V’s home deserves the name “compound”. From the road it seems to be a big Queenslander bungalow house (though not on stilts), painted yellow and purple, with a neat little ute-roost garage space and huge covered verandah floored in part with wooden boards that conceal an empty swimming pool. The house is dark, and a bit grubby; only the kitchen and bathroom and show any signs of regular use. There are three empty bedrooms besides V’s, sporting tattered stickers and broken toys, one of which I’m currently occupying.
Unlike many of the other houses, where there’s a band of clearly cultivated garden around the house, a line of storm drains where the road starts, and an uncertain no-man’s-land of ant nests and scrubby green/red in between, V has neatly walled off a large square space south of the house with metal fences. The west wall is lined with flowerbeds, and an impressive little vegetable garden; on the southern side, there are big aviary cages and a little burgundy tool shed. The east has a neat lawn, under a spreading tree, and the southeast corner is the porch section I’ve been helping finish.
The whole compound was once grass, apparently, but a long time ago V dug up the centre, tiled and carpeted it and roofed the section over (though without walling it off.) He’s filled it with tables, barbecues, storage rooms, a birdcage, fridges, beds, a water cooler, a big TV, a bulletin board, a fan that belongs on a film set creating wave effects. There are big old photos of a much-younger V in front of huge lorries loaded with logs. He spends most of his time here in this open-walled house; it’s like an outdoor home as much as anything else, and much more inhabited-feeling than the actual house. A raised gatehouse-looking segment that looks out imposingly on the sawmill courtyard to the west compounds (a-ha) the fortified feeling, though all it contains is a storage room and a toilet.
The whole place gives the wonderful impression of having been built in stages, extension upon extension. It’s all intensely personalised, with little metal flamingos and fibreglass cockatoos, and V’s home-made signs, made of screws driven through bottle caps, showing TOILET HERE TIS and
LIL FELLAS ->
<- BIG FELLAS
add greatly to the character.
There are two dogs, and two small squawky many-coloured birds that amble around their cage on beaks and claws, fight on hot days and snuggle up together during storms, and look intently at you when you’re holding fruit.
Not content with letting me into his house, V has been giving me actual work (although much more in the first week than subsequently), most of it involving either plants or tiles. There are plenty of lawns around the sawmill, the empty house next door and V’s neat wood-panelled office (full of intricately made wooden toys and a beautifully painted outback scene on a big saw blade), and although the petrol mowers keep dying on me for various reasons (the starter cord snapped after a vigorous yank; after replacement, the handle at its end came off. Twice. Then the spark plug stopped firing) it’s simple, easy work. We’ve had a good batch of storms lately, and the grass grows well. V has also been building an open, breezeblock-walled barbecue porch in the corner of the compound, much of which is now finished. The tiles for another section were being laid down by a wonderful, characterful Spanish builder (“Manuel Fuentes? Espanol?”
but he’d bought a job-lot of second-hand tiles still striped with grotty, grouty adhesive, and in order to re-lay them the adhesive would have to go. That was a four-day job, as the estimates of the numbers of tiles required kept increasing. Chipping at the adhesive itself with a chisel was a mug’s game, and scraping vigorously at it with a steel brush only slightly better (although I think I’ve developed some actual muscle tone as a result of all the effort.) Soaking the tiles in a drum of water made the stuff marginally more yielding, and soaking them overnight in some strange petrochemical solution V had worked much better. On the third day, Manuel produced a power drill with a brush head, which was barely-controllable but tore the stuff off with a vengeance; it only had a short battery life, but that suited me fine, as Manuel had a charger and multiple spares, and the regular need to pull a battery pack free from the grip and slam another home made me feel all operator.
I also spent a fun day using a hosepipe, wooden stick and bare hands to cleaning out the gutters from all the seed pods, flower-petals and general mulch that had accumulated in them, although I was surprised at one point to find the swirling muck leaping out from under my fingers and resolving into a pair of fat green frogs, which looked at me reproachfully. It was pretty slow work, and my hand was covered in scrapes by the end; they build houses out of some sharp stuff in these parts.
Another day, we drove across town to a mobile slaughterhouse, a double lorry of steel sheds, and loaded vast crates of meat onto the back of the ute; it took two journeys to get it all back to Chez V, and several hours to pack all the various steaks, dollops of mince, and huge strings of beef sausages into freezer bags and the deep-freeze.
I’m only working about a third of the hours I’d like to be, but the hourly rate is good and it’s nice and relaxing here, sitting in the shade reading novels on the Kindle and writing my own in the evenings underneath a whirring fan. I’ve taken a stab at NaNoWriMo (write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November) and while I didn’t want to announce it ahead of time (or publicly post any work-in-progress writing, which is terribly indulgent), I’m well on target to finish properly. It’ll be a lot more work to have it in any properly readable/releasable state, but it feels like a good story.