Renovating on Elm Street
Daniel’s head was down as he walked towards the bathroom, recalling
dreams of naked girls and swimming pools. A fresh breeze made him look up. He halted, staring at the space where the wall used to be. A metre from
his feet the floor fell away to a garden three floors below. Before him
the eighty year old English Oak swayed, impossibly close. Daniel shook
his head in jaded disbelief and plodded back downstairs.
He waited outside the door, listening. For weeks he’d heard this piece
repeatedly. He knew where the break was, when he would be heard. The
violin cut off and Daniel raised his hand. Poit... poit… poit, water
counted the lull.
Mr Christensen sat in the centre of his studio. The tools of a modern
composer: mixing desk, piano keyboard, sampler and computer, were
arranged around him like a fortress.
‘Where did the bathroom go?’ Daniel asked, pulling his long black hair
off his face and scratching his scalp.
Mr Christensen raised his head, his gaze directed towards his son but
his mind drawn back, listening to the drop. ‘Didn’t your mother tell
‘I almost broke my neck.’
He adjusted the tone of the drop on the computer, and listened again.
Drop... drop... drop...
Daniel waited. He was in no hurry. A successful HSC behind him, the
delicious summer break of idleness spread out before him.
‘She wants to see the oak tree when she’s bathing,’ said Mr Christensen.
Daniel pressed his fingers lightly against the stubble sprouting on his
chin as he watched his father work. Becoming enthused by the idea of a
shave he left, quietly closing the door behind him.
He trod flat footed and heavy over the Ming Dynasty rug in his parents’
bedroom. The telephone rang. He made himself comfortable on their bed.
‘Shit man - what time is it?’
‘Okay, okay... um...’ This kind of information was not wise over the
phone. His mother’s manuscript lay on the bedside table. A dream she
refused to let go of despite the high salary as chief editor for a major
‘Okay, you listening? It’s $25 a poem, $120 a short story, and $350 if
you want the whole novel.’
‘Well I gotta go shower and shit first, so give me half.’
Heading for the ensuite, Daniel chuckled. He assembled his father’s
unused antique shaving set before him. At this rate he’d be a
millionaire before he was twenty.
Mr Sharp, BA. LLB (Hons), flicked his head impatiently as long, lank
hair fell persistently across his glasses. He shifted newspapers, cups,
and remnants of toast around the bench.
‘Has anyone seen my keys? Sue - have you seen my keys? I have to be in
court by ten.’
Mrs Sharp, BCom. LLB (Hons), slipped her feet into high heel shoes.
‘The man’s coming to do the kitchen today,’ she said, to anyone
‘Found ‘em. See you around eight.’
Alice, a quiet girl aged nine, watched Sesame Street at the far end of
the room. ‘What man?’ she asked, lifting her head over the couch. She
had a soft, clear face, one eye slightly bigger than the other. Her
straight blond hair was held neatly in place with a headband.
‘The kitchen man,’ said Mrs Sharp. ‘Where’s Ben? I told him all about
it. We’re renovating the kitchen. He has to stay home today. Ben!’
‘He’s on the phone,’ said Alice, turning back to the Cookie monster and
sticking her thumb in her mouth.
‘You don’t have to yell,’ said Ben, thirteen, entering in Ferrari clad
‘Remember the kitchen man’s coming today.’
Mr Sharp stumbled back in through the door. ‘The f... f... the frigging
car won’t start!’
‘Not the Merc!’ said Ben.
‘Of course the fucking Merc! What do you think the Merc! What else!’
‘All right, all right,’ pleaded Mrs Sharp. ‘I’ll take you. Calm down.’
‘Don’t tell me to calm down. I’ve got to be in court in twenty minutes!’
‘We’re going. Look, Ben - remember the kitchen man. One or two o’clock
he said. His plans are here. See?’ She tapped on them with bright red
fingernails. ‘And look after your sister.’ Ben looked at her tapping
hand and nodded half heartedly while turning to inspect the contents of
Alice listened from the couch, sucking her thumb. She liked hearing
herself being talked about, it was comforting. She took some
satisfaction in Ben having to stay home. The holidays ahead looked
desolate. Her best friend had gone away; and there was no one else.
The parents left. The house went quiet.
Ben came over munching on a salami sausage. They watched Play School.
After a while, Ben said, ‘I’ve got to go over to Daniel’s for a minute.
You stay here.’
‘Mum said you had to look after me.’
‘I’ll only be a few minutes.’
‘No - I want to come. Or I’ll tell.’
Ben sighed, didn’t reply, and carried on watching television. To Alice,
that was a yes.
The children came out and passed through several piles of slate tiles
stacked inside the verandah of their sprawling Californian bungalow. In
the sandstone driveway lay new plumbing, a double sink, and prime Kauri
cupboards. They went on to cross under the lush canopy of fully grown
Elms for which the street was envied.
Directly opposite was the Christensen’s house, a triple story Victorian
terrace. On their nature strip were plumbing pipes, sheets of UV
resistant glass, and an antique, claw foot bath.
Ben rang the doorbell. A fragment of one of Mr Christensen’s
compositions rang out. Ben and Alice pulled faces of distaste at the
‘What a load of crap,’ said Ben, just as Daniel opened the door. Alice
‘Ah! Come through to my boudoir,’ said Daniel, now dressed and munching
on a stale bagel with blue vein cheese. He glanced at Ben, gesturing to
‘She wouldn’t stay home,’ said Ben. ‘She’ll be all right... she doesn’t
know anything.’ Alice was still young enough to be of the age where
people thought she couldn’t understand them, as if that were enough to
effectively make her deaf; as if she didn’t think. She was vaguely aware
of the advantages it bought.
‘Poo - that sandwich stinks,’ she said, as they all traipsed down the
‘Less of the lip from you squirt,’ said Daniel, turning around and
winking. Alice blushed, looked down, and followed Ben’s feet.
Daniel’s room had been renovated the previous year. They’d panelled the
walls in cedar, and installed glass doors opening on to the garden so he
had his own entrance. And gone was the Robin Hood frieze which had
covered one wall, in its place a detailed, intricate mosaic of a knight
in full armour, looking out over his conquered lands with confidence and
‘That’s neat,’ said Alice, pointing at the mosaic.
‘Mum’s idea,’ said Daniel, as he opened one of the panels. Behind was a
small room you would never have known existed.
‘This was my idea,’ he said to Alice. ‘Like my secret den?’
Alice nodded. ‘Cool,’ she said. But her favourite word came out broken,
as if she were losing her voice.
‘You’d better wait out there,’ Ben said to Alice, irritated. ‘This is
‘Men, if you don’t mind,’ said Daniel as he crossed to the roll up desk
and unlocked it. Alice slunk back, huddled in the doorway of the den.
Daniel broke some weed off his stash and measured a gram on his scales.
Ben glanced over his shoulder; Alice was looking at the knight mosaic.
He turned back and noticed a small packet of white powder in a pocket of
‘What’s that shit man?’ he asked, frowning.
‘Just a bit of icing sugar.’ Daniel looked up and added quietly, ‘Don’t
worry. I’m not that stupid. I’m minding it for a friend.’ He wrapped up
the gram in some foil and handed it to Ben. ‘A business doing pleasure
with you,’ said Daniel as they came out of the den. ‘Fancy a smoke?’
‘I dunno mate. Got the squirt.’
‘I’m not a squirt and I know you smoke anyway,’ said Alice, still
looking at the mosaic.
‘Don’t you dare say anything to Mum and Dad.’
‘Of course not. I’ve already seen all those butts outside your window
and I didn’t say anything did I?’
‘Okay, okay.’ Ben patted his sister on the shoulder and smiled at
Daniel. ‘To the fish pond?’
‘To the fishpond!’ said Daniel as he stepped back into his den. ‘I’ll
meet you down there.’
Alice and Ben walked towards the back of the garden where the rockery
was. A small stream flowed into a large circular fish pond. The children
sat at its edge and looked down at the goldfish shimmering in the sun.
‘Daniel’s nice isn’t he?’ said Alice, her voice sounding loud in the
Ben cleared his throat, kept his stare on the fish, and thought about
it. ‘He’s all right,’ he said.
Daniel came down to meet them, a packet of cigarettes in his hand. He
offered them to Ben, who took the only unfiltered one in the packet. The
two boys swapped it back and forth.
‘Want a puff squirt?’ said Daniel suppressing laughter as he offered it
Alice kept still.
‘Leave it out,’ said Ben, pushing Daniel’s arm away from her. ‘She’s
They smoked the rest in silence. Alice kept watching the fish. When the
boys had finished they watched the fish too. After a while Alice said,
‘Yeah,’ said Daniel. ‘It’s that chop suey shit - Mum’s latest craze.’
Alice looked up, smiling slightly, but incomprehension showed in her
uneven eyes. Daniel laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said. Then he
leant over and patted her knee, stroked it. Alice blushed, unsure. She
wanted to move it but didn’t want to be uncool.
‘Piss off Daniel,’ said Ben, standing up. ‘She’s my sister. C’mon Alice.
We’ve got to go and wait for the kitchen man.’
As they were crossing the road, Ben stopped. ‘I’m going to get some
videos,’ he said. ‘You go ahead. I’ll be back soon.’
‘But what if the kitchen man’s there?’
‘He won’t be there yet.’
‘I don’t wa...’ but Ben was already walking off. Alice slouched and
There was a large, bearded man hanging around the verandah. Alice saw
him before he saw her. She stopped, hesitated, then carried on.
‘Hello,’ she called out meekly.
‘Ah - good morning to you!’
‘Have you come to do the kitchen?’
‘Indeedy yes my good lady.’
Alice smiled. She went around past him and felt underneath the verandah
slats for the key.
‘Come in then,’ she said, unlocking the door.
‘Right, right...’ The kitchen man clapped his hands together and looked
around the kitchen. ‘I’ll get to it.’ He got out his screwdriver and
started taking the hinges off the cupboards. Alice walked over to the
television and switched it on.
‘You here all by yourself then?’ asked the man. Alice looked over the
couch with her thumb in her mouth and nodded.
‘Ah, that’s a shame. Have you got no one to play with?’
Alice shook her head. ‘My brother... sometimes.’
‘Ah sure, but no girls your own age?’
Alice shook her head.
‘I’ll bring my daughter round tomorrow. She’s your age. It’ll give
mother a break at home.’
Alice nodded. She wasn’t too sure about that. Children had difficulty
with strangers too, but she didn’t want to appear rude.
Ben came in with five videos in a plastic bag. He stopped short when he
saw the kitchen man. ‘You’re early,’ he said.
‘Aye. I had a job cancelled young sir so I thought I’d make a start if
it suits yourself.’
Ben nodded. ‘Yeah, course.’ He looked at Alice and raised his eyebrows.
Alice smiled. ‘Got some great vids,’ he said tipping the bag up and
spilling them on to the floor.
Around three o’clock the kitchen man announced that he could do no more
that day. He needed other equipment, he said. The kids had watched two
movies, another three to go.
But instead of putting another one on Ben switched the TV off and left
the room. Alice switched it on again and watched the kids programs. They
were better than the videos anyway, which were all war and outer space.
Play school was just starting when Mrs Sharp came home.
‘So the kitchen man’s been then,’ she said, looking around the kitchen.
‘He’s just left,’ said Alice.
‘Oh my God. Ben! Where’s Ben? Jesus Christ I don’t believe it.’
‘He’s put the bloody sink in the wrong place. Look, I changed it on the
plans. Didn’t he see them? What an imbecile!’
‘He was nice.’
‘I don’t care if he was nice. I’m paying him good money. I told Ben to
point out the plans to him. Where is he? Ben!’
‘He said he was going to bring his daughter over to play with me.’
Alice stood and looked at her mother standing in the middle of the room
with her head up, calling out her brother’s name. She seemed strange to
her, a woman of the world.
Alice sat down and turned back to Play School.
"Round window, arched window, or square window?"
Mrs Sharp stomped out of the kitchen and down the corridor. After a few
minutes she came back in.
‘Do you know where Ben is? Alice?’
‘In his room probably,’ she said, through her thumb.
‘Well he’s not. He’s not anywhere. He’s probably over at that bloody
Just then Mr Sharp arrived. ‘Did anyone come to fix the Merc?’ he said
to his wife.
‘How the hell would I know?’
‘Alice?’ said Mr Sharp. ‘Did anyone come to fix the car?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well you’ve been here all day haven’t you? Where’s Ben?’
‘He’s not here,’ said Mrs Sharp. ‘The kitchen man put the sink in the
old place when I’d already changed it on the plan. Ben forgot to tell
‘Jesus Christ what is it with these kids? They’re home all day, they do
nothing and can’t follow simple instructions?’ Mr Sharp left the house.
Sounds of the Merc trying to start came through.
After a few minutes he came back. ‘That bloody mechanic’s about as
reliable as... as...’ He was looking at Alice. He didn’t finish the
‘Alice, go over to Daniel’s and see if Ben’s there,’ said Mrs Sharp.
Alice looked up, her face creased in protest. ‘Do I have to?’
‘Yes!’ yelled her father.
Alice left the house and crossed the road again. Her shoulders drooped.
She rang the bell of the Christensen’s, waited for the composition to
Daniel, watching television on his parent’s bed, heard the front bell
ring, but didn’t move to answer it. When there was no answer, Alice
thought she’d check around the back. She walked quietly down the grassy
passage at the side of the terrace. Daniel’s glass door was open, she
knocked and peeped in. They could be in the den, she thought. They
weren’t. Daniel had left his desk open and Alice could see the packet of
icing sugar out. A spoon lay next to it.
Ben came home munching on a king size block of chocolate.
‘For Gods sake Ben we’re having dinner in a minute,’ said Mrs Sharp, her
anger marginally subsided. ‘I told you to show the kitchen man the
plans. I changed them. Didn’t he see?’
Ben swallowed with difficulty. ‘They were just there. He would have seen
‘I told you to tell him they’d changed.’
‘You didn’t tell me anything. You just said there’s the plans.’
‘Right! Right. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter. He hasn’t
connected the plumbing yet so he can just move it.’
‘He didn’t have the right bit.’
‘Well maybe there’s blessing in incompetence after all. I’m going to
order Japanese. Go and see what Alice wants.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Well isn’t she with you?’
‘I sent her over to Daniel’s for you.’
‘I’ll go and get her,’ he said, quickly leaving the house.
Ben waited impatiently at the door. He didn’t trust Daniel. He was
always going on about sex. It made him sick. And what he did to Alice
There was no answer, so he went around the back.
‘Alice!’ he called as he entered Daniel’s room. There was no one there.
In his den the white powder was open, some of it spilt on the desk.
Minding it my arse, he thought as he went out the glass doors. At the
back of the garden by the pond he could see Alice’s leg sticking out
from behind a shrub. He started running, afraid. ‘Alice!’ The leg didn’t
move. She was lying down, on her own, a pool of vomit next to her. Froth
dribbled from her mouth, her stare frozen on the water.
2001 Trout &