The double bed can be used for many things. It is a place for sleep, sex, conversation or combat. A place to get lucky or get even. When two people are confined in a small space they generate energy that has to be dissipated. It can dribble away slowly or be liberated in one big bang. Thoughts, movement and friction all expend energy, it’s basic physics. In the beginning of a relationship a bed is a great place to fuck and maybe get some sleep. Time, marriage and children slowly but surely change this. Sleep takes precedence and occasionally, if everything is just right, the bed is still a place to fuck. But the energy remains when sex decelerates from frenetic to habitual, from time after time to once upon a time. If sex and sleep are out of the question, there’s always a good fight. In the beginning of a relationship it is fun to fight and make up with no hard feelings. Then the fun goes and the hard feelings start to accrue like bank interest: tiny deposits that are meaningless at the time but when compounded they become overwhelming. Some can forgive these petty transgressions, women are said to be better at it than men.
Julia Dawson propped herself up and turned the light on. Her skin, glistening from dollops of moisturiser, gave her a cool and righteous glow.
“I watched a programme on warthogs tonight.”
“Mmm?” A man’s voice, pretending to be sleepy.
“They’re funny animals. Very ugly. The dominant male keeps a harem of females in a hole underground. When he’s in the mood, he just grunts and one of the females submissively pokes her head out of the hole. Then he screws her senseless and grunts for the next one.”
Silence. Spencer Dawson waited for the axe to drop. Twenty something years of marriage can hone these instincts to a keen edge. Was it to be fuck, fight or flight? With a resigned sigh he rolled onto his back and rubbed his eyes. Fight.
“Men are like warthogs.” Her sense of timing was flawless.
“You still angry?”
“It’s funny how the females can get used to living with something so ugly. Fat bodies, skinny legs and hairs growing everywhere. You remind me of a warthog.”
Julia hadn’t forgiven him for that day’s debacle. She was appalled at how he could turn a short trip to the supermarket into a farce of operatic proportions.
“So you are still angry.”
“You know, it wasn’t really my fault. It just sort of happened.”
“You attack some woman with a zucchini and I’m supposed to think it’s OK? I still can’t believe that you could be so stupid. It’s a wonder you weren’t locked up, you bloody idiot!”
“I didn’t attack her and it wasn’t a zucchini. It was a Lebanese cucumber.”
This did nothing to appease the seething woman next to him. In his mind it had all started innocently enough. He had been waiting in line at Woolworths in Balmain after collecting a few things for dinner. Spencer rarely went grocery shopping and it was still a novelty to wander the aisles ogling young mothers as they woman-handled their laden trolleys to the demands and ultimatums of hyperactive toddlers. Spencer liked the blondes the best. He was like an old dog chasing sparrows. He wanted those little birds so badly but could never catch one. He had chosen his checkout line carefully, not for the crowds or waiting time but because he spied a slim and attractive woman, blonde of course, waiting basket in hand. He guessed her to be about late twenties, a prefect age for a woman. She was blessed with the tautness of youth combined with an air of approaching maturity. Most importantly she was dressed in billowy Indian clothing that Spencer hoped would be transparent - from the right angle. It was too much to expect this goddess to talk to him so he was content to gaze from behind, taking in every curve and crevice, every flick of that annoyingly attractive strand of hair that draped across her face. His eyes lingered over her mannequin’s fingers as they caressed such earthly delights as Diet Coke and low fat yoghurt. He decided her name was Inga because all good looking blondes deserved a Swedish name. When Inga finished unpacking she moved ahead to pay the cashier and Spencer took this cue to empty his own basket, unable to tear his eyes from her perfect form. Then it happened. Inga reached across to pay the cashier and dropped her purse. When she bent over to retrieve it, the filmy material of her dress was indeed transparent and revealed a tight bottom perfectly bisected by a white thong. Here was a dilemma, he pondered as his hand unconsciously hefted a Lebanese cucumber, fingers squeezing then relaxing like a gunslinger out of an old Western. He was obviously expected to do something, but what of the consequences? Had he been holding a bag of onions or a packet of frozen peas, there might not have been a problem. A cucumber on the other hand was definitely a sign that something more dramatic was called for. While Spencer’s head deliberated, his hand snapped into action and he gave Inga a playful jab. His aim was perfect.
Nothing happened immediately. People don’t expect the unusual or bizarre in a crowded supermarket with its garish lights and canned music and Inga was no exception. When she spun around to find Spencer behind her, a devilish look on his face and cucumber in hand, Inga found her voice and her outrage. This was no accidental bump with a trolley or careless shove but a premeditated assault with an edible and undeniably phallic object. Inga set upon Spencer with a vengeance that gained the attention of everyone within shouting distance. It was then that he spotted Honoria Blackbutt, Julia’s boss, striding out with mobile phone poised and emanating a colossal sense of purpose. Julia would know about his vegetarian tryst before he even made it to the car park.
It had taken the intervention of the store manager and the concerted pleas of both Spencers’ solicitor and Julia to convince Inga, whose real name was Leanne, to let the matter drop. Spencer couldn’t see what the fuss was all about, after all the cucumber had been wrapped in a plastic sheath, so there was no risk of pregnancy or transmittable disease. He mumbled an apology that came out more like a regret at being caught than true contrition and promised that he would never do the family grocery shopping again. Blondes could be so fickle! If George Clooney had been dangling that cucumber, the outcome would have been an entirely different.
When the alarm went off the next morning, Spencer hit the snooze button four times before being kicked out of bed by Julia. He stretched like a cat and commenced scratching his itches in order of priority as he stumped to the bathroom. He reached the sink but avoided looking into the mirror for as long as he could until he had his razor poised. At forty-seven years Spencer could see that more than half of his life was over. Even with heroic medical intervention he had now lived longer than he was going to live. It was a sobering thought. Getting old was not simply a physical process of decay. It gave him the chance to contemplate lost opportunities. He now knew that the folly of youth was not a matter of making some wrong choices but of not knowing what choices he really had. By the time he learned what life could offer, it was too late. Rather than enjoying the prime of his life, Spencer’s middle years were no more than damage control. Staving off the inevitable, angling for a bit of extra time. Add the inescapable health problems just around the corner and life was looking pretty bleak for this middle-aged architect.
Julia had almost finished her breakfast when Spencer stalked into the kitchen twenty minutes later. On the cusp of a rotten mood, he couldn’t bring himself to greet her, preferring instead to fall into a chair and stare vacantly at the cereal packet.
“Well, well, well. It’s Larry!”
The name came from the expression ‘happy as Larry’ which Spencer usually wasn’t.
These, of course, were fighting words. The bitch! After a short silence Spencer replied, “You should be a comedian. You’ve got the body for it”.
Julia made no further comment. She poured him coffee just like she did every morning and then began leafing through a magazine.
Spencer waited, saying nothing. The offer of coffee was only a ruse. He wasn’t going to get away this easily. Julia could be patient and forgiving but only after she had managed to peel away his self-respect and rub the truth into his wounds.
She slapped the magazine down, exhaled heavily and said, “You’re an idiot Spencer. An irresponsible idiot.”
“Don’t say that darling, you’ll swell my head.”
“You’re a grown man, not a two year old! I can’t believe what you did yesterday. God knows what Honoria’s telling people.”
“Who cares what people think?”
Rather than get caught on a merry-go-round of accusations and denials, Julia threw up both hands in a gesture of exasperation. “Why do you do these stupid little things? You’re always in trouble. You’re either harassing people or exploding at the silliest little things. I think you’ve got a problem.”
“I’m serious. You’ll end up having a heart attack or a stroke if you’re not careful. You need counselling.”
“Bullshit is it? You think you’re normal? What about last week when you farted on that man?”
“He was smoking!” Spencer protested. “People shouldn’t smoke in a restaurant.”
“But farting on them is OK? What about when you told that poor woman she needed a nose job so that she could be just plain ugly instead of, now how did you put it? A fucking bush pig?”
‘Now, she was a bitch…”
“When you told a client that he wouldn’t know a good design if it sat on his face? I can go on and on Spencer and it doesn’t get any better. Think about it.”
Julia stood up and gave him a kiss on the forehead. She dumped her cup in the dishwasher, wiped the sink and then grabbed some fruit for her lunch. After she left, Spencer sat for a few minutes, contemplating what had been said. Julia’s unfailing ability to point out his many faults was not so lovable but he had to be philosophical about these things. Some people lived with painful disabilities, others with great emotional trauma. It was Spencer’s personal burden to have an unduly observant spouse, a duty that Julia took very seriously. They had been together for more than twenty years. Not brilliant years but slow and steady like a dripping tap you can’t be bothered fixing. Julia’s intuitive sense gave her a much better awareness of Spencer than he could ever have of himself. That’s why her observations were so accurate and so irritating.
After fifteen minutes spent recovering from Julia’s bruising, Spencer forced himself to leave for work. As he neared his office he decided that he couldn’t face another lecture from his partner Neville on the merits of timeliness and customer service. Instead, he kept driving and eventually found himself on the north shore, home to Sydney’s Fascist garden suburbs. Spencer was contemptuous of people who used their gardens as a demonstration of conformity and scornfully dismissed the scissor clipped lawns, gun barrel path edges and flower beds that were laid out with military precision. Occasionally he spotted a gardener bent in homage like a Druid worshipping amongst sacred trees. His gloves, hat, clothes and shoes, all having seen better days, now the chosen vestments of this hallowed ritual. But where were the stone altars stained dark with the blood of sacrifices? Where were the naked women squirming upon those stone altars waiting for the sacred pruning shears to plunge? Sadly he thought, the more interesting aspects of gardening have passed. He made a mental note to write a new coffee table book: Gardening the Druid Way.
“Yes!” he exclaimed as he reached for his recorder. “This book has real potential. Chapter one: Turn your tennis court into a sacred oak grove. Chapter two: The sacrificial altar - a great way of dealing with obnoxious neighbours. Chapter three: Selecting the right virgin - don’t get caught with a dud. Chapter four: Thorn bushes - don’t let them ruin your orgy…”
As he sped on obliviously through a stop sign, Spencer’s thinking was propelled tangentially towards another idea.
“Gardening for Witches! Chapter One: Attracting toads, spiders and newts to your garden. Chapter Two: Harmful herbs for any occasion. Chapter three: Liven up that boring old cauldron with a stylish gazebo. Chapter four: Cook and serve your neighbours’ pets: Stunning new summer recipes. The Women’s Weekly will love it!” he crowed as he pushed a Latin dance cassette into the stereo.
Spencer drew up behind a car at an intersection on the crest of a small rise. As he grooved to the saucy music he watched in fascination as the elderly driver in front struggled to get his car moving. With each attempt, the car jumped forward only to stall and roll backwards.
“It’s true what they say about old men in hats,” he said to no one in particular. “Eight decades of trivial life, a ‘66 Ford and the urge to go places is a particularly dangerous combination.”
Spencer soon grew impatient with this display of mechanical incompetence and sounded his horn as a warning that he intended to go around. This was enough to nudge the old gentleman from anxious fumbling into total panic. He accidentally selected reverse gear and backed straight into Spencer’s car.
“You stupid bloody fool!” Spencer shouted as he clambered out of his seat.
Though the damage appeared minimal, Spencer couldn’t quell the urge to rant and scream at the old man. He squared up to the driver’s door and thrust his face through the window.
“Look what you’ve done to my car, you idiot! Look at it! What the hell are you doing on the road anyway?
“What do you want?” the old man croaked.
Wispy white hair dangled limply around the man’s pallid face. His eyelids drooped downward revealing a pink lining inside. He was dressed in beige colours, a common uniform of the elderly.
“What do I want? You’ve just smashed into my car you demented old fool! You’re a bloody danger on the roads. A menace! And you ask me what I want? Jesus Christ! I can’t believe they let cretins like you drive!”
“Go away! I don’t have any money!” The man’s voice sounded thin and confused.
“I don’t want your money,” Spencer started to say but his words, like his rage, were faltering.
Taking this opportunity, the old man locked his door and wound the window up, forcing Spencer to back away. He prised one of his mottled and bony hands from the steering wheel and desperately fumbled with the ignition. When the motor whined into life, he ground his way into first gear and launched the car off its resting-place with a shudder.
Spencer was transfixed by the look of terror in the old man’s eyes as he sped away but it gave him no satisfaction. He suddenly felt strange as a wave of nausea rose from the pit of his stomach. It was as if he was watching and listening through glass, as if the road was somewhere else. The air felt like cotton wool and his movements were slow, almost previewed before they happened. He stumbled towards his car, prodded along by the sensation of malicious laughter in his head.
Spencer did not believe in God but he knew there were demons. Why else was there so much wrong with the world? Bad things happened to him and demons were responsible! They were always lurking in the background, watching and waiting for opportunities to set him up and make him fail. And fail he did – constantly. He never disappointed his demons. Shit happened to him again and again and they laughed at the great sport he made. His shit was not hugely momentous, earth-shattering stuff but a constant grinding down caused by the little things. The shitty little things. This accident was just another example of the daily aggravation he could never escape. Spencer didn’t know it yet but his life was about to change. And not for the better.
In a morning routine honed over the years Spencer rolled out of bed and went to the window. He yawned, stretched and began his customary scratching as he gazed over his neighbour’s property. It was set on almost a hundred acres, an unthinkable amount of land so close to the centre of Sydney. Squinting slightly against the dawn sun, Spencer never tired of the classical symmetry of the place, admiring it as only an architect can. Each of the handsome sandstone buildings was set apart and displayed subtle design differences that he made a game of identifying. Occasionally, when the light was just right, he would glimpse a movement behind one of the multi-paned windows. At other times he would see the odd figure relaxing in the extensive gardens or the slow motion of an employee’s car in the distance. For the most part, the residents remained shadowy and reclusive like old time aristocracy or camera-shy glitterati. The fact that he lived next to six hundred and fifty insane people didn’t bother Spencer. That these lunatics had been committed to an asylum for possibly unthinkable acts was incidental. They were wonderful neighbours! Quiet, unobtrusive neighbours who kept to themselves and had an army of artisans to maintain the grounds and heritage-listed buildings in the manner they deserved. Absolutely perfect neighbours.
As Spencer turned to move away, a flash of activity in one of the buildings caught his attention. In that instant he saw what appeared to be a party of naked people dancing and carousing past a row of windows. He squinted to get a better look but the image dissolved as quickly as it had appeared. He shrugged and headed to the shower.
No one in Ward Ten looks out of the windows. No one understands the concept of neighbours, a community or even what it means to be an individual. Outside does not exist for the thirty people who live here. They are intellectually disabled, although there have been lots of other names used to describe them: retarded, feeble minded, handicapped. This is the eighties and political correctness hasn’t hit the stage yet. A glance at their dog-eared files labels these unfortunates as congenital mental defectives but the passing of time and lip service to human rights has softened the terminology somewhat. Further inquiry reveals that there are grades of human defect. On a descending scale, these people can be morons, imbeciles and idiots. It is interesting how antiquated medical terms have crept into common usage. To be called an idiot is an insult, but to be born one is the true tragedy.
The morning shift begins at seven but the night duty staff are expected to have all of the bed wetters up and dressed before they go off duty. Nineteen of the patients have never learned to control the most basic of bodily functions even though they have been in this place since birth. Their day starts before dawn as they are dragged out of saturated but still cosy beds and given a shower. Also caught in the eternity of routine are the ones who are mobile and they dash naked down the corridors for a quick hose down. They are unconcerned that someone might see their nakedness through the multi-paned windows. Nudity has no value to them, neither naughty nor nice. From the outside, their flaying limbs and gawky gestures are like a modern choreography as they charge past windows then walls then windows. Once the ‘walkers’ are done the nurses turn their attention to the six ‘wheelchairs’ who have been waiting patiently in a line of shower chairs. Also naked, their twisted body postures and garbled noises are a testimony to the best sort of care an institution can provide. They get a cursory swab with a flannel before being rinsed off with a hose, rubbed dry, sprinkled with talc. They wait shivering for a set of ill fitting clothes to be thrown on. No one in this ward has personal clothing, not even underwear. They are dressed from the contents of a communal pool purchased in bulk by the Hospital Stores Department. It has cornered the market on elasticised denim pants, checked flannelette shirts and loose floral dresses.
The two night nurses (this ward is always understaffed) understand the meaning of a production line. It is a simple equation: too many patients, too few staff and a line of bodies to shower, dry and dress before day shift. One by one the patients are finished and then they are herded into the dayroom to wait for the others. It is six forty five. Three staff arrrive for the day shift. After a cup of coffee and a cigarette, they face the day’s work. All nurses smoke and drink too much coffee. Their first task is to get the remaining patients up and dressed. Naturally, the ‘boys and girls’ have separate sleeping areas so it will be necessary to split up. The custodians of the mentally ill learned long ago that segregation is the only way to avoid problems. Relationships, sexual activity and unwanted pregnancies demand credible explanations and stacks of paperwork. They are the sort of problems where prevention is better than cure.
So accustomed have the nurses become to the constant background of squealing, humming, tooth grinding and moaning, they barely notice this bizarre muzak around them. They unconsciously raise their voices to a level that will be heard above the din. The night nurses have been considerate and clothing has been left out for each patient and the morning routine goes smoothly. It has been practiced without alteration for many years. The habits of this institution seem to be as obdurate as the stones in its fortress-like buildings. Though the players in this ghastly sideshow may change over time, the script never changes. It has taken over a century to develop these patterns and the institution does not willingly relax them. The ward has an oppressive feeling as if the suffering felt in countless lives wasted here still lingers. It almost suffocates the newcomer. The thick sandstone walls, overpowering smell of human waste not quite covered by the liberal dowsing of disinfectant and the ever present feeling of despair all contribute to the gloom. This is just one of death’s waiting rooms. There is only one way out for Spencer’s perfect neighbours.
Spencer was sitting at his desk musing about nothing in particular when his partner Neville poked his head around the door. Neville was a few years older than Spencer with a tall, athletic with build that was a counterpoint balance to Spencer’s short stocky body. They shared a symbiotic relationship where Spencer’s flair for design but erratic behaviour was balanced by Neville’s stability and people skills. History had proven Spencer to be the better architect but the practice would have been bankrupt years ago without Neville.
“You busy?” Neville already knew the answer.
“Come on in Nev,” Spencer replied. “Come and tell me that the bumps on my head reveal a life of fornication and mindless carnal indulgence. I could do with a little diversion after this morning.”
“Something happened? ”
“Oh, just the usual demented-old-fool-runs-into-my-car type experience. How’s your day been?”
“Busy. Although it’s nice that you could drop by the office, grace us with your presence, that sort of thing”
“Save the sarcasm for someone who cares, Nev.”
Spencer welcomed these exchanges as a respite from a job that had long since lost its challenge. He couldn’t decide what he disliked more: a career lacking in any excitement or his own inability to do anything constructive about it. In an uncharacteristic flash of insight, Neville pounced on the inner conflict he sensed in Spencer’s manner.
“It’s time you considered another career, Spencer. Something more suited to your meagre talents. Why not real estate? You’d be good at hawking some of those studio units down in Darlinghurst.”
“Dog boxes,” Spencer snorted.
Neville then adopted a different tack. “Face it Spencer, as an architect your performance could mercifully be described as mediocre. No! Let’s be honest: woefully inadequate. I admit that you showed once some promise but that spark of creativity evident in your early work burned brightly for a very short time. Overall my friend, you’re a lousy architect, an also ran in the great race of life and you have the cranial structure of one of the lesser apes. I suggest you open a vein right now. Besides, if you terminate your meaningless existence now, I could be moved into your office by this afternoon.”
Spencer had long drifted off, a chance word enough to propel his thinking tangentially. He was surrounded by the coolness of a small dark room. Though vision was obscured, other senses told him of the presence of richly polished wood and the lingering odour of incense. A church, a confessional and he was the priest! With a snap, a small sliding door opened to reveal a fuzzy male form on the other side of an ornate metal grill.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned,” said a familiar voice.
The familiar chant came flooding back. Spencer knew the words intimately having been engraved on his memory in an amalgam of awe, fear and shame. He hadn’t been to Confession in over thirty years but was easily able to mouth the same words offered up by this unknown but familiar figure. Spencer found himself thinking about his days at St. Timothy’s Boy’s High School. He recalled Father Geoffrey, a Jesuit priest in the traditional mould. Always a stern and frightening figure, Father Geoffrey would often thunder to his class in prophetic tones, “Give us a boy for seven years and we’ll give you the man!” He reinforced this prediction with generous lashings of a cane and the occasional backhander.
Shifting uncomfortably in this most holy of enclosures, Spencer suspected a great truth in these words. The old catamite Geoffrey was right! Six years in a convent school followed by a further six years of Jesuit influence had taken their toll. Just as Spencer opened his mouth to deny his priestliness and avert this sacrilege he closed it again.
“Wait a minute, that’s Neville’s voice!” Spencer let his daydream flow on. It was developing nicely. Assuming his most devoutly avuncular attitude, he intoned, “Please continue my son.”
“Father,” Neville urged with a palpable desperation, “I came here to confess my intense jealousy towards my partner Spencer Dawson.”
Spencer remained silent, suppressing a laugh. Taking this as a cue to continue, Neville resumed his embarrassing self-disclosure.
“It’s just that he always produces such innovative work and then he is so damned cocky about it all.”
With mock reverence, Spencer replied, “Jealousy is a serious sin. It will gnaw at your entrails until it has you body and soul. No doubt the Devil’s work. Still, your envy is understandable my son. This Spencer Dawkins is obviously a brilliant man. But you must not try to compete at his level. Perhaps you are undertaking projects that are too ambitious - beyond your skill.”
Enormously amused with himself, even down to the mistaken surname, Spencer waited. He let his imagination fly.
“But there’s more Father,” Neville said with some hesitation. “I’ve taken to wearing my wife’s clothes - only at home mind you.....”
This was too much. Spencer started giggling at the thought of the very dignified and well-bred Neville Prattney prancing about in a size fourteen frock. The giggling soon escalated into fits of laughter.
At this point Neville realised that Spencer had not been listening. “What the hell are you laughing at Spencer? I’ve just trashed your career and all you can do is cackle like a demented chook.”
“What’s your favourite colour Nev?” Spencer managed through gasps. The daydream may have been over but he was still milking it for all it was worth.
“My favourite colour? I fear your grasp on reality is slipping by the minute, Spencer. Try to keep up with the conversation. Monosyllables will do.”
“You’d look great in a low-cut chiffon number,” Spencer said with a leer. “Even better in cobalt blue. Nothing tarty, mind you. At your age its better to try for something a bit more sophisticated. Keep the hem below the knee, mate - it’s the elderly cross dresser’s rule of thumb.”
Through years of familiarity, Spencer knew how little it took to transform Neville from a somewhat aloof and pretentious holier-than-thou type into a raving mess.
“What are you talking about?” Neville asked coldly. He hated the way Spencer could strip away his dignity with this absurd sense of humour. Rather than answering, Spencer continued his needling until Neville was a desperately trying to come up with a suitable insult. With a derisive snort he stalked from the room.
As the door to Neville’s office slammed closed, Spencer echoed, “Dawson: one, Prattney: nil.”
On cue, Lucy walked into Spencer’s office. Performing every function from answering the phone to making the much appreciated espresso coffee, Lucy Fiorello was the only other employee in the practice. Lucy was short, and buxom with flashing dark eyes and raven-black hair. Both men enjoyed her sassy disposition and tolerated the quick temper and blunt, uncompromising attitude that were part of the package.
“Well, well, do come in Fiorello,” Spencer said with mock formality. “You’re looking particularly good today. How may I assist you?”
“Cut the shit Spen,” Lucy replied. “Why do you do that to him? He’s going to drop dead after one of your little sessions and then you’ll be sorry.”
“If he drops dead, he’ll be the sorry one! Besides, Neville will live forever. Unlike most of us, Neville has all that good breeding to keep him going. It’s a great preservative.”
“With your attitude and his breeding, you’re both still in the race,” Lucy replied as she walked out.
Lucy held a great liking for both men and felt obliged to stand up for whoever appeared to be taking a beating at the time. She had been taking Neville’s side over the past few weeks as Spencer was on a roll. Still, Neville usually gave as good as he got and it would only be a matter of time before she was in Neville’s office defending Spencer.
By that afternoon Neville had calmed down sufficiently to approach Spencer about a project they had tendered for.
“Are you rational enough to talk about these Department of Housing plans or are you still prisoner to your own sick imagination?”
“You have my undivided attention Neville.”
“To my knowledge, your attention has always been undivided Spencer. It’s too small to dilute any further. Let’s get on with it anyway. What do you think of my plans?”
Spencer looked at his partner squarely and said, “You know Neville, I’ve always acknowledged your work as technically competent and well executed, especially in the area of medium density housing. Your layouts are logical and the construction, if carried out to specification, usually looks pretty good on the ground.”
“So you like them?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I know I’m going to be sorry for this. Why not?”
“Neville, I’ve got no problems with your work. It’s only that these plans are a selling out to the establishment. You know my thoughts on the preference for rabbit-warren style bunkers going up these days.”
“Form follows function,” Neville quoted, with an air of finality.
“Very true. Thank you for reminding me Neville. Now, if the function of these units is to provide the very barest of accommodation then the form is appropriate. If you think so little of the occupants that the function is to provide confined living areas, minuscule bedrooms and a minimum window space then the form is just fine. And finally, if the function of this project is to mass together a bundle of humanity without considering the need for open recreational space, then yes, the form of this project follows its function.”
“Get real Spencer, you know the parameters the Department put on this project as well as I do,” Neville retorted. “And you can get down off your high horse as well. Two words: Blakefield Estates.”
Neville was referring to an episode earlier in their careers when they had just commenced partnership together. They had bid on the Blakefield Estates tender with an innovative set of ideas for a large Housing Authority development on the very outskirts of the city. Spencer had done most of the design work for the project and was justifiably proud of his efforts. Typical of the vagaries of government department decision making, their tender was accepted subject to certain revisions. The pressures of a fledgling practice combined with deeply repressed questions about his own ability had led Spencer to agree to several major changes. His original concepts were compromised to the extent that the result was in essence no different from any other public housing project. Neville, being a pragmatist, took this in his stride with the knowledge that other victories would follow. His partner on the other hand was deeply affected by this compromise and vowed to resist the irresistible path towards mediocrity in design.
“It all depends on the way you look at it Neville,” Spencer said evenly. “Whereas you see the Blakefield Estates fiasco as a reason for letting Housing win yet again, I feel that we should fight this constant pressure on us to offer under-designed and cheaply built public housing.”
This apparent altruism did not fool Neville. He knew Spencer felt about other people the way many feel about animals: he had no liking for them but wouldn’t normally condone cruelty to them.
“All right,” Neville agreed, with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “What would you do?”
“Well, since we have to work to a fixed budget I would reduce the number of units in the development by fifteen percent and reallocate these resources to what’s left. This way we could increase floor space in each of the units as well as provide larger indoor communal areas and maybe even a landscaped outdoor recreational area with a water feature.”
“That’s all very well but the tender calls for fifty-five townhouses, not forty-seven. Don’t you think they would notice it? We may not be dealing with the brightest individuals on earth but I suspect that at least one of them can count.”
“Well, if you can’t hide something then highlight it.” Spencer was fond of this saying and applied it consistently to his design work.
“We can include in our presentation the recommendations of some obscure body. Let’s call it the Joint Standing Committee on Design in Public Housing. Better still, we can say that our estimates are based on the recommendations, no, the demands of the Public Tenant’s Political Lobby Group that is committed to reform in public housing. We drop in a few politicians’ names and let the Department stew because they’ve heard nothing about it.”
Neville baulked at the idea. “But there is no Public Tenants Lobby Group.”
“That’s the best part about it,” Spencer replied, giving him a conspiratorial wink, “we just say we were acting on the advice of a memo issued by the Department of Housing and they will shit themselves!”
“That’s a disgraceful, deceitful idea and it has no chance of success.” Neville admonished. “Still, it’s worth a try even if it only gives us some breathing space. Your approaches may not have a lot of utility, but they do have a certain nuisance value. Those dolts at the Department will tear the place apart looking for a memo that doesn’t exist because they are too threatened to ask for a copy. Let’s go have a beer.”