bit banged up, but it was not garbage. Piled on the lawn it looked more like an avant-garde stage set or a modern art installation. Content with their work, the men left.
That evening the white car returned. This time, the woman got out. She went inside 34A and emerged moments later with a steaming mug. She sat down by the front door, her blackened feet out in front of her, and sipped from the mug as she smoked one cigarette after another. We watched through the hanging plants. Every so often, the woman adjusted her sitting position, folding her legs beneath herself or splaying them out to one side. She went inside only to fill her mug or empty her bladder and was still out by the door when we went to sleep. For the next few days our baby fed, played, slept and cried, and in the gaps so did we. All the while the woman remained in the doorway, smoking.
It rained one morning and the wig that was snagged on the clothes rack grew ratty. The sun came out and a man with a hammer knocked the useful parts out of the washing machine. The wind tussled the trees in our yard and we dressed our child in a slate romper, a pewter onesie. We fed the fish and pilfered the veggie garden for basil and chillies. It rained some more, and more men with hammers came to pick over the pile of junk. Bit by bit the pile shrank.
At some point the woman moved inside. She came out periodically to look up and down the road, every few minutes at first, then every few hours. Then she either stopped or I stopped noticing. I came home one evening and found her on our front lawn, rocking our baby whose wet, red face suggested a recent fuss. The woman’s jeans were wet at the knees from the lawn. My partner asked if she’d like to eat with us that night, we could order pizza, but the woman declined. My partner asked if she was sure, and the woman said, “Maybe next time.”
I only saw her once more during our stay. At the end of the week, the council sent a truck to collect what was left of the junk. Most of it was gone by then, and the truck drove off half-empty, its massive tray comically excessive to the task. The woman watched as the truck disappeared over a crest, then she went inside and closed the door.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "Hard rubbish".
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