The new house needs a new motto, we decided after a frenzied, sweaty month of scrubbing and sanding and painting and plastering. On the previous owner’s watch, a sepia-toned Jesus smiled woozily down on the front hall under the catchy Polish phrase “Boze Blogoslaw Nasz Dom” (God Bless This House, more or less). We were thinking “Better than Before,” like the Sneaky Feelings song. But after today’s epic intervention by a team of tattooed plumbers the new top candidate is “There’s No Poo in Our Kitchen Any More.”
When you're racing the clock to get a house ready, and you hear the words “Aw, crap!” or indeed “Holy shit!” from the freshly-painted kitchen, you sort of hope they’re being used metaphorically. At the same time, you know that the new house, being a century and a half old, will have at least one Nasty Surprise up its sleeve, and that it will be both nasty and surprising in entirely unsuspected and unforeseeable ways.
You know those 19th C mystery novels where the genius detective spots some mundane detail and then follows a trail of increasingly incriminating clues back to the scene of the crime, whereupon it all makes sense in retrospect that the fishnet stocking was discarded behind the ironmonger’s by the fleeing orangutan, en route to the opium den?
I’ll spare you every last gruesome detail, but trust me. If one day you find vaguely composty wood floorboards in your 1852 house, in the basement, under the washing machine, after a massive rainstorm, in a spot directly under the kitchen -- discard all the obvious theories and immediately get a search warrant for the obscure sewer pipe leading from the top floor bathroom. (You and your crowbar will find it lurking behind and above the stove, underneath, in order: a fresh layer of primer and paint, new gib-board, elderly plaster, a fireproof metal panel, some wooden boxing, and the original wood paneling and tin ceiling.)
The bastard will be a hundred years old and largely rusted into oblivion, its jagged and decaying remains lashed together with enterprising amounts of duct tape, courtesy of a desperate and dangerous home repair job c. 1964.
Believe me, you really don’t want to think about what’s been coming down that pipe, although you cross your fingers that it was regularly diluted by gallons of bathwater. Soapy bathwater with lots and lots of Dettol in it.
Happily, apart from the Pipe of Horror -- now replaced by good old-fashioned unrustable plastic -- it has been smooth sailing. I confess that most of the really hard work has been done by good old-fashioned immigrant labour of one sort or another: our excellent Brazilian plasterer, Luis, and my Dad. The indomitable Poppa not only slept on the floor in a borrowed, overcrowded, semi-legal sublet, worked for food, and slaved with the paintbrush from dawn till dusk, but paid for his own ticket from New Zealand. Go the deregulated economy!
To be fair, he also enjoyed free jazz concerts on the downtown Green, a fair dollop of summery weather in between the thunderstorms, and the constant attentions of Busytot, who has been keeping insane vampire hours on account of his unsettled residential situation and could thus be counted on to entertain until midnight with stream-of-consciousness monologues (sample: “I used to fly in a special space shuttle... yes I did... oh, about three years ago now…”).
I hope that now that the house is sanitary and habitable again, normal sleeping service will be resumed. Then I can spend the evenings putting the final editorial polish on my dissertation, which, somehow, in the midst of the moving and the painting and the associated chaos, I successfully defended.
Like all solemnizing ceremonies, the defense was transcendent and strangely anti-climactic at the same time. It was a treat to sit in a room with my committee, a trio of serene and benevolent academic goddesses. They prodded and provoked me with astute questions and I gave my best account of myself, while madly scribbling notes for the revisions.
Then I sat out in the hall while they weighed my performance (they should have just weighed the thesis itself, as it was a big fat wodge of paper I gave them – never mind the quality, feel the length!). I gazed down the empty corridor of the grand old building. It looked just like it did when I arrived oh, about eight years ago, with its graceful arches, polished floors, dark wood panelling, and plaster replicas of marble friezes depicting distracted-looking Amazons tussling with hairy centaurs... although I’d never really noticed that glowing red EXIT sign before.
Just as I snapped a picture of the lonely view from the hot-seat, my committee members called me back in and congratulated me. “Let me through,” I squeaked, “I’m a doctor!” All of a sudden, there was my impromptu academic whanau around me, including Lorraine, whom I’d sat next to in my very first class at Cornell and is just about to start work as a professor there, and Alice, who arrived from Aotearoa to see me through and is just about finished herself... And the distinguished head of department -- who had phoned me in Tokyo all those years ago to tell me I’d been accepted into the programme -- materialised out of nowhere to give me a nice congratulatory French kiss (one on each cheek).
And there was my patient partner, looking relieved, and of course Busytot, rampaging cheerfully through the halls of academe in flashing sandals and a Hawaiian shirt. He had the final tearful word in the matter, dismissing thirty years of second-wave feminism, eighty thousand words of academic prose, and the three signatures on my Results of Examination form in one summary bellow: “NO! You NOT be a doctor! You just be a MUMMY!”
Bless his cotton socks. An hour and half a bottle of champagne later I’d pretty much forgiven the little fundamentalist. He’s come around, too, and seems quite chuffed at the idea that I’ll be teaching big kids to write, starting next week, as soon as I dig my syllabus out from under all the boxes. Hey, but we're off to a good start: at least there’s no poo in our kitchen any more. Boze Blogoslaw this house and all who sail in her.