wWhen we lived in the country before the pandemic, I used to pass by a construction site on my way to take my kids to school. Lush fields grew on one side of the road, but were subdivided on the other. New houses were being built. my kids called a house Haveli – less a compliment and more an attempt to scramble for a word that would convey the monstrous proportions of the building.
Haveli was roaming the road with such aggressive dominance that I felt waves of fatigue every time we shot. When the windows were in, workers began laying boulders down the driveway. The rocks were so big that a crane was called in to place them. The effect was that of a house that seemed to have been born out of some ruin strewn upon the landscape; As if, like a meteorite, it had sunk into the earth.
I was less interested in the design elements and cobbles of the house than the people who paid for them. I wanted to know what aspirational vision they might have for themselves from a fort. My own domestic choices couldn’t be more different, but they also revealed the anxieties and limitations of my character. My house was filled with op-shop furniture and quirky paintings. I couldn’t channel my insecurities around being boring and conventional if I tried.
“The house you live in looks just like one!” My friend Jay said five years ago, my husband and I moved from a one-bedroom flat to a weatherboard house. we laughed; The new house was twice as big as the old flat. But looking around the freshly arranged lounge room, I saw what Jay meant. Moving into the hut was a hesitant bid towards establishing family life. We weren’t talking about kids yet, but I wanted kids in a way I couldn’t articulate to myself. Instead, I proposed to rent the cottage. I thought of planting a garden as proving to invisible witnesses that I had the right skills and temperament for motherhood.
Middle-class Australians are obsessed with real estate, constantly standing in pubs and discussing the features of different homes at dinner parties, worrying whether they can afford a mortgage. But if the house we live in looks the same, then People Build the house, not the other way around. I’ve lived in too many homes – more than I can list here. But in my life, there has been one unfortunate common denominator among the many aesthetic and structural variables: Me,
The biggest joke of my marriage was that I never built my homes with living in in mind. “When you move into a house, you always make it beautiful,” my husband used to tease. “Everything is always perfectly arranged. But nothing is planted, Together, we moved many times, trying on new homes in new places with increasing ambition, trying to offset the environmental destruction we saw looming on the horizon, like the perfect suburb or the right town. By finding a home we can go beyond what is to come.
When I was pregnant with our first child, we moved away from Weatherboard House to a small rural town. The town we chose, with its botanic gardens and plentiful water reserves in the local reserve, seemed a safe choice for inner-city types who were also worried about environmental doom.
We brought the first child home in December and all was well for a while. But by July, when the winter rains had arrived in earnest, we discovered what we didn’t have the experience to recognize at the sale: Our roof was leaking in every room. “It’s raining inside,” my husband said quietly, as we huddled together, bewildered, and freezing, to assess the clash of water in bowls and pots under the worst leaks . If a house builds a shelter from the elements, ours had failed.
We did our best to prod each other because to voice the true extent of our horror and despair would be to double it. With parenthood, we had made ourselves too vulnerable, I thought. We were meant to be in charge, to be able to protect our helpless child from the world until he was big enough to fend for himself. But we didn’t do that.
Our previous shared house, another house in the country, was waterproof, with a vegetable garden and treehouse and solar panels on the roof. But after a few years our marriage ended. What happened was both incomprehensible and simple: We lived together, until we stopped. Time passed first in numbness, then grief, then numbness. I found myself in a kind of emotional freefall. We decided to sell our house.
When the pandemic hit a few weeks after we returned to the inner city, I felt a new wash of shame. In the last decade of my life, we did a lot to prepare for disaster. And yet here it was, a real catastrophe – not quite the kind I’d imagined, but such – and where was I? Not somewhere safely outside the city limits, but in a small, impersonal, rented apartment. School closed. The kids and I were sent home on screen. There was no private garden to play in our new life. We huddled indoors like passengers on a boat in a storm, where the interior of our apartment turned into an entire universe.
Months later, as my nervousness subsided, I observed how the children used the space available to them in their play, like cats running after the sun. They were unconcerned by the changing dimensions of their spaces, happy to have the gift of time only with their father and with me.
Eventually, I came to understand that, while my life had changed, it was all survivable. My pain subsided. My new home—another apartment—looks like all the others I’ve lived in, even though it’s a fraction of the size of the houses, and half the time I’m its only occupant.
I am changed by the events of recent years; Those grand narratives of the pandemic, the economy, climate change, personal to me and my life. But even when everything is different, some things don’t change. In my new home, where the kids and I lovingly prepare brunch for my dear ex-husband, everything is aesthetically pleasing, but nothing is plugged in.