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  • Published: 3 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9781760898700
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $32.99

Empires

Extract

2018

Girdwood, Alaska

We are told not to judge the surface of things – that the truth lies deeper – and yet we judge surfaces all the time.

A defeated butcher’s-block benchtop, faded and scored. A paper-towel dispenser anchored to the wall, showing spots of rust around its screws. A varnished pine board where the white subway-tile backsplash should go. A kitchen summed up in its three loudest cries for help.

My life has had too much HGTV in it this past summer, too many nights of the renovations of forgettable others seeping into my pores. Our pores. Lacy’s as well as mine. The two of us, tucked away in our own small piece of the Girdwood twilight and then dark, watching Vancouver, Nashville, Waco – across North America, bright-eyed renovators bustling in with their Pantone colour swatches and their sledgehammers and futures all mapped out.

But they don’t know, because you can’t know. What’s behind that old drywall. What’s after tomorrow, after this minute. It amounts to a show because it doesn’t all go to plan. It’s a slice of life because of that, too. It’s relatable. The TV renovators tend to get their happy endings, though – a higher percentage of the time than in real life, by my estimate. They are glad they have endured, and are rewarded for it. It comes across as cause and effect, and there’s less of that neat association in life than there should be.

None of this is of much use to Ellen Baker. None of it will sell her house faster, or for a dollar more. No-one sells a house by standing in it with an inventory of its shortcomings ticking through their head.

It has good bones, sturdy western red cedar logs to gladden the heart of the cabin buyer, a wedge of mountain view through the forest at the back, a sense that lives have been conducted here in a state of general contentment. And it has a couple of million more knick-knacks than it needs, lined up along the picture rail where the logs meet the pine boards that lead up to the ceiling – brass cowbells, a painted oil can shaped like Aladdin’s lamp, empty souvenir bud vases from visits to far-off places.

From the wall next to the fridge, I take a laser reading across the kitchen and add the measurement to my floorplan sketch. Feet and inches, still not my thing. But I have already had enough conversations with people in this country about the metric system, and too many of them are still vexed by the nagging thought that it might all be a conspiracy, a sly flanking manoeuvre from the Deep State, with its slick base-ten convenience, fast as blockchain, while the US stays loyal to good ole medieval feet ’n’ inches.

There is no grandchild art on the fridge. Just magnets from vacations, one of them holding a list of pills to be taken at particular times, another with my flyer offering free appraisals and Ellen’s note in pencil on it of our appointment time.

I slide the laser measure around the pole, keeping its base against the timber, and fire it against the far wall for a living-room reading. Sixteen feet, six and three eighths, with the laser dot on the most convex part of the opposite log, just beneath a watercolour of a forest scene that suggests a lapsed hobby rather than art.

We will be staging this room soon, staging and photographing. Its sofas are past retirement age, but I have access to cushions in fizzy citrus colours that will draw the eye of the young away from that and hint at the bright cabiny adventures that are possible in here. A splash of colour saves all.

Two found antlers are leaning against the wall, framing the fireplace. Every Alaskan home has those. The TV is unfashionably small. Below my laser dot, on either side of a CD player, sit shelves of CDs, most of them classical – most of them the yellow and black of Deutsche Grammophon.

Ellen notices me looking that way and says, ‘Nicola Porpora.’ She’s had the music playing softly since I arrived, but I zoned out once I started lasering. ‘He’s more famous for who he taught than for his own work.’

‘Baroque?’ There’s a harpsichord, doing something ornamental. That’s the basis of my guess, and I’m not even certain it’s a harpsichord I’m hearing. ‘Or maybe not.’ I’m picturing Nicola Porpora with a powdered wig, and buckles on his shoes. It’s a random baroque cliché, not a composer with any specificity.

‘Yes.’ The tilt of her head changes just a fraction, as if I’ve earned a reassessment. The reflection of one of the lounge room windows – a bright rectangle of sunlit forest green – catches on the lenses of her glasses. ‘Yes, it is baroque.’ She says it as if I’ve answered a question correctly, and surprised her by doing it.

She is well into her seventies, and stands with a straighter back than mine. She’s wearing black knit pants, a black sleeveless fleece jacket and a polo shirt in a plummy purple. Near her, a beanie lies flat on the back of a sofa, but for now Ellen’s head is bare, her short hair in loose grey curls that look natural rather than the result of anything deliberate. I expect she walked in the beanie this morning, or gardened, or perhaps she will once I’ve left. Her fireplace is set, and likely to be lit tonight. We are past the equinox.

‘My partner’s a music teacher,’ I tell her. ‘She’s a cellist herself. Or was. Is. I guess you don’t stop being one.’ Even if you stop playing. She plays when she teaches. I hear that sometimes, even if that’s the only time she plays now. ‘I think that’s the measurements done. I’ll put the numbers into the app and that’ll give us the square footage.’

I push the laser measure back into my jacket pocket and flip over the page on my clipboard. The agency paperwork is standard and I have most of it filled out already.

Ellen’s place is classic Girdwood, log construction on pilings, a shake shingle roof, an arctic entry for boots and outer clothes and the snow and mud they pick up. I’ve made a note of those. I put a three in the bedroom box and a one in the bathroom box. It’s a seventies house without the master ensuite people are starting to ask for, or the downstairs half bath.

‘Radiant heating throughout?’ I point to a nearby wall panel with my pen and she nods. ‘And the smoke detectors are recent?’

‘Yes. Two years old. Or thereabouts.’

‘They’re a good brand too, First Alert.’ Folksy endorsement easily becomes a habit in this job. I’m not sure it’s right for Ellen. ‘Do you mind?’ I move a chair over, stand on it, and poke the tip of my pen into the test button, which lets out an appropriately shrill tone. ‘And the kitchen and bathroom are original?’

I step down and take the chair back to the dining table.

‘As far as I’m aware. They were here when we bought the place, and that was a long time ago.’ She’s frowning, thinking about it, as if she’s trying to pin down the date precisely. She raises a finger. A new thought. ‘We added the handrail in the bathroom.’

She watches to see if I write it down, so I do.

‘And the shed outside? Should we take a look at it?’

‘Hmmm.’ She glances past me, in its general direction. ‘I’m not sure it’s . . . Do we need to for the purposes of the appraisal? It’s far from tidy. I hadn’t anticipated . . . It’s a simple twenty-by-thirty-foot workshop. Walter and I had it built in 2002.’

‘Power? Water? Bathroom out there?’ Just the facts. Avoid her sudden reluctance and get us back on firm ground where hands can be shaken on a deal and real estate can be sold.

‘Power and water but no bathroom.’ She nods in a businesslike way. ‘Storage and work benches. It gave us the bedrooms back. All our things were everywhere before that. It got so we could barely open the doors to the spare rooms upstairs.’

‘And, as a bonus, that’s already a positive step towards putting a house on the market. Bedrooms you can’t walk into are not a selling point.’

She laughs. It’s mostly politeness. ‘Your accent,’ she says. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Australia.’ It doesn’t usually help the conversation to say Brisbane. Australia is enough. ‘I’ve lived here a few years. Permanently, anyway. I was here on and off before that.’

‘I’m not from here either,’ she tells me. ‘Not originally. Not Alaska, anyway. Walter and I came from the East Coast.’ She nods in the direction of a bookcase, which has a row of framed photos on one shelf. ‘That’s Walter. He passed six months ago.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ The standard American line goes, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but it’s taken on an automaticity I don’t like. It’s a reflex now, most times it’s used. I can’t do it.

‘That’s us in Pompeii.’ She takes two steps towards the bookcase and picks up one of the larger photos.

It’s from the nineties, at a guess. Ellen is wearing white slacks and sandals and a floral top while Walter, already old, has an olive blazer, khaki pants and a camera around his neck. He has a stoop and his hair is drawn in strands across a scalp that is getting more sun than it should. They are both beaming. Behind them, the ruins arrange themselves as ruins should, a grooved column, an ochre-coloured archway, walls meeting at right angles for purposes now long gone and, beyond them all, the hazy shape of the mountain, sleeping the sleep of the innocent.

‘Did you see they found a horse there a few months back?’ I saw the story on the Discovery Channel. ‘A racehorse. Or at least a racehorse-shaped defect in ash that they filled with plaster of Paris.’

‘I did.’ She turns away from the scene to look at me. ‘I did see that. It looked like a dusty white horse, lying there. So odd to think they’d just made it, filled a space that had been hidden there for years, like developing a photograph from an old negative.’ She glances back at the picture. It’s a gesture that suggests she’s drawing Walter into the conversation. ‘You have an interest in history.’ At first, I’m uncertain whether she’s talking to him or me, then she turns to face me again. ‘I have to explain Pompeii to most people.’

She sets the photo down, bumps the other large picture on the shelf and then straightens it again. It’s black and white, an image of two men in suits under an umbrella, one clearly Walter around thirty, his hair already in retreat, the other man a few years older, his thick hair turned back in a wave with a visible sheen to it, a grin that says he’s glad to be there, a white pocket square slipping lower than intended, only the point of it showing against the dark fabric of his jacket. The older man is holding the umbrella over the two of them. He is an actor. He is someone familiar, but out of context. At the edge of the shot a police officer faces away from them, water running from his cap.

‘Okay, I see Walter there, but the man with the umbrella . . .’

She nods. ‘Jack Kennedy. On the 1960 presidential campaign. Walter was helping out in Maine. His family had been senators there. His father, grandfather. The families had known each other for some time by then, the Bakers and the Kennedys, since at least World War One, when Walter’s grandfather, Talbot Baker, came out of retirement to take a role with the Department of the Navy and Joseph Kennedy Senior was a young man running a shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. An enormous shipbuilding program was underway. Talbot Baker acted in an oversight role in 1917. He also had an international posting, I believe, but it was that work with the destroyers and submarines that Walter recalled seeing photographs of. As most boys would.’

‘So, you knew Kennedy?’ I’ve been pinging my laser around the room and somehow not noticing the president, or candidate at least, grinning at me from under his umbrella.

‘No.’ She smiles. ‘I was a high-school senior in Maryland during that campaign. I didn’t get to share a lot of umbrellas with the candidates. I had a Kennedy button.’ She taps her index finger on her chest, on the spot where she wore it. ‘“Kennedy for President”. That was my contribution. Think I still have it somewhere. “Leadership for the Sixties,” the slogan was, and that was an exciting prospect. Walter was teaching high-school history by then, and he taught it in a way that caught my attention when I met him, but that was twenty years later. I was a teacher too. Not many couples fall for each other over the teaching of history, I don’t suppose.’ She points to the umbrella. ‘That’s what Walter was about. He would say that, when people wrote history, they never wrote that bit. It was all battle dates and generals and the crowning of kings and emperors. But gestures matter. That . . .’ She touches the photo, Kennedy’s hand on the umbrella. Her fingernail clicks on the glass. ‘Kennedy was a charismatic senator about to become the most powerful person alive, but he’d still hold the umbrella over you. That kind of observation matters when studying history, when trying to get inside it, to see what it did to people and what they did to it.’

The ache in my left knee lifts a notch. I’ve been standing in one position too long. I shift more weight onto my right leg and try some isometric contractions, but I need to bend it.

‘That was what Walter believed,’ she says, ‘and I liked that thought. History was never dry with him. He was never content to let it rest as “a fable agreed upon”, as the quotation goes. When he taught the Civil War, you got the Gettysburg Address for sure, but you also got the lives people led. You packed a knapsack, you marched, you went hungry, you faced uncertainty. He did that with the students. He told them all the rumours that came before the battle happened and got written down, and he asked if they’d hang around to fight it. They’d write an essay on that, imagining it from a soldier’s point of view. Walter’s grandfather, the one who knew Joe Senior, he served in the Union Navy in the Civil War. He was a boy, or little more than that.’ She stops, takes a breath. ‘I’m sorry. You’re here to sell my house for me. Not for show-and-tell. What’s your assessment? What kind of price can I expect?’

‘Okay. But the show-and-tell was . . . I was very interested to hear all that. You and Walter must have been quite something as history teachers.’ I look down at my clipboard, as if a price range might have materialised while we’ve been off in the Civil War. My knee feels as if it could lock, but it’s only a feeling, I know that. Three bedrooms, one bathroom, work to be done. Good bones. A price range. This is a moment when hopes deflate a little, shoulders fall, almost always. ‘Low to mid threes? Three hundred to three fifty?’

She nods. ‘All right.’ The window light is on her lenses again, green rectangles bobbing with the nod. I concentrate on that for a second, not the knee.

‘I can see what the others at the agency think. Show them a few photos and the details.’ My hand pats the clipboard. ‘Have you had any other appraisals?’

‘No. Just you. In response to your notice in my mailbox.’ The music surges from the speakers across the room. There’s a high male voice singing now. ‘I’m planning to sell, but I took that as a sign that I should make a start on it.’

‘Well, you’re welcome to get other opinions, of course, so . . .’

‘Oh, no, no.’ She waves the thought away. ‘I’ve done my research. I’ve been online. I know what people are asking for what, and I know what they’re getting for it too. I had three twenty to three forty in mind. As what the market is paying for this kind of place. I would of course welcome it if you can push the price any higher. You and Mr McCord. But I know that’s where it sits.’

‘Rob will get you a good price,’ I tell her, though it’s just a thing I seem to end up saying in these conversations. I can’t see that he’s any more or less likely to get a good price than any of the others. But Rob McCord is not dishonest and not wilfully awful, and I would let him sell my house if I needed to sell it. ‘I’ll give you some time to think about it, to think about signing with Rob McCord Realty as the exclusive agency. I might give you a call tomorrow. If you decide to go ahead with it, we’ll look at getting some photos done and how to plan the listing.’

‘Very good.’ She reaches a hand out for me to shake. ‘Thank you, Mike. Thank you for helping me begin this process.’

I follow her to the door, fighting the urge to guard my left knee, talking it into bending with each step. A gait is not an easy thing to relearn.

She waves as I drive off and, in the mirror, I see her open her mailbox and reach her hand in before the bushes in her garden block my view.

Hers is so far the only response I have had to my flyer, but it’s been just two days since I did the rounds adding them to everybody’s mass of waiting junk mail. The McCord agency is in Midtown Anchorage, but Rob is making inroads here in Girdwood with a view, I think, to setting up a branch office. And I will be ready to slip my shoes under that desk. It’s a better option than some, definitely. I have completed the forty-hour pre-licensing course at Alaska Real Estate Training, which allows me out in the world as a newbie agent, but working for an established broker.


Empires Nick Earls

Empires rise and fall, human lives are lived, collisions occur more than we will ever know, and yet the unexpected can still happen.

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