Monday, June 8, 2009

Other People's Houses

You can’t really burn the ocean, or melt it, or dent it in any way. This is very relaxing for Peter and me, because on land, we are a force for destruction. Over the years, people have been naïve enough to offer us their homes when they leave the country. We seem normal, as though we would be capable of bringing in the mail and feeding the cat. So people blithely hand us their keys and the secret codes to their burglar alarms, then traipse merrily away on holiday. This is invariably a mistake.

Sometimes, the consequences are minor. When my brother’s family was away in Greece, Peter and I made shrimp scampi over a volcanic flame on their restaurant-quality range, thus charring the wooden cutting board that fit neatly between the burners. Half an hour later, the maid walked in on us as we lounged naked on the living room floor, loudly slurping shrimp carcasses and making out like teenagers.

“¡Ay Dios Mio!” she shrieked, slamming the door behind her.

When they got back from their vacation, my brother called me to protest. “I didn’t say you could have Roman orgies on the living room floor. I just wanted you pick up the mail, and scare away the burglars.”

I pointed out in my defense that the burglars had clearly been scared, as had the maid, who hadn’t shown up for work since. But my brother was unimpressed.

Then there are the cultural misunderstandings. I had a very worldly childhood, and I know what a bidet is. But when I was twelve years old, stumbling down a darkened corridor on the first night of our summer holiday in France, I was just looking for something cool and ceramic to sit on. In retrospect, it could have been worse: I might have found the bathtub, or the smiling face of a garden gnome. But I didn’t. By the time I located a light switch, it was too late. My eyes flashed in horror from the pristine toilet to the bidet, where the proof of my crime crouched accusingly, coiled like a viper.

It was then that I noticed the ski glove, abandoned on the bathroom shelf by a previous tenant. Slipping it over my sweaty palm, I reached in and grasped the turd, quivering and warm like a newborn lamb. I slipped it furtively into the toilet, then flushed and flushed, and no one ever knew.

It was harder to protest my innocence when I allowed my father’s chicken to be raped to death while he was wintering in Paris. No one ever told me that ducks are such dangerous perverts, or that a drake’s penis is barbed like a torture device from the Spanish Inquisition. And Quackers looked so cute when he was fluttering around, playing kissing games with the little red hen. But then her insides started coming out, and I had to concede that something was horribly wrong.

By this time, no one in France or North America will allow us to house-sit for them. The fires we’ve set, the maids we’ve terrified, the turds we’ve laid have spoken for themselves, as has the trail of mutilated chicken corpses. But we’re in a new country now, a new continent, a new hemisphere. Like all immigrants, we can begin again.

And so we are house-sitting for Peter’s distant cousin in Whangarei. Brenda and Bob are rightfully proud of their home and grounds, with a meticulously maintained garden and a kitchen that fairly glows with loving care. Brenda is particularly fond of her ceramic cook top, a flawless black surface that strikes fear into my heart every time I use it. In order to maintain its pristine finish, it cannot be scrubbed or scoured. The stove must be allowed to cool, then lightly scraped with a razor blade, then massaged with special solvents and polished to a glittering sheen. It must rubbed, cleaned and coddled like a thoroughbred racehorse. It terrifies me.

Brenda and Bob do not heat a kettle on the stove when they make tea. They use an electric jug. This is actually a far more efficient way to heat water, and it’s very simple to use. You just plug it in, turn it on and wait a minute or two. That’s all. You do not, for example, place the electric jug on the pristine ceramic cook top and then turn on the stove, melting the plastic into a toxic ooze and filling the kitchen with acrid smoke.

Like Peter did. Last night.

“Antonia!” he called from the kitchen, where he was making me a cup of tea. “ Come quickly! I’ve done a terrible thing!”

I scrambled into the kitchen to witness a nightmarish tableau: Peter lifting the electric kettle off the cook top, tendrils of melted plastic dripping from its base. On the precious ceramic surface, a noxious plastic stew was bubbling.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!” I shrieked, and Silas started to cry.

We spent the evening scraping melted plastic off the stove with a razor blade, and all I could think was: We’ve got to get out to sea. We’re better on the water.

At least we haven’t figured out a way to break the ocean. Yet.


  1. I did the EXACT same thing with one of those new fangled electric tea kettles. Luckily it was at our family's scruffy beach cottage where everything looks melted and rusted anyhow. But, oh the SMELL! I hope Silas had a gas mask!

  2. You should see the vagina (

  3. OH, you mean the DUCK vagina. When I saw your comment, I thought for sure someone was leaving porn links on my blog! And you did. Kind of. Creepy, avian porn links. Ugh!