Chapter 10. Almost famous (part 2)

Continued from previous chapter, “Almost Famous, part 1”.
The film-making resumes.

Scene 5: The Shedders solve a problem

One evening a month or two after Christmas, we met at Michael and Judy’s home.

It was the first time we’d had a formal meeting with the cameras on. We’d become used to being interviewed and followed around doing our everyday activities, but this was the first filming of an official Shedders meeting.

The miracle had happened two weeks ago: the application to rent the big house on the water in Longueville had been accepted, and we were a few weeks from moving in. The house was well set up for managing three separate families, each floor having its own full bathroom and two or three bedrooms. But it had superb strengths as well as worrying weaknesses, and the film-makers knew we all had our preferences.

The film-makers had followed us around as we admired the house, took photos and recorded room sizes. And now it was time to work out who was going to live where. In the eyes of the expectant cameras, how were we going to resolve the disparity in living arrangements? And what juicy conflicts and resentments would emerge as we tried to sort it out?

As the meeting was about to kick off, I found myself feeling stifled under a shadowy concern about the whole undertaking. Although I loved the big rambling house in its idyllic location, and couldn’t logically find anything wrong with our decision to live there, I nonetheless was plagued with a foreboding that there was something unidentifiable that could come to bite me, making my time here a misery. Nobody else our age was doing this kind of thing. What made us so sure we could make it work? What if I became rattled with the cameras on and didn’t accurately say what I wanted in this meeting? What if I got stuck in a bad part of the house, unable to live with the consequences? What if our two-year lease became a jail term?

Be still, I told myself. You’re here to learn about yourself and your boundaries. You’re here to develop trust in yourself and others. Get in and play.

Rick broke the nervous silence. “Well,” he said, and the cameras started rolling, “why don’t we start by seeing what everyone wants? There’s always a chance we have no conflict of interest at all.”

Yeah, right.

Rick continued. “Well, obviously I’d like the upstairs suite, with the master bedroom and glamorous bathroom. But neither of the other suites is a deal-breaker; I could live in any of them. My second choice is that quirky Mediterranean-style suite at the bottom, with the big views and all the stucco. Last choice is the middle floor, where the common areas are as well.”

Rick and I had talked it through as we’d walked through the house the previous day, and I’d felt the same way. I thought about it one more time, checking my inner voice for warnings. I didn’t hear any. “Ditto,” I said.

“Ditto,” said Daniel.

“Ditto,” said Eve.

Well, so much for no conflict of interest.

Judy stepped in next. “Well, Mike and I can take a little of the pressure off,” she said. “We’d prefer the larger middle-floor suite. With its three private rooms, there’s a bedroom for Jess, as well as an office and a bedroom for Michael and myself.” She paused. “There’s another reason. I’ve spoken with the leader at my spiritual centre and he’s recommended that we don’t have the ancestors’ shrine where people are walking above it. If we’re in the middle-floor bedroom, we can put it near the window where it’s directly under the roof.” Judy followed practices of the Mahikari faith, and as such had some rituals that were outside my normal frame of reference. She had a beautifully-built wooden shrine where mementos of some of her ancestors were kept, and at every mealtime made an offering of food and wine. I was live-and-let-live about it. It sounded as if the ancestors were going to help rather than hinder our room selection, so I was appreciative of their contribution.

Michael took his turn. “I don’t care,” he said. “They’re all fine. As long as I can fit my desk and my bed in, I’m happy.”

Daniel broke the pause that followed. “Well, there are two issues,” he said. “Related factors. One is who gets which space, and the other is how much rent they pay for it. There’s nothing says we have to divide the $1800 rent by an even three, when people are getting different amounts of floor space and desirability.”

Nods all around.

“So,” he continued, “it sounds like Michael and Judy want the middle floor and none of the rest of us do. But let’s stop and look at it for a minute.

“As you know I’ve taken measurements of all the rooms in the house and calculated the floor space in each area. Some are bigger, some smaller. So I’d suggest we weight the rent according to floor size. If you get more space, you pay more rent. We can also weight it by desirability. Say for example we load the top floor, with its deluxe master bedroom, with an extra 10% luxury tax.” He looked at us over his glasses and again we nodded.

He disappeared into his calculator for a minute or two. “Okay,” he announced. “If we did what I just said, for example, our $1800 per week rent would divide up to be about $550 for the lower suite, $600 for the luxury suite upstairs and $650 for the larger middle suite with its three rooms.”

I appraised Daniel with a strong sense of relief. He had really thought this through, and was obviously determined to make the rental situation fair and workable. At times like this, when part of me was wondering if we were completely mad, his judicious approach was a sanctuary. I realised that I counted on him to be the most consistently rational of all of us, and his matter-of-fact manner indicated that of course it was going to work.

He looked at Michael and Judy. “Could you guys live with $650 for the middle floor, considering you have Jess as well?”

“Yep, sounds fair,” Michael said. Judy nodded.

“What about you two?” he asked, referring to Rick and myself. “What do you think?”

I scrambled to think it through. I quickly assessed his ratios and calculations, and reckoned he had them spot on. I figured I’d rather have the nicer top floor suite (though a quick mental reckoning reminded me that decision would cost an extra $5000 over the next two years) but if we tossed a coin, I’d be satisfied with the lower floor, quirky though it might be, at the cheaper rent. I said as much, and Rick agreed.

Eve and Daniel both felt the same way. They’d rather have the upper suite but they would accept the result of a coin toss.

So Michael pulled out a dollar coin. Heads, Rick and I would get the upper suite. Tails, the lower.

It landed tails. Rick and I were headed for the quirky downstairs Mediterranean. I checked what my inner radar was saying about this, and it seemed contented.

“Everybody happy?” Daniel asked.

The others nodded and said they were. I did too, and I even felt it might be true.

Rod and Lesley weren’t quite as sanguine. “Well, that’s it then,” Lesley said grumpily as she gathered up camera cables. “You certainly resolved that easily enough. You guys are hopeless at providing drama.”

Yes, please, I thought to myself. This is going to be tricky enough without a lot of crises to deal with.


Scene 6: Jess steals the limelight

Rick and my children, Michael and Jenn, were watching the whole procedure from a distance. They were busy with their own lives and it was all right with them if mum and dad became a little alternative.

Eve and Daniel’s son Ben (Daniel’s son, Eve’s step-son) was in a similar position. He was busy with his own life and what the oldies did was no skin off his nose, as he put it.

Michael and Judy’s daughter Amy (Michael’s daughter, Judy’s step-daughter) was likewise indifferent. She had lived with her mother most of her life and was now off at the University of Newcastle studying medicine.

However, Michael and Judy’s son Jess was in a very different position. Of all these offspring, Jess was the only one still living at home. As he wasn’t yet working and couldn’t afford to get his own place, he was directly impacted by the shenanigans of his parents. He wasn’t in much of a position to veto the project, but he made clear his general disapproval. This made him rich pickings for the documentary. He was a good-looking, articulate young man, not afraid to speak his piece.

As we settled into our plans to move in together in the big house in Longueville, Jess was interviewed. Michael relayed back to me the contents of the session.

“What do you think of all this?” Lesley had asked Jess, waving in the direction of all the packing boxes that were heading to the Longueville house in a few days.

“You mean what do I think of living with the freaks?” he asked. “How many ways can I answer that!?”

There were many more questions, and Jess had much more to say on the topic, but that was the quote that made it to posterity. Up to that point, we hadn’t thought of regarding ourselves as freaks. Looking at yourself through the eyes of a nineteen year old boy can be a humbling experience.

Please note the exact look in Jess’ eyes in the photo. He is the nonplussed one on the right, with the face that says, “Dear God, why me, and what next?”

An added sting for all the Shedders was there was little doubt that bit of footage would make it into the documentary.


Scene 7: Moving day

March 11 is a date etched in stone – the day we moved into 1 Wharf Road, Longueville.

I’ve had my share of moving days over the years, and they pretty much all follow the same pattern: I wake in the morning, surrounded as I have been for a week by boxes, tape, scissors, packing paper and clutter. My life has been chaos for ages, it seems, and there is no end in sight. The carpets are unkempt. There are dust-bunnies wherever long-unmoved furniture has been shifted away from the walls. Every muscle is already unhappy from all the lugging around of things I’ve done over the past few days, and I know that today will be the mother of all body-wrenching experiences.

I always feel that I’ve been happy in this old place, and there are no guarantees I’ll be happy in the new one. As a matter of fact, on that morning of every moving day, it seems improbable I will ever be happy again. Every nerve ending feels raw and fragile. I am almost guaranteed to cry on moving day. There is bound to be something, either sentimental or distressing, that will set me off.

This particular moving day appeared unlikely to be an exception. And to top it all off, there would be cameras around, recording every stress-laden moment.

In hindsight, the event wasn’t as bad as my expectations. Our removalist showed up around 9:00 a.m. with a very large van and three strapping young guys. The camera crew appeared a few minutes later and set up quickly. They recorded the guys as they wrestled a large bed down a skinny set of townhouse stairs, recorded Rick as he hauled potted plants to the car, recorded me as I directed traffic and began the attack on the dust-bunnies.Three hours later the truck was filled, the cameras were gone, and our time in Wollstonecraft was over.

Most importantly, the camera crew did not record me in tears – although I might have had a few as I gathered up my woebegone little cat and wrestled her to the car.

We had warned the removalist team that the pick up from our ground floor flat would be quick work compared with the drama of the elevated hillside house they would encounter at their next stop. They soon discovered the challenges for themselves as they began unloading in Longueville. There was a steep brick pathway down to the first set of steps. There were a further twenty-six steps to the main floor patios, and another forty steps down to the lower area where most of Rick’s and my possessions would go.

The camera recorded Rick as he wheeled the plants again down the driveway to the main patio, and captured grown men almost ruined by all those steps. Eve and Daniel’s removalists showed up a few minutes later, giving the guys the extra challenge of dancing with another team as they all climbed stairs and manoeuvred through the house.

We were all duly filmed breaking into the first packing box, setting up the first bit of furniture, making the bed, starting to create our first home together.

Michael and Judy had decided not to move in for another three weeks and in retrospect it was a very good thing we didn’t try to do it all at once. It was taxing enough as it was, but can you imagine nine unhappy removalists, six fragile adults and one displaced teenager, all being scrutinised by two ever-present film-makers?

That evening we brought in takeaway. Eve, Daniel, Rick and I cleaned up for dinner, then sat down at the big table on the downstairs patio, and, with the camera rolling, caught our breaths.

It was our first sunset at Longueville and we watched spellbound as dusk crept across the water and the masts of the little yachts moored there turned red in the setting sun. I looked at the big house and gardens around us, with this amazing view, and thought, what an adventure. We were going to be in one of the most beautiful spots in all of Sydney for two whole years. I looked at Eve and Daniel across the table from me, and thought, these are such out-of-the-ordinary people. What will it be like to thoroughly get to know them over the next twenty-four months?

We toasted ourselves and each other. We remembered why we were here: by sharing in this way, we could afford something truly special; by risking some discomfort, we could place ourselves in great company. Relax and enjoy the ride, I told myself.

We toasted Rod and Lesley. What a lot they were putting into this – and we could see their enthusiasm helped to fuel our project. Almost as tired and happy as we were, they shared a drink with us.


Scene 8: Epilogue

Without spoiling too much of the story, I can tell you Rod and Lesley eventually gave up the documentary project.

They worked long and hard with us over almost two years, creating hundreds of hours of footage. But one evening, close to the end of our lease at Longueville, they came to visit without the camera. “We’re packing it in,” they said.

They had hoped it wouldn’t take as long as it did for us to get to the building stage, never mind stage of moving into a new Mitchells Island home. They’d wanted to get interim funding from a network, such as the ABC or SBS, but times were tough and budgets were tight. There was interest in the story, they said, but they needed to be able to provide a producer with some assurance that the house in the country would be built in the near future. And, they added ruefully, sensationalism or not, a little more drama would have been helpful.

Besides, they had other projects looming.

Rod and Lesley had spoken on occasion about the “teaser” they had created, a twenty minute snippet about us that they had put together to show potential producers.

They asked if we’d like to see it, and then popped a DVD into the player. Its working title was “When I’m 64” and it was sound-tracked with the Beatles song behind it.

We watched it, hearts in throats. It was beautifully done. I saw us building a dream together. I saw our warmth and our joy in each other. I saw us on our property pointing out where the house would sit someday.

And sure enough, there was Jess talking about living with the freaks.

We all congratulated Rod and Lesley on the job they’d done. I shared that it had given me real insights into the nature of the film-makers’ work. All these bits of chaff they had been collecting – how amazing that kernels of importance could emerge from that and be woven into something valuable. I was enchanted by the creativity of the editing in the story we had watched on screen.

Our story. Our unfinished story.

I asked myself: what did it mean to us that the documentary was being abandoned? I had always thought of the filming exercise as completely independent of our own community-building project, but somehow at this moment I felt as if Rod and Lesley’s withdrawal might drain some of our momentum, or even be a sign that we were running out of steam. This was taking a long time.

In any event, I felt very sad when Rod and Lesley gave us each a hug and walked out of our day-to-day lives. I knew we would remain friends but it was poignant to see this peculiar chapter of our lives coming to an end.


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