this (house-sitting) life
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.