‘Remember back to a time when you prayed for what you have now.’
‘You know’, said Dan, as he skulled the last of his tea from the mug I’d brought him, ‘I just heard on the radio that 1% of people in this country earn $12k an hour. Can that really be true?’
‘I don’t know’, I replied. ‘I’m terrible with statistics like that. I always get them wrong. But yes, some people do make insane amounts of money. Though $12k an hour does seem like a lot’.
‘Well’, said Dan, ‘I reckon it’s just them big fellas at the top of those mega corporations that make that big bucks like that’.
Then, as if nothing more was to be said on the subject, Dan handed me his mug and switched his attention to the painting job he was in the middle of. ‘I reckon I’ll start cleaning those eaves and gutters now, and let them cracks cure a bit longer’.
‘Great’, I said, hoping I didn’t sound eager to hear that he’d soon be getting his brushes out after 11 days of grinding ivy off plaster followed by filling cracks and holes with 20kg of mortar. I looked up at the scaffolding surrounding the side of the house, and then down at the garden, squashed by scaffolders, two storeys of scaffolding and lack of rain.
In recent months, there’d been a shift in my feelings about the house I stood beneath. It was no longer a house that I shared with my ex-husband. It was still a family house which I shared with my kids. However, these days it felt like my property. It was my joy and also my responsibility. A bit like my dog who, 3 years ago, was a family dog, but now feels like my dog. My kids still get the benefit of him – he’s a Labrador; but they don’t take responsibility unless I am stuck. Equally, nowadays I’m the one who makes the hard decisions on the house’s behalf. Thankfully, as the months come and go, I feel more confident about making them.
Dan the painter is my age – though he doesn’t know it. He often talks about his age. It’s a benchmark for him in a way that it isn’t for me. For him, age is a countdown until retirement; for me, it’s not. Dan has been up a ladder with a paint brush since he left school at 14. His father, a plasterer, did the same. Dan lives over the river on a large block with his wife whom he married when she fell pregnant at 18 and he was 19, along with various animals including ducks, goats and a group of wallabies who, on hot days, he leaves out water for so they can lounge around in the shade of his shed. As a young man, Dan bought a 1954 orange Cortina which a mechanic is currently in the process of replacing the engine of. Dan plays CD’s in his ute, has Foxtel but no internet in his house, and finds his way around Hobart via the houses he’s painted, inside and out, over the years.
Dan has a big tummy, a sun-aged neck and a dodgy back that, when it gives him grief ‘on the job’, he pops a few painkillers for. He drinks flavoured milk which he insists I should try, has 2 sugars in his milky tea and fetches a banana from his car mid-morning. As he works, he listens to his phone on a talk channel. And, for me slightly worryingly, he frequently chats to himself on the scaffolding.
Last night, at dinner, I told my kids that I’d heard Dan repeat verbatim what he’d mentioned to me at tea-time that morning, that he would be knocking off early to see someone about his tax. Ten minutes later, I heard him repeat this, as I made my bed upstairs after an early yoga class.
‘Sounds pretty normal to me’, said my son. ‘I talk to myself in the car after I’ve done something dumb’.
Often, at night, I’ll climb the three ladders that take me to the second level of scaffolding, put up at vast expense. From there I can see straight into all the upstairs windows, as a passing bird might. I can look down on the river below, unhindered by the leafy trees that obscure my view from inside the house.
Each time I top the third ladder and stand on the scaffolding, I feel a lift. As if, from one second to the next, I’m on the outside of my life looking in. Being up there gives me a perspective on the years behind me that I rarely enjoyed at the time. My mind slips back to how the rooms looked when we first moved into them, 13 years ago. Glimpses of the living that went on in them come back to me through the 12-paned windows. Standing up there, gazing out, I don’t want that time back, exactly. Even so, as I pad up and down the scaffolding, I do give it a small salute, thanking life for having given it to me.
As I descend the ladder, I try not to take in the smashed up garden beneath my feet before I unhook the hose and turn on the tap in an attempt to revive it. Then I head to the bottom of the garden to water the new trees that, in time, will screen out my grumpy neighbours, mentally counting to 30 as water pours from the hose on to the base of each tree.