Flat Hunt


Many years ago I wrote a short review of Steinbeck's Travels With Charley. One of my friends read it for me. She commented that what I had written was as much a personal comment, about myself, as it was about the work that I had read. Always a supportive, even protective, person, she offered some suggestions about what I had written. I can't remember exactly what she said, nor can I even be sure that I really understood the message. The impression that I was left with, however, was that I had better learn how to cope with the consequences of writing so intimately, or develop a more impersonal writing style.

Over the years that followed, I developed a drier, more objective approach to writing, and found a ready market for technical writing, in a variety of flavours. User guides, installation handbooks, marketing proposals, problem analyses and project descriptions all flowed from the keyboard. Unfortunately, I learnt the skill too slowly, or too late, or had too little application, to really help me on my first big writing assignment - a Master's thesis in Computer Science - so that I went through my professional life as a mere B.Sc., only learning late in life how to address the personal with more equinamity. My friend, on the other hand, kept her target clear before her, and has ended up with a Ph.D. in music, which was her chosen field.

What does this have to do with Flat Hunting? You may well ask. It came about this way ....


Some years after the 'Travels With Charley' episode, my friend and I graduated to man and wife. As it turned out we were not so well suited in marriage as we were in friendship. Not an uncommon story, though never a happy one. Among the brighter episodes of the marriage was the birth of our son. This was a planned occurrence. One which I had initially not supported, or at least only grudgingly accepted. But you couldn't help loving the bright little bundle that eventually arrived, and I had to acknowledge to myself, once again, that in so many ways my friend, then my wife, was much wiser than I.

Twenty one years have passed since then. Now I am retired, and my son Robert is a strong, capable young professional, right up with the latest in our field, and now technically for more adept than I will ever be again. Grey-haired wisdom? That's another matter, and I guess that's the quid pro quo that pays for the time he generously gives me to keep my computer network alive and well.

A little over a year ago, I met him as he arrived in Sydney, from Dunedin where he had lived with his mother until shortly before. Out to make his mark in the big smoke, and both of us were looking forward to more time together than you can fit into a brief annual holiday, at least in those years when our vacation dates were confluent.

Now we try and spend a day together every week or two, to chat or argue, go shopping or to the movies, or fix Dad's latest fatal error in his computer configuration. In the winter we get up to the snow on the odd weekend, staying in the bunkhouse on the up-country farm of one of my friends, just half an hour from the ski-field cog-train. I am still the better skier, for I get more chance to practice, but Robert is gaining on me fast, and it won't be long before it is he who has to wait for me on the slopes.

Now, at the close of his first one-year lease on a flat in Sydney, he is thinking of moving house. His employment has moved to the other side of the harbour and he wants to change his residence, once more to be close to his work. Several hours each day lost to public transport, including two or three changes from bus to train and back, going to and coming from work, have turned packing and shifting from an unnecessary exasperation into just a minor price to pay for significant benefits gained.

I don't know what he thinks of getting a car. We discussed it early last year and it hasn't come up again. I know his finances aren't ready for it yet, and in the meantime I help out as much as I can.

Last Saturday he was flat-hunting again. As usual (and happily) I provided the transport. You can't get from place to place, hither and yon, at 15 minute intervals, on the busses, in the weekend. For this, exclusive motor transport is the only way. This trip was one on which he is actually ready to put down a deposit. On previous weekends we have been doing background research. Now we know what is about, and what the standards are, and what it is fair to pay. Now we are really a buyer. When we had finished going around the viewings we would head back to my study to get my network talking to the server again, but there was quite a number to be seen before we would be ready to do that.

Late in the morning, both of us sipping from our water bottles (a requirement for weight-training, but more about that later) nature made its inevitable demands upon us both and we went looking for a pub, preferably with a lunch bar as well as the essential toilets. No such luck, not in that area, anyhow. So we settled on the pub for one function, and a Chinese restaurant for the other. He had braised chicken - special sauce, and I had a chicken omelette. While we ate, looking out over the yachts and launches moored on an arm of the harbour that threaded through the wooded parkland below us, we discussed my weight training regime.

One of the nicer things about being retired is that, if I watch my expenses carefully for the rest of the year, I may be able to afford to go to the Northern hemisphere and get in a little cross-season skiing, for I'm finding that with the passage of time my fitness no longer lasts from one winter to the next, and even regular cycling is only of limited help, for it exercises different muscles than skiing. So this March, leaving Australasia for my first time ever, I have accepted the invitation of a distant cousin in Reno, Nevada, to stay at his home in the USA and ski with him on their local fields, at the height of their skiing season. My only concern is lest I have an accident, so far from home. I know insurance would cover most of the costs, but the trouble would doubtlessly be immense, to say nothing of the pain and handicap.

Getting strong and fit months beforehand is supposed to be the best preparation for avoiding sports accidents. So I had finally accepted Robert's suggestion that I do some weight training, and signed up at the local gym, where the resident expert has prepared an older person's exercise regime card for me. Now, over lunch, I am getting a second opnion on the card, with its little stick drawings of the positions and repetitions I should adopt on the various machines. Robert is a qualified weight trainer (he would probably give it a different name), and in addition he knows about skiing, which my gym instructor does not. By the end of lunch I have been armed with a number of suggestions that I should put to my instructor, so he can modify my regime to be more applicable to an ageing skier.

After lunch I paid the bill (I'm still Dad, you see), and we went out to keep the afternoon's flat viewing appointments. At each of them I sat in the car (generally in a No Parking zone) and read while I waited - Morris West, Lazarus, for the bibliophiles, as I'm trying to get a handle on the Australian genre, if there is such an animal.

With one more appointment to go, we had a gap of half an hour to fill, so I parked under the shade of a tree in one of the pleasant wooded areas nearby, and Robert dozed while I read. Well, I started out reading. Then I glanced across at him, asleep so near, and found myself thinking how lucky I was - both of us, actually - to have this mutually supportive, accepting, lifelong friendship. Well, it seems set to be that way, so far, at least. I remember him as a baby, so dependant then on his parents, and now the pendulum is swinging near the centre, eventually to go up the other side. I hope that is far away yet.

After the last viewing, driving towards my recalcitrant computer systems, we discuss the morality of economic rationalism versus quality-of-life or other such metrics, for assessing the worth of actions, projects or programs. We didn't solve that world problem - the ride was too short - but the question is still hanging there and will doubtless be taken down and dusted off in some future meeting.

As for the computers? They were spoken to, firmly but gently, and are behaving much more sedately now, thank you.

But just before he finished disciplining them, one of the machines presented some odd quirk which needed special care. Robert made a particular moue and it was if I had gone back thirty years and it was his mother, at the same age, sitting there beside me. Just a quick flash, that's all it was, and then I was back, shaken, in the present.

I made up my mind, in that instant, to share the afternoon with her if I could.

After I had delivered Robert, to the tube station for the train that would take him to where he and a friend were meeting for dinner, I sat down and started on this ....

Copyright 1998 Peter Leon Collins
v1, 25 January, 1998