A few days after they moved into the house, Andreas was watching Penny clean the bath. She was scrubbing the recess around the edge of the tub with a toothbrush dipped in bleach.
‘Have you seen that basement?’ she said to him, sitting back on her heels and pointing to the bathroom window. ‘It’s like a medieval dungeon.’
The basement had a separate entrance to the house in an alcove outside the bathroom window. Andreas peered out the window at the basement door. It was dark blue, with a globe-shaped, rusty knob. ‘Pretty common in houses of this vintage,’ he said, slurping on his coffee. ‘Something about air flow and sandstone foundations. It’s basically a cave; that’s what the real estate agent told me.’
Penny scrubbed with the focus of an artist, working the toothbrush in small, tight circles.
‘You’ve been cleaning for hours darling,’ Andreas said. ‘Why don’t you take a break?’
‘But I want to have a bath now,’ she said, dipping the toothbrush into the bucket of bleach. ‘I feel all…gritty. All gritty and salty.’
Andreas sighed and peered out the window again. He noticed a decomposing rat beneath the basement step. The animal’s ribs were starting to show through its coarse grey fur. He pulled down the blind and reminded himself to get rid of the mess when Penny wasn’t watching.
The house was solid brick. Built before the First World War. Three storeys (including the poky attic). It needed work. A lot of work. The previous owner – an old woman – had let it fall apart. A stagnant pond smell emanated from the laundry downstairs. There was a dip in the lounge room ceiling, as if a malignant mass in the roof was pressing down on the plaster. All over the house, panels had been nailed to walls in a random fashion. Why? To conceal the mould? To hide dead bodies? There was no logic to it.
‘I hate it,’ Penny said, when she first saw it. ‘They should bulldoze it.’
‘It’s heritage listed,’ Andreas said.
‘It’s a heritage listed health hazard.’
As they walked down the narrow hallway with the other potential buyers, Penny kept her hands tucked beneath her armpits, pushing at the doors with her elbow, peering into the dark and dusty rooms.
Andreas hadn’t told her about the saving grace. The only reason why a couple like them might consider buying a house like that. When they stepped into the sunroom, Penny gasped. ‘Oh my,’ she said. And there it was: the ocean view, the Pacific Ocean – a brilliant, sparkling emerald.
‘See?’ Andreas said, putting his arm around his wife’s shoulder. ‘The house is just a shell. We can make whatever changes we want. But we’ll never get another house, at this price, with a view like that.’
Penny nodded, her eyes wide, and let him pull her a little closer.
Prior to moving into the house, Andreas and Penny had lived in an apartment for thirty years. The inner city location was convenient when they were working; Andreas could ride his bike to the university and Penny could walk to the gallery. But after they retired, Andreas longed for a change of scene. The city streets made him feel confined. The council cut back the trees on their street so regularly that they barely had time to grow leaves. The local park was basically a traffic island.
Andreas could see himself withering away over the coming decades, gradually disappearing into the concrete landscape like a fossil. He longed for space. For something wild and uncultivated. He started looking at houses by the beach. Houses with an ocean view.
Andreas could see himself withering away over the coming decades, gradually disappearing into the concrete landscape like a fossil.
Penny also professed to being tired of city life. She was sick of the noisy, clunky buses that stopped outside the apartment. And although she looked forward to New Year’s Eve celebrations on the roof (the harbourside fireworks were partially visible, if one was drunk enough to stand on top of the air conditioning unit), fighting the council had become a chore.
‘I’m meant to be relaxing,’ she would say to Andreas. ‘But I spend most of my time organising petitions against housing developments.’
They could only afford a modest upgrade, and Penny didn’t want to move too far from her friends, so the beachside options were limited. Andreas was on the brink of giving up when he found the heritage-listed house with the stunning view.
‘A sea change,’ Penny said when she called her friends to share the news, laughing about the pretentiousness of it all. ‘Oh no, I like swimming,’ she’d say. ‘I love swimming. Just not so fond of sand, that’s all.’
After the settlement was signed, Andreas and Penny met with the woman who was selling the house. Her name was Dot and it suited her, considering she was so small.
‘Fifty-eight years I’ve lived here,’ Dot said at that first meeting. Perched on the edge of a bulky couch, Dot’s bony feet only just reached the floor. An overweight black Labrador with a silver-flecked muzzle lay beside her. ‘All my children grew up here,’ she smiled, passing Penny a cup of tea, ‘and my husband died here,’ she passed a cup to Andreas, ‘in the front room.’
Penny glared at Andreas and raised her eyebrows.
‘Do you have children?’ Dot handed Penny a jug of milk in the shape of a dog, its mouth the spout.
‘No, no children,’ Penny replied.
Dot nodded and waited for something more – an apology perhaps, or an excuse.
They’d been at the house for a week when they got the first call from Dot. Penny was in bed with a headache. (‘The mould,’ she’d groaned that morning, ‘is flaring up my allergies.’)
‘Is that you Andrew?’ Dot shouted, as if calling from a space station on a patchy line.
‘Andreas, yes, it’s me. Is that you Mrs McAllister?’
‘Yes, yes it is.’ There was a slight pause and he could hear Dot’s breath whistling through her nose. ‘I was wondering if I could drop by tomorrow?’ she said.
‘Yes. I know it sounds silly, but I’m missing the house. I just thought, perhaps, if I spent the afternoon there I could, I don’t know,’ she sighed, ‘get it out of my system?’
‘Well of course! Of course, Mrs McAllister.’
‘I know it sounds odd. You’ll think I’m so odd!’
‘Not at all, Mrs McAllister. I fully understand. Of course that would be absolutely fine.’
‘I just thought, perhaps, if I spent the afternoon there I could, I don’t know…get it out of my system?’
‘She lived here for fifty-eight years!’ Penny said that night, as Andreas prepared a salad. ‘She’s hardly going to get it out of her system in a single afternoon.’
‘She’s an old woman,’ he said, biting into a cherry tomato. ‘Her husband died here.’
‘What has that got to do with it?’ Penny squealed, pulling the cork from of a bottle of wine. ‘It’s our house now.’
The doorbell rang the next day. At 7 am. ‘Who the hell is that?’ Andreas groaned.
‘Your little friend probably,’ Penny said, her eyes still closed. ‘Remember? She’s coming to get it out of her system.’
Andreas switched on the coffee machine and tightened the cord of his kimono. ‘Coffee, Mrs McAllister?’
‘Lovely, thank you Andrew, and please, call me Dot.’
She stood beside him and watched as he pulled at the levers of the shiny coffee machine. Her dog sniffed around the pantry door, nose close to the ground, snorting and snuffling like a pig.
As Andreas poured the coffee, Dot touched his arm gently and pointed to the shelf beside the kitchen window. ‘You know that’s a bookshelf I suppose?’ she said.
‘Yes, but we thought it was a good place for Penny’s orchids. Brightens up the space a bit, don’t you think?’
‘Hm,’ Dot said, contemplating the plants with a confused, or perhaps hostile glare.
Andreas headed to the beach after breakfast. Penny was still in bed. Dot was perched on the couch in the sunroom. ‘You’re sure you don’t mind?’ she said, as Andreas slapped sunscreen onto his face.
‘Not at all, not at all,’ he said. ‘Stay for as long as you like.’
‘I might just read my magazine. I’ve always loved this spot. The breeze sweeping up from the ocean.’
Andreas stood with hands on his hips, his feet wide apart, looking out at the view. ‘It’s marvellous, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ Dot sighed. ‘I’m very lucky.’
Lucky, Andreas thought as he bounded down the hill to the beach. Lucky to have lived in that house? Lucky to be back? He wasn’t sure what Dot meant. Then again, she’s old, he thought to himself. She’s clocked up eighty years at least. Even she probably doesn’t know what she means.
Tourists gathered at the esplanade overlooking the beach. Andreas squeezed past a group blocking his path. They had the look of recently retired, North American cruise line passengers with their sun visors, pastel-coloured shorts and bum bags. They smiled at Andreas and moved aside to let him pass.
The warm sand squeaked beneath Andreas’s feet as he walked towards the red and yellow flags. He found a spot, dumped his towel, flicked off his thongs and pulled off his T-shirt. He swung his arms about a few times and breathed in deeply. He could already feel the muscles in his chest and arms getting stronger from his daily swims.
Andreas was imagining what the tourists on the esplanade would be thinking as they watched him dive into the waves. A fearless man. A strong man. Swimming out past the breakers. No longer young, but certainly not yet old.
‘Why did you move my orchids?’ Penny confronted Andreas at the front gate with a dripping garden hose in her hand.
‘What do you mean?’ He turned his head to one side and wiped water from his ear. ‘I haven’t touched your orchids.’
Penny perched the dripping hose above the roots of her newly planted grevillea. ‘Well, someone moved them.’
‘It wasn’t me.’
‘Perhaps it was her.’
‘Your little friend.’
‘I’m sure she wouldn’t have done that.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure.’
‘Where is she?’
‘I don’t know,’ Penny said. ‘She’s not here. She was gone by the time I got up.’
Andreas shrugged as he walked towards the front door.
‘And don’t you dare walk into that house with all that sand on you.’
‘I’m wiping it off – see?’ He exaggerated the scraping movement of his feet on the mat.
‘Walk around the side and go to the downstairs bathroom. Wash yourself off.’
‘I’m not a dog,’ he shot back, striding into the hallway.
A few days later Andreas and Penny were in the bathroom together. Andreas was brushing his teeth. Penny was on a ladder beside him, scrubbing the top of the bathroom cabinet.
‘I hate this bathroom. I feel like I can never get it clean,’ Penny said. ‘I just think I’m on top of it all, then I notice another patch of mould, another dusty spider web. It’s like it all just grows back overnight.’
Andreas spat toothpaste into the sink and wiped his mouth. ‘Well, we have a bit of money left over,’ he said. ‘Let’s just renovate the bathroom now.’
‘I came here for some peace and quiet, Andreas. I hate renovations. There’ll be noise and dirt and tradesmen traipsing through the house. And I suppose I’ll be left to organise everything while you cavort on the beach.’
‘Cavort?’ he smirked. ‘You know you could always come cav-or-ting with me,’ he sang, standing at the bottom of the ladder, running his hands up the back of her thighs.
‘Andreas,’ Penny said without looking down. ‘I’m really not in the mood.’
‘I’m thinking teal-coloured tiles for the bathroom,’ Penny announced a few days later, as they shared a bottle of wine in the sunroom. ‘To replace those revolting coral-pink ones. And perhaps a marble sink. With bamboo floorboards. And a nice solid chest of drawers.’
‘If that’s what you want,’ Andreas replied, flicking his thong against his heel. He found himself routinely hypnotised by the view of the ocean. Sometimes the water appeared to be still but then, looking closer, he could see that everything was moving. The ripples, the currents. That afternoon it was moody and dramatic – waves breaking in an odd rhythm, smashing up against each other.
‘And we’ll have a project manager to handle everything. That way I don’t have to hang around all day waiting for tradesmen.’
‘There is nothing man-made – absolutely nothing man has achieved – that matches the magnificence of that ocean,’ Andreas said.
‘Andreas,’ Penny sighed. ‘Are you even listening?’
The bathroom renovation started within days and was finished within a week. The teal-coloured tiles were imported from Italy. They cost a fortune, but Andreas held his tongue. He didn’t want to snap Penny out of her cheerful mood.
Penny was in the garden pulling out azalea bushes when Dot called again.
‘I hope you don’t mind,’ Dot said.
‘Oh no,’ Andreas said. ‘No, it’s fine Dot.’
‘I don’t want to be any trouble.’
‘No trouble at all.’
‘Is tomorrow alright? Around lunchtime?’
‘Yes,’ Andreas said. ‘See you then.’
He found himself routinely hypnotised by the view of the ocean. Sometimes the water appeared to be still but then, looking closer, he could see that everything was moving.
‘Why did you say yes?’ Penny screeched when Andreas told her.
‘I don’t know. She seems a bit lonely.’
Penny huffed. ‘I hope she’s not going to move around anything else that doesn’t belong to her.’
‘I think I feel sorry for her. Is that so terrible?’
‘Darling,’ Penny put her hands on her hips. ‘Do you remember how much we paid for this house?’
‘I find it hard to forget.’
‘And do you realise who all that money went to?’
‘Yes. All the money went to her. That little old lady and her depressed, incontinent dog. I don’t think we need to feel sorry for her.’
‘Yes,’ Andreas replied. ‘Yes well, I suppose so.’
Penny was out when Dot arrived the next day and Andreas was off to the beach for another swim.
‘Make yourself at home,’ he called to Dot as he walked out the door.
‘I can certainly do that!’ she chirped back.
Later that day, after Dot had left, Andreas was in the front yard reading the newspaper when he heard Penny shriek.
‘Penny?’ he got up and walked into the hallway. ‘Darling? Is everything alright?’
She shrieked again. The sound was coming from the bathroom.
Andreas stood at the top of the stairs and called again. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I don’t believe this,’ Penny wailed.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Come and look. Come and see for yourself.’
He walked down the steps and into the bathroom.
Penny was squatting by the bathtub. ‘Look,’ she said, pointing to a spot beneath the sink.
Andreas bent down and saw it: a single coral-pink tile amidst a sea of teal blue.
When Andreas got off the phone with the project manager, Penny was wiping down the kitchen sink with a sponge and a glob of white paste.
‘He’s not sure what happened,’ Andreas said. ‘He said the tiler is usually very good, but he must have just missed it. Someone’s coming over to fix it tomorrow.’
‘Must have just missed it?’ Penny scoffed. ‘How could they miss something that obvious?’
‘It was just a mistake, darling,’ he placed his hand lightly on his wife’s back. ‘There’s no need to get worked up.’
‘It was her.’ Penny pulled away from him. ‘She did something to the bathroom! Like she did with the orchids!’
‘Penny, don’t be ridiculous. Do you really think Dot was down there fiddling with tiles while we were out? Why would she do that? How would she do that?’
‘Why did we even move here?’
‘What do you mean, why did we even move here?’
‘I don’t like this house. I never liked this house.’
‘You loved it just as much as I did. When you saw the ocean view.’
Penny dropped the sponge in the sink and began to wash her hands. ‘I’m going to stay with Chrissy for a few days.’
‘Oh, come on Penny. Don’t be silly.’
‘It’s not silly,’ she shot back, wiping her hands on a tea towel. ‘I miss the cinema. I miss the café. I miss people who wear shoes. Everyone in this suburb only ever wears thongs. Have you noticed that?’
‘What’s wrong with thongs?’ he said meekly as she walked past, hoping she wouldn’t look down and notice his new Havaianas.
Andreas woke early the next morning. Alone. But he was determined not to let Penny’s childish behaviour cramp his style. He grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl and whistled as he strode down to the beach.
A strong wind was blowing. Clouds were moving across the sun, making the water dark and shadowy. Strong man, he thought to himself, fearless man, as he swam out through the choppy waves.
When he was out past the breakers, Andreas stopped to catch his breath and turned to look back. Past the shore was the road and behind that the hill where their house was set. From where he was, he could just see the slate-grey roof tiles and the poky attic window. He loved his wife, but lately found it difficult to understand her. What exactly was she upset about? Surely there was more to it than just dust and mould? And what did it matter, really, what people wore on their feet?
They had barely spent a night apart since they moved into the inner city apartment, all those years ago. They had always lived in relative harmony there, despite it being so small. They had their shared patterns and habits, along with their distinct needs and interests. Their life there was neat and compact; like the apartment itself, everything had its place. Yet here they were, in a house five times as big, and somehow, for some reason, they seemed to be getting in each other’s way – arguing over things that didn’t even matter.
Clouds were moving across the sun, making the water dark and shadowy. Strong man, he thought to himself, fearless man.
At first, he thought it was the wind. The sound was coming from behind him. When he turned around, he saw a man on a surfboard, shouting, moving at a frightening speed towards him.
‘Farrrrr…!’ the man yelled, ‘Watch owwwwww…’
Andreas ducked beneath the froth and covered his face with his hands. From beneath, the wave sounded like a rumbling train.
He stayed there until the surface of the water had settled, then shot back up, ready to admonish the surfer. This was a swimming zone! Board-riders were strictly banned. Hadn’t he seen the signs on the beach?
Andreas looked around, but couldn’t see the surfer. The grey clouds were hanging lower in the sky and the wind was whipping up a sandstorm on the shore. Andreas was cold and began to swim back, but his arms felt weak and his legs like dead weights. What’s wrong with me? he wondered. Shock? Hypothermia?
He tried to catch a wave, but missed it. He was coughing, flailing about, trying to catch his breath. Perhaps he needed to be rescued? And what would they think then, those tourists on the esplanade? That he was a stupid old man; strong enough to swim out, but too frail to swim back again.
Slowly, slowly, Andreas made it back to the shore. He stumbled onto the sand, collected his towel and wrapped it around his waist. He pulled on his sweatshirt to stop himself from shivering. He hobbled up to the esplanade – exhausted and spent – and collapsed onto a bench.
Their life there was neat and compact; like the apartment itself, everything had its place. Yet here, for some reason, they seemed to be getting in each other’s way.
‘Are you alright?’ A woman with a small dog stopped in front of him. ‘Do you need some help?’
‘I’m fine,’ Andreas replied.
The woman stared at him for a moment longer. ‘You look a bit pale. Are you sure you don’t need a doctor?’
‘I’m fine,’ he barked.
‘Okay, okay,’ the woman said, holding up her hands in mock surrender.
Andreas was standing at the front door, wiping the sand off his feet, when he heard the phone ring. Penny, he thought. My dear Penny. He loped down the hall and grabbed the phone from the receiver.
Andreas sighed. ‘Yes. Hello Dot.’
‘I was wondering if I could come over tomorrow, just to –’
‘No. No, I don’t think so Dot.’
‘I think the dog is really missing the –’
‘Dot, no. I would prefer if you didn’t. Please. That’s enough now.’
He placed the phone back on the receiver and slumped onto a wicker chair. It was rude to hang up on her like that, but they needed to draw a line somewhere. It wasn’t her house anymore. They owed her nothing.
Andreas tried to get out of bed the next day. He thought about it many, many times. He pictured himself rolling across the mattress, placing his feet on the floorboards, opening the bedroom door and walking to the kitchen. He could see himself switching on the coffee machine, placing two pieces of rye bread into the toaster, turning on the radio and stretching out his back.
But he saw no reason to. Why would he bother? He was alone. He was tired. He was a lonely, tired old man. There was nothing, and no one, to get up for.
He slept through breakfast then woke up and stared at the mouldy ceiling until the feeling overcame him again. He slept through lunch. He woke up again and tried to read, but the words seemed to have no connection to each other. It was just word after word after word, with no narrative or meaning.
He felt himself drifting into sleep again. It was dark when he woke to the sound of her heels on the floorboards. His wife. His lovely wife. She had returned.
‘Oh I saw the most wonderful film with Chrissy,’ Penny said as she undressed.
Andreas checked the temperature of the bathwater with his hand. ‘Did you dear? Did you really?’ He swirled the water around, churning up more bubbles. ‘We’ll have to make an effort to see more movies. Find a cinema close by. What do you think?’
‘Yes.’ Penny hung her shirt on the towel rack and slipped off her pants. ‘Yes, we must do that.’
She put her hand on his shoulder and stepped into the water. He noticed her calves, so toned and shapely for a woman of her age. The small of her back – that soft, gentle curve he had always found so alluring.
‘What?’ she said, crouching down into the water.
‘Am I not allowed to admire my beautiful wife?’ He smiled. She sank down slowly into the bubbles and closed her eyes.
‘Warm enough dear?’ he said.
‘Perfect darling,’ she whispered, reaching for his hand. ‘Why don’t you join me? There’s room enough for two.’
Andreas smiled. He turned around and began to unbutton his pants. That’s when he saw her. It was Dot, standing in front of the basement door, her dog standing beside her. Tiny Dot, wearing a drab grey coat, staring at the blue door as if in a trance. Her shoulders were stooped and her hair hung limply around her face. She pushed at the basement door and shuffled into the darkness.
‘What is it?’ Penny said. ‘Darling?’
Andreas felt a tight, cold knot in his stomach, as if there was something he had to tell his wife, something bad.