After their first child it came time to buy a house. Of course when you're young you don't want a house. There's all the maintenance and, if you travel, what then? You need tenants. It's a pain in the arse. But now they were parents and they'd moved back home everyone was telling them: settle down, you need security. So they read the For Sale advertisements and inspected one property after another.
It was depressing. Years before, when they'd moved away, they could have bought the three bedroom terrace house they'd been renting as students for twenty eight thousand. What a fairy tale. The stock market had since tanked and investors had ploughed their funds into real estate. Twenty eight thousand was barely a down payment. Even if they hocked themselves for life the only possibilities were dumps.
Each Saturday they deposited their baby with grandmother and drove a borrowed car from one open house to another. They saw desperately unrenovated houses, they saw half renovated houses whose owners had divorced, they saw fully renovated houses that would have to be unrenovated—the workmanship being so inferior—and renovated again. Though they did also see one fascinating house with a green vinyl upholstered conversation pit dating from the sixties. But that house had subsided like the leaning tower of Pisa so it overhung the property line.
Everything desirable was too much. In particular there was one house on a corner block with four large bedrooms and a beautiful eat-in kitchen. But the vendor, a spec builder, expected over four hundred thousand and that, they considered, was absurd, especially since the panes seemed to be held into the window frames by staples. Within a week a couple of managers at a bank that would go bankrupt in the next crash had paid the spec builder even more.
Finally they read an advertisement for a Victorian terrace that was, in the poetry of real estate, a "phoenix waiting to rise from the ashes." It stood on a double block with plenty of garden space. It was close to the business district, but far enough from the airport flight paths and the neighbours seemed congenial. They were orchid growers. The aspect was northerly, which meant plenty of light. The paint was peeling, the balcony was decayed and unsafe, the old tin shed next door was a relic. But they were extra pluses since they deterred other buyers.
However, on inspection day when they stepped into the front room there was something odd and unanticipated. It was shaped like a pizza oven, though there was no chimney. And once you'd circled it there was no door either. It was clearly very old, some original feature. But what? It was constructed of iron plates riveted together. They gave each other a look and then checked the kitchen, an enamel sink bolted to a brick wall with a freestanding cooker, and the backyard, barren but strewn with beautiful sandstone flagging. They climbed the stairs to the bedrooms, where plaster crumbled from walls. "Don't shut that front bedroom door," the real estate agent warned from below, "the lock gets stuck." They didn't. On descending they informed the agent they both liked it a lot. Poor condition, but loads of potential.
"Of course we'll have to get rid of that, whatever it is."
The agent said, "Sure, sure."
"How much do the owners want?"
"Point four three."
"What! Four hundred and thirty thousand!"
That was too much. Way, way too much.
So they went off and inspected lots of other unliveable places, and unaffordable places, and even the house with the green vinyl conversation pit one more time because they'd convinced themselves that it couldn’t be tilting as much as the tower of Pisa. But it was. Galileo would have felt perfectly at home in that address. So they became discouraged. Their marriage suffered strain.
Ultimately the owners of the pizza oven place didn't seem able to attract another buyer and dropped their price. They obtained a copy of the sale contract. On examining it they found mention of a covenant.
"What does that mean?"
The agent winked at the pizza oven thing and then said, "Well, it's like a vent. Some people have a sewer vent on their property. There'll be a covenant that it can't be touched. It's a standard thing with utilities. You know, like overhead wires. It's your property. But, even so, you can't do anything about the wires. This is the same."
"But what is it?"
"It's a bomb."
"It goes way back. It was there when the previous owners bought." The pair of them eyed each other. The agent said, "Look, the house has all these great points and the price now is quite reasonable."
That was true. In nine months they'd seen nothing else they could both afford and bare to inhabit and this house had plenty of space, apart from this bomb. They decided they could work around it.
"And the ticking?" she said to the agent.
"Ticking? I can't really tell you anything about that. Maybe you can ask the sellers." The sellers were a same-sex couple in their fifties who'd bought the property from the little old lady who'd lived in it all her life and was the last of a family of grocers who'd run it as their shop. The same-sex couple said there had been ticking the whole time and they'd got used to it.
His mother, invited around to cast an eye over the property, recognised the bomb straight away as a duplicate of one situated in her childhood home in Matraville. Because the property title was in the old system they received a scroll of parchment from the nineteenth century among a parcel of other documents. That bomb really did go way back. A brass plaque indicated it had been manufactured at a foundry just down the end of the street, though that foundry was long gone.
So the deal was done. They purchased second hand the nineteen seventies lime green cupboards and benches from the owners of the listing house with the conversation pit and injured their oldest friend's back hauling them home on the top of their new station wagon. Then they moved in. As did the old tabby cat who had been living on a diet of rats in the back lane until they innocently offered her a saucer of milk. They were excited. And only mildly pissed off to discover that the sandstone flagging had been removed by the previous owners who claimed they were just minding it for a friend. A likely story.
Their new life was so chaotic—cleaning, scrubbing, unpacking, sorting, recycling—that they paid minimal attention to the bomb. They corralled it with some foldout child fencing since it was old and dirty. No matter how many times they vacuumed it remained coated in dust. When the toddler learned to climb he soon found his way onto its dome. They discouraged him. But when the second child was born there were so many distractions that in the end he got to use it as a pretend castle.
The ticking was regular, occurring at ten minute intervals, which meant you wouldn't normally notice. It was a bit of a mystery because the thing wasn't plugged in as far as they could tell. He crawled under the floor to inspect for termites and it just seemed to sit on the ground with no pipes leading in or out. At a rug shop they uncovered a quilted hemispherical Afghan throw woven exactly to fit, though surely that was a coincidence. Initially they used to refer to it as just "the thing." But their youngest child once, when he was learning to talk, referred to it as the "oblonk," which his older brother chalked on the outside of it in his childish handwriting. And that's what it was referred to afterwards, as if it was a pet. In fact, the alley cat used to perch itself on top of the Afghan throw and sleep there until it was dinner time.
When the kids grew up and started school they'd invite their friends home to play king of the castle in the lounge room squealing with delight, leaping from the oblonk's sides onto sofa cushions spread about the floor still dressed in their uniforms. When friends came over it was a talking point. They'd elicit laughter by telling them, "Oh, that. That's the oblonk."
"The bomb. Can't you hear a ticking?"
They would sit around in the lounge room drinking Chardonnay and passing remarks about what it might be. Someone said it look like an iron igloo. Someone said it looked like an incinerator. Someone said it looked like Yuri Gagarin's space capsule, Vostok 1. For the most part they simply ignored it.
A year went by. And then five. The local school was excellent and their kids did excellently. Ten years went by and then fifteen. Their kids graduated to a high school that was not local and did less excellently. All this time their grand designs for renovation somehow got stuck. Initially the two children occupied the front room with the dilapidated balcony. Once the ancient lock on the door stuck while the children slept and no matter what tools he attacked it with he couldn’t gain access and eventually had to risk his neck entering the balcony window to liberate them. They made the parents' bedroom the second one at the head of the stairs. When their first child reached the age of wanting a bedroom to himself they sacrificed this and shifted to the tiny rear bedroom where the window was falling out of its frame and they had to cover the broken plaster with yet another Afghan throw. They had hardly enough room to climb in and out of their double bed. Even with their own rooms the children still complained, "Mum, dad, we're never going to fix this place, are we." As youngsters they'd been amused by the wedding parties who arrived in vintage cars and had themselves photographed with the dilapidated old grocery shopfront as a colorful backdrop. But the novelty of that had worn off.
They had a drawing she'd sketched on the back of an envelope a few weeks after they'd moved in, showing everything they wanted. On countless occasions he joked that they at least had their building envelope, which wasn't even funny the first time. But when they searched for an architect they couldn't find one who'd agree to it. The architects had designs of their own. They paid ten thousand to one of them for some plans that turned their nineteenth-century house into something twenty-first century. They stuffed those plans in the attic and ignored them.
When they searched for a builder they couldn't find one who'd construct for less than the three hundred and seventy thousand that they'd eventually bought it for. At the time there was this voodoo about overcapitalizing. If you ploughed more money in than the purchase price then you'd overcapitalized and your world would end. His mother suggested selling it as two properties and buying another place. No thanks.
Then her father died and they inherited and there was enough money not to hesitate any more. Their youngest became school friends with the child of a lovely lady architect who agreed to design whatever they wanted. And they found a builder who was Maltese.
So they demolished the old tin shed and built a three story addition on the spot where it had stood. They gutted the poorly renovated bathroom and rebuilt with an extra door. They opened the laundry to the rest of the house, cut a hole for a bay window and drove a bobcat through it to remove the temporary lime green kitchen. Later the bobcat dug them a fishpond and a ten thousand litre hole into which they lowered a rainwater tank. They removed the Marseilles tiles from the roof and replaced them with Welsh slates that she'd bought from a building that was being scrapped next to her office. They built a garden shed for her pots and gardening tools. They had the chimneys repointed and the firebricks renewed so they could burn wood in winter. The internal wall that the same sex couple had demolished they remolished, since the age of open plan was passing. They preserved the old grocery shop window as it had a heritage classification. And they managed all this around the bomb, which, under the terms of the covenant, they could not interfere with in any way.
All went well until about halfway through construction there was a misunderstanding about roof height and the entire project had to be halted while the planning authority took its time considering amendments. They'd wanted to remain in the house but the builder had talked them into moving out to speed up construction and since her late father's property was vacant they'd decided to live there temporarily. But that involved enormous amounts of traveling to work and back from the north shore and the stress of that and the hundreds of decisions they had to make about building materials - windows sizes, door handles, plumbing fixtures, bathroom tiles and so on - and now the delay wore them out.
As if that wasn't enough, he started an affair with the architect. It happened by chance when the architect arrived with some blueprints one afternoon while the children were at school and she was at work. He sat down with the architect on an old worn out sofa. Because its springs were broken they were more or less thrown into each other's arms. It was summer. The architect was wearing a short skirt that showed a lot of thigh. He'd been reading Flaubert and admiring those thighs. Except for a single other occasion he'd been faithful the whole time they were married. But now he couldn't help himself.
The architect kept the affair a secret, apart from blabbing to a few old school friends. But he had this fetish about honesty and immediately confessed even before he'd given any consideration to what her reaction might be. She was angry. That was not so much because of the infidelity but because of the stupidity of becoming personally involved with someone they had a contractual arrangement with. At least that's what she said, or shouted at him. Though if we were being completely honest it was also a little due to jealousy of the architect's thighs, which was understandable. During this crisis she never mentioned that when they'd been buying the house she's slept with the real estate agent. But that incident had been one quick fuck and nothing more. In any case, it was so buried in the past that she'd genuinely forgotten.
So she was horribly angry. And for as long as the affair continued the marriage was on the rocks. Even though she never harped on it she couldn't help picking on him for a host of other little things. Why had he let the house insurance lapse? Why hadn't he poisoned the nest of rats that seemed to be living under the floor where the bomb sat? Why hadn't he phoned a plumber to fix the pump they'd installed in the fishpond? She never let up. He would arrive home in the small hours after leaving the architect's motel room, creep into bed and lie in the dark listening to the bomb ticking downstairs and feel guilty about the insurance and the pond and everything else, even the rats, though you'd think it was the cat's job to feel guilty about them. Then, anxious and unable to sleep, he'd wonder whether the pair of them were going to get divorced. During this period their children stayed sad and silent much of the time. All this effort they'd invested in their house and it now looked like they'd be moving out, separately. Who would the children choose to live with?
However, the business with the roof height was eventually settled and renovations came to a happy end, as did the affair with the architect, though perhaps "happy" was an exaggeration there. In due course she settled down and although their marriage never returned to the carefree period before they had children it endured. When she lost her job and was supplanted by a younger woman who had a family connection to the boss he was incredibly supportive and helped her start a new career. That seemed to draw them closer together. And in any case, they now had a house constructed within the envelope with all the features she'd been longing for - the extra bathroom, a courtyard, slates on the roof, an eat in kitchen with French doors opening onto the garden.
One evening a year or two later they relaxed in what had been their old lounge room enjoying another glass of Chardonnay and they remarked to each other how lucky they were that they'd bought this house. Their old friend whose back had by now recovered had told them that they were sitting on a gold mine, though he'd actually said "land mine" because he was drunk at the time. In any case, real estate prices in their area had skyrocketed. As he'd fallen into the habit of informing all and sundry, if they were trying to buy the house they owned now they would never have been able to afford it. The whole nature of the city had changed so that where they were living had become highly desirable. The traffic and the poor public transport and the overcrowding meant that the outer suburbs were now barely inhabitable. "We did okay," he said to her, "we did okay." The bomb made one of its ticks and they laughed. He patted the bomb as if it were the flank of some great grey elephant.
The bomb detonated, killing him instantly. It killed her too, also instantly. It killed the oldest child who was upstairs studying music theory for his Higher School Certificate. It killed the oldest child's first girlfriend who was lying on the single bed reading a copy of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion in her bra and school skirt. It killed their younger child who was also upstairs playing Super Smash Bros. It killed the architect's son who was beating him at Super Smash Bros. It killed the cat, which was now so ancient it had to sleep on the floor. It killed the neighbor across the road who was always sitting in her front room. It killed the same sex couple, now in their sixties, as they arrived to visit the neighbor across the road with whom they'd remained friends. It killed the real estate agent who was showing the house next door to potential buyers. It killed the potential buyers. It killed a load of people who'd turned into the street on a bus that was running as alternative transport while the light rail was closed for maintenance. It killed the architect and her husband who happened to be arguing in their parked car in the back lane behind the house. It killed the next-door neighbor who was in his backyard watering his orchids, which were sitting on a plant rack attached to the common wall between the two properties and who was eavesdropping on the argument between the architect and her husband. It finally killed the nest of rats who'd been living under the floor of the old lounge room. It killed a magpie, a possum and at least twenty Indian mynas roosting in a gumtree that they'd planted soon after they bought the property. It was such a powerful explosion that it killed every other tree and bush and shrub together with all the fish in the fish pond and numberless earthworms, ants, lizards, beetles and other small creatures inhabiting the garden. Two hours later it killed his mother after a news report was broadcast on television. And I could go on, but I won't. For that is basically the end of the story.
The only thing left to say, really, is that after the catastrophe, when the flattened site had been scraped of its debris and put to auction the price it fetched was so high – over two point eight, in the words of the auctioneer - that it far exceeded the value of the land and the renovated house combined according to the insurance policy that had since lapsed and this in spite of the fact that the covenant still applied so that at any time in the future a utility could roll up and install, entirely at its own discretion, yet another bomb.
SIMON BARKER is an Australian living in Sydney although for a number of years he lived in the Bay Area of California. His stories have appeared in New Ohio Review, Water~Stone Review, Event, and other publications.