Tess was tall and solid, towering over the rest of us kids in the neighbourhood. They had just finished building a large double brick European influenced home at the top of the street nested low within the block but no less dominating. Her family had since become the second owners, within our young lifetime, of the corner store, her father just as generous in giving us free lollies when we were short of change.
She had gathered intel that her neighbours, friendly enough to tell her that they had moved out, left the house full of its contents, and that us kids were welcome to explore the place, taking what we liked!
“Yeah, we know him, he said we can take whatever we like! He’s gone away for a bit but we can go over and take anything.” Tess said with a level of confidence no kid bothered to question.
The driveway was the kind that had seen the Australian weather, the concrete cracked, weeds growing through the edges, finding refuge against the fabricated house walls. Sidestepping the overgrown grass that lined the middle strip, we ventured down the side access, through a gate that too had seen better days.
‘So far so good, no locks, no one’s clearly home, everything must be ok, just as Tess had explained’ I thought to myself.
A set of dried out, cracked timber stairs led to a door that sat slightly ajar, as if calling out to the 8 year olds that await before it. I looked back, I was the last kid to enter, noting an above ground swimming pool over my left shoulder, the broken ladder sitting in a twisted mess in the middle of the remaining green puddle of water that made home for dead insects, mosquito larvae and charred leaves. The rest of the yard was coated in that familiar overgrown grass we passed on the way in.
In hindsight we must have entered a crack house. Dark brown and orange curtains covered the windows, stealing the light that would have otherwise kept us safe. You’d be forgiven for thinking Tess had told the same story to other kids on the block, and that they had trashed the house before us, but this work was the doing of someone that left quickly, taking nothing, not even their dignity. Time had stood still in that house before we showed up; he, she, them, who’s to know, but there were multiple rooms, with everything intact, albeit with the contents being scattered everywhere.
In a low lying chest of drawers, covered in retro laminate, I tugged on the handle, dragging it open from it’s broken tracks. What looked like headphones I quickly realised were hearing aids-
“Yuk! Ear wax!” I said to myself, dropping them back into the drawer in a twisted heap of mess.
Next we opened a cupboard, filling our pockets with all we could that we thought would be cool ornaments for our treehouse. Wondering what life the people lived, I pushed my hands blindly through bags of tinsel, Christmas lights and beads that would have decorated their tree, all seamlessly and strangely packed neatly in a closet that was now being exposed.
The kitchen drawers were just as difficult to pry open, almost glued shut by the remnants of oil splatter that came from their cooking. As the draw dragged open in a crooked heap, its contents of black handled kitchen knives jingled, tarnished forks and scurrying cockroaches rattled loudly making my heart race-
“Guys, we should go…” I trembled, now beginning to fear I’d contract either a disease or a ‘clip behind the ear’.
“It’s fine, don’t be a chicken. I told you, we can take whatever we like!” Tess replied in a voice smothered by her attention to the Christmas decorations she was still looking through.
“I’m going!”. My heart was beating hard and my bowels becoming weak, I began thinking about the outdoor toilet beside the laundry at home. I left.
Walking down the hill, drivers by would have been perplexed. A trail of kids with strange treasures pressured against their chest. By this stage of our young lives, we had developed our ability to pre-frame conversations with our parents quite well but this time ’round no one would buy into why we thought the large black stereo system we had lugged down the street would be a good fit for the shed.
“Where did you get all this stuff from?”. The questions began, like being probed by the CIA for espionage.
In spite of all our efforts in explaining how Tess had reassured us that she had been given the green light by the owners of what was now feeling like a crime scene, our parents, rightfully, had other suspicions – their kids were now officially looters.
Like hitting the rewind button on an old VHS cassette, we reversed our tracks, dragging all the goodies we had apparently stole back to the abandoned house. Back up the driveway, dropping Christmas decorations as we walked, by the pool worthy of being a swamp, up the stairs and back into the musky house we went.
By this stage Tess’ mum had caught on too and was already in the bedroom where the Christmas decorations were originally, strangely, neatly stored. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was one of our own parents with the way she was disciplining us. In amongst the fog and chaos, I collected my thoughts, trying to keep my heart from pounding out of my chest, fearing now everything was taking too long and that maybe the owners were coming back. They weren’t; no one would come back to this life.
By now I had realised that Tess had lied, and we were caught up in the mess we now found ourselves trying to clean. That day we did manage to keep a bottle opener though, not that we needed one but the epoxy filled with glitter bound to the front of it made for good treasure.
At home the shed was locked. We now had nowhere to gather, to collect our thoughts and gossip about the events that were part of the day that had been. I snuck around the back of the shed, lifted the second roof tile that sat in a strategically stacked heap and picked up the large, 10cm galvanised nail that layed there waiting to give us freedom, ironically leftover from the framework that held the shed together.
“Here, let me get us in.” I said, as though I still had control over the situation we had put ourselves in.
I wedged it between the fabricated plaster board and brown wooden door, pushing back the spring lock while gripping the tarnished metal handle.
“Ok, it’s open, lets go-” I said, feeling accomplished. “Close the door behind you!”.
There we blamed Tess, reassured each other no one would come for us, reminisced at how good it would have been to keep the stereo and in one last attempt tried to convince ourselves that maybe we were allowed to be there after all.
About as quickly as everything had just happened, we got distracted by the tools under the makeshift bench and began collecting items in an old milk crate. With a whethered wet rope that smelt like petrol we planned on using it as a winch to lift our siblings 8 meters to the top of the jacaranda tree. Our next adventure was about to begin.