With our fresh start lightening her spirits, Kristine reveals her personality to me over the next few days. She contains a natural cheeriness even the Apocalypse hasn’t managed to defeat. Obstacles I find insurmountable, she works around, or busts through. Neatness, cleanliness, healthy eating and healthy living are her favourite catchphrases.
She depletes a large supply of cleaning products that I have had little to do with. My nose burns with ammonia and chlorine fumes for days. I’m suddenly banned from using any toilet I please. Only my bedrooms’ en-suite is available for my use, and I’m asked to flush it, “if it’s not overly inconvenient”.
The vacuum cleaner becomes my dire enemy. To save a regrettable confrontation I divert my displeasure, which rightly belongs to the operator, to the appliance. I hate its roar with tooth-grinding intensity. It’s always on! I only have to drop a few chips or nuts and the bloody thing’s instantly bumping into my feet. And my mid-morning and mid-afternoon siestas are interrupted by its unholy howl every day. Oh no, some knick-knack has a speck on it. An ant turd here. A dust mote there.
Outwardly I roll with her changes but the rules and instructions meant to improve me are easily undermined when I need to. And since she cooks, washes the dishes and clothes, makes beds and tidies around me, it would be bad form to pretend the expectations she has of me are excessive.
The next week is equally hectic. For Kristine anyway. The disordered supplies strewn about the place are relocated. Everything fits into three rooms now, and each room has a list on the door breaking up the contents into different categories.
I worry that Kristine has an obsessive/compulsive disorder, or is over-compensating for some other failing. I look through my neatened ‘library’ and find a self-help book that is aimed at helping people overcome obsessive behaviour. She politely receives it with a confused frown and I’m pretty sure she didn’t read it.
Kristine continues to do a majority of the sorting and cleaning with only occasionally feeling the need to sweet-talk me into lugging heavy boxes. I’m supervised and ordered about like a human forklift during these times.
The mostly bare kitchen cupboards now contain food. Tools and guns are no longer tolerated as dining table accessories. Bags of loose, assorted ammunition is boxed and shelved. The discovery of cartons of long-life milk is welcome. Coffee no longer must be black or blacker.
A mop has removed the blackened tackiness from the kitchen floor tiles. It becomes a death trap for the balance-challenged. I argue the value of the gummy layer’s non-slip properties to no avail.
I do help. I just make sure my assistance doesn’t over-exert me. I freely supply compliments to lift Kristine’s morale when she shows signs of flagging, and I always say ‘Good Morning’ even when my hangover is killing me. Other than that we don’t converse much. Overt friendliness is reserved for peace keeping exercises and to distract her from the latest mess I’ve made. My careful restrict prevents us getting close. This is the way I intend to keep my distance from her. I can’t risk confidences slipping out, or deep fears and secrets being shared.
Her tears still melt me. A trailer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays one night on a DVD we watch and Kristine bawls for half an hour. When I manage to stem the flow with irritated grunts she tells me of the Buffy marathons Shanna and her would watch. Spurred by her sadness I spend hours digging through the ‘entertainment room’. It hasn’t received the tidy treatment yet so I trawl the sea of books, magazines, computer games, CDs and DVDs. I know it’s here somewhere. Found! A boxed set of Buffy – series 9, still sealed in its wrapper.
I present it to her offhandedly but her happy reaction to the singular gift makes me smile for the rest of the day. She must really go off at Christmas. I generously delude myself this small act of kindness goes some way towards balancing our scales.
She watches the Buffy episodes in carefully rationed doses following a rigid weekly schedule. The routine obviously keeps her mind occupied. Disruptions to it bring out her grouchy side.
I know this first hand. I’m a constant source of these disruptions.
We really are at opposite ends of any scale I can think of. I watch TV whenever I feel like it, eat when I’m hungry, sleep when I pass out and generally treat me mind and body pretty shabbily.
As I’m hardly ever in a fit state to give Kristine a proper helping hand, my guilt builds while I watch her sweat and strain. I protest that she’s doing too much, but instead of slowing down she modifies her roster to include me. And I’m landed with all the heavy labour! This isn’t what I had in mind. Another protest is lodged.
Upon closer inspection of the tasks I detect loopholes. Knocking pipes are fixed by jamming a rag between them. Leaking taps are shut off so tight Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn’t be able to turn them on.
In this way I quickly reduce my portion of labour with fixes that hold up long enough to be crossed off her list. Kristine is not fooled for long. She queries my haphazard workmanship at a ‘conflict resolution meeting’. She springs this conference on me during a brief period of sobriety to ensure both my body and brain have to participate.
Getting into the theatrics of the situation I say, the worker doesn't see what’s so urgent about counting water bottles or painting walls. She says, management has a deadline to bring order out of chaos, and that the worker has failed to embrace that concept. The worker appeals for a longer timeframe to consider the argument but could achieve his potential for a reward involving a naked pole-dance. Management feels the demand is inappropriate. The meeting closes with the issue unresolved.
I’m tempted to defend myself, and impress Kristine, by pointing out how I ran this place in the past. My storage methods are not as anal as hers but I do have an array of supplies stored more or less neatly downstairs that await their time of usefulness.
I don't bother though. She might want to reorganise them too. The other reason is… I’m afraid to leave these rooms. I can’t even open the security door to check on my alcohol stocks. I’m relieved to find Kristine’s clean-up has revealed several cartons of various liquors. A resupply excursion needn’t happen for weeks which I hope is plenty of time to come to terms with this ominous, nameless fear I have of leaving this room.
Kristine’s cleaning schedule has brought her to the ‘Money Room’. She laughs at the drifts of coloured notes that cover every surface a foot deep. I’m finally coaxed into mumbling the reason for having so much money in such a state.
Collecting cash was a simple enough weakness for a man not yet completely believing the world has ended and was not going to be rebuilt anytime soon. So what if I grabbed whatever cash I saw lying around. I found it difficult to resist its old world charm. The trouble was, the quantities I found were too small to satisfy my greed. I managed to end my obsession by robbing a bank that hadn’t been locked down. The huge packs of crisp bills were a massive waste of my time and a complete bitch to heft up here. Then there were the several days I spent breaking each pack open in this spare room. And then I’d rolled in it.
To see what it felt like; that’s all.
The novelty had worn off after a few giggling, drunken minutes, and I’d never bothered to clean it up.
Kristine laughs so hard at my admission she snorts. When she pulls herself together I see a faraway look in her eye. Before I can ask why she slips inside and slams the door in my face. I hear a bit of thumping, rustling and some more girly giggling that lasts several minutes. Then the door opens and she demurely exits.
“I’ve always wanted to do that too.”
I brush a hundred-dollar note from her hair. She laughs when I pocket it, and then gets busy stuffing garbage bags with cash. I stash one of the bags in my closet when she isn’t looking; still unable to accept its worthlessness.
As more days pass, she gains the self-assurance to argue with me, starting with little things. What video we will watch, which CD I’m allowed to play, what to have for dinner. Nothing with any consequences behind it, yet I sense an altercation coming.
We have settled into separate existences in these close quarters. Kristine seems to manage her routines around my sloth-like comings and goings. Requests to do more around the place taper off when my help only creates more work for her. I am retired from her labour pool without a word needing to be spoken.
This suits me just fine. Staying alert enough to avoid her next request had been exhausting. Now that I am free of her demands I sink deeper into a state of perpetual fuzziness. Besides, I’m positive she must enjoy cleaning, and is clearly unable and unwilling to relax. I, on the other hand am very good at relaxing therefore we are in our elements.
I come to unfairly regard Kristine as the house maid whose ghostly presence drifts around the periphery of my tunnel vision. She seems to be respecting my refusal to discuss the taboo subject of my vices. She has offered no criticism or guidance after that single, aborted attempt, instead she passively objects by not refilling the fridge with beer when I forget. This is a nuisance I tolerate.
I have several episodes of deep depression but no more rages. On days of dejection I view Kristine with a jaded, hateful eye; cynically reducing her sympathy to a ploy for survival in my fortress. These harmful thoughts cloud my judgment. And I hate myself for them.
She learns to avoid me when I seek oblivion. I’m fed and watered and left to stagnate in my low ebb for days.