One evening in October, a few months after the pines had been pared from the hillside, after we had lived together in Longueville for eight happy months, after we had owned our property for two contented years, we wandered into a decision to call the whole thing off.
Here is how it happened:
The six of us were having dinner around our table in the Longueville dining room, working our way through heaping plates of Rick’s spaghetti bolognaise.
We were also having an official Shedders meeting. We had agreed we needed to discuss what was happening with our project, and to follow up research we’d been doing about house-building. Over the previous weeks, we’d been to HomeWorld to look at project homes and we’d talked to an architect in North Sydney, recommended by a friend. We had been having trouble finding a time to get together (never a good sign, I must say), and had finally found an evening when we were all home at the same time. Rod and Lesley, cameras in tow, were there to film the meeting. We’d invited them to join us for dinner but they’d declined, saying they might dive into leftovers after the filming.
Daniel was chairing.
Maybe we were tired after a long day at work, maybe the cameras were suppressing our usual enthusiasm, or maybe we were confronted by the future we were designing for ourselves. Whatever it was, discussions took a dark tone right from the beginning.
We discussed the removal of the pines. We were pleased we’d done it, especially since the hillside had started to green up a little. However, we were wary of the work – and expense – we were going to have to put in to protect the hillside from erosion and to manage the weeds.
We talked about the display homes we’d looked at. We’d found them impractical for our purposes, designed by-and-large for city living and typical families. The visit to the architects had been even more alarming. They reckoned we would need at least 400 square metres, and that construction, including architect fees, would cost us $2000 per square metre. An $800,000 house? – out of our league.
We considered the Mitchells Island property. We reminded ourselves we had purchased it as a “toehold” into the area, as an experiment, and hadn’t been definite at the time that it was the perfect place. Perhaps we should be looking for a property with a large existing home.
We brought Mitchells Island’s shortcomings into focus: it was a long way from the city; the area lacked many of the amenities we were used to; there would be a lot of work ahead managing the whole block of land.
We even dredged up some familiar personal challenges: Judy was feeling locked into her new job, possibly for years; Daniel still hadn’t been able to find anyone to take on his role in the business; Michael was concentrating on expanding his client-base.
Someone said: maybe we should sell and look elsewhere. We could probably get a decent price and come out ahead.
Personally, I felt I was having an out-of-body experience. The person in my chair at the table was not someone I was familiar with. She was dispassionate, resigned, cavalier. Perhaps my customary soul had been chased out of my body by betrayals, but I couldn’t have said what or who I was betraying. Our property? Our vision? Our selves?
I imagined a child’s balloon, released right before my eyes, spiralling off into the air in gradually increasing circles, higher and higher until it was drifting out of sight.
I tried to read Eve, who wasn’t saying much, and Rick, who was saying strange things like, “This isn’t the only property in the world.”
I felt tired; the balloon had been too hard to keep inflated and tethered. I was weary of being someone who always said, “There must be a way.”
In the end it was I who said the words: “Well, then, shall we pack it in? Try selling; see if we can come up with another property or another plan or something?” Whether I was swept up in the mood of the meeting, whether I just wanted to be provocative, or whether I felt sick with the sin of betraying the project I had come to love, I’m not sure, but my words were suddenly hanging there in the air in front of me.
“You reckon?” Daniel said to me, eyebrows raised.
I shrugged. “I like the property, as you know – but I’m not attached to it.” That was clearly not the truth, but it seemed like a level-headed thing to say.
Eve was very quiet. So was Rick. But we all nodded and agreed it was time to give up.
Lesley looked at us grimly, and switched off the camera. The red recording light slowly faded.
“That’s it, then?” she asked, glancing at Rod whose brow was furrowed and who was clearly blind-sided by the decision.
They packed up, declined the spaghetti bolognaise and dragged their equipment off into the night.
I didn’t want to speculate about their conversation as they drove home.
Our own conversation was very sparse. We washed up in relative silence and headed off to bed.
* * *
Rick and I drove up to The Shed the following weekend, ostensibly to begin the process of putting the property up for sale. We didn’t say much on the drive. “We’ll figure it out when we get there,” Rick said at one point.
On Saturday, I phoned Bob the real estate agent, as promised. I was circumspect. “We’re considering selling, looking for something else in the area. What’s happening in the market?”
“Well, things aren’t moving much,” he said. “Not sure how you’d go, but you paid a good price when you bought so you’d likely do okay selling.”
I concluded saying we’d contact him if we decided to proceed. It must have seemed a strange conversation to him, but I learned something from making the call: my heart was not in selling.
That afternoon, Rick and I, each with a Toohey’s Old beer in hand, sat on plastic chairs in front of The Shed, where we had often rested looking over the valley below and the hills beyond while imagining the house in front of us. This time there wasn’t any dreaming, just the perplexity of confronting our group’s decision.
“Rick, I like it here,” I said finally. “I’m having trouble seeing that we could find anything better.”
Rick was quiet for a while. “There’s nothing wrong with this property. I think it’s more that we’re all having a case of cold feet because we’re getting so close to when we have to start seriously investing.”
I sat with that thought for a moment. “Maybe you and I should buy the land off the others,” I finally said. “And just put up something small for ourselves. We could afford it if we keep it simple.” I began to picture us up here, by ourselves. We’d be able to make all the decisions on our own. We could do everything exactly as we wanted it. We could dispense with all the work of trying to get our incongruent ideas and timeframes lined up together. We could make friends in the community, we didn’t need these particular people…
A sense of isolation washed over me.
“But it’s not the same,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” Rick replied, with another pull of his beer.
“No, it’s not the same,” Rick repeated, warming to his theme. “We wanted to do this to have a beautiful place in the country, but more than that, we wanted to do it together. We’ve just lost our vision.”
“‘Just’?” I echoed. “That’s a big thing to lose.”
“Well, we have lost it. We’re the same people we were four years ago when we started on this adventure; we haven’t changed, nothing has changed except we’ve all gotten busier than ever and we’re confronted with having to deal with this massive future.”
“I think I’ve lost the vision,” I said. “I can picture you and me living here but at this moment I can’t picture what it would take to have us all here. Nobody wants this as much as you and I do, Rick.”
“That’s not true,” he challenged. “Everybody wants it. Every one of us wants it passionately. It’s just hard, that’s all.”
He paused a moment, then continued. “It’s an extraordinary project we’ve taken on. We’re breaking ground every step of the way, and it’s not easy. Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going back to Longueville and we’re going to rekindle the vision. We’ll paint the picture again; we’ll tell them what we’ve seen. The spark is still there, we just need to fan it into flame.”
I groaned internally, reluctant to pick up that fan again. “And if that doesn’t work, we’ll buy it ourselves, right?”
“It’ll work,” Rick said quietly. “It’s what everyone wants. It’ll work. We’ll have everybody come up again next weekend and we’ll let the project speak to us from here. We’ll let the land speak to us, and we’ll listen to it and to each other.”
I nursed the beer, studying Rick’s profile as he looked across the hills. I couldn’t imagine a more loyal friend – and not just my friend now. He had a new cluster of people who had sneaked into his heart and become family. He’d been through his own ring of fire with them and now nothing would have him abandon them.
He was in, boots and all. And his tenacity made him a force to be reckoned with.
* * *
It was actually two weeks later, not one, and four of us, not six – but we were making Rick’s trip. Eve, Daniel, Rick and I drove up on Friday night, making small talk in the car.
The following day, we reoriented ourselves. We went down to the café at Manning Point. We walked on the beach. We went for a swim. We walked down to the bottom of the property and pulled out a few Noogoora burr weeds. We visited Old Bar, our nearest town, admiring the new BiLo supermarket which had been constructed in the last few weeks.
Finally, we came home to The Shed and, as Rick and I had done two weeks before, sat outside the front door and watched the sun setting.
Eve opened up the conversation. “I completely get what you guys are trying to tell us, about the place and about the project. I’ve felt sick about not going ahead with it, and I don’t want us to abandon it. I want us to do what we said we were going to do, and I want us to do it right here on these four acres.” She turned to look at Daniel.
“I’m not sure we could find anything more beautiful than this,” Daniel said wistfully, “at least that we can afford. I can see that today. It felt like a relief when we made our decision to quit, but I’ve been waffling about it ever since. I think we just lost our courage.”
My heart soared. I thought, this isn’t so hard – and it’s a fiction that I have to carry the load alone.
In The Shed that evening, the four of us watched a DVD on one of the laptops, then relaxed with a cup of tea before bedtime.
“Timeframe,” Daniel said.
I sat up. There is nothing like a conversation about timeframes to get my attention.
“You know what?” he continued, “I can’t wait to get out of the city. It’s going to take three years but…”
His words triggered something for me. “Daniel,” I interrupted, “I just noticed something. Just now, you said ‘three years’ and you’ve been saying ‘three years’ for as long as I can remember. You have a rolling target! A year from now it could still be three years. You’ll never get to your goal with that going on.”
Daniel looked taken aback. “I do that, don’t I?”
“Today is November first,” I said. “So you’re saying you’ll be moving up to Mitchells Island on November 1st, three years from today?”
The look on Daniel’s face was the one you get when you’re finally trapped – or perhaps, when you’ve been trapped and you suddenly see your way to freedom. A smile spread across his face. “You can put it in your diary,” he said. “November first, three years from now.”
The joy on Eve’s face should have been photographed.
I thought to myself, okay, another year and a bit til our lease is up in Longueville. A half year or so after we’re finished work to travel and to spend time with family in Canada. A year to build a new house…and we’re there.
“I need to replace myself in the business,” Daniel continued. “That gives me a year to find someone, another year to work with him and train him up, and another year to sell the business. That’s how it’s going to work.” He swallowed and looked around at all of us. “I’ll place an ad on Monday.”
Suddenly three years didn’t feel so much like the other side of the planet, and the strength of Daniel’s conviction lent it certainty.
“And after we finish work next year, Heather and I can live here in The Shed until the house is built,” Rick announced. He glanced sideways at me. “…Can’t we?”
I mentally transformed our surroundings, picturing it with the furnishings, rugs and artwork we would bring with us. “Yes, I think we can,” I said.
Eve interjected. “There’s still the question of Michael and Judy. What if they don’t want to climb back on board?”
“Well,” Daniel said, “perhaps it’s something just the four of us could just go ahead with. Or maybe somebody else would like to come in with us…”
Rick stepped in with quiet certainty. “They will want to come. How could they resist?”
I looked around the room, at the pink foam sofa, the old linoleum gently curling at the edges, the bright blue beams of The Shed. “How could they resist indeed?” I said.
Michael and Judy might not have committed yet, but the project’s foundation had a new level of strength.
* * *
We returned to Longueville with a quiet enthusiasm that turned the tide.
I was able to see more clearly what the dynamics had been. In hindsight, you can always spot the moment in any project when you begin to live it with a gentle certainty – when you stop resisting, when obstacles are just challenges and not reasons to quit, when you know it’s going to happen and it’s only a matter of when and how. Rick and I had been swimming in the current with that kind of certainty for some time. Eve and Daniel had glided into the current this weekend, and had begun stroking strongly. And Michael and Judy were now caught in the current as well – not yet swimming, but happy enough to drift with us.
I called Rod and Lesley. “We’re on again,” I said.
Again, I was spared hearing what they had to say about us privately. But they were there with the cameras again a week or two later.
It was all part of the process.
As they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.