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Half-Built Houses

In the days before cyclone wire mesh safety fencing half-built houses lay open to the public. Well, not quite the public, but open to the casual temptations of any passing vandal. Not that I ever thought of myself as a vandal. More of an inquisitive ratbag. A layabout. What my betters might have called a wayward youth. And what is a wayward youth, no matter how indifferently treated by the rest of the tribe, but a member of the public?

In the burgeoning housing estates of the suburb I grew up in my buddies and I used to break into all the half-built houses we could find. There is something about a half-built house that excites the curiosity of the wayward youth. A half-built house is a ready made playground. Whether it is a concrete slab with a few skeletal frames, or stump holes full of rain water, or gyprocked walls built to lockup, a half-built house is a place in which imaginations can fly.

My pals and I would conduct war games in them, skirmishes from room to room. We would climb into ceiling cavities, swing from rafters, loot. Proper little urchins. Any broken windows were purely accidental. A more pedestrian fantasy might entail picturing what it would be like to live in one of these empty shells ourselves. Or to imagine the people who would soon be moving in. What furniture would they bring with them? Stuff that would define their presence, no doubt, their substance in the world. What conversations would they have? Surely not the same drear ones that went on in my family?

Often we were chased from building sites by carpenters, bricklayers, electricians or painters come to add the next layers of civilisation to someone’s quarter acre dream. Sometimes we spoke civilly to them and came to learn such terms as slurry, plumbline, nailpunch and so on. It hardly seemed like work at all. I found it interesting, the construction of little alcoves, en-suites, walk-in wardrobes and other hidey-holes simply by banging up a piece of plasterboard to a wooden frame. To create – space – where there had been only air. Sometimes we threw stones at the builders and ran, cackling. We must have been the bane of their lives. If they gave chase well that just encouraged us. A fleeing urchin is best left to flee. Usually the builders were pretty good natured about it. I always admired those leather tool pouches strapped around their waists with little pockets and niches for hammers, Phillips-head screwdrivers and other instruments, and of course the six-shooters to which I thought they would be better suited.

There was an old B-grade movie I recall seeing one night called Bad Ronald in which Bad Ronald, the dimwitted introvert persecuted by the neighbours, is hidden by his mother inside a perfectly disguised, secret room within the house. They can’t find him. Then mother goes off for a routine gallstone operation and dies on the operating table. Ronald’s in the room waiting for her to come home. The milk and bread are still being delivered. Later, a sweet suburban family (three blonde daughters) move in. They hear strange noises. They seem to be going through an awful lot of milk. He has peep holes. Inside his secret room Bad Ronald has gone mad, painting the walls of the cave with his mythologised fantasy of the three blonde daughters. He kidnaps one of them. It’s only a matter of time before he bursts out…

Similarly, I recall a game in a roof cavity interrupted by the owners or builders suddenly opening for the first time the pristine door and stepping into their New Home. Was it a husband lifting a lacy bride over the threshold, or an overpopulated family stretching their wings on the strength of Papa Bear’s promotion? Suddenly we were spies in the ceiling, the enemy interrogators below. We could hear every word they said. When they were at the far end of the house, sampling paint pots or something, we dropped through the man-hole and the gaps in the boardless floor, as though from one world to another, and made hysterical escape. It is that sense of the hidden, the yet to be revealed, that gives a half-built house its great air of adventure. Of course I did not think this at the time. I only cared about the adrenaline and the panic in my guts.

It is sad to see these days all the ghostless, uniform domiciles locked up like the Royal Mint with portable fencing and Trespassers Prosecuted signs and security patrols. The sprawl of suburbia spreading like a fungal infection on the landscape. Civilization spreading its tentacles. It is, however, understandable. All these rascals about. The market in stolen copper is booming. The identical design of the metropolitan housing estate, the sterility of the modern McMansion – the dream home has become a fortress, no wonder people go mad in them. That’s nothing new. Even today, if I pass a new building development, with men at work, I wonder what it must be like to wander around inside those raw, unfurnished rooms before they have acquired memory. They are like Plato’s blank slate, a priori walls, places of unlimited possibility. I remember thinking, for example, if things became too much at home, too drear, you could always flee to one of these places and hide until you grew old. You could sneak out for the bread and milk. They must tap into some reflexive nerve, the primordial urge for shelter and construction with its smells of sawdust, cement, paint. The undecorated cave. Sanctuary. Renovation seems to prod a different nerve, with its inconvenience and endless bills and limited, practicable vision. There’s bound to be a B-grade movie I could dovetail to that premise, but I can’t think of it. For me, paradoxical as it may sound, a half-built house is a nostalgic yearning for the future.

Mark O’Flynn's latest book is the collection of short stories Dental Tourism (Puncher & Wattmann 2020).