“You’ll laugh about soon,” they said. And, “It’ll make a great blog post!”
At the time, writing about it seemed highly unlikely – it felt too quailingly awful even to be grist to the colourful-story mill – though even then I was half-laughing about it, in between the palpitations and the tears.
There was a comedy of grossness about it, the discoveries that kept on coming: the furry, crawling kitchen bin lid, the teapot abloom with luxuriant pale-green fungus, the chewing gum in the rug, the encrusted barbecue with sausages still on it. The bedroom bin full of balled-up suspected wankerchiefs, the manky undies under the bed, the once-white cotton duvet, beneath the bottom sheet, stained with yellow sweat rings and… clunge prints.
Oddly, the thing that weirded me out the most was the tagging: nothing permanent, don’t panic, but a series of aggressive, slashing signatures in finger grease on the shower glass, in the thick black windowsill dust, in the grime top of the fridge. These people wrote their names in their own filth, all over my house. (As well as in Vivid on discarded cigarette packets and old newspapers and magazines and envelopes: wannabe taggers, for realz.)
But now, in the wake of the professional cleaners, a solid fortnight of spring-cleaning, and the reassuring overlay of our own film of filth, the whole experience has mellowed into part of our homecoming story. Now I can go whole days without being squicked out by the palpable presence of other people’s DNA; two or three days without any freshly unpleasant discoveries, as the light hits the floor or walls or furniture at a new angle, of ancient food splattages and smears.
Once the ewww factor subsided I began to realise that in the scheme of things it could have been far, far worse. Relatively little breakage, few permanent scars, just a lot of human dirt and an atmosphere of profound lack of care. Genuinely traumatic to come home to, but mostly fixable.
The boys, like me, spent the first couple of days dismayed and disorientated; the house looked and smelt and felt all wrong, it wouldn’t stop raining and their mother was in no state to help cosy them back into a sense of home. Black fungus floating in their bath water; mouse shit on the kitchen benches: they weren’t even allowed to touch anything until the cleaners came two days later.
There was the culture shock of the city – people! cars! noise! billboards! everyone in the supermarket so beautiful and well dressed! – and the climate shock of the north – trees! birds! warm sweaty rain! the smell of the sea! We all struggled with a profound sense of displacement: where was home, exactly? Not there, not here, not yet.
But by the time Hapless arrived four days later the boys had discovered some of the old and new joys of the property – the tyre swing, the gutterboard, the excellent tree they’re now big enough to climb, the bit of sloping footpath perfect for skateboarding injuries – and the proximity of the park with its creek and playground and cricket nets. With their new independence of spirit, knowing now what Kiwi kids’ neighbourhoods can and should be like, they’re busily acquainting themselves with the families within dropping-in distance. Subject to the permanent parental anxieties about roads, they’re carving out a little patch of turf that they can rule they way they ruled Charles Court.
For me, it’s getting used to being surrounded again by socially kindred people – delightful, and exhausting – and that fact the pace of life is instantly, inevitably ratcheted up. So many people to see, places to go, interesting things happening all the time. And the house: this dear, sweet, impractical, not entirely comfortable house, where natural light is scarce and cupboard space scarcer, where nothing is ever done by stealth, where every footstep, every drawer opening or door closing, every wrenched squeaky window movement is heard from one end of the place to the other. It’s good, though, to have the chance to start over here, to decide to keep some stuff packed away, to try and streamline some of the imperfect household systems and solve some of the storage conundrums.
I suspect that I’m just getting too old for ‘character’, in the way that the fun of flatting was eventually outweighed in my twenties by the daily compromises and dissatisfactions of sharing my home space with randoms. But the fact is we’ll be here at least until the kids finish school; and for now, I know I’ll be much happier living with a mild degree of shabbiness and chaos than working my arse off to pay for the alternative. In the meantime, there’s something appropriate about the juxtaposition of mildew and creativity. I would not, after all, want all the good stories sanitised out of me.