this (house-sit­ting) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Christopher Deere

THIS morn­ing I woke up in some­one else’s bed. This is noth­ing un­usual for me; it hap­pens quite a lot. Un­fa­mil­iar be­long­ings were ar­ranged on the bed­side ta­ble and a strange cat was yowl­ing in the hall­way for break­fast and at­ten­tion. Far from be­ing the morn­ing-af­ter out­come of a wild Fri­day night, how­ever, I was in fact ex­actly where I was meant to be.

I am a house-sit­ter. I have no home of my own; in­stead, I stay in the homes of peo­ple who are not there, for weeks or months at a time. I walk their dogs and feed their cats and tend their gar­dens and pay their bills, and I make sure they don’t come home to find the place has been stripped of their worldly goods. I must be do­ing some­thing right be­cause peo­ple keep ask­ing me to do it.

Some time ago, the com­bi­na­tion of an ir­reg­u­lar in­come and Melbourne’s no­to­ri­ous rental-af­ford­abil­ity cri­sis meant I needed to find an­other way to live. The sur­prise sec­ond-hand of­fer of a friend’s sis­ter’s flat, made sud­denly avail­able by her two-month cen­tral Aus­tralian cycling hol­i­day, bap­tised my life as a hous­esit­ter for hire. So I moved in with my clothes and books and com­puter and paid close at­ten­tion to the hand­writ­ten check­list left on the liv­ing room ta­ble: I wa­tered the plants and picked up the mail and failed to throw any rowdy par­ties. I re­garded my bor­rowed home as an in­ner-ur­ban hol­i­day house, tak­ing an ex­tra mea­sure of care.

At the time I saw it as a stop-gap mea­sure, a chance to breathe eas­ily and save money while I worked out how to sal­vage my do­mes­tic and eco­nomic ex­is­tence. Five years later, I’m still here, pack­ing my bags at a mo­ment’s no­tice and haul­ing my way across town to turn a key in a trust­ing stranger’s front door.

I’ve lived in quiet Cal­i­for­nian bun­ga­lows and noisy high-street flats, in stylish ren­o­vated ter­races and stun­ning ware­house con­ver­sions, in fam­ily homes and bach­e­lor pads. I have made shame­less use of the pay-TV and in­ter­net con­nec­tions and I have sent away door-to-door pests with the re­frain, ‘‘The owner is away at the mo­ment!’’ I have bought time and found space and done other peo­ple a big favour.

The dog is al­ways de­lighted to see me and I am al­ways glad to have a roof over my head. The good things about house-sit­ting are very good: a com­fort­able and rent-free home of my own, for a while; and (usu­ally) the com­pany of a four-legged com­pan­ion that al­lows me to feel deeply val­ued. Say­ing good­bye to some­one else’s dog at the end of a long stay is as heart­break­ing as any farewell to an old friend.

There are down­sides, of course: the dead gold­fish and run­away dogs, the grotty bath­rooms and sus­pi­cious neigh­bours, the sud­denly short­ened (or out­right can­celled at the very last minute) stints — and the un­der­ly­ing sense of un­set­tled­ness, the nag­ging feel­ing of never hav­ing a real home. On some morn­ings I wake up with no idea of where I am.

Even so, when a text mes­sage from a stranger who was given my num­ber by some­one who was sat­is­fied with an emer­gency te­nancy lights up on my mo­bile phone, I find my­self drawn to­wards my next as­sign­ment in an­other part of town. The mix of freedom and con­ve­nience is still ap­peal­ing. Maybe I am des­tined to spend my mid­dle age as a roam­ing res­i­dent, a home­less house-carer. If noth­ing else, house-sit­ting has shown me there are many other ways to live and many things I can live with­out.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.