Chapter 7. Try before you buy

Meantime, back in the city, where we were still living most of our lives: it was a wonderful spring evening, when the air feels full of oxygen and you have limitless energy. Daniel, Eve, Rick and I had just been to see the French movie Hidden at the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne – our favourite cinema.

We were enjoying a stroll along Military Road, clustered together rehashing the movie as we walked. What exactly had happened at the end? Does the protagonist die? Did he kill himself? And how about the wife, played by Juliette Binoche? – she was layer upon layer of secrets. How amazing that even the theme of the movie was hidden from view. The story seemed so purposeful, yet we couldn’t work out precisely what had happened and why. Eve was baffled by it. Rick was cranky with it. Daniel was delighted.

The animated conversation continued as we climbed into the car and headed home.

Rick stopped the car outside Eve and Daniel’s house, and, having got what juice we could from the movie, we chatted on for a minute.

“Our lease was up a couple of months ago,” Daniel said reflectively. “The owner hasn’t said anything about renewing it, so we’ve just been rolling it over week by week. How about you guys?”

We were in a similar situation.

Daniel finally spoke what was on his mind.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’ve been wondering if the six of us should rent a big place and move in together. Judy’s been saying we should trial living together. Because both our leases are up, this might be the time.”

Long pause. “Wow,” I said. “That’s a wild idea.”

Daniel nodded. “It’s completely crazy. But I figure if we’re thinking about building a house and then spending ten or twenty or thirty years of our lives together, we’d better find out if we can stand living with one another.” I frowned, caught between a sudden tingle of trepidation and a recognition of the unassailable logic of the idea.

“Makes a lot of sense,” Rick agreed. “We should be able to get something nice and end up paying no more rent than we are now. Plus, as you say, it would be a real test of what it’s like to actually live together.”

I was surprised to hear this from both the men. It sometimes seemed to me that our project was driven more by Eve, Judy and myself. I had surreptitiously speculated about whether it was a “nest” thing, in the female domain. However, on this occasion it was I who was feeling hesitant. “Even trying to find a place to rent could drive us nuts when we’re all so busy,” I said. “Besides, it might be impossible for Michael and Judy. They still own their house. Even if they want to sell, it could take ages.”

“They should be able to rent out their house for more than they’d pay for one third of a place we shared,” Rick reflected.

Eve waded in. “Well, if we’re committed to making this thing happen, it’s going to take some effort. I feel like we’re all giant ocean liners, and getting us to change course and move in formation is going to take all our strength. This would be a big test.”

We sat thinking for a moment. Finally Eve said, “Want to come in for coffee? I wouldn’t mind discussing this some more.”

We all murmured our agreement and wandered up the steep driveway to their house. Daniel popped the key in the lock and let us in, cautioning us to avoid the cat vomit that presented at the door. Raju, their elderly cat, watched us speculatively from the kitchen. Daniel scooted off to find the carpet cleaner while the rest of us made our way into the lounge room.

Cat spew aside, I’ve always enjoyed Eve and Daniel’s house. It was impeccably tidy, furnished in Eve’s own sparse and disciplined style. The comfortable sofas were covered in white fabric. The coffee tables were intricate, vaguely Asian in design. There where little Buddhas and Shivas enshrined here and there, the walls dotted with aboriginal or Indian art.

But tonight I was looking at these furnishings through new eyes. I was thinking, wow, Eve’s style is so different from my own. Could we possibly share our lives? Could I find comfort with white sofas and Buddhas? I looked at Eve, bringing in a spotless tray of coffee and cups. Could I possibly live with her? I loved her dearly but we were very different people. I had a bustling-downtown-corporate sort of flavour, Eve a tranquil yogi flavour. Could we make a nest together?

I thought, this is insane. I haven’t had to think these kinds of thoughts since I tied up with Rick some 25 years ago. I’m contemplating relationship with four more people – one that’s almost a marriage. Do I fancy sharing meals, money, machinery and artwork with five people? Our kids, Michael and Jenn, had not long ago left home, and life had become simple since then. This was starting to look complicated again.

In that moment, as the four of us drank coffee and tossed the idea back and forth, it came home to me.

This was an extraordinary thing we were considering, and it could be very uncomfortable.

Or it could be wonderful.

Well, what better than to give the whole idea the acid test?

We agreed, yes, let’s talk to Michael and Judy. Let’s set up a meeting and see what they have to say about it.

*    *    *

From: Daniel
Sent: Thursday 10:28 AM
To:
Judy; Michael
Cc: Rick; Heather
Subject: An idea to talk about
When we went to the movies last night with Rick and Heather, we had an idea we’d like to run by you guys. I was wondering if we could all drop by your place tomorrow after work, bring some food and talk it over?

From: Judy
Subject: Re: An idea to talk about
Sure, we’re fine for tomorrow. I’m intrigued. Would be great if we could have takeaway ’cause I’m NOT going to feel like cooking. Shall we say 6:00 pm?

*    *    *

“All right,” Judy said. “I can’t wait a minute more. Let’s hear about this mysterious idea.”

We were gathered around the little table in the Michael and Judy’s dining room, helping ourselves to heaping platefuls of curries and condiments that Rick had picked up at a favourite Indian restaurant.

Daniel put down the piece of naan bread he’d been about to bite into and cleared his throat. “Well, here’s the thing. I’ve been mulling around the idea that if we’re seriously going ahead with building a house on our property, it might be a good idea to do a trial shot at living together. I was talking with Rick and Heather because, like us, they’re no longer on a lease. That means at any moment we could be asked either to sign a lease, which would lock us in for another year or two, or be asked to leave, which would end up having the same result – locked into a new lease elsewhere. So I thought, what if the six of us were to find a place and rent together? Like, now, rather than later. It would mean you’d have to rent out your house here, but seems to me you should be able to do that and come out ahead.” He paused. “So…I’ll shut up now; what do you think?”

Michael and Judy looked at each other.

“Wow. That was a thunderbolt!” Judy said. But her eyes were lighting up. “Wouldn’t that be an extraordinary thing to do?” she asked speculatively.

Michael raised his eyebrows. “Whew. Give me a minute to think.” He paused. “Well, the obvious hurdle is Jess.”

Their son Jess was coming up eighteen and in the midst of finishing his HSC year. A great deal of Michael and Judy’s lives were now centred around getting him through this ordeal.

“We don’t know where he’ll be going to university,” Judy speculated.

“Or IF,” Michael supplied.

“He’s going to apply to the drama school at the University of Western Australia…”

“He’s also thinking about taking a gap year…”

We sat listening, giving them time to thrash the idea around in their heads. The curries were passed around one more time.

“Well, Jess, will be a factor,” Daniel agreed. “If we were to do this, we’d have to find a place that could accommodate seven of us.”

“Also,” Judy added, “Mike and I will need to talk to Josephine about it. She’s got us on a tight leash.”

We all knew Josephine. She was Michael and Judy’s financial adviser, a commanding woman with a strident voice and wild laugh, who was helping them make progress with their finances.

“Yes, indeed, you need to speak to Josephine,” Eve agreed.

“All right,” said Michael. “Let’s say that Judy and I are interested in principle. And that we can include Jess in the equation. What would we be looking for in a house we’d rent together?”

“A big place, obviously,” Daniel said. “Each couple would need a bedroom and an office…”

“And room for guests,” I added. For years our home had seen a steady stream of overseas visitors. And our kids liked to stay over every now and then, a respite from their own cluttered lives.

“Not too far away from the city centre. I refuse to commute.” That was Rick. For the last year, we’d been living two blocks from the Wollstonecraft train station, which was in turn only ten or twelve minutes from where we both worked in the heart of the city. No way was Rick going to face a return to the kind of three-quarter hour grind in traffic that had dominated our suburban years in Forestville.

“Hold on,” Eve interrupted. “It seems like we’re generating a wish list here. Shouldn’t we be writing this down? I’ll take notes,” she said, reaching onto the counter for a pad and paper. We shoved aside the curry dishes. “Fire away!”

Ideas began to flow:

On a bus or train line
Got to have some garden
Water or city views
Plenty of windows; good light
Curtains included
Lots of storage space
Swimming pool (only one spark of interest – mine – for this one)
Pets allowed (each of us had a beloved cat)
Enough space in the common area that we can still have privacy
In good condition
Quiet street, quiet area
At least six bedrooms
Big kitchen
Big dining area
24 month lease
Max $1800 per week rent

A half hour later we had exhausted our list and were sitting back looking dazed. But there was a certain excitement in the air.

“Okay,” I said. “How about I take this list and put it into a spreadsheet? I’ll set it up so everyone can indicate whether a particular item is important to them or not. After I circulate the list, everyone can look it over and fill in their column. Then I’ll compile it and….” I spread my hands open expectantly.

“….We can start looking!” Eve supplied.

“And by the way, this list will probably be similar to the one we’ll put together if and when we decide to build,” Michael added.

That also was a sobering thought. The whole thing was starting to snowball. It felt like there might be an avalanche shaping above us.

*    *    *

From: Judy
Sent: Monday, 11:30 AM
To: Shedders
Subject: Approval from the boss
Our accountant Josephine says she thinks we’re completely nuts but as long as we don’t pay more than $700 pw for our portion of the share house, we’ll do okay.
So consider Michael and me IN.
Let’s start huntin’.

From: Heather
Sent: Monday, 8:17 PM
To: Shedders
Subject: Our wish list
I’ve attached the list of all the rental house qualities we talked about Friday night. I’ve set up 4 categories:
V = this is very important to me
M = this is moderately important to me
U = this is unimportant to me one way or other
X = I’d rather NOT have this
So just pop your V, M, U or X in the column under your name, and then fire it back to me. I’ll consolidate and circulate.

P.S. Remember if you veto the swimming pool, I will take revenge on one of your special favourites.

From: Heather
Subject: Re: Our wish list
Thanks everyone for your speedy replies.
Attached is the consolidated list. In summary, the things that are either very or moderately important to four or more of us are:
– Short commute to work
– Plenty of space (equivalent of 2 bedrooms per couple)
– Light and airy
– Some garden
– Quiet area
– 3 bathrooms
Rick’s spotted a house in Northbridge on domain.com.au. Says it has six bedrooms and an office, in a quiet street – shall we phone the agent to have a look at it?

From: Eve
Sent: Friday, 10:13 AM
To: Shedders
Subject: How about this?
Hi everyone It crossed my mind we could make up a brochure for the agents we talk to. What do you think of this one?

Looking for Something Special

Three professional couples, recent empty-nesters, are looking for a minimum 2 year lease on a large home in the lower north shore

What we’d like to have:
· 6 bedrooms plus study
· 3 bathrooms

· 2 living areas

· Outdoor entertaining area

· Close to train or public transport

· 3 car spaces or good on-street parking

· Central heating

· 24 month lease

· Located in Wollstonecraft, Waverton, Greenwich, etc

· Rent at $1200-1800 per week

Who we are:
Heather and Rick B….Wollstonecraft; phone ….. (have rented there for 1 year)

Eve and Daniel W…. Wollstonecraft; phone ….. (have rented there for 2 years)

Michael and Judy H…. Roselle; phone ….. (have owned this home since 1994)

All working professionals who have either recently sold or rented out the family home

*    *    *

A month later on a hot Saturday afternoon, we were gathered in Eve and Daniel’s back garden, which was dotted with Eve’s pot plants, a couple of Buddhas and some comfy garden furniture. We were stooping under a Japanese maple in a small circle. The occasion was two-fold. Primarily, we were here to discuss a house we’d all viewed the previous day.

But before the debriefing, we were gathered to conduct a memorial service. Eve’s cat Raju had died a few days ago, and had been cremated. We were here to honour Raju and to place the ashes in his favourite spot under the maple. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was, and was grateful when Eve took the lead.

“Our dear old friend Raju lived a long and happy life,” she murmured, “accompanying us from home to home over a half dozen locations. But this is where he died, and where he was happiest. Thank you, Raju. May the force be with you wherever you go.” Eve took the plastic bag with Raju’s ashes and sprinkled a portion of the dusty grey particles under the tree.

I sneaked a look at Eve, wondering if I’d heard a tearful tremor in her voice. But no, she was smiling gently. I was wondering how I’d feel if it were my own little cat Tori. I surely wouldn’t be having a group ceremony, although I felt very touched to be included in Eve’s.

She passed the bag of ashes to Daniel next. He grabbed out a handful and scattered them toward the ground. “Here’s to you, Raju,” he said. “I won’t miss cleaning up the cat vomit but I’ll miss your warm presence. You’ve been a friend for a long time.”

Judy was next in the circle. She carefully sprinkled a portion out of the bag, then said, “It was nice to have shared earth-time with you, Raju.”

Rick followed. I sneaked a sideways glance at him. His mouth was pursed in that way he has when he ’s feeling a bit out of synch. He just poured out a few ashes and passed the bag on to me.

I mumbled something about Raju having been lucky with the people who accompanied him on his long journey, and passed the bag to Michael.

“Good on ya, Raju. You represented your species well,” Michael said, shaking the remainder of the contents of the bag onto the ground.

“All right, that’s it, then,” said Eve. I glanced again at her. Aha, she was wiping a tear from her eye.

It was a strange yet intimate little ceremony.

We headed back to the outdoor table and everyone reached for a wine glass.

Back to our primary purpose: to discuss the house we’d seen the day before.

For a full month now, we’d been searching hard for a house to share. In twos, threes and fours, we’d been to visit ten or more places.

There had been a lot of variety. One of the first houses had wonderful water views but with only four bedrooms, was far too cramped. Another had sufficient space but was dark, tired and a bit grubby. Another had an attractive garden backing on to a little park, but wouldn’t take a teenager, even one subdued by six adults. Still another was happy to take seven people but wouldn’t have a bar of three families’ cats.

One had been perfect in every way. It belonged to the Catholic Church and had twelve bedrooms, having recently been retired from use as a nunnery. It had an industrial-sized kitchen, two large sitting areas, big friendly gardens and views of Sydney Harbour. It was too good to be true, and I guess somebody else figured that out because the Church took it off the market as soon as we showed eager interest. We reluctantly returned to house hunting again.

That brought us up to the house we’d seen yesterday, and the reason, other than the celebration of Raju’s life, we were meeting.

I hadn’t much liked the place. The house was big and elegant but seemed to me boxy and uninteresting. I felt the gardens were ordinary, with a long expanse of lawn not conducive to sitting outside under a tree with a book. The neighbourhood was Hunters Hill, one of Sydney’s top waterside suburbs, but there wasn’t a glint of a harbour view from any of the windows.

And conclusively, they were asking $2500 per week when our agreed maximum budget was $1800. The agent who’d showed us the place had said the owners would probably come down to $2200, still well over our limit.

So I hadn’t even taken the house seriously, and had been startled to find it being considered by the rest of the group. Michael opened the conversation, saying, “Well, it looks like we might have found it, doesn’t it?! Is that everyone’s view?”

I watched intently to see what everyone else had to say.

Michael and Judy, it turned out, liked it quite a lot. Eve and Daniel thought it was all right and expressed the view that maybe it was time to stop looking and just bite the bullet. Rick agreed the place was okay but was scandalised at the price and unhappy about the commute. He ended up saying he’d align if everyone else felt strongly in favour.

All eyes turned to me. As I hadn’t said anything up to this point, I felt everyone was expecting me to be an easy yes.

And I thought this place was a mistake.

I was coming up against a personal deal breaker. I’d go over budget but only for a divine place. And this wasn’t divine. Why go back on our word just because we were getting tired of looking?

So, sitting there under the spotlight at the picnic table, I tried to find a way to express all of that. I marshalled my arguments as clearly as I could, saying I was opposed and couldn’t see myself renting for the price the landlords were asking.

Then Michael voiced the word I would have preferred to avoid: “So that’s a veto then?”

A veto is a funny thing. For one thing, you don’t want to overuse it. There are only so many vetos you can have before people start to take a dim view of you.

However, the agreement we’d made about our decision-making process was clear: at any time, for any reason, any person had a veto. Further, we had promised never to allow ourselves to feel coerced into any major decision.

Personally, I was put on this planet to make peace, not war. To find solutions, not pose problems. To find a way to make ‘yes’ work. I was quite capable of taking an unpopular position at work, but it went against my grain – and I didn’t like doing it at all among my friends.

To execute a veto went against my view of myself.

My heart thumped. “I just mean I have trouble seeing us renting that place.”

“So that’s a veto?” Michael pressed.

Why were those words so hard to say? My heart was now thundering. “Okay, YES, it’s a veto.”

There was a long pause, with much sipping of wine.

“Well, then,” Eve said. “We keep looking.”

There was a large collective sigh.

Judy spoke the unthinkable. “Maybe it’s a sign we should give up.”

“No,” Eve contradicted resolutely. “It’s a sign the right place is just around the corner.”

Daniel summed up. “This is harder and crazier than what we did in buying our piece of land. Anybody can buy something together. But finding a place we’re willing to live in, right here, right now – together? No wonder this is tough.”

I felt validated by Daniel’s comment – it was a reminder that this was an unusual thing we were doing, with no clear template for success and no promise that it would be easy. We were doing the best we could; I was doing the best I could. And I was getting practice at life skills that didn’t come easy for me.

That sentiment seemed to be true for the others as well. Seeing ourselves as warriors fighting an arduous battle buoyed our spirits. We finished off the bottle of wine and set out to uncover our next mission in this endless challenge.

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