Dancing with Debris

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By Susan Roberts

Unlike Kevin Costner who danced with wolves, my landlord dances with debris. Yes, that’s debris, not Debra. Well, maybe the word dance is a bit strong. More like, he shuffles it about before abandoning it against a wall somewhere, rather like those shy boys in high school who weren’t quite sure what to do with you once they’d got you onto the dance floor.

Twelve years ago, when I asked a family member what the new place she had moved into was like, she said, “Well, it reminds me of those movies set in Columbia where some drug lord lives in the middle of nowhere and the grounds are overgrown and filled with junk.”

About three months later I needed a new place to live and she told me that there was a vacant cottage at the bottom of the property below her house. She spoke to her landlord and he agreed to meet me. I drove down the long unkempt drive to the panhandle property hidden behind two other houses, and my first impressions matched hers. I almost expected Harrison Ford to leap out of the shrubbery, gun in hand, in an action replay of Clear and Present Danger. Sadly, Harrison didn’t, but the film setting remained.

My relative lived in the top half of a two-storey house. Square and flat-roofed, it overlooked the ancient carriage house which had been converted into a cottage. Not far away was a half-drained, dirty pool – clearly no one had swum in that for ages. Across the garden, several rusty sheds languished behind piles of old building materials: spare windows and doors; broken tiles and roof trusses; disembowelled packets of hardened cement – much of it covered with weeds and creeper.

The whole place was bordered by an arrangement of unmatched fences, walls, buttresses and huge spreading trees that my sister and I would have given our right arms to climb when we were children. To an adult with an adult’s eye for pleasure-crushing, it was a bit of a dump. However, the
adventurous, movie-obsessed child in me loved it. Not only did the place look like an abandoned movie backlot, but the atmosphere of a fantasy land was heightened by the birds calling and monkeys jumping from tree to tree. And that was before I even saw the inside of the cutest little cottage…

Jump forward eleven years and I’m still here. So is the debris. I’ve moved from the cottage into the top half of the house once inhabited by my relative, and the debris has played musical chairs in the garden. In the last decade I’ve come to see my landlord as a generous-natured, easy-going man who has the best of intentions when it comes to helping out and fixing things, but who never quite gets around to doing everything.

And he never throws anything away.

As a retired builder, he has amassed a vast collection of things he picked up cheaply (or free) on numerous building sites over the years, all on the off-chance that he might one day be able to use them somewhere. By his own admission, he built the entire house out of these bits and pieces. The critical part of me wants to say: “Yes, I can see that,” but the non-critical fantasist in me finds the idea of living in a Jerry-built house rather fascinating. In my mind’s eye I can see him as a child dreaming up magnificent palaces.

A compulsive magpie by nature, he can’t let go of any object that might come in useful. I come from a family of magpies myself so I understand and sympathise with this tendency, but this guy could have written the book on it! Imagine my embarrassment when I finally pluck up the courage to let go of some useless piece of junk that I no longer need and put it outside on the pavement with the garbage, only to find it back in the yard the following day, leaning against a fence or shed, waving at me in the breeze because it got rescued at the eleventh hour by my landlord!

I admire his vision, but not his impractical execution. In the alcove next to my dining room is a stairway (blocked below because that’s a separate flat downstairs). This leads upwards to a tin roof which rattles and squeaks in harmony with the weather, and sounds like a steel drum band when it rains. One day the sheets of tin will be removed and the stairs will open onto the roof garden that has yet to be fashioned. Not in my landlord’s lifetime, I don’t think, and probably not in mine either.

In the meantime the staircase is an ugly, unpainted, roughly plastered eyesore in the middle of my house. Or it was, until I draped it with 22 metres of pongee lining which I once used to give my cottage lounge a false ceiling some years back, after I grew tired of waiting for my landlord to put up
a real one. Two months ago he finally installed a proper ceiling in the cottage, but of course I am no longer there to enjoy it.

So why do I continue to live here? On four sides of me the trees tower, the purple-crested louries flit and nest beneath the canopy, and the monkeys use the thickest hanging creeper-vines to swing daily through the trees. My cats prowl and bask in the sun. A kind of paradise on earth for all of us, if a little muddled and untidy. In another part of my mind I remember that magnificent tree house in the 1960 Disney film of The Swiss Family Robinson which I have fantasised about living in since I was a child. Dreams don’t always come true, but that’s why God gave us imagination.

I’m a bit eccentric and I love living in a substitute move backlot, surrounded by cats, monkeys, louries and paradise flycatchers, in my own little pocket of paradise, watching my strange landlord dancing among the debris, creating mansions in his mind as he arranges his junk around the garden..

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